Ikhtilaf in the Prophetic Community is a Mercy
Imam al-Sakhawi writes:
حديث: اختلاف أمتي رحمة، البيهقي في المدخل من حديث سليمان ابن أبي كريمة عن جويبر عن الضحاك عن ابن عباس، قال: قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم: مهما أوتيتم من كتاب الله فالعمل به لا عذر لأحد في تركه، فإن لم يكن في كتاب الله فسنة مني ماضية، فإن لم تكن سنة مني فما قال أصحابي، إن أصحابي بمنزلة النجوم في السماء، فأيما أخذتم به اهتديتم، واختلاف أصحابي لكم رحمة…
ومن هذا الوجه أخرجه الطبراني، والديلمي في مسنده بلفظه سواء، وجويبر ضعيف جداً، والضحاك عن ابن عباس منقطع، وقد عزاه الزركشي إلى كتاب الحجة لنصر المقدسي مرفوعاً من غير بيان لسنده، ولا صحابيه، وكذا عزاه العراقي لآدم بن أبي إياس في كتاب العلم والحكم بدون بيان بلفظ: اختلاف أصحابي رحمة لأمتي، قال: وهو مرسل ضعيف، وبهذا اللفظ ذكره البيهقي في رسالته الأشعرية بغير إسناد، وفي المدخل له من حديث سفيان عن أفلح بن حميد عن القاسم بن محمد قال: اختلاف أصحاب محمد صلى الله عليه وسلم رحمة لعباد الله،
ومن حديث قتادة أن عمر بن عبد العزيز كان يقول: ما سرني لو أن أصحاب محمد صلى الله عليه لم يختلفوا، لأنهم لو لم يختلفوا لم تكن رخصة…
ومن حديث الليث بن سعد عن يحيى بن سعيد قال: أهل العلم أهل توسعة. وما برح المفتون يختلفون فيحل هذا ويحرم هذا فلا يعيب هذا على هذا إذا علم هذا، وقد قرأت بخط شيخنا: إنه يعني هذا الحديث حديث مشهور على الألسنة، وقد أورده ابن الحاجب في المختصر في مباحث القياس بلفظ: اختلاف أمتي رحمة للناس، وكثر السؤال عنه، وزعم كثير من الأئمة أنه لا أصل له، لكن ذكره الخطابي في غريب الحديث مستطرداً، وقال: اعترض على هذا الحديث رجلان، أحدهما ماجن، والآخر ملحد، وهما إسحاق الموصلي وعمرو بن بحر الجاحظ، وقالا جميعاً: لو كان الاختلاف رحمة لكان الإتفاق عذاباً، ثم تشاغل الخطابي برد هذا الكلام، ولم يقع في كلامه شفاء في عزو الحديث، ولكنه أشعر بأن له أصلاً عنده، ثم ذكر شيخنا شيئاً مما تقدم في عزوه.
Hadith: ‘the ikhtilaf amongst my companions is a mercy.’ Al-Bayhaqi [narrated it] in his Madkhal from Sulayman b. Abi Karima from Juwaybar from al-Dahhak from Ibn `Abbas [ra] who said: the Messenger of Allah (saw) said: “whatever is brought to you of Allah’s book, act upon it and no one is exempt from leaving it. If it is not in the book of Allah then [act upon] my Sunna and if it is not in my Sunna, then [act upon] what my Companions have said. My Companions are like stars in the sky; whichever you take you will be guided and the ikhtilaf of my Companions is a mercy for you…”
Something similar to this was narrated by al-Tabarani, al-Daylami in his Musnad with the same wording. Juwaybar is very weak and al-Dhahhak from Ibn `Abbas is munqata`. Al-Zarkashi has traced [the narration] to the [book] Kitab al-Hujja of Nasr al-Maqdisi in marfu` form without explaining its isnad. Likewise, al-`Iraqi has traced it to Adam b. Abi Iyyas in the Kitab al-`Ilm wa ’l-Hukm – without further explanation – with the wording: ‘the ikhtilaf of my Companions is a mercy for my ummah.’ He commented that it was mursal da`if. Al-Bayhaqi also mentioned it with this wording in his Risalat al-Ash`ariyya without an isnad and in the Madkhal he has a hadith of Sufyan from Aflah b. Humayd from al-Qasim ibn Muhammad [b. Abi Bakr al-Siddiq] who said: ‘The differences among the Companions of Muhammad (saw) are a mercy for Allah’s servants.’
