Why Scholars Disagree (1) | Shaykh Ibn Uthaymin

AS ALL MUSLIMS know, through their understanding of the Quran and the Sunnah, the dîn of Allah is the religion of Truth. Implicitly, this proposition entails that the Prophet œ has left us a complete, comprehensive explanation of the religion; thus, no further explanation is required, once this is accepted.

Fiqh In the Time of the Prophet

The existence of true guidance and religion obviates any falsehood, and the explanation must be comprehensive. When disagreements occurred at the time of the Prophet œ, people would submit their affairs to him to settle disputes and to judge among them. He would explain to them what they were differing in. It was usually at such times that new âyât (verses) of the Quran were revealed. We read, for example:

They ask you what is lawful for them. Say: Lawful unto you are al-ayyibât (the pure, good things). [Sûrat Al-Mâ’idah, 5:4]

And they ask you what they ought to spend. Say: al-¢afwa (that which is beyond your needs). [Sûrat Al- Baqarah, 2:219]

They ask you about alanfâl (the spoils of war). Say: alanfâl are for Allah and the Messenger. [Sûrat Al-Anfâl, 8:1]

They ask you about the new moons. Say: They are signs to mark fixed periods of time for mankind and for the pilgrimage. [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:189]

They ask you concerning fighting in the sacred months. Say: Fighting therein is a great transgression. [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:217]

Trusting Our Scholars to Make Proper Rulings of Fiqh

However, after the death of the Prophet some differences surfaced among the Muslims on the rules of the fiqh. These differences in fiqh rulings were not in the funda­mentals or the sources of the dîn (Religion). However, they have caused Muslim unity to suffer, particularly at times when knowledge of the dîn has not taken its natur­al course in directing the affairs of the Ummah. And because such differences are not expected to disappear, it becomes necessary for us to learn about them and know how to deal with them.

Knowing why scholars have disagreed on certain matters of fiqh is essential to developing an appreciation of the nature of our dîn and the complex job of scholars. Such a step will lead to developing a strong trust between Muslims and their scholars, something without which the Ummah cannot achieve success.

The purpose of this arti­cle is to introduce to the reader the subject of disagree­ment among scholars in regard to their opinions, to explain some of the reasons behind such differences and to advise Muslims what they can do in regard to these disagreements so as to best please Allah, and to lead an Islamic life.

The Human Endeavor to Discern Allah’s Law

Scholars may make mistakes in arriving at rulings based on Allah’s Guidance. These mistakes may occur because no human being is perfect. In the Quran, Allah states: And man was created weak [Sûrat Al-Nisâ’i, 4:28]. Accordingly, mistakes may occur in some matters as a result of either some imperfection in one’s knowledge or in one’s perception of reality: 

  1. The evidence had not yet reached a certain scholar, or, it had reached the scholar but he was not comfortable with it.
  2. The evidence never reached the scholar.

Imam Bukhâri related that ¢Umar traveled once to Syria. On his way he was told that there was an epidemic in Syria—the plague. He paused and consulted with his companions. They were split into two opinions. Those who opined that the expedition should not enter Syria prevailed. During this consultation and debate, ʿAbd Al-Raḥmân ibn ʿAwf came and said: “I have some knowledge in this matter. I heard the Prophet œ say: ‘If you hear of it (meaning the plague) in a place, don’t go there. But if it breaks out in a place where you happen to be, do not leave such a place (running away from it).”’ Such a ruling was not known, even by the greater Companions, until ʿAbd Al-Raḥmân ibn ʿAwf informed them of it.

A second example of evidence not yet being received, is as follows. Both ¢Alî ibn Abî-Ṭâlib and ¢Abdullâh ibn ¢Abbâs used to believe that a pregnant woman should wait—after the death of her hus­band—the longer of the two periods, either four months and ten days, or the time until her delivery. If the woman gave birth before the end of four months and ten days, she should still wait until that time period was completed; if she waited the four months and ten days and still had not delivered, then she should continue wait­ing until she gave birth: And for those who are pregnant, their prescribed wait­ing period is until they deliver [Sûrat Al-Ṭalâq, 65:4]. In another verse: And those of you who die and leave wives behind them, [their wives] shall wait for four months and ten days [before they can remarry] [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:234].

In these two verses there are both specific and general considerations. To take the two rulings together, ¢Alî and Ibn ¢Abbâs both believed in what has been mentioned. However, it was narrated in an authentic ḥadîth that Subai¢ah Al-Aslamiyyah had nifâs (post-partum bleeding) a few nights after the death of her husband; still, the Prophet permitted her to get married. This indicated that one should follow the verse from Sûrat Al-Țalâq, 65:4. Had this ḥadîth reached ¢Alî or Ibn ¢Abbâs, they would undoubtedly have accepted it and changed their opinions.

