Why Muslim Jurists Differ in Their Opinions

By Mohamed Baianonie, Imam at the Islamic Center of Raleigh, NC


Difference of opinion started as early as the time of the companions of the Prophet, and difference of opinion has been approved by the Prophet. The prophet Muhammad ordered his companions after the battle of Al-Ahzaab saying, “No one of you should pray Asr until you reach the village of Bani-Qurayzah (A Jewish tribe).” While they were on their way, the time of Asr came. Some companions said we should not pray until we reach Bani-Qurayzah. Others said we should pray Asr now because the Prophet did not mean for us to leave the Asr prayer, but he wanted us to be in a hurry. So some of the companions prayed Asr, while others continued on until they reached Bani-Qurayzah after sunset. When they went back to the Prophet, they mentioned to him the story and he did not blame either one of them." [Recorded by Imaams Bukhaari and Muslim] This Hadeeth clearly shows us that the Prophet Muhammad accepted both opinions, because if one of them were wrong then the Prophet would have expressed it at that time.


           Furthermore, The Muslim scholars will be rewarded by Allaah for their sincere and hard work, as has been promised by the Prophet even if they have reached the incorrect opinion, and if they have reached the correct opinion, they will be rewarded double. The prophet Muhammad confirms this reward in an authentic Hadeeth, “If the Haakim (ruler or judge) made his Ijtihaad or the extraction of the verdict from original sources of legislation and he reached the correct verdict he will get two rewards. And if he reached the wrong verdict he will only get one reward.” [Recorded by Imaams Bukhaari, Muslim, and Abu-Dawud]


There are numerous reasons why there are differing opinions among the Muslim jurists; however, the following are five main reasons:


  1. Knowledge of the Prophet’s traditions (words, actions, and his approval or disapproval to other’s words or actions) may not have reached a scholar.


            The reason for this is because the Prophet Muhammad’s traditions were witnessed by some companions, while others may have been unaware of this knowledge. Ibn `Abbaas reported: `Umar bin Al-Khattaab set out for Ash-Shaam (the region comprising Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan). As he reached at Sargh (a town by the side of Hijaaz) he came across the governor of Al-Ajnaad, Abu `Ubaidah bin Al-Jarraah and his companions. They informed him that an epidemic had broken out in Syria. Ibn `Abbas relates: `Umar said to me: "Call to me the earliest Muhaajirun (Emigrants).'' So I called them. He sought their advice and told them that an epidemic had broken out in Ash-Shaam. There was a difference of opinion whether they should proceed further or retreat to their homes in such a situation. Some of them said: "You have set forth to fight the enemy, and therefore you should not go back;'' whereas some of them said: "As you have along with you many eminent Companions of Messenger of Allaah , we would not advice you to set forth to the place of the plague (and thus expose them deliberately to a danger).'' `Umar said: "You can now go away.'' He said: "Call to me the Ansaar (the Helpers).'' So I called them to him, and he consulted them and they differed in their opinions as well. He said: "Now, you may go.'' He again said: "Call the old (wise people) of the Quraish who had emigrated before the conquest of Makkah.'' I called them. `Umar consulted them in this issue and not even two persons among them differed in the opinions. They said: "We think that you should go back along with the people and do not take them to this scourge. `Umar made an announcement to the people, saying: "In the morning I intend to go back, and I want you to do the same.'' Abu 'Ubaidah bin Al-Jarraah said: "Are you going to run away from the Divine Decree?'' Thereupon `Umar said: "O Abu 'Ubaidah! Had it been someone else to say this.'' ('Umar did not like to differ with him). He said: ‘Yes, we are running from the Divine Decree to the Divine Decree. What do you think if you have camels and you happen to get down a valley having two sides, one of them covered with foliage and the other being barren; will you not act according to the Divine Decree if you graze them in vegetative land? In case you graze them in the barren land, even then you will be doing so according to the Divine Decree.’

There happened to come `Abdur-Rahmaan bin `Auf who had been absent for some of his needs. He said: I have knowledge about it. I heard the Messenger of Allaah saying, "If you get wind of the outbreak of plague in a land, you should not enter it; but if it spreads in the land where you are, you should not depart from it.'' Thereupon `Umar bin Khattab praised Allaah and went back.” [Recorded by Imaams Bukhaari and Muslim]


Some companions who had knowledge of these traditions reported them to others, while others companions did not make such reports because they forgot or they were afraid of reporting something that was not absolutely accurate. The prophet Muhammad said: “Do not tell a lie against me for whoever tells a lie against me then he will surely enter the Hell- Fire.” [Recorded by Imaam Bukhaari]


            Jurists who came earlier in time, meaning closer to the time of the companions, and jurists who were further in location, meaning further in location from the residence of the Prophet, did not have access to larger collections of traditions as did those who came later in time and were closer in location. Historically, jurists who lived closer to the residence of the Prophet had access to larger collections of traditions, whereas those who lived further in distant regions and countries had access to fewer collections of traditions. As time went on, collections of traditions were gathered and compiled into single volumes of works like Al-Jaami’ Saheeh Al-Bukhaari, whereas in earlier times jurists worked much harder to find collections of traditions. Today we can find numerous collections of traditions in a single CD which was not the case for so many jurists in the past.


