Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim
For Muslims in the UK, differences in the way we practise aspects of Islam have now become a fact of life. When it comes to applying our faith to our lives we do many different things in many different ways reflecting our theological affiliations, our adherence to a particular juristic school or madhhab, our political affiliations, and the various groups we move around with based either on simple loyalties or based on a particular priority that we deem worthy of our time and efforts.
Although we see these differences around us, we don’t always know how to live with them nor is this an integral part of the teachings of most groups or teachers. This either leaves us confused, disgruntled towards all groups and practicing Muslims, or fiercely loyal to one group considering it be the embodiment of truth and all others to be deviant, only worthy of opposition, or only deserving of our brotherhood and good-will at a very superficial level, if at all.
Yet, in Britain, we are a small community that is a melting pot of every idea and movement known in Islam. In London, and many inner London boroughs where Muslims live, the community is even smaller, and different groups and movements exist here in a way that is unprecedented in most Muslim countries and even in most British Muslim communities outside London. For us, finding a way to live with these differences is extremely important. Our future and our community’s well-being depend on it. At the moment, Muslims who are connected to their faith, who are practising, who hold the teachings of Islam to be the most important part of their being, are our greatest assets. They have already internalised the lessons of selflessness, of care and concern for the community, of honesty and morality, and the realisation that the best way to please Allah (exalted is He) is by serving Islam and the good of mankind.
Yet these very people are too busy attacking one another, trying to prove that they have discovered true Islam by attacking others who do things differently. Thus, good Muslims are spending too much time engaged in refutation and quarrelling, calling people away from the school of thought that they are familiar with, organising talks and events to refute the other, setting up websites and blogs as sources of information for their refutation. All of this, takes away their attention from bigger priorities, such as their own intellectual, spiritual and moral development (ta’leem wa tarbiyah), spreading the universal message of Islam (da’wah), combating problems faced by the community such as criminality, substance abuse, gang culture, and moral degeneration.
Much of what I have said above has been said and acknowledged before, but we often complain that the call to live with our differences and find a way to be more plural comes from more liberal or secular quarters who do not understand that certain things cannot be compromised or tolerated. However, differences in different aspects of religion have existed in Islam from the very beginning and the ulama have discussed aadaab al-ikhtilaf (the etiquettes of disagreement) quite extensively. They have demonstrated that within the Islamic framework, plurality exists, and there are principles inspired by the Qur’an and Sunnah that help us deal with our differences so that they do not become a social obstacle against Islamic ideals such as brotherhood, unity and co-operating for the common good and against evil. In this article, which will be published here in three parts, I would like to discuss some of these principles and etiquettes.
The Dichotomy of Unity and Division
Allah (swt) says in the Qur’an,
‘If your Lord had so willed, He would have made mankind one people, but they will not cease to differ, except those on whom your Lord and Sustainer has bestowed His mercy, and for this did He create them.’ (11: 119-9)
Other verses can also be invoked to show that the Qur’an on the one hand acknowledges differences in people, and on the other hand orders them not to divide in to groups. The above verse indicates both tendencies. It says people will continue to differ, except those upon whom Allah (swt) has mercy. Thus difference is acknowledged and yet unity is praised. This is because there are acceptable and unacceptable differences. We know that Allah (swt) wants mankind to accept Islam and has chosen Islam as the only true religion yet He also acknowledges that not all people will choose it. He says, ‘Indeed religion according to Allah is Islam’, (3:19) and, whoever seeks other than Islam as a religion, it will not be accepted from him.’ (3: 85). Similarly, Allah (swt) has given clear commands to Muslims not to break up in to groups and to remain united. He said,
‘And hold fast, all of you together, to the rope of Allah, and do not separate. And remember Allah’s favour unto you: how you were enemies and He made friendship between your hearts so that you became as brothers by His grace…’ (3:103)
This verse and others like it are used to show that Muslims must remain united and thus strive to avoid all things that divide them. I remember as a student debating with many people who argued based on this verse that schools of jurisprudence (madhhabs) were Islamically unacceptable based on this verse. Yet today some fifteen years later, those very same people are no longer united on jurisprudence as differences of opinion manifested among the scholars they followed; once again, as before in history, forcing the Muslim community to accept that differences in certain areas are unavoidable. To force this point home, I often ask this question: if unity is praiseworthy and expected of Muslims, why did the Qur’an and the Sunnah not give clear unambiguous commands so it would never be possible for Muslims to disagree? There are different reasons as to why this did not happen which will be discussed later. The point here is that we know that this was not the case. Differences are a historical fact; not just one that we have grudgingly accepted, but a phenomenon which started in presence of the Prophet (saw) himself and received his approval.
