If Imam Shafii’s charge on the Medinese school has to be expressed with just one word, it would perhaps be ‘arbitrariness’ or more precisely, ‘inconsistency’. However the aim at present is not to ruminate over the entire significance of his criticism but just the aspect of relying over ‘practice’ rather than ‘traditions’.
Shafii’s case against Madinese is multidimensional and perhaps the most misunderstood partly because of its complexity and partly because he was the pioneer in laying down the foundations of Usul al-Fiqh. The latter though seemingly subtle is most telling because the reference to the problems of Usul (methodology) in his predecessors’ writings are occassional and peripheral as opposed to the thoroughgoing discussions that he has produced in his writings. The study of critcism directed at this alleged lack of method is apt to impair our vision unless we disentangle the different dimensions and set them against what is percieved as Medinese school in Shafii’s time. Only in this manner we might be able to visualise the lack of methodology in Medinese schools as a methodology itself.
I have already presented this beauteous simplicity of method in words of Malik and an equally uncomplicated riposte by a worthy contemporary. Its important to understand that Shafii’s criticism against the principle of amal-e-ahle Madina (practice of Madinites) is not against the practice of Madinites per se (which will obviously be understood as an intrinsic disapproval of practice if seen in the light of an equally important and strong case in favor of Hadith ) but against arbitrariness and inconsistency of approach.
In my opinion, major part of Shafii’s criticism against the practice of Madinites (as source of legal doctrine) should be seen in the light of his discussions of definition and validity of Ijmaa (juridical consensus) as a source of various rulings of Fiqh. However the times when this criticism should be seen as strengthening the case of Hadith is when Malikis prefer practice over Khabr-e-Ahad (a solitary hadith) and they always do so when both sources lead to diametrical conclusions. Keeping the discussion in the perimeters of Ijmaa, Shafii is found presenting his case repeatedly on two lines of reasoning. First and foremost is that a valid Ijmaa does not derive its cogency from the consensus of jurists of one region (Madina in this case) but becomes binding only if jurists of all the regions do agree about a ruling. Secondly, there are scholars from Madina disagreeing with the rulings regarding which Madinese bring the claim of Ijmaa as an evidence. This is the same line of reasoning which was used by Laith ibn Saad previously.
Even extending the discussion inside the realms of Hadith, it cannot remain uninvolved with the intricacies of Ijmaa. This is because Madinites according to Shafii cannot bring anything as a proof even when they are opining against an ahad hadith (a solitary tradition from Prophet) except a claim of consensus or a practice of some companion. On the other hand he brings argument after argument with amazing consistency to project their lack of method in deriving various rulings. Shafii’s critique is objective as his aim is not to bring about arguments in support of right doctrine but to lay down the right doctrine itself.
Pursuing the same aim, his predecessors (and especially Malik in this case) refered informally to variety of sources. Their attitudes were characterised by trust in respective doctrines whom they acknowledge as their authorities. For instance the doctrines of Ahl al-Raa’y (the people of opinion) and Ahl al-Hadith (the people of tradition). In Malik’s case this trust was specifically derived from the sacredness and continuity of ‘practices’ that constituted the Islamic way of life. As long as this trust remain unchallenged, no formal touchstones were required to test against and choose the particular source among many which ought to be made the basis of some legal ruling. However by the time of Shafii the scientific criticism on Hadith reached at a particular stage of development where it was not difficult for Shafii to insist about some overriding authority superceding all the other sources except Quran.
Therefore on the one hand subjective factors like intuitive conviction, commonsense, gumption and gut feeling about the veracity of a particular source were considered inconsistencies and arbitrary methods by Shafii. On the other hand agreed upon practice of a particular region, traditions from companions and all the claims of consensus were considered overridden in principle by traditions (in case of conflicts) which can be authentically traced back to the mouth of Prophet.
1. As seen by Shacht for instance in his Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence.