Difference of the Jurists in Their Understanding of a Hadith

The following is an excerpt from our abridged translation of the masterpiece, Athar al-Hadīth al-Sharīf fī Ikhtilāf al-A’immah al-Fuqahā’, by the Syrian Hadīth scholar, the teacher of our teachers, Shaykh Muhammad ‘Awwāmah. There were numerous requests for an abridged translation of the work for the benefit of non-Arabic readers, as the original work is relatively lengthy. We will post sections of it in installments and finally publish the complete abridgement in a separate post. We have previously posted the following sections of the book:

  1. Introduction/When is a Hadīth suitable for practice?
  2. The correct meaning of the statement, “When a Hadīth is authentic it is my opinion.”
  3. Is the authenticity of a Hadīth sufficient to practice upon it?

The excerpt before you is an explanation of the second of four reasons of difference among the jurist Imām: difference in understanding a Hadīth. The author explains that this form of difference stems from one of two causes: varying intelligence and the Hadīth containing multiple meanings. In addition, he sheds light on two pertinent issues:

  1. The common misuse of the term “The fiqh of the Qur’ān and Sunnah” and the ulterior motives behind the use of such titles.
  2. The impermissibility of adhering to the isolated views of the scholars. Further, he provides the criteria for ascertaining which opinions may be classified as “isolated.”

It is important to remember that this is only an abridged translation. Therefore, many sections were omitted and some were summarized.  To make the article more reader-friendly, an idiomatic translation was adopted in several places. Those who are interested in more detail are advised to read the original work.

Muntasir Zaman

Ramadān 25, 1435

The Second Cause of Difference: Difference in Understanding the Hadīth

By Shaykh Muhammad ‘Awwamah

Translated by Muntasir Zaman

The difference of the Imāms in understanding the Hadīth stems from one of the following:

  1. Varying degrees of intelligence
  2. The Hadīth has multiple meanings

Concerning the first point, there is no doubt that people will differ due to the varying degrees of their perceptive faculties and intelligence. This variation can be innate and God-given or it can be acquired as a result of ones culture, travels, interaction with people, or occupation.

Imām al-Shāfi‘ī was asked, “Tell us about intelligence; is a person born with it? He replied, “No, it develops by sitting in the company of men and debating with people.” [1]

‘Ubayd Allāh ibn ‘Amr al-Raqqi [d. 180 AH] mentions:

We were in the gathering of al-A‘mash when he was asking Abū Hanīfah some rulings. After Abū Hanīfah responded to him, al-A‘mash asked, “Where did you get this from?”Abū Hanīfah replied, “You narrated to us from Ibrāhīm regarding this, and you narrated to us from al-Sha‘bī regarding that.” Hearing this, al-A‘mash remarked, “O the gathering of jurists, you are the physicians and we are the pharmacists.” [2]

Imām ‘Abd Allāh ibn al-Mubārak [d. 181 AH] mentions:

I came to al-Awzā‘ī in Shām and found him in Beirut. He said to me, “O Khurasānī, who is this innovator that hails from Kufah and is called Abū Hanīfah? I returned home and began studying the books of Abū Hanīfah; thus, I extracted several intricate rulings and I remained engaged in this work for three days. On the third day, with the book in my hand, I went to al-Awzā‘ī who was the mudhdhin and Imām of the Masjid. He asked me regarding the book I was holding, so I handed it to him. His sight fell upon a ruling that I marked with, “al-Nu‘mān said.” After completing the Adhān, he remained standing until he read a portion of the book. Thereafter, he asked, “O Khurāsānī, who is this al-Nu‘mān ibn Thābit?” I told him, “A shaykh that I met in Irāq.” He told me, “He is an intelligent scholar. Go to him and benefit from him immensely.” I told him, “This is the Abū Hanīfah you warned regarding!”[3]

Hāfiż al-Dīn al-Kardarī [d. 827 AH] adds:

