When is the difference of opinion (al-Ikhtilāf) amongst scholars a mercy?


2400960751_c7f83d22bf_oA quick search within the plethora of fatāwa (Islamic scholarly opinion) available on the internet alone will quickly help one to conclude that difference of opinion in matters relating to Islam is indeed a reality. The purpose of this short article is neither to address the causes of such differences nor to support one position in a given matter over another. Rather the purpose is to provide a general guideline for the average person to decipher which differences are causes of mercy and which are not.

Valid vs. Invalid

From the outset, it should be known that differences that are valid are a source of mercy and leniency. Invalid differences however, are a source of deviancy. Thus to label valid differences as ‘‘deviant” is precisely an act of deviancy!

What not to base validity on

Whether or not ikhtilāf (difference of opinion) on a given matter is valid or not should not be based on the subject matter. This means that the common notion that differences are allowed in Fiqh (Islamic Law) but not allowed in ʻAqīda (Theology), or are allowed in ‘furūʻ (subsidiary matters) but not allowed in uṣūl (foundational matters) is inaccurate and is likely to lead one to categorize legitimate differences as deviant.

The correct criteria on which to base validity

The correct method is to base the criterion for validity on the uṣūli epistemological distinctions between qatʻī (definitive) and dhannī (obscure).

A text (aḥadīth or Qur’ānic verse), can be qatʻī or dhannī in two aspects.

  1. thubūt (its authenticity)
  2. dalāla (its meaning)

al-qatʻīyāt

When a text is qatʻī in both its authenticity and its meaning, the matter is then qatʻī; hence differing in this matter is impermissible. Thus, such a difference is a source of deviancy and is not a source of mercy. For example, the texts that establish the prohibition of homosexuality in Islām are qatʻī in both its authenticity and meaning because Qur’ānic verses clearly prohibit it and these verses are supported by Aḥādīth to provide a clear cut consensus. Therefore, to say under the guise of ‘Ijtihād’1 (interpretation) that homosexuality may be allowed is nothing short of heresy. Indeed in such clear cut matters, to deviate from the established positions is tantamount to kufr (blasphemy). Such matters, whether they are related to Islāmic law or theology, are not areas in which Ijtihād is allowed. Hence, the famous maxim: There is no Ijtihād in a matter wherein there is a clear-cut text.

al-dhannīyāt

If however one of these aspects is dhannī (its authenticity or meaning is not definitive), Ijtihād will be permissible, and as a logical consequence, differences of opinion arising out of such an Ijtihād (performed by qualified bona fide scholars) is also valid, though not necessarily correct. The ṣifāt of Allāh mentioned in the Qur’ān is such a matter, even though they are matters of theology. Hence, so long as the rules of interpretations are followed, it is not correct to exclude vast numbers of this Ummah outside the fold of Sunnī Islām as some have done so based on this issue alone. If however there is a clear cut consensus (Ijmāʻ), the matter would then be rendered as qatʻī and negate the option of Ijtihād.

What is dhannī and what is qatʻī?

For someone who is not fully proficient in the Arabic language, finding out which matter is dhannī and which is qatʻī may be difficult. The most practical way is to ask a reliable source of knowledge. On the other hand, a person who knows Arabic may consult earlier books of Fiqh to see whether classical scholars have differed, which will indicate that the sources relating to the matter is dhannī. Alternatively books listing clear cut consensuses also indicate what matters are qatʻī; what is excluded is usually dhannī.

Our attitude in those matters that are qatʻī

Since the primary sources are clear on such matters, we should ascertain the truth from the untruth. It is in these matters that one engages in ‘commanding the good and forbidding the evil’2 (amr bil maʻrūf wan nahy ʻan’l munkar). Yet care should be taken in declaring matters as belonging to this category since very few issues belong here.

Our attitude in those matters that are dhannī

Since ikhtilāf in these matters are allowed, we must show tolerance in such issues. This means that we must not label the opinion of others which may be different, but valid as:

  1. Deviant (tafsīq)
  2. Innovation (tabdīʻ)
  3. Blasphemy (takfīr)

It is in these matters that we must try to show and inculcate within us the ‘ethics of differing’ (ādāb al-Ikhtilāf). Furthermore, the fact that the matter is dhannī does not mean it is synonymous to being the correct opinion. Thus we should follow scholars we trust in such matters and we should not venture alone (unless qualified) in deciphering the correctness or incorrectness of a legal opinion.

