Diversity of Juristic Opinions: a Sign of Discord?
The publication of certain books that aim at getting people to adhere to the school of thought of their author while describing their opposition as being innovators, heretics, and astray, pose a threat to the unity of the Muslim community. There is no doubt that these books played a role in creating much of the fragmentation that we see and experience in this day and age. This does not mean that we should stubbornly adhere to our school of thought in opposition to theirs. Everyone has the right to present their opinion and consider it to be correct, but it is never permissible to accuse the opposition of innovation, going astray, and heresy, especially when the issues tthat they are denouncing have been accepted by scholars throughout the ages whom none of these people possess the effrontery to claim are astray. The most that they can do is oppose one school and follow another, which does not cause disunity within the community.
Discord and conflict occur when they persistently insist that their school is correct and everyone else is wrong. Nobody in the past or the present, in the East or the West, disagrees about what Islam is, which is what is necessarily known in the religion. Similarly, nobody disagrees concerning those issues about which the community has formed a consensus, which is the essence of this religion. Everything else are matters of interpretation, and Muslims are free to follow any school they like, as long as it is led by scholars who are qualified to make interpretations and examine evidence; no consideration is given to the interpretations of people who have not fulfilled its conditions and requirements.
There has been variance of opinions concerning matters that are uncertain since the time of the Companions of the Prophet. Imam Abu al-Qasim ibn Muhammad ibn Abu Bakr al-Sidiq said, "God has caused benefit through the variance of opinion among the companions of the Prophet in their actions. Anybody who acts according to the actions of one of them will find himself with ample room and he would realize that someone better than himself did the same."1
Sufyan al-Thawri said, "If you see someone doing something concerning which there is a variance of opinion, and who hold the opposing position, do not prevent him [from his actions]."2 Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal said, "The jurist should not make people follow his school or be harsh with them."3
Ibn Qudama al-Makdisi, the Hanbali Imam said, "There are great Imams from the predecessors within this community through whom the principles of the religion were set and confusing rulings were clarified. Their agreement is evidence, and their variance [of opinion] is a vast mercy."4 A man wrote a book about variance of opinion and Imam Ahmad told him, "Do not call it variance of opinion, rather call the book ‘Spaciousness’."5 He also said, "When a mufti is asked to issue a fatwa, and his fatwa does not entail spaciousness for the one requesting the fatwa, he should refer him to someone who does have spaciousness."6
If a scholar has certainty that those who hold opinions in opposition to his are wrong, it is not permissible for him to describe them as innovators or heretics, because holding an incorrect opinion based on a correct intellectual methodology is not described as such. This is how things have been understood by the great scholars of the past like Imam al-Dhahabi who said, "If we were to accuse every Imam who makes an error in interpretation, for which he would be forgiven, of innovation and ostrasize him from the community, Ibn Nusayr, and Ibn Mundah, and those even greater than them would not have been safe with us. God guides people to truth, and He is the Most Merciful. We seek refuge with God from caprice and impoliteness."7
Ibn Taymiyyah said, "Saying that an issue is certain does not entail an accusation of those mujtahids who oppose it. This is like the rest of the issues concerning which the early generations differed and we have certainty of the correctness of one of the positions such as: the fact that the pregnant woman whose husband has died has a waiting period that lasts until she gives birth, intercourse with penetration but without ejaculations necessitates major ritual purification, riba al-fadl8 is forbidden, and temporary marriage is forbidden."9
From what has preceded we understand that the variance of opinion between scholars and mujtahids who posses the requirements for making ijtihad in matters in which variance is allowed, is a great mercy bestowed by God upon Muslims. Things have been made broad for them and it is permissible for them to follow whatever is appropriate to their circumstances, and there is no doubt concerning this.
That which brings about the fragmentation is the attempt at intellectual terrorism, coercion, and deception in order to give people the impression that what they are saying is the truth and there is no other truth beside it. This is a blameworthy innovation that is not part of the guidance of the predecessors of this community. May God grant us breadth in our understanding. And God is Most High and Knows best.