A Concise Study of Difference of Opinions in Islam


2.4 Some Benefits of Acceptable Differences

Ibn Taymiyyah said:

إجماعهم حجة قاطعة واختلافهم رحمة واسعة

 “Their (the scholars) consensus is a definitive proof, and their divergence of opinion is a vast mercy.”[19]

‘Umar ibn ‘Abdul-‘Azīz said:

ما أحب أن أصحاب رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم لم يختلفوا؛ لأنه لو كان قولا واحدا كان الناس في ضيق وإنهم أئمة يقتدى بهم ولو أخذ رجل بقول أحدهم كان في سعة

“I do not adore that the Companions of the Messenger of Allāh (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) do not differ (on an issue); for if they agree on one opinion the people will be bound. They (the Companions) are the leaders who are followed and if a person were to adopt the opinion of one of them it would be within his capacity.”[20]

  1.  As mentioned above, if differences are confined to their proper limits and people are trained to observe the proper ethics and norms of expressing and managing differences, there are several positive advantages that could result.
  2.  If intentions are sincere, differences of opinion could bring about a greater awareness of the various possible aspects and interpretations of evidence in a given case. Such differences could generate intellectual vitality and a cross-fertilization of ideas. The process is likely to bring into the open a variety of hypotheses in tackling specific issues.
  3.  Such a process is likely to present a variety of solutions for dealing with a particular situation so that the most suitable solution can be found. This is in harmony with the facilitating nature of the religion of Islam which takes into account the reality of people’s lives.
  4.  These and other benefits can be realized if differences remain within the limits and the ethical norms which must regulate them. If these limits and norms are not observed, differences could easily degenerate into disputes and schisms and become a negative and evil force producing more rifts in the Muslim Ummah, which already has more than enough of such fragmentation. In this way, differences of opinion can change from being a constructive force to being elements of destruction.

3. Causes of Disagreement

3.1 Divine Wisdom

At the root of any existing phenomenon is the will of Allāh. Nothing happens in His universe against His will or beyond it. Many of the matters He decreed are not loved by Him to be committed by His creations, but He still willed them for a reason. Although we can never encompass His wisdom, we should look for it in all of his decrees and commands.

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.”[21]

If our entire life is a test, then our relationships are not an exception from that. We are being tested by Allāh by means of one another.

He also decreed that those disagreements will not be all brought to a conclusion in this life, and many times the truth will become fully manifest and completely prevail in the hereafter.

وَمَا كَانَ النَّاسُ إِلَّا أُمَّةً وَاحِدَةً فَاخْتَلَفُوا وَلَوْلَا كَلِمَةٌ سَبَقَتْ مِنْ رَبِّكَ لَقُضِيَ بَيْنَهُمْ فِيمَا فِيهِ يَخْتَلِفُونَ

“And mankind was not but one community [united in religion], [but] then they differed. And if not for a word that preceded from your Lord, it would have been judged between them [immediately] concerning that over which they differ.”[22]

3.2 Human Nature

From the human perspective, contradictory disagreements happen because of:

  1.    Failure of intent and conduct
  2.    Failure of understanding and judgment
  3.     A mixture of both

3.2.1 Failure of Intent and Conduct

The failure of intent refers to situations when people know their position is false, but they continue to defend it. This could be due to various forms of vice, such as arrogance, vain desires (hawā), competition for the pleasures of this life, boastfulness, tyranny and sadism, etc. Allāh states:

وَمَا اخْتَلَفَ فِيهِ إِلَّا الَّذِينَ أُوتُوهُ مِنْ بَعْدِ مَا جَاءَتْهُمُ الْبَيِّنَاتُ بَغْيًا بَيْنَهُمْ

“And none differed over the Scripture except those who were given it – after the clear proofs came to them – out of jealous animosity among themselves.”[23]

Added to this category is the failure of conduct when ignorant people speak on that which they have no knowledge of, without regard to the grievousness of this. Today, ignorance of Islam is one of the most leading causes of differences between Muslims. The Muslim mind has been under a persistent attack internally and externally, and the values and teachings of Islam have faded out in the Muslim minds and hearts. The Messenger of Allāh said:

إن الله لا يقبض العلم انتزاعا ينتزعه من العباد، ولكن يقبض العلم بقبض العلماء، حتى إذا لم يبق عالما اتخذ الناس رءوسا جهالا، فسئلوا فأفتوا بغير علم، فضلوا وأضلوا

“Allāh does not take away the knowledge, by taking it away from (the hearts of) the people, but takes it away by the death of the religious learned men till when none of the (religious learned men) remains, people will take as their leaders ignorant persons who when consulted will give their verdict without knowledge. Thus, they will go astray and will lead the people astray.”[24]

3.2.2 Failure of Understanding and Judgment

The failure of judgment is where the seekers of the truth arrive at different conclusions due to their different perspectives or understandings, or the complexity of the matter at hand.

