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Understanding and Accepting Differences

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Imam Ahmed Saad on the Etiquette of Difference
By Reading Islam Staff
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Shaikh Ahmed Saad, Imam of North London Central Mosque
Imam Ahmed Saad

My dear brothers and sisters in Islam, Assalamu`alaikum  Warahmatullahi Wabarakatuh.

One of the most important topics that I'm going to discuss today is the etiquette of difference, or what we know as "adab al-ikhtilaf".

When our scholars discuss this issue, they focus on the issue of ikhtilaf. They keep on telling people that we should accommodate each other because Allah the Almighty has created us different and diverse from each other. They say that diversity is the beauty of this world.

They normally quote a verse in Surat Hood in the Quran that says:

"Had it been the will of your Lord, He would have made people into one nation but they will keep being different from each other except for the ones whom your Lord would have mercy upon, and it's because of this that He has created them".

The scholars quote this part of the explanation, commenting on this verse by saying "Yes, He created them to be different from each other", and others would say "He created them to be shown mercy". People like Abdullah ibn Abbas say that Allah has created them to be different from each other so that they will be shown the mercy of Allah, as difference is actually the reason that will lead them to get the mercy of Allah the Almighty.

All these explanations are genuine, and all the endeavors of our scholars in trying to talk about the differences and the importance of difference and try to qualify, enable and equip us to accept this fact that we are different from each other are really genuine and are really blessed.

Adab Before Knowledge

the word adab is not only etiquette; it's more than this. It entails a holistic meaning of good manners with sensitivity and understanding

But we have actually to give some understanding to the first part of this statement. We always say adab al-ikhtilaf (etiquette of difference). The word adab actually is done a lot of injustice when we translate it as etiquette, as the word adab is not only etiquette; it's more than this. It entails a holistic meaning of good manners with sensitivity and understanding. That's why they said "Adab comes before knowledge". Why is that? Because had it been not that you have the understanding and the sensitivity and the good manners, you would never be able to understand everything, you would never be able to gain knowledge. And therefore when we say adab al-ikhtilaf it doesn't mean the etiquette of difference, it means understanding difference. It means being sensitive about difference.

It also means accepting difference and realizing the fact that it exists and ultimately asking Allah to enable us to accept this difference. Because a lot of our brothers think they will be able to accommodate our differences easily. But it's something against the nafs (one's self/soul).

I think actually that the issue of ikhtilaf (difference) is such a big challenge and struggle for people and their nofous (souls). What are you doing with your nafs, what are you doing with yourself? Because as human beings, we have been created as Allah the Almighty tells us with these nofous and our nofous have been built to try to make things similar to each other, to try to convince others to follow our examples. It's said that "every soul is happy with itself". So if we are happy with ourselves, we would like others to be like us and to follow us, to follow our example, to follow our footsteps, and this is the danger of it because this means that our nofous are dominating us. This means that there is something problematic with our nafs and we need to fix it.

And how are we going to fix it unless we try to understand difference and accept it because the issue of ikhtilaf (difference) itself is a big challenge to this individuality, to live with a mind that sees in ikhtilaf a blessing from Allah the Almighty that He has created people from different backgrounds with different thoughts and ideologies.

A lot of scholars quote this verse without actually realizing the benefit of it. Allah the Almighty says in Surat Al-Hujurat:

"O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other". Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (He who is) the most righteous of you".

A lot of people think that this also refers only to individuals. Actually it refers to nations as well. It refers to communities and groups. It's as if Allah the Almighty is telling us that the best of you and the closest of you in the eyes of Allah the Almighty is the one who understands this diversity, is the one who can understand that we should go and explore each other.

it's a blessing that we are different

Imagine if people were created in the same manner. Imagine that every one speaks Arabic for example, and imagine that each one will eat the same type of food and that we are from the same background and look the same. The world would be so redundant and boring. We would never be willing to go and explore and see other things because we would see the same people, speak the same language and eat the same food. But had it not been for this difference which we are failing to realize, we would never be intrigued to go and explore.

So it's a blessing that we are different. It only requires us to understand what is difference and how blessed is this world for containing all these differences that refer to one important factor that it's Him only who is One. Diversity comes from one. They say that multiplication comes from the One the Almighty. It is in this diversity that we will be able to be true monotheists.

May Allah the Almighty enable us to struggle against the desires of our selves, and be able to be in control of them and give us help to do that to accept the differences and enjoy them.

May peace and blessings be upon our prophet Muhammad and his family and companions.

And praise be to Allah the Almighty.

Watch Imam Ahmed Saad's talk

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Related Links:
Fairness in Difference: One of the Pillars of Moderation
Ikhtilaaf (Juristic Difference): How and Why?
Differences among the Ummah: Are They Always a Blessing?
Respect in Islam: An Attitude of Admiration
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