Why are we inconsistent? We say that the last infallible human being was the Prophet peace be upon him. Yet, we treat the Salaf (predecessors) and the Tabi’een (generation following the Salaf) as if they’re infallible. What many Muslims miss on is the fact that when the Prophet peace be upon him spoke of the Salaf and Tabi’een, he was speaking about them as generations not as single individuals. But nowadays it seems that many of us have gone to such an extreme in revering the Salaf and Tabi’een that we’ve stripped the rights of contemporary scholars to be recognized for their knowledge and scholarship.
The confusion Muslims face today is a result of how it’s being presented and approached by many of the prominent imams and preachers on the pulpits today. Each one claims to be giving the “authentic” opinion that has “consensus” of the scholars and here is this Hadith or that verse from the Quran to back it up. Then you go to meet with a friend who happens to listen to a different imam who won’t just tell you a slightly different opinion, he or she will tell you the diametric opposite to what you heard, all served up with a Hadith or a verse from the Quran to back the other opinion up. So something has to give. In an attempt to stay true to Islam, you don’t want to negate any verse or any authentic Hadith. But with all these mixed messages, you’re left bewildered.
It’s all about the outlook and approach to Islam. There are two things that transcend time and place: the Quran and the Hadith of the Prophet peace be upon him. They’re absolute in their essence. But there is a critical component that must be taken into account when they’re discussed, and it has to do with context. In order to have a proper understanding what a verse in the Quran means, it cannot be taken out of its own context amongst other verses. Another level of context is the chapter that it was revealed in theme and location (being in Mecca or Medina), followed by the context of the Quran itself as a whole. Then there is the specific context in which the verse was revealed. Similarly, the same has to be done for the Hadith. After all, the Prophet peace be upon him was not known to be involved in idle talk and he definitely wasn’t sitting in a gathering reciting Hadith unprompted. All this is just about context.
Next comes the language. The ancillary sciences of Arabic alone take years to master and a lifetime of continued study. After that there is what the companions who spoke about that verse in the Quran or Hadith said in regards to what the intended meaning was. For this part, it’s not a matter of just saying “Ibn Masoud RA said such and such about this verse”. Did Ibn Abbas RA say something else? What about Ibn Umar RA? Aisha RA? May Allah be pleased with them all, it’s common to find differences in what they had to say about verses and Hadiths. Why some imams act as if Ibn Masoud RA was the only companion who had anything to say is inexplicable.
Now, if you take all this into account, it will come as no surprise how multiple different and sometimes opposing opinions can arise in spite of everyone looking at the same texts. This in spite of everyone using the same tools to derive these opinions. But we know that we don’t have absolutely everything spelled out in explicit and unequivocal terms in the Quran or Hadith. So how do we know the rulings for situation that arose later? What the scholars have done through collective efforts is something like what Isaac Newton did. Newton was trying to describe planetary motions but the mathematics available at the time was incapable of directly doing that job. So he went away for a few months and invented calculus! (now you know who to blame) That helped him compose the accurate descriptions he initially failed to do with conventional mathematics. Note that he had a starting point with conventional mathematics. Similarly, our scholars derived the sciences of Usool (Foundations of Jurisprudence) and Maqasid (Higher Objectives of the Sharia) based on principals they observed in the Quran and Hadith and how the Prophet peace be upon him and companions applied Islam on the ground. Hence, this process can be thought of as having went from application, to theory, then back to application.
For a number of reasons that would require a much lengthier exposition, what seems to be the case here is that modern Muslims have largely ignored the Usool and Maqasid parts and want to revert to the initial application, which is an attempt that is doomed to fail and if not corrected will endanger the future of Islam to be relevant. There is a difference between staying true to the Salaf by adhering to Islam in the way they adhered to it, and by adhering to Islam in how they adhered to it. Not only that, but when looking at the theory derived by our scholars who were looking for the way the Salaf were translating Islam into practice, there are three general fields of application one must be cognizant of: the acts of worship, the acts of business transactions, and the acts of social transactions. As Imam At’Tahir Ibn Ashoor mentions in his book Maqasid Ash’Sharia, the acts of worship are not in need of any reformation or change. After 1300 years of Sunni Islam, 4 maddhabs (schools of jurisprudence) out of the many that arose have stood the test of time and test of scholarly examination. To make life simple, pick a school that you have easy access to scholars from and conduct your acts of worship based on how it’s been transmitted. Just keep in mind that there might be other opinions on the branches of what you learn, but this doesn’t make them or you wrong.
When it comes to the business transactions, the early texts were addressing the numbers of goats and camels and the weight of rice and barley, and transactions based on gold and silver coins. The world we live in today does not operate in that way and what the contemporary scholars have done and continue to do is take the principles used in the older texts to talk about their contextual circumstances and translate them to modern day business transactions, while staying true to the foundational teachings. This part is very complex and graduate degrees at the PhD level are granted for those who focus on this part of Sharia as an area of study. Sadly, some Muslims ridicule it with superficial readings on their own and accuse major traditional scholars of deviating from the Sharia with the rulings they offer in modern circumstances that dictate different realities. This is what is meant by “Islam is a simple religion, but not a simpleton one”.
