Made by Students, Regular Muslim Folks & Many in Between: Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI
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.” ↩
Wonderful end to a wonderful series! Jazaky Allahu khayr
[…] Made by Students, Regular Muslim Folks & Many in Between: Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI […]
[…] Made by Students, Regular Muslim Folks & Many in Between: Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI […]
JazakAllah Khair for the series. What I don’t understand that what should we do then if there is a difference of opinion? Like if there are many different rulings on a given issue, should we take a ruling based on our own liking? Surely it can’t be so because then everyone would take rulings based on their own likings and cause diversions in the community. So if different scholars are saying different things, what should we do? Please clarify this subject for me. May Allah reward you.
Salam alaikum, this is a very good article filled with knowledge. The most important thing about usool al fiqh is for people to follow the knowledge from our predecessor ulema, and exclude personal opinions and whims (hawa). The other thing I would say is that someone who is on the level of studying usool is very advanced in their knowledge and would not be making mistakes, like one who is beginner. One should always be open to listen and try to understand other scholarly opinions, even if it may differ from the one that one currently knows and follows; that is if it is based on the sound scholarly knowledge. I really hope that more people change from aversion to usool, to love and devote themselves to usool, which are the principles of Allahs commands.
I know I’m a little late but Jazakullahu Khairan Sr. Shazia for this series. I found it to be of enormous benefit. Rabi Ybarek Feiki.
I think while a layperson cannot know enough to make fine judgements without devoting energy to acquire the necessary knowledge of fuqaha, a layperson can still understand the general principles of usool fiqh so that we can tell apart good scholars from less good ones.
It seems to me that a good jurist when giving his ruling generally or advice to a person, would exhibit listening or observing behaviour first because it is necessary to check that the circumstances match the ‘established’ ruling, or if it is sufficiently different. He/she would be able to detect correctly what things are different that matter to the ruling and what does not, with understanding both of jurisprudence and the local customs and current difficulties of his/her people (he/she is not removed from the people’s lives).
Also a good jurist when giving his advice to a particular person, if the ruling is not changed by the person’s circumstance but it is causing the person distress, has the empathy and compassion to recognise when there is an underlying issue preventing the asker from applying established ruling with ease of mind, and may consider to approach/assist resolution of that issue first instead of simply providing the ruling that was asked for, academically. in this way the religious rulings do not feel like merely constrictions left and right, leaving someone in difficulty with nowhere to go, which can happen even when all the rulings in a situation are – academically – correct.
Assalaam ‘Alaykum wa Rahmatullahi wa Barakaatuhu
May Allah bless you. I’ve found this series to be beneficial. However, I found the first part of this article (i.e. Part 6) to be a bit vague and confusing. I couldn’t quite grasp whether it was advocating that there is more than one correct opinion or not or addressing something different altogether.
I say this as the article starts off by highlighting that it is a mistake to assume that “There is only one right answer for every issue”. However, it then addresses the issue of difference of opinion being a mercy. While that is interesting and a very important issue in and of itself, it doesn’t clearly address what the title alluded to (i.e. whether “There is only one right answer for every issue”). Maybe I misunderstood or missed something?
I was taught that the Prophet (sal Allah alayhi wa sallam) said:
“When a judge gives a decision, having tried his best to decide correctly and is right, there are two rewards for him; and if he gave a judgment after having tried his best (to arrive at a correct decision) but erred, there is one reward for him.”
This narration indicates that there is one juristic ruling that will ultimately be correct. Some will use sound juristic methods and find the correct ruling, while others may also employ sound juristic methods but come to an incorrect ruling. Nonetheless, Allah will reward both parties. However, the party who holds the correct ruling will receive a greater reward.
Furthermore, regardless of the fact that there is ultimately only one ruling that will be correct, it is important to realise that it is Allah who truly knows which ruling is the correct one. Mankind on the other hand are in no position to unequivocally dismiss a valid difference of opinion when it is based on sound juristic methods and/or behave with intolerance toward it. After all, mankind is prone to errors – even when we don’t intend to make errors, are sincere and do our best to adhere to sound principles of jurisprudence. As such, we need to show these valid jurisprudential opinions the respect they rightly deserve, considering each valid viewpoint on its merits and considering each one to possibly be the one that is ultimately correct. I’m guessing this is what the author is advocating?
On a related note, the article did a great job of highlighting the respectful manner in which we should address differences of opinion and how differences of opinion are a mercy. May Allah reward the author abundantly
Again, thank you for the articles. May Allah bless you and unite us all in Jannatul-Firdaus. May peace and blessing be upon Prophet Muhammad (sal Allah alayhi wa sallam)