Wasatiyah Approach to Understanding Truth (Edition no. 8/April 2016)

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(This article was originally written in Malay and published in Berita Harian (Singapore), on 26 April 2013, under the title Mengenali Kebenaran Yang Mutlak. It is republished here with some additions and improvements. I would like to thank bro. Hafiz Kusairi for his assistance in proofreading the article.)

By Ustaz Muhammad Haniff Hassanal-haqq-attribute

Truth is the essence of Islam. In fact, the entire Islamic teaching is focused on the right understanding of truth. Thus, having the right understanding and attitude towards truth is critical because it shapes the manner in which Muslims practise the religion.

Without the right understanding and attitude, Muslims might fall into extremism such as being unnecessarily strict to himself or others, treating all truths as subjective and accusing others who disagree with his theological position as heretics.

Category of truth

In the Islamic intellectual tradition, truth is divided into two broad categories; 1) definitive or objective truth (al-qat`iyat or al-muhkamat), and 2) speculative or subjective truth (al-zanniyat or al-mutashabihat).

The superiority of the two is assessed on two attributes; a) authenticity (al-thubut), and b) meaning (al-dilalah) and the quality of each attribute is determined by its; a) definitiveness (qat`iy), or b) non-definitiveness (zanniy).[1]

With regards to authenticity, all verses in the Qur’an are regarded as definitively authentic.[2] This, however, does not apply automatically to hadith. Only Mutawatir hadith is regarded as definitively authentic.[3] Non-Mutawatir hadith which is also categorised as Ahad has different degrees of authenticity and can also be classified as fake (Mawdu`). While there are Ahad hadiths that are classified as authentic (Sahih and Hasan), its authenticity is non-definitive and, thus, it is considered as lower in rank as compared to Mutawatir hadith.[4]
Definitive in meaning refers to scriptures that have only one absolute meaning. No other possible meanings could be deduced except for one absolute meaning only. In contrast, scriptures that are non-definitive in meaning are those that have many possible meanings due to the nature of word or context related to them. In this regard, both the Qur’an and hadith share the same probability of being definitive and non-definitive.[5] Examples cited in the table below would clarify.

arif haq takrif ahlahFor the purpose of ranking strength, authenticity is given more importance than meaning and definitiveness is superior to non-definitiveness.[6] The table below will help to provide greater clarity on the categories of scriptural evidence based on its definitiveness and non-definitiveness in authenticity and meaning and their ranking in supremacy within Islamic theology.


Of the above four types, only theological issues that are based on the  first categorization of type and rank are regarded by Muslim scholars as definitive truth. The rest falls under the subjective truth category.[13]

For greater clarity, here are some other examples of issues are theologically regarded as definitive truth in Islam because they are based on scriptural evidences that are definitive in authenticity (qat’`iy al-thubut) and meaning (qat`iy al-dilalah):

  • Prohibition of murder in Islam, “and do not take any human being’s life – [the life] which God has declared to be sacred [emphasis added]- otherwise than in [the pursuit of] justice.” (The Qur’an, 6:151)
  • Prohibition of adultery, “And do not commit adultery for, behold, it is an abomination and an evil way [emphasis added].” (The Qur’an, 17:32)
  • Obligation to fast during Ramadan, “O you who have attained to faith! Fasting is ordained for you [emphasis added] as it was ordained for those before you, so that you might remain conscious of God.” (The Qur’an, 2:183)
  • Obligation to fulfill promise and contractual agreement, “O you who have attained to faith! Be true to your covenants [emphasis added]!….” (The Qur’an, 5:1)
  • Permissibility of trade in Islam, “…God has made buying and selling lawful [emphasis added]…” (The Qur’an, 2:275)taqlid buta
  • Impermissibility of consuming carrion, blood and pork in Islam, “Forbidden [emphasis added] to you is carrion, and blood, and the flesh of swine…” (The Qur’an, 5:3)
  • Oneness of God, “Say: He is the One God [emphasis added]…” (The Qur’an, 112:1)
  • Muhammad is the Final Prophet, “Muhammad is not the father of any of your men, but (he is) the Messenger of Allah, and the Seal of the Prophets [emphasis added]…” (The Qur’an, 33:40)

There are no disagreements among all Muslim scholars – Sunni or Shiite – with regard to the abovementioned theological positions. These are positions commonly held by all schools of Islam throughout history up till now because the verses from which the positions are derived are unambiguous and thus they are definitive in meaning.

Some Muslim scholars include theological position that is based on ijma` (consensus) as definitive truth. However, this assertion is not without contention.

