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In the comments to this question, I expressed a desire to "think for myself" when it comes to deciding whether or not to perform an animal sacrifice during Eid ul-Adha. It was suggested this might be (or is) haram.

This took me by surprise, as I've never been discouraged from thinking for myself. Indeed, quite the opposite has been true from experience: I've been encouraged to learn about the Qur'an and the Hadith, and apply what I learn to my life.

Question: To what extent is "thinking for myself" forbidden in Islam?

In today's society, we have Muslim nutjobs with violent and dangerous views, and Internet Muslims who have fringe theories of Islam who seek to manipulate others into having this view. Thus, some kind of filtering mechanism is required.

Most fatawa (all?) describe how a scholar came to a conclusion through the Qur'an and Hadith, so it's easy enough to verify its accuracy, and I'll usually wind up with the same viewpoint after educating myself on a topic. Nevertheless, I still check whether it's a mainstream or fringe viewpoint, or whether or not a pertinent Qur'an ayat or Hadith was not included in the fatwa. (Also important is the context, e.g., a fatwa regarding public stoning is very different to a fatwa regarding Islamic dress, and thus should require a higher standard of evidence.) I don't seek to discredit, but understand how they came to the conclusion.


What does Google say? A lot:

  • Prof. Shad Faruqi, Independent thought in Islam, writes "suppression of thought characterises Muslim societies" with the author expressing the opinion that "the gates of ijtihad must be pried open. Reason must be employed to interpret revelations." This is perhaps the most balanced article I've seen on this topic, and it's author actually has some credentials. (While authority doesn't mean he's automatically correct, it means he's educated, and he's unlikely to be promoting a fringe theory through cherry-picked data.) He quotes the Qur'an:

    So high [above all] is Allah , the Sovereign, the Truth. And, [O Muhammad], do not hasten with [recitation of] the Qur'an before its revelation is completed to you, and say, "My Lord, increase me in knowledge." -- Qur'an 20:114

  • Dr. Muqtedar Khan, What is Independent Thinking?, writes: "Outside the discourse of the traditional jurists, intellectuals, reformers and philosophers, have seen independent thinking as not only inevitable but a mandate, that enables the continuous renewal and revival of the Islamic spirit."

  • Muhammadullah Muhammad Khalili Qasmi, Does Islam permit critical thinking?, claims that when there are "clear and apparent meanings of the Glorious Qur'aan and the Hadith", it should not be questioned. But aside from that, "rational thinking to find out the depth is not only permissible but also encouraged in Islam". This view is consistent with my experiences.

  • The author of the Islam.SE question Importance of Thinking in Islam ? Why Islam Ignore Importance of Thinking? writes: "It seems Thinking is very low priority than blinded rules." (The question and answers here are very low quality.)

  • The webpage Islam Shackles Independent Thought argued that the Qur'an instructs us not to think. They cite the translation of Qur'an 5:101-102 on that website:

    O you who believe (Muslims), ASK NOT about things which if made known to you would give you trouble; and if you ask about them when the Quran is being revealed, they will be made known to you. Allah pardons this: and Allah is Forgiving, Forbearing. A people before you indeed asked such questions, then became disbelievers therein.

    And from Quran.com:

    Say, "Not equal are the evil and the good, although the abundance of evil might impress you." So fear Allah, O you of understanding, that you may be successful. O you who have believed, do not ask about things which, if they are shown to you, will distress you. But if you ask about them while the Qur'an is being revealed, they will be shown to you. Allah has pardoned that which is past; and Allah is Forgiving and Forbearing. A people asked such [questions] before you; then they became thereby disbelievers. Allah has not appointed [such innovations as] bahirah or sa'ibah or wasilah or ham. But those who disbelieve invent falsehood about Allah, and most of them do not reason. -- Qur'an 5:100-103

    The website omitted the "...those who disbelieve ...most of them do not reason." part, which seems unbalanced.

  • Just to clarify what I meant: I did not mean that thinking for yourself is haram; I did mean that preferring your own ideas over and relying on them to the point of going against fatawa of qualified scholars is. – G. Bach Aug 30 '16 at 6:30
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    Perhaps you'd like to add an answer to the question then? I'd be interested in learning at which point Islam actually says "Nope. I get to decide for you." (And the consequences, if any, of doing your own thing regardless.) – Rebecca J. Stones Aug 30 '16 at 6:47
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    Quran as a book encourages questioning. In fact, many of the verses start with questioning the reader. It engages in dialog and discussion with the reader. Questioning, dialog, discussion isn't possible without thinking – Kamran Aug 30 '16 at 14:42
  • Last time you figured out by yourself that Quran calls to be "proactive", rethink about it. aren't we going to be judged as individuals ? – user19208 Sep 4 '16 at 19:16
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I'll address the question "To what extent is "thinking for myself" forbidden in Islam?" in two ways, one being with authoritative islamic references, one being ruminations on the system of the religion.


