Since different people have different notions of what following a specific madhhab means, the answer to this question varies. As for my own understanding of the issue of following a madhhab, I have articulated it elsewhere in my previous answers. You may refer to one of such answers by following the link given below.
I do not share the so called misconception among many Muslims which can be described as 'born a hanafi, live a hanafi and die a hanafi or born a shafi'i, live a shafi'i and die a shafi'i'; such is a distortion of what a madhhab was meant to be in the minds of the great imams and their reputed disciples. My understanding of madhhab is shaped by the discussions of great scholars such as 'Izz al-ddeen b. Abd al-Salam, al-Khattabi, Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn al-Qayyim, Ibn Hajar al-'Asqalani, Shah Waliullah, Hasanayn Makhlouf, Mustafa al-Zarqa, Shaikh Qaradawi, etc. I am in many ways a waliullaahi in my approach to fiqh, theology and Islamic spirituality. You are advised to consult his works, especially al-insaf, hujjah, and his beautiful introduction to his commentary on al-muwatta entitled al-musawwa.
Now let me come to my own background: I come from Malabar (South India) in the state of Kerala; where the predominant school of jurisprudence is that of Imam shafi'i. Unlike North India, Islam came to Malabar through the Arabs who were mainly followers of shafi'i school, and my own teachers and shaikhs had their intellectual linage going back to the great scholars of the school such as Imam Nawawi, al-Subki Ibn Hajr al-haythami, Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, etc. I studied the various texts of shafi'i school, from the elementary to the advanced in a period of 11 yeas. The curriculum included texts such as sharah al-mahalli ala al-minhaj, sharah al-mahalli ala jam' al jawami', ihya ulum al-ddin, besides works on tafsir, hadith, ulum al-hadith, ulum al-Qur'an, Arabic grammar, balaaghah, kalaam, mantiq, etc. After my initial training in shafi'i school, in my further studies and research at the Islamic University of Madinah, University of Toronto, McGill University and my career as an imam spanning over thirty five years I have had the opportunity to become familiar with other schools as well as the wider intellectual tradition of Islam. So while being affiliated to shafi'i school, I follow the methodology of Imam Shah Waliullah which stresses the combining of the methodology of fuqaha of madhahib with that of fuqaha of muhadhitheen. I do not make my own ijtihad, but I do follow other great imams on certain issues while being faithful to shafi'i school to the best of my ability. I consider the four schools as the branches of the same tree. They are all carrying flames from the niche of nubuwwah (prophecy). I do not consider it necessary for anyone to make ijtihad in regards to the issues of ibaaddaat which have been fairly well codified in the four schools, barring a few instances where tarjih (validation and preference) is done, which is quite common in all of the schools.
However, I believe that fiqh always flourishes only in live contact with hadith and that Allah's mercy not is limited to the ancients. It is also available to the moderns--as rightly pointed out by Shah Waliullah and others.
In regards to issues of fiqh al-aqalliyyaat (fiqh of minorities) and other moderns issues, I follow the decisions of the World fiqh Council, except in specific issues affecting Muslims in North America where because of my long standing experiences in the community I follow decisions of select scholars I trust or choose from among the respected scholars, past and the present; all of these in accordance with the methodology followed by scholars.
Now coming to your question about my view about Darul uloon deoband: I consider Deoband school to be a direct product of the teachings of Imam Shah Waliulah. I believe it is thanks to the great sages and scholars of such institutions that Islam is thriving in India, and it behoves every Muslim to cherish respect for such institutions and their contributions. However, I do not think that Deoband has fully lived up to the great vision of Shah waliulah since it has a narrow focus in fiqh mainly centered on a static view of hanafi school, and it lacks the philosophical depth of the waliullahi vision. It was this feeling of dissatisfaction with the Deobandhi curriculum that prompted some eminent scholars to establish Nadwah; while others went ahead to establish secular institutions with courses on Islamic theology to complement the work of both Deoband and Nadwah. I do not think any single institution can equip the Muslims to serve the ummah in the myriads of colossal challenges we are faced with both from within and without. What is required is a continuous dialogue on the lines of what existed among the great imams in fiqh, besides developing a critical mindset that can absorb the best of Islamic intellectual tradition with the best of the Western tradition. My own model for a synthetic view of fiqh which would be faithful to Shah Waliullah's vision is the one practised by a number of eminent scholars in al-Azhar. al-Aazhar has had the unique advantage of providing opportunity for an ongoing dialogue and interaction with all of the schools. Thanks to these, their rulings and vision are much more relevant, tolerant and dynamic than that of Deoband or Nadwah, and I believe that would be the ideal model for us to emulate and build upon if we wish to revive the tradition of fiqh for the changing times and circumstances. I, therefore, prefer to follow the authorities of al-Azhar in preference to those of others from South Asia. I had also the fortune of studying with a number of retired professors of al-Azhar who taught us in the Islamic University of Madinah.
I also wish to state a word of caution against those who sit in pontifical chairs to consider which of the scholars is authentic and who is not. They do this in the name of strict adherence to a particular madhhab; in doing so they are not different from those who pick up translations of Bukhari and Muslim and offer 'rulings' while dismissing all the imams and the great tradition of learning. We need to be cautioned against such a simplistic and naïve understanding of fiqh and' 'ilm, and give some respect to those who have devoted their lives to the cause of Islamic knowledge even though one may beg to disagree with them in their preferred views. May Allah help us all to cherish love for Allah and His Messenger, and may He give us the honor of being gathered under the banner of the Messenger of mercy, upon whom be Allah's blessings and peace.
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