The great Ḥanbalī scholar Imam Muwaffaq al-Dīn Ibn Qudāmah al-Maqdisī (541–620 AH/1146–1223 CE) developed a program to take students from the very beginning of their studies to the very end: from having zero specialized knowledge in fiqh to being a mujtahid. His program consisted of a series of books, moving the student toward the grand goal in stages.
The first book is Al-ʿUmdah, a basic manual of fiqh for beginners. It covers the basic rulings that every Ḥanbalī needs, presenting only to predominant opinion for each issue and without mentioning any variance. While Ibn Qudāmah did not concentrate on evidence, he did tend to begin each section with a hadith that the student could then use to figure out many of the unmentioned branch issues.
The second book is Al-Muqniʿ, which added to the above by mentioning the different opinions for a given issue without informing the student which is the predominant opinion, and by adding some additional branch issues.
The third book is Al-Kāfī, which introduces evidences for the positions in the madhhab.
The fourth book is Rawḍat al-Nāẓir, a book on the fundamentals of jurisprudence [uṣūl al-fiqh]. It is a condensed version of Imam al-Ghazālī’s Al-Mustaṣfā that champions and argues Ḥanbalī views (instead of Imam al-Ghazālī’s Shāfi‘ī views).
The fifth and final book is Al-Mughnī, which builds on the previous works by adding opinions from the other madhabs from the Companions and early Imams (may Allah be well pleased with them) whether still followed or extinct, the opinions within the madhhab with a particular emphasis on what is transmitted from the Imam, the evidence for all of these various positions, and then a defense of the predominant position in Ibn Qudāmah’s opinion. The book is also full of minute branch issues.
So, that was the program that Ibn Qudāmah set down. And here it is again, with rough translations for the books: Al-‘Umdah (“the support”) that provides a novice student with a solid foundation for personal practice and future study; Al-Muqni‘ (“the convincer”) that gives beginning students a taste for variance within the school and gives them puzzles to ponder; Al-Kāfī (“the sufficiency”) that adds more issues and evidence, enabling more advanced students to understand the underlying evidence and arguments for variance within the school – perhaps even able to do ijtihād within the school; and Al-Mughnī (“the freer from dependency”) that expands the previous book’s coverage to other schools – perhaps enabling the super-advanced student to engage in even broader forms of ijtihād.
Although it’s fun to step off the path and explore the wilderness on our own. People on a journey tend to get there faster if they stick to what has already been established, and veer off only when needs must. Plus, extending what is already there is easier than trying to do everything yourself from scratch. Now look back to the image at the top of this post.