How Muslims Should Disagree

By Duston Barto

“Believers, uphold justice and bear witness to God, even if that witness is against yourself, your parents or your close relatives. Whether a person is rich or poor, God can best take care of both. Refrain from following your own desires, so that you do not act unjustly. If you distort the truth, God is fully aware of what you do.” – Qur’an 4:135

In today’s marketplace of ideas, the communication has become faceless through online social media. This often leads to even the most intelligent of individuals getting sucked into bickering, name-calling, and ugliness which would probably not happen in a face-to-face exchange.

I freely admit that there have been occasions where I have lost my manners and gotten far harsher with someone in an exchange than I should have.  However, the most shocking incident happened several weeks ago when two Muslim activists whom I love and respect very much clashed over a proposed fundraiser.

One activist saw an opportunity to explore the virtue of rahma for an enemy in the example given by Prophet Muhammad (SAWS).  The mission was reviewed by scholars and Imams, given a seal of approval and the activist began promoting for the fundraising.  The other activist disagreed with the scope of the fundraiser and rather than engaging in an intellectual exchange of ideas, recruited others to run a smear campaign against the original campaign.  The resulting chaos led to both sides and supporters bickering with one another harshly and very few people maintaining cool.  The fundraiser collapsed and no good at all was done.

In the process of this, I saw several problems come up.
1) Islamic mannerisms went out the window with the first layer of disagreement.

2) Islamic arguments made by scholars and Imams were rejected in favor of social justice talking points.

3) Racially charged narratives were thrown around and ultimately the first activist was discredited by the detractors because of the fact that he is a white male convert whereas the other activist is an Arab born-and-raised Muslim.

4) Arguments against the fundraiser were also based on a “greater good” comparison that frequently comes up whenever fundraising is done.

Insha’Allah, I will address all four of these issues and how we, as an ummah need to do better with all of these.

Ethical Disagreement

In Dr. Taha Jabir al-Alwani’s The Ethics of Disagreement he states the full analysis of the problem, “Arguably, the most dangerous disease which now afflicts the Muslim Ummah is the disease of disagreement and discord. This disease has become all-pervasive and affects every area, town and society. Its appalling influence has penetrated into ideas and beliefs, morality and behavior, and ways of speaking and interacting. It has affected both short- and long term goals and objectives. Like a dark specter, it finally envelops people’s souls. It poisons the atmosphere and leaves hearts sterile and desolate. Multitudes of people are left contending with one another, and the impression is given that all the Islamic teachings, commands, and prohibitions at the disposal of the Ummah are there only to spur people on to discord and make them revel in internecine strife. “

In his seminal work, al-Alwani reflects on the Qur’an in 8:46 where Allah says, “Obey God and His Messenger, and do not quarrel with one another so that you do not lose momentum. Be patient; God is with those who are patient in hard times.”

In the situation I described, the fundraiser was completely collapsed because of the quarrel started between the two opposing views.  An opportunity to express the good of the Muslim community was completely lost, and the only winner was shaytaan.

Dr. al-Alwani mentions that among the ummah there are often a wide range of disagreements, there is, as he calls it, a Spectrum of Discord which affects Muslims specifically and humans in general.  Within this spectrum are acceptable disagreements wherein we must disagree with things that clearly deviate from Islam.  However, the disagreements which cause the greatest friction are those driven by our egos.  We have an impulsive need to be “right” about everything and when an idea challenges that, we respond emotionally and irrationally.

As Muslims, we must submit to the will of Allah.  So when an idea challenges our perception of reality, we must look directly to Islam for the answer.  Does this new idea conflict with Islam?  Is it actually supported by Islam?  Which position is closer to the Islamic ideal?  For the layperson, many times these questions are difficult to answer and this is where we must submit to guidance of scholars and Imams whom we can trust.

Another thing to consider in the disagreement is what greater good will be served by fighting it? Who will benefit if you fight and win versus if you allow it to continue?  Are your arguments logical, provable, based in evidence, and supported by Islam?  Or are your arguments based on “gut” feelings?

Abdullah ibn Umar relates an authenticated hadith, “One day I called upon the Messenger of God (SAWS) during the midday rest. While I was there, the Prophet heard two men arguing loudly in disagreement over the meaning of a Qur’anic verse. The Messenger of God (SAWS) went out with anger showing on his face and said: `People before you perished only because of their disagreement about the Scripture.'”