Differences of opinion did not happen in a vacuum. We know that the Imams of jurisprudence, the likes of Imams Abu Hanifah, Malik, al-Shafi’e, Ahmad, al-Awza’i, Sufyan al-Thawri and others (Allah have mercy on them all) disagreed. But they inherited that from the generations before them: the atba’ al-Tabi’een (the followers of the tabi’un), and the tabi’un (followers) before them who took variant opinions from none other than the companions of the Prophet (saw) who had variant views on many different issues. This happened abundantly after the Prophet’s death but also occurred during his life time in his presence. It is thus safe to say that the seeds of difference were laid down by the Prophet himself. Two well known hadiths make this point very clearly:
Ibn ‘Umar (ra) said, ‘the Prophet (saw) said to us when he returned from al-Ahzab (the tribes or the battle of the trench), ‘let no one perform asr except at Bani Qurayzah’. Then asr time arrived while some people were still on the road. Some said, ‘we won’t pray until we get there’. Others said, ‘we should rather pray, that (i.e. not praying on time) is not what was expected of us’. This was mentioned to the Prophet (saw) who did not reprimand anyone.’ (al-Bukhari)
This incident is well known and is commonly cited in this context. Because both groups were seeking to correctly understand the Prophet’s command, he upheld both stances and allowed the difference to remain unresolved; a tacit approval of the fact that his followers can infer different conclusions when seeking to understand his words and commands, provided that their endeavour was to sincerely find the truth.
The second hadith is as follows:
When the Prophet (saw) wanted to send Mu’adh to Yemen, he asked him, ‘how will you judge when a case is presented to you?’ He said, ‘I will judge by the book of Allah.’ He said, ‘and if you do not find it in the book of Allah?’ He said, ‘then by the Sunnah of the Messenger of Allah (saw).’ He said, ‘if you do not find it in the Sunnah of the Messenger of Allah or the book of Allah?’ He said, ‘I will strive with my opinion and I will spare no effort.’ The Messenger of Allah struck his chest and said, ‘praise be to Allah who enabled the emissary of the Messenger of Allah to do what pleases the Messenger of Allah.’ (Abu Dawud, al-Tirmidhi)
This hadith and others like it clear up many questions. Firstly, that the Qur’an and the Sunnah did not set out to provide detailed answers for every question and situation. Secondly, that many of these answers have to be inferred from the Qur’an and the Sunnah by people who strive to find the truth and are qualified to do so. Hence the Prophet (saw) hand picked his emissaries and sent them out to different regions and gave them all the licence that he gave to Mu’adh (ra). Their opinions became law in different regions. This was passed down to their students and became the basis for difference of opinion.
With differences a given, we have to deal with two questions: firstly, how do we consolidate the dichotomy between the fact of differences and Allah’s command that we do not differ and divide in to groups? Secondly, how do we deal with these differences?
The answer to the first question is twofold. The first part is simple, Allah (swt) expects us to be united upon the fundamentals of our religion and on the very basics of our creed: that Allah (swt) is One, that Muhammad (saw) is His final Messenger, that the Qur’an is Allah’s final message and so forth. Everything that is deemed an absolute in the religion because it is clearly and unequivocally mentioned in the Qur’an or in a hadith mutawatir, is a matter on which no difference can be tolerated. These issues – called dharuriyyaat and qat’iyyaat – are in abundance and represent the basics of our faith and the universal teachings of Islam. These give us an agenda for unity and for striving for greater good. Exactly what they are is widely known but can also form the content of a future article, inshaAllah.
