Who Decides What Islam Is? Differences of Opinion & Orthodox Islam



Dr. Safiyyah Ally: Dr. Shabir, here’s a question we received from a viewer: “I thought in Islam you could have different views, different opinions, different interpretations. Is there such a thing as the ultimate view in Islam which every Muslim without fail must follow?


Dr. Shabir Ally: There are some things which are so very clear in the Quran or so clearly reported from the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, that we expect all Muslims to abide by them. There are other things which are not so clear or they're in texts which are perhaps of dubious authenticity. So what is common among Muslims? In terms of beliefs, it is almost universally accepted that there is only one God. We believe in angels and the fact that God sent scriptures and messengers along with the books and prophets more generally. We believe that on The Last Day, there will be a reckoning for our deeds. And we believe in God's control of all affairs. These matters are so well entrenched in the Quran and authentic Hadith that we don't expect that Muslims will differ. When it comes to practices -- declaring faith, offering prayers, giving charity or zakah, fasting in Ramadan and performing hajj -- these are practices that are so central and universally acclaimed among Muslims that they are referred to as pillars of Islam. Differences arise in the details of the practice, like how, when, and to what extent. For example, we all agree that we should pray, but when it comes to offering the prayer, there could be some slight differences among Muslims in interpreting details of the prayer.


Safiyyah: Let’s say there's a recognized scholarly body of opinion and someone goes against that opinion. Would that person be considered outside of Islam?


Shabir: No, that wouldn't be considered outside of Islam unless we're talking about something that is so central to the faith that we cannot permit deviance. On many aspects of Islam, there is ample room for interpretation. Great scholars and scholarly bodies in Islamic history have ruled the opposite of each other. And that's quite acceptable in what we call the Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jama’ah, The People of the Way of the Prophet and the Jama'ah. This is an ecumenical term which means that rather than excommunicate people, we include them in a broad stream that we're calling the jama'ah or worldwide congregation. it's a global ummah, within which we have different shades of interpretations on the wide variety of religious matters.


Safiyyah: Dr. Shabir, you mentioned differences of opinion. How early did these differences arise and how significant were they? What sort of differences of opinion existed within the early Muslim communities?


Shabir: Within the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, there were those who were devout towards him and those who are flagging behind, looking for excuses. Those who were devoted to him would naturally take his explanations and follow his lead on almost everything. But soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, new questions arose that needed definite answers, and people arrived at different opinions. In fact, there is an incident reported from right within the lifetime of the Prophet peace be upon him, that will illustrate how people can have different opinions. It is mentioned that the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, sent out a delegation, and he told them that they should pray the late afternoon prayer at their destination. So they set out for the journey, and on the way they realize that they wouldn’t be able to reach the destination in time to offer that prayer within it's usual time. So now a difference of opinion arose among them. Should we take the words of the Prophet literally, and not pray until we get to the destination, in which case we'll pray late but we will have followed his explicit order? Some others said, "No, we should pray right here and now because this is the time for the prayer, and the Prophet, peace be upon him, did not intend for us to delay the prayer beyond its time. He expected us to reach the destination in time for the prayer.” So some prayed there, and some prayed later, when they reached the destination. When it was reported back to the Prophet, peace be upon him, that they had this difference and this is how they worked it out, the Prophet, peace be upon him, accepted both ways. So the report goes, but that report shows that there can be differences of opinion among Muslims, because some things are unclear. Some people may take the literal wording and others people may consider them figuratively, metaphorically, or think about the spirit of the command. All of this variety is acceptable. What is not acceptable is for people to follow their own whims and desires, because in that case you're not interested in God's commandments, you’re interested in your own.


Safiyyah: This story is fascinating because it’s obvious that these were people who were motivated by their love of God and the Prophet Muhammad. It wasn't like they were just doing something randomly. They were trying their best to follow God and follow the Prophet Muhammad and their differences of opinion arose out of that love.


