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Scholars (1) – Differences of opinion

What does it mean to follow Islam?

Islam means submitting to the way of God, and striving to do what God has asked of us. That means following the guidance which God has revealed in the two foundational sources of Islamic teachings – the Qur’an and the Sunnah (teachings of the Prophet Muhammad).

“O You who believe, answer the call of God and His Messenger when they call you to that which will give you life!” (Qur’an 8:24)

This necessitates that God has given us a system of guidance that is meant to be followed, and in order for one to understand that guidance one must study it and acquire knowledge. 1This is a crucial point which leads to the concept of textual intentionalism – that there is an intended meaning to the words of the scripture. In other words, we do not invent the meaning of the scripture, we discover the meaning of scripture through study and scholarship.

Why doesn’t Islam have a central authority?

Islam is not a human institution like a company, business or organization that is run based on the personal decisions of a central human figure. The teachings of Islam are known through learning the Qur’an and Sunnah, and therefore knowledge of scripture is akin to other academic disciplines – medicine, science, mathematics, etc. These are fields based on learning, research, and study. Conclusions are not based on personal opinion but are contingent on the strength of the evidences which one provides. It doesn’t make sense in these disciplines therefore to ask for central authorities. Instead, one should seek rigorous standards to ensure sufficient knowledge of the scholars of these fields.

“Say: Are those equal, those who have knowledge and those who do not know? Only the people of understanding take heed.” (Qur’an 39:9)

Are all matters in Islam subject to difference of opinion?

Just like any other academic field of study, the main concepts and principles are well-known and are established with certainty, while the precise application of those principles are often open to interpretation. For instance, doctors will often disagree over which course of chemotherapy is best for a particular cancer. They will agree however, that treating it with other types of drugs like antibiotics or antifungals would be inappropriate – because cancer is not infection. Likewise, there are fundamental aspects of Islam that are unequivocal and not subject to interpretation – that there is only One God, that He is the Most Merciful, that He wants us to be Merciful with others, that Prophet Muhammad is His Final Messenger, the articles of faith, the pillars of practice, and so on. There are other matters that are open to interpretation and even the companions of the Prophet Muhammad differed over them – what was the first thing God created, when is the Night of Decree in Ramadan, raising the hands in prayer, when to shorten prayers when travelling, and so on. Most of the matters that are open to interpretation are in matters of practical application.

Why is there sometimes disagreement about what Islam teaches?

Experts in any academic discipline will agree on the fundamentals but disagree on particular details. Doctors are not all of the same mind when it comes to the efficacy of various treatment options. Nor do scientists all posit the same explanatory hypothesis for a particular observed phenomenon. Disagreement between qualified and capable scholars happens because some matters are open to interpretation and are not definitive. People study evidences and then seek to develop an understanding based on the strongest interpretation of those evidences. The same process takes place when scholars study the Qur’an and the Sunnah.

“Ask the people of knowledge if you do not know.” (Qur’an 16:43)

Why didn’t God just tell us everything explicitly – why leave some matters open to interpretation?

God values human learning so much that He favoured Adam over the angels with the gift of knowledge (2:31), He began the revelation of the Qur’an with the instruction to “Read!” (96:1), and He praised the virtue of education and scholarship (20:114,34:6,29:43, etc.). Learning, contemplation, analysis and research are acts of worship in Islam, and help a person appreciate the finite wisdom and reasoning of human beings and the infinite perfection of the Divine Omniscient Lord. Islam is an academic faith – the better one studies it, the better one understands it. To excel in one’s journey towards God, requires intellectual, moral, and spiritual engagement with the revelation.

Is difference of opinion a bad thing?

When difference of opinion occurs in matters that are open to interpretation, and is based on sincerity in finding the truth and proper knowledge, it is a mercy from God and an opportunity to worship Him by using the minds He has gifted us with. This process of sincere scholarly research in such matters is called (ijtihad). When difference of opinion is based on cultural influences, partisanship, insufficient knowledge, political motivations, personal desires and conveniences, it is blameworthy and serves only to harm the community.

