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Islamique Magazine Online | February 26, 2020

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Let’s Agree to Disagree: Part II

Let’s Agree to Disagree: Part II

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 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 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 Etiquette of Disagreement

By Mawlana Shams Ad-Duha Muhammad, current director and

lecturer of Aqeedah, Ulumul Hadith, and Arabic Grammar at Ebrahim


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