Al Salamu 'Alaykum.
In this belated era, one often hears questions about the need to follow an Imam or a Madhhab. The ear-catching slogan of “DIRECTLY” following the Qur`an and Hadith is heard more frequently. The answer to such questions and the reality behind these slogans is highlighted by the following eye-opening incident, which has been reported by Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal and Imam Tahaawi (rahmatullahi `alayhima). Once `Urwah bin Zubair (rah) addressed `Abdullah bin `Abbas (ra) thus:
“You have led the people astray, O Ibn `Abbas!”
When `Abdullah bin `Abbas (radhiyallahu `anhuma) inquired about the reason, `Urwa (rahmatullahi `alayhi) mentioned a ruling pertaining to the laws of Hajj which `Abdullah bin `Abbas (radhiyallahu `anhuma) had issued contrary to the ruling of Abu Bakr and `Umar (radhiyallahu `anhuma). `Abdullah bin `Abbaas (radhiyallahu `anhuma) replied: “This is the exact reason why you have been led astray. I am narrating from Rasoolullah Sallallahu Alayhi Wasallam and you are opposing it with the view of Abu Bakr and `Umar (radhiyallahu `anhuma).” `Urwah (rahmatullahi `alayh) said to Ibn `Abbaas (radhiyallahu `anhuma):
“Indeed Abu Bakr and `Umar (radhiyallahu `anhuma) were more knowledgeable about the Sunnah of Rasoolullah sallallahu alayhi wasallam than you."
(Musnad Ahmad, vol. 4, pg. 132, No. 2277, Sharh Ma`aani al Aathar, vol. 1, pg. 423).
In a narration of Tabarani the same incident has been recorded with a slight difference. According to this version, when `Urwah (rahmatullahi `alayh) objected, Ibn `Abbaas (radiyallahu `anhuma) said to him: “Woe unto you! Do you give preference to Abu Bakr and `Umar (radhiyallahu `anhuma) over the book of Allaah and the Sunnah of Rasoolullah Sallallahu Alayhi Wasallam.” Upon this `Urwah (rahmatullahi `alayh) replied: “They were more knowledgeable about the Book of Allaah and the Sunnah of Rasoolullah Sallallahu Alayhi Wasallam than you and I.” Ibn Abi Mulayka, the narrator of this incident comments: “Ibn `Abbaas (radhiyallahu `anhuma) did not have any answer for this.” (Al-Mu`jamul Awsat, vol. 1, pg. 42, No. 21).
The answer of `Urwah (rahmatullahi `alayh) is exactly the answer to those who raise objections such as: What is the need to follow an Imam? Is it better to follow Rasoolullah Sallallahu Alayhi Wasallam or to follow Abu Hanifah, Malik, Shaafi`ee and Ahmad bin Hanbal (rahmatullaahi alayhim)? In reply to these objections Shaykh Muhammad `Awwaama writes: “We say to them: We are not pleased to have you as a substitute for these Imams, as they were more knowledgeable about Rasoolullah Sallallahu Alayhi Wasallam than you.” In fact, when we say “more knowledgeable” we do not mean to draw a comparison, because there is absolutely no comparison between you and them in knowledge. And it is our ardent desire to cling onto the way of Rasoolullah Sallallahu Alayhi Wasallam that drives us to follow their understanding of the pure Sunnah.” (Atharul Hadith al Sharif, pg. 101).
The crux of these answers is that one does not follow an Imam in OPPOSITION to the Quraan and Sunnah. Instead, the following of an Imam is based purely on the intention to follow the Quran and Sunnah, and they were far more knowledgeable of the Quraan and Sunnah than anyone in this era.