Collecting and Weighing Evidence 

  1. The evidence was received, but the scholar was not comfortable with it.

It could be that the evidence reached the scholar, but that he did not trust the transmit­ter (of the adîth), or that he found that the narration contradicted another narra­tion from a more trustworthy transmitter. In such a situation it is understandable that the scholar would go with the adîth from the more trustworthy trans­mitter. The following is an example from the time of the Companions regarding this specific situation:

When Fâṭimah bint Qays was divorced for the third time from her husband, she received some barley as support (nafaqa) during her ʿidda (prescribed waiting period for divorce). She was dis­pleased with it, however, and refused to take it. She went to the Prophet and he told her that she was not entitled even to support or sukna (cost of dwelling). This was because her husband had separated from her and pronounced divorce for the third (and final) time. Any woman who was completely separated from her hus­band was not entitled to support or sukna from her husband unless she had been preg­nant [at the time of the final divorce]: And if they are pregnant, then spend on them till they deliver [Sûrat Al-Ṭalâq, 65:6].

¢Umar, with all his knowledge and superi­ority, did not know of that incident, so he thought that a woman in this situation had a right to support and sukna. He didn’t take Fatimah’s word, fearing that she had forgotten what had occurred. He said: “Should we give up the word of our Lord for the word of a woman whom we don’t know whether she remembered or for­got?” This indicates that ¢Umar was not comfortable with the evidence provided.

Such situations happened to ¢Umar and other Companions. It also happened to others who followed them, and it can hap­pen today; and, most likely, similar situations will continue to occur until the Day of Judgment. There may be some scholars who will always be uncomfortable with the soundness of the evidence provided. This is seen a lot in the opinions of schol­ars concerning certain aadîth. Some see a adîth as sound and accept it, while others consider it unsound and do not accept it, because they cannot trust one of the transmitters. 

  1. The ḥadîth has been received but forgotten by the scholar.

A scholar may forget a ḥadîth or even a verse of the Quran

  • The Prophet œ led the Prayer one day and omitted a verse because he had forgotten it. After Ṣalah he turned to Ubay ibn Ka¢b and said, “Why didn’t you remind me of it?”Notice that this happened to a man on whom the waḥy (Revelation) was sent down. Allah also said: We shall make you to recite so you shall not forget except what Allah may will. He knows what is apparent and what is hidden [Sûrat Al-A¢râf, 7:6-7].
  • Another example is the story of¢Umar ibn Al-Khaṭṭâb and ¢Ammâr bn Yâsir, when the Prophet sent them on a mis­sion. They both became junub (the state of sexual defilement that requires full bathing, ghusl). ¢Ammâr exercised  ijtihâd (to formulate an independent ruling) that purification with sand is equivalent to purification with water, so he rolled in the sand as animals do, such that the sand rubbed all over his body as the water would have done. Then he prayed. ¢Umar, on the contrary, didn’t pray.They later brought the issue before the Prophet œ and he directed them to that which is right. He said to ¢Ammâr: It was sufficient for you to do this with your hands. The Prophet struck the ground with both hands one time and then wiped his left hand with the right, [then] wiped his forearms and his face. Ammâr used to narrate this adîth afterwards.
  • During his reign as Caliph,¢Umar called ¢Ammâr and asked him about the adîth he was telling people. ¢Ammâr replied: “Don’t you remember when the Prophet œ sent us on a mission and we both became junub? You didn’t pray, but I rolled on the ground [in the sand and then prayed]. The Prophet said: ‘It was suffi­cient for you to do so and so.”’ ¢Umar did­n’t remember the story and said to ¢Ammâr, “Fear Allah.” ¢Ammâr then said: “If you don’t want me to recite this ḥadîth, I will not, since I have to obey you, as Allah commanded.” ¢Umar then said: “I will leave it to you” (meaning go ahead and tell the people the ḥadîth).¢Umar had forgotten that the Prophet œ had made tayammum the means of purification (in the absence of water) for both alah and janâba.The Companion ¢Abdullâh ibn Mas¢ûd, who adopted ¢Umar’s opinion, had a debate with another Companion, Abû Mûsa Al-‘Ash¢ari, about this matter. Abû Mûsa mentioned ¢Ammâr’s comment to ¢Umar. Ibn Mas¢ûd said: “Don’t you see that ¢Umar was not satisfied with what ¢Ammâr had said?” Abû Mûsa then replied: “Forget what ¢Ammâr said. What do you say about the verse in Sûrat Al-Mâ’idah, 5:6?” Ibn Mas¢ûd kept silent.

Indeed, the truth is what the majority of scholars say, which is that the junub may make tayammum just as may the person who needs to pray.

So one may forget and may not know the legal ruling. One may then make an excusable mistake in delivering his ruling, but there is no excuse for those who know the evidence and don’t adopt it.

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