There is a common view amongst Muslims according to which the basis of religious understanding and practice is confidence in individuals. What it means is that if you have confidence in your scholar, you follow him. Even those who think that they are following no scholar, they too, according to this view, are actually following someone. Consider this typical line of argument coming from such a school of thought:
“If you say that one should not say sunnah prayers while the jama’at of fard prayers is going on, you are holding that opinion on the basis of a hadith on whose authority you are confident. Essentially, you accept the research of Imam Bukhari or Imam Muslim who declared the hadith in question as authentic and those who were involved in transmitting it as reliable people. We don’t act upon this hadith and instead believe that saying sunnah prayers, especially that of fajar prayer, while fard jama’at is going on is religiously fine because we have confidence in the religious knowledge and piety of our scholars who have given the latter ruling and who, we believe, were more reliable because of their better knowledge and piety.”
We all begin our journey of learning religion, as indeed all other disciplines, on the confidence of what is already understood, believed, and practiced in our society by our elders. However, there comes a time when we realize, at least on some occasions, that some of the things we had learnt weren’t quite correct. It is in such cases that we must change our earlier opinions. Thus, the problem is not with following the elders or having confidence in what they have understood; we have no choice but to do so at an early stage of our learning curve. The real problem arises when we are faced with a view that is superior to the one that we have learnt from our elders or espoused scholars. It is on such occasions that we must change our earlier opinion or else we will be guilty of ignoring the truth, which, of course, is a big crime.
For example, take this case of saying sunnah when the jama’at of fard prayers is going on. Because I know that it is mentioned in authentic books of hadith that the prophet, alaihissalaam, had clearly declared that there was no other prayer allowed in the masjid when the jama’at of fard is going on, I will not pray sunnah, whether of fajar or any other prayer, at the time when jama’at of fard prayers is going on and would also use my influence to convince others that they too should follow the prophet, alaihissalaam, whose religious guidance is clearly available with us in this matter. I will do so because I know that it is religiously necessary to follow the messenger of God in religious matters. Indeed my confidence that this report is reliable is based on the authority and competence of Imam Muslim in whose book I have read it. However, I am still not blindly following him; instead, I am following the prophet, because I am determined that as soon as I will be given an argument claiming that the reported statement of the prophet has reached us through a suspect source, I will set aside my confidence in the Imam and try to find out, as best as I can, whether the criticism on the reported hadith was convincing or not. Why would I continue to follow a hadith if I get a strong indication that it was not a reliable one and the alleged quotation may not have originated from the prophet? And why would I not follow the hadith if I don’t have convincing evidence that it is unreliable? My concern would be to know the truth and not to follow this person or that mindlessly.
I therefore believe that the point raised by this line of argumentation is not convincing. Having confidence in a person’s ability for one to learn from him is one thing and having such blind confidence in him that one doesn’t allow oneself the opportunity to look at any other possible understanding is quite another. While the former is natural and everyone is bound to follow it at the early stage of one’s learning career, the latter approach is misleading. In case if an individual blindly follows someone because he realizes that comparing religious arguments of different scholars confuses him, he will have to prove to the Almighty that he was actually suffering from that disability. However, in case an individual has adopted it as a regular strategy on religious matters without any justification, it is obvious then that his religious practice is not inspired by the spirit of knowing the truth. Instead, he is guilty of being unwilling to know the truth and of being inflexible and arrogant. The prophet, alaihissalam, is reported to have said that the arrogant is not going to enter the paradise. While clarifying arrogance, he said that two things constitute it: “Looking down upon other humans as inferiors and refusing to acknowledge the truth.” As believers, we are expected to be fair in all situations. The Qur’an urges us to be fair thus: “O you who have attained faith! Be ever steadfast in upholding justice, bearing witness to the truth for the sake of God, even though it be against your own selves or your parents or kinsfolk.” (4:135) How can we be fair in forming a religious opinion if we are not even listening to the religious points of view other than those we think belong to our religious group? May Allah Almighty save us all from arrogance, and may He enable us to see the truth as truth and give us the ability to follow it and may he enable us to see the untruth as untruth and give us the ability to stay away from it. Amen.