A Concise Study of Difference of Opinions in Islam


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Dr. Hatem al-Haj

بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَنِ الرَّحِيمِ

In the Name of Allāh, Most Merciful, Most Beneficent

A very common feature of human societies is disagreement. It is a constant of the human experience, and there is no way that it could be entirely avoided. We know for certain that human beings will not cease to disagree, because that is what Allāh has decreed for them. He states:

وَلَوْ شَاءَ رَبُّكَ لَجَعَلَ النَّاسَ أُمَّةً وَاحِدَةً وَلَا يَزَالُونَ مُخْتَلِفِينَ (118) إِلَّا مَنْ رَحِمَ رَبُّكَ وَلِذَلِكَ خَلَقَهُمْ

“And if your Lord had willed, He could have made mankind one community; but they will not cease to differ. Except whom your Lord has given mercy, and for that He created them.”[1]

It remains to be said that disagreement is not all good or bad, and there are proper etiquettes in handling the various types of disagreement, which cannot be reduced into a generic advice of tolerance, acceptance, and gentleness, though those qualities are praiseworthy. Some disagreements may not be accepted. After all, there is still truth and falsehood, and there is still good and evil.

In this exposition, I address the issue of disagreement, its roots, types, manifestations, and proper management.

1. Introduction

The word khilf in Arabic means a simple difference, a disagreement, or a full-blown conflict leading to shiqq (dissension).[2] Khilf should not necessarily always lead to dissension. When it does, that escalation may or may not be warranted, depending on the cause of disagreement, its type and extent.

As in all cases, there are extremes in handling the phenomenon of disagreement and middle. Many Muslims complain about the degree to which we became disunited. Some Muslims even question the extent to which Islam is different from other religions. While we all complain of this division and disunity, some of us are only concerned about seeing it disappear, without showing much concern for the preservation of the religion itself.

The desire to see the differences between all people reconciled is a praiseworthy one. However, to avoid extremism even in that, and to avoid becoming overly distressed about those differences, we need to recognize that they are part of Allāh’s tests and trials of this life. Allāh states:

وَجَعَلْنَا بَعْضَكُمْ لِبَعْضٍ فِتْنَةً أَتَصْبِرُونَ وَكَانَ رَبُّكَ بَصِيرًا

“And We have made some of you [people] as trial for others – will you have patience? And ever is your Lord, Seeing.”[3]

Conversely, we often, also, see those who fail to understand that two sincere and knowledgeable people may arrive at two variant or conflicting conclusions. To them, disagreement may only be tolerated concerning a few issues. It is interesting that they differ over the spectrum of those issues because the partition they attempted to install between the excusable and inexcusable disagreements was an artificial one, erected far from the correct boundaries between them.

The student of knowledge – being groomed to become a preacher, a teacher, an imam, an activist, etc. – needs to develop the right sense of the whereabouts of those boundaries.

I hope this treatise will not only serve as an analysis of the phenomenon, its types, cause, and manifestations, but that it will also draw a roadmap that will help us navigate our way in these times of confusion and treat the various disagreements fairly, in a way that is both respectful of the sanctity of our religious teachings and the need for reconciliation and unity within the Ummah[4] and for building bridges with the other nations.

2. Types of Disagreement

Regarding the relationship between the different positions, there are two types of disagreement:

  1. Ikhtilf taḍd: Contradictory differences or differences of opposition.
  2. Ikhtilf tanawwu’: Variational differences or differences of variety.

2.1 Variational Differences

2.1.1 Definition

Differences where the variant views do not contradict one another and are not mutually exclusive.

2.1.2 Examples

At times, the Legislator Himself gave us variant choices, such as in the following verse concerning the expiation for oaths. Allāh states:

فَكَفَّارَتُهُ إِطْعَامُ عَشَرَةِ مَسَاكِينَ مِنْ أَوْسَطِ مَا تُطْعِمُونَ أَهْلِيكُمْ أَوْ كِسْوَتُهُمْ أَوْ تَحْرِيرُ رَقَبَةٍ فَمَنْ لَمْ يَجِدْ فَصِيَامُ ثَلَاثَةِ أَيَّامٍ

“So its expiation is the feeding of ten needy people from the average of that which you feed your (own) families or clothing them or the freeing of a slave. But whoever cannot find (or afford) it, then fasting (for) 3 days is (required).”[5]

There are also other such differences, such as the various forms of the adhn and iqamah, and the various supplications at the beginning of prayer, etc.

