The Ethics of Disagreement in Islam
In the Prophet's Lifetime
Such disagreement as we have mentioned in the previous chapter could not have taken place during the time of the Prophet, may God bless him and grant him peace. He was universally acknowledged by all his Companions as the one to whom any controversial matter had to be referred. He was their source of refuge and solace and their guide whenever they were perplexed. He would clarify issues for them and show the way to truth and offer right guidance.
Those who lived far away from Madinah and could not refer matters directly to the Prophet - matters such as the correct interpretation of the Qur'an and the Sunnah in the light of the knowledge they had - would exercise their own judgment and sometimes came to differing conclusions. When they returned to Madinah, however, they would meet the Prophet and review with him their different interpretations of the texts available to them. The Prophet would either approve of a particular judgment which then became part of his Sunnah, or he would point out the correct alternative which they would adopt wholeheartedly. Any disagreement or friction automatically disappeared.
One example of such an incident has been recorded by both al Bukhaaree and Muslim. During the Battle of the Confederates, the Prophet is reported to have said to his Companions: "Do not perform the mid-afternoon (`asr) salaah until you get to the [place of] Banoo Qurayzah." While still on their way, the time of the salaah came. Some of the companions said, "We will not perform the salaah until we get to the [place of] Banoo Qurayzah" while some others said, "We shall pray. That [saying of the Prophet] will not prevent us [from praying now]." The matter was later brought before the Prophet and he did not disapprove of either group.1
It is clear from this incident that the Companions of the Prophet had split into two groups over the interpretation of the Prophet's instructions - one group adopting the literal or explicit meaning of the injunction (`ibaarat al nass) while the other group derived a meaning from the injunction which they considered suitable for that situation. The fact that the Prophet approved of both groups showed that each position was legally just as valid as the other.
Thus, a Muslim who is faced with a particular injunction or text (nass) can either adopt the literal or manifest (.zaahir) meaning of the text or he may derive interpretations which are appropriate to the text by using his reason. This latter process of inference or deriving an interpretation in order to ascertain the real intention behind an injunction is called istinbaat. There is no blame attached to the one who strives to use it provided he is qualified and competent to do so. The second group of Companions understood from the Prophet's injunction that he wanted them to get to their destination as quickly as possible. They therefore considered that their performing of the prayer before reaching the Banoo Qurayzah did not contradict the order of the Prophet, so long as this did not delay their arrival unduly.
It is disconcerting to note that Ibn al Qayyim reported on differing views of various scholars on this issue in an attempt to show which group acted better. One set of scholars expressed the view that the group which acted better was the one that prayed on the way, thus attaining the reward of performing the salaah on time while carrying out the Prophet's in junction. Another set of scholars argued that those who delayed the prayer in order to perform it at the place of Banoo Qurayzah - according to the exact letter of the law or injunction - deserved more merit.2
However, I believe that as long as the Prophet himself did not disapprove of either group, it is incumbent on jurists to regard both positions as being a valid part of the Sunnah of the Prophet and to refrain from getting embroiled in an issue which the Prophet himself had resolved by leaving no room for any further preference.
Another incident in this same vein has been recorded by Aboo Daawood and al Haakim. It is reported that `Amr ibn al `Aas, may God be pleased with him, said:
One cold night during the Dhaat al Salaasil3 campaign, I had a wet dream. I feared that if I performed ghusl [necessary bath after ritual impurity] I would die [from the cold]. So I performed tayammum [dry ablution] instead, then performed the dawn salaah with my companions. This was mentioned to the Prophet who asked: `Amr! You performed the prayer with your companions while you were in a state of impurity [junub]?' Whereupon I recalled to him the verse of the Qur'aan: `And kill not yourselves. Indeed God has been most Merciful to you.' The Prophet laughed and said nothing.4 The Interpretive Process
We shall not concern ourselves here with detailing the various issues on which the Companions differed during and after the lifetime of the Prophet. Nor shall we detail on each issue who adopted the literal or obvious meaning of a text on the one hand and who reflected on and scrutinized its various aspects and derived various interpretations from it on the other. Such an undertaking would require volumes. Moreover, it must be borne in mind that the Companions themselves appreciated in all these circumstances that the religion of Islam was easy and that the law was wide enough to accommodate both approaches and methods.
