The Islamic Position on Scholars of the Past
As we begin to post biographies of Islamic figures, there are some principles we need to keep in mind. Amongst these biographies are those of Great Islamic Scholars, yet even such knowledgeable people are not infallible. We know that everyone can make mistakes, and we pray Allah swt forgives us all for this.
These scholars themselves, said that they were vulnerable and often admitted when they were corrected.
Imaam Abu Hanifa said:
"It is haram (prohibited) for someone who does not know my evidence to give fatwaa (verdicts) on the basis of my words." Another narration adds, "... for we are mortals: we say one thing one day, and take it back the next day." [Ibn \'Abdul Barr in Al-Intiqaa\' fi Fadaa\'il ath-Thalaathah al-A\'immah al-Fuqahaa\' (p. 145), Ibn al-Qayyim in I\'laam al-Mooqi\'een (2/309), Ibn \'Aabideen in his Footnoes on Al-Bahr ar-Raa\'iq (6/293) and in Rasm al-Mufti (pp. 29, 32) & Sha\'raani in Al-Meezaan (1/55) with the second narration. Similar narrations exist on the authority of Abu Haneefah\'s companions Zafar, Abu Yoosuf and \'Aafiyah ibn Yazeed; cf. Eeqaaz (p. 52). Ibn al-Qayyim firmly certified its authenticity on the authority of Abu Yoosuf in I\'laam al-Mooqi\'een (2/344).]
This humility was a characteric of all the great scholars of Islam. They were not infallible, and they continually reminded their followers of this fact. The previous scholars may have made mistakes, but we should use the Qur'an and Sunnah as our Criterion in determining the truth.
Imaam Maalik ibn Anas said:
"Truly I am only a mortal: I make mistakes (sometimes) and I am correct (sometimes). Therefore, look into my opinions: all that agrees with the Book and the Sunnah, accept it; and all that does not agree with the Book and the Sunnah, ignore it." [Ibn 'Abdul Barr in Jaami' Bayaan al-Ilm (2/32), Ibn Hazm, quoting from the former in Usool al-Ahkaam (6/149), and similarly Al-Fulaani (p. 72)]
Once again, we see that the stress has been placed on examining the opinions of previous scholars in light of the Qur'an and Sunnah.
Imaam Ash-Shaafi'ee said:
If you see me saying a statement and that which is in opposition to it has been authenticated from the Prophet (P), then know that indeed my intellect has departed. (Reported by Ibn Abee haatim in Aadaab-ush-Shaafi'ee [page 93] and Ibn Asaakir in Tareekh Dimishq [1/10/15] with an authentic narration)
Imaam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal said:
Do not blindly follow me and do not blindly follow Malik or Shafi'ee or Al-Awzaa'ee or Ath-Thawri, [but] take from where they took from (i.e. the Qur'an and Sunnah) (Reported by Ibn Al-Qayyim in I'laam al-Muwaqi'een [2/302])
Hence, it becomes clear that we should examine the opinions of previous scholars in the light of the Qur'an and Sunnah to determine the most accurate opinion, and we should never blindly follow an opinion simply because such-and-such a scholar has stated it. We must use the Qur'an and Sunnah as they were understood by the earliest generations of Muslims, the Salaf (Pious Predecessors). When asked about which was the correct and acceptable way of understanding Islam, the Prophet (may Allah raise his rank and grant him peace) replied by saying:
"That which I and my companions are upon. (Saheeh Sunan at-Tirmidhee [3/54])
Nevertheless, we should not go to the opposite extreme and criticise the scholars of the past for their mistakes. Rather, we pray that Allah swt forgives them.
As Imaam Ibn Taymiyyah advises us on our attitude towards scholars of the past:
No one is permitted to follow the slips of the Scholars. Similarly, no one is allowed to say anything about the people of knowledge and faith except for what is becoming of them. Verily Allah has overlooked the mistakes of the believers. Allah swt says in the Qur'an:
2:286 "Our Lord! Condemn us not if we forget or fall into error;
And Allah said, "I have done so." [That is, " I have not held them responsible."]
We have been ordered to follow what has been revealed for us from our Lord and we do not accept or follow anyone else as our patron besides Him. We have also been ordered not to obey any created being in an act which is disobediance to the Creator. Furthermore, we seek forgiveness for our brothers who preceded us in faith. We say [as Allah has taught us in the Qur'an], "Our Lord, forgive us and our brothers who preceded us in faith."
This is an obligation upon all muslims in every perplexing matter of this nature. We extol Allah's command by obedience to Allah and His Messenger. We also attend to the rights of the Muslims, especially the scholars among them, as Allah and His Messenger have ordered. Whoever deviates from this path ahs deviated from the path of evidence and truth to the path of following desires in blind obedience to others. One then also harms the believing men and women by something that they did not earn. Such a person is an oppressor or wrongdoer. Whoever magnifies [in his heart] and honors the bounds set by Allah and does well to the servants of Allah, this person will be from the devoted servants of Allah, and the God-fearing. Allah, the Exalted, knows best.
(Ahmad Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmoo Fataawa Shaikh al-Islaam ibn Taymiyyah, vol. 32, p. 329)
Likewise, Imaam Al-Albani writes:
Wihout doubt, the Imaams of the past (may Allah have mercy upon them) - due to their excellence and the excellence whiich their Lord had given them - warned their early followers, who were upon knowledge, from being attached to them, from following them blindly and from placing them as the origin of the return to the religion). (Tasfiya & Tarbiya, Ar-Risala, p. 29)
Therefore, we respect and honour the previous scholars and pray that Allah swt forgives them for their mistakes. We study their works, but we only follow what is in accordance with the Qur'an and Sunnah, as understood by the pious predecessors. If we understand this, we will not be deceived by those who intend to lead the pious Muslims away from the straight path.
As Shaykh Jamal Al-Din Zarabozo writes:
A person may be known for his calling to the sunnah and the way of the Prophet and his Companions. He may also be clear that one must always obey the Qur'an and Sunnah and there is no room for compromise or following orders when they differ from the Qur'an and Sunnah. This may be something that echoes throughout his writings and speeches. Even if someone sincerely wishes to stick to that path, it is possible for him to make mistakes. It is hoped that Allah will forgive him for his mistakes while, at the same time, it is recognized that it is not acceptable to follow or accept those mistakes he made. (Commentary on the Forty Hadith of al-Nawawi, vol. 1, p. 27)
Lastly, we quote Shaykh Abu Ammaar Yasir Qadhi, who addresses the heart of this issue:
We are commanded by the Prophet saws to take from the first three generations [understanding] of Islam, and we consider them as part of our religion of Islam. As for the generations and scholars that come after this time, then we look at them individually, and what is good from them we take, and what is incorrect we do not take....these scholars were great scholars in their own fields, but we excuse their mistakes in aqeedah, and say that, due to the environment that they were in, they were not exposed to the proper aqeedah...We consider them as our scholars, and love and respect them, but we do not take from them in those matters in which they disagreed with the salaf, for the salaf are more beloved to us than those who came after them. (Uloom Al-Qur'an, p. 53)
Insha'Allah, this will clear up any misunderstandings. We should follow Islam as revealed by Allah in the Qur'an, explained by the Prophet saws through the Sunnah, and understood by the noble companions and early generations of Muslims.
May Allah swt guide us all to the truth,