IN CONTINUING OUR study of unity vs. diversity and the limits of each, we look here at the first of four Trajectories of Disagreement in Islamic Tradition.

Trajectory 1:  The great success story of Islamic Tradition: Truth through debate

Some disagreements may at first be understood as illegitimate or constitutive of dissention. But when analyzed through proper knowledge and recourse to the scriptural Texts, and properly disciplined with arguments presented on all sides, a common ground is recognized. Ultimately, more than one opinion may be embraced as legitimate. An example of this is the disagreement of our early pious predecessors in faith (salaf) in fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) as to the status of methods such as ra’î (rational opinion) versus tacit communal knowledge (ʿamal), and so on, which were later reconciled.

The Emergence of the Traditionalists

During the first two to three centuries of Islam after the Rightly-Guided Caliphate, there were no fiqhi mathâhib (schools of Islamic legal thought). Obviously, the knowledge of religion was general, and the learning focused around the students of the Companions and their students in the major centers of Islam.

(1) The scholarly circles that prioritized knowledge based on the reports of the Prophet and the Companions emerged in Madinah and, therefore, came to be known as ahl al-âthâr (literally, ‘the traditionalists’). In the second Islamic century, this tendency crystallized in the schools of IMAM MÂLIK in Madînah and Imam Al-Awzâʿi in Damascus.

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(2) The second tendency emerged in Kûfa, a new city in ʿIrâq established by caliph ʿUmar ibn Al-Kha ṭ ṭâb as a frontier of immigrant Arab tribes engaged in jihad, as well as Persian converts to Islam. Hence, Kûfa frequently faced new situations not found in the traditional centers. The scholarly circles of Kûfa, drawing on the teachings of the Companion ʿAbdullâh ibn Masʿûd and his students, came to emphasize a rational interpretation based on the Quran and on a core of well-known prophetic reports. Thus, they came to be known as ahl al-ra’y (literally, the people of opinion), which came to be represented by Iman Abû anîfah

(3) Both the ahl al-âthâr and ahl al-ra’y came to regard the disagreements that built up between them during these first two centuries as illegitimate and a cause of dissension. This illegitimacy was later reconciled by a brilliant and sincere student of both traditions, Imam Al-Shâfiʿi, who brought the legitimate concerns of each to bear on the other, resulting in a synthesis, which developed into another school (mathhab).

Yet this third school also came to be accepted, in slightly different ways, by the other Sunni schools of fiqh. Al-Shâfiʿi embraced the report-based culture of the ahl al-âthâr of Madinah but at the same time endorsed rigorous  ḥadîth methodology. And while accepting the impeccable knowledge and piety of Imam Mâlik, Al-Shâfiʿi criticized his school for relying on diffused community practice (ʿamal ahl al-Madinah) rather than on reliable reports based on chains of known reporters.

Al-Shâfiʿi also embraced the greater use of reason by the circles of Kûfa but sought to discipline it through the use of analogical reasoning (qiyâs) based on the commandments of the Quran and the Sunnah. His synthesis ultimately influenced all the other schools, although each school embraced it in its own way.

By the fourth/tenth century, most Sunni schools of fiqh had accepted both  ḥadîth and analogy. This is just one example of many, many instances of disagreements followed by fruitful syntheses that clarified the truth and defined the boundaries of the debate in the early centuries.

Mutual Respect and Acceptance

The spirit of toleration and dialog during the first three centuries or so—by no means embraced by all or in all matters—is exemplified by the respect the early Imams showed each other—and by Imams I do not mean just the four well-known ones, but also their teachers, their teachers’ teachers, and their students, whose number ran into the hundreds if not the thousands.

It must also be noted that the capacity to disagree, tolerate, and respect each other was made possible by their ability to agree on the core of Islam, which they had received from the Companions and their disciples.

The early Imams did not, however, tolerate those who violated the broad limits of the Quran and the Sunnah. While we cannot indulge in describing the substance of those limits precisely, it is nevertheless useful to reproduce what Imam Al-Ghazâli reported in his celebrated I ḥyâ’:

When Imam Al-Shâfiʿi debated with a Muʿtazili champion of kalâm, Ḥafs Al-Fard, he said at the conclusion: “That a man who meets Allah with all the sins except shirk is better than one who meets Him with any element of the science of kalâm. I have heard from Ḥafṣ such things that I shall not so much as repeat [not even for the sake of reporting].”

He [Al-Shâfiʿi] was once asked a question related to kalâm. He grew angry and said to the questioner: “Ask Ḥafs Al-Fard and his friends about this, not me, may God humiliate them!”

When Al-Shâfiʿi was on his deathbed and Ḥafs Al-Fard came to see him, Al-Shâfiʿi said to him: “May God not protect you nor look after you until you repent from what you have fallen into.” (I ḥyâ’, vol.1, Kitâb Al-ʿIlm)

There are many other such incidents reported about the early Imams’ rejection of kalâm.

The point of relating these anecdotes is that no meaningful intellectual discourse, no rational conversation, can continue without the agreement to disagree. The tolerance of disagreement is necessary, and it depends upon the common terms accepted by all parties. And their rules of engagement, for the Imams of the salaf, were that one must argue on the basis of the Quran and the Sunnah.

Illegitimate Extremes

Today, Muslims arguing in the language of Islamic Tradition often fall into two extremes.

  • On the one hand, many are wrongly intolerant and parochial, so that only one authority, school, or Shaykh has any redeeming value for them.
  • On the other, many lack either deep knowledge or sincere belief in Islam, such that they exploit traditional vocabulary simply for prefabricated, result-oriented purposes, employing the trope of tolerance and diversity as a guise for fitting the form of Islamic Tradition (which, such people insist, is free of any essence and lacks “nonnegotiables”) into a schema of dominant values or programs.
  • In both cases, there is no discovery of truth about newly emergent problems, for in the former case, there is no discovery, and in the latter, no truth.

The lesson here is that disciplined debate can lead to the discovery of truth and clarification of confusion, as well as the building of agreement, as long as three conditions are present:

(1) Sincerity and its practical expression through engagement using amr and nahy;

(2) A shared basis of sound knowledge; and

(3) Sufficient common ground (that is, shared understanding, cultural presuppositions, and sensibilities)

Dr Ovamir Anjum

Uwaymir Anjum is the Imam Khattab Chair of Islamic Studies at the Department of Philosophy, University of Toledo. He is also professor of Islamic Intellectual History at Qatar University. He studies the connections between theology, ethics, politics, and law in classical and medieval Islam, with a subfocus on its comparisons with western thought. Related fields of study include Islamic philosophy and Sufism. His dissertation, published in 2012 by Cambridge University Press, is entitled Politics, Law, and Community in Islamic Thought: The Taymiyyan Moment. His translation of Ibn al-Qayyim's Madârij Al-Sâlikîn is forthcoming.

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