There is no harm in discussing ideas, sharing views, or comparing positions of thought; but as we see from the example of the Prophet, we should not allow ourselves to disagree to a position where we are shouting at one another.  Instead, we should reflect upon the morality of the Messenger of Allah as he would provide evidence for every statement.

Likewise, as Muslims, we should submit to the will of Allah.  If we do not have knowledge of Hadith, we should leave it alone and stick to the Qur’an.  We should not fight one another with ayat, we should share knowledge.  If we cannot come to an agreement, then we must part ways and say “Allahu’alim.”  Rarely will we have a disagreement with a Muslim that actually falls on issues of aqeedah (the creed of Al-Islam).  When we do, we should defend our position from the Qur’an.  If we are on the receiving end, we should submit to the words of Allah and accept the knowledge.

Lastly, and most importantly, we must be willing to be wrong.  There is no shame in gaining knowledge.

Sunnah Examples over Modern Social Justice

One of the biggest issues that I have seen in the past few years is that Muslim activists have gotten involved in other aspects of activism for social justice.  Now, in and of itself, I see this as a good thing.  We are commanded to fight oppression wherever it happens and when we see injustice and oppression, it is the righteous, Islamic action to stand up against it.

However, Islamic thought must be the supremacy of a Muslim’s mind.  The structure of an idea must have foundations that are built upon layers of knowledge.  There is a hierarchy of sources that a Muslim must maintain in order to keep focus on submission to Allah. I will list them here:

Primary source: Qur’an
Secondary source: Authenticated/verified Sunnah (Life Examples of the Prophet Muhammad)
Tertiary source: Peer-reviewed scientific evidence (including social sciences, etc)
Social sources: non-Muslim authorities on the subject, anecdotal information, “gut feelings”, etc

This presents a logical framework for a Muslim to construct his or her position on any social issue which is rooted in the Qur’an and Sunnah, validated with evidence, and corroborated with social information. Unfortunately today, the reverse seems to be in effect for many Muslim activists who place the social sources in the primary slot.

In the scenario mentioned in the beginning, the initial fundraiser was rooted in the Islamic principles of Rahma. Evidence from the Qur’an in 41:34 was used where Allah says, “Good and evil are never equal. Repel evil with good, and your enemy will become like an intimate friend.” Then evidence from the Sunnah was used in reference to the cruel woman who would throw garbage on the Prophet, but then he checked on her when she fell ill.  A further piece of evidence was presented from the example of Salahuddin who sent his physician to treat King Richard in the midst of the crusades. However, these pieces of evidence were cast aside by the other activist and supporters based on the raw emotion behind the fact that the beneficiary of the fundraiser was an islamophobe and they extended that to assume that he was also a white supremacist.

It is worth noting, that falsely combining Islamophobia and White Supremacy prevents us from tackling the specific issue.  In my years of interfaith and pro-Muslim activism, I have encountered many Islamophobes of various ethnicities and many white people who hated Islam that were not racist at all in their arguments. I digress… that isn’t the purpose of the article, but worth noting.

So, you see, what happened in this scenario is that evidence of a social nature was presented against evidence of the Qur’an and Sunnah.  Because these pieces of evidence are rooted in emotions rather than logic, this stirred up the hornet’s nest of protest against the initial fundraiser.

As Muslims, we must proceed in a logical fashion.  We have to submit ourselves to the will of Allah over that of our own emotions.  The only way to successfully do this is to keep the Qur’an and the Sunnah at the core focus of every opinion that we formulate.

The Convert’s Conundrum

This one hits home for me.  Many people close to me know the story of how I went to a Mosque to do fundraising in Ramadan for The Zakat Foundation and got a lesson in bigotry.  I entered the Mosque like normal and there were kids playing, they all ran out of the musalah area to see who had come in and they saw my white skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes and took of screaming, “THERE’S A WHITE MAN IN THE MOSQUE!!!” over and over.  I sighed, took off my shoes and walked in to make my welcome rakaats when I was surrounded by the fathers of these kids.  I was bombarded with questions “Who are you? Why are you here? Are you FBI? What do you want? Who are you REALLY?” I was forced to stand there and re-state my shahadah before they would allow me to enter the Masjid fully.