This also applies to Islamic groups and organizations performing various duties and having different focuses, such as da‘wah,[6] education, social reform, political activism, etc.

Those differences are not contradictory or conflicting at all. Whichever option one chooses, it shall be acceptable.

2.1.3 Wisdom behind Variational Differences

i.   Displaying Allāh’s mercy, for people’s strengths and zeal vary.
ii.  Uniting us like the different pieces of a puzzle that complement one another and cannot replace one another.

2.1.4 Pitfalls Related to This

i.   Imbalance: being too occupied with your focus activity at the expense of others.
ii.   Belittling the effort of others.
iii.   Partisanship: when allegiance for the group competes with the allegiance between all Muslims.

2.2 Differences of Opposition

2.2.1 Definition

Differences where the variant views contradict one another.

Some of the scholars said that if the jurists reach the degree of ijtihd,[7] their positions will all be right. This is because they are qualified to make ijtihd and they have done their best.

The correct position is that one of the positions has to be incorrect. One thing could not be hall and harm in the sight of Allāh.

The Prophet said:

إذا حكم الحاكم فاجتهد ثم أصاب فله أجران، وإذا حكم فاجتهد ثم أخطأ فله أجر

“If a judge gives a verdict according to the best of his knowledge and his verdict is correct (i.e. agrees with Allāh and His Messenger’s verdict) he will receive a double reward, and if he gives a verdict according to the best of his knowledge and his verdict is wrong, (i.e. against that of Allāh and His Messenger), even then he will get a reward.”[8]

This hadith exonerates the mujtahid[9] from sin and promises him a reward, but it also clearly states that he may make mistakes.

2.2.2 Examples

Most of the disagreements in the area of fiqh are of this kind. Many examples will be mentioned when the levels of these differences are addressed.

2.2.3 Wisdom behind Contradictory Differences

Allāh tests us through those differences. Allāh states:

وَجَعَلْنَا بَعْضَكُمْ لِبَعْضٍ فِتْنَةً أَتَصْبِرُونَ وَكَانَ رَبُّكَ بَصِيرًا

“And We have made some of you [people] as trial for others – will you have patience? And ever is your Lord, Seeing.”[10]

What is being tested includes the following:

i.  Whether we will favor our allegiances in this life over the pleasure of Allāh. Some people may refrain from opposing what is wrong out of fear for their ties with others. Many hesitate to submit to Allāh and accept His religion because of that.
ii.  Whether we will manage the differences in a way that is most pleasing to Allāh. Such ways vary based on the type of disagreement, as we will discuss under the management of disagreement.
iii.  Whether we will choose the position that is most pleasing to Allāh or one most desirable by us.

2.2.4 Pitfalls Related to This

Failing in any of the tests mentioned here above.

2.3 Levels of Contradictory Differences

2.3.1 Between Religions

The disagreement between Islam and other religions: that is the disagreement over the oneness of Allāh and the prophethood of Muḥammad (blessings and peace be upon him). This also includes the disagreement with the sects that were deemed by the Muslim scholars to be outside of the Muslim Ummah. Examples on those include: the Qadianis, Druze, Alawites, and Aghakhanis.

2.3.2 Amongst the Different Muslim Sects

The problem here, particularly in the disagreement between the Sunnis and Shiites is that it is not over the interpretation of common sources, but rather over the sources themselves. Aside from agreeing on the Qur’ān, the traditions reported by the Sunnah are not accepted by the Shiites, and vice versa, unless they are used in debate to prove one’s narrative.

The discussion here must focus on the legitimacy of the opposing narratives by using the Qur’ān and logic.

2.3.3 Within Ahl-us-Sunnah

Using Ahl-us-Sunnah here in the general sense includes the various groups that accept the sources of Ahl-us-Sunnah, which are the Qur’ān, Sunnah (as collected by Ahl-us-Sunnah) and ijm[11] in its general sense.

The differences between Ahl-us-Sunnah could be in matters of ‘aqīdah (belief) or fiqh (practice). Those differences may be divided into two levels:

 i. Sunnah vs. Bid‘ah and Truth vs. Falsehood

This is when the methodology followed to make a conclusion is faulty because it disregarded the appropriate approach taken by the righteous predecessors (as-Salaf as-Ṣāli) in interpreting the revelation and extrapolating from it.

