QUESTION: Two extreme opinions are held by many people regarding the eligibility for making religious judgements: Some believe that no one, in the present day world, has the authority to interpret the Quran and the Sunnah, while others opine that passing religious judgements is a birth-right of all Muslims. What should a common man do to find out the rulings of shariah in practical affairs?
ANSWER: The right of decision-making on religious grounds about practical matters should be allowed on the merit of qualifications and abilities of individuals. The most important qualification, apart from faith and piety of course, is the ability to understand directly the two original sources of Islam: the Holy Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet. One must possess, in addition, a reasonable intellectual ability to appreciate the strengths of differing opinions on an issue.
Individuals in a society can be divided into three broad categories on the basis of the above mentioned cirterion. There are some, though always in minority, who have direct access to the original sources and who possess adequate mental ability. It is a religious duty of all such people to practise religion the way they understand it. They should, further more, inform and guide other on the basis of their opinions.
There are others, always in good number in a healthy society; who may not have a thorough knowledge of the original sources, but can appreciate the merits and weakness of competing religious arguments. It is imperative on all such people to find the more convincing point of view on each injunction and practise it. They may, as a result, find themselves, in many cases, following different scholars simultaneously against religious spirit for all people who belong to this category.
A society can, however, have some individuals who are mentally less gifted and are, therefore, in no position to weigh the strengths of contesting opinions. Religious arguments, instead of enlightening confuse them. They have no option but to follow the verdicts of scholars whose religious knowledge and piety justify such individuals' confidence in them.