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On praiseworthy differences, the insecurity of having to be absolute

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SOME time ago, after a rather fruitless discussion about innovation in Islam, I tweeted: ‘the intellectual insecurity of having to be absolute is absolute insecurity’.

My feeling about those of the absolutist persuasion (and I’m not necessarily referring to the above) is that when posed with possible alternatives to a hypothesis, the dogmatic extremist will always think that because it’s unfamiliar, he is being presented with something outside of Islam.

You confront an argument that proclaims absolute truth without any prospect of accommodation. When one persists with an alternative view, the absolutist gets really annoyed. There has to be a winner and he is already the winner. How dare you challenge the gospel of his whims!

So when the discourse reveals that there will not be a clear winner, you find that upper-case cyber-shouting and personal attacks creep in. These angry attacks, resplendent with typos, reveal a human weakness that demeans the debate. The central issue becomes clouded in waves of emotional invective.

However, it must be said that absolutism is maddening. Absolutism is so blinded by its own light that it cannot see the sun of discourse filtering through the curtains. It does not comprehend the shade of grey. It stubbornly refuses to accept that there are different views – that every human heart beats to a different tune.

To this effect Imam Shafi’i, one of the greatest legal minds in history, would always say that he was right with the possibility of being wrong, and that the person engaging with him was wrong with the possibility of being right. He did this hoping that the person would obtain the true understanding of Allah, regardless of his own view.

To be sure, the noble conduct of our pious forbears teaches us a lot in the etiquette of difference and disagreement.

Bearing in mind that their academic disputes would have been as vehement as ours in their day, the restraint and respect shown to each other – as they probably bit their tongues – is a monument to the tolerant legacy of the Prophet (SAW): that a variety of opinion is indeed a blessing.

One of the Righteous Caliphs, Sayyidina ‘Umar, disagreed with a Companion on an issue of Sacred Law. And yet when that Companion would pass by, Sayyidina ‘Umar would remark: “there goes a fountain of knowledge!”

Sayyidah A’ishah, the wife of the Prophet (SAW) and one of the greatest narrators of Hadith, differed with Ibn ‘Abbas on whether the Prophet (SAW) actually saw the Divine during the Mi’raj, the spiritual journey to the Holy Throne.

There was no intellectual resolution to this, and history records that the two agreed to differ without losing their mutual respect. Significantly, no sectarian animosity has been passed down the generations because of Ibn ‘Abbas’ view that the Rasullulah saw Jibril against the view of A’isha that he saw Allah.

The Mauritanian scholar, Shaikh Abdullah bin Bayah, recalls a Tradition where Ubay ibn Ka’ab, one of the first Qur’anic reciters, heard a Companion reciting the Qur’an in a style he’d never heard before. He goes to the Prophet (SAW) who listens to the men and declares that they are both right.

Sayyidina ‘Umar, a man capable of great outrage on what he saw as deviation from the Deen, also heard a Companion reciting something different to the way he’d been taught by the noble Prophet (SAW). Again, the Prophet (SAW) listened to them and declared that both men were right.

Sayyidina ‘Ali, the fourth Righteous Caliph, was the very model of restraint, self-possession and insight when he dealt with the troublesome Khawarij – the earliest extremists who seceded from mainstream Islam.

Caliph ‘Ali could so easily have dismissed them with a wave of the sword and sent them into the wilderness, but he didn’t. He treated them gently, convincing half of them to return to the middle path of the Ahlus Sunnah.

Another issue of khilaf, or difference, amongst the early Companions was whether the dead could hear the living. After the battle of Badr the Prophet (SAW) had told his Companions that the slain Quraish lying on the battlefield could hear his voice as well as them.

Some thought that this referred to the Quraish on that occasion only, and others felt that it applied to all the dead on all occasions. There was never a central consensus to the question and the Sahaba agreed to differ in what Shaikh bin Bayah calls a ‘khilaf hamid’, a praiseworthy difference.

This concept of ‘praiseworthy’ differences was practised by the four great legal imams, Imam Malik, Abu Hanifah, Imam Shafi’i and Imam Hanbal. Each one had differences with the other, but they were couched in terms of such respect and decorum that there was never discord.

And following on this tradition, even the scholars within the schools of thought took different approaches – Imam Muzini and Nawawi amongst the Shafi’is and Abu Yusuf and Imam Muhammad amongst the Hanafis.

In fact, so few of us realise today that Fiqh (the application of Shari’ah) has never been, and is not, a homogenous body of simple ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’. Sometimes there are not clear answers! But the dynamism of Fiqh, and its amazing capacity to adapt to each epoch it exists in, reflects a vibrancy that would have died centuries ago had it been couched in unbendable, absolutist terms.

For Shaikh bin Bayah, differences of opinion are for conviviality, for cordiality and for brotherhood rather than enmity, aggression and intolerance. The whole of Creation is an example of diversity – the colours and the shades mentioned in the Qur’an, the various kinds of fruit, the variegated races of people, the stars, the mountains.

For him it’s better to learn the differences of the ‘ulama and to expand one’s breast in their knowledge than to be narrowed by ignorance; that by knowing their scope one would actually obtain a broader outlook on things. In other words, for the wise, varied opinion and intellectual openness has always been a good thing, always reflecting a positive outcome.

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