And from the hadith of Qatada that `Umar b. `Abd al-`Aziz used to say: ‘It would not please me more if the Companions of Muhammad (saw) did not differ among themselves, because had they not differed there would be no leeway [for us].’
And from the hadith of al-Layth b. Sa`d from Yahya b. Sa`id who said: ‘the people of knowledge are the people of flexibility (tawsi`a). Those who give fatwas never cease to differ, and so this one permits something while that one forbids it, without one finding fault with the other when he knows of his position’.
I have read the following written in our shaykh’s handwriting: ‘this is – meaning this hadith – is a well-known and oft-recited hadith. Ibn al-Hajib has cited it in the Mukhtasar in the section on qiyas, which says: ‘Difference of opinion in my nation is a mercy for the people’ (ikhtilafu ummati rahmatun li ’l-nas). There is a lot of questioning about its [authenticity] and many of the imams of learning have claimed that it has no basis (la asla lahu). However, al-Khattabi mentions it in the context of a digression in [his book] Gharib al-Hadith saying: two individuals have taken objection to this hadith. One of them is a magian whereas the other is a heretic and they are Ishaq al-Mawsuli and `Amr b. Bahr al-Jahiz [respectively]. Both have said: ‘If ikhtilaf is a mercy (rahma), then agreement (ittifaq) would be a punishment (`adhaban).’ Al-Khattabi endeavored to refute this statement and what he says concerning the tracing of the hadith is not free from imperfection, but he makes it known that it does have a basis in his opinion. Thereafter our shaykh mentioned something on it in his remarks on its origins.
Notes on the Hadith:
- The term ikhtilaf here refers to those matters where it is permitted (ja’iz) such as in deducing Islamic injunctions (ahkam shar`iyya).
- Imam al-Khattabi said in his Gharib al-hadith:
|الخطابي: والاختلاف في الدين ثلاثة أقسام أحدها في اثبات الصانع ووحدانيته وانكار ذلك كفر والثاني في صفاته ومشيئته وانكارها بدعة والثالث في أحكام الفروع المحتملة وجوها فهذا جعله الله تعالى رحمة وكرامة للعلماء وهو المراد بحديث “اختلاف أمتي رحمة” …|
|“Difference of opinion in religion is of three kinds: In affirming the Creator and His Oneness: to deny it is kufr (‘disbelief’); In His attributes and will: to deny them is innovation; – In the different rulings of the branches of the law (ahkam al-furu`): Allah has made them a mercy and a generosity for the scholars, and that is the meaning of the hadith: ‘Difference of opinion in my Community is a mercy’.”|
- There may not be ikhtilaf in fundamental matters of doctrine (`aqa’id) nor in matters where the text carrying a ruling is definitive (qat`i). This is haram (unlawful).
- The word “community” here in the hadith has different understandings according to the scholars: 1) Some have said that it refers to the whole Muslim umma; 2) some have said it refers to the Companions of the Prophet (saw); 3) those who make unqualified adoption and follow the opinion of a mujtahid (i.e. the muqallidun) and 4) others have said that it refers to the scholarly community – especially those who can derive hukm directly from the texts (i.e. the mujtahidun).
- Imam al-Suyuti comments in his short treatise Jazil al-Mawahib fi Ikhtilaf al-Madhahib (‘The Abundant Grants Concerning the Differences Among the Schools’): “The hadith ‘Difference of opinion in my Community is a mercy for people’ has many benefits among which are the fact that the Prophet (saw) foretold of the differences that would arise after his time among the madhahib in the branches of the law, and this is one of his miracles because it is a foretelling of things unseen. Another benefit is his approval of these differences and his confirmation of them because he characterizes them as a mercy. Another benefit is that the legally responsible person can choose to follow whichever he likes among them…” After citing the saying of `Umar ibn `Abd al-`Aziz already quoted above by al-Sakhawi, al-Suyuti says: “This indicates that what is meant is their differences in the rulings in the branches of the law.”
