All humans who believe that Muhammad, may Allah’s mercy be on him, was the last messenger God Almighty sent to guide the entire mankind are Muslims. However, despite the commonality of this belief, Muslims differ in the way they understand and practice their religion. There are two basic reasons for this situation to have arisen.
The first reason is that many Muslims have chosen to follow one religious group or another blindly. In doing so, they have decided that they will not employ the two most significant gifts the Almighty has bestowed upon them to sift the right views from the wrong ones: their intellect and the Qur’an. Since it is only their intellect which enables humans to know whether what they are doing is right or wrong and it is only through intellect that one can understand the word of God, Qur’an, once both were rendered non-effective, Muslims lost the ability of knowing the truth in its pristine form. Thus, whoever chose to follow a certain religious way at the beginning of his career was destined to follow the same way till the very end of his life. In such a state, it wasn’t possible for A and B, for instance, who may otherwise be very intelligent people and friendly with each other, to decide which of the respective religious views the two were carrying was the more correct. Since in the rules of Taqlid (blind following of the elders/scholars) a common man is not even allowed the facility to think about religious differences, the resolution of those differences and the motivation to find the truth in the jungle of them became an impossible task.
The other reason for the differences of opinion to continue to grow thick amongst Muslims was the fact that Muslim scholars, instead of seeking guidance from Quran to resolve their differences, chose to adopt one of the following four distinct non-Quranic approaches to understand religion: the hadith-centered approach, the fiqh-centered approach, the tasawwuf-centered approach, or the history-centered approach.
Those who pursued the hadith-centered approach were the ones who were more interested in proving that the true message of Islam was the one that emerged from the understanding of hadith literature. Even if there was an apparent conflict between what Qur’an was saying and what hadith was implying, it was resolved in favor of hadith with a plea that what we understand from Qur’an was our own understanding and what was mentioned in hadith was the interpretation of the prophet, alaihissalaam, and most certainly, so goes the argument, the interpretation of the prophet was superior to ours. The point that was lost was that a hadith, even if it was authentic, doesn’t give the exact wordings and the correct context of what the prophet had said. Also, it has never been convincingly explained as to how could it be that if our interpretation of Qur’an was unreliable, our interpretation of hadith be not unreliable too? After all, it is we, the same mortals, who would be interpreting hadith to get its meanings. The people who have understood Islam through hadith have come about to be called Ahle-Hadith. The fact of the matter is that majority of Muslims today are practically Ahle-Hadith even though many of them may claim that they were pursuing the fiqh-centered approach.
Those who followed the fiqh-centered approach were the people who pursued the path of emphasizing the scholarly work done on Islamic jurisprudence by their espoused scholars more than anything else. To defend resolutely what the earlier scholars of their school of thought had already mentioned became the most significant task of the scholars of the later times. The interpretation of the Qur’an was done to ensure that the Qur’anic verses were understood in the light of the fiqhi understanding that had already emerged in their school of thought. The peculiar understanding that thus emerged could neither be similar to the one that was reached by those who pursued the hadith-, tasawwuf-, and history-centered approaches nor could it be able to bring together the scholars who followed different schools of thought (fiqhi masalik) within the fiqh-centered approach.
The third approach followed by a group of Muslims is the history-centered approach. The followers of this approach have a peculiar understanding of the early history of Islam. Their interpretation of the Qur’an always tends to be faithful to that understanding. There are certain implications drawn from their historical understanding. It is claimed that the original teachings of Islam had decided to confer the status of a chosen people to the members of the prophet’s family, who were ill-treated by some tyrants of the ummah and to mourn their alleged ill-treatment was the most important part of all religious rituals. To prove those implications and the related concept of religion is the basic focal point of all Quranic interpretations done by the scholars of this school of thought.
A fourth approach towards understanding Islam is the Tasawwuf-centered approach. According to this approach the basic purpose of all Islamic teachings is to require humans to get back to where they originally belong: God, their Creator. Since man has been required to go through the tragic experience to spend the dreaded time of separation from God in his human existence, which is arrested in the flesh and bones of his body, in this worldly life, he must get out of it for his salvation to be a part of God again. For that purpose, he has to go through the various stages of spiritual exercises to be pure enough to achieve unity with the ‘truth’ once again. The approach has its origins outside the text of Qur’an. The emotionally attached adherents of it seek to find justifications for it from within Qur’an and interpret the text in a manner that suits their peculiar understanding of reality. The manner they achieve it is by describing their interpretation as esoteric (which relies on the methodology of bringing hidden/batini meanings of the text). Since this approach of interpretation doesn’t take the apparent text of Qur’an as binding but requires it to be interpreted in a manner that the ‘hidden’ meanings of it are extracted, the book of God is not given the status of final authority on religious matters.
