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The Ethics of Disagreement in Islam PDF Print E-mail
Taha Jabir Al-Alwani
Chapter One: The Malaise of Discord
The contemporary Muslim world is afflicted by numerous diseases which have spread to almost every aspect of its being. Moral torpor and intellectual paralysis, subversion from within, subjugation from without, the absence of justice and fair dealing, exploitation and corruption, extremes of ignorance and disease, poverty and waste, dependence and insecurity, discord and internecine strife - the list is long and painful. The number and gravity of these afflictions are capable of wiping whole nations and peoples off the face of the earth, even though some may be well-endowed with wealth and resources.
Beset by such catastrophic afflictions, one wonders in fact how the universal community of believers - the Muslim Ummah - has survived. That this Ummah has been spared and continues to exist to this day must be due to the fact that it still holds the legacy of the Qur'an intact as well as the example of God's final messenger to mankind, may the peace and blessings of God be on him. It may also be due to the fact that there still exist some elements of righteousness in this community who continue to depend on God and genuinely seek His guidance and forgiveness. This we may infer from a Qur'anic verse which says that God did not choose to punish even a disbelieving people because the Prophet himself was among them and there remained the possibility that they might yet repent.1
Arguably, the most dangerous disease which now afflicts the Muslim Ummah is the disease of disagreement and discord. This disease has become all-pervasive and affects every area, town and society. Its appalling influence has penetrated into ideas and beliefs, morality and behavior, and ways of speaking and interacting. It has affected both short- and long-term goals and objectives. Like a dark specter, it finally envelops people's souls. It poisons the atmosphere and leaves hearts sterile and desolate. Multitudes of people are left contending with one another, and the impression is given that all the Islamic teachings, commands, and prohibitions at the disposal of the Ummah are there only to spur people on to discord and make them revel in internecine strife.

This is a trend which is in total contrast to the teachings of the Qur'an and the Sunnah.2 After stressing the paramount duty of affirming the oneness of God (tawheed), both the Qur'an and the Sunnah stress one thing above all: the unity of the Muslim Ummah. Their object is to treat and rid the Ummah of any disagreements which disturb the peace and harmony in Muslim relationships and ruin the brotherhood of believers. It may also be true to say that after the abomination of associating others in worship with God there is nothing more repugnant to the teachings of Islam than discord in the Muslim community. The commands of God and His Prophet are abundantly clear in calling for the unity and solidarity of Muslims, reconciling their hearts, and marshaling their efforts in a single cause.
Since the Muslims have pure faith in and worship God alone, since their Prophet, their scripture, the direction they turn in salaah3 and the acknowledged reason for their existence are all one and the same, it must follow that they should be united in a common endeavor: "This, your community," says God in the Qur'an, "is a single community and I am your Lord and Sustainer; therefore worship Me" (21: 92). In spite of this, Muslims have unfortunately forsaken the uncompromising belief in and worship of God alone and abandoned the call to join forces with one another.
We need to be fully conscious of the dangers of this situation and make sincere attempts to deal with the roots of the crisis of Muslim disunity. To begin with, we need to restore "the dimension of faith" in the hearts of Muslims. This dimension has almost ceased to be the primary factor in regulating Muslim relationships. This is the result of a distorted understanding of Islam, harmful practices, and the pressures and impositions of non-Islamic societies. The restoration of the faith dimension and a sound understanding of Islam are the only true guarantees for rectifying our relationships, getting rid of our differences, and removing all traces of rancor from our hearts. How comforting and how delightful this would be! A sound knowledge and understanding of Islam would give us a proper appreciation of the various categories of actions: what is recommended or permissible, what is compulsory or obligatory, and so on. We would be able to keep before us the higher objectives of our striving and be wary of constant jostling with one another via argumentation and discord. We have undoubtedly lost the ethics and norms of proper Islamic behavior and the proper regard for moral imperatives and have thus fallen an easy prey to internal disintegration and internecine strife. This is the legacy of what the Qur'an calls "a narrow and constricted existence" and a life of failure. We have ended up in impotence and ruin. Such indeed was the warning of God: "And do not dispute with one another lest you fail and your moral strength desert you" (8: 46).
