Etiquettes of Disagreement
by Sheikh Salman al-Oadah
We must conduct ourselves with proper decorum and observe the best of manners when we disagree with others. We must learn the etiquettes of disagreement and put them into practice. The most important of these etiquettes are the following:
1.We must not censure or rebuke those with whom we disagree.
We are not necessarily more sincere in faith, more intelligent, or more well-informed than those who disagree with us. Yahyâ b. Sa`îd once said: “As long as it is the case that when people ask different scholars about something some of them are told that it is forbidden and others are told that it is permitted, then the one who considers it permitted should not believe that the one who prohibits it is in perdition and the one who considers it forbidden should not believe that the one who permits it is in perdition.” Ahmad b. Hanbal said: “There is no one better than Ishâq who has crossed the bridge over to us, though we disagree with him on some things. People will always disagree with one another.” Someone once wrote about a question in Islamic Law and published his opinion on it. Someone disputed with him and said: “Why did you research this question that has never before been broached by the scholars?” He replied: “Indeed, the scholars have researched this question extensively.” The disputant then countered: “Then why did you bother to research it yourself after they had already done so? Is their research not good enough for you?” People’s opinions are not revelation from Allah. Schools of Islamic Law should not be confused with the religion itself. Whenever the Prophet (peace be upon him) appointed a general to the army, he advised him to fear Allah and exhorted the Muslims with him to goodness. Then he would say: “If you lay siege to a fortress and its inhabitants entreat you to grant them a covenant of peace from Allah and His Messenger, do not do so, but grant them a covenant from yourself and those who are with you, for indeed it is easier for you to fulfill your own covenant than to fulfill the covenant of Allah and His Messenger. Also, if you lay siege to a fortress and its inhabitants implore you to submit them to the judgment of Allah and His Messenger, do not do so, but submit them to your judgment, for indeed you do not know if you will correctly arrive at the judgment of Allah and His Messenger.” [Sahîh Muslim]
Observe how the Prophet (peace be upon him) advised the Companion of his whom he selected to lead his army. Though the Prophet (peace be upon him) was living among the people, he instructed them not to grant people the covenant of Allah and His Messenger or submit them to the decision of Allah and His Messenger, since they could not be certain to correctly determine that ruling.
Now, I have heard with my own ears on more than one occasion someone speaking about a speculative issue that is clearly a matter of personal interpretation and say: “I am not speaking to you on my own behalf or offering you my opinion. This is none other than the way of Allah. This is Allah’s ruling on the matter.” Glory be to Allah! Is he saying that everyone else is taking his opinion from the Torah and the Gospel, when in fact all of them are referring to the Qur’ân and Sunnah? However, many issues can be understood in different ways and lend themselves to various interpretations and rulings. Ibn al-Qayyim said: “When conclusions are reached by way of juristic reasoning and not by direct textual evidence, it is not allowed for us to say that Allah has permitted such-and-such or commanded such-andsuch.”
Ibn Taymiyah said: “However, many people attribute their own opinions to the Sacred Law while those opinions are not the Sacred Law. They do so either out of ignorance, by mistake, or they intentionally lie.” Muslims are not obliged to follow any particular school of thought. The Caliph al-Mansûr proposed to Mâlik that his book al-Muwatta’ could be made official for all cities of the realm and oblige the people to refer to it. However, Mâlik prevented him from doing so, saying: “O Commander of the Faithful, do not do that. People have arrived at different opinions, have heard different hadîth, and have related different narrations and they have acted upon these things, taking their religion from the Companions of Muhammad (peace be upon him). It would be quite severe to turn them from what they believe. So leave the people and what they are acting upon and leave the people of each land to what they have chosen.” Mâlik said this on account of his deep understanding about matters of Islamic Law and his fear of Allah. In many cases where people disagree, if one of the disputants had the opportunity to bring the authority of the state to bear down upon his opponents, he would readily do so.
Unfortunately, this has indeed happened many times throughout history. The followers of various different ideologies and schools of thought would secure the favor and patronage of the ruling classes and use this political power to persecute and expel their opponents.
