One of the greatest problems confronting modern Muslims is our inability to tolerate each other, let alone others. Our tradition has a rich science known as "the courtesies of differences and the etiquette of discussion." In this edifying talk, The Etiquette of Disagreement, one of the greatest scholars today, Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah, illuminates the essential aspects of this subject.
All Muslims who plan to engage in any conversation should listen to this talk over and over again until its meanings are internalised and they understand that the secret of interlocution is a desire to know and not a desire to conquer. Only when we sublimate our egos and have a desire to engage in genuine dialogue with others do we achieve a spiritual status of what the English refer to as "the gentleman" and what the Arabs call al-adib - "the gentle one." - Hamza Yusuf
Shaykh Abdallah bin Mahfudh ibn Bayyah (born 1935CE 1362H) is an Islamic scholar born in Mauritania (West Africa). Currently he teaches at King Abdal Aziz University.
From an early age, his profound intellectual gifts and ability allowed him to memorise massive texts. In his youth, he was appointed to study legal judgements in Tunis. On returning to Mauritania, he became Minister of Education and later Minister of Justice. He was also appointed a Vice President of the first president of Mauritania. However, in part because of the miliatary coup in Mauritania, he began to teach and traveled to Saudi Arabia where he became a distinguished professor at The University of U?ul al-Fiqh.
The shaykh is presently involved in several organizations in the Muslim world, such as al Majma’ al-Fiqhi, which comprises a body of scholars from across the Muslim world and from different madhhabs and viewpoints. They analyze and study modern issues confronting Muslims to formulate Islamic solutions.
Shaykh Abdallah is also an author, having written several books and delivered lectures in different countries. He has expertise in areas such as Fiqh al-`Aqaliyat, the jurisprudence related to Muslim minorities in non-Muslim lands. This is a specialist field pioneered by Shaykh Abdallah's colleague and friend the eminent Shaykh Yusuf al Qaradawi.
Bismillahir Rahmanir Raheem
Shaykh Abdullah began by praising Allah subhanahu wa ta'ala and prayers on the Prophet (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam) and then he said he is going to give a talk on the courtesies of disagreement and what happens when opinions differ amongst people and also the importance of avoiding dissention amongst the community and anything that disrupts the natural harmony of the community and their core des spri.
He mentioned several verses from the Quran, one of them being that Allah subhanahu wa ta'ala said in the Quran “do not differ because if you do, you will fail and the strength or the force that propels you forward will dissipate” and also that Allah says that if you differ about anything then its ruling is to Allah subhanahu wa ta'ala. Also in the Quran Allah subhanahu wa ta'ala says “and they continue to differ about matters except those who Allah has shown mercy to and for that reason they were created” and then he mentioned also a hadith that is related by it but it does not have a connected sanad to the Prophet (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam) which is “the ikhtilaf of my ummah or the differences of my ummah is a mercy” so the question is then how do you have harmony with difference of opinion? How do we keep hearts together when the opinions differ because Allah subhanahu wa ta'ala commanded the community to hold to the rope of Allah subhanahu wa ta'ala and not to split into sects and groups and so he wishes to look at that and he said that maybe people would be surprised to know you can actually have deep differences and disagreements and still have harmony but if you understand the reasons for that then the surprise of the marvel disappears.
Then he said one the crisis that the muslim community perpetually faces but in particular today is the crisis of our inability to accept the other and this crisis occurs in jurisprudence. It occurs in creed and other matters, in fiqh, in aqeedah and these things. One of the things that one should be clear about is that diversity is part of the nature of the world that Allah subhanahu wa ta'ala created. Allah subhanahu wa ta'ala says that He brought forth from the fruits of the earth, fruits that differ in various colours and also the mountains. You see mountains that are white and black and red and these are signs of Allah also in your varying colours and the diversity of your complexions and the diversities of your tongue. The diversity and difference is one of the reasons of beauty, that we recognise beauty when we recognise diversity but the problem, this can turn ugly when it becomes a source of dissention, a source of resentment, a source of anger towards the other.
The Prophet (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam) said in a riwayah, a narration that is related by Al Bahaqi, it is called maqtu which means it only goes to the tabi’i that related it and it gets cut off between the Prophet (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam) and one generation of the sahaba and so he said this hadith is narrated by many many of the ulema and with an acceptance of it among them Imam al Joyini and several others. Imam Abideen one of the great Hanafi scholars said that the hadith was clearly musnad in the past, this is his understanding of it, but sometimes a hadith becomes so well known that it is repeated in the books like that so he accepted it as a valid hadith and it has been accepted by the ulema. Also Umar ibn Abdul Aziz said “I am glad that the companions of the Prophet (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam) did not agree on everything”. He said the meanings of that is when you have differences of opinions, it makes things broader and so that people can have more flexibility in their religion. Because when there is an ijmaa about something then everybody is forced to follow that opinion because there has been no dissent. So how did the sahaba understand ikhtilaf? He also mentioned that a Khalifah al Abassi actually wanted to impose the muwatta of Imam Malik which was a book that Imam Malik collected over 40 years and considered it to be the soundest of opinions but Imam Malik when he was told this said that he didn’t want it to happen. He said this is an extraordinary example of humility but also an awareness of one’s limitations because Imam Malik, his argument was that many of the sahaba have dispersed in the lands and there are things that might not have reached me and people should be allowed to discover those things so Imam Malik refused to allow his school to become the official school of the caliphate. He asked then the question how did the sahaba understand this difference of opinion? They understood that ikhtilaf first of all is not a state of anarchy, a state of belligerent anarchy that it was part of human nature and people always differ.