The very vast majority of the contradictory differences that took place between our grand scholars were a result of a failure of judgment, not intent.

The three most important reasons of their differences are:

  1. Disagreement over the establishment of proofs. (Did the revelation say that?)
  2. Disagreement over the interpretation of proofs. (Did the revelation mean that?)
  3. Disagreement over the reconciliation between different proofs. (But the revelation also said!)

3.2.2-i The Establishment of Proofs

a- The availability of reports after the Prophet’s death

Even the Companions did not encompass all the knowledge the Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) conveyed.

Abū Hurairah, the greatest narrator, held the view that whoever wakes up from sleep with janabah[25] cannot carry on with his fasting. However, ‘Â’ishah and Umm Salamah (may Allāh be pleased with them both) as al-Bukhāri and Muslim reported, said:

ان النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم يصبح جنبا من غير حلم، ثم يصوم

 “’The Prophet would be junub in the morning, not as the result of a wet dream, then he would fast.”

When Abū Hurairah was told of what they said, he immediately conceded and said:

هما أعلم

“They know better.”[26]

b- The authenticity of reports:

Abū Dāwūd reported a weak hadith from ‘Â’ishah (may Allāh be pleased with her) in which the Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) said:

يا أسماء، إن المرأة إذا بلغت المحيض لم تصلح أن يرى منها إلا هذا وهذا

 “O Asmā’, when a woman reaches the age of menstruation, it is not proper for anything to be seen of her except this and this,” and he pointed to his face and hands.

Abū Dāwūd said, “This is mursal. Khālid ibn Duraik did not meet ‘Â’ishah. [In addition Sa‘īd ibn Bashīr is not strong (in narrating)].”[27]

The authenticity of this report is controversial. Therefore, the scholars who uphold the obligation of niqāb are not bound by it, as long as they believe it is not authentic.

3.2.2-ii The Interpretation of Proofs

a- Linguistic Reasons

An example is that the word qur’ mentioned in the Qur’ān – in reference to the waiting period for women after divorce – could be linguistically interpreted as the period of menstruation or the period between two menstruations.

b- Personal Differences

This is not only seen in matters of religion, but in all matters, since people have different mental capacities, as well personal and cultural diversity.

c- Differences in Uṣūl

This constitutes a major catalyst of fiqhi disagreements. For example, Imam Mālik gives precedence to the actions of the people of Madinah over the singular (aḥād) reports.[28]

3.2.2-iii The Reconciliation Between Different Proofs

The reconciliation between seemingly contradicting evidences, such as praying taḥiyat al-masjid upon entering the masjid after ‘asr is a good example on this type of difference, for one report discourages praying after ‘asr and another commands praying two rak‘āt before sitting in the masjid.

3.2.3 A Mixture of the Failures of Intent and Judgment

Many times a dispute starts because of the second cause, but due to human inequity and ignorance, it gets bigger or continues because of the first. One could initially fail to see the fault in his reasoning, and subsequently develop zeal for his position and ignore the proofs and indications on his error. His initial error would be forgiven, but his zealotry and defiance of evidence thereafter is sinful.

4. The Ruling of Disagreement

The ruling of upholding a position other than what Allāh truly intended varies based on the cause of such a stance.

Rejecting Allāh and His Messenger and failing to believe in all of the revelation and submit – even just by heart – to all of Allāh’s commands is an act of disbelief.

Rejecting the sources of the religion as passed on to us by the first generation and selecting from what agrees with our views is a reprehensible innovation, and may reach the level of total disbelief, if it involves rejection of any verse of the Qur’ān or mutawātir Sunnah.[29] Discrediting the Companions of the Prophet or some of them invariably leads into committing this grievous deviation.

Innovating in the religion and following an approach to the interpretation of the sources other than that sanctioned by the righteous predecessors (as-Salaf as-Ṣli) is also a deviation that is worthy of Allāh’s anger and displeasure.

Letting one’s arrogance, vain desires (hawā), stubbornness, or blind allegiances, bar him or her from accepting the truth in accordance with the Book of Allāh and the Sunnah of His Messenger and pursuing the divine will and intent is a an act of forbidden transgression, and is deserving of punishment.

Speaking of that which one has no knowledge of is prohibited.

Erring of a qualified mujtahid because of a failure of judgment is forgiven by Allāh. Moreover, the mujtahid who is free from any transgression or hawā shall be rewarded for the effort invested into the study of the matter concerning which he erred.

The same applies to a follower if they have done their best in pursuing the right fatwah by seeking it from the credible and knowledgeable mujtahid and examining his proofs to one’s best capacity.

4.1 The Ruling of Dealing with Variant Views

While disagreement may not cease to exist, discord is not favored, and at times, it is evil and it leads to many other evils. Should we then reconcile the various disagreements by compromises? What are the disagreements that should be maintained and those that may be reconciled and how do we reconcile between them?

