The principle of ‘practice of Madinites’ (amal-e-ahle-Madina) is arguably one of the most important sources in Imam Malik’s methodology of deducing legal opinions and perhaps the most talked about concept in Maliki school in times that immediately followed. Malik’s strong reliance on this principle cannot be doubted by any serious student of Islamic jurisprudence and its sources. The best description of Malik’s unparalleled reliance on practice as a source of law, that I have came across, is found in his letter to al-Laith bin Saad. He writes after the usual prayers and titles of respect:
May Allah have mercy on you. I have been informed that you give religious opinions (fatwa) in response to people’s queries and many a times these opinions are against our practice – the practice of Madinites. You are keeper (ameen) and you have superior station (in terms of knowledge) in your city. People turn to you with their questions and completely trust what you say. It is mendatory for you to have fear in your heart and you must follow the path which relieves you of burden in the hereafter. Allah says in Quran that the first of Muhajireen and Ansar are the vanguard (of Islam). He also said to His Prophet that give glad tidings to my men who hear your talk and follow the good. People certainly follow the footsteps of Madinites, migration was towards Madina and Quran was revealed here. It was Madina where lawful (halal) was made lawful and unlawful (haram) was made unlawful. Prophet’s life was infront of their eyes and Quran was revealed in their presence. Prophet conveyed the orders directly to them and taught them the practice which they followed. The process continued in the same fashion until the Prophet died and transmitted everything. May Allah shower his blessings upon him.
People then started following those who had more command (in knowledge) in the Ummah, left all – whom they considered inferior (in knowledge). They enquired what they were oblivious of, followed the strongest juridic opinion (Ijtihad) in the new matters that came up. If a stronger opinion came later, they mended their previous practice accordingly. Then came the times of Tabi’een (the second generation of early Muslims) who remain consistent on the similar course and
followed the similar Sunnah. Every practice was inherited by the people of Madina and nobody contradicted it ever without going unnoticed. All of them practiced as such and it is not valid to go against it though the people in other cities claim that the way of their city is different.
You should ponder and reflect upon this. May Allah have mercy on you. Whatever I have written to you is for no other reason except the good advice solely for the pleasure of Allah. Now its upon you to consider it. Put my letter at its deserved station and if you practiced upon it, you would know what this advice actually contains. May Allah grant you and me the abilities to obey Him and His Prophet in all the matters and in all circumstances .
The principle described in the letter above has been used extensively by Imam Malik throughout his juridical arguments and counter arguments in response to his peers’. There are plenty of instances where the use of this principle as a source of law can be seen easily. The most glaring ones are the occassions like permissibility of Tarjee’ (vocalisation) in call for prayers and the correct quantity of a Saa’ (a weighing unit) where Abu Yusuf changed his decision in favor of Malik after the latter’s presentation of practice as evidence. On the other hand it might be construed as a blatant oversimplification if Malik’s use of this principle in his overall methodology is infered simply as a case of unquestionable validity of any ‘regional practice’ – may it belong to Prophet’s city – and for all the times to come.
There are numerous vantage points to analyze and reflect upon this methodology to find out whether it has any value today and how it has shaped up important concepts like ‘Sunnah of Prophet’. How and when the transmission of documentary evidence of something Prophet did or taught replaced the transmission of practice itself? Is the authenticity of perpetual transmission of practice since generations from Prophet independant of time that has come in between? Orientalists as well as some leading traditional and modern Muslim scholars have written a lot about these and other such questions. Few have even tried to present a whole new look of Islamic Methodology. Perhaps the first stepping stone for the new generation of students is to understand Malik’s rationale behind the consideration of this percept at first place before they make themselves ready to dwell further into questions like whether it defines the Sunnah of Prophet differently, analyze the contrasting arguments for instance Shafii’s and whether it necessiates the displacement of Hadith from its percieved traditional position.
1. Qadi Ayaz, Tarteeb al-Madarak and part of this letter can also be found in Ibn Qayyim’s Ailaa’m al-Muwaqieen. Translation is mine from the text given in Abu Zuhra’s work on Imam Malik.