The second part is a little more complicated. Allah (swt) in His command of unity also expects us to unite on certain principles and methods. The two hadiths above make this point clearly. The first hadith provides the principle of acceptability, that as long as we seek to follow Allah’s and His Messenger’s command and find the truth, our differences are tolerated; such that our disagreements need not even be resolved. Thus, amazingly, the Prophet (saw) made no attempt to provide a resolution. He could have simply said, ‘its fine for you to disagree but group x was correct.’ There is much to learn from this point alone. It is why madhahib (schools of thought) continued to exist for so many centuries without any attempt to resolve their differences. Many people now argue on the basis that, disagreements are fine but the truth has to be one thing so we should try to discover it. These people fail to realise that they are not dealing with mathematics but a melting pot of hermeneutics, historicity, psychology, semantics, and such areas of intellectual activity in which the truth is not always as clear-cut; not least because it is always a victim of human subjectivity. Our beloved Master Muhammad (saw) was well aware of that.
The hadith of Mu’adh (ra), in contrast to the first hadith, informs us of process: that when faced by a situation we will judge by the Qur’an, then the Sunnah, and then apply ijtihad. Without this process, any disagreement does not carry any legitimacy. This is why scholars have always tried to identify the matters wherein ijtihad is possible and where not. Thus the fundamentals mentioned in the first part of this answer are considered beyond the scope of ijtihad and taqleed (following). When the companions disagreed about such matters, the Prophet (saw) rebuked them.
To sum it up then, Allah’s command to unite relates to two areas:
1. Unity in absolute unequivocal fundamentals;
2. Unity in the process of ijtihad.
The second area explains Allah’s acceptance and acknowledgement of disagreement; and in this way the command to unite and the acceptance of difference are consolidated. The conclusion about disagreement therefore is, any disagreement born out of legitimate ijtihad must be tolerated.
How to deal with differences
When dealing with differences of opinion, it is important to state that tolerating differing views is not an unbridled licence for anyone to propose and uphold whatever alternative view that occurs to them, or for anyone to put forward arbitrary proposals for a revision of any aspect of the religion. This is an important issue that must be settled. We often see people with wildly divergent ideas getting media coverage because they have proposed something that Islam traditionally rejected, and then their claim to legitimacy was based on the idea that they hold a view among views and that they are entitled to it and their views must be tolerated and considered. Such things always end with the media spotlight being focused on Muslims’ reacting angrily to these views. Irshad Manji and her call to a revision of our understanding of the Qur’an through Ijtihad can be cited as an example. Before dealing with the point in question, I have two observations. Firstly, we Muslims do have a tendency to react strongly to views that attack the fundamental principles of our faith. This is a good thing primarily, as it shows how deeply held our beliefs are and that we are prepared to defend our faith against any transgression. However, this positive spirit should not result in overreaction.
In my view, resorting to violence is the most extreme manifestation of overreaction. It is unhelpful to the cause of Islam and must be avoided at all costs. Secondly, as Muslims we do not say that someone is not entitled to their opinion. In today’s world people can and will say whatever they want. However, Islam cannot be forced to accept every view that is held by every person claiming to be a Muslim. Islam is a religion based on principles that clearly establish its boundaries. If a person or group chooses to hold a view – which they claim to be Islamic – that transgresses these boundaries then Islam and Muslims have a right to treat them as outsiders. When such people claim their right to Islam they are simply trespassing.
For example, if an Ahmadi (Qadiani) wants to believe Mirza Gulam Ahmed is a prophet after the final Prophet, Muhammad (SAW), he can hold that view and belief and nothing can stop him. But, I feel it is unjust for him to claim the right to be seen as a Muslim or even to call himself a Muslim when the very basic principles of Islam clearly state that he is not. It is similarly unjust for Muslims to be branded intolerant when they try to defend these boundaries. My point is simple, he has the right to his view and belief, but Islam also has the right to say he is trespassing when he is clearly attempting forceful and illegal entry. It is Islam’s right to be able to establish its boundaries and to not allow anyone to stain its name.
