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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 5    Issue 16   01-15  January 2011

Searching for the Common Ground

By Dr Yusuf Al-Qaradawi

Among the important principles of Muslim-Muslim dialogue is to concentrate on areas of agreement rather than those of disagreement, especially in light of the fact that most of the areas of agreement are in the principles on which our religion is based. As for the areas of disagreement and difference, most of them are in the subsidiary matters of religion.

Areas of Agreement

(A) All Muslims agree on the belief in Allah Almighty, in the Last Day, in Prophet Muhammad's message, and in his being the Seal of the Prophets who came to perfect and complete all the divine messages. Muslims also agree on the belief in all with which Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) was sent, such as believing in all the Scriptures Allah Almighty revealed to His messengers and in all the messengers He sent to humanity.

The Messenger believeth in that which hath been revealed unto him from his Lord and (so do) the believers. Each one believeth in Allah, His angels, His scriptures, and His messengers. The believers say " we make no distinction between any of His messengers" and they say, "We hear, and we obey; (Grant us) Thy forgiveness, our Lord. Unto Thee is the return (of all)."(Al-Baqarah 2:285).

In this verse, we can perceive the pillars of belief on which we all agree.

(B) All Muslims agree on the belief in the Qur'an and that it is all clear Allah Almighty's book, the wise reminder and the straight pass. The Almighty says, referring to the Qur'an, “(This is) a Scripture the revelations whereof are perfected and then expounded. (It cometh) from One (Allah) Who is All-Wise and Well-Acquainted] (Hud 11:1)”. Allah also states that the Qur'an is protected by Allah and is not liable to distortion or change: “Verily, it is We Who have sent down the Reminder (the Qur'an), and surely, We will guard it (from corruption)” (Al-Hijr 15:9). It is needless to say that no Muslim, whether Sunni or Shiite, objects to the fact that what is between the two covers of the Qur'an is from Allah.

It is well known that debaters use the words of the Qur'an in their theological debates, as do jurists in deriving jurisprudential rulings and the same applies to educators in different fields. All refer to the Qur'an and make use of it, regardless of their different backgrounds.

As regard some of the Shiite's' claims that there is an additional part to this Qur'an, this is a matter that we do not have to discuss, for it is a digression. What we have agreed upon is exactly what we need and is what we should abide by, act upon, and never neglect.

Allah Almighty says:

“So judge between them by that which Allah hath revealed, and follow not their desires, but beware of them lest they turn you far away from some of that which Allah hath revealed unto thee. And if they turn away, then know that Allah's will is to smite them for some sin of theirs. And truly, many of mankind lead evil lives. Is it a judgment of the time of (pagan) ignorance that they are seeking? Who is better than Allah for judgment to a people who have certainty (in their belief)?”(Al-Ma'idah 5:49-50)

We observe that Qur'an here warns the Prophet Muhammad from following the whims of some of the peoples of the book and their likes. It also warns him (PBUH) not to be turned away by them from[from some of that which Allah hath revealed unto thee]The warning stated in these verses indicates that whatever Allah revealed has to be followed.

(C) Other areas of agreement between the Sunnis and Shiites include abidance by the practical pillars of Islam, which are: the Shahadah (the two testimonies of faith testifying that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah), performing Prayer, paying zakah, fasting Ramadan, and performing Hajj. Both Sunnis and Shiites practice these pillars and obligations, though there can be some differences in some rulings, but the same happens among the Sunni schools (Madhahib) anyways.

When one studies the schools of jurisprudence (madhhabs), one would find so many differences between the Hanbali and the Maliki Schools for example. There are also many cases in which the Hanbali School adopted an opinion different from all the opinions adopted by other schools. Those cases were known as mufradat al-madhhab (opinions that are exclusive to the followers of a certain madhhab, which are neither shared nor agreed upon by other madhhabs). Those opinions and cases were even gathered in a well-known didactic poem by a Hanbali scholar.

