Hot! Etiquettes of Difference part 3


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

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.

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 a bias 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 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 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 aqeeda. 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 difference 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 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 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)

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