There are enemies of Islam who are striving their utmost to split the historical unity of Ahl al-Sunna wa’l-Jamā‘a (the community of Islamic orthodoxy). This unity has been predicated on the acceptance of four juridical schools, Malikī, Ḥanafī, Shafi‘ī, and Ḥanbalī, and fostered by the acceptance of an approach in creedal matters that holds reason subordinate to divine revelation (waḥy), although scholars in the three former schools eventually came to accept the validity of applying reason and philosophical formulations as means to defend and prove the truth of revelation.
This position was generally respected by the Ḥanbalīs, except during infrequent periods of irrational intolerance. Similarly, the scholars of the three former schools respected the general inclination of the Ḥanbalīs in matters of creed (‘aqīda) to cling doggedly to the textually informed approach of the people of hadith, even though this approach generally discouraged the use of rational proofs and philosophical formulations in matters of creed, thereby limiting the ability of its advocates to respond to the attacks and arguments of the proponents of deviant and alien creeds.
This dominant Sunnī paradigm also was informed by an acceptance of Taṣawwuf as a valid Islamic science. This doesn’t mean that anything bearing the label Taṣawwuf is beyond reproach. Ibn Khaldūn has shown in his Muqaddima how elements from Ismā‘īlī doctrine and aspects of alien philosophies were introduced into the compilation of teachings contemporarily known as Taṣawwuf. However, there has always been a basic corpus of doctrines and ideas that provided the foundations for a science of spiritual purification and character reformation which was accepted by all four of the juridical schools.
In this regard, the Ḥanbalīs are no exception. The most widespread of all the schools of Taṣawwuf, the Qādiriyya, was founded by the great Ḥanbalī jurist, ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jilānī. His influence on subsequent major figures in the Ḥanbalī school, as George Makdisi has clearly shown, was to reach the great, if controversial scholar, Ibn Taymiyya, his student Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, and his student Ibn Rajab. Their acceptance of the basic foundations of this science and their veneration for its early exponents helped to foster, even in this occasionally controversial area, mutual respect between the four schools [of] Islamic jurisprudence.
This mutual respect, in turn, fostered a unified “paradigm” which guided the intellectual and cultural life of Ahl al-Sunna wa’l-Jamā‘a, and it facilitated a unified and cohesive community. This unity is best exemplified in Damascus where the scholars and scholarship of the Ḥanbalīs have always been a vital part of the rich intellectual life of the city’s vibrant Sunnī community. During the past century, the leading scholar of the Ḥanbalīs, Shaykh Aḥmad al-Shāmī, was one of the most respected and loved scholars in Syria.
That respect was similarly evident throughout history among non-Ḥanbalī critics of the dominant Sunnī paradigm. An example of this can also be taken from the recent history of Damascus. At the turn of the twentieth century, Shaykh Jamāluddin al-Qāsimī emerged as the intellectual leader of the nascent “Salafī” movement in Syria. However, Shaykh al-Qāsimī situated his prolific and oftentimes critical writings within the dominant paradigm. His writings showed respect for both that paradigm and the scholars whose contributions were instrumental in shaping it.
Unfortunately, in recent years that paradigm has come under attack from within. This attack has been initiated by radical reformers whose strident rhetoric oftentimes signals their own ignorance of the very institutions they target. Leveling vicious, largely uncritical, polemics against the four juridical schools, Taṣawwuf, and the validity of rational proofs and philosophical formulations in creedal matters, these reformers are wittingly or unwittingly threatening the historical unity of Ahl al-Sunna wa’l-Jamā‘a.
In many instances, these reformers situate their attacks within the historical context of the Ḥanbalī school, relying on Ibn Taymiyya as their principal referent. This tendency has led in recent years to what well could be referred to as a neo-traditionalist backlash. Some defenders of the dominant Sunnī paradigm respond to the vicious attacks of the reformers with equal or surpassing venom. In their zeal, some go so far as to attempt to exclude the Ḥanbalī school from the ranks of Ahl al-Sunna wa’l-Jamā‘a. Others, while condemning those reformers who declare the likes of Shaykh Muḥyiddīn ibn ‘Arabī a nonbeliever, themselves declare Ibn Taymiyya to be outside the pale of Islam. If this polarization continues, our heartland–physically and figuratively–will be torn and divided to such an extent that we will never again be able to attain to the “critical mass” necessary to re-establish Islam as a dominant socio-political reality.
Individuals blessed with cooler heads must prevail. Ibn Rajab is an example of such an individual. He showed that it is possible to combine without conflict the constructs that have come to be known as “Sufi” and “Salafī”; that it is possible to be deeply committed to the Sunna while simultaneously advocating and defending the four juridical schools; and that one can be critical of the formulations of the speculative theologians, while simultaneously respecting the institutional reality built by their followers…He is truly an heir of the prophets. In these troubling and perplexing times, we are in dire need of luminaries of this kind.
[Imam Zaid Shakir, Introduction, The Heirs of the Prophets, Starlatch, Chicago, 2001, pp. XIII-XVI]