People might notice that sometimes Muslims have different views about certain things such as the dates for Ramadan. So why do they have such differences and what are the consequences?
Generally speaking, it is not possible to have a rule for everything. For example, I am not aware of any religion that specifically mentions whether mobile phones are permissible or not (although I have heard that there is a Christian sect in the US, the Amish, who do not use modern technology). As a whole, people can see that phones provide an effective mode of communication and it does not contradict religious beliefs so they use them.
People can have different opinions even from a secular point of view. There are many examples such as: is an iPhone better than Android phone? Is a big car better than a small car? Is it better to travel by land or by air? Are big cities better than smaller cities? And many more. People’s opinions change based on their level of knowledge and with time. It might surprise you that back in the 1950s /1960s people tried to encourage the use of cigarettes and even used popular cartoon characters such as “The Flintstones” to promote smoking (you can see this from here). Perhaps people did not fully understand the dangers of smoking back then.
From an Islamic point of view, most things are clear. The main doctrines are in the Quran. If it is not in the Quran then people can look at the Sunnah (way of the Prophet PBUH; Peace Be Upon Him). If it is not in the Sunnah then people can look at the examples of his companions. If it is not in their example, then people often refer to the early generation of Muslims such as the 4 Imams.
Some areas have different opinions. When it comes to different opinions about religious dectrines there are normally 4 major schools of thought that people refer back to: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafii and Hambali. These are based on the teachings of 4 Imams /scholars who differed on minor issues but still respected each others differences. They all requested from their followers that if they say anything that the Prophet PBUH taught, that they should reject what they have said and go with the teachings of the Prophet PBUH.
Some different opinions are quite minor. For example when praying, should someone raise their arms after standing straight from Ruku (bowing)? How many times should someone give the Takbeer (saying “Allahu Akbar”; Allah is The Greatest) during the Eid prayer? After someone raises their hands to supplicate and finishes, should they simply drop their hands or should they wipe their face with the palms of their hands? These are some areas that some people might have different opinions but even if they do, they are very minor issues and not really a problem. Something that they can all agree on is that prayer is important, there is a special prayer for Eid and people normally raise their hands when supplicating. There is a certain level of flexibility. Some areas are more complicated and that is when people often consult with modern scholars. You can see all sorts of questions that people might have from here. Regarding the dates for Ramadan, that is based on the lunar calendar and moon sighting (you can find out more about the Islamic calendar from my article here). People basically need to see when the new crescent moon appears but sometimes it is difficult to see (such as in the UK when it is often raining) so many people start Ramadan on the same date as Saudi Arabia as the moon can be seen more easily, there is only a 2-3 hour time difference and they have moon sighting committees. Not everyone does this.
To illustrate the above points: the Quran explains that people need to pray but not how exactly. That information is in the Sunnah. Minor details from narrations might be interpreted or viewed differently so people can refer to the classical scholars of Islam such as the 4 Imams. Other things that did not exist then such as the permissibility of using a prayer rug that has lights can be checked with modern scholars.
Some differences between people’s actions are quite big however and are more a matter of misunderstanding than of different opinions. One very popular case is that of the celebration of the Prophet’s Birthday, also known as “Milad Nabawi”. None of the companions of the Prophet PBUH or even early generations of Muslims celebrated the Prophet’s Birthday and this was something that was done much later. Interestingly, the exact date of birth of the Prophet PBUH was never actually known as he was not a prophet yet and he was born in the “Year of the Elephant” (you can find out more about the Islamic calendar from here). Instead, the death of the Prophet PBUH was recorded in great detail as he had many companions then and his date of death (12 Rabi Al Awwal) is the date that is now celebrated as the Prophet’s Birthday! You can read more about this from here. I am not blaming anyone personally for celebrating the Prophet’s Birthday as there are people who celebrate the Prophet’s Birthday with good intentions but do not know this important part of history.
Something to keep in mind is that from an Islamic point of view, people will be questioned individually about what they did and will need to justify their actions (you can find out more about what happens about life after death from an Islamic point of view from a book that I translated, which you can see from here). To put things into perspective, if someone goes for a job interview one of the first questions they are asked is “why do you want the job?” and they need to give a reason. Simply saying that it is a good job or that other people that they know are working in the profession is not good enough, although they might have influenced them. Likewise, people need to be able to justify their actions.
On a side note, scholars or specialists in any field carry a great responsibility and have lots of knowledge for which they deserve respect but they are also human and can also make mistakes so they should not be blindly followed. This can apply to any field of knowledge. I witnessed many examples of this such as when working as an Arabic Interpreter in the UK when I had to interpret for a Libyan university student who had a knee injury due to playing football so his knee hurt when he bent it. The doctor who he saw was one of the senior doctors at the clinic and he casually said to him “don’t bend your knee then!” The next time I saw the patient was at hospital with his wife following a knee surgery! Some things can be even more extreme such as when a Professor in the UK as recent as 2009 claimed that black people were less intelligent than white people (you can read about this from here). If you ever decide to go against common views please try to have a good reason for doing so and not try to force the views onto others.
Perhaps the best quote I have come across to describe the point of not blind following others and having a reason for doing this is the following quote by Buddha:
“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”
I am not a Buddhist but feel that this advice can be useful to people in general. But what do you think?