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A madhhab (Arabic: مذهب maḏhab, IPA: [ˈmæðhæb], "doctrine"; pl. مذاهب maḏāhib, [mæˈðæːhɪb]; Turkish: mezhep; Urdu: مذہب mezheb) is a school of thought within fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). In the first 150 years of Islam, there were numerous madhhahib; several of the Sahabah ("companions" of Muhammad) are credited with founding their own. Over centuries they have variously grown, spread, split, and been absorbed; some have become obsolete. As of the Amman Message, eight are officially acknowledged by the leaders of the international Muslim community.
It has been asserted that madhhab were consolidated in the 9th and 10th centuries as a means of excluding dogmatic theologians, government officials and non-Sunni sects from religious discourse. Historians have differed regarding the times at which the various schools emerged. One interpretation is that Sunni Islam was initially[when?] split into four groups: the Hanafites, Malikites, Shafi'ites and Zahirites. Later, the Hanbalites and Jarirites developed two more schools; then various dynasties effected the eventual exclusion of the Jarirites; eventually, the Zahirites were also excluded when the Mamluk Sultanate established a total of four independent judicial positions, thus solidifying the Maliki, Hanafi, Shafi'i and Hanbali schools. The Ottoman Empire later reaffirmed the official status of these four schools as a reaction to Shi'ite Persia. Some are of the view that Sunni jurisprudence falls into two groups: Ahl al-Ra'i ("people of opinions", emphasizing scholarly judgment and reason) and Ahl al-Hadith ("people of traditions", emphasizing strict interpretation of scripture).
Ibn Khaldun defined only three Sunni madhhahib: Hanafi, Zahiri, and one encompassing the Shafi'i, Maliki and Hanbali schools. Shi'ite historian Ibn al-Nadim named eight groups: Maliki, Hanafi, Shafi'i, Zahiri, Imami Shi'ite, Ahl al-Hadith, Jariri and Kharijite.
Historically, the fiqh schools were often in violent conflict with one another, vying for favor with the ruling government in order to have their representatives appointed to legislative and especially judiciary positions. Geographer and historian Al-Muqaddasi once satirically categorized competing madhhahib with contrasting personal qualities: Hanafites, highly conscious of being hired for official positions, appeared deft, well-informed, devout and prudent; Malikites, dull and obtuse, confined themselves to observance of prophetic tradition; Shafi'ites were shrewd, impatient, understanding and quick-tempered; Zahirites haughty, irritable, loquacious and well-to-do; Shi'ites, entrenched and intractable in old rancor, enjoyed riches and fame; and Hanbalites, anxious to practice what they preached, were charitable and inspiring. While such descriptions were almost assuredly humorous in nature, ancient differences were less to do with actual doctrinal opinions than with maneuvering for adherents and influence.
Ancient schools of law
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It is usually assumed that no regional school developed in Egypt (unlike in Syria, Iraq and the Hijaz). Joseph Schacht states that the legal milieu of Fustat (ancient Cairo) was a branch of the Medinan school of law.  Regarding judicial practices, the qadis (judges) of Fustat resorted to the procedure called “al-yamin ma'a l-shahid”, that is, the ability of the judge to base his verdict on one single witness and the oath of the claimant, instead of two witnesses as was usually required. Such a procedure was quite common under the early Umayyads, but by the early Abbasid period it had disappeared in Iraq and it was now regarded as the 'amal (“good practice”) of Medina. Up until the end of the 8th century, the qadis of Fustat were still using this “Medinan” procedure and differentiated themselves from Iraqi practices. From a doctrinal point of view, however, the legal affiliation of Egypt could be more complex. The principal Egyptian jurist in the second half of the 8th century is al-Layth b. Sa'd.  The only writing of his that has survived is a letter he wrote to Malik b. Anas, which has been preserved by Yahya b. Ma'in and al-Fasawi. In this letter, he proclaims his theoretical affiliation to the Medinan methodology and recognizes the value of the 'amal. Nevertheless, he distances himself from the Medinan School by opposing a series of Medinan legal views. He maintains that the common practice in other cities is also valuable, and thus implicitly defends the Egyptians’ adherence to their own local tradition. Thus it is possible that, even though it did not develop into a formal school of law, a specific Egyptian legal milieu was distinct of the Medinan School in the 8th century.
Generally, Sunnis have a single preferred madhhab from region to region, but also believe that ijtihad must be exercised by the contemporary scholars capable of doing so. Most rely on taqlid, or acceptance of religious rulings and epistemology from a higher religious authority in deferring meanings of analysis and derivation of legal practices instead of relying on subjective readings.
Experts and scholars of fiqh follow the usul (principles) of their own native madhhab, but they also study the usul, evidences, and opinions of other madhhahib.
In the modern era, former Prime Minister of Sudan Sadiq al-Mahdi defined the recognized schools of Muslim jurisprudence as eight specific schools. The Amman Message, a three-point ruling issued by 200 Islamic scholars from over 50 countries, officially recognizes those eight legal schools of thought.
- Hanafi (Sunni)
- Maliki (Sunni)
- Shafi'i (Sunni)
- Hanbali (Sunni)
- Zahiri (Sunni)
- Ja'fari (Shia) (including Ismaili)
- Zaidi (Shia)
- Ibadi (Khawarij)
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