Al-Ghazali, one of the handful of people considered one of the revivers of the religion that the hadith says comes once every 100 years who is sometimes referred to by the honorific "proof of islam", says in his "faysal al-tafriqa" (available in English translation by Prof. Sherman Abdulhakim Jackson in his book "On the Boundaries of Theological Tolerance in Islam" - check a library, this book is pricey) addresses your question with regard to theological matters on p. 105 with these words (comments in [ ] mine):

The first [vantage point] is that of the masses ('awamm al-khalq). The proper thing for them to do is to follow (established doctrine) and to desist forthwith from altering the apparent meanings of texts. They should beware of innovating proclamations of figurative interpretations that were not so proclaimed by the Companions; and they should close the door at once to raising questions about such things. They should refrain from delving into speculative discussions and inquiries and from following the ambiguous passages of the Qu'ran and Sunna. Indeed, it was related in this regard on the authority of 'Umar, may God be pleased with him, that a man once asked him about the meaning of two (apparently) contradictory verses, to which 'Umar responded by mounting him with a whip. And it was related on the authority of Malik, Gd show him mercy, that he was once asked about mounting (the Throne), to which he responded: '(The fact of) mounting is known; acknowledging it is obligatory; its modality is unknown; and asking about it is unsanctioned innovation.'

Since no other context is given, the 'Umar mentioned here can only be the second caliph and one of the ten promised paradise in the hadith, and the Malik mentioned can only be the founder of the Maliki school of law.

Judging by this alone, it is apparent that in matters of doctrine, it is haram for the layperson to follow their own judgement to prevent them from falling into what islam considers to be error. Regarding what he refers to as "secondary matters" (which in the context of faysal al-tafriqa means everything but the belief in god, Muhammad as the last prophet and the entailed veracity of everything he said, and the Last Day, p.112), he says on pp. 112-114 (again, my comments or omissions in []):

Known that there should be no branding any person an Unbeliever over any secondary issue whatsoever, as a matter of principle, with one exception: that such a person reject a relgious tenet that was learned from the Prophet and passed down via diffusely congruent channels (tawatur). Even here, however, regarding some matter he may simply be subject to being deemed wrong, as is done with legal issues. Or he may be subject to condemnation for unsanctioned innovation (bid'a), such as with wrong ideas regarding the Caliphate and the status of the Companions.

[...]

To be sure, were a person to deny the truth of an isolated report (khabar ahadi), there would be no duty to brand him an Unbeliever. Were he to deny, on the other hand, that upon which there was unanimous consensus (ijma'), his case would be unclear. For knowledge of whether or not consensus is itself a definitive proof is fraught with ambiguities the likes of which only those who have mastered the discipline of legal theory (usul al-fiqh) can bring into relief. Indeed, al-Nazzam denied the status of consensus as a valid proof altogether. Thus, the status of consensus as a valid proof is itself disputed (mukhtalaf fih). This, then, is the ruling regarding secondary issues.

al-Ghazali is the most lenient orthodox scholar i know of in this regard; the dominant opinion seems to me to be that which is found in the shafii legal manual "reliance of the traveler" under u2.4:

Any Muslim who denies something that is necessarily known (def: f1.3(N:)) to be of the religion of Islam is adjudged a renegade and an unbeliever unless he is a recent convert or was born and raised in the wilderness or for some similar reason has been unable to learn his religion properly. Muslims in such a condition should be informed about the truth, and if they then continue as before, they are adjudged non-Muslims, as is also the case with any Muslim who believes it is permissible to commit adultery, drink wine, kill without right, or do other acts that are necessarily known to be unlawful [...]

By analogy, denying something is obligatory that is necessarily known to be obligatory in Islam, such as the death penalty for murderers or highway robbers (one of the forms of hirabah, with one of the possible verdicts being death by stoning or crucifixion; to be fair, I'm not positive there is consensus on what the possible punishments for hirabah are, but I have always seen crucifixion mentioned among them), cutting off the hand of the thief, or (as I have never heard of any orthodox scholar who rejects this, I assume there is consensus) stoning the adulterer, would also disqualify someone from being muslim. Now one might be inclined to the lawyer's dodge of thinking it is possible to recognize an obligation while refusing to follow it allows you to stay in islam, but "reliance" says in o8.7 (omission in [] mine):

(O: Among the things that entail apostasy from Islam (may Allah protect us from them) are: [...] (16) to revile the religion of Islam; [...] (19) to be sarcastic about any ruling of the Sacred Law; [...])

