It is customary for researchers and essay writers to summarize their conclusions at the end of their writings. We are going to do just the opposite. We are going to start off by mentioning the conclusion that so many of us have arrived at after long years of bitter experience. This conclusion has been so aptly put in the following lines of Arabic verse:
Of all the faiths found on the Earth that I’ve endeavored to know;
Through all the lands in the East and West I’ve wandered to and fro;
And never have I seen a faith like Islam for unity,
Nor seen a people like the Muslims for strife and enmity.
Does any other nation on the Earth have such a rich heritage as ours? We have the Qur’ân, the Sunnah of our Prophet (peace be upon him), and our long and glorious history, all of which clearly guides us to the importance of unity and solidarity. Unity is a principle of our faith. Allah demands it of us. The Prophet (peace be upon him) called us to it repeatedly. The history of the Companions and the Successors attests to its importance and gives us practical examples of how it can be achieved.
When we look at the state of the Muslims today, however, we see a lot of discord. We hear a lot of wrangling and dispute over all sorts of issues, some of which are barely intelligible.
In spite of this, we all seem to be able to speak quite levelly about the etiquettes of disagreement in Islam. We can present the most beautiful theories couched in the most eloquent of verbiage. However, it seems that few of us are able to put these ideas into practice. Many of us expect others to exhibit proper etiquette when they disagree with us but fail to exhibit it ourselves when we disagree with them.
We need to study the etiquettes of disagreement in earnest. It needs to be taught in our schools and colleges and in our mosques. Our youth should be given practical training in debate so that these etiquettes can become their habit and even an aspect of their piety.
Yes, exhibiting such etiquettes is an act of devotion, since by doing so we obey Allah and put the Sunnah of our Prophet (peace be upon him) into practice. By using these etiquettes, we can make them our habit. Once they are properly instilled in us and in our children, it will not be difficult to observe them at all times.
This is something that we all need to do. The ruler needs these etiquettes so he can uphold the rights of the governed, even those among them who disagree with him. The Prophet (peace be upon him) upheld the rights of all people of Madinah who were under his authority, even those of the Jews and the hypocrites who were against him. He was unquestionably patient and forbearing with his followers. His example was emulated by his Companions after his death. We have a good example of this in `Alî b. Abî Tâlib who, when the Khârijîs rose up against him bringing ruin to the nascent Muslim state, still described them as: “our brothers who have transgressed against us” and refused to declare them heretics. He continued to honor their rights as long as they refrained from taking up arms against others.
The scholar needs to observe the etiquettes of disagreement so he can uphold the rights of his students, do justice to them, and treat all their questions and concerns in a respectful manner. He needs to open his heart to them and prepare them so that they can bear their future responsibilities. He should not intimidate them into submission to his views, but make them strong, independent, and dignified.
Parents need to observe these etiquettes in their dealings with their children. They need to maintain a relationship of love and affection even when their children disagree with them. They must realize that the children of today will be the adults of tomorrow. Children cannot be a mere reflection of their parents. Each child is a unique individual. Children have their own thoughts and ideas.
When we discuss the etiquettes of disagreement, we must also talk about the means of managing the disagreements that inevitably develop between us. We live in an era of openness. The barriers that once held us back are gone. Our situation reminds me of the story of Bishr b. Marwan when he lost one of his hunting falcons in Madinah and ordered that all of the gates to the city be closed, forgetting that the falcon could easy fly away. Likewise, we live in the Space Age with the Internet and other means of communication at our disposal. Governments have realized that they can no longer rely upon censorship and coercion and that the only solution left to them is to get down among the people and address the issues with facts.
Public discourse today is full of contradictions. Opinions are spreading and being circulated to an unprecedented degree. In such an atmosphere, it is not appropriate to simply dismiss the ideas of others as foolish, no matter how shallow their arguments seem to us. We must lend them a respectful ear and respond to their ideas with ours. We must bring the appropriate medicine to treat the diseases that we encounter if we wish to cure the maladies that afflict us.
The Internet has become an arena for open dialogue. In the Arabic language alone, there are now countless forums for the interchange of ideas. Unfortunately, the Internet is showing us just how ill equipped we are to discuss things with one another. It has made us see that we do not realize how broad a spectrum of thought Islam tolerates with respect to matters of religion and matters of public concern. It is also showing us our ignorance about the extent to which all Muslims actually agree and the extent to which we are allowed to disagree. These shortcomings on our part have had many negative consequences for Islamic discourse over the Internet, including but not limited to the following:
1. There is the idea that if you are not with us then you are against us. If I find that there is just a small point of disagreement between us – that you are not with me 100% - then I want to have nothing to do with you.