As mentioned above, the fiqh-, tasawwuf-, and history-centered approaches are all based on, to a greater or lesser degree, the hadith-centered approach. They do not seem to have independent methodological bases other than what is offered by the hadith-centered approach. The only difference is that the tasawwuf-centred approach adds spiritual experiences (kashf) to help in arriving at its esoteric (batani) insights to tafsir together with weak (da’if) ahadith, the fiqh-centered approach prefers the juristic verdicts of the espoused jurists in interpreting the verses where there happen to be differences, and the history-centered approach is inclined to draw from the opinion of the Imams in interpreting verses where the peculiar point of view of the sect is desired to be emphasized.
Are these approaches completely incorrect? The answer is that insofar as they relegate Quranic text to a position of secondary source, subservient to the other sources, these approaches are intrinsically incorrect. However, they all have elements of virtue in them. What then is the correct approach? The correct answer to it is that only the Quran-centered approach is the correct one. The Almighty has Himself required believers to hold fast to the rope of Allah and as a consequence make sure that they don’t fall into disintegration. It is obvious from this statement that if there could be one integrating way of bringing all Muslims to one understanding, it was only through Quran. Also, the Almighty declares that it is Quran which is the ultimate criterion to sift right from wrong (Al-Furqan). He also clarifies that He sent books to humans from time to time so that those books should “… judge between people in matters wherein they differed.” (Quran; 2:214)
I will give an example to show how a certain religious issue could be resolved differently by different approaches and how Quran can come to our rescue to let us know which view is the correct one: What standard of living should one ideally adopt? How much should one ideally spend on oneself and how much on others? To respond to this question, the hadith-based approach would suggest that the ideal attitude would be not to leave any saving with oneself because such was the approach adopted by prophet, alahissalaam, even though lesser attitudes would be acceptable as well. The fiqh-based approach would say much the same thing except for the difference that they would divide the attitudes into different levels, categorizing the one adopted by the prophet as the ideal. The history-based approach would mention the example of their Imams as well to substantiate the same view. The tasawwuf-based approach would mention that the ideal attitude would be to minimize consumption for the individual to enable him to shun most contacts with the attractions of this world so that nearness with the Creator is achieved. It would attempt to support its view by clarifying that the prophet, alaihissalaam, did the same.
The Quran-centered approach would look at the book of Allah to find the right behaviour of the believer and make a claim that it mentions clearly the ideal attitude of the servants of the Merciful God (‘ibadurrahman) thus: “And those who, when they spend, are neither extravagant nor niggardly, but hold a (medium) way between those (extremes).” (Quran; 25:67) The approach would make an attempt to offer an explanation for the example of the prophet, alaihissalaam, in the light of this Quranic guidance. However, in case it fails in its attempt, it would explain that the reports have either not been properly understood or not properly transmitted. The possibility that the Quranic guidance hasn’t been properly understood would also be conceded. However, given a situation wherein a clear Quranic guidance is available, even if there was a possibility of it being misunderstood, it was the status of the book of Allah that its verdict be acknowledged as correct religious understanding on the subject, for it is the book which was given the status “… to judge between people in matters wherein they differed.” In case the mistake in understanding the Quranic text is pointed out, it will be accepted, again because the principle is that Quranic verdict must always hold supreme.
In this particular case, one of the explanations offered for the prophet’s behaviour could be that since he lived in times when the economic condition of Muslims wasn’t good, he lived a frugal life suiting his circumstances. The examples of Dawood and Sulaiman, alaihimussalam, would also be offered to substantiate the point that the prophets, all of whom were ideals amongst humans, lived a life which in accordance with their circumstances could be described as the middle-of-the-road approach in economic matters, exactly as described in Quran about the servants of Al-Rahman (the Merciful) that they “are neither extravagant nor niggardly, but hold a (medium) way between those (extremes).”