Now coming to the point in question: what is acceptable difference within Islam? On this point I will borrow from one of our greats and then make a few comments at the end to clarify. Shah Waliullah, the Muhaddith of Delhi, a scholar widely respected by almost all Sunni groups, says the following in his masterpiece, Hujjatullah al-Balighah (The Conclusive Proof from God) “After accepting the essentials (Dharuriyyat) of the religion, the issues on which the people of the Qibla have disagreed and become divided sects and factions are of two types:
1. The type of issues that the verses of the Qur’an have spoken of, the Sunnah has authentically related and the Salaf i.e. the companions and the Tabi’un, (followers) have accepted. When every person with an opinion began to pride in his own opinion (due to lack of sincerity) different paths opened up to people: one group chose to hold onto the apparent and evident meanings of the Qur’an and the Sunnah and to hold onto the beliefs of the Salaf at any cost whether they agreed or disagreed with their rational and logical thought. If they ever discussed the beliefs from a rational point of view then it was to refute those who opposed them or to increase their own conviction, not because they felt that beliefs had to be derived from rational thought. These people were the Ahlus Sunnah (people of the Sunnah). Another group felt inclined towards interpretation and diversion from the apparent and evident meanings (of the Qur’an and Sunnah) when they opposed the principles of rational thought, in their opinion. So they discussed rationally to establish the matter of beliefs and what they meant. From this category are issues such as the questioning in the grave, the weighing of the actions, crossing the bridge (Sirat), seeing Allah and the ennobling miracles of the friends of Allah (karamat al-awliya). All of these issues are evident in the Qur’an and the Sunnah and they have been accepted by the Salaf. However, they did not make logical and rational sense to some people so they denied them or made interpretations of them. We say, ‘We believe all of these things based on evidence from our Lord and our logic testifies to them’.
2. The type of issues that the Qur’an has not spoken of, the Sunnah has not dealt with much and the companions never spoke of it, and it remained as such (at the time of the Salaf). Then scholars came and began to discuss these issues and differ in them. They delved into these issues for three reasons:
a. Either because they derived these issues from the sources (Qur’an and Sunnah). Issues such as the merit of the prophets over the angels and the merit of Aisha (ra) over Fatima (ra).
b. (Or) because some principles and fundamentals that are based on the Qur’an and Sunnah are related to or based on these issues, in their opinion; such as general commands (and speculation as to their scope) and the issue of substance and contingent (which can be related to the discussion of the essence and attributes of Allah). Indeed the discussion about the temporal origination of the universe (huduth al-alam) is dependent upon the refutation of the concept of the primordial matter (al- Hayula) and the affirmation of an indivisible atom; the concept of mu’jiza (Prophetic miracles) is dependent on the negation of the logical association of cause with effect, etc.
c. (Or) because of the elaboration and explanation of what they found in the Qur’an and the Sunnah, thus differing on the interpretation after agreeing with the concept in principle. For example, they (the scholars) agreed on the attributes of (Allah’s) hearing and sight (in principle) and then they differed: one group said that they are reducible to the knowledge of seen things and heard things (i.e. they are part of the attribute of knowledge); others said they are two distinct attributes. Similarly, they agreed in principle on istiwa’ (in the verse ‘the Merciful istawa over the throne’ (20:5)) and the face and laughter (all attributed to Allah in verses of the Qur’an). Then they differed (faced with the difficulty of human attributes and body parts being attributed to Allah): one group said that appropriate meanings are intended, so istiwa’ means istila (establishment or being in control) and face means essence and so on, while another group left them as they were simply stating ‘we do not know what was meant by these words’ (i.e. we know the apparent linguistic meaning of the words but we do not know their exact implications, as we cannot attribute their apparent meanings to Allah). I do not approve of preferring one group over the other (in this second category of issues) by saying they are on the Sunnah.
