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Dealing with the Errors of Scholars & Zealous Followers

One of the most crucial rules of normative Sunni Islam states: ‘A condition for censuring wrongdoing is that the act being censured must be something whose blameworthiness is not merely known by means of ijtihad. Any matter that involves ijtihad cannot be a cause for censure.’1

It is usually expressed in this maxim: la inkar fi masa’il al-khilaf – ‘There is no censuring in matters of [legitimate] differing.’

Imam al-Nawawi typified the point, when he wrote: ‘A person commanding or forbidding must have knowledge about what is being commanded or forbidden, which will vary with varying issues. Thus if it is from the clear-cut obligations or well-known prohibitions, like Prayer, Fasting, adultery, intoxicants, etc., then every Muslim is learned about them. But if it is in matters that are not clear-cut, or in issues of ijtihad, then the lay people cannot enter into it, nor censure it; instead it is only for the scholars [to do]’.2

Although there have been periodic disruptions of the above rule in the ummah’s history, by and large the rule has been respected between the scholars and schools of Islamic law. This was based on a recognition that opinions backed-up by decisive (qat‘i) proofs or by juristic consensus (ijma‘) justifiably represented the Islamic view, whereas those rooted in valid interpretive possibilities represent an Islamic view.

There was a time, not so long ago, that ignorance of the above maxim had almost become ubiquitous; to the point where mosques, Islamic centres and university prayer rooms were regular battlegrounds for hostile arguments and a fair bit of egotistical fatwa flinging. The schisms, many of us imagined, would surely dissipate as people became aware of the la inkar rule. And while much has improved in this regard, a cursory glance at the comments sections on so many an Islamic blog piece or Facebook post reveals just how much bigotry and intolerance still abound. For egos also abound and have learnt to cloak themselves in an alleged jealousy (ghirah) for religious purity and truth.

The following scholarly insights are less about the actual adab of differing, but have more to do with the ego’s deceptions in matters of khilaf between the scholars. All three insights come from Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali:

The first of these insights from Ibn Rajab concerns “loving and hating for God’s sake.” In one hadith, it states: مَنْ أَحَبَّ لِلَّهِ وَأَبْغَضَ لِلَّهِ وَأَعْطَى لِلَّهِ وَمَنَعَ لِلَّهِ فَقَدْ اسْتَكْمَلَ الْإِيمَانَ – ‘Whoever loves for God’s sake, loathes for God’s sake, gives for God’s sake and withholds for God’s sake has perfected faith.’3 It must be stressed that such hating, detesting or disliking can’t be done based on desires or ego. Rather it is principled, done purely for the sake of God: desires or ego having no share in it whatsoever. Nor, it must equally be stressed, is it a loathing that entails harm – as al-Munawi explained: ‘Hating for God doesn’t imply harming the one he loathes. Instead, it is for his disbelief or disobedience.’4 Yet not to belabour the point, it is also not a frenzied hating, where one froths at the mouth and spews out stupidity, as the blood curdles and the infantile ego flies into a rage. Rather, as said before, it is a righteous hating in which the ego is to have no share. And given how so very rare it is for egos to be truly tamed and trained, one can well comprehend why hating for God’s sake is from the highest perfections of iman.

In this insight, Ibn Rajab, rahimahullah, draws our attention to how, when scholars differ, they may be excused due to their good intention and scholarly ijtihad, but some of their followers will not. And that is because their heart’s intention and dislike of the view that opposes their shaykh’s was not to uphold the truth, but to merely be partisan and big-up their own corner. With that being the long and the short of it, here are his actual words:

‘When religious differences among people grew, and schisms deepened, then this led to an increase in mutual hatred and reviling: each of them apparently hating for the sake of God. In one and the same issue, some could be excused, while others may not. They may, in fact, just be following their desires or falling short in evaluating on what basis they are actually hating. For so much hating is of this nature; occurring when the one followed is differed with, and the followers thinks that the one he follows is always correct. And this [thinking] is a categorical mistake! But if he thinks him right on the issue being differed over, then he could be right or he could be wrong; or he could simply be inclining towards [the stance of the one followed] merely from desire; or from familiarity or habit. And all of this belies such hating being for God’s sake.’5

The second insight explores the above psychology of the zealous follower a little further. Ibn Rajab draws our attention to it by stating:

‘ … for it may be that he only supports the view because it’s the view of the one he follows. Had it been voiced by another scholar, he wouldn’t have accepted it; supported it; allied himself with those who agree with it; or shown enmity to those who differ with it. Despite this, he fools himself into thinking he’s supporting the truth, and is of the same position as the one whom he follows – and this is most certainly not the case! For the scholar he follows, his intention was to aid the truth, even though he erred in his ijtihad. As for the follower, his purpose in [supposedly] aiding the truth is polluted by his desire to elevate the person he follows; or make his opinion predominant; or that he not be thought of as being wrong: and this agenda taints the desire to support only the truth. So understand this, for it is a vital matter.’6

The last insight concerns how to behave justly with the slips and errors of a scholars. Ibn Rajab offers these following broad guidelines:

‘Here there are two points: Firstly, that whoever contravenes any directive of the Prophet, erring in his ijtihad while seeking to obey the Prophet and follow his injunctions, he is forgiven and his status is not demeaned at all because of this. Secondly, that the love and esteem the scholar is held in should never prevent clarifying how his view has actually contravened the Prophet’s order; peace be upon him. This, as part of sincere advice to the ummah in clarifying to them the command of the Prophet. Likewise, the one that is loved and held in esteem, if he knows his view contravenes the command of the Messenger, he should be pleased that it has been explained to the ummah, and that they have been duly guided to the Prophet’s command and have rejected his view. This point is hidden from many of the ignorant who have gone to extremes in following their scholars. They think that refuting someone of status, be he a scholar or a righteous person, is to denigrate him. But this isn’t the case at all.

‘It was out of such negligence that the religion of the People of the Book was altered. For they followed the slips of their scholars and turned away from that which their Prophets came with, until their religion was altered and they took their priests and rabbis as lords besides God: making lawful to them the forbidden, and forbidding them the lawful. Such became their worship of their scholars.’7

1. Ibn Qudamah al-Maqdisi, Mukhtasar Minhaj al-Qasidin (Damascus: Maktabah Dar al-Bayan, 1999), 121.

2. Sharh Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 2:21-3.

3. Abu Dawud, no.4681. It was declared as sahih, due to its collective chains, in al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), no.380.

4. Fayd al-Qadir Sharh al-Jami al-Saghir (Cairo: Dar al-Hadith, 2010), 7:543-4; no.8308.

5. Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 2:267.

6. ibid., 2:268.

7. Majmu‘ Rasa’il al-Hafiz Ibn Rajab (Cairo: al-Faruq al-Khadathiyyah, 2002), 1:246.

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