Ahl-e-Hadith as a movement and as a group came into existence in the Indian Subcontinent as a reaction to religious corruption and misrepresentation of Islamic teachings by the very people who were at the heart of religious authority. The movement’s main aim was to purify the beliefs of Muslims according to the teachings of the Qur’an and the Sunnah by going back to the Islam’s first principles and by restoring the original simplicity and purity of the faith and practice. They reject the miraculous powers of saints and their exaggerated veneration. They claim no new interpretation of Islam, but rather go back to the original.
As a result of the nature and objectives of the movement, Ahl-e-Hadith had to emphasise two main objects: The first is strict observation of Tawhid, as it was explained by the Qur’an and the Prophet (peace be upon him). The subject of Tawhid or Monotheism occupies the most eminent place in their beliefs, and stands at the head of their missionary activities. This is seen as the main purpose of the Prophet’s mission. Ahl-e-Hadith believe that the majority of Muslims have drifted away from the authentic notion of Tawhid. They also believe that spiritual eminence and salvation could only be achieved by strict adherence to the teachings and commands of Allah as given in the Qur’an and laid down by the Prophet (peace be upon him), and not by developing different notions of theological philosophies alien to the Islamic teachings.
The second emphasis is upon holding fast to the teachings and spirit of the Qur’an and Sunnah. As a reformist and puritanical movement they have this as the pivotal point of their mission, and they emphasise that a pure Islam could only be followed by adopting the Qur’an and Sunnah. Both are the primary sources of Islam and the integrity must be maintained. Authorities and scholars, when deciding any religious rulings, must take account of both sources.
This belief has made them the vigorous defenders and champions of Hadith which, on one hand, made them look upon their movement as the inheritors of revivalism and reform by Ahl-e-Hadith in the first three centuries of Hijra. On the other hand, it produced among them many eminent scholars who have contributed by their research works, treaties and commentaries in the field of Hadith Science.
Ahl-e-Hadith defend their claim of being the true upholders of the Qur’an and Sunnah by presenting many examples in this respect. For instance, in the subject of Tawhid, they say that their position is that which the Qur’an teaches, not one which Sufis have invented, or the one held by Muslim Philosophers. They also drive their beliefs about the Prophet (peace be upon him) from the Qur’an, the Hadith and the views of the Companions.
There are two other main subjects which distinguish Ahl-e-Hadith from other Muslims. They are Taqlid and Ijtihad.
Taqlid is one of the most distinct driving lines between Ahl-e-Hadith and other Muslim denominations. Piles of treaties and books have been written over the centuries for and against the notion of Taqlid by scholars of all sides. It had provoked an extensive ideological and theological discussion among Muslims. The notion of Taqlid, which is perceived and practised by majority of the Muslim denominations and religious groups, has existed only since the third century from Hijra. Ahl-e-Hadith argue that it would be unwise, in first place, to bind oneself with religious edicts issued in some certain social, cultural and political backgrounds of second, third and fourth centuries.
Ahl-e-Hadith hold that the Shariah is dynamic and the principles of its teachings are complete and comprehensive. They provide full guidance for Muslims in different times, places and circumstances. Muslim scholars are free to deduce any ruling in the guidance of Shariah’s principles in their own circumstances, and are not bound to follow a ruling given by other scholars according to their own situation and context. Taqlid, they believe, makes people stagnate and works against the whole spirit of Islam.
In the view of Ahl-e-Hadith, Taqlid was not the way of the Salaf (the Companions and Ulama of the first and second centuries). They support this case with evidence from sayings of those Jurists (Fuqaha), whose religious opinions and rulings are alleged to be followed and their insistence that if an authentic Hadith was found to contradict an opinion given by them, the Hadith had to be followed.
However, this view of Ahl-e-Hadith about Taqlid does not, in any way, mean their disrespect to those Imams whose rulings are claimed to be followed and for that matter, to any Muslim scholars. Ahl-e-Hadith strongly defend their position and accuse their opponents of violating the objectives of the Shariah, and idolising their respective Imams and scholars, instead of understanding the message of their academic and religious work. For Ahl-e-Hadith being more than one school of thought, and having more than one opinion in many cases, are themselves evidence of the flexibility and openness of the Shariah. Taqlid, for them, leads only to narrow-mindedness, rigidity and stagnation of Muslim thoughts and community. Taqlid is an innovation with no root in Islamic principles and teachings.
Although Taqlid and Ijtihad are seen as two separate subjects, but they are linked together. Taqlid began to be practised only when the ‘door of Ijtihad’ was, as it was claimed, closed. Ijtihad as a technical term means to strive hard to deduce a ruling when there is no obvious answer in the Qur’an or Prophetic Traditions, i.e. human judgement.
Ahl-e-Hadith hold that the ‘door’ of ijtihad has never been and can never be closed. Nobody is authorised to do it. On the contrary, those who advocate Taqlid claim the process of Ijtihad ended with the four Imams, and that there would be no Mujtahid after them. This is utterly wrong and has no evidence or authority.
Therefore, Ahl-e-Hadith do not believe in only one Mujtahid or four Mujtahids; rather they say that the Ummah has produced and will continue to produce Mujtahids in every age and every part of the Muslim world.