The Prophet (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam) said in a hadith which is related by al-Bukhari, he said that everybody should pray at Bani Quraydah at Asr. Now when the sahaba were on the way to Bani Quraydah, Asr time came. Some of the sahaba understood that the Prophet (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam) was telling them to hurry up and be at Bani Quraydah by Asr time. That is how they understood the statement. Other ones said no we don’t pray Asr until we get to Bani Quraydah so some of the sahaba prayed the Asr prayer because the time came in and they said we were late, we didn’t get to Bani Quraydah by Asr so we are going to pray now. The other group of sahaba said no. The Prophet (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam) said do not pray Asr unless you are at Bani Quraydah. So they chose to delay and when they got to Bani Quraydah they told the Prophet (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam) what happened and the Prophet (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam) did not condemn either group. In other words he accepted their ijtihad, both of the two groups so that is a very important hadith that the Prophet (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam) did not blame either one.
Another very important example about difference in our community is the differences in qiraat, the recitations that are used for the Quran. The Prophet (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam), Umar once heard one of the sahaba reading something and he was reciting it difference to the way that Umar had been taught so he got angry, so he said that is wrong, I learned this from the Prophet (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam). So Umar got very angry and they both went to the Prophet (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam) and both recited what they knew and the Prophet (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam) said they were both correct.
In another example, Ubay ibn Kaab heard somebody reciting and he was one of the masters of the Quran, he heard somebody reciting who was different and he said that is not the way it goes, this is the way the Prophet (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam) taught and when he went the Prophet (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam) told him they were both correct. Ubay said some doubt came into his heart at the moment and the Prophet (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam) recognised that and struck him on his chest and Ubay said at that point it was as if he was looking at his Lord, that he had absolutely certainty about that so the Shaykh said that also the Prophet (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam) prohibited is from aggressively differing from each other and he said don’t fight one another, don’t have dissention, be brothers in Islam so despite the fact that there were differences, the overriding commandment from the Prophet (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam) is to maintain the harmony of the hearts.
The first major difference that occurred was in the khilafah when the Prophet (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam) passed away and went to the highest gathering, he did not appoint specifically a Khalif. He had appointed Abu Bakr to lead the prayer and some of them understood that that was an indication but there was no specific appointment. For that reason the sahaba differed. The Ansar began to gather together and when the Muhajiroun heard about this, Abu Bakr and Umar, some of them went to meet with them and the Ansar were debating who would they appoint from amongst the Ansar as the Khalif. Then Abu Bakr came to them and said “you know that this matter with the Arabs, is that they would not accept other than Quraysh” because of the status of the Quraysh and also that Allah Himself had shown that the Muhajiroun actually were over the Ansar in the Quran when He specified the Muhajiroun made hijrah and then mentioned the Ansar after them that Allah had elevated them for their hijrah and everything they went through in Makkah and so at that point Abu Bakr suggested to them they appoint Umar but Umar realised at that point Abu Bakr should be the khalif because he was the second in the cause so he put his hand in the hand of Abu Bakr and he took the bayah with him.
Now the other sahabah at that point even though they differed they accepted Abu Bakr and so the Shaykh said here is an example of where there was a difference the Ansar were differing with the Quraysh and Muhajiroun but they discussed it, looked at the Quran, talked about things. Each group brought their own opinions forward so they settled upon an agreement so this is an example of the ikhtilaf that is resolved, a difference that is resolved through discussion, through agreement after the discussion what Allah termed shura so they ended in an agreement.
But there are other times when they did not end in agreement so they either discussed things ended in agreement or they discussed things and recognised that it was an insolvable problem and they respected each other’s opinions. The second major difference that occurred was the gathering of the Quran into one specific mushaf. This occurred during the khilafah of Abu Bakr when many of the people who memorised the Quran had died in battle. So Umar was worried that the Quran would be lost and Abu Bakr said “how can I do something that the Prophet (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam) himself did not do?”. So he was worried about an innovation so he kept on until his heart was expanded and so the gathering of the Quran began after that so initially many of the sahaba disagreed about gathering the Quran into one mushaf because it hadn’t been done but once they had discussed it and looked at the benefits of it and recognised that it was a sound thing to do when it was done.