How can I? When, if the Sunnah in its purity is intended, then it dictates not to delve into these issues in the first place just as the Salaf did not delve in them. However, when necessity dictated the need to elaborate (on these issues) further, it does not follow that everything they (the scholars after the Salaf) derived from the Qur’an and the Sunnah is correct or preferred; or that everything they assumed to be dependent upon another thing is accepted as dependant; or everything they obligate the refutation of acceptable as something that needs to be refuted; or that everything they forbade to delve in because of its complexity, so complex in reality; or every elaboration they have brought forth necessarily more true than that which others have brought. Now that we have explained that a person being Sunni (of Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jama’ah) is dependent upon the first category, you will see the scholars of Sunnah differing amongst themselves in much of the second category such as the Asha’irah (the Ash’arites, followers of Imam Abul Hasan Ash’ari) and the Maturidiyyah (the Maturidites, followers of Imam Abu Mansur Maturidiy), and you will see that expert scholars in every age do not hold back from any subtle issue that the Sunnah does not oppose even if the earlier scholars did not speak of it.’ (Slightly abridged extract from Hujjatullah Al-Balighah) A few comments to clarify the above extract: firstly, it deals with differences among the Muslims. The first category of issues were those over which the Ahlus Sunnah wa al-Jama’ah, the vast majority of Muslims, disagreed with minority sects such as the Shi’ah, the Khawarij, the Mu’tazilah and the like. Although some of the positions taken by these groups were seen as major deviations and thus widely refuted, almost all of them were seen as Muslims. Those considered non- Muslim such as the Isma’ili Shi’ah are a minority within a minority. Furthermore, most of these early sects have not survived through time except for the shi’ah and their offshoots who make up some 15% of Muslims. The second category of
issues is that over which the people of the Sunnah have disagreed.
All of these issues, within Sunni Islam at least, are considered issues of acceptable difference. All of the differences of opinion in jurisprudence particularly those between the 4 main schools fall within this category, and contrary to what is widely perceived, there are some subsidiary issues of aqeedah and theology that are also part of this category such as those mentioned by Shah Waliullah (RA) in his examples and those over which schools such as the Ash’aris, Maturidis, and Salafis or atharis disagree. Yet, regrettably, it is these very issues, madhhabs and matters of jurisprudence, the attributes of Allah, the validity of Ash’ari, Maturidi, and Salafi theology that divide sunni Muslims around the world and on the streets and in the Masjids of Britain, London, and Tower Hamlets.
The rest of this article is available online (as well as part 1) Had the issue been one of healthy debate and academic difference there would be no problem. Unfortunately, that is not the case. A simple Google search would expose the ugliness of disagreement between Ash’aris and Salafis: the former accusing the latter of anthropomorphism, while the latter accuses the former of other deviations in the attributes of Allah (SWT). Within the community, events are organised by salafis condemning the following of madhhabs only to be countered by events organised by madhhab followers to defend the same and attack and refute the position of not following a madhhab. Deobandis vs Barelwis, Salafis vs Sufis, and the rivalries go on and similarly manifest themselves. Fights break out, people move around in closed circles, hatred brews below the surface, Muslims look at each other in belittlement each considering the other to be either ignorant or arrogant. Amazingly we all forget the teachings of the Prophet (peace be upon him) against such things, teachings that we don’t disagree about! The truth is, all of it stems from an ignorance of the principles of disagreement, and more specifically of the scope of acceptable difference.
Once we understand the scope of disagreement, we can move on to its etiquettes. While we do not discuss and propagate the extremely broad scope of disagreement and make it common knowledge to every active Muslim, we will continue to assume, as we do, that the scope of disagreement is only limited to differences within our own groups. So the Salafis will think only the differences among Salafis can be tolerated, Ash’aris will do the same, Deobandis, Barelwis, Sufis and so on. Part of the problem is that ordinary people have become polarised around academic issues that are really the domain of people of knowledge who have studied the issues themselves, the principles that govern them and the history and scope of disagreement. If the issues get propagated down to the streets and the principles get left behind we end up with the chaos that we see now. Worse still, when valid schools of juristic and theological thought or matters of intellectual diversity become politicised and then propagation, da’wa, growing the group becomes the agenda, then even the scholars within groups lose sight of the principles of tolerance. Politics and unhealthy competition takes over.