[‘Abd Allāh ibn al-Mubārak said] Afterwards we came to Makkah and I saw al-Awzā‘ī discussing those rulings with Abū Hanīfah, who was explaining much more than I wrote from him. When they separated, I asked al-Awzā‘ī, “What do you think of him?” He said, “I envy the man for his vast knowledge and perfect intellect. I seek Allāh’s forgiveness. I was in manifest error. Hold firmly on to him, for he is contrary to what has reached me regarding him.[4]

Concerning the second point i.e. the Hadith contains multiple meanings, this is also a reality and often witnessed. However, in order for the possible meanings to be correct there are a few conditions:

  1. It should not conflict with the laws of Arabic grammar neither should there be any affectation and exaggeration.
  2. It should not conflict with established rulings in other texts

I am only mentioning these two conditions for the purpose of clarification, otherwise the jurist whose differences we are discussing are too knowledgeable to be negligent of these conditions.

When dealing with multiple interpretations of a text, it is the duty of an Imām that he searches for indications to give preference to one interpretation.

Let us explain the concept of a text containing multiple interpretations by means of an example. It is narrated from the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessing be upon him) that he said, “The purchaser and seller have the choice (of refund) as long as they do not separate.” The scholars have differed with regards to the interpretation of the words “they do not separate.”

Some scholars are of the opinion that it refers to physical separation. Accordingly, both the purchaser and seller have the choice of cancelling the transaction as long as they are still in the gathering wherein they transacted. Once one of them moves away, the transaction becomes binding and none of them have the choice of refund without the consent of the other party. This is the view of Imām al-Shāfi‘ī among other scholars (Allah be pleased with them).

Other scholars are of the opinion that it refers to verbal separation. Accordingly, the purchaser and seller will have the choice of cancelling the transaction as long as they are discussing the transaction and whatever relates to it. Once they change their discussion, the transaction becomes binding and no party can ask for a refund without the consent of the other party. This is the view of Imām Abū Hanīfah among other scholars (Allāh be pleased with them).

Each group has their evidences, some of which I will mention to illustrate this point.

Imām Shāfi‘ī [and the proponents of the first view] has both a textual evidence and rational evidence.

As for the textual evidence, when ‘Abd Allāh ibn ‘Umar (Allāh be pleased with him), the narrator of this Hadīth, would purchase an item, he would immediately move a few steps away from the seller, after which he would return to his original spot if he needed to [in order to make the transaction binding]. The understanding of a Sahābi regarding his own narration is more accurate than that of others.

As for the rational evidence, the original position of a purchaser and seller is to be separated, the seller in his shop and the purchaser in his home, for example. Thereafter, they meet for the transaction, after which they return to their original position, which is separation [al-iftirāq] from one another. Therefore, the Messenger of Allāh (peace and blessings) intended by his statement, “as long as they do not separate” their returning to their original state i.e. their respective places.

Likewise, Imām Abū Hanīfah [and the proponents of the second view] adduce both a textual evidence and rational evidence to substantiate their stance.

As for the textual evidence, the verse, “But let there be amongst you trade by mutual will” constitutes mutual consent as the binding factor of the transaction. The expression of mutual consent is offering (ijāb) and acceptance (qabūl) which have transpired between them. Furthermore, the words of the Hadīth, “as long as they do not separate” will have to be interpreted such that they do not conflict with the aforementioned verse. Accordingly, the separation will refer to verbal separation. There are a myriad of examples wherein “separation” in scriptural texts refers to verbal separation, like in the verse, “Hold fast to the rope of Allāh and do not separate [i.e. do not dispute].

As for the rational evidence, if we are to regard separation as “physical separation” in many instances such a separation will prove difficult, like if they are on a small boat in the sea.

Just as this example illustrates how a text can have multiple interpretations, it also illustrates the difference of people in their perceptive faculties and understanding.

It is important to note that the deductions of these scholars are ascribed to the Qur’ān and Sunnah; hence, they are complementary to them and cannot be separated.