The mistaken approach may lead to false concepts, deviations, and innovations.

Some examples are:

The esoteric interpretation of the names and attributes of Allāh. To deny the attributes that Allāh and His Messenger ascribed Him with is an innovation. The fact that some of our greater scholars committed this grievous error does not make it lighter. Those scholars shall be forgiven for it was their ijtihd and earnest pursuit of the truth that led them into this error.

The various innovations in belief and practice, such as the claim that the Prophet is made out of light, that the deceased can help their invokers, that the awliy (Allāh’s friends) are better than the prophets, etc.

In practice, there are also many innovations and deviations that have no legitimate foundation. Of these are the many innovations associated with funerals, such as erecting shrines above the graves, paying qurra[12] to recite for the deceased, and burdening the family of the deceased with hosting and feeding large crowds of people, when the sunnah was for their neighbors and acquaintances to make food for them.

It is noteworthy here to emphasize that mistakes in the detailed matters of ‘aqīdah are like the mistakes in fiqh, when it comes to Allāh’s treatment of the mujtahid who falls in them. Shaykh Ibn Taymiyyah clearly stated that there is no basis for the distinction between the two fields. (The foundations of ‘aqīdah are different from the detailed views in ‘aqīdah. They are clear enough that there is no excuse for error concerning them.)

ii. Correct vs. Incorrect

This is when qualified scholars take the appropriate approach to interpreting the revelation, in general, yet arrive at different conclusions.

All of the above layers of differences are inexcusable (غير سائغ).

The last one is divided into excusable (سائغ) differences and inexcusable (غير سائغ).

The differences must fulfill the following conditions to be excusable (سائغ):

i. They are not in the principles and foundations of faith and practice.

Ash-Shāṭibī said:

وَقَدْ ثَبَتَ عِنْدَ النُّظَّارِ أَنَّ النَّظَرِيَّاتِ لَا يُمْكِنُ الِاتِّفَاقُ فِيهَا عَادَةً، فَالظَّنِّيَّاتُ عَرِيقَةٌ فِي إِمْكَانِ الِاخْتِلَافِ، لَكِنْ فِي الْفُرُوعِ دُونَ الْأُصُولِ وَفِي الْجُزْئِيَّاتِ دُونَ الْكُلِّيَّاتِ، فَلِذَلِكَ لَا يَضُرُّ هَذَا الِاخْتِلَافُ

“In the assessment of the erudite scholars, it is confirmed that agreement over creeds is unattainable, for speculative matters have always been known to invite controversy; however, that is applicable in the detailed rulings, not the foundational ones.”[13]

ii. They must not contradict:

  • An un-abrogated authentic revelation (نصٌ محكمٌ صحيحٌ).
  • A clear, confirmed consensus (إجماعٌ ثابتٌ صريحٌ).
  • The mental axioms (بدائه العقلِ)
  • The things perceptible by the senses (أوائلُ الحسِّ).

Ibn Taymiyyah said:

من خالف الكتاب المستبين والسنة المستفيضة أو ما أجمع عليه سلف الأمة خلافا لا يعذر فيه فهذا يعامل بما يعامل به أهل البدع

“Whoever disagrees with the clear and decisive verses of the Qur’ān and the established well-known Sunnah or that which the Salaf of the Ummah agreed on with an inexcusable position, concerning which there is no excuse for him, then he will be treated like the people of innovations are.”[14

iii.  They must have some substantiation in the revelation.

iv.  They must be upheld by great mujtahids, since the laypeople are not equipped to deduce rulings from the revelation.

v. They were not completely abandoned by the Ummah. The abandonment of the position ascribed to Ibn ‘Abbās (may Allāh be pleased with him) concerning temporary marriage adds to the many proofs against it as an element of certainty that it was not valid.

Before we proceed, it is important to keep in mind that not all differences are acceptable; acceptable differences have to have a basis in Qur’ān and Sunnah or to have been reported by the Salaf. On this note, the Mālikī scholar Abul-Ḥassan ibn al-Ḥisār said:

فَلَيْسَ كُلُّ خِلَافٍ جَاءَ مُعْتَبَرًا

إِلَّا خِلَافٌ لَهُ حَظٌّ مِنَ النَّظَرِ

“Not every difference (khilāf) is valid. Valid difference is only the one that has some sound basis.”[16]

Examples on inexcusable (غير سائغ) differences that are not based on an incorrect approach:[15]

  • The permission of sodomy (between a man and his wife) attributed to Ibn ‘Umar.
  • The permission of a small amount of intoxicant beverages made out of other than grapes and dates.
  • The permission of ribā al-fadl (the ribā of increase).

