Mistake #1: “There is only one right answer for every issue.”
Differences of opinion among scholars are a natural and inevitable part of Islamic jurisprudence. We discussed a number of reasons for these differences in some of the earlier posts in this series. In Pt. III we mentioned that many of the texts of the Qur’an and hadith are worded in a way that leaves room for more than one legitimate interpretation. We also noted that there are a number of sources from which legal rulings are derived, which scholars may consider and weigh differently in formulating their opinions. Finally, in Pt. V, we described how scholars may differ in their assessment of a specific situation and the context in which it takes place, and as a result differ in what they believe is the most suitable application of Islamic teachings in a given scenario.
While some people may claim that scholarly differences of opinion are caused solely by human error, or certain scholars’ lack of familiarity with the texts, the factors that we have previously discussed belie this misconception. It is clear that there are many legitimate means by which scholars can come to different answers on the same issue.
With the exception of a small minority of scholars—including, in more recent times, Sh. Albaani1—the vast majority of scholars throughout history have considered such differences a mercy and a blessing. An assembly of scholars in Mecca headed by Sh. Bin Baaz described the wisdom of such differences in the following way:
“… The differences that exist among the juristic schools over some issues, caused by academic reasons, [have a] great divine wisdom behind their existence: [they] are a form of God’s mercy for His servants, and they serve to expand the methods by which rulings may be derived from the sacred texts. Furthermore, these differences are a blessing, and a juristic treasure that provide room for the Muslim community in its religious and legal affairs, such that it is not restricted to a single opinion when faced with a particular legal issue without any alternatives. Instead, if at any time, or for any issue, the opinion of a particular scholar2 becomes difficult for the Muslim community to follow, it is able to find relief, leniency, and ease in another opinion, according to (its own) legal evidences.”3
In a similar vein, the great scholar Ibn Qudama al-Maqdisi said, “Disagreement among scholars is an abundant mercy, while agreement between them is a decisive proof.”4
It has been related that the Prophet ﷺ said, “Difference of opinion among my community is a token of divine mercy.”5 Although scholars have disputed the authenticity of this report, the vast majority of them agree with the meaning that it imparts.
A General Principle for Dealing with Differences
The general axiom we should seek to follow when encountering contentious issues is that “there should be no condemnation [inkaar] in matters of ijtihad.”6 This principle states that in cases in which there are no clear, unequivocal directives from the Qur’an or hadith about an issue, and in which scholars use a legal process (ijtihad) to contextualize the evidences and derive rulings, one should not engage in inkaar of one or another from among their opinions. Inkaar comes from a verb that means to rebuke, censure, renounce, or reproach. While we may personally subscribe to a particular opinion on an issue, and feel that it is the most authentic, accurate, or the most suitable for a given situation, we should not discount the other legitimate opinions that exist. We should respect those who follow the opinions of other scholars, and allow them the space – both in our understanding and in our physical dealings – to follow those opinions.
It is important to note that this principle is not in any way dismissing ijtihad, or the scholar’s endeavor to determine the most correct opinion on an issue, the promulgation and teaching of that opinion once it has been determined, or for a scholar to defend his or her opinion and respond to other scholars’ contentions. This is in fact the essence of the mujtahid7 scholar’s task. In short, there is no problem with a qualified scholar respectfully disagreeing with another qualified scholar, based on his or her ijtihad. What this axiom is prohibiting is the condemnation of someone for following another legitimate scholarly opinion, particularly when done by a layperson. The layperson may not be cognizant of certain nuances related to the issue or its evidences, that may have led to the formulation of more than one strong, legitimate scholarly opinion regarding it. They may also be unaware of the reality of the other person’s situation and circumstances, which may make another ruling more suitable and appropriate for them in a particular case. Unfortunately, it is when laypeople take on the mantle of the scholars, in seeking to promote certain opinions or deconstruct others—often in a harsh, hasty, or uninformed way—that discord and conflict often arises in our communities. In many cases, a qualified scholar would seek to facilitiate and accommodate, while the layperson would seek to constrict. This is perhaps why Imam al-Ghazali is reported to have said, “If those who do not possess knowledge avoid the scholarly discussions, disagreement would end [entirely]!”
Should All Differences of Opinion be Respected?
The above-mentioned axiom restricts the respectful consideration of differences of opinion to matters of ijtihad, and excludes those rulings that have been definitively established or explicitly and clearly stated in the texts (qat`iy). In our times we may find people who lack the requisite level of knowledge and training in Islamic law attempting to promote ideas that contradict these well-established rulings. They may call on the spirit of broadmindedness that Islamic scholarship has generally embodied throughout history to encourage acceptance and tolerance of these claims. However, in so doing, they fail to realize that scholars have made a clear distinction between the type of differing of opinion that is acceptable and respected, and that which is blameworthy and to be rejected.