The Qur'an relates to us the history of the followers of earlier prophets that we may derive lessons and warnings from them. It shows clearly how nations rise, how civilizations are built, and how they flourish. It also shows how they decline. We are warned that decline and downfall are direct consequences of disunity and the disease of discord and sliding into narrow factionalism:
And be not among those who ascribe divinity to any but Allah, [or] among those who have broken the unity of their faith and have become sects, each group delighting in what they themselves believe and follow (30: 312).
Disputes which lead to division and disunity are tantamount to abandoning the guidance of the Prophet and becoming alienated from him. God addresses the Prophet Muhammad in the Qur'an with regard to "those who have broken the unity of their faith and have become sects" and says: "You have nothing to do with them" (6: 159). This verse expresses a condemnation of all sectarianism arising out of people's intolerant, mutually-exclusive claims to being "the only true exponents" of divine teachings.
This verse is applicable to followers of revelation which predated the Qur'an; their problem was not that they had too little knowledge or that their knowledge was misleading; their undoing was that they used that knowledge to commit injustice and sow mutual antagonisms: "The followers of earlier revelation differed among themselves only after knowledge had come to them, out of mutual jealousy" (3: 19). In the light of this verse we may well ask if Muslims are really the proper custodians of the last authentic divine revelation and the true knowledge and guidance it contains, or whether they are inheritors of the weaknesses of these followers of earlier revelation, their tendency to mutual jealousy and hatred, and the other patterns of destructive behavior they have set.
Disagreement, mutual jealousy, and religious schism were thus the factors which contributed directly to the undoing of the Jews and the Christians in pre-Qur'anic times and the superseding of their religions. Their history is a clear and permanent lesson for those who hold the legacy of authentic scripture (the Qur'an) and Muhammad's prophethood. This fact is made more poignant if it is realized that there will be no replacement and no abrogation of the Qur'an. In one sense, however, this fact does provide some optimism that the diseases with which the Muslim Ummah is now afflicted are not terminal. They may either continue to fester with the Ummah persisting in a state of feebleness, or they may be cured. This is the outcome which many yearn for. Should it come to pass, the internal disintegration will cease and the Ummah will be back on the right course, healthy and full of vitality. These are possibilities which the final divine message holds out, and this is the responsibility and the challenge which it places on the Muslim Ummah.
How do we achieve this outcome? We should first recognize that there are natural differences in the way different people view things and conduct their affairs. There is an inherent uniqueness in each individual which contributes in large measure to the diversity which is essential for the building of human society. It would be impossible to establish social relations between people who are all alike and who have the same capacities. There would then be no scope for interaction, for giving, and for improvement. Diversity in talents and skills stem from diversity in individual mental and functional skills. When these inherent and acquired differences combine they make for human betterment. In all this we see the manifestation of God's power and wisdom.
If differences of opinion operate in a healthy framework they could enrich the Muslim mind and stimulate intellectual development. They could help to expand perspectives and make us look at problems and issues in their wider and deeper ramifications, and with greater precision and thoroughness. Sadly, with the waning of the Ummah, this is not the case. All of the positive advantages that can stem from healthy differences have given way to the chronic disease and deadly poison of discord which is weakening and eroding our spirits and putting us on a self-destruct course. The situation has reached such a state that some of those who hold divergent positions actually engage in physical annihilation while others take to regarding the enemies of Islam as closer to them than their fellow Muslims who share the same basic beliefs. Recent and earlier Muslim history has witnessed many sad and painful scenes when the vast energies and resources of the Ummah have fed and continue to feed the flames of discord, strife, and civil war which only seem to increase in intensity with each passing day.
Often people are unable to look at matters in a balanced, holistic way and see the various dimensions of an issue. Their narrow perspectives only allow them to see a minor aspect which is then inflated and blown up out of all proportion and given an importance to the exclusion of any other aspect or issue. This minor aspect is constantly commented upon and promoted. It becomes the basis for judging, disdaining, or accepting others. To strengthen this aspect, help from the enemies of the religion might even be sought against other Muslims who happen to have a divergent view.
