Lecture by Ismail Kamdar | Transcribed by Zara T.
[The following is the video and transcript of Ismail Kamdar’s lecture “Tolerance in Fiqh Issues” The transcript includes slight modifications for the sake of readability and clarity.]
The lecture can be viewed here.
Indeed all praise is due to Allah , our Creator, our Nourisher, our Sustainer. And we ask Allah to send His peace and blessings upon His final messenger, the mercy to this universe, Muhammad ibn Abdullah [saws], and upon everybody who follows his way with righteousness until the last day.
The topic I have chosen for this discussion is the importance of tolerance in dealing with differences of opinion in issues of fiqh.
It is no surprise to Muslims, it is no secret to Muslims that differences of opinion do exist in the ummah on issues of fiqh. It has been this way from the time of the sahabah. There have always been issues on which the ummah is divided.
We find many Muslims, when dealing with fiqh issues, taking a very rigid approach. This is unhealthy for the unity of the ummah. There are two main extremes in which the two rigid approaches may be categorized, and also a third which will also be explained:
The first extreme is the blind following of a given madh-hab in such a manner that its followers can’t conceive the possibility that their madh-hab could be wrong. As a result, we find people who, despite their depth of knowledge and the length of their study of Islam, cling to every single opinion of the madh-hab – even regarding issues on which their madhab has been proven wrong. This rigidity creates a lot of friction within the ummah. If we continue to cling so stubbornly to our opinions, unwilling to discuss our differences, these differences will become a means of dividing the ummah.
The second extreme calls attention to people who have abandoned all madh-habs and argue that Muslims should only follow the Qur’ān and sunnah. These people, on every issue of fiqh, claim that there is only one opinion; furthermore they try to force this one opinion on the entire ummah. Anyone following a different opinion from them, is labeled a deviant. This is not the way of the righteous predecessors. This is not the way of the salaf. This is extremism.
In order to understand the way of the early generations in dealing with fiqh differences, we first need to clarify some terminology. In English, we talk about Islamic Law. But in Arabic, we have two separate words for Islamic law. We have The Sharī‘ah and we have Fiqh. The sharī‘ah are those agreed upon principles or laws found in the Qur’ān and sunnah, which are fixed and do not change. There are certain laws which are in the Qur’ān and sunnah which the entire ummah has agreed upon due to the unanimous agreement of all Muslim scholars. These cannot be disputed; these cannot be opposed. For example, the idea that murder is prohibited or that shirk is the greatest sin or that there are five daily prayers. These things are agreed upon and undeniable nobody can claim to have a difference of opinion on these issues.
Then we go into fiqh. The Arabic word fiqh means to understand. For example, in the hadith narrated by Ma’awiyah [ra], where the Prophet Muhammad (ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam ) said “Whoever Allah wants good for, he gives him the correct understanding of the religion.” The word used here for correct understanding is fiqh, “Yufaqih hu.” Fiqh means to have a correct understanding. In terms of Islamic law, it means understanding and deriving laws from the Qur’ān and sunnah or the application of sharī‘ah to your daily life.
There are two main difference between fiqh and sharī‘ah:
1) Fiqh can change. Fiqh can change based on evidence, circumstances, and individual cases.
2) Fiqh is open to differences of opinion.
There have been differences with issues of fiqh since the time of the sahabah, There are various types of differences. There are differences of opinion that are complementary. When it comes to these differences, we should not even make them an issue. For example, there are various ways of raising the finger in tashahud. According to some narrations, the index finger should point towards the qiblah and should be kept straight. According to other narrations, the index finger should point towards the qiblah and should move finger up and down. It doesn’t matter if somebody is keeping his finger straight or is raising it up or down; both are permissible and there is not a problem. For issues like these there is no need to argue since both ways are acceptable. Likewise, there are many other issues in Islam where there is more than one acceptable way of doing something. These are known as complementary differences, and we should not make them an issue at all. Everyone is free to follow whatever they like best in these things, as these are issues where every way is permissible.