Some examples of qatʻī matters:

  1. The oneness of God
  2. The finality of the message of Muḥammad ﷺ
  3. The prohibition of unlawful murder
  4. The prohibition of homosexuality
  5. The prohibition of adultery/fornication
  6. The prohibition of drinking alcohol
  7. The obligation of the five daily prayers
  8. Dealing with people justly
  9. Abusing, cursing and defaming others
  10. Sectarianism and breaking up Muslim unity
  11. Backbiting and slander
  12. Spying  and unwarranted suspicion
  13. Declaring the companions of the Prophet as apostates (May Allāh protect us)

Some examples of dhannī matters:

  1. The permissibility of taking usurious loans in non-Muslim countries
  2. The obligation of the face veil (niqāb)
  3. The permissibility of gelatine/animal rennet and other animal derivatives
  4. What Allāh means when he mentions hands, face, etc. in the Qur’ān
  5. Women travelling without a chaperone
  6. The validity of wiping over cotton socks in wuḍū
  7. Whether the language of the Friday khutba (sermon) is allowed to be translated or not
  8. The permissibility of music
  9. The permissibility of Mīlād celebrations
  10. What constitutes ‘correct’ sighting of the moon for the establishing of a new month
  11. Shaking hands with the opposite gender with the absence of lust, without initiating it
  12. The issue of women singing in front of non-maḥārim
  13. Men wearing clothes below the ankles
  14. Men wearing silver
  15. The ruling of the beard and its length
  16. Raising of the hands before/after rukūʻ in salāh (rafʻ al-yadain)
  17. Where to place the hands in salāh
  18. The issue of 3 ṭālaq’s (divorces) in one sitting
  19. The validity of a couple’s marriage in which the wife decides to become Muslim and the husband remains of his faith
  20. Singling out the fifteen of Shaʻbān for worship
  21. The issue of following one Madhab in all issues
  22. Whether or not the Prophet ﷺ saw Allāh during the Miʻrāj or not

  1. This obviously is not Ijtihād in any sense of the word for there are various conditions one must meet in order to be qualified to engage in such an endeavour. Non-qualification is an impediment to valid Ijtihād and hence, those who pretend to engage in such an activity without having regard for any of its conditions are very mistaken. Furthermore, a matter which is definitive in both its authenticity and meaning is one in which Ijtihād is not allowed.
  2. There are many rules to follow when one engages in this task. Refer to Iḥyā ʻUlūm al-Dīn by Imām Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazzalī for more information.
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19 Comments

  1. Abu Maryam says:

    As-Salamu Alaikum,

    Two points. First what is your evidence to say “From the outset, it should be known that differences that are valid are a source of mercy and leniency”. I have heard a hadith “Differences of opinion are a mercy for my Ummah” but I am not sure this is authentic. If you are basing this statement on that hadith can you please give me the grading that scholars have given for that hadith and which books it appears in. If not please give me your evidence for that statement.

    Second I agree with you that the difference of opinion can only be on the dhanni issues. IF this is true then how can you say that voting and political participation is permissible. Allah (swt) clearly says that whoever rules by other than what He has revealed is a fasiq, dhalim and even kafir. These texts are qatai in meaning and qatai in narration. When you vote that is what you are doing. You are ruling by other than the Shariah. You are sending someone who on behalf of you will bring laws that are not from the Quran and Sunnah.

    • Starfish says:

      Brother, for your second statement:
      “When you vote that is what you are doing.”
      Please read the 3 verses that mention this issue: Only one is about the qisas ruling, the two others are more about aqidah, the verses order ahl al-Kitab to believe in the Prophet by applying the ruling about the new prophet in torah and the new testament. The one about qisas says that who doesn’t apply it that they are ‘zalim’… So the issue is not so qati. And connecting it with voting is also not Qati at all. Please always vote and help your muslim community shape their future. Things are not so black and white as we hope they are…
      I hope I didn’t hurt you.
      fi amanillah…

      • Abu Maryam says:

        Starfish,

        The 3 ayahs are general in that Allah (swt) says “WHOEVER rules by other than what Allah has revaled…”, so you cannot restrict the meaning of it only to a specific people or specific issue.