It is related that Waasil ibn `Ataa'4 was with a group of Muslims and they came upon some people whom they recognized as Khawaarij.5 Waasil's company was in a critical situation and faced possible annihilation at the hands of the Khawaarij, who were of the opinion that Muslims who did not share their views should be killed. Waasil told his group that he would deal with the situation. The Khawaarij came up to him and asked threateningly: "Who are you and your companions?" Waasil replied: "They are mushrikoon (those who associate others in worship with God) seeking protection so that they may listen to the word of God and know His laws." "We grant you protection," said the Khawaarij and Waasil asked them to teach him. This they proceeded to do according to their own positions. At the end, Waasil said: "I and those who are with me accept [what you have taught us]." Thereupon the Khawaarij said, "Go in company with one another for you are our brothers in faith." "That is not for you to say," replied Waasil as he recited the following verse of the Qur'an:
And if any of the mushrikoon (those who ascribe divinity to any but God) seeks your protection, grant him protection, so that he might hear the word of God, and thereafter convey him to a place where he can feel secure (9: 6).
"Allow us then to get to our place of security," continued Wasil. The Khawaarij looked at one another and said: "That you shall have." Wasil and his group were allowed to go on their way and they all arrived at their homes safely.6
The anecdote shows how the severity of differences had reached a stage where the Muslim with a divergent view on minor issues had no alternative but to pretend to be a non-Muslim to escape terror and possible death at the hands of a dissident Muslim group who regarded itself as alone possessing the genuine, unadulterated truth. The non- Muslim enjoyed more security at the hands of these dissidents than a fellow Muslim!
Violent disagreement (ikhtilaaf) and selfish, egotistic motivations (hawaa) have a tendency to develop and grow larger and larger. They penetrate deep into a person's psyche and take hold of his mind, attitudes, and feelings. Eventually that person loses sight of the overall, total view of things. In the process he ignores the common, lofty goals and objectives of Islam and its basic principles. Such a person lacks vision and insight and forgets the elementary requirements of Islamic behavior. He loses all sense of balance and of priorities. Speech not based on knowledge comes easily to him, as do verdicts without enlightenment and practice without supporting evidence. With people like these around, accusations proliferate, people are branded as deviant and sinful, and others are declared unbelievers (kuffaar; singular: kaafir).
A person afflicted with these shortcomings falls easy prey to blind fanaticism. His world is filled with darkness and gloom which in reality is but a reflection of his own miserable self on which the light of knowledge, wisdom, and prudence does not shine: "And whoever does not have light given by God, he truly has no light at all" (24: 40).
At the hands of blind followers and inexperienced folk, schools of jurisprudence and legal judgments and opinions arrived at by persons of insight and ability have degenerated into a sort of pseudo-intellectual factionalism and political fanaticism. Verses of the Qur'an and sayings of the Prophet are used selectively to support one position or another, and every verse or saying that does not agree with a stand of a particular faction is considered inapplicable or abrogated. The net result is that fanaticism increases and we are thrown back to the sort of ignorance which existed in pre-Qur'anic days when the prevailing dictum was: "The liar of the tribe of Rabee`ah is better than the one who tells the truth from the tribe of Mudar" - in other words, "My people, right or wrong."
The early Muslims did have disagreements. But theirs were differences of opinion and not reasons for estrangement and schism. They differed but they did not separate. This was because the unity of hearts and of objectives was far more important to them than selfish considerations. They managed to rid themselves of personal weaknesses and were keen to recognize and correct any lapses they committed. The Prophet, peace be on him, once told his companions about a man who was among the best of them and about the good news that he was of those destined for paradise. They examined the person's attitudes and conduct to under stand the reason for his supreme achievement. The Prophet eventually told them that the person's achievement was due to the fact that he never went to sleep while there was a trace of rancor in his heart against any Muslim. The source of the calamity which afflicts us today is within us, in our hearts. Our tendencies towards isolationism are merely an expression of self-betrayal. In external aspects, we might not differ much from others. God says: "Keep away from all sin, open and secret" (6: 120).
On the level of the Ummah, we can look back and see that the Muslim world was once one state claiming its highest legitimacy from attachment to the Qur'an and the Sunnah. Now it has become some seventy-eight small states with innumerable and extensive disagreements among themselves. Each one of these states loudly professes unity, but in each state one finds several often conflicting entities as well as of ficially sponsored "Islamic" bodies. Often those working for the cause of Islam today who are ostensibly connected with the task of restoring the Ummah are not in reality in a better situation than the official organizations which they manage.
Our crisis is in fact an intellectual one, and it is very serious. When intellectual activity and output in the Muslim world is sound and when the Muslim Ummah once again derives its fundamental and highest legitimacy for its existence from attachment to the Qur'an and the Sun nah, it will then be able to uphold the message of Islam and build a civilization despite the hardships and severity of our material circumstances. We are assured in the Qur'an that "with every difficulty there is ease" (94: 5).
