On April 15, 2020, EMERITUS PROFESSOR SULEMAN DANGOR interviewed the late Shaikh Seraj Hendricks on the ethics of disagreement. This article is a summary of that interview. He has taken the liberty of adding comments to Shaikh Seraj’s responses as well as explanatory notes.
I COMMENCED the interview with a quotation from Taha Jabar al-Alwani’s book, Adab al-Ikhtilaf fil Islam, which translates as ‘Ethics of Disagreement in Islam’. The book has become popular among scholars and students. Shaikh Seraj made a few comments relating to the author and the book.
On the issue of diversity of opinion, Shaikh Seraj argued that diversity in Islam is represented in several verses of the Quran, including the following: ‘O humankind! We have indeed created you from a male and female, and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you.’ (Quran 49:13)
‘And among His signs are the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the difference of your languages and colours.’ (Quran 30:22)
‘O humankind! Be conscious of your Lord who created you from a single soul, and out of it created its mate, and out of the two spread countless men and women.’ (Quran 4:1)
The above verses indicate that human beings have the same origin but have been created with differences in colour, language etc. for the purpose of getting to know each other, and that the only basis of preference of one over another is the degree of righteousness (taqwah) they possess. This natural diversity cannot be a basis for division and conflict.
Shaikh Seraj cited two incidents during the life of the Prophet (SAW) to demonstrate that he acknowledged and respected ikhtilaaf (difference of opinion). The first was when Sahaabah were sent to the Banu Quraiza (a Jewish tribe) during the Battle of Khandaq. The Prophet (SAW) had instructed them that ‘none of you should offer the Asr prayer but at Banu Quraiza’s place’. When it was time for the Asr salaah, several prayed before reaching the settlement of Banu Quraiza while others prayed after they had reached the settlement. Upon their return to Madinah, they informed the Prophet (SAW) about their differences in interpreting his instructions. He accepted both interpretations as valid.
The second instance was when some Sahaabah were on their way back to Madinah and it was time to perform salaah. As there was no water available, they performed tayammum, followed by the salaah. When they subsequently found water, some said that the salaah should be repeated after making wudu while others said it was not necessary.
Shaikh Seraj referred to the differences of opinion between Imam Malik ibn Anas, who was based in Madinah, and al-Layth ibn Sa’d, who was based in Egypt. The intellectual rivalry between the two is among the most famous rivalries between scholars in Islamic history. Both were eminent legal scholars and both founded a madhhab. Imam Malik ibn Anas relied on the aml (practice) of the people of Madinah to be the sole legal source. But Imam Layth b Sa’d disagreed with his position on the grounds that there were so many differences of opinion among the Sahaabah. Despite their differences, they were men of impeccable adab (character) and treated each other with the utmost respect. The letters they exchanged between them provide an amazing historical insight into the Islamic etiquette of disagreement.
There were also differences between Imam al-Awza’I, who was based in Syria, and Imam Abu Hanifah, based in Iraq. Both cited sanads (chain of narrators) to demonstrate the ‘correctness’ of their rulings. Imam Abu Hanifah then politely stated that no one is obliged to follow his opinion. Imam Shaafii, who was based in Egypt, had a debate with Imam Ahmad b Hanbal, based in Baghdad, on the status of those who abandon their prayers. Imam Shaafii’s arguments proved to be more convincing and Imam Ibn Hanbal gave up the debate.
The tradition of ikhtilaaf continued in later generations. Scholars discussed issues rationally and not emotionally. Despite massive differences of opinion among them at times, they showed extreme tolerance of other opinions and respect for those who disagreed with them. They did not resort to verbal abuse, mocking or insults, which demonstrate a lack of adab. Shaikh Seraj said that he had come across many scholars who were very knowledgeable but lacked basic adab.
I asked Shaikh Seraj to explain why there is so much dissension and dispute over petty issues in South Africa. He was highly critical of the violent disagreement, labelling and insulting people by describing them as deviant, sinners or disbelievers. How can we question the aqeedah of people simply on the basis of differences of opinion? In his view, the primary motive for such behaviour is egoism. He wondered what those who resort to unethical behaviour were learning in their institutions. Their refusal to acknowledge and respect differences of opinion indicates that they consider opinions as matters of aqeedah. Taha Jabir al-Alwani attributes this attitude to the very narrow and poor level of teaching as well as loss of what he termed iqra.
Finally, Shaikh Seraj spoke of the need to link knowledge and ethics to undergird whatever we do with adab, and to express our differences of opinion with the requisite akhlaaq.
- Emeritus Professor Suleman Dangor writes the Muslim Views column, Discussions with Dangor.