Seeking Out Dispensations & Following Another School
by Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller
From Sheikh Nuh Keller's Reliance of the Traveller
c6.3 (n:) Since it is permissible for a Muslim to follow any of the four Imams in any of his acts of worship, comparison of their differences opens another context from discussing dispensation and strictness, a context in which classical scholars familiar with various schools often use the term "dispensation " to refer to the ruling of the school easiest on a particular legal question, and "strictness" to refer to the ruling of the school that is most rigorous. Which school this is varies from question to question. The following entry discusses how and when it is permissible for ordinary Muslims to use dispensation in the sense of following easier rulings from a different school, while entry c6.5 discusses the way of greater precaution (al-ahwat fi al-din) taken by those Muslims who purposely select the strictest school of thought on each legal question because of its being more precautionary and closer to godfearingness (taqwa).
c6.4 Scholars frequently acknowledge that the difference of the Imams is a mercy, and their unanimity is a decisive proof, Sheikh `Umar Barakat, the commentator of 'Umdat al-salik, says:
"It is permissible to follow each of the four Imams (Allah be well pleased with them), and permissible for anyone to follow one of them on a legal question, and follow a different one on another legal question. It is not obligatory to follow one particular Imam on all legal questions" (Fayd al-llah al-Malik (y27), 1.357).
This does not, however, imply that it is lawful to indiscriminately choose dispensations from each school, or that there are no conditions for the above mentioned permissibility. Imam Nawawi was asked for a formal legal opinion on whether pursuing dispensations in such a manner was permissible;
(Question:) "Is it permissible for someone of a particular school to follow a different school in matters that will be of benefit to him, and to seek out dispensations?"
He answered (Allah be well pleased with him), "It is not permissible to seek out dispensations [A: meaning it is unlawful, and the person who does is corrupt (fasiq)], and Allah knows best" (Fatawa al-Imam al-Nawawi (y105),113).
But when forced by necessity or hardship to take such a dispensation (A: even retroactively as when one has finished the action, and then makes the intention to have followed another Imam's school of thought on the question), then there is nothing objectionable in it, provided that one's act of worship together with its prerequisites is valid in at least one of the schools. One may not simply piece together (taliq) constituent parts from various schools in a single act of worship, if none of the schools would consider the act valid. An example is someone who performs an ablution that is minimally valid in the Shafi'i school by wetting only a few hairs of his head in the ablution sequence, something not permitted by Hanafis, and then prays behind an imam without himself reciting the Fatiha, something permitted by Hanafis but not shafiis. His ablution, the necessary condition for his prayer is inadequate in the Hanafi school and his performance of the prayer is inadequate school, with the result that neither considers his prayer valid, and in fact it is not, Whoever follows a ruling mentioned in this volume from another school must observe the conditions given at w14 and make sure his worship is valid in at least one school, which for prayer can best be achieved by performing all recommended measures in the present volume relating to purity, for example, e5,e11, and so on, as if obligatory.
c6.5 A second way to use differences between schools is to take the way of greater precaution by following whoever is most rigorous on a given question. For example, when performing the purificatory bath (ghusl), rinsing the mouth and nostrils with water is a nonobligatory, sunna measure according to the Shafi'i school, but obligatory and necessary for the purificatory bath's validity according to Hanafis. The way of greater precaution is for the Shafi'i to perform it as diligently as if it were obligatory, even though omitting it is permitted by his school.
(`Abd al-Wahhab Sha'rani:) My brother, when you first hear of the two levels of this scale (n: dispensation and strictness), beware of jumping to the conclusion that there is absolute free choice between them, such that an individual may without restriction choose either dispensation or strictness in any ruling he wishes. It does not befit a person able to perform the stricter ruling to stoop to taking a dispensation permissible to him. (A: The more rigorous is always preferable in the Shafi'i school even when the dispensation is permissible.) For as you know my brother, I do not say that the individual is free to choose between taking the dispensation or taking the stricter ruling when he is able to perform the stricter ruling obligatory for him. I take refuge in Allah from saying such a thing, which is like making a game of religion. Of an absolute certainty, dispensation are only for someone unable to perform the stricter ruling, for in such a case, the dispensation is the stricter ruling in relation to him.
Moreover, I hold that mere sincerely and honesty demand of anyone who follows a particular school not to take a dispensation that the Imam of his school holds is permissible unless he is someone who needs to; and that he must follow the stricter ruling of a different Imam when able to, since rulings fundamentally refer back to the word of the Lawgiver, no one else; this being especially necessary when the other Imam's evidence is stronger, as opposed to what some followers do.
We find among the dictums of the Sufis that one should not follows a position in Sacred Law for which the evidence is weaker except when religiously more precautionary than the stronger position. For example, the Shafi'i opinion that (n: a male's) ablution is nullified by touching a girl who is a child or touching the nails or hair of a woman: though this position is considered weaker by them (n: than the position given at e7.3),it is religiously more precautionary, so performing ablution for the above-mentioned things is better (al-Mizan al-kubra (y1230,:10-11).
(A: Because more rigorous rulings necessarily meet the requirements of less rigorous ones (though not vice versa), following more rigorous rulings from another school is unconditionally valid, unlike following its dispensations. And Allah knows best.)