For more on this topic, see The Straight Path - Finding Guidance in an Age of Confusion
O You who believe, answer the call of God and His Messenger when they call you to that which will give you life! (Qur’an 8:24)
Why doesn’t Islam have a central authority?
Say: Are those equal, those who have knowledge and those who do not know? Only the people of understanding take heed. (Qur’an 39:9)
Ijtihād that occurs in religious matters is of two types. The first is legitimate ijtihād, namely that which arises from those who are well-versed in the requisites of ijtihād as the preceding discussion has described. The second type is that which arises from one who is not proficient in the requirements of ijtihād. This is invalid ijtihād, for in reality it constitutes an opinion based on nothing more than conjecture, desires, and personal whims.
Are all matters in Islam subject to difference of opinion?
It is not for a believing man or believing woman, when Allah and His Messenger have decided a matter, that they should [thereafter] have any choice about their affair. And whoever disobeys Allah and His Messenger has certainly strayed into clear error. (Qur’an 33:36)
Why is there sometimes disagreement about what Islam teaches?
Ask the people of knowledge if you do not know. (Qur’an 16:43, 21:7)
Why didn’t God just tell us everything explicitly – why leave some matters open to interpretation?
Is difference of opinion a bad thing?
If intentions are sincere, differences of opinion could bring about a greater awareness of the various possible aspects and interpretations of evidence in a given case. Such differences could generate intellectual vitality and a cross-fertilization of ideas. The process is likely to bring into the open a variety of hypotheses in tackling specific issues.
Such a process is likely to present a variety of solutions for dealing with a particular situation so that the most suitable solution can be found. This is in harmony with the facilitating nature of the religion of Islam which takes into account the reality of people’s lives.
These and other benefits can be realized if differences remain within the limits and the ethical norms which must regulate them. If these limits and norms are not observed, differences could easily degenerate into disputes and schisms and become a negative and evil force producing more rifts in the Muslim Ummah, which already has more than enough of such fragmentation. In this way, differences of opinion can change from being a constructive force to being elements of destruction.
1. Was the person who gave the opinion knowledgeable and qualified?
2. Was the opinion derived from an academic understanding of the Qur’an and Sunnah?
3. What is the content and nature of the opinion itself?
And when they commit an immoral deed, they say, “We found our forefathers practicing it, and Allah has commanded us to do it.” Say, “Indeed, Allah does not command immorality. Do you say about Allah that which you do not know?” Say, “My Lord commands what is just, and that you should worship Him alone in places of prostration, and invoke Him, performing your deeds for Him alone.” As He originated you, so shall you return. (Qur’an 7:28-9)
A man on an expedition suffered a severe wound. Later when he had a wet dream, he inquired from his companions whether he was still required to perform the ritual bath in spite of his wound. They told him it was necessary, and he died because of it. When this news reached the Prophet Muḥammad, he said, “They killed him, may Allah curse them! Why did they not ask when they did not know? Is not the cure for ignorance to ask?”
Are there multiple valid opinions on a given matter?
Summary of criteria for a valid opinion
- Qualified scholar—that the opinion arises from someone who has the requisite expertise, experience, and peer recognition.
- Consistent with consensus—that the opinion does not contradict a verifiable established consensus of Muslim scholars.
- Grounded in tradition—that the opinion does not depart from the range of views expressed by the early Muslim community (salaf) and authoritative scholars (NB: this does not apply to novel unprecedented contemporary matters (nawāzil) and other exceptions discussed later).
- Does not arise from unacceptable sources—that the basis for the opinion is not a principle or textual or ideological source that has no basis in Islam.
- Does not contradict unequivocal evidence—that the opinion does not go against evidence that is authentic, clear, and definitive in its import.
At bottom, al-Ghazali’s argument against the theological extremists—among whom are both Traditionalists and Rationalists—is that they fail (or refuse) to recognize that their doctrines are grounded in interpretative presuppositions that are historically determined. This failure on their part results in an effective obliteration of the distinction between interpretation and revelation. In effect, theological extremists regard their doctrines as being unmediated through fallible and unavoidably secular processes of human thought. As such, their doctrines are sublated into the transcendental realm of revelation. On this conflation there is virtually no distinction between a primary and a secondary belief. Rather, the theological extremists hold that to go against any of their doctrines is to go against revelation itself, whence the ubiquitous charge of Unbelief hurled against their adversaries.
