The Etiquette of Disagreement
In the Name of Allah, The Beneficent, The Merciful. Peace be upon you, and The Mercy and Blessings of Allah.
My topic tonight is entitled “The Etiquette of Disagreement”, and I think that sometimes the titles to things have everything to do with how they are understood. Some of us believe that a topic like “The Etiquette of Disagreement” is one of those topics that scholars and the ulamaa up in some ivory tower discuss and that it has very little to do with our everyday life, on the level of our everyday activities. What I want to propose to you tonight is that what we’re really talking about is a lesson in Islamic Civics. Where I come from in the United States public education is compulsory still in many states up until the age of sixteen. In some states its not compulsory but only because in those states they allow for private education, you can arrange for the education of your own child in your own home; but education is compulsory. Part of that education is what we call Civics (in some schools they call it Government while in other schools it is called Social Studies).
These are lessons that are designed to prepare students to grow up to be citizens; to live in a society in such a way that they will be productive. That they will be able to contribute to the society — they will be a positive addition to the society and that they will promote the interest of the society as defined by the society’s leaders. What I want to propose tonight is that we need to get back to Islamic Civics, of how we as Muslims can function as productive individuals in groups in society in such a way that we promote the interests of Islam. We further the integrity of the religion and that we support the furthering of our interests both in terms of our activities among ourselves and what we deliver to the rest of the world. Now I think it’s a forgone conclusion with all of those ayat that we have in the Quran that Allah (swt) has not asked, but commanded us as a community to love one another and to promote unity. And there are many ayat in the Quran just to name a few: “Those who divide up their religion and become groups unto themselves you have nothing to do with them Muhammad”; “And do not be like those who divided themselves up and differed among themselves after clear signs have come to them and these are the people whom will receive a grievous penalty.”
Allah (swt) says in another verse: “And hold fast to the rope of Allah all together and do not be divided and remember Allah’s bounty upon you when you were divided and He made you brothers out of His blessing to you”. It is related on the authority of Abdullah ibn Masud, the famous companion, that he once said, “Being together as a jamaa’ah, being united as a jamaa’ah, this is the Hablullah (the Rope of Allah) that Allah is talking about in this verse”, and he (ra) goes on to say that, “That which you do not like in the jamaa’ah is better than that which you love in your own little separate group.” So being with the jamaa’ah is preferred over being in your own little separate group. This is all well and good, to talk about being a jamaa’ah, but what about the fact that there are people who have ideas that we don’t agree with. What about the fact that there are people who endorse notions that we believe to be haram, what about the fact that there are people who advocate doctrines that we believe to be antithetical to Islam, that we believe to be against Islam? How can we maintain a jamaa’ah with these kinds of ideas in our midst? And it’s here that we come to the whole point of Islamic Civics, and what all of us in this room, in fact all of us who say laa ilaaha illallah Muhamadu rasulullah, what all of us have to remember is that this Deen is not our personal property. This Deen is the Deen of Allah (swt). And it is supposed to be practiced as Allah (swt) has commanded us to practice it. And Allah has commanded us, not asked us, commanded us in many ayat to be united, to have love and compassion among us. We are going to differ in our interpretations. We are going to differ in what some of us hold to be priorities from what others hold to be priorities. How could that not be the case?
The Companions Differed
The companions themselves differed on their understandings of various things that the Prophet (s) said, or that the Prophet (s) did. We are no better than the companions. We are human beings just like them and so we will differ. But the point becomes how do we manage our differences? How do we differ in such a way that while our ideas may differ and be separate, our hearts are united and we recognise each other as brothers and sisters involved in one mission? How do we do that? This is the Etiquette of Disagreement that I am talking about as Islamic Civics.
Rules of Discussion
One of our main problems, if I might be permitted to say so, because I did not come all the way to Australia to add to the problems of the Muslims in Australia. I came inshaAllah, if anything, to lesson those problems and I asked Allah (swt) to grant me the taufiq that will enable me to do that inshaAllah. By my humble estimation one of the reasons that we often times fall into disagreement with each other, the kind of disagreement that leads to hatred, distrust, mutual accusations, is that we attempt to go into discussions of issues with no rules of discussion. We’re playing without rules of interpretation, and this is one of the things that separates us from our pious ancestors. They had rules for interpretation. We all know that the Prophet (s) passed away and his companions succeeded him and went to the various parts of the Muslim world where they began to encounter realities that were unknown to the Arabian Peninsula. All kinds of new people started coming into Islam. We have to remember that during the Prophet’s (s) lifetime Syria was not an Arab country. It became Arab after the Muslims went their with Islam — they were not forced to be Arabs, nor forced to be Muslims, Islam won the hearts of the Syrians. Egypt was not an Arab country, it became an Arab country, it became a Muslim country. Likewise with Iran, North Africa — you have all these people coming into Islam from different backgrounds and histories. How was it that they were able to maintain a sense of unity?