Imām al-Shāfi‘ī says, “The opinions of the Ummah explain the Sunnah, which in turn explains the Qur’ān.”[5]

‘Allāmah Bakhīt al-Mutī‘ī [d. 1354 AH] writes:

Each of these rulings is extracted from the four sources of evidence [i.e. Qur’ān, Sunnah, consensus, and analogy], explicitly or based on correct Ijtihād. Thus, it is also the law of Allāh and the guidance of Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), which we were instructed to obey.  The reason is the view of a Mujtahid-since his source is one of the four evidences- is Allāh’s law in his right and the right of those who follow him.[6]

Imām Abū Ishāq al-Shātibī [d. 790 AH] writes:

In this Ummah, a Muftī is a representative of the Prophet, due to several reasons:

  • The Hadīth “The scholars are the heirs of the prophets”
  • He serves as his agent in conveying the message
  • From one angle, he is a legislator [shāri‘] because he passes a verdict either directly from a text transmitted from the legislator or deduced from it. In the first situation, he is regarded as a conveyor, and in the second, he is a representative in issuing the laws, which is the sole task of the legislator…[7]

Imām ‘Abd Allāh ibn al-Mubārak [d. 181 AH] says, “Do not say “The opinion of Abū Hanīfah” rather, say “His explanation of the Hadīth.”[8]

In light of the above, the statement “the jurisprudence (fiqh) of the jurists” be it Abū Hanīfah or any other Imām, is only an explanation of the Sunnah and not foreign to it. Furthermore, the statement “fiqh of Abū Hanīfah” or “fiqh of al-Shāfī‘ī” means the understanding of Abū Hanīfah and al-Shāfī’ī. Understanding of what? It is only their understanding of the Qur’ān and Sunnah, because fiqh in the Arabic language means understanding.

Thus, we learn an error that common among people, yet they do not realize it, and that is titling their fiqh or the knowledge they impart to people as fiqh of the Sunnah or the fiqh of the Qur’ān and the Sunnah. Fiqh of the Sunnah and Qur’ān actually means their understanding, and the fiqh that he is presenting, is only the fiqh of laymen. They attributed it to the Sunnah and Qur’ān to give people the impression that they are presenting a pristine source of religion, which results in distancing people from the fiqh of Abū Hanifa, al-Shāfī‘ī, Mālik, and Ahmad. Thereafter, they say “Do you want the fiqh of Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) or the fiqh of Abū Hanīfah and al-Shāfī‘ī?

How could they ascribe their fiqh to the Qur’ān and Sunnah, and ascribe the fiqh of Abū Hanīfah and al-Shāfī‘ī only to themselves. As a result, they detach this magnificent Islāmic discipline that is the true commentary of the Qur’ān and Sunnah. Thereafter, they present to the people an understanding wherein the correct is picked from the crumbs of the tablecloth of these scholars, and the error is from themselves, after which they ascribe it to the Qur’ān and Sunnah.

Before I conclude this section, it is necessary to make an exemption from something I mentioned earlier. I mentioned that the fiqh extracted from the Qur’ān and Sunnah- as well as consensus and sound analogy- is from religion, and cannot be separated from the sources from which it is extracted. However, it imperative to exclude what Islāmic authorities term as rarities, concessions, and isolated opinions of the scholars.

Imām al-Bayhaqī relates from Imām al-Awzā‘ī, “Whoever adheres to the isolated opinions of the scholars, will leave the fold of Islām.”[9]

Al-Qādī Ismā‘īl ibn Ishāq [d. 282 AH] mentions:

I came to al-Mu‘tadid, and he gave me a book wherein the concessions from the isolated opinions of the scholars and their evidences were gathered. I said, “O Amīr al-Mu’minīn, the compiler of this book is a heretic! He asked, “Are these narrations [i.e. the proofs for those opinions] unauthentic? I replied, “These narrations are as they were transmitted; however, those who regard intoxicants [i.e. Nabīdh] as lawful, prohibit the practice of Mut‘ah. Conversely, those who regard the practice of Mut‘ah as lawful, prohibit listening to music and consuming intoxicants. Every scholar has blunders; whoever gathers these blunders will lose his religion” Then, al-Mu‘tadid instructed that the book be burnt.[10]

Someone may ask, “What are the signs of an isolated opinion?” The reply is as follows:

Abū Dāwūd and others have narrated that Yazīd ibn ‘Umayrah narrated from Mu‘ādh (Allāh be pleased with him) that he said:

In front of you are many trials wherein wealth will be abundant and the Qur’ān will be made easy such that a believer, hypocrite, free person, slave, man women, young and old will learn it. Soon a person will proclaim, “What has happened to the people that they do not follow me even though I have studied the Qur’ān? By Allāh, they will only follow me if I am to innovate for them something besides it!”

