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Published in the 16-30 Sep 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

ISLAMIC PERSPECTIVES

Opposing view points

By Ibrahim B. Syed

Freedom of expression, free thinking, free inquiry, etc., are guaranteed by the Noble Qur'an to the Muslims. But unfortunately these rights are denied to the Muslims who live in certain countries. However, many Muslims are unaware of this fundamental right. On the other hand, Western countries have adopted these Qur'anic rights in their national constitutions. For example, the First Amendment to the US Constitution states, "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." One of the reasons for the stagnation of intellectual growth in the Muslim World is the denial of these rights and also the right to disagree with others' point of view.

About 200 years ago, a Western scholar called Joseph Joubert said, "It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it." No one can deny that one should consider every variety of opinion in an attempt to determine the Truth. Opinions of authorities in the field should be examined, as well as of those that are considered radical, reactionary, minority and of others that are stigmatized by some uncomplimentary label. History teaches us that opinions once considered unpopular and even despised eventually got accepted. Some good examples in this category are the ideas expressed by Ibn Sina, Al-Biruni, Al-Razi, Ibn Nafis, Ibn Haytham, Socrates, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, etc.

David L. Bender, publisher of Opposing Viewpoints Series, San Diego, California, says, " To have a good grasp of one's own viewpoint, it is necessary to understand the arguments of those with whom one disagrees. It can be said that those who do not completely understand their adversary's point of view do not fully understand their own."

We always think that our views are most rational and those of others are wrong. It may turn out that others views are correct and our own views are wrong. One should remember to keep an open mind to views and ideas expressed by others with whom we disagree. Wisdom lies in listening than in speaking, for more can be learnt by listening than speaking. We become emotional and angry at those with whom we disagree and we treat them as our enemies. Instead, we should treat their opinions objectively and treat them as different paths to a common goal. We need to develop a number of basic skills of reading and critical thinking such as: Evaluating Sources of Information; Separating Fact from Opinion; Identifying Stereotypes and Recognizing Ethnocentrism. These skills are details in Science and Religion, edited by Rohr and Szumski, Greenhaven Press, Inc., San Diego, California, 1988.

Censoring somebody because they have a different point of view on something like religion, politics, war strategies, etc. is wrong. Rules about profanity, personal attacks are perfectly understandable. We can disagree on certain topics without things turning nasty. Now on occasions, some situations have turned ugly and probably same will occur again once in a while. It is doubted if that can be avoided completely. This is because we are human and feelings and emotions will sometimes get rubbed the wrong way. 

If people want to debate politics, what harm is it doing? There is no reason whatsoever, to exclude someone from your discussion just because one's political views are different from somebody else's. It is unfair censorship and it is wrong. If one does not agree with someone else's point of view, so what? The world won't come to an end because of that, right? One should be flexible.

Islamic Perspective
There were many instances of judicial disagreement between the early fuqaha, differences that were not allowed to go beyond the academic or to cause hard feelings among the debaters and dissenters alike. Certainly, the differences between those early scholars never led them to lose sight of the higher purposes of the Shari’ah or their responsibilities. Muslims must be aware of the polemics to the subject of disagreement in general. Contemporary Muslims should follow many commendable examples of forbearance and understanding on the part of some of the greatest personalities and scholars in Muslim history.

Differences of opinion are inevitable wherever people have both intellect and honesty. Complete consensus on every issue is possible only when either everyone is dumb, so they cannot think of a different idea, or they are dishonest so they willingly agree with a position that they consider wrong. After all religious interpretations are not personal rights that can be sacrificed away. 

The problem occurs when we overstate these differences. There were differences of opinion in fiqh among the Prophet’s companions, their followers, and great Mujtahideen. But they did not turn these into fights. They disagreed but they maintained respect and love for each other. The brotherhood remained intact. They had tolerance for the other view. 

How can we have tolerance for something we know is wrong? Of course we cannot have any tolerance for anything clearly established as wrong by Qur'an or Hadith. We can never show accommodation for apostasy. We can never agree on changing the Shariah's established definitions of halal and haram. But beyond this there are issues about which Qur'an and Sunnah are silent or are subject to more than one interpretation. Here the mujtahideen deduce the intent of Qur'an and Sunnah based on their best ability. Here disagreements are possible. As long as those involved are qualified mujtahideen (like the four respected imams), their differing views have to be respected. We can follow only one opinion, and we should try and determine the one closest to the intent of the Shariah, but we cannot declare opposing views as evil. We exaggerate when we deal with people holding valid opposing views as if they were outside the bounds of Islam. 

Overstatement (ghuluw) is the main cause of most fights involving our religious groups. It also happens with Islamic organizations. Most are doing useful work in the areas they chose based on their abilities and inclinations. Had they developed a spirit of cooperation and considered their differences as just a natural division of labor, together they could have become a formidable force. Unfortunately each one of them considers their work and methodology as the only methodology for Islamic work. If a person leaves one of these organizations to join another, he is treated as if he had recanted his faith. This is ghuluw. It produces the tribalism of Jahiliya (the pre-Islamic period of ignorance) among religious workers. 

Pious people are not extinct today. What we sorely need is the reformers who can rise above their narrow perspectives and heed the universal and unifying call of Islam. 

Sunnis Vs. Shias
The major difference between the Sunnis and the Shi'a has to do with the issue of succession after the Prophet (pbuh). That is to say, who had the prerogative to lead the Muslim community in temporal and religious affairs after the demise of the Prophet. The Shia view is that the Prophet (pbuh) explicitly appointed Imam Ali (RA) as his successor in accordance with the divine instruction. The Shias envision the Imam as someone who is endowed with grace and benevolence (lutf), who can guide the community in all spheres without committing any mistake or error because he is infallible (ma'soom) [Shaykhs Mufid and Saduq were of the opinion that the Imams are prone to committing small errors]. 

The doctrine of Imamate is at the heart of the issue which divides the Sunnis and the Shi'a. Of course, there are many other differences between these two main branches of Muslims but they are derived from the basic disagreement on the question of succession to the Prophet (pbuh).

In contrast, the Sunnis view the seat of the caliph as a political function that can be entrusted to a competent and trustworthy individual without any explicit appointment from the Prophet (pbuh).

To underline this salient feature, many works were composed in the classical and medieval times on the doctrine of Imamate, e.g., works of Hisham b. Hakam, Nu'man, Saduq, Mufid, Tusi, etc. The latest extensive work on Imamate is by Allamah Amini titled Al-Ghadir. It is a monumental work and very much worth reading. Also, a good portion of Al-Kaafi is devoted to the issue of Imamate [Kitab-ul-Hujjah].

Some controversial topics in Islam are the following: Mut’a (temporary marriage), Hijab, Halal food products, Beard, Rights of Muslim women, Talaq (Divorce), Tolerance in Islam, Jihad, Islam spread by sword, Rajm (Stoning of certain sinners to death), Women attending the Masjid, Women praying behind barriers in Masjid.

Dr Syed is the president of the Islamic Research Foundation International in Louisville, USA. He may be contacted at PRESIDENT@IRFI.ORG
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