Shabir: Exactly. Sometimes people just want to do the right thing, but whatever is the right thing is not so very clear. So we have to allow for this kind of variety, because people are different and they look at thing differently. Some people are optimistic; some people are pessimistic. They will interpret things differently. And for God's good reasons. God could make everything as plain as daylight for everyone. And then there would be no difference of opinion. But then we would all be like robots just simply following precisely what is laid out. And there would be no room for thought. God in his wisdom has given us this religion which is almost like a peach that has a hard core, a soft fleshy part, and a fuzzy outer layer. Some things can be hard and strict in the faith. Some things can be soft, like the flesh of the peach. And some things can be a little bit fuzzy, like the skin. But all together, they form a whole. And it's beautiful that way, because when there’s flexibility, when things are not so hard as the seed of the peach, then we have room to maneuver, grow and apply our faith in changing and new circumstances.


Safiyyah: Dr. Shabir, earlier you mentioned whims and desires. How does the scholar make sure that they are not following their whims and desires when making decisions?


Shabir: It's not easy, because we're human beings. We are blown about by the winds of change. Sometimes we want to please people around us. Sometimes we feel the pressures of governments and other powers upon us. So what are the checks and balances? We allow a scholar to speak and to give evidence and proof for the positions that they arrive at. And then we weigh the evidence and proofs and we try to bring counter evidence and counter proofs. Then in the end, through this process of scholarly interaction in the literature, especially... nowadays, a lot of people are doing things on YouTube, but that's not the scholarly realm. The scholarly realm traditionally has been on paper.


Safiyyah: Written, right?


Shabir: Yes. There are scholarly journals. These are peer reviewed by other scholars who have the acumen to review them. What we're finding nowadays is that a scholar says something and the common people react as if they themselves are more of a scholar than the scholar himself. But you need to do the groundwork. You need to go through the period of learning to first acquire the basics and then understand the discourse at a high level. I remember my math teacher was not as interested in the final answer; she was interested in the method. She gave marks for the method even if your answer was wrong, because maybe you made a miscalculation and you arrived at a wrong answer, but your method showed that you possessed an understanding and a grasp of the subject. So the scholar has the method, the grasp of the subject, even though the scholar may err in the final pronouncement. The common folks look at the final pronouncement and say, "Oh, this is different from what we ever heard. So this can't be true." But what they need to do is to engage with the method, to see if the scholar has been following dutifully a proper method of looking at what the Quran says, looking at what the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said on the question, looking at the question as to whether the statement that is reported of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is authentic or perhaps some narrator made a mistake in reporting it. In looking at the method, we can determine whether a scholar is following their desires to arrive at a predetermined conclusion that they like, or whether they're using proper methodology and letting their method dictate what the conclusion is going to be. So we don't reject the statement because of the conclusion, we want to see the method.

Safiyyah: Dr. Shabir, is there a definitive body of scholars who can say, this individual is beyond the fold of Islam, they're not a Muslim anymore because of their beliefs?

Shabir: There isn't one definitive body; there are many. Muslims are free to choose one or the other. Let's say one scholar speaks. People may say, "Okay, I heard this scholar say something. It sounds on conventional. What are other scholars saying about this?” It’s possible for a lone scholar to arrive at an erroneous conclusion. If a number of scholars form a body that responds to questions, offering what is referred to as a fatwa, an Islamic verdict, we can have greater confidence in this body since we expect thatthere's going to be a lot of internal debate and discussion, and they will sort things out. Presently, in the Islamic world, there are many different bodies. And there are sects. Sunnis and Shiites will each have their own legislative bodies. I know more about Sunni scholarship, because I adhere to that larger tradition. There is a body of scholarship in Saudi Arabia that gives rulings and many people simplistically think that because of their location and because of their facility with the Arabic language, they must be the body to follow. But others might think that body seems to be following a literalist interpretation of the faith, and they may have more confidence in a body that will look at the rationale behind things and perhaps give different rulings as a result. So they might pick a different body. It does not help Muslims to think that their scholars are the only ones. There is a joke about some people in Paradise. They come to a wall and they ask, why this wall? And they are told, on the other side of the wall are the people that you don't like.


Safiyyah: In paradise!


Shabir: In paradise. Some people have such a narrow view that it's as if Paradise is reserved for them and the scholarship that they trust, and those who do not follow them must be somewhere else. So for them to see other people there, it's going to be a shocker. But we know that the grace of God is vast and all-encompassing. God didn't create Paradise just for a few people; it's bigger than we could imagine. God does not benefit from punishing people in Hell. God's mercy is overflowing. He wants that mercy to extend towards people. And the expression of His mercy is Paradise. He wants people to go to Paradise!


Watch the full video of this interview here.



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