Note on difference of opinion

When the Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) intended to send Mu’adh ibn Jabal to Yemen, he asked: “How will you judge when the occasion of deciding a case arises?” He replied: “I shall judge in accordance with Allah’s Book.” He asked: “(What will you do) if you do not find any guidance in Allah’s Book?” He replied: “(I shall act) in accordance with the Sunnah of the Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him).” He asked: “(What will you do) if you do not find any guidance in the Sunnah of the Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) and in Allah’s Book?” He replied: “I shall do my best to form an opinion and I shall spare no effort.” The Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) then patted him on the breast and said: “Praise be to Allah Who has helped the messenger of the Apostle of Allah to find something which pleases the Apostle of Allah.” Abu Dawud Collection.

The following can be deduced from the Hadith:

  1. The primary sources of Shari’ah (Qur’an and Sunnah/Hadith) do not provide EXPLICIT answers to each and every problem or situation. We will like to emphasize the word: EXPLICIT. This is because general answers to all human problems past, present and future can be found in either or both of them.
  2. Qualified Muslims are allowed to analytically find solutions to issues not categorically solved by the Qur’an and/or Hadith. This is called Ijtihad; defined by Muhammad ibn Ali Al-Shawkani as quoted by Abu Ismael al-Beirawi as “the total expenditure of effort made by a Jurist in order to infer, with a degree of probability, the rules of Shari’ah from their detailed evidence in the sources (i.e. Qur’an and Hadith) in a manner the Mujtahid (Jurist who does Ijtihad) feels unable to exert any more effort.”

Sheikh Muhammad ibn Saalih al-‘Uthaymeen listed four conditions that must be fulfilled for an Ijtihad to be valid.

  1. The person performing Ijtihad is qualified to do so (i.e. a pious, just and trustworthy Muslim who is knowledgeable in the understanding and interpretation of the Qur’an and Hadith).
  2. The issue is open to Ijtihad. Scholars have identified certain matters to which Ijtihad should not be exercised. They are: existence of Allah, truthfulness of Muhammad (peace be upon him) and authenticity of the Qur’an.
  3. The person exerts his utmost in trying to arrive at the correct ruling.
  4. The person has some form of evidence which he uses to justify his position.

Opinions may also differ due to variation in the interpretation of a Qur’anic verse or statement of the Prophet (peace be upon him). For example, Ibn Umar narrated: On the day of Al-Ahzab (i.e. Clans) the Prophet (peace be upon him said) said, “None of you (Muslims) should offer the ‘Asr prayer but at Banu Quraiza’s place.” The ‘Asr prayer became due for some of them on the way. Some of those said, “We will not offer it till we reach it i.e. the place of Banu Quraiza,” while some others said, “No, we will pray at this spot, for the Prophet did not mean that for us.” Later on it was mentioned to the Prophet and he did not berate any of the two groups. Bukhari Collection.

The companions understood the Prophet’s instruction differently. The first group comprehended it literally so they delayed their prayer until they arrived at Bani Quraiza at sunset. The second group understood it metaphorically such that the Prophet’s intention was for them to make haste in setting off so that by the time ‘Asr prayer becomes due, they would have reached Bani Quraiza. So when the time of ‘Asr prayer set in and they were still on the way, they prayed without delaying it.

Now, why did the Prophet (peace be upon him) not reprimand any of the groups? Because each had some form of evidence which it uses to justify its position. Then, will both of them be correct? Certainly not. The following Hadith clarifies this:

Narrated by ‘Amr bin Al-‘As: Allah’s Apostle (peace be upon him) said, “If a judge gives a verdict according to the best of his knowledge and his verdict is correct (i.e. agrees with Allah and His Apostle’s verdict) he will receive a double reward, and if he gives a verdict according to the best of his knowledge and his verdict is wrong, (i.e. against that of Allah and His Apostle) even then he will get a reward.” Bukhari Collection.

Therefore, the clause “and his verdict is wrong” means that only one opinion (out of two, three or more) is correct; yet the “incorrect” one cannot be said to be erroneous since its proponent tried his utmost to arrive at the correct ruling and he has some form of evidence to justify his position. The next Hadith will shed more light on this.

Narrated ‘Abdur-Rahman bin Abza: A man came to ‘Umar bin Al-Khattab and said, “I became Junub but no water was available.” ‘Ammar bin Yasir said to ‘Umar, “Do you remember that you and I (became Junub while both of us) were together on a journey and you didn’t pray but I rolled myself on the ground and prayed? I informed the Prophet about it and he said, ‘It would have been sufficient for you to do like this.’ The Prophet then stroked lightly the earth with his hands and then blew off the dust and passed his hands over his face and hands.” Bukhari Collection

For the Prophet (peace be upon him) to have taught ‘Ammar the proper way of performing Tayammum means that his view was more likely to be correct. But at the same time, ‘Umar was not told that he was wrong as he tried his best to arrive at the correct ruling and he had some form of evidence to justify his position; which is (and Allah knows best) that prayer cannot be performed in a state of impurity and since he has no access to water, then prayer is not binding on him.

In conclusion, when Jurists differ on an issue, a Muslim has the right to pick any of the views. However, when one opinion is more popular than the other, he is advised to choose the former.

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