Sectarian Strife: Ethics of disagreement

By Hassaan Ahmad Usmani

Today, we live in a world where sectarian strife dominates the scene of religion in the public sphere. Words like “Islam” and even “religion” in general are perceived to have a strong association with images of violence and ferocity. Western media cannot be blamed for such portrayal of Islam before the world, because, truth is that even a vast majority of Muslims in our country which is well-aware of the Islamic tradition fears sectarian conflicts, possibly in the form of violence too, becoming widespread as religion becomes more and more significant in the public sphere.

It is true that nearly all major religious traditions including Islam are populated with numerous diverse schools of thought, more commonly referred to as sects. All these various sects are usually based on different interpretations of the same foundational texts such as the Qur’an and Hadith. The problem arises when each sect relegates all others to the status of a propagator of wrong teachings. Compounded with the political sentiments of mob frenzy, it has taken the shape of some bloody confrontations between various sects such as Shia-Sunni, many a time in past.

Nevertheless, it would be childish to regard the very difference of opinion over interpretation of sacred texts as responsible for the violence being performed in the name of it. Moreover, overwhelmed by the huge diversity present in religious sects and the apparent impossibility to resolve tensions between all of them anytime soon, some propose the restriction of religion strictly to the private sphere and put forth a secular order to organize the public sphere. However, this particular order can also be at times oppressive, as disallowing the public expression of religion, what one regards as the meaning and purpose of life, is clearly tyrannical. But there should be devised some way to prevent brutality in the name of religion also. Thus the question arises that if the expression and presence of religion in the public sphere is inevitable then how is the tension in the present state of affairs to be resolved?!

To answer this, it is necessary for us to nuance our understanding of the sectarian disputes themselves. The Islamic intellectual tradition like every other tradition has had its own notable scholars whose contributions have greatly influenced the trajectory and course of the tradition. Moreover, each of the great distinguished scholars in the tradition has had a different style of thought in the process of looking at, thinking about and interpreting the foundational sacred texts in particular and Islam in general. Therefore, each prominent scholar contributed to setting the foundation of a different school of thought in the Islamic intellectual tradition. Later, students from even the same school of thought disagreed on many issues while still remaining part of the same school of thought. Obviously several diverse opinions exist in the interpretation of the same sacred texts because of the adaptability and versatility of the texts themselves to various circumstances, contexts and frames of reference. Also the fact remains that human beings might never be able to entirely and absolutely understand inside out something singular like God’s word. Furthermore, disagreements are necessary in order for any intellectual tradition to thrive and develop. Every disagreement brings with it an opportunity of deep pondering over the matter under consideration, and allows to come up with solutions which otherwise might never have transpired to ease the lives of people under differing circumstances. In this way, a constructive exchange of opinions enriches a religious tradition and increases the followers of that tradition in knowledge of subtle matters.

Given the huge diversity in the Islamic intellectual tradition, it seems impossible to resolve all disagreements anytime soon. Hence the monumental step which is necessary nowadays is to propose and execute discourse ethics that regulate sectarian disagreements and attempt to harmonize them. Moreover, we might not have to expend great energy in the pursuit of constructing or formulating such a discourse ethics, as that is available in the Islamic tradition itself too.

One thing that stands out in the lives of great scholars of the past and their students is their ethics of disagreement. It is almost surprising to know that the scholars in the past have regarded knowledge of ikhtilaf-i-mubah as necessary for being considered a noteworthy scholar. There are two types of disagreements in Islamic law or ikhtilaf as they can be referred to. One is ikhtilaf-i-tazad, in which there is a disagreement between two scholars and each considers his opinion to be correct and that of the other scholar to be incorrect. Whereas ikhtilaf-i-mubah is when two scholars have different opinions and each believes his opinion to be correct and the other scholar’s opinion to be correct too. In this case, despite recognizing the other to be correct, both choose to adopt an opinion different from the each other. So the knowledge of ikhtilaf-i-mubah is deemed necessary for a scholar if they are to be considered a distinguished one. This means that every pronounced Islamic scholar must be aware and realize that the one who holds an opinion different to their own is also correct in certain matters even though they do not choose that specific opinion for themselves. A scholar without this realization could not be considered a qualified expert.

Imam Abu Hanifa is reported to have said that the biggest scholar among all is the one who is the most well-aware of the differing opinions in matters of Islamic law. Usually, one might think that a scholar who is the most well-informed about the delicacies of his own school of thought would be regarded as the most knowledgeable scholar but Imam Abu Hanifa’s statement is in stark contrast with this common perception. Moreover, Imam Abu Hanifa’s statement is understood to include both types of ikhtilaf. There are many statements and accounts that inform us about the attitude of these prominent scholars of the past towards opinions in matters of Islamic law dissimilar to their own. One such account is of Abu Yusuf, a student of Abu Hanifa, visiting Imam Malik and hearing his opinion on an issue, probably for the first time, which was different from the opinion of Imam Abu Hanifa on the same issue. Abu Yusuf inquired about the evidence behind Imam Malik’s opinion and was convinced thereupon, so changed his opinion accordingly. Moreover, at that time he is reported to have said that if Imam Abu Hanifa was present with him then he would also have done the same. On a similar note, Imam Malik is reported to have visited Imam Abu Hanifa’s grave one time and when there came time to offer prayer, Imam Malik prayed according to the Hanafi law, which surprised Imam Malik’s students present with him at that time[1]. Similarly, much more evidence can be presented on this subject but this much does serve the purpose of establishing as to how the great scholars of the past perceived each other’s differing opinions.

Nevertheless, the Islamic tradition is dynamic and versatile and it does possess the discourse ethics necessary for its progress and development. It is heart-breaking to see the absence of such discourse ethics in the landscape of sectarian disagreements nowadays. The scholars and common man alike seem to have deviated from this heritage and hence they are seen wandering on territory devoid of the ethics of contestation practiced by the great scholars of the past, something that they themselves champion and feel pride relating to.

[1] We have attempted to put forth some points about this subject from an article, Fiqhi ikhtilaf k? hudood aur adab, which was originally published in Arabic.