Some Guidelines for Correct Understanding
  • Wed, 01/01/2003
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When people see something they are ignorant of, they have a habit of rejecting it and scoffing at those who know about it. This all too true for matters of Islamic Law. Many people reject something that is correct simply because they do not know about it. When we were small children, we used to laugh at people who prayed with their shoes on. We chided that they were afraid their shoes would be stolen.

Later on, we learned that this was a Sunnah of our Prophet (peace be upon him) recorded in Sahîh al-Bukhârî. We learned that Anas was asked if the Prophet (peace be upon him) used to pray with his sandals on and we learned how that eminent companion responded with a definitive “yes”.

We learned that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “When one of you arrives at the mosque, he should look at his sandals and if he sees some filth on them, he should scrape it off on the ground and then pray with his sandals on.”

This is but one small example.

Some scholars had said: “There was no one in the city of Kufah more prone to reject hadîth reports than al-Nakha`î due to his infrequently hearing them, and there was no one who followed hadîth reports more keenly than al-Sha`bî due to how frequently he heard them.” This shows the value of having familiarity with a subject and specialized knowledge.

Making good judgments and corrections is the role of the specialist whose specialized knowledge gives him the ability to discern the truth and make sound decisions. Sadly, many of the people who speak on general Islamic issues have little experience with authentic Islamic scholarship. Many of them have no more than a most basic understanding of Islamic “culture”. The problem is not that they speak like everyone else, but that some of them fancy themselves to be Islamic reformers. They are often prone to publicizing the most blatant misconceptions about Islam as if they are fact and build upon those misconceptions a whole host of false ideas.

This way of thinking causes no end of problems. There is a fundamental tenet of our faith that must be our point of departure, which is that our religion is one of divine revelation and it cannot be ascertained by mere human reasoning. If our intellectual powers were capable of bringing us to fundamental Islamic truths, then there would have been no need for Allah to send Messengers and scriptures. The proper role for reason is for it to be employed by its possessor to believe in the revelation, then to understand it and apply it. Its further role is to pursue worldly knowledge to learn and discover what is needed to improve our lives on Earth in the name of Allah.

From this we can assert that for correct understanding in matters of Islamic belief and Law, we must focus on the sacred texts. This means first ascertaining the authenticity of the text in question and then accurately determining what it means.

In order to determine the authenticity of a given text, knowledge of the sciences of hadîth criticism is imperative. This includes science of criticizing narrators, the science of historical biography, the science of hadîth methodology, and the sciences of criticizing the chains of transmission. These sciences are essential for a person to determine the strength or weakness of the hadîth. By its very nature, the text of the Qur’ân does not need to be authenticated. This is not a point of contention for any Muslim.

However, once we determine that the text is authentic, the next task is to ascertain how that text applies to the issue in question. A text – whether it is from the Qur’ân or the hadîth – may either be absolutely conclusive in what it says on an issue or it may be open to multiple interpretations.

It is highly regrettable that Islamic knowledge today is plagued with juvenile minds prone follow their predilections and desires and go about trying to impose their interpretations on the sacred texts. Some of them are not even proficient enough in Arabic to properly understand what they are reading and they come up with the most startling interpretations of texts whose meanings are quite clear and unambiguous.

I will take full responsibility for saying that there is a lot of this going on in Islamic Colleges today.

It is absolutely imperative that we ascertain the correct meaning of a text by applying guidelines to our understanding so that Islamic studies does not become open pasture ground for anyone to trample upon.

We must understand any particular texts in the light of other texts. We should not understand the texts in an antagonistic fashion. We must bring them together and cross reference them and place each text in its proper context. One text may be addressing something specific while another is referring to something general. One text may precede another. One text might have been revealed to address a certain set of circumstances while another text came to deal with quite different ones.

This shows us how important it is for us to understand the principles of jurisprudence that govern how meanings of legal import are to be derived from the texts. This science has been painstakingly recorded by the scholars of Islamic Law, starting with al-Shâfî`î and his landmark work al-Risâlah. In the more than ten centuries that followed, countless books and treatises have been written exploring every facet of how legal rulings are to be properly and accurately taken from the Qur’ân and Sunnah.

Language is the bridge that that the jurist must cross in order to arrive at what a text is saying. The text’s words must be understood individually, its phrases grammatically, and its prose according to all the meanings that it implies. Since ancient times, ignorance of the Arabic language has taken people to false ideas that not even an illiterate Arab of old would ever have ascertained.

A researcher must also take into consideration the intent of the Lawgiver in His commands and prohibitions. The intent is the welfare of people as individuals and as societies in both this world and the Hereafter. Though it may very well be the habit of some worldly rulers to pass laws merely to indulge their egos and desires, we must know that Allah is wise and wisdom implies that all affairs are put in their proper place. Allah gives no command except that it is best, even if our limited intellects may fail to see how that command is in our best interests.