2. We have a problem drawing the line between the topic under discussion and the person with whom we are discussing it. Discussions about a particular point of contention often escalate into personal attacks on the people involved with accusations being thrown about regarding their integrity and their personal lives. Many forums on the Internet have been reduced to venues for slander, character defamation, and scandal.
3. The tone of many of our discussions is wrong. Inappropriate language abounds. Curses and vulgarities have replaced civil discourse. Many great scholars, like al-Ghazâlî, al-Shâtibî, and Ibn Taymiyah, have pointed out that if arguments were won with the loudest voice and the harshest words, then fools would be the best debaters. Arguments are best won by presenting evidence with respect and sobriety. As we all know, an empty truck is always more noisy and rackety on the road than one that is full of goods.
4. There is too much hyperbole on the Internet. We are prone to making exaggerated claims to support our points of view. How many times during a debate does someone claim that a superb and definitive article has been written on the matter of discussion that has put the case to rest? When and if we manage to get hold of the article, we find that, instead of it being a work of substance and probity supported by evidence, it is a vacuous paper full of vindictives directed at those who disagree with the author. It is unfortunate that so many people seem to consider this a sign of the paper’s strength.
5. There is a lot of self-centeredness in our discussions. We have all heard someone say: “I do not tell you anything but what I know and I only guide you to what is right.” Many people are so full of their own opinions that they can accommodate nothing else. It does not matter that what they hold true is merely a viewpoint and not an indisputable tenet of faith clearly stated in the Qur’ân and Sunnah.
6. Too many people are convinced of their own infallibility. They refuse to entertain the notion that their ideas just might be wrong and that someone else might just possibly be right.
7. We are plagued with the problems of superficiality and oversimplification. Many matters are complicated and difficult to understand without considerable thought and effort. Many people are quick to assume that such ideas must inherently be false and contrary to the teachings of the Qur’ân and Sunnah. When they find some other idea presented that is simple and easy to digest, they take to it, assuming that it must be the truth. This is the problem we often find with mass media. We hear nothing but blustering and verbosity on so many of the television talk shows that pit people of different ideologies and viewpoints against each other. Here are a few examples of the things people have said on the air about their opponents:
·He has neither dignity with Allah nor with any monotheist on Earth.The topics of debate that inspire such bold statements are usually so theoretical that people cannot be expected to agree about them. However, from statements like these, you would think that they were arguing about some indisputable principle of faith that is clearly set out in the Qur’ân and Sunnah.
·He has died, and surely his new abode is Hell, and what a horrid place it is.
·He has deviant beliefs and a confused understanding.
·He is a hypocrite.
In any case, even when we are defending the indisputable truth against someone who is in manifest error, it is always wise to start our discussions around matters wherein we agree. Look at how Allah in the Qur’ân commands us to address the Jews, Christians, and other unbelievers:
“Say: ‘O People of the Scripture! Let us come to a mutual understanding between us to worship none but Allah, associating nothing with Him at all, and to refrain from taking some among ourselves as lords besides Allah.’ But if they turn away, then say: ‘Bear witness that we are Muslims.’” [Sûrah Al `Imrân: 64]
“Say: ‘Who gives you sustenance from the heavens and the Earth?’ Say: “Allah. And indeed it is either we or you who are on manifest error.’” [Sûrah Saba’: 24-25]
When Allah tells us to speak to them of our own actions, He instructs us to say: “You will not be questioned about our crimes.” But when He tells us to speak about our innocence of their actions, we are to use a softer tone and say: “And we will not be questioned about what you do.” Then we are merely to say: “Each of us acts according to his manner, but your Lord knows best who is most rightly guided to the way.” [Sûrah al-Isrâ’: 84]
Composure and gentleness of tone, when accompanied by sound evidence and intelligent arguments, is the best way to refute falsehood and win hearts over to the truth.
In the small global village that the world has become, we find ourselves at a great disadvantage to others. Our incessant and futile bickering amongst ourselves does nothing to alleviate our woes. Our enemies watch us as we tear into one another. What do we expect them to think of us? They can only say: “First, come to some agreement on what you believe and wish to present to the world, then come and talk to us about it.”
Recently, I received some feedback on an article I wrote entitled “Between Myself and Ibn Jibrîn”. I had thought that this article – which discusses matters that are still the source of considerable contention among Islamic workers – would only be of concern to a small number of Muslims and no one else. However, I received letters from perceptive non-Muslim men and women in America who not only understood what I wrote, but who were perceptive enough to read between the lines. Their comments let me know how carefully they considered what I was saying and how well they understood it. Perhaps they understood it better than many of its intended audience.