WE MOVE ON from Part (3) to discuss how Islamic Tradition, which has been neglected in recent centuries—under pressure from Modernism—has the power to bring us back to our blessed state of practical Islam.

The Second Obstacle: Modernity (continued)

The Dynamism of the Islamic Tradition

First, we ought to recall that Allah has promised to guide this ummah. It is an article of faith in the creed of Ahl Al-Sunnah that the ummah of Islam is protected from error. But this guidance is contingent upon the binary process of amr bi’l-maʿrûf and nahî ʿan’il-munkar (the enjoining of what is right and forbidding of what is wrong).

The well-known proof for the continued guidance of this ummah, and hence for the need to preserve the path of its early generations, has been deduced since the days of the earliest Muslims, including by the Fifth Rightly-Guided Caliph ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd Al-ʿAzîz and by the great Imams Mâlik and Al-Shâfiʿi, and others, from the following verse:

If anyone contends with the Messenger even after guidance has been plainly conveyed to him, and follows a path other than that of the believers, We shall leave him in the path he has chosen, and land him in Hell, what an evil refuge! [Sûrat Al-Nisâ’, 4:115]

This doctrine is known as the ʿi ṣma, or protection from error, of the Muslim ummah as a whole, and it is the basis of the rectitude of ijmâʿ (consensus) of Muslims as a source of Islamic Law.

How Do We Know That We Have Not Gone Astray?

What few appreciate is the mechanism for the ummah’s protection from going astray, however. Since—in Islam—none after the Prophet ﷺ is infallible, how does Allah protect the ummah from straying? On this question, Shaykh Al-Islam Ibn Taymiyya has given the most excellent explanation of the doctrine of Ahl Al-Sunnah, which is that the mechanism of this protection of the ummah is the obligation of commanding right and forbidding wrong.

Let us draw out some of the implications of this mechanism. This process of mutual correction, which occurs not only among individuals, but more importantly at collective levels, through the correction by one group of Muslims of another, by one region of another, by one school of thought of another, by one kind of Islamic authority of another, and so on.

Islamic Tradition, inevitably, consists of the record of not only the correct interpretations and applications of the scriptural Texts by the early Muslims (the immediate audience of the Quran in particular), and the subsequent generations and their heroic and pious deeds, but also of the record of the scriptural Texts’ incorrect interpretation and misapplication by Muslims, and by our predecessors’ witting and unwitting errors, deviations, and compounded missteps.

Since—outside of the fundamental and agreed upon matters—we do not know who exactly was in the right, we may have to reevaluate, on the basis of the scriptural Texts and with the benefit of hindsight, which part of the Tradition should be exonerated.

How Do We Understand Reform and Self-Correction?

Another remarkable fact to be learned from this doctrine is that Islamic Tradition is inherently dynamic—an ongoing and ever-renewing project. This is why the notion of revival is so inherent and natural to Islam. But it is reform not of Islam —as many nowadays, particularly Westernized Muslims, like to understand it—but reform of ourselves by Islam. Of course, in the process of arguing for revival or reform, some of us may need to show others of us that their understanding of Islamic Tradition is flawed and needs reform, or that certain elements of the dîn have become neglected and need to be revived.

This topic ought to be understood among us because of the well- known  ḥadîth that “Allah will send at the turn of every century one (or those) who will revive its religion” (Abû Dâwûd), on the basis of which much has been written. In view of this, I will omit expatiating upon it and move to the aspects of the Tradition that are less appreciated.

Unity vs. Diversity and the Limits of Each

We know that the Muslim ummah, and hence Islamic Tradition, is divided into many, many groups. Rather than being dismayed about it, we must see this as the divine way to enable us to constantly correct each other. This cannot be achieved without a thorough and sincerely motivated knowledge of our Tradition.

Before turning to the nature and classification of disagreements and to distinguishing good from bad kinds of disagreements, let us directly face the questions that confront all thinking Muslims. Why does Allah allow dissension and confusion to arise in regard to Islam? Why does there appear to be so much disagreement on the interpretation of the Quran, of all things? Why are even a ḥadîth at times graded differently by different scholars or treated and interpreted differently? Why is there often such dissension and animosity between the Sunnis and the Shîʿis? Why are Sunnis divided between those who embrace kalâm or ta ṣawwuf and those who see these as heretical innovations? Why are Muslim jurists divided on so many practical issues? Why do ʿulamâ’ give differing fatwas, to begin with?

How Do Our Disagreements Develop Our Hearts and Minds?

If these and similar questions regarding your religion frustrate you, I would say your anxiety is valid. The reasons and justifications—historical, philosophical and psychological—are many, but they don’t eliminate the frustration. Wouldn’t it be so much better if the Truth were always crystal clear? It would seem so, but would it be the best thing for us in reality? I believe not. Frustrating and, at times, painful as it is, disagreement and dissension are part of Allah’s plan.

Part of our testing in life and faith is the challenge to maintain humility and perseverance in the face of uncertainty. We live in a world where most things, from emotions and relationships, to economic and social phenomena, are fraught with uncertainties. Still we must act virtuously.

