This verse in Surah Baqara is specifically referring to the incident wherein Moses prayed for water for the children of Israel:
“And [recall] when Moses prayed for water for his people, so We said, “Strike with your staff the stone.” And there gushed forth from it twelve springs, and every people knew its watering place. “Eat and drink from the provision of Allah, and do not commit abuse on the earth, spreading corruption.”" (Qur’an 2:60)
There were twelve tribes at the time. To each, God had given a spring such that there was no need for one to transgress the other or to fall into dispute regarding it. Each tribe knew its watering place and with this fair blessing of God, they were all content.
Of course, the Qur’an has verses which all allude to the same generic meaning, even though the specifics of the cause of revelation in each verse may differ.
One such a verse is in Surah Isra:
“Say, ‘Each works according to his manner [...]’” (Qur’an 17:84)
So like God gave the Children of Israel a watering place specifically for each tribe, He also gave every individual a manner, a disposition. This is further supported by the hadith (narration) of the Prophet ﷺ:
“Work, for everyone is eased to what he was created for.”1
So whilst the verse says people should work according to their nature, this hadith not only confirms this, but explains how when something is in accord with one’s nature, they will find that easy.
There are several other verses and prophetic sayings which carry the same meaning.
Lessons and Reflections
Contemplating over these verses and prophetic sayings, we can derive some lessons and morals.
Firstly, the fact that everyone has a disposition is something not only acknowledged by the sacred text, but enforced. This may seem obvious, but many differences and conflicts that arise between Muslim groups and organisations, between the different thoughts and approaches towards the Qur’an and hadith are partly a result of this, though on the face of it, this may not be apparent.
For example, some people by their very nature are simpletons. They like things black and white and find much difficulty when things are blurry. Such people lean towards clear-cut answers that usually say, “X is the correct opinion, and the rest is wrong.” My own personal experiences, though I accept this is anecdotal, supports this. Of course, to what extent this is their ‘nature’ is debatable, as one’s generic understanding of something can influence how one goes about dealing with the finer details. For example:
There is only one truth.
Islam is true.
Therefore, Islam must have only one truth.
Whilst this is true in theory, Muslim scholars never held this attitude in all aspects of the religion. In fact, one can argue that in most issues, unclear issues, they entertained some doubt with regards to their legal position, hence the saying of Imām al-Shāfi’ī (may God be pleased with him):
“My opinion (as a jurist) is correct, with the possibility of error, whilst the opinion of others (i.e. jurists) is incorrect, yet there is always a possibility that it may be correct.”
Similarly, the greatest Imām, Abū Hanīfa (may God be pleased with him) said:
“We [i.e. the jurists] realize that this is merely an opinion; yet, it is the best we have been able to reach. If someone produces an opinion better than this, we will accept it.”2
This is probably one of the fundamental distinguishing traits between a well-studied person in Islam and a novice. So are the jurists negating the fact that there is only one truth? The simple answer is no. Why then do they tolerate differences? This requires a separate discussion, which I may address in another article if Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) wills.
These differences of dispositions can also be seen influencing the Fiqh (Law) of the companions. Ibn Abbas (may God be pleased with him) is noted for having some lenient opinions and he would look deeper into the purposes and subtleties of an issue, while Ibn Umar would take a more cautious approach. Of course, it would be inaccurate to say this is only a result of their disposition, but it would be accurate to say that one’s nature had a part to play.
Acknowledging this can help us deal with many differences, especially those that are of a religious nature and even more so when those who differ with you claim that they have a higher standing than you, because their legal position is more supported by the texts. This is true, according to how they see it. So you let people drink from their own watering place, while you drink form yours. You wouldn’t go over and try to persuade people to come and drink from yours, for you know that all these springs eventually draw their water from the ocean of the Qur’an and Sunna. This is the attitude we need when we encounter differences of opinion in Fiqh. So if one were to go to a village which is Hanafi in practice, it would be foolish and short-sighted to give a talk on the ‘correctness’ of raising the hands after ruku` (bowing, in prayer), something which the Hanafis don’t do. Similarly, it would be wise for one to excuse oneself from leading the Witr prayer (which has several ways of being offered) in an area where it is offered differently to how one prays. Doing so will lead to confusion and may threaten the harmony of that community.
Of course, there may be individuals who go out and try the watering places of others, and find out for themselves which one they find most sweet. But such is the exception, rather than the norm.
Secondly, people just embarking on seeking knowledge should remember this verse when they are choosing someone to learn Islam from. If we decide at an early stage to learn from someone with whom we disagree more than agree, then we may find ourselves spiritually bankrupt and none the wiser, for so much quarreling and bickering, especially with those who are more senior than us in knowledge and wisdom, hardens the heart. Hence Imam Malik’s dislike for disputation with regards to religion.
Lastly, understanding this verse will prevent us from thinking low and belittling the work of our fellow Muslims who are engaging in works different than ours. Numerous times I have heard our activist brothers and sisters look down at those who are in the pursuit of knowledge as not ‘doing’ anything. Similarly, there is a tendency amongst people of knowledge to stick to their inner circles and smear activists as merely having nothing more than a loud voice, often the voice being louder than their intellect. Instead, we should acknowledge that there are many paths to God. And this is not the sayings of a modern Hippy who is influenced by liberalism as some may think. For if this is true, then it must also be said for Imam Malik.
Imam Malik received a letter from Abd Allāh bin Abd al-Azīz al-Umari al-Ābid encouraging him to solitary confinement and worship, away from the people as was Imam Malik’s habit. So Imam Malik replied:
“Indeed God, the Almighty, has divided actions as He has divided provisions. So perhaps a man has an opening in salah [prayer] (i.e. he is good at it) whilst he does not have this opening in fasting, whilst another has an opening in giving to charity, whilst he does not have an opening in fasting, whilst another has an opening in jihād whilst he does not have an opening in salah. The dispersing of knowledge and teaching it is from the best actions of righteousness and I am pleased that God has made an opening for me in this. I don’t think I’m doing this without doing what you do (i.e. worshipping God) And I hope that both of us are on good (khayr). It is incumbent upon every one of us to be pleased with what God has apportioned for him.
As you can see in his reply, Imam Malik was actively aware that there were many ways to Allah (swt). Only the Prophet ﷺ is perfect, and it is he only who embodies all such ways, Indeed it is the Prophet ﷺ himself who taught this when he gave different replies to different people according to their nature and circumstances, when they asked the question “Which action is the best?” This knowledge had a direct influence on Imam Malik’s attitude and mannerisms when he said:
“And I hope that both of us are on good (khayr).”
They wanted to include, whereas many today have a fetish for excluding; they acknowledged the vastness of this faith, whereas many today represent it as an alleyway.
May Allah (swt) reward the early generations of this Umma (community) and those who follow them in the best manner. And peace and blessing be upon our master and our final messenger, Muhammad ﷺ and his family.