Firstly, it is important to realize that religious matters can be clasiified into three basic categories:
1. Core issues, on which the ummah is largely in consensus, and about which it is not permissible to disagree, due to the overwhelming evidences. e.g.:
There are other fundamental issues, which may be considered a subcategory of this first category, in which it is not permissible to differ, but for which the evidences are not absolutely convincing, such that dissenters are not considered unbelievers, but are considered guilty of innovation and sin if they persist upontheir incorrect views after the evidences have been explained to them. e.g.
2. Peripheral issues, for which the scriptural evidences are open to more than one interpretation, or for which there exists no evidentiary text, so that they are in the domain of ijtihad, and hence are the subject of some disagreement among qualified jurists. In such issues, it is generally not permissible to criticize one following another legitimate school of thought. e.g.
It should also be pointed out that there are some issues on which the majority have agreed, but over which there has been a difference of opinion from some scholars. If the dissension arises from a mistake or slip on the part of the dissenting scholars, or due to their not having had all of the related evidences, or if they went against a priorly-enacted consensus, then it is not permissible to follow them; one must stick with the majority. e.g.
3. Strategical issues, which are not core issues of belief, nor peripheral matters of jurisprudential ijtihad, but which are concerned with how best to attain a particular religious goal. e.g.
Dealing with Fundamental Differences
Having established these three categories, it is evident that the Muslim automatically accepts the fundamental, core matters. As we have said, the evidence for them is overwhelming, and there is no disagreement over them. Nor may there be taqleed ("blind following") in the core beliefs.
As far as dealing with those who differ in these matters, such as innovators and heretics, it is widely held that they must be abjured and boycotted, and this is correct, but within certain guidelines. It is permissible, and even recommended, to cut off relations with those guilty of serious innovations and other major sins if:
However, it should be emphasized that drastic steps such as this are a last resort; they must be preceded by conveying of the evidence (for the innovator may be ignorant or confused), and then by advice, reminder and exhortation. It is perhaps worth mentioning that some scholars are of the view that it is not permissible to break off relations with even a sinful Muslim for more than three days, based on a general application of the hadith stating that, and because cutting off relations implies that one has given up hope of the sinner's reform whereas one should not despair of a person's becoming guided. Nevertheless, the majority hold that it is permissible to break off relations if the conditions we have discussed above are fulfilled.
Dealing with Peripheral Differences
As for the second category, the layman must:
- accept what is agreed upon by consensus
- take by one of the valid opinions on those issues where there exists scholarly disagreement. For jurispridential issues, this is easily accomplished by adopting one of the four established schools of thought (Hanafi, Shafi`i, Maliki, Hanbali), or by referring to a contemporary scholar whom one trusts. In the case of the latter, there may still arise cases where a person is uncomfortable with what his shaykh teaches or advocates. In this case, if he has a genuine conviction about his uncomfortableness, then if there exists an alternate, legitimate scholarly opinion, which is more precautionary and morally/religiously safer, he should adopt that position. Similar is the case if the person is not sure whether a particular issue is in the domain of legitimate difference of opinion, or weak, intolerable dissent. It is reported in the hadith literature that good is that with which one feels comfortable, and evil is that which makes one's heart/conscience uncomfortable, even if people continuously give him fatwa about its acceptability. "Leave aside that which gives you doubts, and take up instead that which does not give you doubts." [Nawawi's 40 hadith]
Needless to say, one should in any case be convinced of the piety, religiousness and moral uprightness of a shaykh before one accepts to follow his judgement. The shaykh :
Apart from this, however, there is no concrete or tangible measure for gauging a shaykh's suitability for this purpose. The lay-individual must be honest with himself before Allah, and his heart must be convinced of the shaykh's reliability. If, before consulting with the shaykh, he has taken all of the precautions we have mentiond, then even if it should transpire in the Hereafter that one particular verdict he followed was wrong, the layman is, inshaAllah, excused, because he did what was within his capability, and is not to be considered accountable for something beyond his grasp. It is only if he realizes something to be wrong, such as a verdict contradicting what is necessarily known to be part of the religion, and still insists on following the shaykh, that he becomes blameworthy, and guilty of shirk.
Dealing with Strategic Differences
Dealing with the third category of disagreements is similar to dealing with the second. As long as a view does not contradict the principles of Islam, and is not manifestly harmful to the interests of the ummah, it may be pursued. Most of the differences between the various Islamic movements today are of this category. Hence, one may join any movement which best serves one's capabilities and motivations, as long as the group aims to uplift and re-establish Islam and the Caliphate, and provided that:
- the group keeps within the bounds of the Qur'an and sunnah, and shuns deviation
- one does not become fanatic to the movement, bearing in mind always that allegiance to Islam comes before allegiance to the group if the two should conflict
- one does not automatically regard followers of other groups as deviants, for that is another manifestation of fanaticism
As an alternative to joining a specific group, one may work and cooperate with all the legitimate groups, providing assistance and advice to them equally. In any case, dialog, cooperation and coordination should be ongoing between the different groups, and the higher goal of the re-establishment of Islam as a state and entire way of life should not be lost sight of.
All this having been said, it is worthwhile to note that the layman need not, and indeed should not, make the disagreements of scholars his own private and/or primary concern. There is sufficient material to occupy him amongst that of Islam on which the scholars are in consensus. Even the students of Sacred Knowledge are advised by their teachers, in their earlier stages, to stick to issues of consensus, and not to delve into the discussions, arguments and refutations of the scholars on finer points. This is for his own peace of mind, and to allow him to establish a firm foundation upon which to build. Once the foundation is firm, he can then go on to occupy himself with more controversial issues, if there is nothing more pressing or useful for him to do. In any case, the issues of scholarly disagreement should not become a source of wrangling and dispute, nor should one devote excessive time or effort in delving into and/or attempting to solve issues which do not contain significant practical benefit for oneself. The salaf used to frown on this, for it leads to hardness of the heart and unmindfulness of one's purpose in life. Their way was to busy themselves with preparing for the Hereafter, by performing such deeds as will be of benefit on the day when wealth, property, elaborate disourses and embellished arguments will be of no benefit, "except for him who comes to Allah with a sound heart."
And Allah knows best, and He is the guide to the Straight Path.