Ijma` is popularly defined by Muslim scholars as a consensus of all mujtahids (Muslim scholars who are qualified to perform ijtihad in religious issues) of a certain period on religious issues.[14]

Indeed, ijma` is recognised by Muslim scholars as one of the primary sources of Islamic ruling in the following order:

  • the Qur’an
  • the Prophet’s hadith
  • Ijma`
  • Qiyas (analogy).[15]

There is no doubt about the existence of ijma` in religious issues. For example, one could find agreements among Muslim scholars, across time and theological schools, on the following religious issues:

  • Belief in one God,
  • The Qur’an is God’s revelation to Muhammad,
  • Muhammad is the Prophet of God,
  • Jesus is a prophet and ordinary human being born to virgin Maryam, not divine and son of God,
  • Five daily prayers are obligatory upon all Muslims,
  • Fasting in Ramadan is obligatory.

However, upon closer scrutiny, these consensuses occurred only in the concurrence with the presence of definitive scriptural evidences and in matters of al-ma`lum bi al-din bi al-darurah (what is necessarily known to be part of the religion) – the authenticity of the evidences and the definiteness of the meaning from which the above theological stands are derived are uncontested. Ijma`, in this regard, occurs dependent on definitive scriptural evidence.[16]

Perspective-boat-landThere are many problems with regards to ijma` at conceptual and practical level when there is no definitive scriptural evidence and in matters other than al-ma`lum bi al-din bi al-darurah.[17]

From the definition, Muslims scholars disagree on issues such as what is the definitive criteria to qualify as a mujtahid, who are the mujtahids of a particular time who must agree for ijma` to occur, and how to identify them. Even if there is an agreement to the answer of these conceptual questions, there is still one critical practical question that arises – can all the agreement, in any particular time, of every single mujtahid, dispersed across Muslim lands that spread from Morocco to the west and Khurasan to the east and Anatolia to the north and Yemen to the south, ever be achieved or objectively known?

Classical Muslim scholars disagreed on the answer of this question.[18] Imam Ahmad, the founder of Hanbalite school of jurisprudence, recognised ijma` as a primary source of Islamic ruling only when it occurs among the companions of the Prophet. This is because he was of the view that ijma` could only practically be achieved by the companions. Thus, the Hanbalites do not accept ijma` of Muslim scholars after the period of the Prophet’s companions.[19]

Due to these disagreements, Muslim scholars have always taken a cautious and prudent approach when dealing with claim of ijma` on any theological issues. They would apply skepticism first and investigate thoroughly the claim before accepting it. Often after a thorough investigation, they would find that the claim is invalid or the meaning of the ijma` was not as per the standard definition. Instead, it refers to the agreement or “ijma` ” of scholars of a particular school of jurisprudence or locality.[20]

It is on the same note and for prudence sake, ijma` by itself is not included here as determiner of definitive truth.

Quantitative assessment

Qualitatively speaking, all Muslim scholars recognise the existence of definitive truth in Islam because there are indeed definitive scriptural evidences that offer unambiguous and definitive meaning as exemplified in the preceding section.

This position differentiates Islamic intellectual tradition from some theories in social sciences and humanities that question the existence of definitive truth and claims all truths are subjective in view of them being the product of human interpretation.[21]

Some proponents of these theories would even suggest that the authenticity of the Qur’an and all hadiths are not definitive. It is just a theological construct or ijtihad of Muslim scholars.[22]

Nevertheless, traditional Muslim scholars are in agreement that definitive truth is quantitatively very much less than subjective truth.truth

The reason is that the nature of the Qur’an itself allows for various interpretations to most of its verses. The wisdom behind the multiple interpretations produced by Muslims scholars from the flexibility of meanings inherent in Qur’anic verses would serve different needs and situations and thus fulfil Islam’s primary function as the religion of all peoples, time and places.

Subjective truths being more quantitatively than objective truths could also be rationally argued from the fact that the Qur’an is revealed in Arabic language – a language that is created from human experience. Being a human product, Arabic language is finite and as a finite, it can never capture the infinity of Allah’s knowledge (18:109 and 31:27) embedded in the Qur’an. It would take more than literal understanding and countless interpretations to unpack Allah’s infinite knowledge and wisdom in most of the Qura’nic verses. It is for the same reason also that verses of the Qur’an is known as “ayah (singular) or ayat (plural)” which literally means sign. They are signs for meanings or simply put code for decoding and there are multiple ways to understand and decode them.[23]

Implication of understanding

If the above understanding of truth in Islam is accepted, than a Muslims must also accept some important implications of such understanding.

Firstly, truth in Islam follows a hierarchy and that objective truth is of higher hierarchy than subjective truth, despite being quantitatively less.

This would mean Muslims must know the type of truth that he is holding to in order to know its strength and hierarchy when facing differing viewpoints.

Thus, one must not present a truth that he believes in as the absolute truth that could not be challenged or opposing views are not allowed, unless it has been ascertained as such with necessary evidences.

Secondly, most theological issues would have many viewpoints and interpretations and there could be many truths in contentious issues.

