Principles of Engagement: Navigating dissent

Sarah Bellal

وَلَوْ شَاءَ رَبُّكَ لَجَعَلَ النَّاسَ أُمَّةً وَاحِدَةً ۖ وَلَا يَزَالُونَ مُخْتَلِفِين

And if your Lord had willed, He could have made mankind one community; but they will not cease to differ. [11:118]

Of the many things Muslims love to lament is our lack of communal unity. It is easy to be disheartened by frequent debates between our leaders and confused by the various labels they adopt.

Some of the cynicism regarding the state of our ummah stems from an inability to reconcile the diverse manifestations of Islam among Muslims. Whether in issues of fiqh or politics, there is a widespread misconception that this diversity reflects a failure to tread the one true path of Islam as a unified body. 

But the life’s work of our Beloved Prophet ﷺ was not a project to produce a uniform set of followers. While the perfect example is indeed embodied in one person ﷺ, his example is one of acceptance and love for a diverse group of companions, may Allah be pleased with them. He unified a generation of believers on a Single Truth, and simultaneously showed them how Islam allowed their different temperaments, interests, and abilities to manifest in the best way. Through this lens, the ummah presents not a failure, but a miracle: countless manifestations, all drawing from the same well of Tawhid and love for the Prophet ﷺ. 

The scholars of the early generations understood this well. In the second century A.H., Caliph Abu Ja’far al-Mansur requested that Imam Malik — may Allah have mercy on him and elevate his rank — write a book of law to implement his madhhab across the entirety of the Muslim lands. Malik refused; he explained that knowledge had been disseminated throughout the ummah by the Companions who were sent to newly conquered lands to teach Islam, and after them, scholars developed different schools of thought and approaches to knowledge. He did not think it prudent to impose the Madinan approach in places where people had already established other madhahib, lest they be pushed into disbelief.[1] By describing their scholars as the intellectual descendants of the Companions (ra), he also defended the validity of their madhahib.

وَاعتَصِموا بِحَبلِ اللَّهِ جَميعًا وَلا تَفَرَّقوا﴿

And hold firmly to the rope of Allah all together and do not become divided. [3:103]

There is, undoubtedly, beauty in standing unified on the truth and working in harmony to implement it. At the same time, attempts to erase all differences often misdiagnose the root cause of communal discord. An unfortunate example of this is the attempt to shut down discussions about racism because addressing racism, and not racism itself, is what allegedly creates division in the community. 

There are also many attempts to draw our focus away from petty conflicts, and from conflicts that are perfectly valid and should ensue in order to reveal the truth. In his recently published book, Dr. Hatem al-Haj writes:

‘Polemics’ have been a part of the Islamic discourse since the time of the Companions. In fact, it would not be far-fetched to say that disagreement helped define the borders of ‘orthodoxy’ as much as agreement did.[2]

Where, then, do the boundaries of valid disagreement lie? And once we’ve placed them, how do we move forward?

These questions inspired me to write a short manual of shorts — by no means comprehensive, nor an attempted abridgement of scholarly discourse on adab-ul-ikhtilaf (the etiquette of disagreement). What I hoped to compose is, instead, a set of principles that all levels of communal discourse could stand to benefit from. Although “Principles of Engagement to Maintain Communal Ties & Foster Intellectual Honesty” is too long (and vexing) of a title, those are precisely the goals of this list: to work towards meaningful unity, encourage critical thinking, and rid ourselves of some rampant behaviors that cheapen religious discourse.

Degrees of Ikhtilaf

Before delving into those principles, it’s important to understand that, while there is room for diverse perspectives, there are also parameters for what is acceptable and true to Islam.[3] The fact that both valid and invalid disagreements exist is a result of the different prescriptions laid out in the Qur’an and Sunnah: some of which are extremely specific and universally applicable, and others of which are general and may take different forms in practice. There are also issues that are not explicitly addressed in our sources, and many different approaches will inevitably arise to tackle them. These approaches are not all equal, and remain subject to criticism and debate. 

This all to say: when approaching a disagreement, we first need to determine what kind of disagreement it is. If we cannot because we don’t have the necessary background knowledge, then we are fortunately exempt from discussing the issue and can defer to people of more knowledge to deal with it.