It seems to me that on a fortiori grounds, these suggest that rejecting a ruling in your heart will make you a disbeliever; if being sarcastic about it will do it, then outright rejecting the ruling - which seems to be a stronger opinion than sarcasm to me - will do that as well.

Note that both works I have cited, faysal al-tafriqa and reliance of the traveler, are by shafii scholars (al-Ghazali and al-Misri, respectively), so perhaps other madhhahib see things slightly differently. In general though, the least that seems to me to be true for the opinions of every school of law is that the layperson is obliged to follow the rulings of scholars; this is referred to as "taqlid".


So much for authoritative references. Now for some basic ruminations on how islam works. Islam is strongly focused on authenticity of texts, and in establishing authoritative doctrine and rulings, personal experience has very little to no room, certainly among laypeople. Like all major religions, what is doctrinally acceptable is a question of what survives and is incorporated in the corpus of the tradition, and anything in direct contradiction to the tradition is necessarily rejected. So as a simple matter of "hm, I better make sure I don't walk off the cliff, I should listen to those who know the ropes", the lay muslim who wants to remain within islam needs to follow those who guard the tradition, i.e. the scholars. If you don't, you might acquire notions that the tradition considers disbelief.

The idea that somehow reading a bunch of rulings together with their proofs gives you the tools to work out what is and is not acceptable in or part of islam is wrong. To exemplify with something out of the secular world, I used to study law - not islamic, obviously. My lay friends sometimes discussed their opinions about what the law of the country they grew up in (i.e. they had a lot of a headstart on someone who didn't grow up in the country and wanted to learn the law, which is roughly comparable with the situation of a convert to islam) was with regard to specific matter, and I do not remember a single occasion where their opinion was completely correct; more often than not, it was contrary to actual law.

So to sum up this portion of the post: if you want to stand in the tradition of islam, you are best advised not to make it up on your own, and you simply can't directly oppose the unanimous verdict of those who have authority in the tradition. If all this is based on the word of god, then the task is to understand and live it faithfully, not to look at it and see how you can bend it to your own inclinations. You won't get female imams out of it, so you will not be able to bring them into it. You won't get the moral acceptability of homosexual acts out of it, so you won't be able to bring that into it. The standpoint of the muslim, as the quran says, is "we hear, and we obey".

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    I think one major point of differentiation needs to be made: Even if a ruling is "something that is necessarily known", just because someone (scholar or otherwise) asserts such doesn't necessarily prove it to be so. There is a world of difference between knowingly rejecting something when you know it to be true and refusing to follow something when it's so poorly explained you can't tell if it's true or not. Being duly skeptical of an existing ruling is not the same as "making it up on your own." – goldPseudo Aug 30 '16 at 17:46
  • @goldPseudo Sure, but there are legal rulings that are commonly known to be the only islamicly acceptable rulings on certain matters. The examples should clarify it. Of course there are far more matters on which no unanimous ruling exists, but even in those areas it's usually the case that certain verdicts are known to be unacceptable in islam. An example for that would be the travel prayer; if I recall correctly, there is difference of opinion on whether you can perform dhuhr during asr time, with the hanafis rejecting this, but they all agree that you can't perform two rakat for maghrib. – G. Bach Aug 30 '16 at 17:52
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امام علی: فنوم العاقل أفضل من سهر الجاهل ، و إقامة العاقل أفضل من شخوص الجاهلا

the sleep of a wise person is more virtuous than the worship at night of a ignorant person (one who doesn't know why he's doing what), and staying at home of a wise person is better than the rise (and struggle for Hajj and battle) of an ignorant person


Before I answer your question, let me ask you a few questions, so I lay down a better foundation.

Who brought Quran to us?

Allah (SWT)

Who gave us our wisdom?

Allah (SWT) through his prophets

So there shouldn't be any conflict between them right? I mean God can't give us two conflicting sense can he?

No there shouldn't be any conflict. Our two guides point to the same thing. Our wisdom tells us kindness is good so does the prophet/Quran.

But I do see conflict. Some people have ideas that contradict Allah/Islam.Why?