This would mean it is not necessary for Muslims to hold one viewpoint all the time or in all contexts and there is no need to be rigid with one viewpoint or regard a differing viewpoint as necessarily deviant or heretical.

When it is confirmed in the Islamic intellectual tradition that there are many viewpoints on an issue from various many credible scholars, a Muslim must then practise respect and tolerance and be open to other differing views.

Thirdly, prudence in seeking truth is to perceive all claims of truth as subjective first, in view of the fact that it is quantitatively much more, until proven otherwise.

This would also mean that there could always be other viewpoints that are equally valid.

Closing remarks

Understanding truth is complex, despite its importance. This article represents only a small part of what eminent Muslim scholars have deliberated through history in their various noble works, yet it may already be complicated to many. Thus, Muslims must always seek right guidance from a credible and just authority in their search for truth.

Finally, the presence of scriptural evidences (the Qur’an and hadith) in one’s argument for what he believes in is not sufficient to make a claim that his truth is absolute and no other viewpoint can be accepted because the evidences may not provide qat’iy al-dilalah (definitive conclusion in meaning) for the  claim to be regarded as absolute.




[1]Qutb Mustafa Sanu (2004), La Inkar Fi Masa’il Al-Ijtihad (No Renunciation in Matters of Ijtihad), Kuala Lumpur: Dar Al-Tajdid, pp. 21-3. See also Ibrahim bin Musa Al-Shatibi (no date), Al-Muwafaqat (Al-Shatibi’s Book of Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence), no place: Dar Al-Fikr, vol. 3, p. 7-13.

[2]Ibid; Wahbah Al-Zuhayli (1986), Usul Al-Fiqh Al-Islami (Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence), Bayrut: Dar Al-Fikr Al-Mu`asir, vol. 1, p. 441; Muhammad Al-Khudariy (1981), Usul Al-Fiqh (Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence), Qahirah: Dar Al-Fikr, pp. 207-8.

[3]Ibid; Ibid, p. 453; Ibid, p. 84; Muhammad Abu Zahrah (no date), Usul Al-Fiqh (Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence), Qahirah: Dar Al-Fikr Al-`Arabi, p. 213-5.

[4]Ibid; Ibid, pp. 454-5, 464-73; Ibid, pp. 84-5; Ibid, pp. 215, 227-8.

[5]Ibid; Ibid, pp. 441-2.

[6]Ibid, p. 74.

[7]See the Qur’an, 3:3, 5:46.

[8]See Muhammad bin Ja`far Al-Kattani (no date), Nuzum Al-Mutanathir Min Al-Hadith Al-Mutawatir (Collection of Mutawatir Hadith), Qahirah: Dar Al-Kutub Al-Salafiyah, p. 42.

[9]See the Qur’an, 5:6.

[10]See the Qur’an, 7:54, 10:3, 13:2, 20:5, 25:59, 32:4 and 57:4. See also Al-Kattani (no date), p. 44.

[11]See hadith, “Allah has appointed for everyone who has a right what is due to him, and no bequest must be made to an heir [emphasis added].” (Narrated by Al-Turmuzi, Al-Nasa’ii, Ibn Majah and Abu Dawud).

[12]See hadith, “If a dog drinks from the utensil of anyone of you, it is essential to wash it seven times [emphasis dog].” (Narrated by Al-Bukhari and Muslim).

[13]Sanu (2004), p. 21.

[14]Al-Zuhayli (1986), pp. 490-5; Abu Zahrah (no date), p. 156; Al-Khudari (1981), p. 271.

[15]Ibid, pp. 417-9; Ibid, pp. 156-60; Ibid, p. 203.

[16]Ibid, pp. 463-71, 487, 538-9, 575-8; Ibid, pp. 157-8.

[17]Ibid, pp. 490-1, 499-537, 571-81; Ibid, pp. 156-9, 167; Ibid, pp. 271-83.

[18]Ibid; Ibid; Ibid.

[19]Ibid, pp. 571-8; Ibid, pp. 159-60, 167; Ibid, p. 285.

[20]Ibid, pp. 489-9, 574-5.

[21]See William James (1997), The Meaning of Truth, New York: Prometheus Books; John D. Caputo (2014), Truth: Philosophy in Transit, No place: Penguin Global.

[22]Muhammad Mustaza Al-A`zami (2003), The History of Qura’nic Text: From Revelation to Compilation, Leicester: UK Islamic Academy, chapter 18; Abdullah Saeed (2008), The Qur’an: An Introduction, New York: Routledge, chapter 6; Ingrid Mattson, The Story of the Qua’an: Its History and Place in Muslim Life, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 99-100; M. Mustafa Al-Azami (2004), On Schacht’s Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence, Lahore: Suhail Academy, chapter 5-8.

[23]Abdullah Saeed (2006), Interpreting the Qur’an: Towards a Contemporary Approach, New York: Routledge, chapter 6 and 8.


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