Let’s Agree To Disagree

Islamique Magazine

For Muslims in the UK, differences in the way we practice 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 quarreling, 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 license 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.

As for the question of how to deal with the differences, this is something I will discuss in part 2 in the forthcoming issue.

By: Shaykh Shams Ad Duha Muhammad

Published in Islamique Magazine, 28/5/2012