Dealing with Difference

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Dealing with Difference

Category : Values

By Sohaib Saeed

Differing and disagreement… must they result in discord and disunity? Or can they be embraced as divinely-ordained diversity?

Before looking at “difference” from a theological perspective, let us philosophise for a moment about the very idea of difference. When you compare two things and decide that they are different, they must be comparable – on some level – in the first place. Indeed, when we describe two things as “opposites” (say, black and white), they must in another sense be exactly the same thing (in this case, hues). It is not so strange, therefore, that one’s bitterest enemies are sometimes the people with whom one has most in common.

The Qur’an teaches us that the Almighty has made this universe to be “different” from Him, and made this creation both diverse – as a sign of the magnificent Creator – and inter-dependent (“all things in pairs”), to demonstrate that only He is perfect and free of need. Thus the alternation of night and day contrasts with divine constancy, and at the same time provides us the variety and relief that we need in order both to work and rest (Qur’an 28:71-72).

On the human level, God has created “the two pair-partners, male and female” (Q 53:45) to complement each other and bring about new manifestations of life. Among His creative signs is the diversity of our languages and colours (Q 30:22), no matter what any racial or linguistic supremacists may allege in the face of divine wisdom.

We have been made into nations and tribes in order to know one another (Q 49:13) – and this applies to nations and subcultures among the Muslim ummah as well as all descendants of Adam and Eve. The fact that all humans are a family coming from a single mother and father entails an essential equality before God, the appreciation of which is a form of worship!

Human beings in this life are tested and have varying fortunes and outcomes. Even the variation in religion is a part of the divine plan, while we affirm the unity of truth. God informs us that if He had so willed, He could have gathered all into a single nation, yet they will continue to differ because “to that end He created them” (Q 11:119). In this light, we can understand how the final Prophet (peace be upon him) called the people to a single truth while teaching tolerance towards communities adhering to their chosen faiths.

It follows that the differences – and disagreements – that occur among Muslims must be part of God’s plan, and even a manifestation of His wisdom and mercy. As human beings, we will naturally be inclined to different preferences, perspectives and opinions. We have not been created as automatons upon a single program. One person will seek out the simplest explanation for a problem, while another wants to explore its depths. Some people are naturally strict, while others place more emphasis on facilitation, especially for others.

Indeed, it is in the very nature of this religion that there is scope for interpretation, which will inevitably vary, as it has done since the beginning. This variation, when it respects the fundamental sources and follows rigorous methods of understanding and reasoning, falls within the scope of ijtihad, a praiseworthy concept in Islam. It means to exert proper effort in arriving at conclusions in matters of religion. If one should wish for a religion in which no such effort is required, then that is not Islam, in which human intellect and conscience are integral to knowledge and life.

In the following sections of this article, we will consider the different types of difference among Muslims, and then outline some key factors for Muslim unity. But let us be clear from the outset that eliminating all difference is neither possible nor desirable. If it were possible, it would leave us with a religion unable to adapt to different places and times, cultures and environments. It would deprive us of a key resource for flexibility and facilitation and the intellectual vitality of truth-seeking and mutual learning in a process of dialogue and debate.


Many treatments of “etiquettes of disagreement in Islam” focus solely upon one type of disagreement or difference, namely the realm of fiqh – i.e. practical laws pertaining to worship and worldly life. Before coming to that aspect, however, we shall consider a few other significant fields in which Muslims do, in fact, differ.

First comes creed. While there are clear-cut and inviolable principles of belief such as enshrined in the two declarations, there are also secondary matters which allow for diverging opinions without the need to talk about “sects”.

There is also the long-standing debate over how to understand references to God’s “hands”, “eyes” etc. in the Qur’an, with contemporary views being projected (rightly and wrongly) onto either the Salaf (first generations) or Khalaf (later scholars). While both groups declare devoutly that “There is none at all like Him” (Qur’an 42:11), their attitudes towards affirmation and interpretation differ; and this is enough for many in each camp to consider the other as heretical.

The term “Salafi” is used not only in the context of creed, but also in a broader sense sometimes termed as “manhaj” (methodology). For the harder-line varieties, this means that other Muslims are deviant to one extent or another. The hardest of them are notorious for throwing fellow Salafis “off the manhaj” and have no concept of tolerating disagreement. Yet these attitudes and bad examples should not cloud our conception of Salafism as essentially meaning the aspiration to follow the authentic sources of Islam as preserved by the earliest generations, eschewing innovation in matters of religion.

For some, the polar opposite is known as “Sufism” – but again, we should recognise (after acknowledging the uncertain origins of the term itself) that the goal of Sufism (taṣawwuf) is to cultivate the inner dimension of Islamic life, purifying the heart and human character in strict adherence to Prophetic guidance. Call this obligation whatever you like, but there is no escaping it.

I have come to believe that the gulf between contemporary Salafis and Sufis is best described not as a creedal or juristic one, but as cultural. Yes, there are disputes over certain points of belief or law, but what about the dress codes and styles of discourse? When one feels coerced by either group not to take a middle position between them, then this polarisation cannot be explained in purely academic terms.

At the end of the day, human beings are different and incline to different things. It does not bother me to see a Muslim choose a style of life that differs from mine, while I can witness his sincerity and subservience to scripture. There can be all sorts of Muslim subcultures (Sufi/Salafi, conservative/progressive, and so on), and maybe we ought to speak of “Muslim multiculturalism” in this sense.

