Thursday, June 2, 2016

Ramadan thoughts: when you hear khilaf be a zebra

Photo Shafiq Morton
WE live in a varied and sometimes confusing environment of contrasts, conflicts and conundrums. Avalanched by cyber information, as opposed to real knowledge, we are buffeted by so many forces it often becomes difficult to anchor oneself in the world.

For Muslims, as refugees encountering new cultures, as individuals within minorities, as communities suffering from regional conflict or as peoples facing Islamophobia, extremism, poor education, cruel oligarchs and socio-economic challenges, life is not easy.

This is perhaps why a train of thought has developed amongst certain Muslims, which says: “I don’t need this. Why should I have to deal with this khilaf, all this disagreement? I don’t need Sufi, Sunni, Salafi, Wahhabi, Ash’ari, Maturidi or even madh-hab.  Surely, all that I need is just the Qur’an and the Sunnah?”

Whilst, in a sense, this is an understandable sentiment, romantic literalism – and the idea that Islam should be so conveniently homogenous – is hardly an adequate response to modernity. It begs the question: why take a leap backwards?

Of course, it is true that one of the greatest tribulations confronting modern Muslims is our inability to tolerate each other. However, I would suggest that Qur’anic and Prophetic reductionism, leads us to a sharply narrowed perspective – something that has so blighted Saudi Arabia, for example.

We are better than that, the Qur’an actively enjoining a “balanced way” in Surat ul-Baqarah and Surat ul-Maida warning about “excess” in faith. Then we have Surat ul-Hujjarat talking about us being created as tribes and nations to know ourselves.

Without a scholarly application of Islamic science, and with the discarding of analogical thought and reasoning (which underlies fiqh, the execution of Sacred Law) there will only be chaos, the kind that has ensued in the ISIS “caliphate”, which is totally devoid of the respect for life that should reflect the Shari’ah.

What we have to do to make sense of things is to understand the very nature of disagreement. Firstly, one gets absolutism – basically the outright rejection of an idea, whether it is valid or not. This is based on anger and arrogance which pleases the ego; it is often manifested by compounded ignorance (where people don’t know that they don’t know) or the incapacity to cope with anything different.  

The above can’t be called disagreement in the true sense of the word – because the whimsical ego immediately shuts off another view, which could expose an alternate, even more enriching understanding.

Secondly, you get ikhtilaf, which means to take a courteous, but informed position on something that might contradict somebody else. A historical disservice has been the air-brushing of ikhtilaf. Of course, our predecessors had qualities superior to ours, but they were still human and still had human foibles, fallacies and, yes, they had major disagreements.

Nor did the Muslim pioneers live in homogenous bubbles of reflection and peace; for instance, Abu Hanifah’s nightly worship was disturbed by a drunken cobbler. This is a famous story where Abu Hanifah rescued his neighbour from jail to become a great scholar.

The most celebrated example indicating Islam’s wideness in embracing differences of opinion is seen in the Hadith of the Companions travelling on a diplomatic mission to the Jewish tribe of the Bani Quraydha, and being instructed to make the ‘Asr prayer upon arrival.

When constricts of time became apparent, one group – saying the Prophet [SAW] had told then to hurry to the Bani Quraydha – prayed en-route. The other group, taking the Prophet’s words literally, waited until they reached their destination.

Upon their return, the Prophet [SAW] indicated that no group was in the wrong, stating that “differences of opinion in my ummah are indeed a blessing”. And whilst there are some quibbles on the authenticity of this particular statement, it has become famous enough on the tongues of the scholars to be accepted as a truism.

The modern scholar, Dr Taha Jabir al-Alwani, has written in his book on The Ethics of Disagreement in Islam that differences of opinion are an inherent feature of human nature. That is why the jurists don’t agree unanimously on the legal gradations of preferable, optional and permissible.

And whilst there are no differences on Islam’s pillars, the blessing is that the four legal schools of thought, the madha-hib, allow for diversity. Also, the Prophet [SAW] has passed on, and we take guidance from the mujtahidin, people described in Hadith as the “heirs of the prophets” in the sense that they confirm the Shari’ah.

There should be no problems here. The honour that the early jurists had for each other is instrumental in us understanding what is called adab ul-ikhtilaf, or the ethics of disagreement.

Imam Shafi’i, for instance, refused out of respect to perform the qunut – an invocation in the dawn prayer – when he was in Baghdad, the city of Abu Hanifah. Abu Hanifah regarded the Fajr qunut, which Imam Shafi’i deemed a Sunnah, as an abrogated practice.

Whilst fiqh – a man-made corpus – is resplendent with variation (dare one say healthy disputations?) there is total consensus that its bedrock, the Shari’ah, is about public welfare. And where there is no explicit liturgical guidance, one has to accept that there is some divine wisdom at play, and that many laws based on reasoning, or ijtihad, can change with time.  

It is thoroughly reprehensible, says Dr al-Wani, for a Muslim to invoke shirk, bida’h or unbelief on someone disagreeing with him. One should rather seek justification for the one who differs with him – or to embody the ethos of Imam Shafi’i, by acknowledging that one is right with the possibility of being wrong, and that your antagonist is wrong with the possibility of being right.

Indeed, as an unknown – but wise – scholar once said:  “learn the differences of the ‘ulama and allow your breast to expand”. Or to localise the thought, be a zebra at the same water hole as the elephant, the giraffe and the warthog. The source of nourishment is exactly the same, but those drinking are totally different. 

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