Against this tendency, al-Ghazali insists that the only theological doctrines whose violation may serve as a basis for charging a person with Unbelief are 1) fundamentals (uṣūl) i.e., belief in God, the prophethood of Muḥammad, and the Hereafter; and 2) secondary doctrines that are backed by unanimous consensus (ijmāʿ) or handed down on the authority of the Prophet via diffuse congruence (tawātur).
How do we deal with invalid opinions?
The jurists of both schools of thought [i.e., muṣawwibah and mukhaṭṭiʾah] theorized about the theology of God and the law, recognized the inevitability of indeterminacy in the law, and upheld the authority of ijtihādic rulings amidst the reality of human fallibility. All recognized that the ijtihādic product must carry some weight, lest Shari’ah fail to offer guiding principles for those seeking to live good and fulfilling lives. Both groups argued toward the same end result: the authority of juristic determinations, subject to a system of evaluation that assumes the fallibility of ijtihādic conclusions.
It is very important to distinguish between our saying “the Islamic Sharīʿah” and our saying “the Islamic fiqh.” For Sharīʿah refers to the texts (nuṣūs) of the Qur’an revealed by Allah to the Prophet Muḥammad, and to the Prophetic Sunnah which comprises the sayings and actions of the Prophet which explain and detail the guidance contained in the Qur’an and provide a practical application of the Qur’an’s commandments, prohibitions, and permissions. [...] As for fiqh it refers to what scholars have understood from the religious scriptures and what they have derived and affirmed therefrom, and the rules they have postulated based on inferences of the texts.
The legal reasoning constructed by Muslim jurists to ascertain the ‘illah is far more systematic and detailed than the reasoning developed by the Anglo-American Common Law. The Islamic system approaches precision and accuracy far more closely than the Anglo-American Common Law; in fact, the manner in which the ‘illah is determined is seemingly quantifiable. Moreover, the Muslim system avoids rigidity by closely linking the ‘illah with the objectives of the law.
Whoever gives fatwá to people based only on what is transmitted from books despite the differences in their customs, norms, eras, localities, situations, and circumstances, then he is misguided and misguides others. His crime against the religion is greater than the crime of the physician who treats all people with what he finds in a single medical book while neglecting the differences in their lands, norms, times, and physical natures.
Continuity with the tradition versus conformity of opinions
For the modernists to warrant the move from traditionalism to liberal rationalism which ‘must furnish a solution to the problems which had previously proved intractable’ due to the sterility or incoherence of the traditional model, an epistemological crisis has to exist within the Islamic tradition. ... We argue that those who advocate this view have no legitimate reason to turn towards another approach as they tend not to be traditionally trained scholars and are therefore not versed in the dynamic nature of the traditional approach nor are they in a position to advocate a completely different model as the current traditional model has not been thoroughly investigated.
Our position is that Islam—or more accurately its sources—is considered to be a tradition and more specifically a discursive tradition, which must apply its historically tried and tested principles and methodologies in order to ascertain God’s will. The view that liberal rationalism is required as an interpretative model instead of traditionalism, because the latter is not suited to the modern world, is flawed in at least three ways: firstly, liberal rationalism is in itself a tradition; it cannot claim neutrality and it cannot be given exceptional status but must be regarded as a tradition amongst traditions. Secondly, traditions are incommensurable which means that the premises and views within liberalism cannot be applied to religious traditionalism and neither can it claim unbiased accuracy and exclusive truthfulness. Thirdly, incommensurability does not permit modernist scholars the legal or philosophical position of assuming and declaring an epistemological crisis within traditionalism as they are not traditionally trained and only know the model superficially.
Upholding traditionalism: Between old and new opinions
While the legal traditions may be separated by centuries, the issues that compel jurisprudential analysis and speculation are nonetheless similar, if not entirely shared… While some have characterized taqlid as blind adherence to the law, Wael Hallaq has convincingly argued that taqlid is elemental to establishing a sense of objective, authoritative rules to which one can resort—akin to the role of stare decisis in common law.
