The most talked about topic amongst the Muslims is undoubtedly the issue of unity. The manifestation of disunity and proliferation of problems is there for all to see. Difference of opinion is seen by some to be the main cause for this. It is reckoned that until and unless Muslims can not agree on simple matters like prayers, as well as other 'simple' matters, unity can never be achieved. "If there is a right and a wrong how can two differing answers both be correct?", is a common question posed when the issue of disunity is discussed. Thus some see the difference of opinion amongst the Muslims as a major source of weakness and an obstacle on the path to unity.
To clear the confusion surrounding difference of opinion and the issue of Muslim unity, a number of questions need to be answered.
Is it Wrong for Muslims to Differ?
In short, No. Evidence for this is an incident in which the Prophet (SAW) witnessed the companions disputing, but did not rebuke them for doing so. The incident relates to the dispute regarding the 'Asr prayer on their way to Bani Qurayzah. The Prophet instructed the companions to go and fight the Jews. He said, "Do not pray until you get to Bani Qurayzah". On route to Bani Qurayzah the time for 'Asr was drawing to a close. A dispute ensued. One group understood the prophet's command metaphorically, thinking that the Prophet (SAW) meant hurry up. A party of the believers prayed there whilst the others prayed after 'Asr time when they arrived at Bani Qurayzah.
When they next met the Prophet (SAW) they asked him who was right and who was wrong. It is important to note the response. Only one of them could have been right, but the Prophet (SAW) did not point out who that was, rather he said, "Whoever performs ijtihad and errs will receive one reward. Whoever performs ijtihad and arrives at the correct answer gets double the reward."
Had it been haraam to differ, the Prophet (SAW) would have rebuked those differing from the correct opinion and praised those who were right. This example teaches us to tolerate opposing Islamic opinions which are arrived at by those qualified to do so after performing ijtihad.
The scholars in the past recognised this; "The most learned amongst the people is also one who is most knowledgeable of the difference amongst the people" (Ghazali, Shawkani, Abu Zahrah)
Before performing Ijtihad it is a prerequisite for a scholar to be aware of all the differences on the issue at hand.
3. What Causes Differences?
They can occur due to a number of factors which include,
a) Hadith Criteria. Different Muhaddith adopt different criteria of classifying hadith. For example Imam Shafi didn't take narration from people who use to eat while walking as he did not consider this as the characteristic of a just person.
b) Adoption of usool. Scholars differed on the usools they adopted. Imam Malik regard the consensus of the people of Madinah as indication of the Prophet's sunnah, other scholars like Abu Hanifah and Ahmed bin Hanbal did not.
c) Interpretation (literal/metaphorical). Like in the example of the Asr prayer, a difference can occur depending on the meaning taken from a word. The word 'Touch' in the Quran gave rise to a difference on the issue of cleanliness when touching a woman. Abu Hanifah said touch meant intercourse, where as Imam Shafi said the touch was the literal touch and not the metaphorical one, thus if a person touched the hand of a woman. he would lose his wudu.
d) Arabic Language. A word can give rise to a number of meanings. The word Quru, can be understood as the period of impurity or the period in between as the word carries both meanings.
Where Does it Occur
This does not mean that difference can occur in all matters. There are two types of differences. Those that may arise and those that are invalid
Difference can only occur where ijtihad is necessary, i.e. where either the text is not definite or the meaning is not definite. If both are definite, ijtihad is not permitted. A difference in this case would not be valid and would be rejected.
Thus, there is no difference of opinion about not drinking alcohol, not eating pork, ruling only by the Shariah or having only one leader for the Muslim ummah.
In areas where valid differences may occur, it be can further be divided into two:
a) Where differences may arise and are permitted to exist, i.e. differences regarding personal worships.
b) Where differences may arise and are not permitted to exist, i.e. societal matters like buying and selling.
In the former case, companions differed on various matters, but the companions as a whole, did not condemn the issue of having differing opinions.
In the latter case for example Abu Bakr and Umar (RA) differed on issues relating to divorce and the distribution of money amongst the Muslims (i.e. societal matters). Regarding the divorce. Abu Bakr held that if talaq was said three times in one sitting it was only considered as one divorce. He maintained that it must be said on three separate occasions for it to be considered as three talaqs. Umar (RA) on the other hand said, saying it three times in one sitting was considered as three talaqs.
Such a difference cannot be allowed to exist, otherwise if a husband and wife adopted different opinions, a situation could occur in which one would consider themselves married whilst the other would regard themselves as divorced. Only one opinion must exist for the qadi to judge with, otherwise many disputes would go unresolved.
How Does Islam Deal with Differences?
If differences occur on definite matters, the Khalifah can use his authority to put a stop to this. An example of this is when a false prophet emerged claiming that Muhammed (SAW) was not the final prophet, Abu Bakr sent an army to remove this division. This is the Islamic way to solve these kinds of disputes.
In those areas where differences may arise due to ijtihad but will lead to disharmony, it is the right of the Khalifah to adopt an opinion which he believes to be correct and for the believers to obey. Two Shariah principles exist which state this :
- IMAM'S DECREE SETTLES DISPUTES
- IMAM'S DECREE IS OBEYED OPENLY AND PRIVATELY
This is the mechanism for resolving such disputes in Islam. This is the way disputes were resolved between Umar and Abu Bakr. When Khalifah Abu Bakr adopted his opinion, Umar followed. When Umar became the Khalifah, he adopted his opinion and the believers then obeyed him.
Differences have existed during the time of the Prophet (issue of Bani Qurayzah), during the time of the companions, during the period of the great scholars (like Imam Abu Hanifah, Imam Malik, Imam Shafi and Imam Hanbal) up until today. It is not a new phenomena. These differences however, did not stop the Muslims from being the leading nation in the world. Neither was it or should it be a cause for division.
The differences and division of the ummah today exist not because of difference of opinion but the lack of the mechanism which resolves disputes, namely the Khalifah, the only one who has been given the right to enforce an opinion and resolve disputes. No leader, no imam, no personality other than the Khalifah has been given the authority to resolve disputes by adopting an opinion for the people to follow.
When the Prophet (SAW) passed away and the companions were busy appointing the first Khalifah, a suggestion was made to have two leaders, one from the Ansar and one from the Muhajireen. Abu Bakr (RA) replied by saying that this will cause divisions and infighting, as well as people making bidah and would cease to refer to the Prophet's example in conducting there affairs. Abu Bakr (RA) had the insight to realise that without the one leader, problems would arise. So the many 'problems' that exist today are merely the symptoms of the MAIN problem, that being the absence of the leader of the Muslim ummah.
Difference in opinion in itself is not a bad thing. It ensures that the ummah will never agree on an error. It also encourages the Muslims to exert themselves to seek knowledge and become qualified scholars, so they can recognise weak opinions and errors in ijtihad. Forbidding ijtihad in the past has led to the intellectual stagnation of this ummah as well as being unable to produce Islamic judgments on various modern day problems effecting the ummah.
We should thus reject differences relating to opinions not arising from Ijtihad or those which are relating to definite matters, tolerate Islamic differences emanating from Ijtihad relating to individual matters and work to establish the Khilafah to resolve those disputes which exist only the Khalifah can resolve. Only by reestablishing the Khilafah and by appointing a Khalifah can the ummah be unified, since it is only he, who has the authority and the power to do so.