2. We must uphold justice at all times.
`Ammâr, the eminent Companion, once said: “Justice is to be applied on yourself, the greeting of peace is for the world, and spending is to be done even when you possess little.” Justice is a precious quality to have. To be just, you must be able to place others on the same footing as yourself. Justice is something important and necessary. From it spring many rules that are relevant to the etiquettes of disagreement. Among these rules are the following:
1. That which is established with certainty cannot be overturned except with certainty. For instance, a person who is known to be a Muslim cannot have his religious convictions called into question without there being unequivocal evidence attesting to his unbelief. Likewise, a Muslim known for his orthodoxy cannot be accused of deviance without there being indisputable proof thereof.
2. Mistaking someone for a believer is far less serious than mistaking someone for an unbeliever. This means that if you deem someone to be a Muslim on the basis of his outward conduct, it is a relatively small matter if in truth that person is a hypocrite. This is not the case if you declare someone to be an unbeliever. You are taking a serious risk. The Prophet (peace be upon him) has warned us: “Whoever calls someone else an unbeliever or declares him an enemy of Allah when it is not the case, then his statement will return back to him.”
3. In matters that are open to juristic discretion and multiple points of view, there is no justification to call anyone a sinner or to ostracize him for his views. Ibn Taymiyah mentioned that this is the approach of Ahl al-Sunnah; they do not see any sin upon those who exercise their juristic discretion in matters of religion, both major and minor. A person who is competent to look into matters of religion and exerts his utmost efforts to determine Allah’s ruling on a matter will incur no sin on account of the conclusions that he reaches. In fact, he will either receive a single reward or a double reward from Allah, depending on the correctness of his conclusions. Because of this, differences of opinion in these matters should never be a cause of dissention between believers or a pretext for ostracism.
4. People should neither be declared unbelievers nor cursed by name, regardless of their opinions or sectarian biases. When appropriate, it is correct to describe a certain idea or dogma as unbelief without declaring any individual person an unbeliever. Ahmad b. Hanbal considered the Jahmiyyah sect to be upon unbelief. He considered anyone who declared the Qur’ân to be created to be an unbeliever. Nevertheless, he never once called any particular individual an unbeliever. Instead, he prayed for those people and beseeched Allah to forgive them.
5. It is necessary to take people on their word and leave their inner motives to Allah. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “I have not been commanded to delve into the hearts of people or to expose their inner selves.” 6. Scholars should never be branded unbelievers on account of their mistakes. Actually, this applies to everyone, not just scholars. This principle is part of the methodology of Ahl alSunnah. The habit that many ignorant people have of disparaging the scholars is a grave sin. Ibn Rajab said: “Most of the great jurists made mistakes in a few matters. This does not in any way detract from their reputations or from their knowledge. Their mistakes are overshadowed by the vastness of their knowledge, the purity of their intentions, and their defense of the faith. Digging up their mistakes is not a praiseworthy endeavor nor is it worthy of any reward, especially when the mistakes are in minor issues where error is not so serious and where correcting such errors provides no real benefit.” It is strange how so many people can go to great pains to avoid eating anything unlawful or inadvertently seeing a dirty picture, but they cannot seem to control their tongues in the least bit when it comes to others. They speak about both the living and the dead without any hesitation. For this reason, scholars of Islam have declared that whatever colleagues say against one another should not be taken seriously, especially when antagonism, rivalry, or ideological differences exist between them. Few are the people who, by Allah’s grace, can avoid speaking badly of others in such situations. Al-Dhahabî said: “I know of no generation in history whose people were able to avoid this sin besides the Prophets and their most pious followers.
