Opinions: Between Valid, Invalid, and Heretical
The Difference Between A Valid Opinion, An Invalid Opinion, & A Heresy (Zandaqa)
A valid opinion in Islam is an explanation of a piece of evidence (a verse or hadith) that does not contradict another piece of evidence (it must also adhere to the language). A simple example regards the `idda, or waiting period, of a woman after divorce. “Three qurū’” can be understood as three menstrual cycles (therefore two months) or three periods of purity (therefore three months). Both match the language and neither contradicts any other piece of evidence, so here we have a valid difference of opinion. All of the differences in fiqh between the four madhhabs are of this nature.
An invalid opinion is an explanation of a piece of evidence that contradicts either the language or another piece of evidence. Let’s take another example: the claim that Ishāq was the son Prophet Ibrāhīm had to slaughter. This opinion exists among the Salaf and even amongst some Companions. But ultimately, it contradicts two pieces of evidence. 1) Sūrat al‐Sāffāt verses 102‐112, in which Allah speaks about giving Ibrāhīm his first son. The verse does not name him. The passage then speaks of the command to slaughter him and how it was lifted after he (Prophet Ibrāhīm عليه السلام) proved himself to Allah. Then in verse 112 Allah says, “We gave him glad tidings of Ishāq.” And so Ishāq gets introduced to the picture after the slaughter incident took place. So how could he have been commanded to slaughter one who had not yet existed. 2) The hadith of “I am the son of the two slaughtered ones (intended for slaughter)” (Mustadrak al‐Hākim), and we are in agreement that the Prophet’s صلى الله عليه وسلم father was at one point intended for slaughter, therefore the other dhabīh must be Ismā`īl. Thus, the opinion that it is Ishāq is incorrect no matter who narrates it because it has been overridden by multiple primary source texts.
We now ask, what differentiates a merely incorrect opinion from a heterodoxy or a heresy (zandaqa)? A
heresy touches upon a core matter of belief (`aqīda) connected to a Divine command (amr) and threat of
punishment (wa`īd). Namely, The Haqq has commanded us to believe it and threatened a punishment if
we refuse to believe it. To insist that Ishāq was the dhabīh is incorrect but ultimately not contravening a
Divine commandment. There is no threat (wa`īd) connected to the matter at all. Therefore, it is a mistake
that has no consequence in this life or the next. Now when an amr (command) and a wa`īd (threat) are
connected to a matter, then any interpretation or opinion that contravenes that command and threat
becomes elevated to the level of heresy. If one is mistaken or simply ignorant, then it is forgivable. However, once the proofs have been presented to one, then they are culpable. “You are not held accountable for mistakes, but only that which your hearts insist upon” (33:5 Ahzāb).
What is the Consequence of Heresy?
What is the situation of a Muslim who does great deeds, has great character, and ‘is a good person,’ but
stubbornly refuses to submit to believe in just one verse of Quran, despite the evidence being presented to
them? (Note that we said ‘believe’ not act, for “every human being does wrong actions,” and wrongs in
beliefs are weightier than wrongs of action.) There are two evidences that answer this. For such a one,
Allah has revealed, “Do you believe in part of the Book and reject part? Any of you who do this will have
nothing but humiliation in this life and on the Day of Judgement will continuously be punished with a
painful torment” (2:58 Baqara). One may retort that this verse came down for the Jews of Madina. The
known reply to this is that every warning issued to the Jews, Christians, or Pagans is first and foremost a
warning to the Muslims, for how can it be that Allah would scold the Jews for ‘picking and choosing’
then allow Muslims to do it? The second response would be the principle: the reason behind a revelation
(sabab al‐nuzūl) does not constrict the meaning of the text (ma`na al‐nass).
The second evidence comes from the famous hadith of Ibn `Umar regarding the first heretics in Islam: the
Qadarites, who rejected predestination (qadar). After the death of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم, two Basrans named Yahya b. Ya`mar and Humayd al‐Himyarī grew concerned over Ma`bad al‐Juhanī, an erudite scholar who practiced Islam and did good deeds, but had one problem: he preached that there was no qadar, that you and only you dictate the situation (al‐amra unuf). So they went to the Hijāz for Hajj and approached Ibn `Umar on the matter. “Ibn `Umar, there has emerged a group of people who recite/study the Quran and go extremely deep in knowledge, but they say there is no qadar.” Ibn `Umar replied, “Tell them that if they donated a mountain of gold it would not be accepted from them and that Ibn `Umar has nothing to do with them (barī’un minhum) and that they have nothing to do with me until they return to believe in qadar.” In sum, even if a person does many many good deeds and ‘is a good person,’ their rejection of a fundamental of faith renders all their good deeds invalid. As for one’s interaction with them, one should keep a distance and not fraternize with them.
