The common man is often confused, and, therefore, disgusted to learn about conflicting opinions concerning religious issues. There are many who strongly feel that the present tendency of general aversion to religion among the Muslims owes a great deal to the unyielding attitude of the scholars. 'As it is difficult to find one clear, unchallengeable verdict on most religious injunctions,' the argument goes, 'it is difficult to practise Islam'. Although the excuse is hardly acceptable, it does emphasize the necessity to be correctly informed about the real sources of knowledge on Islam and the nature of differences in religious opinions so that a correct attitude about all such questions is adopted.
The original sources of knowledge on Islam are only two: the Holy Qur'an and the Sunnah of the Prophet (sws). The fact that these are the only original sources of religious guidance and that all others are subservient to these can be deduced unquestionably from the following verse:
"O believers, obey Allah and obey the Prophet and those of you who are in authority. Then if you have a dispute concerning any matter, refer it to Allah and the Prophet if you are believers in Allah and the Last Day." (4:59)
While on the one hand, the above verse directs the Muslims to obey the leaders of their political system, it also concedes the possibility of a difference of opinion among the subjects and the rulers. It means that all other authorities, except the Qur'an and the Sunnah, are challengeable in Islam; it is only these which form the basis of our religious opinions.
There, of course, still remains the unanswered question of the relative significance of the two. The question, in fact, has been settled once and for all by the Prophet (sws) himself. While giving final instructions to Mu'aaz Ibni Jabal the governor-designate for Yemen, the Prophet (sws) asked him how he would decide affairs during his tenure. 'I will look for solutions in the Book of Allah and decide,' he replied. 'But what if you do not find one there?' was the reply. 'I will then turn to the Sunnah of His Prophet,' was the reply. 'What would you do if even there you do not find an answer?' asked the Prophet. 'I will then use my intellect to solve the problem.' The Prophet (sws) was delighted with the answers and he thanked the Almighty for bestowing his followers with the correct approach for understanding Islam.
The above conversation clearly shows that a Muslim must, for the purpose of guidance, resort to the Qur'an first and then, in case the Book is silent on the subject, the Sunnah of the Prophet should be consulted. If the answer is not discovered even there, he should know that it is one of those matters which the Almighty wants him to decide on his own in accordance with the spirit of the two original sources.
Many other sources of knowledge are claimed by some people to be original. Ijma (unanimous opinion of scholars of a time), however, is by far the strongest contender. Shaukani, a prominent 12th century scholar, has rightly pointed out that while on the one hand Ijma even on a single issue is highly improbable, if not impossible, to take place, on the other the Qur'anic verse generally presented for proving the authenticity of Ijma as a source of religious knowledge has nothing to do with the subject. Whereas Ijma is incorrectly claimed by people for their opinions to lend additional strength, it can be stated without fear of contradiction that any opinion backed by a claim of Ijma can be challenged by bringing forth stronger arguments against it from the Qur'an and the Sunnah, the two original sources.
We now take up a more practical problem; What course of action should Muslims adopt to follow Islam given the many opposing opinions on various issues. There can, obviously, be no uniformly applicable formula. Individuals in a society can be divided into at least three broad categories on the basis of their knowledge of religion and their own mental abilities.
There are some, though always in minority, who have direct access to the original sources and who possess adequate mental abilities. It is the religious duty of all such people to practise Islam the way they understand it. They should, furthermore, inform and guide others 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 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. Blindly following only one authority is completely against religious spirit for all people who belong to this category.
A society can, however, have some individuals who are mentally less gifted and hence, in no position to weigh the strength of contesting opinions. Religious arguments, instead of enlightening, confuse them. Such people have no option but to follow the verdicts of scholars whose knowledge and piety justify their confidence in them.