We all know that Imam Ash-Shafi’i (r) came on the scene in the 2nd century of Islam, and Imam Ash-Shafi’i wrote an important book called Ar-Risalah; and this was the book that started the Muslims to develop rules of engagement. Rules of Engagement — that is to say brother you have a hadith and I have a hadith. Okay, what does the hadith say. The hadith says ‘do this’, what does ‘do’ mean in Arabic? ‘Do this’ is what they call in Arabic seeghat al amr. It’s a command. Imam Ash-Shafi’i sat down and said command can mean a number of things – it could mean that something is waajib (you must do it) or that something is mandoob (you should do it) or that something is mubaah (you may do it). And so now when Muslims come together and they discuss commands, if one of them says this means you have to do it and the other one says you should do it, they both know now what that command could mean; it could mean you must, or you should. And he who says that it means you must, has he corrupted the hadith of the rasul?
No, this is consistent with what commands could mean, and vice versa. And this was the way in which the Muslims were able to accommodate all these different people and it kept them talking about Islam among themselves and debating the issues without dividing into sects and schisms.
This is the first lesson that we need to learn. And in these Islamic schools that we have, we need to put into the curriculum this Islamic Civics because often times especially among young people, we have young people who go home and read Quran and with the best of intentions they come back and they have an opinion and they don’t know that there may be another way to understand that ayah, and they say therefore that anybody who does not see it as I see it, he must not be serious about deen. Therefore we fall into schism and distrust and we become disunited and can’t get very much done. So one of the main things we need to do, and I’m going to plead from this podium tonight with the ulama of Australia, that they get together and develop a program for Rules of Engagement among the Muslims. The Muslims used to call this Usool-ul-Fiqh. How not only to understand, but how to discuss our issues? If we don’t have rules of engagement there’s only going to be one opinion I’m going to recognise, you know what that opinion is? It’s my opinion and anybody who disagrees with that opinion I’m not going to recognise. I’m going to accuse them of being either insincere or not wanting to accept the truth. So this is one of the first things we need to do.
The Jama‘ah and ‘Ismah
The second thing we need to do in this Islamic Civics is recognise that in Islam there is no church. We don’t have a pope or vatican. In Islam we have what is known as ‘ismah or infallibility — that the Prophet (s) had a perfect understanding of the revelation and this is why any time we go to the Prophet (s) and we asked him a question and he gives us an answer we know that is a correct answer. Because the Prophet (s) is ma’sum min al khata (protected from error in interpretation). This is one of the basic characteristics of being a prophet. All of the prophets were ma’sumeen min al khata. But what happens after the Prophet (s) dies? What happens to this ‘ismah? Who gets this ‘ismah? Do I get it? Do you get it? According to Ahlis Sunnah wal Jamaa’ah it is the jamaa’ah who gets this ‘ismah. The Prophet (s) is reported to have said that his community (ummah) will not universally agree on an error. In other words everything his (s) community universally agrees upon is true, and therefore is binding on every believer; but that which his (s) community does not agree upon is subject to debate and there are many things that the community disagrees upon. And where the community disagrees no one party can accuse the other party of being in error in the absolute sense.
The most that they can do is what the Imam Ash-Shafi’i did. Al-Imam Ash-Shafi’i said, “I believe my opinion is right with the possibility that it is wrong and I believe the opinion of those who disagree with me is wrong with the possibility that it is right.”
This is the spirit with which the Muslim approaches those issues on which there is no consensus in the community. When we try to make everything in Islam a matter of consensus, we are going against the way of our pious ancestors no matter what we call ourselves. This is a fact, and another fact is that our pious ancestors differed on more than they agreed on. There was one scholar named ibn Al-Mundhir who died in the year 310H. Ibn Al-Mundhir wrote a book called Kitabul-Ijmaa’, this was a book that included everything that the ulamaa agreed upon up until his death. This book is only about 250 pages big. The rest was all subject to ongoing debate, ongoing discussion. But the Muslims then had rules for discussion and that is why they could discuss and continue to debate and even change their minds without it leading to hatred and distrust and someone accusing the other of not being a pious Muslim.
They came in fact to Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal who used to say that if your nose bleeds then you have to renew your wudu. Imam Malik said that if your nose bleeds you do not have to renew your wudu. So they went to Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal and they said what if you were praying behind somebody and they have a nose bleed and they don’t renew there wudu, do you continue to pray behind them? And Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal said, “How can I refuse to pray behind somebody like Imam Malik? I have daleel (evidence), he has daleel; I have solid daleel, he has solid daleel.” The companions of the Prophet (s) took different things from him and went out to the various parts of the Muslim world and they taught those different things in those various parts. All of them got what they taught from the Prophet (s) so Imam Malik has his point of view and Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal has his point of view. This was the spirit of our pious ancestors, and this is what we have to get back to.
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Dr Abdulhakim Jackson