In leaving certain matters open to interpretation, there is greater flexibility in matters that may be contingent on circumstances and human experiences as Islam crosses various civilizations, generations, and eras. One of the seven renowned jurists of Madinah, Imam al-Qasim b. Muhammad. Abi Bakr (d.107H) stated, “The differences amongst the companions of the Prophet Muhammad are a mercy for the servants of God”. 2al-Bayhaqi in al-Madkhal. A person once informed the great jurist Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d.241H) that a book had been written called “The Book of Differences”, and he responded that it should instead have been called “The Book of Flexibility”. 3Ibn Taymiyyah (d.728H), Majmu’ al-Fatawa vol 30, p79

What is an example of acceptable ijtihad (scholarly opinion) in the time of the Prophet?

Ijtihad is a rigorous scholarly endeavour to derive the correct ruling. 4It is imperative to note that ijtihad requires scholarship, and it also must involve deriving the answer from the sources. One cannot arbitrarily fabricate a new answer bereft of any academic merit and call it ijtihad, despite the unfortunate fact that this word seems to have been co-opted by some who are calling for precisely that. The companions had to apply the instructions the Prophet Muhammad gave them in diverse scenarios, and sometimes this lead to difference of opinion. 5For a detailed discussion of this topic in Islamic jurisprudence, refer to Irshad al-Fuhul ila ‘Ilm al-Usool, (Riyadh 2000) vol. 2, pp. 1050-155, by Imam al-Shawkani (d.1250H). After the battle of the trench, the Prophet Muhammad instructed his companions, “None of you should offer the `Asr prayer except at Banu Quraiza’s place.” The time for ‘Asr prayer came while they were still on their way. Some of them said, “We will not offer ‘Asr prayer until we reach the place of Banu Quraiza,” while some others said, “No, we will pray at this spot, for the Prophet did not mean that for us.” Later on it was mentioned to the Prophet and he did not berate any of the two groups (Sahih Bukhari).

One group of companions understood the instruction to mean “hasten to arrive at Banu Quraiza” while others interpreted it to mean “delay the prayer until after you have arrived”. The Prophet Muhammad did not disapprove of either group for exercising their judgement.

What is an example of blameworthy ijtihad (scholarly opinion) in the time of the Prophet?

A man on an expedition suffered a severe wound. Later when he had a wet dream, he inquired from his companions whether he was still required to perform the ritual bath in spite of his would. They told him it was necessary, and he died because of it. When this news reached the Prophet Muhammad, he said, “They killed him, may Allah curse them! Is not the cure for ignorance to ask?” (Sunan Abi Dawud, Sunan Ibn Majah)

This was not an acceptable difference of opinion because his companions recklessly gave a person opinion without knowledge and which contradicted the very fundamental Islamic value of protecting human life and avoiding harm.

What makes a difference of opinion valid or invalid?

There are three simple factors for the layperson to evaluate: 1. Who gave the opinion? 2. How did they come up with it? 3. What is the nature of the opinion?

1. Was the person who gave the opinion knowledgeable and qualified?

You wouldn’t accept to be operated on by a person who was not qualified to be a surgeon! 6The famous jurist Ibn Abideen (d.1252H) explained that both the unfit scholar and the ignorant physician are barred from practice (Radd al-Muhtar, vol. 6, p.401). The Hanbali scholar Ibn al-Najjar (d.971H) stated, “It is the responsibility of the legislative authorities to ban unknown and ignorant scholars from issuing religious edicts (fatawa).” (Sharh al-Kawkab al-Munir, vol. 4, p.544). As cited in al-Ashqar, Manhaj al-Ifta ‘inda Ibn al-Qayyim, p.146-7. A scholar must possess credibility and adequate knowledge. Many classical scholars even stipulated mandatory certification examinations to ensure those passing religious verdicts possessed the requisite knowledge. 7For instance, the Shafi’i jurist Badr al-Din al-Zarkashi (d.794H) in Bahr al-Muhit, vol. 6, p.309. and the Maliki jurist Ahmad al-Wansharisi (d.914H), Kitab al-Mi’yar, vol 10, p. 79. There is an incident when the fourth caliph, Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib passed by the scholar Hasan al-Basri lecturing in his circle, and ‘Ali interrupted the session to give Hasan al-Basri an impromptu quiz, which he successfully passed, whereupon Ali said, “You may continue to lecture now, as you please.” 8al-Mawardi, Ahkam al-Sultaniyya, p. 374. You can know if someone is qualified through educational background, peer recognition within the scholarly community and their competence in addressing issues and answering questions.

