Dealing With Differences
In a society where differences of opinion are not thought of as bad or wrong, there will definitely be an environment of discussion.
By Maulana Wahiduddin Khan
If you read the lives of Islamic scholars of the early Muslim period, you will find that they had considerable differences among themselves on religious issues. Yet, despite this, they respected each other. Consider in this regard two incidents.
Ibn Abdul Barr relates that Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal and Ali ibn al-Madini once had a discussion with each other on a particular issue, so much so that they began to raise their voices. Ibn Abdul Barr says that he feared that this would create bitterness between the two. But when Ali ibn al-Madini was about to leave, Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, in a gesture of great respect, stepped forward and took hold of his stirrup. (Jamiʿ Bayan al-Ilm wa Fazlihi, 2/107)
Yunus Siddiqi was among the illustrious disciples of Imam Shafi. One day, he had a long debate with his teacher on a particular issue. When they met next, Imam Shafi took hold of his hand and said: “Would it not be better if we lived as brothers even if we cannot agree on any issue?” (Al-Furqan, June 2014, p. 41)
These examples illustrate mutual respect, but also something bigger than that—and that is, respect for differences of opinion: in other words, viewing differences of opinion from the intellectual point of view, not from the personal point of view.
Respect for differences of opinion is no simple matter. It is directly related to our intellectual development. In a society where differences of opinion are not thought of as bad or wrong, there will definitely be an environment of discussion. People will articulate their respective points of view, offering academic arguments and evidence for the same. Where differences of opinion are respected, there will be no intellectual stagnation. The process of intellectual development will continue.
Once, I met with a Western scholar and I asked him, “What is the secret of the progress of the people of the West?” He replied, “It is our treating dissent as a sacred right of the individual.”
What this scholar said is very true.
But this is not something that is specific just to Western thought. Rather, it is a universal law of nature. This law is expressed in a hadith of the Prophet in these words: “Difference within my community is a blessing.” (al-Maqasid al-Hasanah, hadith no. 39)
Dissenting opinions are always expressed in the form of criticism. But critique, no matter with regard to whom, is a form of study and analysis. The actual purpose of criticism should be to start an open discussion on a particular subject. It aims at bringing different minds together to honestly share their findings and enabling each other to honestly express their views on these. This sort of free and open dialogue is a necessary prerequisite for intellectual development.
Knowledge as such is something unlimited. This is as true for religious subjects as for secular subjects. Differences of opinion are always beneficial. In this regard if there is any condition, there is just one—and that is, that all opinions should be backed with established facts and the differing parties should not stoop to hurling accusations against each other.
There are innumerable benefits of difference of opinion. It highlights hitherto hidden as well as new aspects of issues on which differences exist. It promotes creative thinking.