The whole community cannot be expected to agree on everything, nor is this expected by Allah (swt), but we can at least be expected to deal with intellectual adversaries with the etiquettes and courtesies that were employed by the scholars and Muslims of the past. Today, we are defining ourselves through our differences and sectarian individualism, when we should be defining ourselves with our common identity. The shaytan has found a way to make us arrogant, in spite of our passion for the deen. Thus the more practising and knowledgeable we are, the more arrogant and divided we are.
Should it not be the other way around? Surely, there is something wrong, either with what we learn, the way we learn it, or who we learn from.
The etiquettes and principles of disagreement
In this three part, and by now, quite lengthy article, we have learnt from the first article that differences in the Islamic nation are a reality that not only existed from the time of the Prophet (saw) but was also tolerated by his example and his teachings. In the second article, we established the scope of disagreement and the boundaries within which Muslims should tolerate differences and seek to find common ground for the greater strength of the Ummah.
In this final article, I want to focus mainly on the ways in which differences can be dealt with and the etiquettes we must uphold if we are to live with them without letting them tear us apart. Thus this article will discuss principles and etiquettes of disagreement that have been recommended by ulama based on their study of the Qur’an and Sunnah and observance of the earliest generations of Muslims who were extremely divergent in their academic opinions and their practices but remained united upon fundamentals and firm in their brotherhood.
Let us begin by discussing why differences should be tolerated. If the Prophet (saw) tolerated differences, then there must be some benefit and wisdom in that. It is good to discuss these so that we can get over the oft regurgitated myth that differences are an indication of disunity. No doubt some differences are blameworthy, but we have to be able to tell them apart from the praiseworthy ones.
In this regard, ‘Differences of my Ummah are a mercy’ is often presented as a textual evidence to prove that differences are generally beneficial for the ummah. While it is true that all evidence points to the fact that this hadith is weak, the attitudes of scholars and of hadith masters about it are interesting. For example, Imam Malik is reported to have cited this hadith when he was asked by Harun al-Rashid to impose his own hadith collection, the Muwatta, upon people. He explained to the Khalifa that there was no justification for encouraging people to take up the Muwatta as the sahabah spread to different regions after the death of the Prophet (saw) and transmitted hadith. Thus every region has knowledge and the Prophet (saw) said, ‘The differences of my ummah are a mercy.’ Imam al-Nawawi discusses the hadith extensively, and Imam Ibn Taymiyyah acknowledges that, indeed, the differences of the ummah are a mercy in his Majmu’ al-Fatawa. Generally, there is a wide consensus that, notwithstanding the problem with the authenticity of the hadith, its message remains sound and true.
It is narrated that Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz once said, ‘It would not please me for the companions of Muhammad (saw) to have not disagreed, for if they had not disagreed, we would not have dispensations.’ In other words, differences of opinion among the sahabah and the later scholars provide precedents for later scenarios when people are seeking a solution to a specific problem. Ulama and Muftis who deal with such issues know the value of divergent opinions very well.
Furthermore, it is well acknowledged that the licence given to the sahabah and Mujtahids has allowed the continuity of intellectual endeavour in the ummah. It is easily foreseeable that had it not been for ijtihad and if the Qur’an and Hadith had pre-emptively spelt out the solution and answer to every problem and question, the Muslim ummah would be intellectually barren. Things are bad enough with ijtihad
alive. Imagine if that door had been closed and the Prophet (saw) had forbidden Mu’adh (ra) from doing ijtihad when he proposed it.
Thus much good has and will continue to come out of the valid disagreements of the scholars when the disagreements are based on correct principles, a sincere attempt to reach the truth and they uphold the etiquettes of differing.