Imam Ibn Taymiyya, for example, states that there are two types of issues on which disagreement may exist.8 One type consists of issues that are either not addressed by the sacred texts at all, or addressed by texts that are probabilistic (dhanni) and therefore open to more than one scholarly interpretation. With respect to these issues, disagreement is to be expected, tolerated, and respected. The second type consists of issues that are addressed by definitive, unequivocal texts of the Qur’an, hadith, or ijma’ [scholarly consensus]. Since these issues are so clearly and authoritatively addressed by sacred law, they must be considered beyond the scope of intellectual exertion and varying interpretations, and differences regarding them must be rejected and condemned.
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf also describes this dichotomy in his introduction to The Creed of Imam al-Tahawi:
“Our differences are not the real problem; our failure to distinguish between our casual and core differences is the problem. Differences in Islam fall into two categories: those that result from capaciousness of divinely designed diversity, and those that are factitious and eventuate in a transgression of the divine limits of acceptable differences, leading to strife and religious discord. The second is a punishment and a sign of an arrogant humanity that chooses caprice over guidance. Our Prophet ﷺ said, ‘No people abandon a guidance that they were upon with being given disputation in its place.’ And Imam Malik said, ‘Argumentation hardens the heart and engenders resentment.’”9
The differences that are to be respected are those that fall within the bounds delineated by the Lawgiver. They give a level of flexibility to religious practice, and allow Islam to be a viable way of life in different contexts, all while respecting Islam’s core teachings, ethics, and principles. Blameworthy differences are those that go beyond these bounds, and encroach on the values and teachings of Islam that are not open to a range of interpretations. These differences are the ones that usually cause serious conflict, strife, confusion and misguidance in our community.
On a range of issues in Islamic law, we find that more than one answer is considered acceptable or valid. This is an evident sign of Allah’s mercy and compassion, as is the reward He has promised for the mujtahid scholar, even the one who errs in his or her ruling. Legitimate differences of opinion should never be a cause for division, hostility or hatred in our relationships with others. We should consider such differences from the light of the expansiveness and generosity of Allah’s law, instead of deeming them contemptible problems that must be eradicated. We should also be informed about what types of opinions go beyond acceptable boundaries, and the means of clarifying and addressing them properly. Intelligent assessment and study of these issues is critical for sound religious practice as well as a healthy discourse in our communities.
May Allah Most High bless us with the best of manners, making us generous, kind, and fair with others, composed and calm in our discussions, and sincere in our efforts to better ourselves and then to teach and inform those around us. Ameen.
Conclusion to the Series
As this series comes to an end, we ask Allah Most High to accept it from us and forgive us our mistakes and shortcomings. May He make this series of articles a means by which people learn more about His religion, gain insight into the beauty and intricacy of its sacred law, and feel motivated and inspired to learn more.
A text in at-Tabarani states that the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said: “You are living in a time that has many fuqaha (jurists; people who understand religion) and your lecturers and preachers are few. You live in a time in which those who give are many, and those who ask are few. And you also live in a time when action is preferable to knowledge. But there is coming a time upon this community in which the preachers will be many, but those who understand the religion will be few. Those who ask will be many, and those who give will be few. And in those days, knowledge will be better than action.”10
For Further Study and Reading in the Subject of Usul al-Fiqh:
- Sacred Law in Secular Lands, Volume 1 & 2 (CD Set), by Sh. Abdallah Bin Bayyah, with live translation by Sh. Hamza Yusuf, Alhambra Productions.
- Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence by Muhammad Hashim Kamali, Islamic Texts Society.
- The Distinguished Jurist’s Primer by Imran Ahsan Khan Nyazee (translation of Bidayatul Mujtahid by Ibn Rushd), Garnet Publishing.
- This opinion of Sh. Albaani can be found in many of his writings. In Silsilah ad-Daeefah, for example, he says, “In short, differing is blameworthy in Islamic Law, which makes it necessary to do away with it as much as possible, because it is one of the causes of weakness of the Muslim community.” ↩
- Literally, the text says ‘imam’, referring to the well-known founders of the various juristic schools in Islam. ↩
- This declaration has been translated in its entirety here. ↩
- In his work al-Mughni. Essentially the same words were said by Ibn Taymiyya in Mukhtasar al-Fatawa al-Misriyya. ↩
- Suyuti said about this report in al-Jami’ al-Sagheer, “It was narrated by Nasr al-Maqdisi in al-Hujja, and Bayhaqi inal-Risala al-Ash`ariyya without a chain of transmission. It has also been narrated by Halimi, Qadi Husayn, Imam al-Haramayn (Juwayni) and others. Perhaps its chain of transmission was mentioned in the books of earlier scholars which have not reached us.” ↩
- Read more about this principle here ↩
- One qualified to engage in ijtihad ↩
- In Majmu’ al-Fatawa. ↩
- Hamza Yusuf, The Creed of Imam al-Tahawi, 2007 ↩
- Quoted by Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah in his audio series, “Sacred Law in Secular Lands.” ↩