An example of jurists who both came earlier in time and were further in location includes the jurists of Iraq like Imaam Abu Hanifah who did not have access to larger collections of traditions as did those who both came later in time and were closer in location. An example of jurists who were closer in location includes the jurists of Medina like Imaam Maalik. An example of jurists who came later in time includes Imaam Ash-Shaafi’i and Imaam Ahmad ibn Hanbal.



Example #1: Time & Location Comparison


Earlier Time

Later Time

Further Location

Imaam Abu Hanifah had access to smaller collections of traditions.

He was born 80H. & died 150H. He was born in Kufa & died in Baghdad


Closer Location


Imaam Maalik had access to larger collections of traditions.

He was born 93H. & died 179H. He was born & died in Medina


Example #2: Time & Location Comparison


Later Time

Multiple Locations:

Enabling jurists to learn more about the prophetic traditions.

Imaam Ash-Shaafi’i had access to larger collections of traditions. He was born 150H. & died 204H. He was born in Gaza, he then moved to Mecca, Medina, Yemen, Iraq, and then Egypt where he died.

Imaam Ahmad ibn Hanbal had access to larger collections of traditions. He was born 164H. & died 241H. He was born in Baghdad, he then moved to Mecca, Medina, Sham, Yemen, Al-Jazeerah, and then Baghdad where he died.


  1. Jurists may differ in their opinions about the authenticity of some of the Prophet’s traditions.


What some jurists may consider to be a sound and authentic tradition, others may consider that same tradition as weak or unauthentic. This is because scholars use different standards for determining authenticity of traditions.


Scholars consider a tradition to be authentic if there is no problem or defect in: 1- the chain of narration, and 2- the text itself. On the other hand, scholars consider a tradition to be weak if there is either a problem with: 1- the chain of narration, or 2- in the text itself. The scholars differed in their opinions regarding the authenticity of a tradition because, for example, some scholars may consider a chain of narration authentic while other scholars may consider that same chain of narration unauthentic. Those scholars who consider the tradition authentic may cite it as evidence, while those scholars who consider the same tradition unauthentic do not cite it as evidence.


  1. The understanding of the text (verses of the Qur'aan and traditions of the Prophet) may differ from one jurist to another.


There are two reasons for this difference. First, some Arabic words used in a text may have different meanings. Second, each scholar has a different level of comprehension of a text. Even if the words carry only one meaning, the capabilities in comprehending these same words may differ. This variance in comprehension is part of normal human nature.


  1. How jurists deal with several texts that contain seemingly contradictory information.


Even when jurists are in agreement over the authenticity of the chain of narration and they agree in their understanding of the text, scholars may still disagree in how they deal with several texts that contain seemingly contradictory information. Each jurist has a different procedure in dealing with seemingly contradictory texts.


  1. Scholars follow different procedures when they are extracting a ruling for different matters. Also, some jurists consider certain sources as sources of Islamic legislation, while others do not consider them as sources at all.


In conclusion, after learning about main reasons for difference of opinion among scholars, it is clear this is natural in Islamic jurisprudence and it is a sign of strength and not a sign of weakness. We should appreciate the great work of the scholars, and we ask Allaah to grant them all great rewards for their great efforts. In matters where there is difference of opinion, we should utilize the strongest opinion or the opinion that closest fulfills our needs.


If Allaah had wanted, He could have had only one opinion for religious matters by making all evidences clear cut with no dispute about authenticity or understanding of the evidences as He did for some matters. But out of His great wisdom and mercy, He made the nature of the sources of our legislation produce different opinions. This makes Islamic Law that encompasses all aspects of life more flexible and dynamic.


We can see how frequently difference of opinion benefits our lives today in medicine. While searching for the best treatment, a patient may receive different prescriptions for his illness from different doctors depending on the methodology used by each doctor. Each methodology may have specific benefits for different health needs. These treatments differ from person to person, time to time, and location to location as do health conditions.


Main References:

Deraasaat Fi-lkhtelaaft- Al-Elmyyah by Muhammad Abu Al-Fateh Al-Baianonie Arabic


Raf’ul-Lmalaam ‘Ane-Al’aemate-Al-‘Aaam by Imaam Ibn Taymeyyah Arabic