        And these are not the only verses, there are dozens of others including in Surah Kahf (ayah 26) and Surah Yusuf ( verse 40) where Allah (swt) clearly says that He does not share His Sovreignity with anyone. What do you say about these?

    • Haq says:

      Asalamu’alykum Abu Maryam, may Allah bless you
      1) Imam Shatibi mentions in his Muwafaqat that there were many from the Salaf who used to consider Ikhtilaf a mercy from them the great Imam Malik and the 5th rightly Guided caliph Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz. Refer to the book if you want more
      2) A quick look at the tafsir of the verse you mentioned quickly shows the Mufassireen were not unanimous as to what the verse meant. Hence the Ulama of usul stipulated the knowledge of tafsir and not literal translations to do Ijtihad. I wonder based on what you concluded the verse was Qat’i in its meaning?

      • Abu Maryam says:

        Brother Haq,

        When you say “Hence the Ulama of usul stipulated the knowledge of tafsir and not literal translations to do Ijtihad” are you not saying that we should follow the Ulama instead of the Quran and Sunnah. The meaning of the ayah is clear, how can they have any difference of opinion? On what are they basing this difference of opinion?

        Brother Suhaib,

        Can you please tell me what are your thoughts on these ayahs and what are you are using as evidence to say that we should vote? I have heard you call for voting on several occasions but from what I see in the Quran it is clearly haram may be even kufr!

        Jazak Allah Khair.

  2. Asad says:

    Thanks for sharing the difference between qat’i and dhanni. I have a suggestion for improvement. You wrote, “thubūth (it’s authenticity), dalāla (it’s meaning).” It should read, “its authenticity” and “its meaning.” When you want to convey “of it,” use “its,” but to convey “it is,” use “it’s”

  3. Tricia says:

    “whoever rules by other than what He has revealed is a fasiq, dhalim and even kafir.” -Abu Maryam’s quote

    My question is for Imam Suhaib: in the original Arabic, does it say “rules” as in, give a fiqh opinion….or is it “rules” as in, “rules” yu7kim* a country?
    I ask because if it is the latter, then voting is not a position of being a ruler or leader of a country. It is from the position of those being ruled. Its basis is giving advice or expressing one’s opinion to the ruler. In this definition, voting is not ruling…..so pending Imam Suhaib’s reply, my guess is this quote applies to the Muslim ruler or even scholar. A Muslim ruler who rules by other than what Allah says is fasiq…etc.
    But Abu Maryam: advising the ruler is definitely part of our faith and I dont know anyone who would tell a Muslim not to offer counsel to a ruler, whether he be Muslim or non-Muslim. I dont think people who are voting are giving “rulings” in the sense that you understand it here. They are merely trying to steer their leadership towards better alternatives. For example, Islam prohibits abortion (except in exceptional circumstances), so if I am asked to vote on it, I do so. However if the choice is between two haram things, I just dont vote. But perpetually boycotting the US legislative system, as some Muslims advocate, does nothing but ghettoize the Muslims and make them a non-factor. Allah knows best.

  4. 'Uthmaan says:

    I have a question which may seem somewhat comical, but I assure you that I am serious.

    Is there a difference of opinion about what you have mentioned in this article? Or are there no differences of opinion about differences of opinion?

    For example, do all scholars agree that the permissibility of taking usorious loans in Non-Muslim countries is a dhanni matter?

    • Haq says:

      Asalamu’aykum br ‘Uthmaan, your question is not comical at all and actually shows a level of engagement . To answer your question, there are some things that are objective facts, and exist whether we acknowledge them or not. So when you look at an issue X, and you want to see whether it is dhanni or not, you will look to see if there is a diff of opinion amongst scholars. If yes, and they are both founded upon sound analysis (which would require you to have somewhat familiarity of usul), then you would conclude that this matter is dhanni. Yes you will always get people who want to make it out as if their opinion is FINAL and they try to negate the issue is dhanni at all. They only do that so they can win over people’s opinion. The reality is that it is dhanni, why? because other scholars of the same weight or more have differed. So the example you mentioned, yes I have seen with my own eyes tv mufti’s saying “how can someone permit what Allah has forbidden” referring to the fatwa of the permissability of taking a interest based mortgage to purchase a house in the west. If that scholar had any knowledge as he claims (instead of using lines more suitable to an elementary student of shariah) he would know that the likes of the great Abu Hanifa, Imam Ahmad, and Imam Thawri (may Allah be pleased with them all) all mentioned this. Are we to say they judged based on their vain desires? the clear cut answer is no! (a brief look at their evidence proves this. Obviously if you didnt look into it, then you would not comprehend why they differed). So what I am saying is that even if scholar x said that taking a usury based mortgage to buy a house is haraam and is a qat’i manner, the facts on this issue falsify his claim. his claim is subjective, negated by objective truths. Hence the scholars said one cannot become a faqih unless he knows the difference of opinion of the scholars. btw, the fatwa on buying a house in the west with a mortgage is long and has conditions. You should refer to the fatwa by the European Council for Fatwa and Research for more info and do not simply take it from here.
      hope this helps…

