IN CONTINUING OUR study of unity vs. diversity and the limits of each, we look here at the second, third and fourth Trajectories of Disagreement in Islamic Tradition. The second, like the first, is positive, whereas the third and fourth are negative. Recall that the first was “Truth through Debate” out of which came the development of the traditional mathâhib (schools of Islamic jurisprudence). In the historical interchange among the schools and their Imams, the checks and balances of jurisprudential methodology were worked out.

Trajectory 2:  Richness Through Diversity

Another subtle and often ignored fact about the complex interplay of diversity (tanawwuʿ) and sectarianism (tafriqa) is that if legitimate diversity is forced into a false or premature resolution, it can breed sectarianism.

Legitimate Differences Recognized

As the aforementioned examples show, just as the Imams of the salaf did not tolerate illegitimate claims that clearly violated the heart of the Tradition, they likewise refused to force into conformity the legitimate disagreements.

This can be evidenced in Imam Mâlik’s rejection of the Caliph Al-Man ṣûr’s and then Hârûn Al-Rashîd’s proposal to promulgate his book of fiqhAl-Muwa ṭ ṭa’, throughout the Islamic lands. For as Imam Mâlik reasoned, people of different localities follow the teachings of the Companions and scholars that settled there.

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Put differently, Imam Mâlik disliked imposing uniformity on Muslims even if that imposition would have meant the promulgation of his opinions. (This is reported by Abû Nuʿaym Al-Isbahâni, Ibn Abî Ḥâtim and others; see also U. F. Abdallah’s Ph.D. diss., U. Chicago, 1978, pp. 100ff.)

The same Mâlik, God be pleased with him, refused to tolerate those he called the “partisans of desire” (ahl al-ahwâ’), who inquired into questions that he believed were prohibited (such as the modality of God’s settling on the throne), and He would have such people debarred from his study circle.

Adequate Consideration Needs Time

Legitimate disagreements on important theoretical principles can be fully understood only if their implications are explored over time. This is exactly the benefit that the four or more schools of fiqh have afforded us.

One group of scholars working under the principles established by one particular Imam could become skewed, biased, or be blind-sided by one issue or another for any number of reasons. But several schools working independently on the same problems and within the same framework of beliefs and mission, but under diverse authorities, interpretative principles, and in different regions are unlikely to all suffer from the same biases.

Examples of How Mutual Correction Can Work

The Ḥanafi principle of preferring the general (ʿâmm) commandments over the specific (khâ ṣ ṣ) ones and rational interpretation over weak or lesser-known traditions (I will avoid the technical vocabulary here), and the Shâfiʿi principle of preferring the specific over the general provide, in the base case scenario, a useful check-and-balance mechanism.

Similarly, the Mâliki principle of preferring the diffused or tacit tradition (ʿamal of the people of Madinah), and the Ḥanbali and Shâfiʿi principle of preferring a ḥadîth with specific chains (isnâd), also serve to correct each other.

Avoidance of Dissension is Primary

In theory, Sunni Muslims have generally come to accept that the disagreements of the early Imams on matters of legal interpretation of the principles of Law (usul al-fiqh) have led to four or more mutually valid communities of legal interpretation.

This toleration has not always been practiced, however. One of the most profound and generous treatises written on the subject in the medieval period is Shaykh Al-Islam Ibn Taymiyya’s RafʿAl-Malâm ʿAn Al-A’immati Al-Aʿlâm (The Exoneration of the Great Imams).

As a principle, the formation of communities of discourse and interpretation may be legitimate on the basis of diversity of opinion, so long as it does not cause dissension, disunity, the parting of ways, and the creation of exclusive communities or rigid identities.

Trajectory 3: The Tragedy: Intolerance, Exaggeration, and “Gratuitous Sectarianism”

Islamic tradition, as noted earlier, is the record of the Muslims’ struggles with Allah’s words in history. It includes “the good, the bad, and the ugly”—and no understanding of it is complete if it limits itself to romanticizing the good.

Exploitation of Differences by the Ignorant and Fanatic

One of the most frequent, nefarious tendencies is beheld when legitimate disagreements, recognized as such by the Imams and established authorities, are portrayed as intolerable disagreements by fanatic and ignorant followers, or “scholars” motivated by base reasons (and yes, scholars are not immune to sins, but, as the Quran says, true scholars are those who fear God).