It was the proficient scholars (mujtahidoon; singular: mujtahid) who were capable of analytical thought and of making independent judgments, and the skilled jurists (fuqahaa'; singular: faqeeh) who painstakingly strove to investigate the full ramifications of the Sharee`ah and set out its purposes. Sometimes they would adopt the literal or manifest meaning of an expression and sometimes they would adopt an interpretation that went beyond this. This interpretive process is called ta'weel. It may be useful to shed some light on the various types of ta'weel and the conditions for it.
Briefly, this interpretive process may be divided into three types: close or plausible interpretation (ta'weel qareeb); remote interpretation (ta'weel ba`eed); and far-fetched interpretation (ta'weel mustab`ad).
A close or plausible interpretation is one which can easily be sustained from the import of a text. For example, giving to charity funds appropriated from an orphan's trust or wasting such funds can both be construed as tantamount to "eating up the property of orphans" and therefore regarded as acts prohibited by the Qur'an: "Those who eat up the property of orphans only eat fire in their bellies" (4: 10).
A remote interpretation is one which requires a far greater degree of pondering and probing into the substance of a text. An example of this is the deduction (istinbaat) of Ibn `Abbaas from the following Qur'anic verses that the minimum period of human pregnancy is six months:
The [mother's] bearing of the [child] and his weaning is [a period of] thirty months (46: 15).
Mothers may nurse their children for two whole years if they wish to complete the period of nursing (2: 233).
Another example of such interpretation is the inference of Imaam al Shaafi`ee from the following Qur'anic verse that consensus (ijmaa`) is admissible as a proof of the validity of a ruling:
But as for him who, after guidance has been vouchsafed to him, cuts himself off from the Apostle and follows a path other than that of the believers, him shall We leave unto that which he himself has chosen, and We shall cause him to endure hell; and how evil a journey's end (4: 115).
In the same manner, jurists have inferred that analogical reasoning or deduction (qiyaas) is admissible as a proof of the validity of a ruling from the verse: "Learn a lesson, then, O you who are endowed with insight" (59: 2).
Such inferences and deductions, even though they may seem easy, are difficult to arrive at unless a person is engaged in thought and has a penetrating insight. It involves, moreover, a great deal of critical research. It is not an easy task for most people.
Such an interpretation cannot be construed from the text itself and the interpreter does not possess any shred of evidence to support his interpretation. An example of such an interpretation concerns the verse:
And he has placed on earth . . . rivers and paths that you might find your way, and means of orientation; and by the stars that men find their way (16: 15-16).
Some commentators have suggested that the word `alaamaat (`means of orientation') refers to the a'immah and the word al najm or `the stars' refers to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be on him. Similarly, with regard to the verse: "But neither signs (aayaat) nor warners (nudhur) profit a people who do not believe" (10: 101), some commentators have suggested that the word aayaat refers to the a'immah or scholarly leaders, and the word nudhur to the prophets.
Also with regard to the verses: "About what do they ask one another? About the great news" (78: 1-2), some commentators have suggested that "the great news" refers to `Alee, may God be pleased with him.5
Rules of Interpretation
It is clear from what we have said that interpretation requires an ability to ponder and reflect on the real import and purpose of a text. Otherwise it is safer to adopt the more obvious and manifest meanings. Interpretation is only admissible in matters on which there is no clear guidance in the Qur'an and the Sunnah and which require the use of rigorous reasoning (ijtihaad). In matters pertaining to belief there is no room for ijtihaad, and it is necessary to adopt the manifest meanings and what is properly and strictly sanctioned by the purport of the text. This is always the safest method and one which the early Muslims followed.
