Doubt: Allah (the most High) has ordered us to follow the Noble Prophet(Allah bless him and give him peace), so if the hadith from him is Sahih then it we should act upon it, and follow Him (Allah bless him and give him peace) in it. A hadith being Sahih is sufficient for it to be acted upon.
Answer: The answer to this doubt is based on two concepts, namely:
1) The authenticity of the hadith is enough for the hadith to be acted upon
2) We are ordered to follow the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and not to follow anyone else.
A Hadith Maybe Sahih But is Not to be Acted Upon Due to Other Reasons: There is a common misunderstanding that the hadith being Sahih is enough for it to be acted upon, however the understanding of the scholars is that there are hadith that exist which are Sahih but are not acted upon due to various reasons
Sahih But Abrogated: Hafidh Ibn Hajar clearly stated this, as he said in ‘Fath al-Bari’ (1/413):
“And how many from the ahadith are mansukh (abrogated) but they are Sahih in terms of hadith criteria.”
Also Ibn Abi Khaithmah reports in ‘Sharh Illal al-Tirmidhi’ (1:413) that Ibrahim al-Nakhai said:
“I hear hadith and I see that which is taken from, and I take from it, and I leave the rest.”
Hadith Can Misguide Those Who Are Not Experts: Imam Hafidh Ibn Abd al-Barr reports from Qadi al-Mujtahid Ibn Abi Lailah that he said:
“We follow in knowledge four: two in Egypt and two in Madinah. Laith bin Sa’d and Amr bin al-Harith in Egypt, and Malik and al-Majishun in al-Madinah, and if it were not for them we would have been misguided”
Khatib al-Baghdadi reports in ‘al-Faqih wal Mutafaqqih’ (2:80):
“That a man asked Ibn Uqdah about a hadith, so he said to him: Do not get involved with these hadith as they are no good except for the one who knows its explanation (tawil), and Yahya bin Suleiman reports from Ibn Wahb that he said: I heard Malik say: many from these hadith are misguidance..”
All of these quotes from our scholars show that the hadith being Sahih is not enough for it be acted upon as some people think, rather a deep and exhaustive knowledge is required to piece together all the hadith on particular issue and derive a ruling, which is the job of the jurists (fuqaha). And that venturing into the hadith without sufficient knowledge can misguide people as was testified to by the Imams of the past as mentioned above.
The Jurists (Fuqaha) Are to be Referred to for Understanding the Hadith: Al-Khatib reports in ‘al-Faqih wal Mutafaqih’ (2:15-19) a lengthy statement from Imam al-Muzani who was one of the greatest students of Imam al-Shafi, at its end al-Muzani said:
“So look- may Allah have mercy upon you-at the hadith you have compiled, and seek knowledge with the people of fiqh so that you may become jurists (fuqaha).”
The Maliki’s and Leaving Hadith Based on the Practice of the People of Madinah: Imam Abi Zaid al-Qairawani al-Maliki (d.386) explained the position of the salaf with regards to acting upon some hadith and not acting on others, and that that not everything which was Sahih was to be practised due to other reasons. He said in ‘Kitab al-Jami’ (p.117 )whilst enumerating the beliefs of Ahl al-Sunnah:
“One must submit to the sunnahs, They are not to be contradicted by personal opinion nor are they to be opposed by analogical reasoning. That which the right acting first generations interpreted, we take as our interpretation, that which they acted upon we act upon, and that which they abandoned we abandon. We are permitted to grasp hold of that which they grasped hold and to follow them in that which they made clear, and to emulate them in that which they derived and what they thought to be correct concerning events, and that we should not leave their group over that about which they disagreed or its interpretation…
Malik said: The practice (of the people of Madinah) is more firmly established than ahadith. One who I emulate said: It is distressing that it should be said concerning the like of that, ‘So and so related to me from so and so’. Some men of the Followers used to receive ahadith from others and they would say, ‘We are not unaware of these, but the practice is contrary to this’. Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr Ibn Hazms brother said to him, “why did you not give judgement according to such and such a hadith’? He said: ‘I did not find people practising it.’”
The Salaf Imitating the Companions Even if it Outwardly Appears to Differ With the Hadith: Ibrahim al-Nakhai said:
“If I had seen the companions making wudu up to the wrists I would have done the same even though I read it as up to the elbows.”
And in ‘al-Hujjah fi Bayan al-Mahajjah’ of Abul Qasim al-Taymi al-Asbahani 2:401 he reports that Ibrahim al-Nakhai said:
“If they had only washed the nails we would not have exceeded it…”
Al-Zuhri’s Student Adheres to Anothers Opinion Despite Being Presented With an Evidence: Ibn Abd al-Barr mentions in ‘al-Tamhid’ (3:236,237) that Imam Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri said to his student Yunus bin Yazid al-Ayli:
“Follow me and make wudu from anything which has touched fire! He said to him: I will not follow you and leave Saeed bin al-Musayyib, so al-Zuhri became quiet.”
Imam Ahmad Mentions Imam al-Shafi Being Sufficient as a Proof: Imam al-Baihaqi in ‘Manaqib al-Shafi’ (2:154) reports from Imam Ahmad that:
“Hammad bin Ahmad al-Basri said: I was with Ahmad bin Hanbal and we were discussing the issue, a man said to Ahmad: O Abu Abdullah there is no authentic hadith regarding it! He –Ahmad said: Even if there is no authentic hadith with regards to it, there is the opinion of al-Shafi, and his proof is the most established thing with regards to it.”
So this is clear evidence once again from the salaf that they would follow the scholars even if outwardly it seemed that the evidence conflicted with the position of their scholar, as they knew their scholars had a basis for their position and were not ignorant of the hadith. Also it is not necessary for the scholar to give fatwa according to all the hadith that he knows as there are many authentic hadith which are not put in to practice for various reasons, therefore it is not possible for someone to find a hadith narrated by an Imam of a madhab which is different to his ruling and say that the followers of that madhab must follow that particular hadith.
Acting on Hadith After Consulting with the People of Knowledge: Imam Ahmad said as reported in ‘Ilaam al-Muwaqqin’ (1:44) of Ibn al-Qayyim:
“If a man has written works containing words of the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) and differences of the companions and followers (tabieen), then it is not permissible to act by that which he wishes and chooses, and act upon it until he asks a person of knowledge regarding what can be taken, so he will be acting in a correct manner.”
Imam Sufyan al-Thawri said as reported in ‘ Sharh Illal al-Tirmidhi of Ibn Rajab (1:29):
“Hadith have come which are not acted upon”
All of the above quotes from our Imams show that a hadith being Sahih is not enough for it to be acted upon, but rather there are many other factors which need to be taken in to consideration before this hadith is put in to practice.