Principles of Engagement

1. Assess the intention & monitor the action.

Even an act of worship, when done with the wrong intentions, is not accepted by Allah ﷻ. When addressing a fellow Muslim, if your intention is for anything other than the sake of Allah, pause and reassess whether you should follow through. You may possess the truth, but if you intend to use it to raise yourself in the eyes of others or to denigrate someone else, this is not the time to deliver it. 

That said, well-intentioned people can still make mistakes. If I intend to help my friend by correcting her mistake but I’m ignorant of the etiquette of giving advice, I shouldn’t act on an arguably good intention. Correcting someone’s bad adab while in a gathering is also bad adab, and indicates a lack of the requisite knowledge to correct anyone to begin with.

The sunnah of our Beloved ﷺ teaches us to act with both love and knowledge. Lacking one or the other will only add fuel to the fire.

2. Evaluate an argument by its content, rather than by the group affiliations of the person espousing it.

We can be quick to write people off when they identify with an ideological group or movement we dislike. However, a person’s affiliation with a certain group does not necessarily preclude them from making a sound argument (even if it raises the probability). Some renowed scholars of the Islamic tradition followed groups that were heavily criticized, but the scholars of ahlul sunnah didn’t decide to throw out other valuable knowledge they contributed. Al-Zamakhshari, for example, is noted for his writings on Arabic grammar and rhetoric and the tafsir he wrote analyzing these aspects of the Qur’anic text, even though he was a Mu’tazili in creed.

The core methodologies and philosophies of many groups, even within the ummah, are certainly problematic. But it is intellectually dishonest to disregard an argument because of the proponent’s background, and doing so will only inhibit your own intellectual development. Consider whether you would make the same arguments against their point if it was coming from someone else. If the answer is no, then you are not actually discussing the subject at hand, but only using it as a pretense to vent whatever ego-based frivolities are spurred by your contempt for a certain group.

3. Have the capacity to not identify with a group/movement and still recognize the good in it.

Following the previous point, it is important to seriously explore the various groups that exist within the ummah — and outside of it — with as little bias as possible. Wisdom exists in many places, and we should seek it wherever it may be. 

There are so many lessons to be taken from allegedly “failed” groups. The individuals who shape the future are the ones who study the past, carefully separating the wisdom of their ancestors from their blunders. This is not a call to compromise on the truth by accepting every group, but to realize that good can come from many places. Every one of us is undoubtedly flawed. But if we discounted the possibility of being right about anything because we make some mistakes, how would we attain yaqeen?

In the pre-Islamic period, Rasulullah ﷺ entered a pact with the Makkans in which they pledged to protect the oppressed, known as Hilf al-Fudul. He ﷺ later commented on the pact, saying:

Certainly, I had witnessed a pact of justice in the house of Abdullah ibn Jud’an which, if I were called to it now in the time of Islam, I would respond. Make such alliances in order to return rights to their people, that no oppressor should have power over the oppressed.[4]

4. Take knowledge from varied sources.

People frequently misrepresent the groups they oppose because they don’t bother to read the direct sources of those groups. They fail to understand the nature of the disagreement, or create discord where no disagreement actually exists. 

Take for example the lazy arguments that are frequently lobbed at different schools of fiqh and ‘aqidah; Hanafis are accused of being “weak in hadith”, Hanbalis are classified as literalists or overly strict, and Atharis are labeled anthropomorphists. People who make the aforementioned claims are not actually well-versed in any of these schools, since basic knowledge of them illustrates that none of these claims are true. 

In light of this, we should be careful to not let anyone who identifies with a group to represent it, since many of us don’t fully understand the labels we adopt due to convenience, coincidence, or validation. This also demonstrates that, to truly understand the beliefs or methodology of a group, we must receive this knowledge directly from these groups’ sources. Reading a polemic against Group A written by Group B may indeed be useful for understanding the problems with A, but without first reading their primary sources, we risk accepting misrepresentations of A resulting from B’s biases. It may be the case that someone doesn’t have the prerequisite knowledge to read and understand the primary sources of a given group; in this case, this person is also unqualified to engage in polemics against said group.