You will find those scholars who upheld such positions to have followed a valid approach to deduction but were unaware of all of the evidence. Sometimes, the error could be a result in a mistaken application of a valid principle of deduction.

Examples on excusable (سائغ) differences:

In ‘aqīdah (belief):

  • The Prophet seeing his Lord.
  • The degree of the infallibility of the messengers. Can they commit minor sins?
  • The prophethood of al-Khiḍr.
  • Leaving Islam via the abandonment of one of its pillars, particularly ṣalāt.
  • Which was created first: the throne or the pen?

Some may be surprised that there are excusable differences in the matters of ‘aqīdah. This should be no surprise, because though the foundations of our ‘aqīdah are matters of consensus amongst Sunni Muslims, the detailed views are subject to different understandings, like in the case of fiqh, although there are less differences in ‘aqīdah. Moreover, the fact that the Companions differed over some matters of ‘aqīdah is not deniable.

In fiqh (practice):

  • The obligation of rinsing the mouth and nose in wuḍū’.
  • The position of the hands after rukū‘.
  • The obligation of niqāb for women.
  • Permissible sunnah prayers during the times when supererogatory prayers is discouraged
  • Meat slaughtered by the People of the Book without the mention of Allāh.

The last division of disagreements is within the excusable differences: in some, the opposing position is strong and in others, it is weak.

Examples of strong differences where the opposed views are close in strength:

  • The inheritance of the brothers in the presence of the grandfather.
  • Descending to prostration with the hands or knees first.
  • Unity or multiplicity of moon-sightings.
  • The obligation of zakāh on jewelry.
  • The obligation of the congregational prayers.
  • Reciting al-Fātiḥah for the ma’mūm.

Excused differences during the time of the Prophet:

There are examples of differences arising from a difference of interpretation from the times of the Prophet as well. He excused such differences. The following is an example:

عَنِ ابْنِ عُمَرَ، قَالَ: قَالَ النَّبِيُّ صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ لَنَا لَمَّا رَجَعَ مِنَ الأَحْزَابِ: «لاَ يُصَلِّيَنَّ أَحَدٌ العَصْرَ إِلَّا فِي بَنِي قُرَيْظَةَ» فَأَدْرَكَ بَعْضَهُمُ العَصْرُ فِي الطَّرِيقِ، فَقَالَ بَعْضُهُمْ: لاَ نُصَلِّي حَتَّى نَأْتِيَهَا، وَقَالَ بَعْضُهُمْ: بَلْ نُصَلِّي، لَمْ يُرَدْ مِنَّا ذَلِكَ، فَذُكِرَ لِلنَّبِيِّ صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ، فَلَمْ يُعَنِّفْ وَاحِدًا مِنْهُمْ

 Narrated Ibn ‘Umar: When the Prophet (may the peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) returned from the battle of Aḥzāb (the Confederates), he said to us, “None should offer the ‘asr prayers but at Bani Quraizah.” Then, the ‘asr prayer became due for some of them on the way. Some of them decided not to offer the salāt but at Bani Quraizah, while others decided to offer the ṣalāt on the spot and said that the intention of the Prophet was not what the former party had understood. When that was told to the Prophet he did not blame anyone of them.[17]

Examples of weak differences:

  1. Giving zakāh to any good cause.
  2. The permission of music.[18] Some may consider this difference to be inexcusable. However, despite the weakness of the permitting position, it is still within the scope of excusable differences. The discussion is still a scholarly one and the views of the permitters are not totally unfounded.
  3. The prohibition of ringed golden jewelry.
  4. The permission of two dimensional drawings.
  5. Allowing the sale of dogs.
  6. In ‘aqīdah, the vanishing of the hellfire is a position that is considered very weak.

Another division of the disagreements of the correct vs. incorrect type are based on the level at which it occurs in judging the ruling of a matter. It is either related to the interpretation of the text or the application of different Sharī‘ah principles to different realities, wherein the understanding of the reality and the most suitable principle or ruling for it varies from one mujtahid to another.

Many of the differences between Muslim activists are a result of their different understanding of the realities being judged.

About the author

Waqar Akbar Cheema

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