2. Was the opinion derived from an academic understanding of the Qur’an and Sunnah?

In order for an opinion to be valid, it has to be based on the Qur’an and Sunnah, and cannot go against the clear and unequivocal teachings in these sources. It has to be methodologically sound – based on a serious and sincere scholarly effort to understand the sources. If a person says that this is the correct answer because it is more popular, or because it is more liberal/conservative, or because it is more westernized/easternized, or because it is more appeasing to certain political parties – none of these are valid.  Relying on ambiguous texts in the Qur’an or Sunnah to go against clear and decisive texts is also fallacious, as mentioned in the Qur’an itself (Qur’an 3:7). Sometimes it will not always be clear to people whether an opinion actually conflicts with evidences from Qur’an and Sunnah or not. In finer matters, there will be details to this question that will be beyond the comprehension of lay people – that is the science of Usool al-Fiqh or the epistemology of Islamic jurisprudence (how to derive rulings).

3. What is the content and nature of the opinion itself?

No one would accept an opinion that violates the very basis of Islam. It is not possible to interpret a hadith or verse in a way that contradicts Islamic monotheism, for instance. It is not possible to interpret the religion in a way that promotes cruelty and destruction, for instance. 9Ibn al-Qayyim (d.751H) states, “The religion in its entirety is justice, compassion, prosperity and wisdom, and therefore anything which contradicts this and results in injustice, cruelty, harm, or nonsense, can never be claimed to be part of the religion no matter what interpretations attempt to do so.” I’lam al-Muwaqi’een, vol. 4, 337, Dar Ibn al-Jawzi 1st ed. These can never be considered acceptable opinions because they violate the very foundation of Islam. Likewise, in the hadith mentioned above where a person was instructed to do something life-threatening or harmful – this goes against the basic Islamic value and Prophetic statement: “There is to be no harm, nor reciprocating of harm.” (Sunan Ibn Maajah).

Any opinion that claims to be Islamic must be consistent with the Islamic values of justice, mercy, compassion, modesty, and the objectives of Islamic law, namely preservation of faith (spirituality & morality), human life, intellect (knowledge & education), wealth and property, and family.

difference of opinion

Are all invalid opinions equivalent?

Invalid opinions are those that are methodologically unsound because they fail to meet the criteria stated above. In other words, they are not rooted in any credible scholarly research. However, not all invalid opinions are equal in weight – errors in minor issues are less catastrophic than errors that take place in major issues which can lead to moral and societal harm. The practical implication of this point is that the community needs to prioritize solving major problems. An unhealthy obsession with focusing on minor errors at the expense of major issues only leads to further deterioration of the community.

Are there multiple valid opinions on a particular matter?

Yes, in matters subject to interpretation, there may be a wide variety of legitimate and valid opinions. It should be noted however that two opinions might both be valid – they are both based on a reasonable and scholarly effort to interpret Islamic scripture – but, one may be stronger than the other one. Thus, valid opinions can be subcategorized by scholars based on the strength of their evidences. Some opinions are based on abundant scriptural, theological, and conceptual evidences and hence are rightfully categorized as very strong. Other opinions rely on only a few pieces of evidences and theoretical inferences, and hence those opinions are graded as weak by scholars. Differentiating between the relative strength of various opinions is the domain of scholarly research and throughout history scholars would re-evaluate opinions expressed within their school of jurisprudence, making judgements about those that are ‘relied upon’ (mu’tamad), ‘preferred’ (raajih), ‘popularly held’ (mashhur), and so on.

Are there multiple correct opinions on a particular matter?

