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Deciding religious questions – whose opinion matters?

Most of the time only your own religious opinion matters. However sometimes others' religious views will affect your life.


Posted 21 October 2021

People regularly ask me religious questions via my website.

The one below came via the Disqus comment facility on my page “Muslim religious marriages and divorces – the problems and ways forward”:

I live in the U.S. My now ex-husband and I married both a civil and Islamic marriage. We only divorced through the courts. Are we still considered married Islamically? I have read elsewhere, that because we went through the courts that we are considered divorced in every way. So, I’m confused

I also receive them by email since my "Contact me" page publishes an email address. For example, “Is it permissible to use actuarial techniques to assess future risks and possibilities?” For the full text of the incoming email, and my response, see my page “Should Muslims be actuaries? How misunderstandings about Islam spread.

When responding, I normally make it clear that I do not hold myself out as a religious authority, but subject to that am willing to share my views.

I then provide a short answer which is always along the lines of the short answer below.

Sometimes however the situation is more complex, so I have added the long answer below.

The short answer

On the Day of Judgement each of us will be individually accountable to God for what we have done and for what we have not done. If God says that we have done something wrong, it will not be an adequate defence to say “X said that it was okay to do it.”

Nazi war criminals were hanged at Nuremberg, and it was no defence to say that “I was only following orders.”

Accordingly, I believe that it is the responsibility of every Muslim to study Islam and to reach their own conclusions on all religious questions. That does not preclude ascertaining the views of others who may have spent many more years on Islamic studies than you, but the final decision on what to do has to be your own.

In this short answer, it is only your opinion that matters, because it is your life and your soul.

The long answer

While it is your life and soul, there are many occasions when the religious opinions of other people do matter.

I have given some examples below.

Divorce – what will be the opinion of a potential future Muslim spouse?

There are different opinions amongst Muslims about whether the woman in the above situation is now divorced in the eyes of God.

If she considers that she is divorced and has no wish to marry a Muslim man in the future, either remaining single or marrying a non-Muslim, that should be the end of the matter. Since she lives in the USA, she cannot be coerced by any Muslim religious authorities.

However, if she wishes to marry a Muslim man in the future, he might not hold the same opinion about whether she is divorced from her first husband.

That often leads Muslim women in the UK or the USA to go through a procedure with a Shariah tribunal, leading to a document they can show a potential future Muslim spouse to evidence that an Islamic religious organisation has concluded that she is divorced.

Commercial activity

As a concrete example, consider the slaughter of animals for food in accordance with the requirements of Islam. Can the animal be stunned before its throat is cut?

Opinions amongst Muslims vary.

As explained on my page “My petition to protect religious slaughter” I have been very active in helping to protect the right to non-stun slaughter for Muslims and Jews in Britain. The reason is that I care about the religious freedom of those Jews and Muslims who consider stunning before slaughter religiously unacceptable.

However, I personally do not have a religious objection to pre-stunning and therefore will eat meat certified as halal that has been pre-stunned. (I do believe in proper labelling so that Muslim consumers can make up their own minds about whether to buy the item or not.)

Similarly, if you are providing an Islamic finance product, it is not sufficient for you to conclude that the product is halal. The religious opinion that matters most is that of the potential customers, since if they conclude that the product is not halal, they will not buy it. That is why Islamic financial institutions always have a Shariah Supervisory Board of well known Shariah scholars who approve their products before they are made available to customers.

Religious coercion by the state

This is the most serious example where the opinions of other Muslims intrude upon your fundamental religious freedom to decide all religious questions for yourself.

I have been fortunate to live in the United Kingdom since the age of two. Accordingly, the state has never coerced me about any religious issues.

However, if you are unfortunate enough to live in a Muslim majority country, your fellow citizens will often feel that they have the right to make laws based upon their understanding of Islam that you are compelled to follow. For example, many Muslim majority countries make apostasy by Muslims a crime.

That is why you are much freer to practice Islam as you consider appropriate in the UK (and the USA and many other liberal democracies) than you are in any Muslim majority country.


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