What are the etiquettes or aadaab of differing? I will discuss some of them below in the form of principles and etiquettes that should be observed when one disagrees with a person or group about an issue of Islam which falls within the scope of matters upon which disagreement should be tolerated (see previous article for a discussion on the scope of disagreement).
Some Principles and Etiquettes of Disagreement
1. Difference of opinion should be based on a sincere and objective quest for the truth. Not based on bias or loyalty towards a madhhab or other ideological partisanship. This is completely against the spirit of difference. This principle primarily applies to senior scholars with mastery over jurisprudence who must be prepared to provide solutions to Muslims on the basis of sound and sincere research even if it goes against their madhhab. Their attitude towards other madhhabs should be one of utmost respect. I have seen that this is often lacking in ulama and the intellectual tinges of intolerance are passed on subconsciously to students and congregations. As for the lay person, their subscription to a madhhab is no more than a matter of coincidence, and thus it should only pertain to the way they practise aspects of their religion. This should never become the basis for any kind of division. Thus, while the hanafi, maliki, and salafi might pray differently, beyond the remit of jurisprudence they are brothers in Islam. Thus, they love and respect each other, socialise together, and work together for the greater good.
2. A follower of a jurist or juristic school (muqallid) cannot disparage the follower of another, nor can a mujtahid or jurist disparage a mujtahid for holding a different opinion. This simply violates the understanding we get based on the Prophet’s hadith that both opinions are valid and both mujtahids are rewarded. Something that is rewarded by Allah (saw) can be discussed and debated but one cannot disparage another since only Allah (saw) knows who is on the truth.
3. The four madhhabs are the most prominent traditional schools of jurisprudence. Any claims of their invalidity or any call to the independent following of Qur’an and Sunnah is also an alternative madhhab both historically and today. This principle may be seen by some brothers and sisters as controversial and a dig but it is not and should be pondered over objectively. Every madhhab legitimately has the right to claim that it is directly following the Qur’an and the Sunnah. This is because each madhhab was born out of an attempt by some of the most brilliant minds of the ummah to try to correctly understand the letter and spirit of the Qur’an and Sunnah and apply them practically. Despite this, anyone today has the right to practise their deen based on the Qur’an and Sunnah without recourse to the madhhabs, but this has to be based on knowledge, ability and qualifications so that: (a) they have a considerable if not comprehensive knowledge of the sources of
shari’ah i.e. the Qur’an and Sunnah, as well as supplementary sources such the seerah, and the opinions of the sahabah, the followers and imams and mujtahids of this ummah as well an understanding of their authenticity (sihhah) and authority (hujjiyyah) and the processes by which this is determined (i.e. uloom al-hadith and takhreej); (b) they understand and interpret the sources based on a strong command of the Arabic language, grammar and rhetoric, and the principles based on which the sahabah and subsequent generations interpreted the sources which are now enshrined in the science of usul al-fiqh; (c) they can be accepted as someone whose interpretation can be given credibility because their knowledge is based on both the study of texts as well as the tutelage of reputable and reliable scholars who have given some indication as to the capacity of the person by granting them ijazah (permission) to transmit what they have learnt. Anyone who falls short of this is a muqallid; a follower of the opinions of someone else who meets these criteria, whether they follow them within the framework of the madhhabs or outside of them. So, if people claiming or calling to the following of Qur’an and Sunnah directly are simply not able to do so themselves, then they are no doubt following someone else who claims to have done that. Isn’t that what the follower of every madhhab does? The difference is that one person refers to someone who claims to be following Qur’an and Sunnah today while the other is following someone (one of the four Imams) who did that more than a millennium ago.