However, there are texts which require interpretation. In this case, the text at issue must be fully analyzed and understood. This requires a thorough knowledge of all the pertinent linguistic implications. This must be underpinned by a constant awareness of the purposes of the Sharee`ah and the principles which regulate it. In light of all this, the act of making a judgment, whether through considering the explicit meaning of a text or analyzing it with respect to the pertinent principles and proofs, is one of the most important types of juristic reasoning (al ijtihaad al fiqhee) and legal intellectual effort required by the divine injunction: "Learn a lesson, then, O you who are endowed with insight" (59: 2).
In dealing with rules and conditions of Qur'anic exegesis or commentary (tafseer), the knowledgeable Companion of the Prophet, Ibn `Abbas, mentioned four aspects:
- the aspect pertaining to the knowledge and understanding of Arabic usage;
- the aspect which no one is excused through ignorance;
- the aspect known by the `ulamaa';
- the aspect known only by God.
From what has been said above, there is a firm connection between ta'weel and tafseer. Both terms occur interchangeably in many instances in the Qur'an, for example:
But no one knows its interpretation (ta'weel) except God. And those who are firmly rooted in knowledge say: `We believe in it' (3: 7).
Most commentators of the Qur'an are of the view that ta'weel in the above verse refers to interpretation (tafseer) and explanation (bayaan). Among these commentators is al Tabaree, who transmitted this view on the authority of Ibn `Abbaas and other early Muslims. That ta'weel is synonymous with tafseer is also borne out by the Prophet's prayer for Ibn `Abbaas: "O Allah, give him a firm understanding (fiqh) of the religion and teach him interpretation (ta'weel)." Some scholars like al Ragheeb al Isfahaanee in his book Mufradaat (Glossary) considered tafseer to be more general than ta'weel, and also alluded to the fact that the word tafseer is more frequently used for the explanation and elucidation of terms while ta'weel is more often used to explain meanings and sentences. He also pointed out that ta'weel is more often than not used for deriving (istinbaat) meanings from texts of the Qur'an and Sunnah while tafseer draws upon these and other sources as well to derive meanings.
This strong connection between the two terms - as used in the Qur'an and Sunnah especially - allows us to apply the rules developed for tafseer to those which also concern ta'weel.
There is no doubt that the Qur'an contains matters of which knowledge is reserved for God alone - matters pertaining to knowledge of the true meaning of God's names and attributes, to the details of all that is beyond the reach of human perception included in the term al ghayb. There are other matters which God has revealed to Prophet Muhammad and only he knew about them. No one has the right or the ability to delve into the interpretation and explanation of these matters; commenting on them must remain within the limits of what is stated in the Qur'an and Sunnah.
There is yet a third category of subjects which deal with sciences which God has revealed to the Prophet in the Qur'an and commissioned him to teach and explain. This category consists of two types. The first relates to matters which can only be delved into through the sense of hearing - like the circumstances surrounding the revelation of a particular portion of the Qur'an (asbaab al nuzool) and matters pertaining to the abrogation of verses (al naasikh wa al mansookh) and so on. The second relates to matters which can be grasped through insight, reason, and advancing proofs. Scholars are divided into two groups in their approach to this. One group did not allow interpretation of the verses of the Qur'an which made reference to the names and attributes of God. The early Muslims also prohibited such interpretation. This is the correct stand. A second group agreed that interpretation was permissible and that legal rules could be derived from the texts supported by detailed evidence. This discipline is known as jurisprudence or fiqh (which literally means `understanding').
The `ulamaa' have accordingly established conditions for the exercise of interpretation (ta'weel) and explanation (tafseer):
1. Interpretation should not disregard the explicit (.zaahir) connotation of a word as understood in accordance with the accepted rules of the language and the speech norms of the Arabs.
2. Interpretation should not contradict a Qur'anic text.
3. Interpretation must not be at variance with a juristic principle established by a consensus of the `ulamaa' and the a'immah.
