How Muslim Scholars Deal With Perceived Contradictions in Islamic Texts

Following is what I gathered from the notes of Sh. Riaz Ansary that he provided to us during a lecture on Usul-ul-Fiqh (Fundamentals of Islamic Jurisprudence) at IOU.  I found it quite enlightening and thought it would be useful for many students of this sacred knowledge.  What follows are his notes (mostly) and a few of my own comments where I felt clarification was needed.

Methodology of the Majority of Scholars of Islam

The perspective that guides each step of the process [for them] is maintaining the validity and viability of the evidence as far and as much as possible.

  1. Reconciling where possible – the justification is that the Lawgiver only provided the evidence in order to guide humanity to the rules He intends for them; therefore, to use all the evidence on an issue is preferable to rejecting some of it; and it is the best method for preserving the Shari’ah from charges of imperfection.  Therefore, if two seemingly contradictory pieces of evidence from the text can be understood in a way where both can be harmoniously followed, it is the first and most preferred way for the majority.
  2. Tarjih where possible – to give preponderance to one evidence over another, to consider it weightier. That is because the evidence which is overridden can be resurrected under changing circumstances; for example, the position that stoning the Jamaraat before the zenith during the Days of Tashreeq [at the pilgrimage to Mecca] is lawful, based upon the lack of stipulation of a specific time by the Lawgiver is worthy of resurrection in an era of intense crowding; whereas previously, precedence was given to the practice of the Prophet (pbuh), i.e., he stoned each day after the zenith.
  3. Naskh (Abrogation) – it comes after the first two choices above cannot be applied because the abrogated evidence is permanently disabled.  It is determined through chronology of the evidence.  The earlier text is abrogated by the later text.
  4. Disqualifying both pieces of evidence – it comes [as a] last [resort], because it causes the permanent loss of the two pieces of conflicting evidence. In such circumstances, one returns to the starting assumption (al-bara’ah al-asliyyah – everything is allowed unless evidence that it is prohibited [in worldly matters], there is no obligation unless there is evidence to indicate that it is so, etc.)

Methodology of the Hanafis

  1. Naskh – Unlike the majority, they turn to it first.  Their reasoning is that, if you know the date, you have to go with the later of the two  evidence.  They say that this was the practice of the companions of the Prophet (pbuh).
  2. Tarjih – When it is impossible to determine the dates of the evidence, they turn to tarjih. The argument they use to give it precedence over reconciliation is that all rational people agree that a weaker evidence cannot be treated on a par with a stronger evidence; therefore tarjih is warranted.  The majority’s response to the Hanafis: One compares the relative strength of two pieces of evidence to disqualify one of them when they conflict; but if it can be shown that they do not conflict, then there is no need for that.
  3. Reconciliation – Same concept as discussed in the section of the majority
  4. Disqualifying both pieces of evidence – Same concept as discussed in the section of the majority

Methodology of Some Hadith Scholars

  1. Reconciliation
  2. Naskh
  3. Tarjih
  4. Disqualifying both pieces of evidence

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