- The hadith quoted above may also mean that the ikhtilaf (‘difference’, ‘disagreement’, ‘divergence’) of any other nation (umma) is not a mercy but a trial and affliction (naqma).
- The hadith does not mean that if the ikhtilaf is a mercy then the ittifaq is anger (i.e. the opposite of mercy). Thus, Ibn Hazm argued this saying: “The statement ‘the difference of opinion in my nation is a mercy’ is the most perverse saying possible, because if difference were mercy, agreement would be anger, and it is impossible for a Muslim to say this, because there can only be either agreement, or difference, and there can only be either mercy, or anger.”
- Imam al-Nawawi refuted this argument saying:
|قال الخطابي: وقد روى عن النبي صلى الله عليه و سلم أنه قال: “اختلاف أمتي رحمة” –فاستصوب عمر ما قاله قال وقد اعترض على حديث “اختلاف أمتي رحمة” رجلان. أحدهما مغموض عليه في دينه وهو عمرو بن بحر الجاحظ والآخر معروف بالسخف والخلاعة وهو إسحاق بن ابراهيم الموصلي فإنه لما وضع كتابه في الأغاني وأمكن في تلك الأباطيل لم يرض بما تزود من اثمها حتى صدر كتابه بذم أصحاب الحديث وزعم أنهم يروون مالا يدرون وقال هو والجاحظ لو كان الاختلاف رحمة لكان الاتفاق عذابا ثم زعم أنه إنما كان اختلاف الأمة رحمة في زمن النبي صلى الله عليه و سلم خاصة فإذا اختلفوا سألوه فبين لهم. والجواب عن هذا الاعتراض الفاسد أنه لا يلزم من كون الشيء رحمة أن يكون ضده عذابا ولا يلتزم هذا ويذكره الا جاهل او متجاهل وقد قال الله تعالى: (ومن رحمته جعل لكم الليل والنهار لتسكنوا فيه) . فسمى الليل رحمة ولم يلزم من ذلك أن يكون النهار عذابا وهو ظاهر . لا شك فيه …|
|“…[Ishaq ibn Ibrahim al-Mawsili] and al-Jahiz said that if ikhtilaf is a mercy then [it would follow] that agreement (al-ittifaq) would be a punishment (`adhaban). Then they argued that the ikhtilaf within the umma was restricted to only the Prophet’s time (saw). So, when they differed, they would ask the Prophet and he would then clarify [the matter] to them. The response to this corrupt objection is that if something is a mercy, it does not follow that its opposite is the opposite of mercy (`adhaban). No-one makes this binding, and no-one even claims this except an ignoramus or one who affects ignorance. Allah the Exalted has said: (And of His mercy He has made night for you so that you would rest in it) and He has named night a ‘mercy’ (rahma) and hence it does not necessarily follow from this that the day is a punishment. This is clear and there is no doubt in it…”|
- Ikhtilaf basically operates in fiqh, i.e. rulings related to actions and not doctrine. Differences within the latter is a type of ikhtilaf known as ‘unlawful difference’ (ikhtilaf al-muharram).
- It is important that we understand the nature and scope of ikhtilaf, i.e. its types, kinds (anwa`) and causes (asbab) behind it.
- We need to know about ikhtilaf because:
- The Companions differed in their understanding of what the Prophet did and said and so a variety of opinions have come down to us from them.
- The tabi`in differed in their understandings regarding ahkam.
- The tabi` al-tabi`in also differed, i.e. the salaf generation.
- Different interpretations are valid and we may condemn them as not being so out of ignorance.
- We may cause fitna (‘dissention’) in arguing, quarrelling and attacking someone as being wrong when in fact they are perfectly valid in following that opinion.
- We need to understand how the ikhtilaf arose and why.
- The last two points are extremely important in that Muslims are quick to condemn other Muslims without stopping to think about verifying the opinion they are attacking.
- It is easy to condemn and doubt but difficult to investigate and have patience.
- Muslims have lost the strong sentiment of love, compassion and mercy for their fellow brethren.
