Knowledge is becoming widespread. More and more Islamic books are being translated into English. The number of avenues in which a Muslim may learn the Arabic language is growing, thus access to the abundance of resources that exist in the source language is becoming much easier. Yet if this growth in knowledge is not gradual and organic, it may lead to certain abnormal characteristics and traits. One such trait is adopting the approach of a zealot – hastily choosing a scholarly opinion in Islamic Law and deeming all others as having little or no value. Alternatively one may adopt the position of a certain scholar he or she follows and then deem all others as ‘weak’ or invalid. This attitude is what this article aims to address.
Though this subject may seem obvious to many, the mannerisms displayed by some brothers and sisters with respect to those issues wherein there is a legitimate difference of opinion (ikhtilāf) clearly shows that there exists some confusion related to concept of a scholar’s ‘selecting’ a legal opinion. We find this in the practice of the Prophet ﷺ when people asked him “what is the best action?” He would often give different answers according to the needs and background of the questioner. Similarly scholars throughout history addressed the needs of their time, even though looking back, some of what they addressed seems very obvious to even the most average person. Also, this article serves as a reminder for everyone including the author, as Allāh says, “And remind, for indeed, the reminder benefits the believers” (Qur’an, 51:55).
There are many reasons why a scholar may deem an opinion ‘the strongest.’ In fact there are so many reasons, that it is quite possible (and has happened) that one scholar will deem an opinion stronger based on one criterion, whilst another scholar will deem another opinion stronger based on another criterion. It helps to be aware of the fact that the basis of weighing an opinion is an in-depth compound process, the explanation of which goes beyond the scope of this article. However those interested may refer to any good books on Usūl al-Fiqh (principles of jurisprudence).
Based on this, it is a mistake of students to understand the statement of their sheikh when he says ‘this position is the strongest’ to mean ‘all other opinions are weak or invalid.’ Despite the obvious fallacy in this way of thinking, it also shows a lack of understanding of what it effectively means when a scholar makes such a pronouncement. They are simply exposing their understanding of which position they feel is strongest, their personal stance, which is subjective. It is important to limit their perception and findings as such and not inflate them and exaggerate it as if it is ‘the objectively strongest opinion,’ which in all honesty, none but Allāh knows. Indeed this is with all aspects of fiqh.
“The Strongest” – But Why?
When one finds scholars at odds with each other over which opinion in a given matter is the strongest, and this is common, it may help to enquire about the reason as to why a position is ‘the strongest’, if the scholar or student of knowledge has not already explained so. After several enquiries one will notice that differences of opinion hardly arise due to one side basing their legal understanding on a hadīth whilst the other bases it on whim or mere opinion, as is suggested in some circles. Instead it is the understanding or fahm of the text that leads to such differences. This fact should inform the attitude of the average Muslim or student of knowledge, and help avoid the attitude of a fanatic when approaching such matters. The assumption should be that a valid reason for divergence exists, and not that one side has made a mistake, for such an approach deprives the one who adopts it of valuable knowledge and thus slows down their development.
This is backed up by many examples from the lives of the companions (may Allah be pleased with them all) as well as in the discussions that took place between later jurists, for example the incident of praying salāt al-`Asr at Banī Quraidha.1
The incident of praying Salat al-`Asr at Banī Quraidha
The Prophet ﷺ had sent a group of companions and instructed, “No one should pray salat al-`Asr except in (the vicinity of) Banī Quraidha.”
Banī Quraidha was a tribe living in Medina. The only problem was that the time for the `Asr prayers had almost expired before the group reached the vicinity of Banī Quradha. Thus, they found themselves divided into supporters of two different opinions, one group strongly believed that they should pray only once they had reached their destination, even if that meant they would miss the time of `Asr. The other group prayed on the way and thus prayed al-`Asr in its time, though seemingly at odds with the Prophet’s ﷺ instruction.
Both groups of companions in this case made an Ijtihād or an attempt to arrive at a sound decision within the confines of the revealed text and legislation. The rationale behind the first group was that the Prophet’s ﷺ instruction was clear in asking everybody to pray at Banī Qurayẓa upon arrival, thus they gave preference to the literal and specific command to the situation at hand superseding the other commands to pray `Asr on time.
The rationale of the second opinion, however, was that the Prophet’s ﷺ purpose (maqsid) of the order was to ask the group to hasten to Banī Qurayẓa before `Asr to pray punctually, rather than actually intending to postpone prayers until after its due time. Their reason for this was that they put into context this specific command within the context of other commandments concerning praying `Asr on time and thus preferred to take the view of what they believed was intended, for it was known very clearly that the prayers had fixed times.
The case was related to the Prophet ﷺ and he did not censure any of the parties. This meant that he approved both methods, for the Prophet ﷺ did not remain silent on falsehood. And thus his silent approvals are part of his Sunnah, and both parties were correct in their attempts to arrive at the truth.
However, did he also approve the result of their Ijtihād? This is disputed. And this dispute continued centuries later, when scholars came and commented on which opinion was ‘the strongest’. The famous scholar of the literalist school, Muḥammad ibn Ḥazm al-Ẓāhiri supported the group that prayed salat al-`Asr after they reached Banī Qurayẓa, as the Prophet ﷺ had said, and said this was the stronger opinion even if it was after midnight. This was in harmony with his literalist approach.
However the jurist Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya asserted that it was those who prayed on the way that were correct. Ibn al-Qayyim had a more holistic approach, and so his criteria of judging which opinion is stonger differed from Ibn Ḥazm (may Allāh shower both scholars with his mercy and grace).
Thus what the strongest position is at times depends on which scholar one learns from. It is important for adherents of both views to not take the statements of each scholar out of the realm of ‘human understanding’ (fiqh) no matter how convinced they may be, and endow them with ultimate divine status.
There is however an exception to this. Sometimes there are opinions, which are deemed aberrant (shādh) by the overwhelming majority of jurists. Such opinions are left to their respective scholars without being adopted in practice. Unfortunately however, even this concept of an opinion being shādh is also abused and used in a polemical manner to discredit the opinions of others, and therefore care must be taken to verify whether something being claimed as shādh, is actually so.
Lastly, though it may seem tempting at first to students of knowledge to be overly ambitious and pass judgements as to which opinion they find strong and which they do not, it is important to remember that such an endeavour is a strenuous process, which one who knows the severity of, will never belittle. We learn so that our chests may expand to accommodate more wisdom and jewels from our intellectual heritage, and so we can embody this higher understanding in our practice. It is not so that we become more restricted and confined to one set of opinions or another. And if our attitude and morals do not embody such learning, then the question needs to be asked, what is the point of our learning?
- Sahih al-Bukhāri & Muslim ↩