5. Recognize when engagement will bring more harm than good.

The goal behind engaging in a debate is to come closer to the truth and make the truth apparent. If it is clear that engaging with someone is not going to lead either of you to the truth, whether because they are unreasonable, unreceptive to you, or simply uninterested in hearing an alternative viewpoint, then there is no point in directly engaging them.

As Muslims, we recognize the imperative for al-nahy ‘an al-munkar, or forbidding the evil. We also recognize, however, that we don’t always have to provide an opinion on everything.

6. Bring people in — don’t push them away.

One of our fundamental beliefs is that Islam is for every person, and that anyone, regardless of their past, can be guided. If we’re not engaging in communal discussions to guide people towards Islam, then why do it at all? As such, if our conduct results in pushing people away from the community, then our discourse is not just pointless, but harmful.

It’s helpful to think about what kind of long term relationships we cultivate through our discussions. Imagine that the person you’re talking to is dealing with a serious personal difficulty. After this conversation, will they still see you as someone they can come to for help? Even if you weren’t close to begin with, have you totally erased any possibility of forming a positive relationship with them?

Bringing people in starts with having an instinctual love for every Muslim, even when we disagree with them, and accepting the diversity of our community. A proper understanding of the ummah’s diversity will allow us to have greater love for the followers of Rasulullah ﷺ, and greater love for them will simultaneously allow us to act with wisdom when we encounter difference — both acceptable differences and ones that need to be challenged.

7. Proceed with caution.

We should be very afraid of potentially saying something incorrect, or even misguiding people with the truth by stating it at the wrong time or in the wrong way. This is not something we should approach excitedly or treat as a game. We will be held accountable for whatever we say, even if we don’t see the consequences of our speech because we spout it from behind screens. Speaking up should be the exception rather than the rule, and should only be done after lengthy consideration. Becoming accustomed to silence is difficult when we live in a culture that rewards people for all sorts of frivolous speech, but we should strive to do so for our own sake.

The Prophet ﷺ lived much of his life in silence. When he ﷺ spoke, he did so thoughtfully and avoided shallow speech. As a result, the Companions (ra) knew that anything he did say was extremely valuable and worth pondering. ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Amr narrated that Rasulullah ﷺ said,

Whoever is silent, he is saved. [5]

As much as our community would benefit from producing more scholars, it is also in dire need of better educated lay people who can navigate communal discourse in a way that brings them closer to, and not further from, Islam.

I would be remiss not to remind myself and the reader that it is a sign of spiritual illness to spend an excessive amount of one’s time engaging in or observing debates. Communal discourse serves a purpose, but once we are no longer working towards that purpose and it turns into a form of consumption — whether for emotional validation or entertainment — we need to pause and reflect. The bulk of our time should be spent refining ourselves, spiritually and intellectually, and an internal foundation must be built before we can dismantle the flaws we see around us.

(مُنِيبِينَ إِلَيْهِ وَاتَّقُوهُ وَأَقِيمُوا الصَّلَاةَ وَلَا تَكُونُوا مِنَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ )
(مِنَ الَّذِينَ فَرَّقُوا دِينَهُمْ وَكَانُوا شِيَعًا ۖ كُلُّ حِزْبٍ بِمَا لَدَيْهِمْ فَرِحُونَ)

[Adhere to Islam], turning in repentance to Him, and fear Him and establish prayer and do not be of those who associate others with Allah, [or] of those who have divided their religion and become sects, every faction rejoicing in what it has. [30:31-21]

1. Muhammad Abu Zahra. The Four Imams: Their Lives, Works, and Their Schools of Thought (Dar Al Taqwa, 2010).

2. Hatem al-Haj. Between the God of the Prophets and the God of the Philosophers: Reflections of an Athari on the Divine Attributes (2020).

3. Hatem al-Haj, “Managing Our Disagreements”. AMJA (2015).

4. Cooperation with all of humanity for justice

5. Jamiat Tirmidhi, Book 37, 2689 (Hasan)

Sarah Bellal completed her undergraduate studies in Political Economy, with a concentration in development in the Middle East and North Africa. Her interests include political theory and development economics, and she is currently based in California.

One thought on “Principles of Engagement: Navigating dissent

  1. Masha’Allah, this was a wonderful essay. Thank you for taking the time to write this – a really good reminder for all of us.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s