Two contradictory claims cannot both be true, and hence the vast majority of scholars explain that there is one correct answer, even though we may have many valid differing opinions on what that correct answer is.10For an overview refer to Shihab al-Deen al-Qarafi (d.684H) in Nafa’is al-Usul fi Sharh al-Usul, (Mecca 1990) vol. 9, pp.3876-7, Ibn Taymiyyah (d.728H) in Majmu’ al-Fatawa vol.20, pp19-22, Sayf al-Din al-Amidi (d.631H) in al-Ihkam fi Usul al-Ahkam (Riyadh 2003), vol. 4, pp. 221-2, and al-Sighnaqi (d.714H) in al-Kafi Sharh al-Bazdawi (Riyadh 2001), pp.1837-9. This point is alluded to in the following hadith of the Prophet Muhammad: “If a judge makes a ruling, striving to apply his reasoning (ijtihad) and he is correct, then he will have two rewards. If a judge makes a ruling, striving to apply his reasoning and he is incorrect, then he will have one reward” (Sahih Bukhari). The scholars, such as the eminent jurist Badr al-Din al-Zarkashi (d.794H), explain that this hadith indicates that while every sincere scholarly effort is rewarded, the correct answer in the sight of God is still singular. 11al-Zarkashi. Bahr al-Muhit, (Dar al-Safwah 1992) vol.6, pp.243-244. (لو كان كل مجتهد مصيبا ما أخطأ مجتهد . وقال عليه الصلاة والسلام : { إذا اجتهد الحاكم فأخطأ } انتهى). One of the interpretations is right. Of course, no one will know for sure which it is during this life! The practical consequence of this is that the believer does not pick and choose opinions as a matter of personal convenience. Rather, one strives to follow what is believed in one’s heart to be correct on the basis of trusted scholarship while respecting other differing viewpoints.

God knows best!

*Continue reading part 2 (why do we need scholars?) and part 3 (what could go wrong?).

 

References   [ + ]

1. This is a crucial point which leads to the concept of textual intentionalism – that there is an intended meaning to the words of the scripture. In other words, we do not invent the meaning of the scripture, we discover the meaning of scripture through study and scholarship.
2. al-Bayhaqi in al-Madkhal.
3. Ibn Taymiyyah (d.728H), Majmu’ al-Fatawa vol 30, p79
4. It is imperative to note that ijtihad requires scholarship, and it also must involve deriving the answer from the sources. One cannot arbitrarily fabricate a new answer bereft of any academic merit and call it ijtihad, despite the unfortunate fact that this word seems to have been co-opted by some who are calling for precisely that.
5. For a detailed discussion of this topic in Islamic jurisprudence, refer to Irshad al-Fuhul ila ‘Ilm al-Usool, (Riyadh 2000) vol. 2, pp. 1050-155, by Imam al-Shawkani (d.1250H).
6. The famous jurist Ibn Abideen (d.1252H) explained that both the unfit scholar and the ignorant physician are barred from practice (Radd al-Muhtar, vol. 6, p.401). The Hanbali scholar Ibn al-Najjar (d.971H) stated, “It is the responsibility of the legislative authorities to ban unknown and ignorant scholars from issuing religious edicts (fatawa).” (Sharh al-Kawkab al-Munir, vol. 4, p.544). As cited in al-Ashqar, Manhaj al-Ifta ‘inda Ibn al-Qayyim, p.146-7.
7. For instance, the Shafi’i jurist Badr al-Din al-Zarkashi (d.794H) in Bahr al-Muhit, vol. 6, p.309. and the Maliki jurist Ahmad al-Wansharisi (d.914H), Kitab al-Mi’yar, vol 10, p. 79.
8. al-Mawardi, Ahkam al-Sultaniyya, p. 374.
9. Ibn al-Qayyim (d.751H) states, “The religion in its entirety is justice, compassion, prosperity and wisdom, and therefore anything which contradicts this and results in injustice, cruelty, harm, or nonsense, can never be claimed to be part of the religion no matter what interpretations attempt to do so.” I’lam al-Muwaqi’een, vol. 4, 337, Dar Ibn al-Jawzi 1st ed.
10. For an overview refer to Shihab al-Deen al-Qarafi (d.684H) in Nafa’is al-Usul fi Sharh al-Usul, (Mecca 1990) vol. 9, pp.3876-7, Ibn Taymiyyah (d.728H) in Majmu’ al-Fatawa vol.20, pp19-22, Sayf al-Din al-Amidi (d.631H) in al-Ihkam fi Usul al-Ahkam (Riyadh 2003), vol. 4, pp. 221-2, and al-Sighnaqi (d.714H) in al-Kafi Sharh al-Bazdawi (Riyadh 2001), pp.1837-9.
11. al-Zarkashi. Bahr al-Muhit, (Dar al-Safwah 1992) vol.6, pp.243-244. (لو كان كل مجتهد مصيبا ما أخطأ مجتهد . وقال عليه الصلاة والسلام : { إذا اجتهد الحاكم فأخطأ } انتهى).
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