4. The necessity to strictly observe the purpose behind the text or injunction in the circumstances it was revealed or mentioned.
As for the false and untenable kinds of interpretation (ta'weel), these may be conveniently listed as follows:
1. Interpretations and explanations made by persons not qualified for the task, who do not have sufficient knowledge of Arabic language and grammar nor of the other requisites of interpretation.
2. Interpretation of intricate or allegorical texts (mutashaabihaat) whose meaning is totally unclear without the backing of authentic evidence.
3. Interpretations that seek to establish corrupt ideologies which go against the explicit teachings of the Qur'an and the Sunnah or the consensus (ijmaa`) of the Muslims.
4. Interpretation, without any evidence, which definitely attributes a purpose to the Lawgiver.
5. Interpretation based on pure conjecture such as the interpretations of the esoteric sects like the Baatineeyah and others.
All these categories of interpretation are rejected and fall under the previously mentioned category of far-fetched interpretations.
The Companions and Ijtihad
In view of the critical importance of ijtihaad and the processes involved in it, only the qualified and capable Companions of the Prophet practiced it. When others engaged in ijtihaad and erred, the Prophet, peace be on him, rejected what they had done and did not encourage such risks. The following account narrated by Jaabir, a Companion of the Prophet, demonstrates this:
We went out on a journey and one of our men was hit on the head by a stone. He then had a wet dream and so asked his companions: `Can you find a ruling which would give me a dispensation to make dry ablution (tayammum) [instead of having to take a bath]?' They replied: `We do not find any dispensation for you while you can obtain water.' So he had the bath but subsequently died. When we got back to the Messenger of God and told him what had happened, he, may the peace and blessings of God be on him, said: `They killed him. May God kill them. Why did they not ask if they did not know? The cure for the incapable one is merely to ask. It would have been sufficient for the deceased simply to make tayammum, or he could have bandaged his wound and passed his wet hand lightly over the bandaged area and then washed the rest of his body.'6
It is clear from this hadeeth that the Prophet did not absolve his Companions who made a legal ruling without having the knowledge and the competence to do so. Instead, he reprimanded them sharply and blamed them for making a legal decision without knowledge. He considered them as murderers of their brother in faith. Furthermore, he made it plain that it was incumbent on those like them who were incapable - that is who were ignorant and confused in such matters - to ask and not to rush to give a verdict (fatwaa). The Prophet's insistence on the necessity of asking in such circumstances is supported by the divine injunction: "Ask the knowledgeable if you do not know" (16: 43).
Usaamah ibn Zayd related the following incident:
The Messenger of God, may God bless him and grant him peace, sent us on a military expedition and we fell under fire from [the tribe of] Juhaynah. I confronted a man and he declared, `There is no god but Allah (laa ilaaha illaa Allaah)' but I stabbed him. This troubled me immensely and I mentioned it to the Prophet, may God bless him and grant him peace. The Messenger of God, may God bless him and grant him peace, asked: `Did he say laa ilaaha illaa Allaah and you killed him?' I said: `O Messenger of Allah, he only said it out of fear of the weapon.' The Prophet said: `Did you open his heart in order to know that that is why he uttered it [the profession of faith: the shahaadah] or not? Who will be on your side on the Day of Judgment when this laa ilaaha illaa Allaah is pronounced?' He continued repeating this so that I wished I had not embraced Islam before that day."7
In the first hadeeth, the Prophet rejected the judgment of the Companions in that it was based on the general evidence which made it obligatory for a Muslim to use water for ablution when it is available while ignoring the specific condition of the person. In this respect, they did not pay attention to the Qur'anic verse:
If you are sick or are on a journey, or have just satisfied a demand of nature, or have had contact with a woman and can find no water, then take resort to clean sand or earth. God does not want to impose any hardship on you, but wants to make you pure (5: 6).