Over the years there have been many other incidents where my skin color has made other Muslims treat me differently. As a white convert, there are two sides to the coin. Sometimes the people want to prop me up and make me talk and do things just because I’m white.  Other times, they won’t even let me speak a word.  My mother was told that she couldn’t pray in a mosque because “We don’t know who you are!” and a close friend of mine was LOCKED OUT of a Mosque in New York while the immigrant Muslims stared at him from windows.  His crime? Being a white guy.

I don’t want everyone to get the wrong impression, it’s not a constant barrage of oppression.  In the example I opened the article with, it popped up in a big way.  The activist who started the fundraiser is a white convert.  In fairness to him, he’s studied intensely under scholars for over a decade and many communities have trusted him to lead the khutbah for the community on Jummuah.  He is intellectually sharp and well spoken.  But none of that mattered to his detractors.  What they saw was a white man raising funds to help another white man who was an Islamophobe.  Then the argument was construed that he was a white supremacist.

The issue is that these arguments wouldn’t have been used if he had been Black, Arab, or Desi.  The fact that he is Muslim would have been first and foremost. The fact that he is Muslim should have overridden his skin color anyway.  Muslims should be better than this.

Brother al-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X) said, “America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered white – but the white attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color.”

Yes, America needs to understand Islam.  However, before that can happen, the MUSLIMS need to understand Islam.  Allah’s Messenger (SAWS) has told us very plainly in his farewell sermon, “All mankind is from Adam and Eve.  An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an Arab; a white has no superiority over a black, nor does a black have any superiority over a white; none have superiority over another except by piety and good action.  Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood.”

One brotherhood!  Islam has erased nationalism, tribalism, racism and all allegiances and lines between them.  If you are a Muslim and you continue to draw these lines of division among yourselves then you are outside of Islam!  Allow Allah to save you from the bondage of seeing people along the lines of race and nation and unite with your brothers and sisters in Islam.

Think of the Children!

The last point I will address is actually the least and this is something that comes up only because it happens every time there is a fundraiser.  There is always a chorus of nay-sayers who will shout out “better” causes.

Allah has told us in the Qur’an that there are eight categories of people who should receive our Zakat, “The offerings given for the sake of God are only for the poor and the needy, and those who are in charge of the funds, and those whose hearts are to be won over, and for the freeing of human beings from bondage, and those who are over burdened with debts, and in God’s cause, and the wayfarer: this is an ordinance from God – and God is all-knowing, wise.” (Qur’an 9:60)

Allah does not give us a hierarchy, He presents that all of these categories are equally deserving of need.  Therefore, it is inappropriate for a Muslim to say “Do not donate to a school in China when there are starving people in Afghanistan.” or “Don’t give money to heal a bigot when there are people in Syria who need homes.”  ALL of these people are worthy of Zakat under Allah’s guidance.  The school in China helps those who are needy, the people who are starving in Afghanistan are poor, the bigot needs his heart won over, and the Syrian refugees are wayfarers.  ALL fit into Allah’s plan for charity.

If you choose not to donate because of your own reasons, then do not deny your fellow Muslim the right to do good through his or her own donations.  Merely refrain from doing so yourself.


I ask all of us Muslims to remember that we constitute one family, guided by Allah’s Messenger.  Given instruction by His divine word, the Qur’an.  We are all on this journey together and we should only compete with one another in righteous acts, not shout and debate with one another over who is “right” or “wrong” when, in reality, there are multiple correct positions.

Let us all have enough rahma (mercy) in our hearts for one another to extend peace instead of discord.

I invite you all to pray with me:

Bismillah, ir rahmaan ir raheem. O Allah, Creator of all that exists, master of the Day of Judgment; grant us the wisdom to know righteousness from deviancy.  Grant us the mercy to speak in peace to one another and to join with one another in righteous deeds. Keep us on the straight way and help us to be worthy of your divine mercy and salvation.  Help us to speak only words of peace and grant us the patience to remain silent, the humility to accept that we are wrong, and the life to serve our fellow man in the way that you have guided us.  My life, my words and my deeds are for you, O Lord.  Make me among the companions of paradise.  Ameen!

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