My question concerns leadership and rules in Islam. In the Catholic church, we have a pope who has the final word on all official church doctrine.
Now I understand that he does not make these decisions on a whim, the bishops all come together to discuss the matter, and we believe the pope is divinely guided by God when he proclaims an official truth of the Church.
Of course, the pope does not control every aspect of the church, simply the big issues and official doctrines. In Islam, there is no such office. As far as I understand, it is simply scholars coming together to reach an agreement. My question is, how are the faithful to know what to do if the scholars disagree? Obviously, in the Catholic Church, bishops or priests in good faith may disagree, but if it is an important matter of faith we can look to the pope for guidance. But in Islam, how do you know?
For example, some scholars say that even the face covering is necessary for hijab, others interpret it as simply dressing modestly in terms of the country you live in. Scholars have different opinions on growing beards, dancing, music, and so on. How does a good Muslim know who to follow?
You touched on two different aspects of the situation in Islam. One is that of the absence of leadership, the other is that of the multiplicity of references or authorities who make judgments and decide on rulings.
Regarding the first aspect, the theory of leadership in Islam is not that of secularism which separates state from faith, but the leader in Islam is the one capable of handling both sides efficiently with the help of a strong council or ruling body.
Since the emergence of this faith “Islam”, both state affairs and religious authority were in the hands of the first leader; Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), which was a great breach from the established norm spreading in the land of the Roman Empire surrounding the nascent Muslim state at that time.
According to the Catholic Roman Empire, the rule was ‘let what is for Caesar for Caesar and let what is for God for God. This secular principle has always created a dual authority; one for worldly affairs in the palace headed by kings and emperors and the other in the church headed by popes. This dual system bothered the believers a lot, as in many cases the two authorities contradicted each other and sometimes dramatically clashed.
Islam, from its first day, affirmed that the leader must be one and should be strong enough to handle both affairs with the help of a mutual consultation council.
As for your second complaint, that Islam has different opinions on each ruling in contrast to Catholicism, I can tell you that there is no contradiction between having one supreme religious leadership and a multiplicity of scholars to make judgments.
In Islam, both facts and rulings are of two types; the first type are major ones that are revealed directly from God or directed from His Messenger, no scholar is allowed to change them. Major things are like the matters of faith, for example, the divine book, the nature of God and His attributes, who the Prophet is, and what his history is, destiny, the Day of Judgment, and the Hereafter.
Belief in such facts and the application of such rulings are the same all over the Muslim world in a strict manner. All Muslims in Africa, America, Europe, Asia read the same book “the Quran” with no single difference in its content, (not even a change of one letter has occurred since its revelation).
No Muslim in Australia fasts in the month of Ramadan while another Muslim in South Africa fasts in a different month. You will never see a Muslim in America praying five times a day while another in Egypt is praying four. No Muslim scholar, even those who live in the West, dares to say that alcohol or fornication is legal in Islam –even when some Muslims occasionally fall into such sins they know they do it against Islam and out of weakness and not because one scholar says so.
No mosque wherever it is agrees on a homosexual marriage celebration to be held in it while the other denies, and so on. The scholars cannot have different opinions about these major things.
In Christianity, the believers still disagree on major things that are the cornerstone of the religion. Christians still have four Bibles. In addition to more than one image of Jesus, is he one or three united entities? Or even three separate entities? They still quarrel about the meaning of the Trinity. Some churches agree on abortion and homosexuality while others do not, and many other things of such magnitude.
Still there are things that Islam considers as minor rulings because they were not decreed directly from God, but God, in His wisdom, intended to leave them open for the scholars to have their own personal opinions about them, which definitely won’t be exactly the same, in order to take people’s changing conditions into consideration.
The example you mentioned about hijab is an interesting point. The principle that every Muslim woman reaching puberty should cover her body in clothes that are not tight, transparent, or exaggeratingly embroidered is a major ruling which is decreed in the Quran.
No scholar can disagree about it, yet the features of hijab and whether or not it should cover the face, or what color it should be or what design, were left to the scholars to decide according to the changes in circumstances from one place to another, from one time to another, or even from one taste or cultural or psychological background to another.
In this case forcing everybody to follow a certain minor ruling said by one scholar will make people run away from the religion and prefer a secular style of life. Islam does not look at the differences among scholars about minor issues with sensibility or discomfort, but on the contrary, it encourages such differences to accommodate various circumstances.
The differences may not only occur amongst two or more scholars but it may occur by the same scholar when circumstances change, Imam Al-Shafi`i —one of the most distinguished scholars in Islam—wrote a book about his legal opinions and personal interpretation of Islamic law when he was in Iraq, but once he moved to live in Egypt, he had to change it all—except for the major issues—knowing that the people of Egypt are culturally different from those in Iraq, consequently, the old book would not suit their lifestyle.
One thing still remains for you to know is that when a scholar makes a personal opinion in the slightest matter; it is not a haphazard process. Deducing personal opinions is a huge science with rules and conditions for the person who handles it. Moreover, if this minor issue is of notable importance to the Muslim community, individual opinions are not to be considered. The scholars must come together and discuss it till they reach a group consensus and this process is termed ijma` (consensus/agreement).
About the Author:
Dr. Amani Aboul Fadl Farag is a lecturer of English literature, in Cairo University. She writes to many Islamic newspapers. She is a consultant to the International Islamic Committee, for woman and child, affiliated with the International Islamic Council for Da`wah and Relief. She is a wife and a mother of 4 children.