If I wanted to, I could fill up volumes of pages with examples to prove what I am saying.” Ahmad b. Hanbal once asked some of his students where they came from. They replied that they came from sitting with Abû Kurayb. Now Abû Kurayb was someone who spoke ill of Ahmad and harshly criticized his views. However, Ahmad said to these students: “Quite a good man he is! Take knowledge from him and learn from him.” The students, in surprise, said: “He speaks so badly about you.” Ahmad replied: “What can I do about that? He is a man who is greatly troubled by me.” Al-Dhahabî had this to say about Ibn Hazm, the controversial sheikh of the Dhâhirî school of thought: “I am sympathetic towards Ibn Hazm because of his love for authentic hadîth and his knowledge on that subject, though there are many things that he says about narrators and defects in transmission that I do not agree with. He has many views in Islamic Law about which I am certain he is mistaken. However, I do not consider him as an unbeliever or as a person who went astray. I pray that Allah forgives him and grants him clemency, as I pray for all Muslims. I also submit to his brilliance and extensive knowledge.” It is a matter of justice to accept the truth when it comes from your opponent, even if he happens to be a person of bad character or unorthodox beliefs. Ibn Taymiyah disapproved of the conduct of some defenders of the Sunnah when they refused to acknowledge the truth when it was said by a peripatetic philosopher or scholastic theologian, simply because of their distaste for such people. He said: “We are not permitted to refuse to acknowledge the truth when it is said by a Jew or Christian, not to mention a Râfidî. We only reject falsehood and accept the truth.”
`Sheikh `Abd al-Rahmân al-Sa`dî writes in his commentary of the Qur’ân: “When a scholar speaks about the statements of the people of deviance, he is obliged to give everyone their due and acknowledge the truth in what they say as well as clarify the falsehood. He must consider how close to the truth they are or how far away.”
3. We must be patient, forbearing, and willing to accept the abuses of others without responding in kind.
Allah reportedly tells us this in the Qur’ân. He says: “Good and evil are not equal. Repel evil with what is better. Then he with whom there was so much hatred between you will become as a dear friend.” [Sûrah Fussilat: 34] This is how the Prophet (peace be upon him) won over the hearts of his enemies. A true word, when accompanied with a sincere smile and good manners, can put an end to enmity. Allah says: “And no one will be granted such goodness except those who exercise patience and self-restraint,- none but persons of the greatest good fortune.”[Sûrah Fussilat: 35]
We should not be excessive in rebuking others and calling them to account. We should not seek to get revenge or go too far in defending ourselves. There is a lesson for us in the indirect way the Prophet (peace be upon him) used to rebuke his followers. The Prophet (peace be upon him) once found out that people were keeping aloof from certain activities that he permitted, so he said: “What is with certain people that they disdain doing something that I do, for by Allah, I am the most knowledgeable of them about Allah and fear Him the most.” [Sahîh alBukhârî]
4. We must not become chauvinistic towards a certain school of thought, approach, or group.
It is said that love is blind. Chauvinism and bigotry makes a person unable to differentiate truth from falsehood. The same fervor with which a person loves something can be turned to hate. This is why `Alî b. Abî Tâlib said: “Love the one you love in moderation, for perhaps one day he may be your most hated enemy. And hate the one you hate in moderation, for perhaps one day he will become someone you love.”
The objects of fanatical love and loyalty often detest
fanaticism but are afflicted by fanatical followers. On the death of Ahmah b.
Hanbal, the scholar Muhammad b. Yahyâ al-Naysâbûrî was so stricken with grief
that he said: “It is the due of every household in
However, these extreme statements were made by people who should have known better, but who were carried away by the strength of their emotions. I received a paper over the Internet wherein it read: “Ibn Bâz is Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jamâ`ah. And if you wish, al-Albâni as well.” I will say without the least hesitation that Ibn Bâz is one the great scholars of our time. However, it is very difficult to accept someone saying that one man constitutes the entire Muslim Ummah – whether he be Ibn Bâz, al-Albânî, or Ibn `Uthaymîn. Allah has placed abundant good in the Muslim Ummah. He has bestowed various gifts on various people and blessed them with different aptitudes and knowledge of different things.
To say that all of this is in one person and that everyone
is obliged to follow him is a serious mistake. It goes against the very
principles that those scholars followed. When Ibn Bâz was the Grand Muftî of
Saudi Arabia, he did not consider his opinion to be binding on the people. He
considered the views of others to be as important as his own. The opinions of
everyone were to be evaluated, then accepted or rejected on the basis of the
evidence. Ibn Bâz never asked for anything more than this for his own opinions.
It is a disservice to him not to respect this. Chauvinism and bigotry cause
people to deride those who are not with them in their bigotry. Once, a jurists
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