Another one was when they were a lot of futaha during the time of Umar and when they went into the lands of Iraq and Syria in these places they differed about what they should do about the land that was being conquered and so Umar actually had three different shura councils set up that involved the people of the Ansar, the people of the Muhajireen and another group. They discussed amongst themselves and came together and they differed about that. Some said that it should be made a community property and then the people who worked on that would pay jizyah or karaj for the land itself. Then others said no it should be distributed amongst the people who conquered the lands. So they concluded it should be worked by the people and then they would pay a tax for their work to the Islamic government. So this was another example where they came to a conclusion after much debate and difference. If you look at an example of a difference of opinion where they debated but didn’t come to anything conclusive but there was respect, the most striking of these is the difference of Aisha ummul momineen and Sayydina Ibn Abbas. They differed about whether or not the Prophet saw his Lord on the Isra Miraj and Aisha said that anybody who said that was absolutely outrageous and her hair stood on end by hearing somebody say that. Ibn Abbas understood that to mean that his eye did not deviate nor did it divert, his heart did not belie what he saw, that was the etific vision. Aisha understood that to mean Jibril so she interpreted it to mean it was Jibril. Now here is two very learned people looking at the exact same text and coming to different conclusions. Aisha never lost respect for Ibn Abbas even thought she differed in a core matter here. She differed with him completely but each of them respected the other and this is what the Shaykh called Khilaf Hamid. It is a praiseworthy difference even thought there was no conclusion each respected the other.
He said another aspect was the sahaba when they differed they avoided attacking the other people with the foul language and using anything that was inappropriate for e.g. Ibn Umar related a hadith in which he said he heard the Prophet (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam) say that the dead are punished for the wailing of the living so if people would wail over the grave or at the funeral of a dead person, the dead person is punished. Aisha when she heard that she said it is not accurate. She said perhaps Ibn Umar made a mistake, perhaps he did not hear that because the Quran very clearly states that one soul is not punished for the sins of another soul and she took a verse of the Quran and did not accept a solitary transmission of a hadtih because the verse of Quran that she thought it basically stated the opposite of what he was stating in the particular example and so Ibn Umar said he heard that by the Prophet (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam). Later on the ulema came to kind of agreement about that if the dead person encouraged those people to cry then that would be the condition but there is an example again where both of them differed yet they held respect for each other and did not resort to any foul language or cursing or anything like that.
Then another thing that the sahaba differed on was whether dead people could hear after they died. Some of the sahaba said that they understood the Quran to mean you cannot make the dead hear and they understood that to mean dead people do not hear. Other of the sahaba said we clearly heard the Prophet (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam) at Badr say then when he was speaking to the dead the mushrikeen that were in the well that they said “can they hear you Ya Rasulullah?” He said “they are not any less capable of hearing than you” are so that was an example again of where the sahaba differed but did not come to any decisive conclusion about the matter. Some of them said that was specific to those people and it was not for other people so it remained a difference amongst them.
Another example was that Umar considered if a person divorced a woman three times which is the baynuna of al kubra where she cannot go back to the husband that still during the period, he had to pay for the housing and for the provision of the woman during that time. Fatima bint Qays who was one of the greatest sahaba and she was also very learned, she said it is not sound that the woman, the marriage is over because the whole purpose of the iddah was Allah says perhaps He will make something come out that period, in other words there will be reconciliation, they will come together. She said if there is no option, if there is no possibility of reconciliation then there is no reason for her to be in the house of that man or be taken care of in that period of time. So the Shaykh said the ulema who saw these two different proofs later, Imam Malik, Imam Shafi and Imam Ahmad went with the opinion of Fatimah bint Qays and Sayyidia Abu Hanifah went with the opinion of Sayyidina Umar and all of them are rightly guided so there is an example where they did not come to a conclusion but they recognised that the problem was insoluble and that one could not be preferred over the other in any decisive way so they agreed to disagree.
Another example is the Khawrij. When Ali was being opposed by the Khawarij he was asked by his companions “do you consider them kuffar?” He said “how could they be kuffar, they fled from kuffar because they were very staunch muslims in their practice”. They said “then are they munafiqun (hypocrites)?” and Ali said “how could they be hypocrites, Allah said the hypocrites only mention Allah a little and these people mention Allah all the time, all the time they are remembering Allah so how can they be hypocrites”. They said “then what are these people?”. “These are our brothers in faith who have transgressed the boundaries with us and have oppressed us” and so he said these are examples of the sahaba even when they differed they still maintained the highest moral probity, they still maintained the highest ethical standards of difference even when they were at war with the people as in the case of Imam Ali where they still respected them and would not speak ill of them. So he said these are profound examples of this courtesy in differing.