  1. There are some differences that must be maintained as a condition of faith.
  2. There are those differences that must be maintained to protect the purity of the dīn.
  3. There are differences that should be condemned because they are plain errors.
  4. There are those differences that should be reconciled by gentle advice or tolerated.
  5. There are differences that do not warrant any reconciliation, but complementation.
  6. The detailed rulings pertaining to the correct stance towards variant views shall be discussed in the next chapter.

5. Management of Disagreement

The disagreement whose management is discussed here is the oppositional disagreement, not the variational one. As for the variational disagreement, we mentioned – in our discussion of the types of disagreement – the pitfalls concerning them, and their management is by avoiding those pitfalls.

What is meant by management here is the prevention and treatment of the phenomenon of oppositional disagreement. This is not to say that our aim is the complete extinction of such disagreements, for that is unattainable. What is discussed here is how we reach excellence in our attempt of narrowing the scope of disagreement and handling the consequences of it.

Any talk about the right management of disagreement has to be cognizant of the types and causes of disagreement. For disagreements are not all equal, and at times, there is no room for compromise and at other times, there is much room for that. In the latter case, the purpose of maintaining the unity of the community should be transcendent to the importance of adhering to one’s view. Also, the causes of disagreement, whether they have to do with failure of intent or judgment make our management of it much different. Work needs to be done to promote authentic knowledge and understanding to confine the scope of disagreement resultant from failure of judgment. As for that resulting from the failure of intent, much more important and extensive work is needed to purify the hearts from the originators of those failures.

5.1 General Recommendations

5.1.1 Accept that there will be disagreement but work for unity.

If Allāh destined that there will be disagreement, should we just surrender to that as an inevitable fate? No. We were commanded to strive towards unity.

Allāh states:

وَلَا تَكُونُوا كَالَّذِينَ تَفَرَّقُوا وَاخْتَلَفُوا مِنْ بَعْدِ مَا جَاءَهُمُ الْبَيِّنَاتُ

“And do not become like the ones who became divided and differed after the clear proofs came to them.”[30]

5.1.2 Hold on to the rope of Allāh: the Qur’ān and Sunnah.

Allāh states:

وَاعْتَصِمُوا بِحَبْلِ اللَّهِ جَمِيعًا وَلَا تَفَرَّقُوا

“And hold firmly to the rope of Allāh altogether and do not become divided.”[31]

5.1.3 Opposing the Sunnah using scholarly views is not a part of legitimate differences of opinion.

The Messenger of Allāh instructed us to seek it by holding onto the Book of Allāh and his Sunnah. He (blessings and peace be upon him) said:

من يعش منكم يرى اختلافا كثيرا، وإياكم ومحدثات الأمور فإنها ضلالة فمن أدرك ذلك منكم فعليه بسنتي وسنة الخلفاء الراشدين المهديين، عضوا عليها بالنواجذ

“Indeed, whomever among you lives (after me) will see much differences. Beware of the newly invented matters, for indeed they are astray. Whoever among you sees that, then he must stick to my Sunnah and the Sunnah of the Rightly-Guided Khulafā’ – cling to it with the molars.”[32]

Imam ash-Shāfi‘ī said:

أجمع المسلمون على أن من استبانت له سنة رسول الله – صلى الله عليه وسلم – لم يكن له أن يدعها لقول أحد من الناس

“The Muslims have unanimously agreed that whomever the Sunnah of the Messenger of Allāh becomes apparent to, it becomes impermissible for him to leave it for the saying of anyone, regardless of who they are.”[33]

Imam ash-Shāfi‘ī (may Allāh bestow mercy on him) also said:

العلم ما كان فيه قال حدثنا… وما سوى ذاك وسواس الشياطين

“Knowledge is that which is transmitted through chains of narrators…all other [so-called knowledge] is the whispering of the devils.”[34]

5.1.4 Take the righteous predecessors, particularly the first generation, as the standard and the benchmark against which all positions are evaluated.

The beauty in Islam is that it was lived and practiced by a model generation, providing more guidance as to the way of adhering to the Qur’ān and Sunnah (theoretical foundation). The Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) said:

تفرقت اليهود على إحدى وسبعين أو اثنتين وسبعين فرقة، والنصارى مثل ذلك، وتفترق أمتي على ثلاث وسبعين فرقة

“The Jews split into seventy-one sects, or seventy-two sects, and the Christians similarly, and my Ummah will split into seventy-three sects.”[35]

The Messenger of Allāh (blessings and peace be upon him) also said in the aforementioned hadith:

“…stick to my Sunnah and the Sunnah of the Rightly-Guided Khulafā’…”

Jabir (may Allāh be pleased with him) said:

ورسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم بين أظهرنا وعليه ينزل القرآن، وهو يعلم تأويله فما عمل به من شيء، عملنا به

“And the Messenger of Allāh was among us, and to him the Qur’ān was being revealed, and he knew its interpretation. So whatever he did, we also did.”[36]

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Waqar Akbar Cheema

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