Dealing with uncertainties in fiqh opinions (Law), in variable reliability in  ḥadîth, and in Quran interpretation is both a test and a kind of training for us. It requires us to constantly try to sift the wheat from the chaff while being respectful of those who do their sifting differently and even incorrectly.

This transforms the nature of piety and virtue in Islam, for now it is not only the test of one’s heart, but also of one’s mind. One must be humble, yet also try to know the limits beyond which a believer must take a stance and oppose the uncertainty that is being used to weaken faith. To ask humans to follow black and white directions would have been too simple, dull, contrary to our created nature, and would ultimately fail to cultivate our faculties in the way that only complex moral situations require and hence develop.

Legitimate Differences

Turning to the nature and classification of disagreements, it goes without saying that some of these are legitimate, perhaps even equally valid (for instance, those fiqhi issues termed masâ’il al-ijtihâd, or legitimate issues of independent reasoning), whereas others are not.

This is another way of saying that some of the differences on which the various groups are based are legitimate and can be explained as what scholars have called “differences of diversity” or ikhtilâf al-tanawwuʿ. Strictly speaking, differences born out of diversity pertain to particular opinions and do not necessarily lead to the creation of different groups and identities, but they may, as we shall see. These disagreements are due to the way Allah has created us. That is to say, they grow out of the diversity of inevitable human differences in culture, language, experiences, preferences, temperaments, and so on.

Illegitimate Differences 

The other kind of disagreements that cannot be deemed legitimate is born out of misunderstanding, ignorance, malice, or transgression. One of the frequent divine rebukes against the People of the Book in the Quran is their disagreement as a consequence of transgression against each other, baghyan baynahum. Such disagreements cause hearts to turn against each other and are the source of sectarianism and dissention, or tafriqa, which the Quran and the Sunnah have warned against in the strongest terms (see Sûrat Âl ʿImrân, 3:103-5; Sûrat Al-Anʿâm, 6:153; and Sûrat Al-Shûra, 42:13). The term tafriqa has been employed in another context in the Quran, indicating the parting of ways or separation of spouses due to irreconcilable differences, which gives us a better sense of its concrete meaning (Surat Al-Nisâ’, 4:130). The Quran further emphasizes that tafriqa arose among the People of the Book after knowledge of Allah through a divine book had come to them (Sûrat Al-Shûra, 42:14 and Sûrat Al-Bayyinah, 98:4).

Note that illegitimate disagreement may be a result of ignorance or misunderstanding, and not necessarily malice or impiety. This source of disagreement does not render the person who holds that opinion necessarily blameworthy because mistakes can be made with sincerity. This is captured in the crucial  ḥadîth that forms the backbone of Islamic knowledge.

The Prophet ﷺ said:

When a judge renders a judgment and he makes ijtihâd [utmost intellectual striving with sincerity], and he is correct, he gets two rewards. When he judges thus and is incorrect, he receives a single reward. (Muslim)

It is safe to say that among believers, illegitimate disagreement is largely of this kind. The obligation of na ṣî ḥa (sincere advice, feedback, discussion, etc.), or of amr bi’l maʿrûf wa nahy ʿan’il -munkar (enjoining good and forbidding evil), is, therefore, crucial, for wherever such is practiced, disagreements of tafriqa are minimized because it reduces the possibility of both sincere errors and malicious transgressions.

Such disagreements do not necessarily deprive the dissenting group that holds an erroneous opinion of the status of believers, as Allah states:

If two groups from among the believers come to fight, make peace between them…and if one transgresses against the other, fight then against the transgressor until it surrenders to Allah’s command….Believers are but brethren, so make peace between your brethren… [Sûrat Al-Ḥujarât, 49:9-10]

Only if a group fails to return to the jamâʿa (united community) of Muslims after its error has become clear does it lose its status of being believers. (The early jurists have discussed this issue particularly in relation to the extreme case of those who take up arms against a Muslim ruler on the basis of an interpretation (ta’wîl) of the scriptural Texts, called ahl al-baghy or bughât.)

Acceptable and Unacceptable Disagreements

An important caveat complicates this preliminary classification of disagreements (and the groups that emerge as a result) as those of diversity (hence legitimate) and those of dissension (hence illegitimate): What starts as a disagreement of diversity may be used, through transgression and malice, in the service of evil ends, whereas what starts as an erroneous interpretation may, through mutual advice and humility, turn into a source of deeper understanding.

In Part 5, we elaborate on the first of four possible trajectories of disagreement in Islamic Tradition so as to cull a richer understanding and, Inshâ’Allâh, some wisdom.

Dr Ovamir Anjum

Uwaymir Anjum is the Imam Khattab Chair of Islamic Studies at the Department of Philosophy, University of Toledo. He is also professor of Islamic Intellectual History at Qatar University. He studies the connections between theology, ethics, politics, and law in classical and medieval Islam, with a subfocus on its comparisons with western thought. Related fields of study include Islamic philosophy and Sufism. His dissertation, published in 2012 by Cambridge University Press, is entitled Politics, Law, and Community in Islamic Thought: The Taymiyyan Moment. His translation of Ibn al-Qayyim's Madârij Al-Sâlikîn is forthcoming.

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