However, there is the case of those differences of opinion that are contradictory. In those cases, we have scholars stating things that are completely opposite to each other. For example, some of the scholars are of the opinion that for a woman to cover her face is obligatory, (wājib) while other scholars are of the opinion for a woman to cover her face is recommended (mustaḥab). One must necessarily be correct and the other incorrect. Both opinions cannot be correct on this issue. Likewise, some scholars are of the view that all forms of musical instruments are prohibited while there are scholars who have said it is permissible. In this situation, it is the same: Somebody is right and somebody is wrong.
The duty of Muslims in such issues is to address them in a tolerant and open manner. We need to sit together, discuss our differences of opinion, and try to come to a common conclusion. Often, even after discussing these differences of opinion, scholars might not be able to come to a common conclusion. When this happens, we need to respect our brothers’ right to disagree with us and we need to be tolerant of these differences of opinion as the early scholars had done. Tolerance does not mean that you believe the next person is right; instead it is where you maintain your beliefs while respecting the right of others to disagree.
In issues of fiqh, where the differences are contradictory, it is incumbent upon us to be patient, and respectful in our dialogue with opposing viewpoints. We should try to arrive at a consensus (ijmā‘). If a consensus is not possible, it should not mean that we resort to disrespect or work to disunite the ummah.
There is a third type of difference of opinion, and that is the prohibited differences. This is where somebody invents an opinion that goes against the consensus of the early generations. In these differences, the scholars have a right to label such a person a deviant. For example, the entire ummah, all the scholars of the ummah of the early generations agreed that there are five daily cumpulsory ṣalawāt. If, hypothetically, somebody was to say that there are no obligatory ṣalawāt, or that there are only two obligatory ṣalawāt, or there are only four obligatory ṣalawāt, this is a known deviation from Islam. It is impermissible to even get into such differences. Once the ummah has agreed upon something, there is no room for differences of opinion, because the Prophet Muhammad (ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) has said, “My ummah will never unite upon falsehood.” It is inconceivable and illogical that for 1434 years, every single scholar was wrong and suddenly, one individual, has the correct understanding. There is definitely something wrong with this position. This is the way of the “modernists,” who disregard the consensus of scholars and arrive at their own conclusions– conclusions that are contradictory to what the entire ummah has agreed upon. This is deviation.
The differences of opinion, to repeat, are of three types.
1) Those that are complementary, and everybody does as they wish.
2) Those that are contradictory; in these, we ought to discuss our differences. In this case, everyone is free to believe that they are correct and that others are incorrect, but there is mutual respect.
3) And finally, those differences that are not permitted. This is for somebody to go against the consensus of the ummah.
These are the various types of differences of opinion that exist among the scholars.
After reading about all these, somebody might argue that, “There’s one Allah, there’s one Qur’ān, there’s one dīn, so there should be no room for difference of opinion.” Yes, there’s one Allah, there’s one Qur’ān, there’s one dīn, but people differ in the understanding of the dīn. These differences have been there from the time of the Prophet (ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam). There’s a very famous incident that when the Prophet Muhammad (ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) told the sahabah to go to Bani Quraydah and not to pray ‘aṣr until they reach there. All the sahabah were moving towards Bani Quraydah. The time for ‘aṣr was about to end and so they now discussed among themselves. The first group said that, “The Prophet Muhammad (ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) told us to not pray ‘aṣr until we reach Bani Quraydah, so we will only pray when we reach there even though it could be Maghrib time.” The other group said, “He said that, but that’s not what he meant. He meant that we should hurry and we should get there as quickly as possible. We still have to pray ‘aṣr on time.” And so one group prayed ‘aṣr on time and then continued with the journey while the other group delayed ‘aṣr until they reached Bani Quraydah. The Prophet Muhammad (ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) did not chastise either group. Why? Because both of them were following the sunnah but they both differed in its’ understanding. This is a case where there are differences of opinion among the scholars regarding the understanding of a ḥadīth or a verse, and it is something about which the early generations were tolerant. They did not allow issues like these to cause disunity in the ummah.
