Understanding Ijtihad and Legal Differences

Is A Mujtahid Sinful For an Incorrect Opinion?

No, there is no sin if a mujtahid imam is incorrect in his judgment. Rather there is reward, since he did his utmost to arrive at the ruling. This is based on the explicit hadith that states a mujtahid receives 2 rewards if he is correct and 1 reward if incorrect. [Bukhari, Muslim]

Of course, this applies only to a qualified mujtahid imam, namely, a religious scholar that has attained mastery of the various religious sciences whereby he is able to derive rulings directly from the Qur’an and sunna. Examples are those whom the four legal schools (madhabs) were named after: Imams Abu Hanifa, Malik, Shafi`i and Ahmed ibn Hanbal (Allah have mercy on them all).

If an unqualified person derives a ruling directly from the Qur’an and sunna, without recourse to a qualified imam of one of the four schools, the person incurs sin even if he is correct.

The Role of a Prophet

Our Master Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) was sent to humanity as a prophet, messenger, and bringer of guidance. He therefore spoke in ‘prophetic language’ of guidance, not in technical juridical language.

That is to say, rather than providing us with lists of actions accompanied by their respective rulings of being mandatory, recommended, disliked, etc., he (peace and blessings be upon him) lived in the world as a prophet to be emulated and followed, and taught us guidance to be practiced. Moreover, his silence on matters was a mercy, as those matters were then open to disagreement, allowing for leeway that would otherwise have not been there.

Understanding Difference of Opinion

While the beliefs and general practices of Islam were clearly delineated and are therefore not differed upon, there was disagreement even amongst the Companions (sahaba) with respect to the finer details and peripheral issues of practice.

With respect to these issues, there was further disagreement over the next few generations after the Companions. There are many reasons for this, such as the ambiguous nature of language that leads to multiple interpretations, as well as the difference amongst the mujtahid imams in foundational legal theory (usul al-fiqh).

That is, when approaching the Qur’an and sunna and deriving law, each imam had his own specific ‘methodological rules’ in areas including:

– linguistic interpretation, such as the exact meaning of words, or their particular usage in any given Qur’anic verse or hadith;

– hadith verification, such as the well-known disagreement regarding the strength of a mursal hadith, i.e., in which a follower (tabi`i) narrates directly from the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) without stating the name of the Companion that relates that hadith;

– reconciliation of seemingly conflicting texts, whether Qur’anic verses, hadiths, or both;

– the role of inherited practice of towns inhabited by scholar-Companions, such as Medina and Kufa;

– reconciliation of legal analogy (qiyas) versus legal preference (istihsan),

– as well as many other aspects of legal derivation that led to difference of opinion.

A Vast Mercy

Historically, this culminated in four schools of law according to Sunni Islam, all of which are valid to follow. And the resultant difference of opinion amongst the schools is a great mercy for the community (umma). This is not only evident historically, but was explicitly articulated by many eminent imams, both early and late, such as Imams Umar ibn Abdul Aziz, Abu Hanifa, Malik, Khattabi, Nawawi, Ibn Qudama, Ibn Taymiyya, Shatibi and others. [Nawawi, Sharh Sahih Muslim; Shatibi, I`tisam; Ibn Taymiyya, Majmu` al-Fatawa]

For example, a scholar once authored a work in difference of opinion, to which Imam Ahmed ibn Hanbal responded, “Do not call it ‘The Book on Disagreement’, but rather call it ‘The Book of the Sunna.’”

And the rightly guided Caliph Umar ibn Abdul Aziz used to say:

“It does not please me if the Companions of the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) did not disagree [on a particular issue], since if they all agreed on a matter and then a person did not act accordingly, he would be astray. Yet if they differed on a matter, and one person took the opinion of one [of the Companions] and someone else took the opinion of another [Companion], there would be leeway in the matter.” [Ibn Taymiyya, Majmu` al-Fatawa]

While the prophetic report “The difference of opinion in my community is a mercy” has a problematic chain of narration, its meaning was generally accepted amongst scholars of both law and hadith.

By: Shaykh Faraz Rabbani

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