Then there is the political sphere. Lest we forget, the biggest Muslim division – Sunnis and Shī‘a – began as a political dispute over who should succeed the Final Messenger (peace be upon him) as leader; then this divergence took on other flavours over time.

We can also class the proliferation of Islamic groups and reform organisations worldwide – with their various strategies and concerns – as representing political differences. Do we fix our societies from the bottom up, or top down? Democratic means, or call to arms? Then within a country like ours you will find many differing ideas about how to work within the political system or alongside it.

Even more than creed or law, these questions are very much open to debate, and indeed such debate is sorely needed. The matter is not helped by confusion over what politics even means, and the immaturity of our collective understanding of Islam’s guidance in this regard. Politics is a dirty word, and yet so often those who plead “no politics” are the ones steeped in its dirtiest realities.

Finally, we come to law and jurisprudence. Because so much has been written on the topic, let me simply emphasise that such differences occurred since the time of the Companions themselves – but they had the luxury of going back to the Prophet (peace be upon him) to settle their arguments.

A famous incident in which they were told to make haste to a military campaign is extremely instructive in this regard. One group took the Prophet’s instruction – “Let none of you pray ‘Aṣr except at Banū Qurayẓa” – literally, thus delaying the prayer until after sunset. The other group understood the purpose of his words as being to hurry them; but when they feared they would not make it in time, they stopped to pray. Now, surely the Prophet (peace be upon him) only meant his words in one way or the other? Yet the authentic reports simply inform us that when they came to him for adjudication, he did not chastise either group.

Nowadays, there are arguments between adherents of different juristic madhhabs (schools), and even over whether a person is required to follow one, or otherwise. History records some rather ugly conflicts and disputations, but also the most lofty of manners in disagreement, particularly from the founders of the madhhabs to which people of lowlier manners claim to adhere.

The genuine scholars are those who actualise Islamic principles of truth-seeking and dialogue. In the remaining part of this study, we shall consider some of these essential principles, which constitute a crucial element of the project for Muslim unity.


Here is something on which we must surely agree: Muslim unity is a must. If the exhortations of Scripture and Messenger (pbuh) were not enough to convince of this, then surveying the state of today’s Ummah should make the urgency of coming together upon positive principles abundantly clear.

In a famous and powerful verse, our Lord decrees: {Hold firmly to the rope of Allah all together and do not become divided. And remember the favour of Allah upon you, in that you were enemies and He brought your hearts together and you became, by His favour, brothers. And you were on the edge of a pit of the fire, and He saved you from it. Thus does Allah make clear to you His verses that you may be guided.} (Q 3:103)

But does unity mean uniformity? We have already ruled that out in principle and in practice. We Muslims are not going to think the same, talk the same or act the same; yet we still turn in one direction to worship the One God. We can speak with one voice and act with one purpose, but only by learning how to disagree.

To that end, I wish to share a few principles that follow from what we outlined above.

  1. Fill your heart with love for the Muslims. We are one extended family, and here in Britain we come from so many backgrounds and ways of thinking and doing. You love your family even when you disagree, and when you fall out you seek to repair the relationship one way or another. You can love your group or organisation, but never let that supersede the love for your Ummah. [And yes, we can see the whole of humanity as a family too.]
  2. Accept that not all disagreements are evil. The ikhtilāf dispraised in the Qur’an and Sunnah is such that leads to abuse, discord, splitting and weakening of the ranks. It is evil when it stems from lowly desire, not when its source is legitimate scholarly ijtihād based on authentic texts and methods. The Companions and early generations were able to tolerate other Muslims who had learned things in a different way. Even today, people seem reasonably comfortable with the fact that even in our prayers – the central pillar of religion – there are differences based on the schools of jurisprudence: so why do some people pick on much lesser issues to launch crusades against their brethren?
  3. Study the religion and work on purifying the soul. The first, so that you can appreciate where different opinions come from, and how they can be weighed up or considered as complementary in some sense. Studying the religion thoroughly and soundly increases one’s appreciation for diversity and instils a necessary sense of priority and a balanced mentality. As for the second: it is to prevent this knowledge from being a tool in the wrong hands, because corrupt souls present the greatest impediments to mutual love and unity.
  4. Study the principles of reason and dialogue. Learn how to define terms clearly and construct and analyse arguments carefully. Develop your ability to present your point of view and understand what others are saying. Clear thinking and straight speaking will go a long way to minimising time-wasting debates.
  5. Adopt Islam’s manners of speech and advice. The revelation contains so much precious guidance about guarding the tongue, assuming well of others, advising sincerely and in the right settings, avoiding disputation and maintaining an elevated standard of dialogue and debate (see Q 16:125). All this is for our own benefit.

We need to create an atmosphere of collective truth-seeking in which a person loves to discover truth even on the tongue of his opponent (as Imam al-Shāfi‘ī famously said). Appreciating diversity and accepting disagreement does not mean that we are not allowed to say “You are wrong”. But (to borrow from the Imam again) that should be coupled with the acknowledgement that “You might be right”.

We must not allow anyone to abuse the concept of adab (manners) to silence debate, least of all self-styled reformers who want to dish out criticism to all the Muslims (of all time!) but cannot take it themselves. It is those who wish to create change who are most in need of wisdom and adab.

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