Mohamed Ghilan is a Muslim-Canadian of Yemeni and Sudanese decent and a graduate student of neuroscience at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. Ghilan has formally studied Islam for the past four years and offers his own perspectives related to topics in Islam on his blog.
A disease that has taken over many Muslims nowadays is religious egocentrism—the over-obsession with one’s own religious understanding to the point of it becoming dogmatic. If this were to remain confined to one’s own life, it would not warrant much attention. But when it moves into the public sphere and people begin to enforce their beliefs upon everyone else, it becomes a problem.
Islam is a diverse religion that speaks to mankind as a whole. From the very beginning, the Prophet Muhammad PBUH approved of multiple interpretations of his own words and allowed his companions to exercise their intellect. This gave rise to multiple understandings of many Qur’anic verses and hadith narrations.
Religious scholars often cite one story in particular that illustrates this concept. The companions were commanded by the Prophet PBUH to go and siege the tribe of Bani Quraytha after they broke their treaty with the Muslims. In response, the Prophet PBUH said:
Let none of you pray Asr except at Bani Quraytha.
On their way, his companions had time to offer the Asr, or mid-afternoon prayer before arriving at their destination. They split up into two groups; one decided to pray before the designated time for prayer ended, citing a previous statement made by the Prophet PBUH encouraging a speedy arrival, while the other group held off from praying because they did not want to disobey the direct Prophetic command. The group asked the Prophet to settle the matter later on. He remained silent and didn’t rebuke either group. In the Islamic sciences, the silence of the Prophet PBUH is evidence of approval.
It is this flexibility of Islam that allows for Muslims from different contexts to be able to remain faithful and truthful to the core teachings of the religion without compromising the tradition of the Prophet PBUH. There are many other examples from the time of the companions that clearly show the Prophet’s acceptance of having differences in opinion. It should be pointed out that these differences were not based on the whims and desires of the scholars. They are based upon strict faithfulness to the various sciences one has to master before offering a ruling from the Qur’an or hadith. The most important of these sciences is the Arabic language, which takes students many years of serious study before they can feel comfortable enough to derive rulings from the Qur’an or hadith.
When one reflects on the matter, it becomes clear that in most cases, rejection of diversity of interpretations is a result of the individual’s ignorance of the matter. The scholars estimate that 97% of the Qur’an and hadith allow for multiple interpretations. Further, over 1.2 million Islamic issues have been differed upon by scholars. This is not to say that there is a difference in opinion about the impermissibility of some aspects, such as adultery or using intoxicants. These would be part of the remaining 3% of clear-cut commandments and prohibitions that every Muslim needs to know. However, beyond these clear instructions, knowledge and mastery are required before one speaks on any religious matter.
As the great predecessor Imam Sufiyan Athh’awri once said:
Verily, knowledge is to give an allowance out of certainty. As for restriction, anyone can do that.
Before one speaks on any religious matter without having the prerequisite knowledge, they should reflect on Verses 116 and 117 from Surah An-Nahl (Chapter 16), which says:
And, for what your tongues describe, do not utter the lie, (saying) This is lawful and this is unlawful, in order to forge a lie against Allah; surely those who forge the lie against Allah shall not prosper. A little enjoyment and they shall have a painful punishment.
If an all-Muslim community has a dogmatic interpretation of Islam and prevents other forms from being practiced, does this inherently make the community’s actions “un-Islamic?” How does one distinguish between diversity of interpretation and heresy? Who or what in Islam gets to decide this? Please share your thoughts below.