4. There is no such thing as ‘inter-madhhab da’wah’. Anyone who calls another person away from one madhhab to his own is causing and perpetuating serious disunity in the ummah. Da’wah should be to the truth. We can engage in da’wah to call someone to Islam, or to the agreed upon (not subjectively concocted) aqeedah of ahlussuhhah wal-jama’ah or to salah, or to piety and good conduct, because these are all agreed upon matters of truth and righteousness. However, we simply cannot be engaged in da’wa to call one another away from their juristic madhhab, because this clearly indicates the mentality that ‘my madhhab is based on the truth and yours is based on falsehood’. Thus, there is no such thing as a hanafi da’wah, a shafi’i da’wa, or a salafi da’wa with a view to call others away from their madhhab. This simply betrays an ignorance of how the ulama perceived differences of opinion in subsidiary matters. Sometimes we see this justified on the grounds that the da’wa is to correct people’s aqeedah. However, if the issue of aqeedah in question is subsidiary as explained in the second part of this article such as the matter of divergent perspectives about the attributes of Allah (saw) among sunni scholars, then that too is wrong.
5. People are often seen debating matters of difference. The simple principle here is the principle of knowledge. If one does not have sufficient knowledge about the matter that is being debated then, one is simply wasting time that could be spent in genuine good deeds. If we left the debating to the ulama and focussed on practising our deen we wouldn’t be in such a sorry state. When something comes up, we should simply ask our scholars to discuss and debate it among themselves and find a solution. Students of knowledge who are systematically studying the Islamic sciences are an exception to this, provided they observe the etiquettes of debate and discussion.
6. Constant reminding and awareness of the fact that we agree much more than we disagree. Sunni Muslims are agreed on all of the fundamentals of aqeedah. Any issue of aqeedah in which there is disagreement is subsidiary as explained in part 2 and should be tolerated. Matters of jurisprudence, although affecting us practically in many ways, only constitute a small portion of Islam’s message, of which an even smaller portion forms the basis of disagreement. Thus, of some 6600 verses of the Qur’an, just over 500 pertain to matters of fiqh, most of which the ummah is agreed upon. On the other hand, matters of morality, good conduct and character, reward and punishment, the hereafter, the spirit and objectives of Islam, da’wah, etc are all matters that unite us.
7. To improve how we live with differences in a place like Britain, scholars should be reading up on and studying schools of thought other than the one they specialise in or practise. They should also state which perspective they are coming from when answering questions to mixed audiences.
8. Generally, Muslims should be more educated about and aware of the existence of differences and how they developed so that they do not perceive their own brothers and sisters as different due to differences in practice.
9. People involved in da’wa and enjoining good and forbidding evil, should have some awareness of the valid differences of the scholars so that they do not forbid and condemn something in which a person is following the valid opinion of another school or scholar.
The above is just a snapshot of some of the principles and etiquettes of difference. A fuller discussion on the topic would take a small book.
In conclusion, we Muslims must not allow our differences to divert our attention from greater priorities.
The challenge facing the Muslims today is not one of preferring one opinion over another divergent one wherein the outcome one way or the other is an outcome rewarded by Allah; rather the true challenge lies in combating our neglect of agreed upon principles, commands and morals. Our challenge does not lie in settling the matter of Allah’s attributes and their interpretation but in dealing with ideologies that deny Allah’s essence as well as His attributes. Our challenge is not in settling whether istawa should be left to its apparent meaning or whether it should be interpreted as domination; but rather in challenging those who dismiss Allah’s throne as a mere metaphor. Our problems do not lie in the fact that some of us recite fatiha behind the imam and others do not, some raise their hands before ruku’ and others do not, and in the position of our hands when we stand in salah; rather the problem lies in the millions in our ranks who do not even stand in salah, never go to the masjid, and never throw down their heads in prostration. Our challenge is not in deciding whether the woman wearing hijab without covering her face is in sin or not; but in inspiring hijab and modesty in those sisters who leave their faces, hair, and legs uncovered.
Until we learn to take our differences in our strides and march on to the serious issues, we will continue like weaklings who have had the wind knocked out of them. Isn’t that what Allah (swt) warned us of:
“And obey Allah and His Messenger and do not fall in to dispute, lest you lose heart and your power departs; and be patient, for Allah is with those who patiently persevere.” (8:46)
By: Shaykh Shams Ad Duha Muhammad