Another example from the time of the sahabah is the following:
During the time of Uthman (raḍyAllāhu ‘anhu), when he was on Ḥajj, he would perform four raka’āt of Dhuhr and ‘Aṣr while the general norm of the preceding khulafā’ and of the Prophet Muhammad (ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) was that when they would go for Ḥajj, they would perform two raka’āt, and now Uthman was praying four. Abdullah bin Masood (raḍyAllāhu ‘anhu) said, “What Uthman is doing, this is not the correct opinion. The correct way is to perform two raka’āt.” Despite his opinion, Abdullah bin Masood (raḍyAllāhu ‘anhu) prayed four raka’āt behind Uthman (raḍyAllāhu ‘anhu) without making a scene. His students asked him, “Why would you follow Uthman when you know he is wrong?” Abdullah bin Masood replied, “Disunity is evil.” Disunity is evil. The unity of the ummah was more important than the personal difference of opinion on whether they should have prayed four or two raka’āt.
Likewise, Abu Bakr and Umar (raḍyAllāhu ‘anhuma), differed on many issues. But these differences never ever caused them to fight against each other. The same is found amongst many of the sahabah. They would differ on issues of fiqh, but it never led to disunity; it never led to one calling the other a deviant. Rather, they would say, “I am right and he is wrong, but Allāh knows best.” They would still respect each other and treat each other as brothers in Islam. And this is not only the way of the sahabah– even the scholars who came later did the same thing. One example of this was Imam Malik. When he was a young student, two of Imam Malik’s (raḍyAllāhu ‘anhu), teachers were discussing a difference of opinion. One of his teachers had given a fatwa so his other teacher turned to him and said, “Malik, what is your opinion?” Malik said, “I cannot speak in front of my teachers. You have more knowledge than me; I have no right to speak in front of you.” His teacher said, “No, I want to hear your opinion.” So Imam Malik stated the complete opposite conclusion and opinion of his teacher. The complete opposite. And then his other teacher said “I agree with Malik’s view.” Now look at Imam Malik. He disagreed with the fatwa of his teacher, but out of respect for his teacher, he did not even want voice his opinion. He said I cannot speak when my teacher has spoken. Nowadays we find many young students that if the teacher gives a fatwa which is different from their understanding, immediately, they go on the forums, and social media such as Facebook. And start calling the teacher a deviant, blaspheming, misquoting, and attacking him. Compare this to the earlier generations who, even if they disagreed with their teachers and scholars, still respected them. We should learn from this powerful lesson from the story of Imam Malik.
Imam Malik’s case is not unique. We find that Imam Abu Hanifah’s (raḍyAllāhu ‘anhu) entire approach to fiqh revolved around tolerating differences of opinion. Whenever a fiqh issue was raised, Imam Abu Hanifah would get his students around him and he would ask each of them their opinion, and he would discuss the different opinions. And if they would arrive at a common conclusion, he would write that down as the common conclusion. If they would not arrive at a common conclusion, he would respect his students’ rights to differ with him. This is not a man respecting his elders’ rights to differ with him. It’s not a man respecting his contemporaries’ rights to differ with him. This is a man who respected his students’ rights to differ with him. This is the way of the salaf.
Scholars like Imam Muhammad ibn Hasan Ashaybani (raḍyAllāhu ‘anhu) also had the same kind of tolerance and respect for differing opinions. Muhammad ibn Hasan studied under Abu Hanifah and he is known as one of the leading scholars of the Hanafi madh-hab but he still went to Madinah and spent three years studying with Imam Malik, and he’s also one of the narrators of the Muwatta of Imam Malik, even though the fiqh of Imam Malik was very different from the fiqh of Abu Hanifah. Imam Muhammad, in many issues, agreed with the Māliki madh-hab and in many issues, he agreed with the Hanafi madh-hab, and on many issues he disagreed with both. But he still had complete respect for both his teachers. And they both had complete love and respect for him as their student.