  5. Aishah says:

    Respected ImamSuhaib,
    Assalam Alaikum,
    I have benefited greatly from this website in general and this article in particular. May Allah be pleased with you and make all your affairs easy. I would kindly request you to advise me on some matters. I agree with this article because to me after soundness of Aqidah and purity of intention, unity and goodwill among Muslims is of paramount importance. My approach to most of the dhanni issues is that I study both aspects of it and follow the daleel which appears stronger. In many cases, both sides appear to be supported by equally weighty daleels. After all, if the ulema of the Ummah have held certain different positions on issues, they have done it on the basis of strong evidence. In such cases, I’m usually following both opinions when I can! For example, sometimes I do Rafa’a yadain, sometimes I don’t! To me, both appear Sunnah. In other cases, I am almost always inclined to follow the stricter or as I see it safer opinion i.e. I try to err on the side of caution…I have heard that a person can not attain Taqwa until he leaves the permissible for fear of following into the Haram…e.g. I do not listen to music…for myself, I consider it Haram; but out of respect for the viewpoint of scholars who consider it permissible, I do not feel comfortable censuring someone else for it. Is this the correct approach?? Also, some problems arise when the issue in question concerns others as well. Take for example, Niqab. I have read, studied, heard and learnt from scholars from all across the divide about it. I can honestly say that I believe they are all on a clear daleel. I can not even now reach the conclusion whether covering the face is obligatory or not. It is very much likely and I’m ready to accept in the light of the daleels I’ve heard that it is not obligatory. However, Shaykh Ibn Baz, Shaykh Uthaymen and others may Allah be pleased with them are also armed with strong daleel. I accept both opinions, but as I said before, I like to err on the side of caution. I often want to cover my face just to be safe, and feel guilt about not doing so. My parents however do not allow me to do so. I can not argue with them about it being obligatory because as I said, I am not convinced about its absolute obligation and I do not claim to say so in the light of the differences among our scholars. My question is is it not my right to follow the opinion I prefer? Or should I stick to my parents’ opinion and obey them? Also my dad is always telling me to make all maters easy by following the easier option (regardless of strength of daleel or opinion of madhab/scholar etc.) Is this not mockery of the religion?
    Respected Shaykh, may Allah be pleased with you. I have not been able to express myself clearly. I have presented some muddled thoughts hoping that you will do me the favour of correcting me where my notions are wrong. I understand if your busy schedule may not permit a detailed response or if you choose not to reply. Maybe, patience and a deeper and formal study of the Deen and a lot of dua will clarify many matters for me Insha’Allah. I request you to make dua for me that Allah may increase me in guidance, Iman, Ilm and Sabr and that He be pleased with me. Your saying ‘I did’ or ‘I will’ means a lot to me. Please do. Please excuse any lack of adab my writing may show to the Deen of Allah or the scholars of knowledge. If it is there, it is only unintentional and due to my ignorance. Jazak Allah. May Allah protect you.

    Assalam alaikum
    P.S. for the others who read this comment, I am not looking for a debate on dhanni issues I’ve mentioned.

    • Suhaib Webb says:

      Wa alaykum al-salam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh,

      Sister Aiesha,

      While scholar’s differ over the obligatory nature of niqab, they do not differ over the obligatory nature of obeying one’s parents. When two noble issues collide, the qat’i is given preference over the dhani. Thus, in this case, you should listen to your parents advice since it falls within the realm of Allah’s obedience.

      Allah knows best.
      Suhaib

  6. Hope1 says:

    Assalamu aliakum brother,

    JazakAllah for the nice article. However please do me the following favour.