When one reads a classical book that deals with differences of opinion between different schools of jurisprudence such as the book Nail Al-Awtar by Ash-Shawkani, one will find no significant differences among the opinions of Sunni and Shiite scholars of jurisprudence. This appears in Ash-Shawkani's book in which he states the opinions of Sunni scholars along with Shiite ones, whom he calls jurists of the "Prophet's household," such as Al-Baqir, As-Sadiq, An-Nasir, and Al-Hadi. The reader will hardly be able to notice more differences between Sunni and Shiite schools than between Sunni schools themselves. If such conclusion is clear in the jurisprudence of worships ('Ibadat), then it will even be more valid and clear in the jurisprudence of transactions (Mu'amalat).

Despite that , Shiite scholars do not recognize the Sunni reference books of Hadith, such as Malik's Muwatta', Ahmad's Musnad, Al-Bukhari's Sahih, Muslim's Sahih, Abu Dawud's Sunan, At-Tirmidhi's Sunan, Ibn Majah's Sunan, Ad-Darimi's Sunan, and many other books of Hadith, most of the hadiths stated in Sunni books of Hadith and Sunnah are narrated in the Shiite books through their own chains of narrators, reporting either from Allah's Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) or from their imams, whom they consider to be infallible.

What is really important to stress in this regard, is that both the Sunni and Shiite branches of jurisprudence are largely similar, because the source is the same — the divine revelation in the Qur'an and the Sunnah. In addition, the objective of religion according to both parties is the same — establishing Allah's justice and mercy among His servants.

After thorough research , we will find that many of their opinions that we regard as odd, are in fact adopted by some Sunni scholars. Take for example, the most famous jurisprudential issue that sparked dispute between the two schools, that is, the issue of mut`ah marriage (a form of temporary marriage that expires after an agreed-upon period of time ). Mut`ah marriage was deemed permissible by one of the greatest scholars of this Ummah, namely `Abdullah ibn `Abbas. Though it is said he had retracted his opinion, some of his students in Makkah and Yemen remained of that opinion, such as `Ata', Sa`id ibn Jubair, and Tawus (may Allah be pleased with them all).

Dialogue on Controversial Issues

The prominent Muslim scholar Muhammad Rashid Rida, founder of Al-Manar journal and author of the well- known tafseer (exegesis) of the Qur'an Al-Manar, established a rule for dealing with issues debated among Muslim parties and sects. He called it "the golden rule" and it is "We cooperate on the issues we agree upon, and excuse one another in the issues we differ on." This golden rule was adopted by all wise and moderate reformists on top of whom Imam Hassan Al-Banna. Al- Banna repeated this rule in some of his papers and lectures so that many of his followers thought it his own. However, many of our brothers from the Salafi trend objected to the second part of the rule, saying, "How could we find excuses for those differing with us when they disagree with legal texts?" I replied to those in the second volume of my book Fatawa Mu`asarah, stating that some texts are definitive in both narration and denotation. There is no excuse for anyone to disagree with such kind of legal- texts, which are, in fact, very few.

However, most legal texts-from the Qur'an and Sunnah - are of the following three types: either definitive in narration and speculative in understanding, or subjective in narration and definitive in understanding, or subjective in narration and speculative in understating. This ambiguity (speculation and subjectivity) with regard to legal texts and their interpretations leaves room for scholars to practice ijtihad (personal reasoning) and difference in opinions; in this case, a disagreeing opinion is excusable.

You may have a hadith supporting your opinion in a particular case, but I can differ with you because the hadith you have, which you deem definitive in narration is not according to me. There are actually innumerable examples of such cases. Also, there may be a hadith that is definitive in narration to both of us, but we differ in our understanding of it and in the ruling or the deduction we derive from it. In this case, I am not disagreeing with the hadith itself, but rather with your understanding of it. In short, the hadith is a kind of divine revelation, but our understanding of it is not.

This golden rule was slightly modified by one of our contemporary Egyptian Muslim thinkers, Abdul-Halim Mohamed Abu Shuqqah, author of the well-known encyclopedic work Tahrir Al-Mar'ah fi `Asr Ar-Risalah (The Liberation of Women in the Age of the Prophetic Message). He (may Allah have mercy on him) modified the rule as follows: "We cooperate on the issues we agree on and engage in dialogue on those issues we differ on." According to Abu Shuqqah, every disputable issue can be discussed if the intention behind such a discussion is sincere in seeking the truth and far from bigotry and narrow-mindedness. He also believed that through dialogue, many benefits can be attained, such as enriching ideas, interacting opinions, clarifying vague points, coming closer together, and having a common interpretation accepted by both parties.

