Concerning the issue of authenticity of fatwa there are two essential points have been emphasized by the vast majority of scholars:
1- There is no divergence of opinion on the principles, the fundamentals (usul) of Islamic law. There is a consensus among the jurists on the fact that these principles constitute the essence, the frame of reference, and the benchmark of the juridical corpus of Islamic Law and fiqh (jurisprudence).
However, it is impossible to avoid differences of opinion on points related to secondary issues (furu`), for a legal judgment on these points is dependent on and influenced by many factors, such as the knowledge and understanding of the scholars and their ability to deduce and extrapolate judgments.
The natural diversity in their levels of competence inevitably gives rise to divergent interpretations and opinions. This even happened among the Companions at the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him), and, according to the scholars, such divergences should be recognized and respected, within their limits, as based upon the fundamentals of Islam.
2- A question naturally arises from this consensus: even if there are various “acceptable” legal opinions on one and the same problem (even a secondary problem), does this mean that all the fatawa have the same value; in other words, are they all correct?
If that were the case, it would lead to the conclusion that two divergent opinions could both be true at the same time, in the same place, and in respect of the same person, which is rationally unacceptable.
The majority of scholars, including the four principal imams of the Sunni schools of law, are of the view that only one of the divergent opinions pronounced on a precise question can be considered correct. This is indicated in the passage in the Qur’an that relates the story of Prophets David and Solomon, where it is clear that, although they had made judgments on the same case and although both of them had received the gift of judgment and knowledge, only Solomon’s opinion was correct:
We made it understood to Solomon. (Al-Anbiyaa’ 21:79)
This position is also confirmed by the hadith about the mujtahid’s (the one who formulates judgments on the basis of his opinion and efforts) reward – ”Truly the scholars are the heirs of the prophets, and what one inherits from prophets is not money, but knowledge (`ilm).’ – he will receive two rewards if he is right but only one if he is wrong, because his effort and sincere research will be taken into account by God.
So, to accept that there may be a diversity of legal opinions on precise questions (formulated in the same context, at the same time, and for the same community or individual) does not in the least lead to the assumption that there are several “truths” and that all these opinions have the same value and correctness.
There is only ’one truth,’ which all the scholars should try to discover, and they will be rewarded for the effort they make toward this. As long as there is no indisputable proof applicable to the problem in question, each Muslim should, after consideration and analysis, follow the opinion whose evidence and worth seem to him the clearest and most convincing.
Guided by the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet, which are for Muslims the sources of truth, the Muslim scholars should do their best to discover the truth when the texts are not clear or simply do not exist.
In fact, the meaning and content of the delegation granted by God to humankind reaches its peak and is fulfilled when the scholars struggle constantly and tirelessly to arrive at the most correct judgment, or that which is closest to what is correct and true.
So these scholars, both mujtahids and muftis, must be determined, demanding, and confident in their own judgments, while remaining humble and calm to face and accept the fact that there will necessarily and inevitably be a plurality of opinions.
Imam Ash-Shafi`i aptly said, concerning the state of mind that should characterize the attitude of the scholars: “(As we see it) our opinion is right though it may turn out to be wrong, while we consider the opinion of our opponents to be wrong though it may turn out to be right.”
The article is an excerpt from the author’s “Western Muslims and the Future of Islam” Oxford University Press (2004).