I warn you of his innovation, as it is deviance. Be wary of the aberration of the wise, for Shaytān often articulates a statement of deviance on the tongue of a wise person; sometimes a hypocrite will utter words of truth.

Yazīd ibn ‘Umayrah then said, “I asked him, ‘How do I know when a wise person has uttered a statement of deviance and a hypocrite has uttered words of truth?’ He replied:

“Avoid the dubious statements of the wise that make ask, ‘What is this?” However, let this not deter you from him because it is possible that he will retract and present the truth when he hears it, for the truth possess a light.”[11]

Under the commentary of this statement, Imām al-Bayhaqī writes:

Mu‘ādh ibn Jabal informed that the deviance of a wise person should not deter people from him. However, those statements of his will be rejected that do not possess light, as the truth possess light. He intends, Allāh knows best, an indication from the Qur’ān, Sunnah, consensus, or analogy from any of these. [12]

He (Allāh be pleased with him) has notified of a group that has deviated from Islām and will innovate concepts that are completely foreign to it. He also notified of a righteous group that posses faith and wisdom, who make blunders. Thus, it is impermissible for the obstinate to ascribe the first group to the second group; rather, he should follow this group with regards to whatever guidance and good they are upon and avoid their isolated views and mistakes. Furthermore, he explained to us that the sign of an isolated view is darkness and that it goes against ones nature such that one will ask, “What is this?” On the other hand, pure truth possess light and is assisted with proof.

In light of this explanation, rather exemption, we should understand the following statement of Sufyān al-Thawrī, “When you see someone practicing an action, wherein there is a difference of opinion, and you who hold a contrary view, do not prevent him.”[13] i.e. when the difference is legitimate, acceptable and from famous scholars.

As for a rare isolated view, it is unacceptable to remain silent regarding it. Rather, exposing the mistake of this form of difference is necessary and regarded as well-wishing for Allāh, His Book, His Messenger, and all the Muslims.

Ibn Rajab al-Hanbalī [d. 795 AH] writes:

From the forms of well-wishing for Allāh, His Book, and His Messenger, and is exclusive to the scholars is to reject deviating innovations by the Qur’ān and Sunnah and to explain their indication that goes against all forms of deviation. Likewise, to reject weak opinions from the blunders of the scholars and to explain the indication of the Qur’ān and Sunnah that refutes them.[14]

Further, whichever difference is weak due to the indication of textual evidence against it will be regarded as an isolated and rare opinion.


[1] Al-Asfahānī, Hilyat al-Awliyā’, 121:9

[2] Al-Baghdādī, al-Faqīh wa al-Mutafaqqih, 84:2

[3] Al-Baghdādī, Tārīkh Baghdād, 337:13

[4] Al-Kardarī, Manāqib, 45

[5] Al-Suyūtī, al-Itqān, 24:4

[6] Al-Mutī‘ī, Ahsan al-Kalām, 6,23

[7] Al-Shātibī, al-Muwāfaqāt, 244:4

[8] Al-Qārī, Dhayl al-Jawāhir al-Mudiyyah, 460:2

[9] Al-Bayhaqī, al-Sunan al-Kubrā, 211:10

[10] Ibid, 211:10

[11] Abū Dāwūd, al-Sunan, 186:5

[12] Al-Bayhaqī, al-Sunan al-Kubrā, 210:10

[13] Al-Baghdādī, al-Faqīh wa al-Mutafaqqih, 69:2

[14] Ibn Rajab, Jāmi‘ al-‘Ulūm wa al-Hikam, 223:1


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