- Their are number of causes that lead to ikhtilaf and they are broadly:
- Linguistic: such as the meaning of words, which can carry different meanings like the word ighlaq (‘إغلاق= either ‘duress’ or ‘anger’). The hadith that states: la talaq wa la i`taq fi ighlaq (لا طلاق ولا إعتاق في إغلاق … /‘no divorce or manumission of a slave can be effected in a state of ighlaq’). Hence, the scholars differed over whether the divorce is void under anger or duress.
- Some words can be metaphorical or non-metaphorical as in the word laamastum (لامستم/‘touch’, sexual intercourse’). Some of the scholars interpreted it to mean ‘when you touch a woman…’ while others interpreted it to mean ‘when you have intercourse with a woman…’ Thus, wudu’ is broken according to those who take the first reading of the word and not if the second reading is taken.
- Hadith knowledge: lack of knowledge of a hadith, i.e. a hadith was not known to the scholar when h/she made their deduction (istinbat) of the ruling but is known to another scholar or was later found and so the opinion is shown to be incomplete.
- Related to this point on hadith, different jurists/scholars also held different ways of considering and verifying the authenticity of a hadith and hence one scholar would accept a hadith while another would not.
- Methodological (usul): this refers to the set of principles used by a jurist to understand the relevant texts of the Qur’an and hadith as well as those principles that govern the interpretation of those texts. A principle used by one jurist is not used by another, e.g. Hanafi’s with istihsan; Maliki’s with ijma` `amal ahl al-madina, fatwa of a sahabi, etc.
- There are also natural causes of ikhtilaf, e.g. levels of intelligence and analytic capability; depth of understanding about a reality for which the hukm is sought; etc.
- Differences that arise between jurists may be of two types: ikhtilaf al-tadad (‘disagreement of contradiction’) and ikhtilaf al-tanawwu` (‘disagreement of variance’). The first is an irreconcilable feature of two opinions (i.e. they mutually exclude and hence are diametrically opposed) whereas the latter is that where the opinions are based on valid evidences (adilla shar`iyya) but one can be preferred over the other based on correct ‘evaluative preference’ (tarjih).
- Some important notes on ikhtilaf:
- It is being abused, misused and extended unrestrictedly to every area of Islam, even the definitive areas.
- It is used as a way of introducing suspicious and odd interpretations in Islam.
- It is being used with incorrect intention and lack of taqwa (‘awareness of Allah’). This latter one is very dangerous as it is hard to ascertain and pinpoint.
- How to solve ikhtilaf on a social and regional scale:
- It requires a legitimate Islamic authority that will decide what ruling/injunction to adopt based on the juristic maxim or principle (qa`ida) amr al-imam yurfa`u al-khilaf (أمر الإمام يرفع الخلاف/‘the ruling of the leader removes the differences’) and amr al-imam nafidh (أمر الإمام نافد /‘the ruling of the imam is binding’).
- This right of adoption would have to be followed by all and will be implemented on a state level.
- It would make things smooth and uniform as well as establish religious unity.
Peace and blessings be upon our Master Muhammad, his family and his noble Companions.
S. Z. Chowdhury
 See al-`Ajluni citing it in Kashf al-Khafa’ 1:64 no.153. Cf. Imam al-Nawawi, Sharh Sahih Muslim, 11:92.
 See al-Shawkani, Irshad al-Fuhul, p.256.
 Thus for example, al-`Iraqi mentions in his Mughni `an al-Asfar that: “What is meant by ‘the Community’ in this saying is those competent for practicing legal reasoning (al-mujtahidun) in the branches of the law, wherein reasoning is permissible.”
 See `Ali al-Qari, Asrar al-Marfu`a, p.110.
 See Ibn Hazm al-Zahiri, al-Ihkam fi Usul al-Ahkam, 5:64. Cf. al-Albani, Silsilat Ahadith al-Da`ifa, 1:76, no.57 where he argues the same point..
 See Q.
 See al-Nawawi, Sharh Sahih Muslim, 11:91-92.
 See al-Shafi`i’s al-Risala, p.245.
 See al-Tabrizi, al-Mishkat al-Masabih, hadith no.3285.
 Cf. al-Sabuni, al-Madkhal, p.316.
 See Q. 5:6.
 See Ibn Taymiyya, Iqtida’ Sirat al-Mustaqim, pp.137-146.