Now what if someone was to say that this is qawl Sahābī, the statement of a Companion and therefore not
required law for us? We would correct such an individual’s notion of qawl Sahābī and remind them that
this phrase applies to fiqh (law) and matters of human judgement, but not to unseen matters (ghaybiyyāt),
for a Companion would never speak of unseen matters, in this case the acceptability of one’s deeds, except that he learned it from the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم himself. Furthermore, we would tell him that the two rulings Ibn `Umar gave were nothing more than the application of the verse: “They have in this life humiliation” (and so how can their deeds be pleasing and accepted by Allah while He has ordained upon them humiliation). As for his pronouncement of barā’a (staying away, not fraternizing), this too is nothing more than action upon the Quran: “If you see anyone speaking out of line regarding our verses (yakhūdhūna fī āyātinā) then stay away from them (fa a`rid `anhum) until they speak about something else. And if Shaytān makes you forget (to move away from them), then do not sit, after hearing this reminder, with the doers of wrong” (6:68 al‐An`ām). In sum, the consequences of heresy are grave indeed: one’s good deeds will not count anymore, and the Muslims should keep away from them. But if they were to correct their positions, then both of these would be reversed. We ask Allah `āfiyya and salāma from falling into this.
Lastly, what does the Sacred Law say about the heretic? Denying that which is known by necessity and
clear in the Quran is a capital offense. Therefore, the Sharī`ah has more tolerance for People of the Book
(they have the right of residency, marriage to Muslim men, and their slaughtered meats are lawful) and
atheists and pagans (they have the right to visit Dār al‐Islam when it existed and conduct business).
Simply being a Christian, Jew, atheist, or pagan is not a crime in Islam. But to be a Muslim promoting
heretical views is. It is as if to say, you can choose to embark on the train of Islam or not. But if you do,
submit to it as [it is]; don’t touch the steering wheel.
Why Heresy Should Not/Cannot Be Sited As ‘Difference of Opinion’
Opinions are glorified by the Quran: “Those who strive in Us, We will guide them to our paths (subulanā)” (29:69 `Ankabūt). A valid reading of this is that those who strive to draw near to Allah will come to learn that there are different options and paths, madhhabs and maslaks that flow parallel to the Book and the Sunna and do not contradict them, and all will lead to Allah and His Messenger صلى الله عليه وسلم in the end.
Now once an opinion is deemed a heresy (namely, it goes against other verses and hadiths), then
admitting it into the realm of valid opinions is nothing less than folly and meaninglessness (`abath). Even
speaking of a heresy in public (as a preacher or in a khutba) has been discussed as a potential sin in
causing fitna or confusion (see Ibn Jawzī’s Kitāb al-Qussas).
There are only two places one may refer to heresy in scholarly literature. The first is in the process of
refuting it and the second is in the genre of history. The historian is not taken as a theologian or spiritual
guide. The reader does not pick up a book of history to learn theological truth. Therefore, a historian may
cite and outline the beliefs of a particular individual or movement. We see this in The Muqaddima of Ibn
Khaldūn, in the Beginning and End of Ibn Kathīr, and in many other works (but as practicing Muslims,
they interjected phrases indicative of their belief). Tabarī’s Tafsīr combines the two genres in a sense,
since he gives the reader all the narrations of a particular verse, but he does not leave it at that. He informs
the reader of what is weak, what is contradictory, and what is sound. In the end, he also gives his opinion
of what is most correct. Therefore, when someone cites a strange story or interpretation then cites Tabarī,
one should not assume that to be endorsed by Tabarī’s unless he specifies it. (Likewise, the Musnad of
Imām Ahmad is a collection of “all that is used by scholars of repute.” He does not apply all the hadiths
in his Musnad into his fiqh because he may feel there is stronger evidence.
Courtesy of Safina Society
Note: This article was edited for spelling.