Moreover, they were not knowledgeable people and they did not ask. In the incident concerning Usaamah, it seems that he did what he did in the light of his interpretation of the Qur'anic verse: "But their professing the faith when they (actually) saw our punishment was not go ing to benefit them" (40: 85). He therefore considered that this verse negated any benefit for the person concerned in this world and in the hereafter and that it was not specifically concerned with the hereafter, which is the obvious meaning of the verse. Perhaps it was this which made the Prophet censure him so strongly.
These are just some examples of the verdicts (fataawaa; singular: fatwaa) reached by the companions, may God be pleased with them, which the Prophet did not validate.8
People would come to the Prophet to seek his ruling on actual incidents and he would answer their questions. Various issues and problems were presented to him to settle and he would do so.9
He would see a good deed and commend it and praise its doer. He would see a reprehensible act and disapprove of it. Those of his Companions who were present would learn directly from the Prophet and in turn would pass on what they had learnt to others. In the process they might differ among themselves, but they would continue to discuss any controversial issues in an objective manner and in such a way that did not lead to discord and schism or nasty accusations. This was because they would always go back to the Book of God and His Messenger, may God bless him and grant him peace. They would put a decisive end to any disagreement such that no trace of ill-feeling was left to weaken the bond of brotherhood among them.
Disagreement and the Prophet's Warning
The Prophet warned his Companions about the dangers of disagreement. He realized that the survival of the Ummah depended on the harmony and mutual affection of the believers, whose hearts had come together on the basis of love for God. He also realized that the ruin of the Ummah lay in the hearts of believers torn by mutual strife. So the Prophet, peace and blessings of God be on him, repeatedly warned that discord should cease to raise its head and therefore said: "Do not engage in disagreement thereby causing discord among your hearts."10
The Companions of the Prophet themselves saw that discord produced nothing good. Ibn Mas`ood, may God be pleased with him, once said: "Disagreement is evil." Furthermore, the Prophet would always nip any disagreement in the bud, as the following incident narrated by `Abd Allaah ibn `Umar shows. He said:
One day I called upon the Messenger of God, may God bless him and grant him peace, during the midday rest. [While I was there], the Prophet heard two men arguing loudly in disagreement over [the meaning of a Qur'anic verse]. The Messenger of God, may God bless him and grant him peace, went out with anger showing on his face and said: `People before you perished only because of their disagreement about the Scripture.'11
Al Nazzaal ibn Sabrah related:
I heard `Abd Allaah ibn Mas`ood saying, `I heard a man reciting a verse from the Qur'an which I had heard from God's Messenger, but differently. I took him by the hand and brought him to the Messenger of God who said: "Both of you have done good." Shu`bah added, "I think he [also] said: `Do not engage in disagreement, for those before you engaged in disagreement and perished."12
Here the Prophet instructed his Companions and those who come after them about the dire consequences of disagreement and warned them against it. The Prophet also taught his Companions about the crucial manner in which they had to observe the ethics of disagreement, especially in reciting the Qur'an. In an authentic hadeeth, he has said: "Read [and study] the Qur'an so long as your hearts are united on it, but when you have differences over it, stop [your recitation]."13
In the event of disagreement arising over different modes of reciting the Qur'an or over the intended meaning of any of its verses, the Prophet, peace be on him, charged his Companions to stand away from the glorious Qur'an until they were completely calm and all the stimuli of acrimonious argument which lead to discord and schism had been quelled. On the other hand, when their hearts were united, a sincere desire to understand prevailed and they could then continue with their reading, reflection, and pondering on the verses of the Qur'an. We also see that the Qur'an itself sometimes issued a caution regarding the ethics of disagreement when it occurred among the Companions. In this context, `Abd Allaah ibn al Zubayr is reported to have said:
The two chosen Companions of the Prophet, Aboo Bakr and `Umar, may God be pleased with them, almost ruined themselves. They both raised their voices in the presence of the Prophet, peace be on him, when a delegation of the Banoo Tameem came to him. One of the two men recommended al Aqra` ibn Haabees [to be appointed the chief of the delegation] while the other pointed to al-Qa`qaa` ibn Ma`bad ibn Zaraarah.
