Hussam Sehwail is a Palestinian-American Muslim and graduate student of electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
We often find Muslims arguing with each other about differences between their actions: “Why do you pray with your hands like that?”, “You’re washing yourself the wrong way,” and other similar statements frequently heard in mosques. This is especially true in multicultural Muslim communities common in Western countries. Although many grow up with whatever customs their parents follow, they may fail to realize that other Muslims might act differently than they do. Hence, it would be of benefit to understand why Muslims may have some differences with regards to religious practices.
In Islamic scholarship, there are valid and invalid differences of opinion. Invalid opinions include blameworthy divergence from the sources. This can be in fundamental beliefs of Islam such as denying the Seal of Prophethood. Invalid differences can also be related to jurisprudence, rejecting clear rulings of the Qur’an or Sunnah such as the injunction to fast during Ramadan. Invalid opinions are to be denounced and clarified for those who hold them.
Sometimes scholars have what are considered valid differences of opinion. These are generally in the details such as composure in prayer, the scope of permissible business, and other practical issues. How could Islamic scholars have legitimate differences of opinion with regards to the religion? First, valid opinions are only those where jurists attempt to sincerely come to the correct ruling, not motivated by whims, fear, sectarianism, or other disingenuous reasoning.
Second, jurists may be unaware of relevant texts. Illustrating this is the famous statement by Imam Ash-Shafi’ee regarding his own rulings, saying that if a hadith of the Prophet (SAWS) is found to be saheeh (authentic), then one shall “throw my opinion against the wall.”
Third, “valid” differences of opinion do not mean that there is more than one correct opinion. The truth is only one, but some differences are sincere and reasonable. These are not to be reprimanded, but discussed. It is upon the scholars and every Muslim to attempt to follow the truth.
Sometimes, there are more complex issues involving understanding cases across different texts. These include general rulings versus specific rulings–abrogation, analogy, and many other issues. These cannot be discussed here in detail, but one example may help to understand the spirit of disagreement. The classic case of eating camel meat: does it break ablution?
There is the hadith of the Prophet (SAWS) specifically requiring ablution for prayer after eating camel meat. The answer sounds simple enough. However, there are also hadith about abrogating the necessity of ablution after eating cooked food. Some jurists understood the texts to mean that renewing ablution is generally unnecessary after eating, but is specifically required for camel meat. Others said the abrogation of renewing ablution was general, including camel meat. This illustrates how two reasonable points of view emerged from the texts available. Again, there is one right answer but reasonable disagreement is respected and such details are not typically major.
The fundamentals of Islam, which are clear, must be believed and acted upon by every Muslim. But there are some details in the implementation of Islam where different opinions can be perfectly reasonable and respectable understandings. So before Muslims begin criticizing each others’ practices, they should first inquire into matters which seem out of place to them. The Companions of the Prophet (SAWS) themselves had their differences, but we must not forget Allah’s command to the Muslims:
“And hold firmly to the rope of Allah all together and do not become divided.” (‘Ali ‘Imran: 103)
For those interested in further discussion of the issue, there is The Evolution of Fiqh by Bilal Philips and for a more in-depth study of the ways of understanding the sources, see M. Hashim Kamali’s Principle of Islamic Jurisprudence. Allah knows best.
What do you think of Sehwail’s perspective on Islamic jurisprudence? In relation to the final quote above (Surah ‘Ali ‘Imran: 103), is there a difference between how Muslims interpret “divided” and what God was referring to?