Wa `alaykum as-Salamu wa Rahmatullahi wa Barakatuh.
You have raised two important questions; both of them require detailed answers:
As for the first, I would like to cite here one of my previous answers:
One of the issues that comes up so often for an answer on Islamic forums is the question of following a madhhab. As the issue refuses to go away, I thought of stating my answer clearly.
To start with, let me state upfront: It is not after all such a black and white issue as many people would want us to believe. Rather, it is definitely much more involved than that; let me explain my point of view:
1- The question of following a madhhab (school of jurisprudence) comes only in regard to issues of fiqh where things are not self-evident in the sources. Therefore, one needs to rely on the experts. In this case, again, the issue is not black and white: It depends about whom one is referring to.
2- The scholarly adage goes, ‘a common man has no madhhab’, for his madhab is that of his teacher or mufti. For what is required of him to do is to rely on those who are more knowledgeable than him. Since he possesses no knowledge to base such a decision on, it would be wrong for him to say I am a hanafi or shafi’i or hanbali or maliki. To do so is not different from someone saying I am a writer, I am a doctor, etc., without any knowledge in such areas.
3- However, I must qualify what I said above by stating what some scholars (Shah Waliullah, for instance) have pointed out: Since Islam reached the people in various parts of the world through scholars, following different schools, people conveniently identify themselves as hanafites, Shafi’ites, Malikites, etc., For instance, people in South India (Kerala, for instance) mostly consider themselves as Shafi’ites, even as those from North India often prefer to call themselves as Hanafites, albeit with some exceptions.
4- Madhab, however, comes into the picture when a person is embarking on the study of fiqh. Since no one starts with comparative jurisprudence, they start the study of a text from a specific school. It is, therefore, inconceivable at this stage for anyone to choose another school, of which he has no knowledge of.
5- A person who is thus exposed only to a single school cannot be considered an expert in fiqh. As one scholar put it, ‘ whoever is not aware of divergences of views in regard to fiqh, they did not even smell fiqh’. In other words, to know fiqh is to know the differences of jurists, along with the evidence.
6- Once a person has advanced to a higher level of knowledge, where he is exposed to comparative jurisprudence and thus is aware of differences of opinion, he is not bound to follow a single madhhab in every issue he is faced with. He may choose the views of authorities or jurists whose rulings are the strongest, or more relevant to a specific situation, or more understandable to him, as he is not expected to recommend an opinion, if he is not quite sure of its rationale. Scholars have said, “No one is not allowed to give fatwa by our ruling, unless he is aware of the evidence we have relied upon.”
7- Having said this, I need to re a misconception. A person who does so must still follow the authorities, for knowledge must always be based on sound methodology; hence a person who is aware of the divergences of views would be following the authorities as he cannot follow his own whims: he can only offer advice or rulings, in compliance with acceptable methodology of fatwa.
8- If, however, a scholar was to simply parrot out the rulings as compiled in the books, on the pretext that he must follow a single madhhab in all cases, without regard to the milieu, and the specific circumstances of people, he ends up distorting rather than serving the shari’a. I must end this by citing an illuminating quote from Imam Ibn al-Qayyim:
‘Whoever issues rulings to the people merely based on what is transmitted in the compendia despite differences in their customs, usages, times, conditions and the special circumstances of their situations has gone astray and leads others astray. His crime against the religion is greater than the crime of a physician who gives people medical prescriptions without regard to the differences of their climes, norms, the times they live in, and their physical conditions but merely in accordance with what he finds written down in some medical book about people with similar anatomies. Such is an ignorant physician; the other is an ignorant jurisconsult but more detrimental’.
Now let me come to the second part of your question:
Ahl al-sunnah is a name that was used to describe the people who sought to follow the beliefs and doctrines of the pious predecessors (Salaf al-salih) in the aftermath of the Fitnah or civil war (656–661). The Fitnah spawned various sectarian groups who held views different from the mainstream Muslims. According to Imam Abd al-Qahir al-Bagdadi they used this designation to refer to those ‘who did not practice denouncing each other as infidels. They agree on certain core beliefs or doctrines although they differed in articulating them. In spite of the variations in formulating them, they refrain from hereticating each other as infidels.”
Elaborating on this further, Ibn al-Subki says: “Ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah agree on core beliefs…even though they may differ in the way, they are articulating them. We can classify them into three groups:
First, the followers of hadith who base their doctrines on the Book and the Sunnah and the consensus;
Second, people who follow the rational method of establishing beliefs: they are known as the Asharites and Maturirdites. They agree on all doctrines based on the scripture;
The Sufis who follow the process of spiritual intuition and unveiling. They start their journey by adhering to the tenets of the above two groups; however, their journey ends in experiencing the verities of faith through spiritual practices.
For those who wish to study the doctrines of the Ahl al-sunnah, one may refer to the work of imam Tahawi, known as al-Aqidah al-tahawiyyah.
Having said this, I would point out: Sadly enough, we find the extremists on all sides today using the term Ahl al-sunnah to denounce those who differ with them.
For instance, the people of Hadith or Salafis often use the term as a weapon to hereticate the Asharites and Maturidites, and the Sufis.
Likewise, those who claim to follow the Asharite or Maturidite Schools and even the Sufis also use it to denounce the Salafites as heretics.
We must stay from using the term for polemical purposes. Let us not forget that one of the core essentials of the Ahl al-sunnah is that they refrain from using the method of takfir. As Imam Tahawi states, a person goes out of the fold of Islam by denouncing the fundamentals.
Allah Almighty knows best.
Views expressed by hosts/guests on this program (live dialogue, Facebook sessions, etc.) are their own and their appearance on the program does not imply an endorsement of them or any entity they represent.