Because people lack of complete knowledge and yet speak? How many times scientists make statements and say they are 100% right and then years/centuries later they others correct them.

In addition to lack of knowledge God can also set a seal on your heart:

Allah has set a seal upon their hearts and upon their hearing, and over their vision is a veil. And for them is a great punishment. https://quran.com/2/7

But it's not really God doing it's that the person sins and sins and sins and sins knowingly and doesn't repent after many chances he had and then finally God pulls the plug. His heart goes dark.

Yet it's not a 0,1 as in your either your heart works or not. It's very grayish. Basically the more you sin the more your heart is to be clouded. Though if you repent then your heart is again purified. Prophet Muhammad had the purist heart and therefore the best wisdom and the best understanding of Islam. To better relate, imagine yourself helping people, being nice to your colleague, reading Quran...this would make you more of a humble person and your heart is kept more intact. Yet if you lie, cheat, slander, make fun of people after a while you become more of than and lose your innocency...your heart will become clouded.

So so far I mentioned 2 reasons that your thinking could work in wrong ways. In addition there could be a lack of wisdom. Like me and you both know stealing is bad, but I know it's 100X bad you know it's 250X bad. I saw you write an answer on why drinking is prohibited. For some people their wisdom suffices them to know drinking is to be prohibited. Some others know it's bad, but then aren't sure if it should be prohibited. They only say you shouldn't be drinking all the time or while driving. etc.

All human's wisdom point to the same trajectory of good and bad, but some point more some point less. Allah does not charge a soul except [according to] what He has given it https://quran.com/65:7

So because of the lack of knowledge, lack of wisdom, sinning we need to constantly be guided. For more see here.

So thinking without knowledge or thinking beyond your wisdom or thinking while you have sinned is problematic


Yet Quran has said :

أَفَلَا يَتَدَبَّرُونَ الْقُرْآنَ أَمْ عَلَىٰ قُلُوبٍ أَقْفَالُهَا ref

Then do they not reflect upon the Qur'an, or are there locks upon [their] hearts?

أَفَلَا تَذَكَّرُونَ ref

Then will you not be reminded?

أَفَلَا تَعْقِلُونَ or لَعَلَّكُمْ تَعْقِلُونَ are mentioned many times in Quran + some other instances where God says "Hey reflect!"

In addition a very very important verse:

اتَّخَذُوا أَحْبَارَهُمْ وَرُهْبَانَهُمْ أَرْبَابًا مِّن دُونِ اللَّهِ

They have taken their scholars and monks as lords besides Allah 

از جمله فى الكافى باسناده عن ابى بصير عن ابى عبد اللّه عليه السّلام قال قلت له‌ «اتَّخَذُوا أَحْبارَهُمْ وَ رُهْبانَهُمْ أَرْباباً مِنْ دُونِ اللَّهِ» فقال اما و اللّه ما دعوهم الى عبادة انفسهم و لو دعوهم الى عبادة انفسهم ما اجابوهم و لكن احلّوا لهم حراما و حرّموا عليهم حلالا فعبدوهم من حيث لا يشعرون. From Al-Kafi

I got to Imam Sadiq and said: They have taken their scholars and monks as lords besides Allah? Imam Sadiq said: Be aware I swear they didn't invite people to their own worship, had they done such the people would have not responded; instead their scholars and monks made halal that which was haram and made haram that which was halal. And so they obeyed because they didn't have perception. They were careless about their perception and reflection. Otherwise they weren't worshiping other than Allah for their commandments

Basically they (Jews & Christians) took their scholars as Gods...they never questioned them. Whatever their scholars said they obeyed.

All the verses are saying: intellect, reflect, ponder, admonish.

Saying to not think, read, ask is likely to lead you against the above mentioned verses


So now you know you have limits, you know are also highly recommended to reflect. So now let's apply that to an example:

When you go to Mecca you are suppose to Stone Satan. You are to apply your logic as always. Hear people split into 2 categories:

  • I'm an intellectual and Because I didn't understand the reason of stoning, I'm not going do it, it's a waste of time/money/life.
  • I'm an intellectual and I did go through the logic, couldn't make sense of it. Yet I found nothing against it + I found a tremendous amount of narrations about it so I will do it.

The first person is an intellectual person. The second person is a humble intellectual person. I've seen many many things that didn't make sense to me...make sense over time. I read a narration about Praying and in the narration it is explained why we bow, we stand (after we bow), we prostrate, etc.

  • How does this answer the question? – G. Bach Mar 20 '17 at 0:06

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