- Fiqh al-Nawāzil (contemporary jurisprudential issues)—in matters that are entirely new, it is to be expected that the discussion will go beyond the points mentioned by historical scholars. This includes contemporary discussions over the fiqh of organ transplantation, modern financial transactions, performing prayers and fasting in northern latitudes during times of continuous day or night, etc. On contemporary matters, scholars have stressed the importance of collective ijtihād by committees of jurists where multiple experts come together to analyze and discuss a matter before providing a ruling; these committees are less prone to error or bias when compared to a single jurist. Examples include the International Islamic Fiqh Academy of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the Islamic Fiqh Council of the Muslim World League, the European Council for Fatwa and Research, the Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America, among many other national organizations.
- Issues that were previously not a matter of public concern (ʿumūm al-balwá) and therefore did not warrant the same degree of sophisticated research and analysis. Modern-day pressures may push us to do taḥqīq (verification) of an unsubstantiated opinion that was previously taken for granted and reassess the validity of a view based on the Qur’an and Sunnah. Examples of this include the usage of illustrations in children’s books and cartoons,participation in interfaith community events, exchanging greetings related to non-Muslim festivities, and appropriate norms of conduct for gender interaction in the workplace.
- When the modern-day societal changes (including socio-political or economic circumstances) render an ʿillah absent that was previously present, then the ruling predicated upon that ʿillah no longer obtains. This includes previously mentioned examples.
- In theological or eschatological subsidiary questions on which the scriptural texts (nuṣūs) are silent, and there are multiple plausible scenarios (iḥtimālāt) some of which were posed by earlier scholars, there is nothing to preclude listing other plausible scenarios (iḥtimālāt) so long as one does not definitely declare (jazm) the veracity of one over the others in matters of the unseen (ghayb) without a scriptural proof. Examples include, for instance, the scholars listing many different plausible interpretations for how the Euphrates and Nile have been described as originating in Paradise, ranging from metaphorical description of their blessings, to a hidden metaphysical connection, etc. Another example is Ibn Taymīyah’s discussion on the accountability of the boy killed by Khiḍr, considering possibilities of whether he had reached the age of maturity or was legally accountable as a discerning youth in the moral code of his people.
- Where incontrovertible empirical evidence can serve as a means to invalidate certain historical positions or lend greater credibility to other interpretations, then it can be used as a deciding factor (murajjiḥ). This includes scenarios in which empirical evidence accumulates demonstrating the benefit or harm of a particular matter that impacts the ruling. Examples include the change in ruling on the impermissibility of smoking and the permissibility of caffeine. Examples affecting interpretation of beliefs may include viewing the flood of Prophet Noah as regional rather than global, or the interpretation of the hadith on the height of humankind relative to Prophet Ādam, or preferring 40 days over 120 days as the time at which the three Qurʾanic phases of embryological development (nuṭfah,ʿalaqah, muḍghah) are complete.
- In those non-doctrinal matters where the accumulation of novel data is relevant, conclusions will necessarily evolve. For instance, manuscript evidence impacts conclusions regarding Qur’anic orthography (ʿilm rasm al-muṣḥaf), and synthesis of reports impacts historical and biographical matters, and thus scholars have historically derived and entertained novel conclusions in these areas.
The statements of the jurists of all schools agree that the [only] rulings amenable to change with the changing of epochs and peoples’ ethics are those that are interpretive (ijtihādi) in nature, whether they are rooted in analogical reasoning or based on maṣlaḥah.
As for the fundamental rulings that the Sharīʿah came to establish and cement in its scriptural commands and prohibitions, such as clearly forbidden matters, or the obligation of mutual consent in contracts and the duty to uphold contracts, […] the duty to prevent harm and oppose crime, blocking the path to corruption, protecting acquired rights, […] these rulings do not change with the changing of epochs. To the contrary, these are the foundations with which the Sharīʿah came to rectify every age and generation. However, the means by which these principles are applied may vary with the coming of new times.