A quick search within the plethora of fatāwa (Islamic scholarly opinion) available on the internet alone will quickly help one to conclude that difference of opinion in matters relating to Islam is indeed a reality. The purpose of this short article is neither to address the causes of such differences nor to support one position in a given matter over another. Rather the purpose is to provide a general guideline for the average person to decipher which differences are causes of mercy and which are not.
Valid vs. Invalid
From the outset, it should be known that differences that are valid are a source of mercy and leniency. Invalid differences however, are a source of deviancy. Thus to label valid differences as ‘‘deviant” is precisely an act of deviancy!
What not to base validity on
Whether or not ikhtilāf (difference of opinion) on a given matter is valid or not should not be based on the subject matter. This means that the common notion that differences are allowed in Fiqh (Islamic Law) but not allowed in ʻAqīda (Theology), or are allowed in ‘furūʻ (subsidiary matters) but not allowed in uṣūl (foundational matters) is inaccurate and is likely to lead one to categorize legitimate differences as deviant.
The correct criteria on which to base validity
The correct method is to base the criterion for validity on the uṣūli epistemological distinctions between qatʻī (definitive) and dhannī (obscure).
A text (aḥadīth or Qur’ānic verse), can be qatʻī or dhannī in two aspects.
- thubūt (its authenticity)
- dalāla (its meaning)
When a text is qatʻī in both its authenticity and its meaning, the matter is then qatʻī; hence differing in this matter is impermissible. Thus, such a difference is a source of deviancy and is not a source of mercy. For example, the texts that establish the prohibition of homosexuality in Islām are qatʻī in both its authenticity and meaning because Qur’ānic verses clearly prohibit it and these verses are supported by Aḥādīth to provide a clear cut consensus. Therefore, to say under the guise of ‘Ijtihād’1 (interpretation) that homosexuality may be allowed is nothing short of heresy. Indeed in such clear cut matters, to deviate from the established positions is tantamount to kufr (blasphemy). Such matters, whether they are related to Islāmic law or theology, are not areas in which Ijtihād is allowed. Hence, the famous maxim: There is no Ijtihād in a matter wherein there is a clear-cut text.
If however one of these aspects is dhannī (its authenticity or meaning is not definitive), Ijtihād will be permissible, and as a logical consequence, differences of opinion arising out of such an Ijtihād (performed by qualified bona fide scholars) is also valid, though not necessarily correct. The ṣifāt of Allāh mentioned in the Qur’ān is such a matter, even though they are matters of theology. Hence, so long as the rules of interpretations are followed, it is not correct to exclude vast numbers of this Ummah outside the fold of Sunnī Islām as some have done so based on this issue alone. If however there is a clear cut consensus (Ijmāʻ), the matter would then be rendered as qatʻī and negate the option of Ijtihād.
What is dhannī and what is qatʻī?
For someone who is not fully proficient in the Arabic language, finding out which matter is dhannī and which is qatʻī may be difficult. The most practical way is to ask a reliable source of knowledge. On the other hand, a person who knows Arabic may consult earlier books of Fiqh to see whether classical scholars have differed, which will indicate that the sources relating to the matter is dhannī. Alternatively books listing clear cut consensuses also indicate what matters are qatʻī; what is excluded is usually dhannī.
Our attitude in those matters that are qatʻī
Since the primary sources are clear on such matters, we should ascertain the truth from the untruth. It is in these matters that one engages in ‘commanding the good and forbidding the evil’2 (amr bil maʻrūf wan nahy ʻan’l munkar). Yet care should be taken in declaring matters as belonging to this category since very few issues belong here.
Our attitude in those matters that are dhannī
Since ikhtilāf in these matters are allowed, we must show tolerance in such issues. This means that we must not label the opinion of others which may be different, but valid as:
- Deviant (tafsīq)
- Innovation (tabdīʻ)
- Blasphemy (takfīr)
It is in these matters that we must try to show and inculcate within us the ‘ethics of differing’ (ādāb al-Ikhtilāf). Furthermore, the fact that the matter is dhannī does not mean it is synonymous to being the correct opinion. Thus we should follow scholars we trust in such matters and we should not venture alone (unless qualified) in deciphering the correctness or incorrectness of a legal opinion.
Some examples of qatʻī matters:
- The oneness of God
- The finality of the message of Muḥammad ﷺ
- The prohibition of unlawful murder
- The prohibition of homosexuality
- The prohibition of adultery/fornication
- The prohibition of drinking alcohol
- The obligation of the five daily prayers
- Dealing with people justly
- Abusing, cursing and defaming others
- Sectarianism and breaking up Muslim unity
- Backbiting and slander
- Spying and unwarranted suspicion
- Declaring the companions of the Prophet as apostates (May Allāh protect us)
Some examples of dhannī matters:
- The permissibility of taking usurious loans in non-Muslim countries
- The obligation of the face veil (niqāb)
- The permissibility of gelatine/animal rennet and other animal derivatives
- What Allāh means when he mentions hands, face, etc. in the Qur’ān
- Women travelling without a chaperone
- The validity of wiping over cotton socks in wuḍū
- Whether the language of the Friday khutba (sermon) is allowed to be translated or not
- The permissibility of music
- The permissibility of Mīlād celebrations
- What constitutes ‘correct’ sighting of the moon for the establishing of a new month
- Shaking hands with the opposite gender with the absence of lust, without initiating it
- The issue of women singing in front of non-maḥārim
- Men wearing clothes below the ankles
- Men wearing silver
- The ruling of the beard and its length
- Raising of the hands before/after rukūʻ in salāh (rafʻ al-yadain)
- Where to place the hands in salāh
- The issue of 3 ṭālaq’s (divorces) in one sitting
- The validity of a couple’s marriage in which the wife decides to become Muslim and the husband remains of his faith
- Singling out the fifteen of Shaʻbān for worship
- The issue of following one Madhab in all issues
- Whether or not the Prophet ﷺ saw Allāh during the Miʻrāj or not
- This obviously is not Ijtihād in any sense of the word for there are various conditions one must meet in order to be qualified to engage in such an endeavour. Non-qualification is an impediment to valid Ijtihād and hence, those who pretend to engage in such an activity without having regard for any of its conditions are very mistaken. Furthermore, a matter which is definitive in both its authenticity and meaning is one in which Ijtihād is not allowed. ↩
- There are many rules to follow when one engages in this task. Refer to Iḥyā ʻUlūm al-Dīn by Imām Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazzalī for more information. ↩