Do methodologically sound criteria exist for determining what is correct and what is in error? They certainly do. Those criteria are clear and precise, and we shall be discussing some of them.
One: The Religious Criterion
This criterion is established upon three sources:
1- The Qur’an
Lo! those who disbelieve in the Reminder when it comes unto them (are guilty), for lo! it is an unassailable Scripture. Falsehood cannot come at it from before it or from behind it. (It is) a revelation from the Wise, the Owner of Praise. (Fussilat 41:41-42)
The Qur’an is absolutely certain in its authenticity. This is a point upon which all Muslims unanimously agree.
As far as what we derive from it or its meanings, this depends on the specific passage and the manner of interpretation. Some verses convey meanings that are absolutely certain so that no alternative interpretation is tenable. Much of the Qur’an is of this nature, especially the texts that refer to the essentials of faith and the guiding principles upon which the edifice of Islam is built.
Some passages of the Qur’an indicate meanings that are conveyed with less certainty, and scholars differ as to their interpretation. One interpretation is given preference over another by considering the scholarly disagreement, the opinions of Arabic linguists, and commentaries of the Qur’an.
It is possible that some scholars will classify a certain passage as being absolutely certain in its indication of a given meaning while others consider the indication to be uncertain. However, this is rare, and when it occurs, the matter remains open to juristic discretion and opinion.
2- The Sunnah
Whatever is established to be authentically related from Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), is clear in meaning, and is not countered by any other evidence, is something that a Muslim has no option but to accept.
The authenticity of some narrations from the Sunnah might be unquestionably certain to those who are specialists in the field of Hadith criticism, though that certainty may not be felt by a non-specialist. Those who are proficient in studying and cross-referencing the lines of transmission will be sure of the Hadith’s authenticity. On the other hand, a jurist or legal theorist – never mind the layman – who is not so skilled in Hadith studies will not be able to regard the narration with the same level of confidence.
Indeed, specialists of Hadith disagree with each other in their assessment of certain hadiths. This leads to disagreements among those who are certain of a hadith and are obliged to act upon the dictates of its textual evidence and those who do not regard the Hadith with such certainty or who do not regard it as authentic or who simply are unaware of it.
3- Consensus of the Muslims
What we are concerned with here is consensus that is well established where we are absolutely certain of unanimity of opinion. Nevertheless, we can see from looking at numerous examples that the opinion held by the majority of the people of knowledge is usually the correct one.
Two: The Criterion of Considering the General Welfare
Islam came to secure the welfare of people. Therefore, something that brings about the realization of the general welfare and prevents harm is correct. By contrast, something that results in harm while failing to further the general welfare is clearly wrong. When something furthers the general interest more than it causes harm, it is preferable. Whatever does more harm than good, by contrast, is generally to be rejected.
Al-Faysal ibn `Iyad, when commenting on Allah’s words “…which of you is best in deeds…” (AL-Mulk 67:2), discusses what it means for something to be described as “good”.
He explains that when the matter relates to acts of pure worship, good is defined as that which fulfills two criteria: It must be carried out sincerely and exclusively for Allah’s sake and it must be in accordance with the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him).
When the matter relates to the worldly activities of our daily lives, or in matters wherein the law is silent, that which is good is defined as that which furthers the general welfare.
The scholars of Islamic jurisprudence have set forth principles to govern legal research into these matters. There is the principle of choosing the greater of two benefits and the principle of choosing the lesser of two evils. There is the principle that avoiding harm takes precedence over achieving a benefit when the benefit and harm are equal.
Otherwise, the overwhelming benefit is to be sought, even if achieving it brings about some lesser harm. Likewise, an overwhelming harm is to be avoided, even if it means sacrificing some lesser benefit. Matters need to be weighed justly.
The question that remains to be answered is: how do we recognize that which is a benefit, that which constitutes part of the general welfare?
When there is no evidence from the sacred texts on a matter, benefits are determined by employing reason, research, and drawing conclusions. A person who enjoys greater intellectual abilities, experience, education, and understanding of the intent of Islamic Law will be better equipped to correctly determine what is of greater benefit.