Aboo Bakr thereupon said to `Umar: `You only wanted to oppose me.' `Umar replied: `I did not want to oppose you.' Their voices grew louder and louder over the issue. And the divine words were revealed: `O you who have attained to faith, do not raise your voices above the voice of the Prophet' (49: 2-3). Ibn al Zubayr added: `After the revelation of this verse, `Umar would scarcely make himself heard by the Prophet; so much so that the Prophet would have to ask him to repeat his words.'14 Salient Features
In the light of the above, we can list some of the salient features of the ethics of disagreement during the time of the Prophet:
1. The Companions, may God be pleased with them, tried as far as possible not to disagree. They did not make much about marginal issues15 but treated the matters that posed controversy in the light of the Prophet's guidance. This manner of dealing with actual situations normally does not leave much room for argumentation, let alone dispute and discord.
2. If differences occurred despite attempts to avoid them, the Companions would quickly refer the disputed issue to the Qur'an and to the Prophet, and any controversy would be quickly dispelled.
3. The Companions reacted with a ready obedience and commitment to the judgment of the Qur'an and the Pro phet and their complete and total submission to it.
4. The Prophet used to point out to his Companions what was right and what was wrong with regards to controversial questions open to interpretation. On their part, the Companions had mutual trust in the genuineness of each other's judgments. This approach guaranteed the preservation of mutual respect among fellow Muslims who differed, and also kept fanaticism and bigotry at bay.
5. Commitment to God-consciousness and avoidance of personal whims made the pursuit of truth alone the goal of those who differed over an issue. It did not matter to anyone in a discussion whether the truth was voiced by him or by another person.
6. They adhered steadfastly to the Islamic norms of behavior during argumentation. They discussed matters politely and amicably, avoiding the use of vile and insulting language. Each was prepared to listen attentively to the other.
7. They eschewed hypocrisy and flattery as far as possible and exerted every effort to investigate an issue objectively. This practice, characterized by the seriousness of the argument and respect for the other person, would force the disputant into either accepting the other point of view or advancing a better opinion.
1. See Fath al Baaree commentary on Saheeh al Bukhaaree, 7/313; Saheeh Muslim, the Book of al Salaah.
2. Ibn al Qayyim, I`laam al Muwaqqi`een.
3. A place on the Syrian borders.
4. Aboo Daawood, Sunan, hadeeth 334; Fath al Baaree commentary of Saheeh al Bukhaaree, 1/385; Nayl al Awtaar, 1/324.
5. See Usool al Kaafee, 1/216.
6. Aboo Daawood, Sunan, hadeeth 336; also transmitted by Ibn Maajah, hadeeth 572; see Nayl al Awtaar, 1/323.
7. Transmitted by al Imaam Ahmad, al Bukhaaree, Muslim, al Nasaa'ee, al Tabaraanee. Also transmitted by al Bukhaaree, 7/398, with some variation.
8. Ibn Hazm has recorded a number of verdicts (fataawaa) of the Companions which the Prophet did not validate. See his al Ihkam, 6/84-5 and 2/126-7.
9. See Hujjat Allaah al Baalighah, 1/298.
10. Al Bukhaaree in al Jaamee` al Sagheer, 2/494.
11. Ibn Hazm, al Ihkaam, 5/66.
12. See Ibn Hazm, Al Ihkaam. Also Saheeh al Bukhaaree in the chapter on "The Repugnance of Disagreement" (Baab Karaaheeyat al Ikhtilaaf), 13/289.
13. Transmitted by al Bukhaaree and Muslim, Ahmad in his Musnad, and by al Nasaa'ee.
14. Transmitted by al Bukhaaree - see Fath al Baaree, 8/66, 454 and 13/235.
15. Ibid., 13/219-28.