Religious Egocentrism

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.

5 thoughts on “Religious Egocentrism

  1. Alsalamu Aleikum,
    Thank you very much for this delicate touch in revealing part of the complexity and diversity in the Islamic worldview. It gives a precious insight for people who think of Islam as a closed-up, narrow-minded religion with a single mission statement “destroying western lifestyle!”
    This diversity of opinion is what I would like to further clarify here.
    Among the different ways in which Islam is viewed there is another school that is more ‘liberal’ in the way it deals with the spirit of religion. Although it does not allow individuals who are not professionally educated to make Fatwas or issue decrees or interpretations of religion, it does not exclusively give that right only to scientists.
    In one particular Hadith the prophet (PBUH) says “consult your heart, even if you are given a Fatwa.” Which means that even though knowledge of language, Quran, and Sunnah, is required to issue Fatwas and interpretations, this doesn’t mean that any Fatwa given by anyone with this knowledge is automatically valid.
    What this second school argues is that limiting Islamic Fatwas to the internal world of Islamic scientist is a form of institutionalizing Islam, which could open the door to power abuse and many other deviations and complications, with Europe being a good example of that. The point is that in addition to the above mentioned flexibility in interpreting Islam and issuing Fatwas that is offered for scholars, there is another level of flexibility in whether or not to follow them, or which one of them to follow. This flexibility is done by the believer himself.
    This decree, in my view, guarantees that Islam as a religion will always be in the public domain, and will never be monopolized by any group of people. After all, one of the unique things about Islam is the direct relation between Allah and His servants, with no proxies or middle-men.
    Of course if you are to only take Islam from scholars then you should totally ignore this comment because I have no formal religious education. Otherwise, it would be a great way to view Islam as a culture, not only as a religion, and in this second role not only religious scholars can have their say, but everyone else who has an opinion.
    Thanks again.

  2. As’salamu Alykoum,

    After having received a couple of comments that were a result of a slight misunderstanding, I thought it might be appropriate to write a quick note here to clarify a couple of points I made in the article.

    Regarding the statistic I’ve given, I actually was told this by teachers from Al Azhar, where they actually compiled all the fiqh (jurisprudence) issues that were differed upon, and these were the numbers they arrived at. Regarding the 97% value, that was said by Shaykh Muhammed Al Hasan Wald Ad’Dido, who is the president of the association of Mauritanian scholars. Those who have heard of him will know what type of caliber of scholarship he represents – for one thing, he memorized by rote the 6 sahih books of Hadith before he was 30 years of age. You can look him up to get a full bio.

    I think the confusion stems from the fact that I wasn’t clear enough in the article to state that the differences in opinion are in the branches of fiqh and NOT in the fundamental teachings of Islam. Furthermore, I was NOT referring to theology, which would deserve its own article. Anyone with basic knowledge of the Arabic sciences and proper training in Quran and Hadith wouldn’t disagree with what I said. Moreover, the multiple possibilities of interpretations does NOT mean that one would deviate away from the essence of the teaching. To give you an example, just about every Muslim knows of the Hadith where the Prophet peace be upon him said, “whoever fasts Ramadan and follows it by six from Sha’wwal, it will be as if he fasted the whole year”. Imam Shafi’i may Allah be pleased with him understood from the preposition “min” that is translated to “from” to mean that the six days have to come from within the month of Sha’wwal. Imam Malik may Allah be pleased with him had a different ruling on this matter that has from its basis that the word “min” means “beginning from”. So now you have two interpretations of the same Hadith narration: one says you have to fast the six days from within the month of Sha’wwal, while the other says you actually have the whole year starting from Sha’wwal until the end of the next year’s Sha’ban to fast the six days. In both cases the individual will still end up fasting the 6 days. Both opinions are valid and both have a sound basis from a linguistic point of view. (There is a little more to Imam Malik’s position that I will not delve into here because I think I’ve illustrated the point.)

    The problem is with some of our Muslim brethren that feel as if they and only they have the right opinions. My point in the article was that although we all share the foundations that make us Muslim, and many of the core issues that go with them, we still have valid differences in opinion that are simply a result of varying understandings. This does NOT mean going against the Quran or Hadith. It also does NOT mean an average Muslim can just get straight into the Quran or Hadith and start deriving rulings out of them. This is a scholarly matter and having a copy of the Quran and a copy of Sahih Al Bukhari does NOT mean one can just pull a Hadith and claim that their understanding is the only correct one. Many tools relating to Arabic, poetry, rhetoric, etc. have to be absolutely mastered before rulings can be derived. Despite that, the fundamental message of Islam is a simple one that any person can understand even through reading a translation of the Quran. I’m referring to fiqh here.

    But again, we’re talking about branches and not foundations. This is actually why Islam is valid for every time and place and culture. I’ve traveled around quite a bit and visited some very different countries where I found a different “flavor” of Islam in each one. But despite these different flavors, the essence was the same. I could bring a Muslim from China, one from South America, another from Africa, one from North America and another from Europe, and they will all tell you the same message of Islam about Allah, the Prophet peace be upon him, the tenets of Islam and the tenets of Iman. They will all tell you the same thing about what’s obligatory for a Muslim to know and do, and what’s impermissible. They will all tell you that Fajr is 2 cycles of bowing and prostration. They will all recite the same Quran and tell you the same Hadith. But when it comes to branches they will differ. That is not a weakness of Islam – it’s a strength that only the simple minded will confuse for a weakness. If Islam was rigid in the branches, we would all be forced to ride horses and camels and would have to live exactly as the Prophet peace be him and his companions may Allah be pleased with them over 1430 years ago. This would’ve made Islam incompatible with the reality that life changes as it goes on. It’s the flexibility of Islam that allows it be adaptable throughout the ages.

    I hope this clarified the matter. I apologize for making it lengthy. If you have any other questions please don’t hesitate to contact me.

    Your brother,
    Mohamed Ghilan

  3. Thank you for your reply. That certainly does clarify, and I totally agree with you. If we are talking about Fiqh or making Fatwas, then yes, like any other science, before making a statement in it, one should study it thoroughly. But the point I wanted to clarify was the other level of flexibility that is given to people to express their opinion “about” the Fatwas, and about the way Fiqh is being conducted, and in my view this is essential in keeping Fiqh, and therefore Islam, open, and “accountable”.

    You know the incident when a companion suggested to the Prophet (PBUH) to change the location in “Badr” battle. This is what I am afraid we might lose if the science about Islam is wrapped in holiness.

    Other than that I totally agree with you. Carry on brother.

  4. Hi
    Thanks for such a great article. However, in order to fully comprehend the subject, we need to tackle the subject of education, which, unfortunately in Muslim countries is not what politicians put among their priorities. Let’s hope this is going to change too…

    Regarding interpretations, I found an article on a friend’s blog about Islam and peace, which I think is worth reading:

    It would be interesting to start a “topic” on that matter too as I think it is becoming urgent for the Muslim community to come back to the true and fundamental meaning of Islam which is Peace…