Imam Al-Shāfi‘i (raḍyAllāhu ‘anhu), did the same thing. He studied under Imam Malik, and even in Imam Malik’s class he would sometimes state opinions different from his teacher. Imam Malik would respect Imam Al-Shāfi‘i’s right to differ with him even though Imam Al-Shāfi‘i was a child when he was studying with Imam Malik. Imam Malik was a very elderly man at this point in time, but he still respected this youngster’s right to differ with him. Imam Al-Shāfi‘i did not limit his knowledge to what he studied under Imam Malik. He also studied the Hanafi rulings from Imam Muhammad ibn Hasan Ashaybani. Imam Al-Shāfi‘i studied under different people of different understandings of fiqh who even differed on some of the principles of fiqh, but he called any of them a deviant. Never did he say any of them are on the wrong path. On the contrary, he respected their rights to differ with him on issues of fiqh, and this is the way of the early generations.
Imam Al-Shāfi‘i, on one occasion, was having a discussion with one of his students on the issue of fiqh. He and his student had completely opposite views on the issue. They discussed it until he could see that his student was getting angry. He could see the signs of anger and frustration on his student’s face. Imam Al-Shāfi‘i, he smiled, he reached out his hand to shake hand with his student and he told him, “Can’t we differ and still be brothers?” Listen to that statement again. Imam Al-Shāfi‘i told his student; not his contemporary or his teacher; he told his student who had differed with him, “Can’t we differ and still be brothers?” This should be something every Muslim should keep in mind when it comes to issues of fiqh. Can’t we differ and still be brothers? Nowadays we have people who will disown you if you differ with them on issues like raising the hands before and after rukū‘or wearing the pants below the ankles or which types of nasheeds are permissible or prohibited. As soon as you state an opinion that is different from their own, they will disown you, they will label you a deviant, and they’ll want to kick you out of the fold of ahl’l-sunnah wa’l-jamā‘ah. This is not the way of the salaf and saaliheen; this is not the way of the early generations. Their way was tolerance. Their way was to respect an individual’s right to arrive at a different conclusion with ijtihād even if they felt that the ijtihād conclusion was wrong.
Imam Al-Shaukaani’s (raḍyAllāhu ‘anhu) approach towards fiqh in his book about music is truly inspirational. He writes, “I have never listened to music in my life, and I believe it is prohibited, but I am writing my book and showing the different opinions and their proofs so people do not call others disbelievers and people tolerate difference of opinion and understand where everybody’s viewpoint is coming from.” Imagine that. He was of a view that it is prohibited. He could have very well written a book just proving his viewpoint and why he arrived at that conclusion, but he felt that this was unjust and he had to do justice to the other opinions and write the other opinions with their proofs and with the evidences as well so that people can see an unbiased view of the topic. Do we have this approach towards fiqh today? This is the way of the early generations. This is the way we are supposed to have and deal with our differences. The Prophet Muhammad (ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) has told us that, “Allah will not show mercy to those who are not merciful to mankind.” Notice that a general, inclusive term is used: Mankind. This means that we should apply this to all of mankind. So how much more to those who are students of knowledge or scholars? How much more merciful, tolerant, and just should we be when dealing with them? It should be on a higher level. Just because someone reaches a different conclusion than us doesn’t mean it is acceptable to label that person an extremist or deviant. If their opinion is different, but is still within the realm of acceptable differences of opinion, we must tolerate and respect it, despite clearly stating that we disagree with it. We can tell our brother “I don’t agree with what you are saying. This is my opinion. I believe your opinion is wrong, but Allah knows best.” And you’ll still be brothers; you’ll still be friends. Don’t allow acceptable differences to break the unity of the ummah.
I hope that this short discussion has been of benefit, and I hope that people can take from this some lessons to increase the unity of the ummah in our approach to dealing with fiqh. There is a lot of room for discussion in the realm of fiqh, but ultimately, the ‘aqīdah of ahl’l-sunnah wa’l-jamā‘ah is one.
We ask Allah to unite us all upon the correct understanding of Islam and to unite our hearts and to grant us all the correct understanding of Islam in every single issue and to grant this entire ummah unity.