The field that has the most relevance for modern Muslims is the area of social transactions. This has to do with the day to day living of a Muslim as they interact with both Muslims and non-Muslims. Its pertinence is more significant for Muslims living in a non-Muslim majority land. How are they to conduct themselves? Is it permissible to do this or that and to say this or that? How can they maintain their identity as Muslims, while at the same time fulfilling their duty to call to Islam in a beautiful way? How can they be true to themselves and be humans fulfilling their role in the greater family of human brothers and sisters, which transcends any labels other than being the most ennobled creation of God?
What needs to be kept in mind is that when our scholars were observing the social application of Islam by the Salaf and codifying the principals, i.e. the theory part, they were looking through the lenses of their own cultural upbringing. This point makes things very tricky. After all, the academic tools are universal, and the Quran and Hadith are universal. But cultural lenses are not so universal. At what point does the scholar depart from the text and the academic tools and his own personal upbringing and biases impose themselves? For example, as a man, there was a time that if you walked around without your head covered in Egypt, your witness testimony in court was rejected for being a profligate. But in Andalusia that wasn’t even a consideration. How did Egyptian scholars come up with that and back it up and why didn’t the Andalusians pay any mind to this issue?
There are plenty of examples from our modern times that deal with social contracts especially in the West that start many heated debates, many of which have no explicit text that is not restricted by context. The usual case seems to be with well-meaning Muslims or even imams and teachers who bring up what the scholars have said about these matters. Well, how relevant is a statement of a scholar (no matter how great he was and with all due respect to him and his work of course) that was issued 400 years ago in the farmlands of Egypt (with all due respect to farmers and Egypt), dealing with a sociocultural matter, which occurred during his time living in a majority Muslim land under a Muslim Caliphate? And since when did this branch of scholarly endeavour all of a sudden have impact upon the creed of an average Muslim who doesn’t abide by it? We’re not talking about an act of worship here, or about something explicitly mentioned in unequivocal language in the Quran or Hadith that was clearly shown to have unrestricted application. More importantly, this has a greater effect upon converts and how they’re expected to interact with their families. Rather than bringing a source of mercy through their conversion, Islam was more like a source of misery for the rest of the family. The lack of wisdom in how Islamic teachings are being transmitted and the inability to differentiate between transmission and application have resulted in more bewilderment and confusion, which has led to either disregarding the tradition, or negating the other opinion as a defence mechanism to validate the opinion one upholds. Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah may Allah preserve him says about this: “they were ignorant of the meaning of the text, and they ignored the interpretation of it, so they misapplied it” (جهلوا الدليل، وتجاهلوا التأويل، فأخطأوا التنزيل).
So how does an average Muslim, convert or not, respond to all the conflicting messages? For one, get some education on Islam that goes beyond how to recite the Fatiha and where to put your hands during prayer. Once you learn your Fiqh rulings that deal with your foundational acts of worship (praying, fasting, etc.), attempt to get in touch with traditional scholars. Being confused is a result of being imprisoned by ignorance, and only through education can you set yourself free. Thankfully, many young men and women who travelled abroad in pursuit of Sacred Knowledge have returned back to the West and they can be a great source to tap into. More importantly, stay away from the Do-It-Yourself Islam approach. It’s now very easy to Google just about anything, but without the right tools of discernment, you can’t consider this more than information you stumbled upon that has no real immediate use for you. On the contrary, you’ll just increase your own confusion.
An important thing to keep in mind: the scholars offering alternative opinions aren’t following their own whims and they most certainly aren’t ignorant of some Hadith any Abdul or Fatimah out there can find on Google. There is a lot more that goes into how a specific ruling is discerned from the general texts. For the non-scholar, the Prophet peace be upon him gave an advice, which is recorded in an authentic Hadith that you can use when faced with multiple opinions that all claim to be valid: “consult your heart”. Some have tried to strip this right away from average Muslims by restricting this Hadith to the companion it was narrated to (Wabiša Ibn Ma’bâd). Pay no mind to that. A Hadith related in multiple collections and chosen by Imam An’Nawawi to be included in his 40 Hadiths and widely circulated among Muslims East and West, yet somehow you’re supposed to ignore it and ignore your own conscience. And by the way, taking the harder of two valid opinions that will make your life more difficult is not a sign of religiosity. Wisdom is to do the right thing at the right time in the right place.
No matter what opinions you choose to adhere to, make sure you adhere to them based on sound knowledge. But also recognize the right of others to go with differing opinions. Everyone is going to the same source and there is no need for Muslims to jump at each others’ throats by negating opposing opinions in order to validate their own. We have bigger issues to contend with but before tackling them we need live and let live.