When it comes to the concept of a madhhab, a lot of people simply see the furu’ (fruits) of different madhahab, but they don’t see the usul (methodology) behind them, and that’s actually what makes it a madhhab.
A madhhab is what happens when a qualified mujtahid (someone who mastered all of the Islamic sciences and typically spent 10-20+ years studying) applies their own usul (methodology) to the primary texts and sources as well as integrating certain opinions of their teachers (like the 7 fuqaha of Medina and Aisha and Abdullah ibn Umar in Maliki fiqh or Abdullah ibn Mas’ud, Ḥammād Ibn Abī Sulaymān, and Ibrahim an-Nakha’i in Hanafi fiqh). The sahaba (radi Allahu anhum) has differences of opinion, and these differences of opinion were passed down their students as they developed different usul in different places. Those different usul resulted in different mujatahidun who had their own teaching circles. People who learned from these different teachers took from that teacher’s madhhab, usul, and furu’. Some of the students themselves may have become learned enough to reach the lofty ranks of mujtahid, such as imam Shafi’i, and developed their own usul and furu’ by modifying what was passed down from their teachers. In the early period of Islam, there were perhaps dozens or hundreds of madhahab in different cities. Some extinct ones are the Zhahiris, the Laythis, Jariri (from imam at-Tabari), Awza’i madhhab of Abdurrahman Awzai, imam Bukhari’s madhhab, and others.
Over time, these various madhhabs were narrowed down to four: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafii, and Hanbali. There’s a reason the others went extinct, and if you study what remains of them you can see why. There’s a Divine hikma behind these four being the ones that survived the centuries.
Some common myths and misconceptions:
- That we can eliminate all madhhabs and “unite the ummah” on one madhhab. This is the opinion of Muhammad Abduh, one of the early founders of the Modernist movement which was a reaction to secularism and colonialism in the Arab world. This is fallacious because the ummah was strong and united many times throughout our history, and all periods of our history had different madhhabs since the time of the sahaba (radi Allahu anhum) and even in brief moments of the time of the prophet ﷺ such as the hadith about “do not prayer zhuhr until you reach bani Qurayzah” upon which the sahaba split into two madhhabs until they could return and inquire the prophet ﷺ, in which he said both are correct. Unity and uniformity are two different things. When this ummah was united, it was not necessarily 100% uniform, and to attempt such an endeavor is a waste of time and goes against the nature of this din.
- That the madhhabs are a reprehensible innovation. This is fallacious because the sahaba had different madhhabs, which is the root of all madhhabs.
- That you can follow all four madhhabs. This is erroneous because you have no usul, or methodology. When you pick a madhhab your picking a certain usul and following its furu’, even though you may not be educated enough to understand the usul behind the furu’, which is where taqlid comes into play for the laymen. There is nothing wrong with taqlid in fiqh, this is only a problem in aqida. Taqlid in fiqh is perfectly fine and, again, it goes back to the earliest generations. If you don’t want to be a muqallid then study. No problem there. It’s just a tool for laymen.
- That you can “just follow Qur’an and sunnah.” This means you’re making up your own usul as you go, yet you’re not anywhere close to a mujtahid. If you want to interpret the primary sources, that’s a great himma (endeavor), it means you want to become a mufti. But you don’t jump into surgery day 1 with no degree or education or experience or residency. You get your bachelor’s degree first, take the prerequisite exams and get accepted into med school, study, do your residency, and so on. Then you can become a surgeon. You must take the right steps, or disaster will result for your din and akhira. Until you reach that level of mufti, you need to follow a particular usul, which means you’ll be following a madhhab. Once you reach mufti, you’ll have studied enough of the ulum ad-din to have removed your ignorance and understand your folly earlier on, and you’ll stick to a certain usul in your ifta anyways–meaning, you’re still following a madhhab’s particular usul, even as a mufti. Though within each of the four madhahab, once you get to higher level studies, you’ll find that there are nuanced differences within each madhhab that developed over the years in their usul and furu’. But that’s a much longer discussion outside the scope of this.
Good additional reading: https://www.dar-alifta.org/foreign/ViewArticle.aspx?ID=76&text=Enter