What are the madhabs sects-school of thoughts- of practice?
The word madhhab is derived from an Arabic word meaning "to go" or "to take as a way. Though there are thousands of mujtahids- the performer of ijtihad, which is the act of deducing secondary judgments from the Quran and Hadiths- in the circle of Ahl-i Sunnah-the close followers of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), the renowned ones to whom are adhered are these twelve imams:
1) İmam-ı Azam Abu Hanifa
2) İmam-ı Malik
3) İmanı-ı Shafiî
4) İmam-ı Ahmad b. Hanbal
5) İmam-ı Avza'î
6) İmam-ı Sufyan b. 'Uyayna
7) İmam Sufyan as-Savri
8) İmam Dawud
9) İmam Muhammad İbn-al Jarir at-Tabari
10) İbn-i Hazm
11) İmam-ı Abu bakr b. Munzir
12) İmam-ı İshak İbn-i Rahvayh
They thoroughly deserved to be the addressee of the verse To whom is given the knowledge, is given the bountiful good deeds, and the hadith: To whom God wills good deeds, he makes him knowledgeable in religion.
Their successors could not reach to the degree they covered in knowledge and ijtihad. Though previously the number of the right sects rose to twelve, because the followers of the eight gave out, the number diminished to four.
In his work Madhal, Muhammad Sayyid gave an extensive analysis of the history of sects. We quote some parts from this book here:
Before the sects formed, one would consult to a mujtahid about an issue, while about another he would go to some other.
To the end of the period of tabiin-, the companions of the ashab who are the companions of Prophet Muhammad-, the institution of ijtihad slowly began to stabilize and the study of fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence) began to be instructed as a separate branch.
With the beginning of the age of mujtahids, the occupations concerning ijtihad were properly set, and ijtihad became separated as an independent branch. The great mujtahids like the imam of Iraqis Abu Hanifa, that of Mecca and Medina Imam Malik, and that of the Egyptians Imam Shafii searched through the work of the Ashab-the companions of Prophet Muhammad- and of the tabiin with great pains and set the judgments of the issues of fiqh to which answers were given before or not, by gathering them together. Thus, fiqh and the system of fiqh became two different branches.
Hence, the institutions of fiqh established that way are each called a sect, and their founders are named as imam.
The science of fiqh, thus the sects, did not begin with the four imams. As is stated before, the onset of ijtihad and so the establishment of sects goes back to the age of happiness and tranquility-in which Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) lived. Some statements of Kevseri about this issue are given below:
Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) instructed his companions the science of fiqh, and prepared them in deducing judgments from religious sources. Moreover, about six companions of his were issuing fatwa-judgments delivered by capable religious people- in the period of the Prophet. The companions continued getting instruction from these people about fiqh, after the passing of the Prophet. They had friends renowned in issuing fatwa among the ashab-companions of Prophet Muhammad- and tabiin-the companions of the ashab. Many of the tabiin, mostly from the people of Medina, began to gather the rather scattered fatwas related from the companions of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) about the fields of fiqh and hadith. The Seven Scholars of fiqh from the people of Medina have high ranks in the field of fiqh.
Hz Omar built the city of Kufa and sent Ibn-i Masud there to instruct people on the science of fiqh.
Ajluni states that, aside from the other provinces of Iraq, only in Kufa, 1500 companions of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) got instruction on fiqh.
While all the True (Haqiqa) sects agreed upon the essentials of religion, they expressed different ijtihads about the secondary issues. The Muslims have adhered to one of these sects in issues of prayer and practice. Even the people of knowledge and of closeness to God each adhered to one of these sects. For example, İmam-ı Muhammad, İmam-ı Abu Yusuf, Sarahsi, Kadıhan, Kııduri, İbn-i Abidin adhered to the sect of Hanafi; İmam-ı Ghazali, Rafıi, Navavi, Fahraddin-i Razi, Taftazani, İmam-ı Suyuti to that of Shafii; İbnu'l-Hacib, Zarkani, Muhyiddin-i Arabi,
Abu'l-Hasani Shazelî to that of Maliki; and Abdulkadir-i Gaylani, İbni Kudama, Javzi to that of Hanbali. Countless great people of knowledge who produced innumerable works by mixing the divine and mental sciences and illumined their times did not endeavor to perform ijtihad and took it as an honor to adhere to the four mujtahids. They saw their security and happiness in following these great imams. The great people of knowledge of the heydays of Islam became the rightful successors of these four mujtahids with the work they published and the pupils they instructed.
Thousands of people of knowledge and reflective people of different times and places, and of different dispositions and jobs, jointly adhered to the sects of these four imams, and practiced themselves and helped people practice the ijtihads of these imams.
It is not a blind imitation that scholars of such Islamic sciences as theology, explanation of the Quran, and hadith adhered to the mujtahids. The imitation of theirs is based on study and research. Based on this imitation, there lies the respect for specialization.
Is it possible that people of that knowledge and precise reason stuck to a false way all their lives and blindly followed these great mujtahids? No reason can propose this.
The gathering of these learned around these four sects is a wall of iron around these sects and an indestructible barrier like that of Dhulkarneyn. A wall that cannot be penetrated and pierced by any devil
These people acknowledged all the judgments of the great mujtahids as the truth; so they did not oppose to them. For example, Imam Ghazali, who deserved the respect of the Muslims all over the Islamic world, though he earned the rank Huccatul-Islam (the proof of Islam), in ijtihad, he adhered to Imam Shafii and stated: I studied the field of ijtihad, and my studies led me to the sect of Shafii.
In everything, success is dependent upon the divine help. If the help of God escapes a person then he cannot achieve his aims with his own efforts. Of course, the door of the causes must be knocked at and the requirements be fulfilled. However, the essential is the help and guidance of God. It is connected with this fact that the sects diminished to four from twelve.