Our Attitude Toward Differences Among Scholars

By declaring full submission to Allah, Muslims have to arrange their entire life in accordance with the teachings of the religion that Allah has set for them in His Qur’an and through the tongue of His Prophet, Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). So, when Muslims face any situation concerning which they need the Shari`ah opinion, they have to refer to the Qur’an and the Sunnah and seek their guidance, if they have the ability to understand and extract the ruling by themselves.

But, if one does not have this ability of extracting the ruling by himself or herself, either partially or totally, then he or she has to ask those who are more knowledgeable; that is, those specialized in Shari`ah rulings.

However, people of knowledge, owing to reasons that cannot be addressed here, may differ concerning the ruling of an issue. Thus, the opinion to be given preponderance is the opinion that is based on the most cogent and sound evidence based on the scholarly criteria provided by the Muslim faqihs. None is permitted to whimsically choose from among their opinions that which seems easier, more lenient, or most appealing to him or her. In fact, this is an evil avenue that eventually leads to deepening differences among the Ummah instead of attempting to eliminate them. It also leads to falling into the pitfall of collecting the mistakes of scholars.

If a layperson asks two reliable muftis and they give him or her two different fatwas, then he or she should follow the mufti who is more knowledgeable and more pious, for such one is more likely to be closer to the truth.

Sheikh Muhammad Saleh Al-Munajjid, a well-known Saudi lecturer and author, said,

Before answering this important question, we must first describe the conditions that must be met by the muftis so that they may be regarded as people of knowledge whose words count, and if they express a different view, we may then say that there is indeed a difference of opinion among the scholars. There are many such conditions, but they ultimately boil down to the following two:

1. Knowledge, because the muftis will be telling people about the rulings of Allah, and they cannot speak of the rulings of Allah if they are ignorant of them.

2. Soundness of character (i.e., the muftis should be righteous in all their affairs; the
y fear Allah and keep away from anything that may undermine their credibility. The scholars agree that a fatwa cannot be accepted from one who is immoral, even if he or she is knowledgeable. This was clearly stated by Al-Khateeb Al-Baghdadi.

Whoever meets these two conditions is a scholar whose words may be accepted, but whoever does not meet them is not one of the people of knowledge whose words may be accepted. The words of one who is known to be ignorant or who is known not to be of good character cannot be accepted. (Al-Khilaf Bayna Al-`Ulamaa’ Asbabuhu Wa Mawqifuna Minhu [Disagreement Among Scholars: Its Reasons and Our Attitude Toward It], by Sheikh Ibn Al-`Uthaymeen, p. 23)

Now, what attitude should the Muslim have toward the differences of scholars described above?

If a Muslim has enough knowledge to be able to compare the views of the scholars based on evidence and to decide which is more likely to be correct, and if he or she can tell what is more correct or more likely to be correct, then he must do that, because Allah has commanded us to refer disputed matters to the Qur’an and Sunnah, as He says,

(And if you differ in anything among yourselves, refer it to Allah and His Messenger, if you believe in Allah and in the Last Day. That is better and more suitable for final determination.) (An-Nisaa’ 4:59)

So, Muslims have to refer disputed matters to the Qur’an and Sunnah, and whatever appears to them to be more correct, based on evidence, is what they have to follow, because what is obligatory is to follow the evidence. Of course, the words of the scholars help one understand the evidence.

However, if a Muslim does not have sufficient knowledge to be able to decide which of the scholarly opinions is more likely to be correct, then he or she should ask the people of knowledge whose knowledge and religious commitment he or she trusts, and then follow the advice or fatwas they give. Almighty Allah says, (So ask the people of the Reminder if you do not know) (Al-Anbiyaa’ 21:7).

The scholars have stated that the madhhab (school of jurisprudence) of the layperson is the madhhab of his or her mufti.

If the opinions of scholars differ, then the layperson should follow the scholar who is most trustworthy and most knowledgeable. This is just like when a person falls sick and he or she looks for the most trustworthy and knowledgeable doctor, because such a doctor is more likely to give patients the right treatment than anyone else. It is more important to be on the safe side in religious matters than in worldly ones.

It is not permissible for a Muslim to follow whatever scholarly opinion that suits his or her desires if that opinion goes against evidence. It is also not permitted that he or she seek fatwas from those who, he or she thinks, are going to be lenient in their fatwas.

Rather, Muslims have to be on the safe side when it comes to their religion. They should ask the scholars who are more knowledgeable and who fear Allah most.(Al-Khilaaf Bayna Al-`Ulamaa’ by Sheikh Ibn `Uthaymeen, p. 26; Liqaa’ Munawwa`, by Sheikh Salih Al-Fawzan, pp. 25-26)

Some people take precautions for their physical health. They go to the most skilled doctors, no matter how far away these doctors may be, and spend a great deal of money on that. Meanwhile, they take the matter of their religion lightly and pay little attention to it, unless it suits their whims and desires. They adopt the easiest fatwa, even if it goes contrary to the truth. Is this be
fitting for wise people?

Indeed, there are people who — Allah forbid — ask a scholar a question, and if the scholar’s fatwa does not suit their whims and desires, they ask another and another, until they find a person who gives them the fatwa they want!

There is no scholar who does not have some issues for which he or she strove to make a decision on the basis of ijtihad but failed to reach the right answer. But such scholars are excused for that, and they will have a reward for their ijtihad, as the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said,

“If a judge passes a ruling to the best of his ability and knowledge and gets it right, he will have two rewards. If he passes a ruling to the best of his ability and knowledge but gets it wrong, he will have one reward.” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)

It is not permissible for a Muslim to follow the errors and mistakes of scholars, for he or she will thus combine all kinds of evil. Hence, the scholars said, “Whoever follows that concerning which the scholars differed and takes the easiest of their fatwas becomes a zindiq, or close enough [to being so].” (Ighathat Al-Lahfan, 1/228) Zindiq means hypocrite.   

We ask Allah to give us understanding and to help us to acquire beneficial knowledge and to do righteous deeds.