To claim that another’s interpretation or school is illegitimate is often a tool of exploitation, domination, and selfish identity-formation, and leads to the creation of dissension, hatred, and sectarianism. An example of this kind would be the dissension and rivalry within the Sunni schools of fiqh and the persecution of one group by another, as we have pointed out in Part 2 as the “Nishapur syndrome.”

Unnecessary Sectarianism and Unnecessary Mutual Intolerance

I call this “gratuitous sectarianism” because it is unnecessary. This is a great tragedy in Islamic history that has in many times and places marred the great success story of the mutual acceptance and diversity of Muslims. There is a kind of sectarianism that arises out of truly irresolvable and significant disagreements, such as those between the Sunnis, the Shîʿa of different kinds, the Kharijites, and so on. No doubt, we must learn better ways to deal with that as well, but that lies beyond our scope here.

Trajectory 4:  Between Vacuous Unity and Fanatic Sectarianism

Some disagreements or opinions may be illegitimate—such as clear violations of the letter and spirit of the Quran and the Sunnah as understood unanimously by the salaf—and will, therefore, necessarily cause injustice and corruption of one kind or another. But the complexity arises in how exactly to deal with such cases.

Failure to Oppose Injustice and Corruption

Some may neglect opposing such error in self-interest, for self-preservation, out of apathy, etc., thus diluting the essence of faith and causing confusion among Muslims and injustice.

Hiding the knowledge that Allah has given us (by which is meant true, definitive knowledge based on evidence, not opinion) is one of the greatest sins and most emphatically condemned by Revelation:

Those who conceal the clear signs and the guidance that We have sent down, after We have shown them clearly in the Book—they shall be cursed by Allah and by those who [are given authority to] curse. [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:159]

The Dilemma:  Minimizing Harm

Yet what of opposition and criticism of clear errors that may bring about not just personal harm but harm to and dissension within the community as a whole? What must one do in such cases? An example is afforded in the Quran in the story of the prophets Mûsa, Hârûn, and their people. When the Israelites, seduced by Al-Sâmiri (the Samaritan), began to worship the golden calf after the departure of Mûsa, ignoring the entreaties of Prophet Hârûn, a dilemma arose for Hârûn. Allah reports the events thus:

Yet Hârûn had aforetime said to them: “My people! You have but been tempted by this thing. Surely your Lord is the All-Merciful. Therefore follow me, and obey my commandment!” They said: “We will not cease cleaving to it until Mûsa returns to us.” Mûsa said: “What prevented you, O Hârûn, when you saw them in error, so that you did not follow after me? Did you disobey my commandment?” “Son of my mother,” Aaron said, “take me not by the beard, or by the head! I was fearful that you would say: ‘You have divided the Children of Israel, and you have not observed my word.’” [Sûrat Ta Hâ, 20:90-94]

That is, when Hârûn e saw the people worshiping the calf, he prohibited them. But when they did not desist, he faced a dilemma. He could either take definitive action against the large number of perpetrators, and thus risk dividing the Israelites and causing dissension—given that he did not possess the decisive authority that Mûsa had—or, he could tolerate, temporarily, the greatest sin of all, polytheistic idol worship, until Mûsa returned and could deal with it more effectively.

Calculating the Factors in Dealing with Dissension

Therefore, when faced with clear errors, heresy, or misguidance, one may have to show toleration in the interest of unity, harmony, and the strength of Muslims, and limit oneself to verbal protest. Or, if one is too weak even for that, then one may have to limit oneself to disliking an act in his or her heart, rather than taking decisive action.

Ultimately, such decisions require not only a full grasp of the issues involved but also knowledge of the context, the limits of one’s authority and power, a  reasonable sense of one’s effectiveness , and—as we learn from Hârûn—patience.

It is a calculation of harm and benefit that falls into the category of “Islamic politics” rather than a universal formula applicable to all times. In our times, in a tremendously complex world, this means systematic study of the context, which requires knowing not only the theological or legal issues involved but also the history and insights from the social sciences where applicable.

Reclaiming Our Islamic Tradition

Consequently, developing an Islamic tradition of social sciences is, in my view, an urgent need for us in order to revive Islamic Tradition.

You are the best Community ever brought forth for humankind, enjoining what is right, and forbidding what is wrong, and believing in Allah. [Sûrat Âl ʿImrân, 3:110]


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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