Hot! Etiquettes of Difference part 2

In the name of Allah, the All-Merciful the Compassionate

The Scope of Difference

In the first part of this article the fact was established that differences in the ummah are a reality that not only manifested during the earliest times of Islam but were clearly accommodated in the teachings of our Prophet (saw). In this article, I want to focus on the scope of difference and the extent to which it should be tolerated. This will be followed by one more article on the actual etiquettes of disagreement and how to co-exist in a society where our backgrounds and views are so mixed and varied.

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 propose 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 views, 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 in Mirza Gulam Ahmed as 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 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)[1].

‘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.

  1. 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, 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:
    1. 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).
    2. (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)[2] 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.
    3. (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 experts 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 are those 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. 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 (saw) 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.



[1] Widely published in Arabic and translated in to English by Marcia K. Hermansen under the title, The Conclusive Argument from God.

[2] The primeordial matter; the indeterminate substratum or mere potentiality which in combination with form (surah) constitutes a particular thing. According to the peripatetic philosophers, it is eternal; for being a mere potentiality, it is the principle of all becoming and, therefore, could not have become itself.

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