    1) Show me proof regarding permissibility of music
    2) Show me proof that women can travel without chaperone
    3) Show me proof that interest based loans are permissible in non-Muslim countries and how this distinction was made as opposed to Muslim countries where the economy is also based on riba.
    4) Show me proof it is permissible to touch women without lust

    Also since issues of bida’ will not be prohibited during time of Messenger of Allah as they are new introductions, please show me proof that the first 3 generations did do the following:

    1) Celebrate Milad by singling out Muharram
    2) Singling out 15th of Sha’ban for worship

    The other issues I can see room for argumentation – but the difference can still be invalid. Just because there is room to argue doesn’t make everything a valid difference. Some ulema permit anal sex – but that is not valid obviously.

    Lastly regarding the beard – I agree there can disagreement regarding its ruling. But I disagree that there can be disagreement regarding its length. If someone says sunnah and someone says wajib – no problem. But if someone says trimmed beard fulfills the sunnah or wajib, then I have a question as to what the proof is for this claim.

    • Haq says:

      Asalamu’aykum
      I just wanted to clarify that the purpose of this article was not to advocate one opinion over another. Also since your questions assume you have already taken a position in the matters you have highlighted, that would mean you already should know of the difference of opinion that exists regarding them. If no, then how did you arrive at a conclusion regarding their hurma or wujub? If you want to find out whether they are dhanni or not, refer to the books of ikhtilaf of scholars of old and new, and that should satisfy your answer. Although i should add, please do be objective in your research and do not approach matters after already having formed an opinion.
      baarakAllahu feekum,
      Wassalam

  7. Tahmid says:

    Salam, First of all I want to congratulate Imam suhaib for this much needed post, There are indeed many differences of opinion among the scholars but when it comes to the most important part of the deen we are all in agreement, May Allah(swt) have mercy upon the scholars and all the muslim ummah.

  8. Tahmid says:

    I am sorry I didn’t see the author of the post, JazakAllah khair to whoever wrote this post.

  9. abu zakaria says:

    The article is outright ludicrous,there are legitimate incongruities in numerous issues and certainly not limited to the aforementioned.Eg.fasting begins after sunrise (check sharh ma’niul athar)carnal sex(ma’aniul athar),taraweeh 8 or 20,looking at non mahram women in darul harb (check aaridatul ahwazi ibnul arabi)and many more.

    The point I would like to make is if we have this mindset that there is a “legitimate khilaf”in all matters and we take the anomalous opinions of the jurists/ulama/scholars etc.,the deen is in more trouble than I can elaborate here.

    We know with certainty scholars can slip as they are not infallible.What about the school of Kufa…hey “let me get a beer” because alcohol,according to the hanafi school is limited to dates and grapes so drinking a Budlight or coors is perfectly “jaiz”.

  10. Haq says:

    JzkAllahu khair Abu Zakaria for your input. Firstly, ittiba’ al-Rukhas (intentional following of legal licenses) is prohibited as mentioned by several scholars, unless there is a need (haaja) for it. This would rule out the masses simply following whatever they want.

    Secondly, we have a spectrum of legal opinions that exist, of course the furthest of which is ‘shadh’ or aberrant opinions which are not acted upon.

    Such legal measures ensure that the deen is not tampered with inshaAllah. Of course, today we don’t hurl slogans and judgements at each other for such aberrant opinions, but legitimate ones, which was the focus of this article.

    Apologies for the late reply.

    Wassalam.

    Haq.

  11. Haq says:

    Also the Hanafis don’t allow all types of nadeedh without conditions, so that’s incorrect of you to say we can all go high on beer.

    AS for Taraweeh, this is differed upon.

    Dar al-harb and it’s rules are different, so it really doesn’t concern us now. I don’t know what you meant by “carnal sex”?

    Lastly, it would be wise and prudent for the lay to consult a scholar before they act on an opinion and not approach this DIY style. This article again, was focusing on how we should tolerate legitimate differences when living in soceities with Muslims from all over the world.

    Wassalam

    Haq.

  12. Sarah k says:

    http://d1.islamhouse.com/data/en/ih_books/single/en_Correcting_People_Mistakes.pdf

    this booklet is good . it is about how to correct people’s mistakes. quite enlightening

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