Why do we Differ in Matters of Our Faith?
Updated: Feb 3
Our understanding of Islam largely comes from scholars. Not many of us make an individual efforts to go directly to the Quran or the authentic sunnah of the Prophet. We rely on opinions passed on to us by learned people in our community or city. We have differences in our understanding of Islam.
These differences are in fact the differences among scholars. We wish if our scholars had come together to deliberate upon these differences and bring them to a closure as much as possible. But this did not happen.
By and large, We as Muslim are not trained to critically examine the ideas of scholars. Its the scholars who critique other scholars. We have widespread religious illiteracy among us. We are dependent on scholars to understand our faith. Whatever a scholar we believe in says is accepted and practiced by us in general.
How do scholars develop their understanding of Islam. In fact, their understanding of Islam is dependent on the methodology they adopt to understand Islam.
Thus a methodology would determine the nature and scope of differences among scholars. On the basis of these scholarly differences we, the people, often fight among ourselves.
What are different methodologies adopted by scholars?
1. The Quran Only Methdology
The Quran is sufficient to define because Islam is a divinely ordained faith and the guidance is revealed from God. Hence, Muslims must make the Quran the only source to understand and define Islam. The Prophet was divinely selected to communicate, preserve and live the message to a particular group of people in a particular context and he fulfilled his responsibilities with full integrity and honesty. There is no reason to believe that the prophet might have done or said anything that goes against the dictates of the Quran. The divine guidance addressed several issues. Some of them were exclusive to the Arab society and others are relevant to all communities and nations. The responsibilities of making this distinction is upon the believers, otherwise they would be fossilized in the seventh century and would defeat the very purpose of the divine message. Scholars in this category are in minority even though they may echo the sentiments of a good number of Muslims well versed with the Quran.
2. The Quran and Sunnah
Scholars in this category argue that the Quran alone is not enough. The ahadith (sayings and actions of Prophet Muhammad) compiled by Muslim scholars must be our guide to understand the Quran. They use ahadith to explain and understand the Quran. There are six authentic compilers of ahadith who vigorously collected the sayings of the Prophet and some 250 years after his death. Their work is authentic and it must be the basis to understand the Quran.
But we must stick to the first three or four generations after Prophet Muhammad for that understanding. Anything that is not endorsed by them is either innovation or heresy. All the questions relevant to human beings have been raised and answered by these scholars. There is no need to corrupt the faith by giving newer opinions. Scholars in this category are in large numbers even though they may not echo the sentiments of Muslims knowledgeable in the Quran. They occupy important positions in Muslim centers and masajid and often assume the authority to issue religious decrees. They run religious seminaries and in fact are considered the gatekeepers of Islam.
3. Schools of Thought methodology
Scholars in this category believe that in addition to the The Quran, ahadith and the opinions of early scholars, especially those who founded a school of thought are important. They argue that one must choose one of the many existing schools of thoughts that have tried to interpret the Quran and the ahadith in a juristic sense. There is difference among Muslims about the number of schools of thoughts. Those who do not call them sunnis identify four schools. Others identify five or eight schools. The overwhelming majority of Muslims live in countries that are divided on these factional lines. They follow their schools of thought in matters related with worship, social interaction and politics. Scholars in this category are in large numbers and they ensure that their schools of thought get primacy in matters of life. In fact, most Islamic seminaries represent either of the above mentioned Muslim schools of thoughts.
4. Quran, Science and accumulated Islamic and human knowledge Scholars in this category believe thatthe Quran is the main source, but other human efforts such as the collections of ahadith, the opinions of earlier or later scholars, the positions of various schools of thought as well as the science or empirical knowledge in a given time should be our supplementary sources to understand the divine guidance.. Scholars are in this category are in a minority and a great majority of modern educated Muslims probably think along the same lines. The Quran was not a book for the seventh century Muslims. If its claim that it is for all time and people has to be taken seriously, it must take into consideration the developments that have taken place in physical and social knowledge.
Obviously, the four methodologies would produce different understandings of the faith itself.
As long as there is no consensus among Muslims over the use of a methodology that is substantiated by the Quran, differences would continue to occur.
We should not day dream of a having a united Muslim under present circumstances. In order to have this unity, we must have a foundation in our methodology to understand the faith. Are Muslim scholars ready to sit down and discuss the possibilities of adopting a unified methodology to revisit their faith. It is a wishful thinking that millions of Muslims have and had and would continue to have because they do not want to see their community divided and ineffective.