There is a great difference between our attitude today towards the sacred texts and the attitude that our Pious Predecessors had.
I once proposed an idea – very tentatively – to someone. It was just a thought, and it was far from something i was sure about. I was speaking to a respected friend of mine, and he suggested that I look for some evidence from the Qur’an or the Sunnah to support my point of view, so people would more readily accept it.
No doubt, a clear text from the Qur’an or from the Prophet’s authentic statements will be convincing to a believing Muslim. Allah says: “It is not fitting for a believing man or woman to entertain any other option in a matter after Allah and His Messenger have decided something.” [Sūrah al-Ahzāb: 36]
When a believer understands the meaning of the sacred texts, the only option is act in accordance with that meaning. No evidence can be more compelling than Allah’s word and His revelation to His Messenger, though other supporting arguments may lend strength to a believer’s convictions.
When the meanings of the sacred texts are unclear or uncertain to a person, what is required is to believe in those texts and in the truth that they convey without insisting upon the correctness of any particular interpretation. The eminent jurist al-Shāfiʿī followed this approach. He would say: “I believe in Allah and in what He revealed according to the meanings that He intends. Likewise, I believe in Allah’s Messenger and in what He came with, according to the meanings that he intended.”
All the same, there is a great difference between our attitude today towards the sacred texts and the attitude that our Pious Predecessors had. They used to feel the deepest reverence for the Qur’an and Sunnah. They would not be so bold as to attribute their own opinions to the words of Allah and His Messenger, wary of the possibility that their understanding might be less than completely accurate. In this way, the texts were held above their opinions and contentions, as long as the issue was something wherein more than one viewpoint was possible.
They would often say when expressing an opinion, that this was their own judgment in the matter as they understood it, and nothing more. They certainly found themselves in circumstances where they could have used verses of the Qur’an or prophetic hadith to support their arguments against their detractors or rivals, but their faith and integrity was strong, so they never forgot to make a clear distinction between the sacred texts and their own opinions.
`Alī b. Abī Tālib, the fourth Rightly-Guided caliph, would rebuke harshly anyone who treated his own words with the same authority as the Qur’an. He always took great care the clarify when he was expressing his own opinion. Once Qays b. `Ubbād asked `Alī regarding an opinion he heard from him: “Is this something Allah’s Messenger told you, or is it your own opinion.” `Alī answered without hesitation: “I heard nothing of the sort from Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him). It is just my opinion.”
`Alī governed the Muslims in contentious, turbulent, and challenging times. He had a more pressing need than most people to find justification in the Qur’an and Sunnah to support himself his decisions. He was more than capable of doing so if he wanted to. He was an authority on the Qur’an and had been one of Prophet Muhammad’s closest Companions. Moreover, there were enough verses in the Qur’an and prophetic statements regarding obedience to rulers and regarding the attributes of the hypocrites that he could easily have brought to bear against his opponents.
However, Alī’s strength of character and his loyalty to the Prophet prevented him from doing so. He was acutely aware of his duty as a Muslim to convey the pristine message of Islam. Most importantly, he was sincere to his Lord. This is what made it easy for him to say openly that something was his own opinion when that was the case and refrain from justifying himself with support from the sacred texts.
When we wish to speak about the essentials of faith and the most basic of Islamic values, we will find an overwhelming amount of clear and unambiguous support for what we say in the Qur’an and Sunnah. The same is not the case when we turn to most issues of Islamic Law wherein there are multiple points of view. Here we find various statements and opinions supported by different texts or different valid interpretations of the same texts. There are cases where it is unclear whether a certain prophetic statement had been abrogated by a possibly later one. There are cases where certain general statements in the texts of the Qur’an or Sunnah may or may not be qualified or specified by the meanings of others. We find differences of opinion as to whether certain hadith attributed to the Prophet are authentic or not.
This is the very work of Islamic jurists who research these matters and exercise their best judgment. This is why we find that our Pious Predecessors among the jurists would maintain their decorum while discussion various Islamic legal rulings. They would carefully consider the evidence and arguments brought by those who disagreed with them as carefully as they would consider their own. When they saw their opponents arguments as faulty, they would make excuses for their opponents mistakes and assume that they nevertheless had the best intentions. They refrained from name-calling and from forcefully insisting upon their own point of view. As the emoinent legal theorist al-Shīrāzī said: “The more extensive a jurists knowledge was, the more tentative he became about his own opinions.”
When we wish to discuss an Islamic legal point or an issue affecting us today, we should not come to summary conclusions, but leave the door open to discussion and objective dialogue. We should not seek to bolster our arguments with textual support from the Qur’an and Sunnah if our only intention in doing so is to close off all discussion on the matter.
Those who are the most insistent upon their views are often the ones who possess the weakest understanding. They are the quickest to claim that there is consensus on an issue, or that there is a clear text from the Qur’an to back up their claims. They are the first to declare those who disagree to be in peril of their souls. They may feel that in this way they are venerating the sacred texts. Indeed, we certainly hope this is the case, and that Allah will reward them for their intentions. All the same, it is best to call their attention to the underlying motives they might have which they may be unaware of – and the danger that comes from being opinionated. True veneration of the Qur’an and Sunnah warrants caution, demand humility, and requires us to be open to other points of view.