This question of the general welfare is extremely important, and deserves considerable research and discussion. In all aspects of life – economics, politics, society, Islamic work – we are faced with many problems, contradictions, and disagreements. Each party to these disagreements has its own arguments and evidence. Often none of the evidence related to an issue will be able to stand on its own. Sometimes, a person might rely on textual evidence that brings about confusion in those trying to follow the argument, while the real crux of the matter. This is the greatest aspect of Islamic Law that only the most erudite scholars have a mastery of. Allah says:
And no one will be granted such goodness except those who exercise patience and self-restraint, none but persons of the greatest good fortune. (Fussilat 41:35)
When we talk about the general welfare, we do not mean the interests of any individual, group, or faction, but the interests of everyone in society. Only if the issue at hand is individual in scope do individual interests come into play. Those who are referred to in such matters are “those among them who can search out the knowledge of it.” (An-Nisaa’ 4:83) They are the scholars of Islam and the scholars in the various fields of worldly knowledge, those who have the wisdom, the sagacity, and the intelligence to be qualified to make such determinations.
`Izz Ad-Din ibn `Abd As-Salam writes in his book on the general axioms of Islamic Law entitled ‘Qawa`id Al-Ahkam’:
As for questions of welfare related to matters of the world – what brings about such welfare and what spoils it – these questions are known by means of necessary knowledge, by experience, by way of custom, and by educated assessments. If anything still remains obscure, then evidence is sought out.
Whoever wishes to know what is appropriate, what is beneficial, what is harmful, what takes precedence and what is to be forgone for the sake of something else, he must deliberate on the matter with his mind under the assumption that it has not been addressed by Islamic Law, and then build his rulings upon it. He will find that the rulings he arrives at rarely differ, except in matters of pure worship, an area where we have not been given to discern specific benefits and harms. In his way, you can distinguish the good works from the bad.
When juristic matters are decided by a large number of scholars and experts working together, the results are better, more accurate, and less biased than when such matters are decided by a single individual working on his own. This is especially true in modern times, when the relationships between various interests are quite complex and inter-related, scientific advances have been considerable, and many matters require specialized knowledge. Working together is also more possible now than ever before, because of advances in communications.
We need to organizations devoted to the research of Islamic legal matters that Muslims scholars from all over the world can participate in. To the extent that these organizations operate independently and are free from political influence, they will be effective and balanced in their resolutions. Unfortunately, the prevailing situation in the Muslim world today is that each country has its own organizations that look into matters and study them in light not only their intrinsic natures, but also in how they relate to the interests of the political establishment.
The Personal Criterion
The individual, in numerous instances, is able to distinguish between right and wrong, to determine what is satisfactory and what is censurable. His heart tells him whether what he is doing is right or wrong.
This is what the Prophet meant when he said: “Appeal to your heart, and to your soul, for a verdict. Righteousness is what your soul will be at peace with and sin is what disquiets you and makes you feel hesitant – even if the people repeatedly tell you otherwise.” (Ahmad and Ad-Darimi)
A person sees what he should not be looking at and his own heart gives him a decision about it. This is because his heart can detect the ill-will, the vain desires, or the unfulfilled passions that his gaze incites.
This criterion is, by and large, restricted to purely personal matters involving the individual and his private relationship with his Lord when the question is one of piety and sinfulness. A person might find himself beset by hesitations or misgivings and have to explore his heart to arrive at the truth of the matter, a matter too subtle and intrinsically personal to ask others about.
These are some of the criteria by which we can determine what is right from what is in error.
Allah says most eloquently:
O ye who believe! if you fear Allah, He will grant you a criterion (to judge between right and wrong), remove from you (all) evil (that may afflict) you, and forgive you: for Allah is the Lord of grace unbounded. (Al-Anfal 8:29)
He also says:
Oh, but the human being is a telling witness against himself, though he puts forth his excuses. (Al-Qiyamah 75:14, 15)
An honest soul is like a mirror that reflects the facts as they are.