I believe that we should first focus on the practical aspects and postpone the theoretical and abstract aspects because at most of the time, debate on such theoretical aspects as (the sight of God on the Day of Judgment) will only lead to nowhere. The disputes about such topics by the Sunnah, Mu'tazalites, Al Zaydis, Al Ja'faris and the Ibadis….etc are so old and profound. The dispute on these matters will lead to nothing because each part strongly and obstinately hold on to its stand and opinion.

In his book (Al Basa'ir wa Al Zakhai'r) Abu Hyan Al Tawhidi quoted his teacher Abu Hamid Al Marwrwzi, a prominent Shafe'I, who commented whenever he saw debating theologians disputing with no avail by some poetry saying : They keep wondering in a wide desert searching for evidence until they become pale . Then they remain where they are as if they never went a step forward.

By practical aspects, which I said would be of use in our dialogue, I mean two things:

First: our political, economic, social, and cultural stands and conditions. That is to unite for one goal, to form a unified stance, and to face the enemy's tactics with one strategy. In some cases, Islamic institutions, such as Al-Azhar, Muslim World League, and the Islamic Republic of Iran stood unified like what happened in the summer of 1994 in Cairo in the International Conference on Population and Development. They also stood unified with the representatives of the Catholic Church and Vatican in that same conference. . All these fronts where in the same front against advocates of licentiousness, abortion in all cases, indecent clothing, absolute sexual freedom, and the removal of families' authority over the sexual education of their children. Common interest and a shared intellectual position necessitated that representatives of Islam and Christianity stand united, so how can Sunnis and Shiites not stand united if the enemy is one?

Second: matters related to practical jurisprudential judgments are easier to talk about than matters of creed and theology. Discussing transactions and economic jurisprudence may be easier than discussing acts of worship, rituals, and religious pillars. There is no objection however to discussing acts of worship with a view to finding solutions for existing problems, and not with closed-minded fanaticism, which does not open the door to understanding.

An example of the issues that may be discussed is that of combining two prayers (Zhuhrand `AsrprayersorMaghriband`Isha’prayers). Do Shiites combine prayers as a license to make things easy or an obligation, as we see nowadays?,or is it only to be different from the Sunnis? (For Shiites combining two prayers without legitimate excuse is permissible , unlike Sunni who could not combine between two prayers for no legitimate excuse) What I have read in the Shiite doctrine by Sheikh As-Sabhani in his book Al-Insaf:

Imamiyyah Shiite scholars agree that it is permissible to combine two prayers while in residence (not excused by travel), although performing them separately is preferable.(See Al-Insaf fi Masa'il Dama fiha Al-Khilaf, vol. 1, p. 285.)

Another example is the third testimony of faith that the Shiites use in the Adhan, which states "I testify that `Ali is Allah's devotee." Have the jurists settled on this additional testimony and deemed it obligatory? In what age did that happen? Or was it added by common people and scholars were silent about it for fear of the people's protest? I think the latter is the most plausible reason. Such dialogue on practical, everyday jurisprudence can be fruitful if both parties concerned commit themselves to earnestness, brotherliness, and tolerance, without any antagonism or accusations.


As–Sabhani, Ja'far. Al-Insaf fi Masa'il Dam fiha Al-Khilaf. (Impartiality in long disagreed upon issues)Iran, Qum : Imam Al Sadeq Institute. To read the rest of this study go to the following links:
Principles for the Rapproachement of Muslim Schools of Thought
Knowing the Others from their Own Sources
Searching for the Common Ground
Intelligent Discussion Without Provocation
Avoiding Excessiveness
The Necessity for the Ummah to be Vigilant and to Unite
Yusuf Al-Qaradawi is the Head of the European Council for Fatwa and Research (ECFR) and the President of The International Union for Muslim Scholars (IUMS). He has been active in the field of da`wah and the Islamic movement for more than half a century.

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