Our deviation from the Qur'an and the Sunnah has landed us in disputation and ruin, for God says: "Obey God and His Apostle. And do not dispute with one another lest you fail and your moral strength desert you." (8: 46). Islam put an end to petty groupings and internal Arabia, each tribe or grouping had its own god to which it gave obeisance; Islam obliterated all these false gods.
Muslims as a whole today need not complain about scant material resources or about a straitened existence. They are in the midst of the consuming nations, whether of ideas or commodities for living. Their real malaise lies in the loss of the all-embracing significance of their faith and the consciousness of unified and common objectives. Also gone from them is the consciousness of a greater purpose and legitimacy in their lives. Paralysis has afflicted both their resolve and their decisive intellectual endeavor.
How do we get out of the intellectual paralysis which afflicts the Muslim mind and the moral crisis which affects Muslim behavior except by tackling the roots of this intellectual crisis and rectifying the methodology of thought? There must be a renewed stress on intellectual formation and the recovery of a sense of priorities. These goals must feature prominently in the training of new generations.
There is no way to achieve all this except by returning to the legacy of the early Muslims who were noted for their unswerving attachment to the Qur'an and the Sunnah. Part of this legacy was the unremitting search for true knowledge and the application of this knowledge. We need to recapture the spirit of this search and provide guarantees for ensuring that it continues. The link between knowledge and ethics must be restored. The principles and rules for inference and deduction to regulate independent reasoning also need to be put in place. Studies to ensure the unity of the Ummah must be developed, and areas of mutual cooperation defined with the object of achieving Muslim solidarity. All this must be done and pursued in a clear, systematic way through God's grace.
This book is a small attempt to chart the way ahead. Conscious of the profound tragedy which engulfs us, some have suggested that a book like this should deal with the objective situation now existing in the Muslim world and address itself to solutions for those contemporary differences and controversies which have made out of one Islamic movement in a single country ninety-three organizations independent from one another. Such a situation of course betrays the height of heedlessness to Islamic ideals and a morass of conflicting interests and tendencies.
One should, however, be wary of aggressive ignorance, the arrogant claims of fanatics, the troublesome and contentious nature of those who are obstinate, and the intrigue and plotting of conspirators. Refuting all of these tendencies head-on and clearly and frankly exposing the conflicting positions and interests of the various Islamic groupings will not in my view bring about peace, calm, and cooperation in the Muslim arena. However, arming Muslims, in particular the youth, with a clear knowledge and perception of Islamic ethics and norms of behavior (adab) is a prerequisite and a guarantee for achieving such peace, harmony, and cooperation, God willing.
Knowledge of Islamic ethics and norms in dealing with differences, the consciousness of its principles on the part of various contending groups in the Ummah, and training Muslims to live according to these norms will undoubtedly release an abundance of energies in the Ummah - energies which are now dissipated and wasted in the theaters of futile internal conflicts.

When the Muslim mind becomes conscious of its civilizational role it will seek to win back those who belong to the Ummah but who are alienated. Conscious workers for Islam are responsible for the urgent task of building a sound and stable base for the restoration of the unity and health of the Ummah, and eventually for rebuilding the civilization of Islam. A single moment separates life and death. If our determination is sincere there is nothing that can prevent us from recovering Muslims from anti-Islamic influences for, according to the promise of God, a day will come when the believers will rejoice in the help of God and lost will be, then and there, all who tried to reduce to nothing the truth they failed to understand.

1.    The Qur'an, 8: 33.
2.     Sunnah literally means "path." It refers to the example of Prophet Muhammad which consists of all that he said, did, approved of, or condemned.
3.    Salaah refers to the special act of worship or prayer performed in the manner taught by the Prophet.
4.    Waasil ibn `Ataa' is regarded as the founder of the Mu`tazilah tradition of thought. He died in Basrah in 131 AH. For more information on the Mu`tazilah, see chapter 5, note 10.
5.     The Khawaarij or Seceders. See also chapter 5, note 11.
6.    Al Mubarreed, al Kaamil fee al Lughah wa al Adab, 2/122.

Source: http://www.youngmuslims.ca/online_library/books/ethics_of_disagreement_in_islam/index.htm