Very often the following question is posed to many people: “Do you follow the Deen of Imam Abu Hanifa (R.A.) or the Deen of Rasulullah (sallallahu alaihi wasallam)?” “Obviously the Deen of Rasulullah (sallallahu alaihi wasallam),” comes the instant reply. The second question is then posed: “Why then do you call yourself a Hanafi?” The person not well versed is perplexed by this question. Doubts are then created in his mind. He soon starts gradually drifting towards the abandoning of taqleed i.e. following one of the four illustrious Imams viz. Imam Abu Hanifa (R.A.), Imam Shafiee (R.A.), Imam Malik (R.A.) and Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (R.A.).
By means of the type of questions that have been mentioned above, a deliberate attempt is made to create a misconception in the minds of the unwary — that if you are a Hanafi, you are following the Deen of Imam Abu Hanifa (R.A.), NOT the Deen of Muhammad (sallallahu alaihi wasallam). This is an absolute fallacy. Imam Abu Hanifa (R.A.), Imam Shafi’i (R.A.) and the other Imams did not invent any Deen of their own. They strictly followed the one and only Deen — the Deen of Islam brought by Rasulullah (sallallahu alaihi wasallam). Their followers are hence also following the same Deen — the Deen of Rasulullah (sallallahu alaihi wasallam).
The question that arises here is that why then should one follow any of the four Imams? This can be answered by posing a counter-question: “Do you know all the various laws of Deen? Are you capable of extracting and deriving the laws pertaining to wudu, salah, zakah, etc. directly from the Qur’an and Hadith? Do you know which Hadith has abrogated another? Do you have the ability to reconcile between the various Ahadith which apparently contradict each other? Do you know which verses of the Qur’an are general in their application and which verses are qualified by other texts? etc., etc.” If one does not have the knowledge of these aspects, then one definitely does not have the ability to derive the laws directly from the Qur’an and Hadith. In that case the following aayah applies directly to oneself: “Ask those of knowledge if you do not know.” Hence when we do not have the enormous amount of knowledge and expertise that is necessary to derive the laws directly from the Qur’an and Hadith, we have opted to follow one of those great people who had attained that distinguished mastery in this field, among whom is Imam Abu Hanifa (R.A.). Imam Abu Hanifa (R.A.) is a Tabi’i (one who has seen a Sahabi). He attained the knowledge of Hadith from approximately 4000 teachers. His piety was such that for 40 years he performed fajr salah with the wudu of Isha salah (i.e. he did not sleep the entire night) [Tareekhul Baghdad]. His knowledge, brilliance and righteousness was such that all the great scholars of his time attested to his mastery. Thus one can be well assured that such a person is absolutely capable of deriving the laws directly from the Qur’an and Hadith.
Another reason for adopting one of the Imams as a guide is the following aayah of the Qur’an: Allah Ta’ala says: “And follow the path of those who turn to me” (31:15). In order to “turn” to Allah Ta’ala, two aspects are basic requisites — knowledge and practicing according to that knowledge. In this regard the four Imams were in an extremely high category. Imam Abu Hanifa (R.A.) was regarded by various Ulama of his time as being the most knowledgeable of the people of that era (footnotes of Tahdheebut Tahdheeb vol. 1 pg. 451). Makki bin Ibrahim, who was one of the renowned teachers of Imam Bukhari (R.A.), was a student of Imam Abu Hanifa (R.A.). Imam Abu Hanifa (R.A.) compiled a book of Hadith entitled “Kitabul Aathaar” from among 40,000 Ahadith. Thus those who follow such a guide can be satisfied that they are strictly following the commands of Allah Ta’ala and His Rasul (sallallahu alaihi wasallam).
At this point somebody may ask: “If all the Imams deduced the laws directly from the Qur’an and Hadith, how is it possible for them to differ on various aspects?” In order to understand the reality of these differences, we will have to go back in history right upto the time of the Sahaaba (radhiallahu anhum).
Once Rasulullah (sallallahu alaihi wasallam) had just returned from a battle when he ordered the Sahaaba (radhiallahu anhum) to immediately proceed to the place of Banu Quraizah — a clan of Jews who lived on the outskirts of Madina Munawwarah. The purpose was to lay a siege upon them for having broken the pact that they had made with the Muslims. In order to impress the urgency of the matter upon the Sahaaba (R.A.), Rasulullah (sallallahu alaihi wasallam) said to them: “None of you should perform your salah al-Asr except in Banu Quraizah.” While the Sahaaba (R.A.) were still en-route, the time of Asr arrived. Some Sahaaba (radhiallahu anhum) felt that they should perform their Asr immediately. They regarded the instruction of Rasulullah (sallallahu alaihi wasallam) as actually being a command to proceed very swiftly to their destination. It did not imply that the Asr salah could not be performed en-route. They thus performed their salah there. Another group of Sahaaba (radhiallahu anhum.) viewed the instruction literally. They therefore continued and only performed their Asr salah after having reached Banu Quraizah. Later when Rasulullah (sallallahu alaihi wasallam) was informed about this, he did not rebuke either group. [Sahih Bukhaari]
Thus we find that the difference arose from a point of interpretation. However, this difference of interpretation is only entertained when it comes from a person who has in-depth knowledge of Deen and has attained a mastery in the Qur’an and Hadith and the other related aspects. At times a difference of opinion occurs due to the different narrations that are found with regards to a particular aspect. One Imam gives preference to one narration on the basis of various criteria while the other Imam, in the light of his knowledge, prefers the other narration. This is basically the manner in which these differences occur. However, just as Rasulullah (sallallahu alaihi wasallam) did not rebuke either of the two groups in the incident mentioned above, similarly since the Imams have attained the status of a mujtahid (one who is capable of deriving the laws directly from the Qur’an and Hadith), they will not be blame worthy even if they have erred. Rasulullah (sallallahu alaihi wasallam) is reported to have said: “When a haakim (ruler) passes judgement, and after having exerted his utmost effort he arrives at the correct solution, he gets a double reward. And if he errs after having exerted his utmost ability, he gets one reward.” (Bukhari vol. 2 pg. 1092). Ibn al-Munzir (R.A.) while commenting on this Hadith writes that a ruler will only get this reward if he has thorough knowledge and in the light of his knowledge he passed judgement. (see footnotes of Sahih Bukhari; ibid). The four Imams had the ability and necessary knowledge to practice ijtihaad. Thus they fall under the ambit of this Hadith.
Another point that often comes up is the following: Why is it necessary to follow one Imam only? Why can one not follow a certain Imam in one aspect and another Imam in another aspect? The simple answer to this is: On what basis will one pick and choose, especially since one does not have the knowledge required to derive the laws. Thus one will not be in a position to evaluate the deductions of each Imam. Hence it will obviously be on the basis of what suits one. This is nothing but following one’s desires — regarding which Allah Ta’ala has issued severe warnings in the Qur’an. Following one’s desires sometimes even leads a person to kufr. Thus great jurists of latter times, among them Shah Waliullah (R.A.), have reaffirmed that it is wajib for the masses to follow one Imam only.