The ability to reason and to understand is one of the greatest blessings that Allah has bestowed upon the human being. When a person has proper understanding and couples it with a correct and noble purpose, that person is sure to find guidance and to walk upon the straight path. This is why we beseech Allah in all of our prayers with: “Guide us to the straight path.”
Understanding is by the grace of Allah. It is a light by which we discern what is correct from what is corrupt and what is true from what is false. People are not all equal in their ability to understand. Everyone is unique. If all were equal in understanding, then we would find all scholars and experts in perpetual agreement. No one would ever be praised or admired for his or her insights or erudition.
We can consider the story of David and Solomon (peace be upon them). The Prophet (peace be upon him) related it as follows [Sahîh al-Bukhârî (3427) and Sahîh Muslim (1720)]:
Two women went out with their children. One of them was attacked by a wolf who took her child away. The women then started to argue over the remaining child and appealed their case to David (peace be upon him). He ruled in favor of the elder of the two women.
Then they went to Solomon. He asked: “How did he command you?” The women told him. He then said: “Bring me a knife. I will divide the child between you.”
The younger woman asked: “Will you cut him in half?” He replied in the affirmative. She said: “Do not do it! Give my share to her.”
Solomon then said: “He is your son.” And awarded the child to her.
Allah says in the Qur’ân about another case where two men disputed: “And David and Solomon, when they gave judgment concerning the field, when people’s sheep had strayed and browsed therein by night; and We were witnesses to their judgment. And We made Solomon to understand (the case); and unto each of them We gave judgment and knowledge.” [Sûrah al-Anbiya’: 78-79]
We first notice that Allah says: “We made Solomon to understand (the case)”. Here Allah is showing us that he alone had understanding of this matter.
Allah then praises both David and Solomon on account of their knowledge and wisdom when He says: “and unto each of them We gave judgment and knowledge.” David had also been well-known for his precise thinking and his keen mind.
Understanding of something is to know it as it truly is. In Arabic, the word for this is fahm. There is another word in Arabic for understanding, more precise in its meaning. This word is fiqh. This is the word that is used in Islamic terminology for “Islamic Law”
Fiqh linguistically is a special understanding that comprises understanding the mind as well as in the heart and through one’s actions. This word – fiqh – appears in the Qur’ân roughly twenty times. If we consider how this word is employed, we see that it is not used to refer merely to understanding some meaning. Following the meaning of an instruction blindly might indicate that the instruction was understood, but it does not indicate that acute understanding referred to in Arabic as fiqh. This requires a person to sense the matter in its entirely and grasp all of its implications.
Allah says: “Wherever you are, death will overtake you, though you are in lofty towers, and if a benefit comes to them, they say: This is from Allah; and if a misfortune befalls them, they say: This is from you (O Muhammad). Say: All is from Allah, but what is the matter with these people that they do not make approach to understanding what is told (to them)?” [Sûrah al-Nisâ’: 78]
Allah says: “They said: O Shu`ayb! We do not understand much of what you say and most surely we see you to be weak among us, and were it not for your family we would surely stone you, and you are not mighty against us.” [Surah Hûd: 91]
Allah says: “And who is more unjust than one who is reminded of the communications of his Lord, then turns away from them and forgets what his two hands have sent before? Surely We have placed veils over their hearts lest they should understand it and a heaviness in their ears; and if you call them to the guidance, even then they will never follow the right course.” [Sûrah al-Kahf: 57]
In each of these cases, the people in question understood the meaning of the words that they had been told. They might even have committed those words to memory. Nevertheless, their hearts were unaffected and they could not accept the implications of what those words meant.
This understanding that is fiqh is something that must be actively developed. It is partly instinctive and partly acquired. A person who possesses this aptitude to a high degree is someone who has a natural gift of understanding and then develops it through knowledge and concerted effort.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “The best of you in the times of ignorance are the best of you after accepting Islam, if they acquire understanding.” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî (3494) and Sahîh Muslim (2526)]
Perhaps what the Prophet (peace be upon him) meant is that a strong natural aptitude combined with proper Islamic guidance is the ideal, and those who whom Allah blesses to possess both are the best pf people.
Islamic Law – which is referred to as the science of Fiqh – has understanding as its ultimate objective. There are two aspects to the understanding that the field of Islamic Law requires from the scholar:
1. Understanding of the circumstances. The situation under consideration must be understood from all angles. All factors need to be accounted for, including those that vary according to time, place, and circumstance. This is what is needed to derive accurate knowledge of the situation in its proper context, so that everything about it can be explained in a rational manner.
2. Understanding of how to respond to the circumstances. We need to know what is required of us regarding situation under consideration. How we must act in this situation? What is Allah’s ruling that is taken from His Book and from the words of His Messenger (peace be upon him)? In other words: How is the Qur’ân and Sunnah to be applied to the situation?
This process is known as the exercise of juristic discretion – ijtihâd – where a scholar expends his best effort to arrive at Allah’s ruling for a given matter. It is an effort which brings either a single reward or a double reward.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) recognized this uncertainty. He said: “If a jurist engages in ijtihâd and is correct, he will have a double reward. If he engages ijtihâd and is incorrect, he will have a single reward.” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî (7352) and Sahîh Muslim (1716)]
This activity is precisely what the Caliph `Umar b. al-Khattâb meant when he wrote to Abû Mûsâ al-Ash`ârî the following famous instructions, the historicity of which the Muslims have widely accepted:
“Then understanding is the understanding that you come by in what is not (expressly stated) in the Qur’ân and Sunnah. Then compare these matters by analogy when they occur. Know that which is similar and what shares a resemblance. Then seek to find that which is most beloved to Allah in your opinion and nearest to the truth.”
We see the same activity being articulated in the Qur’an when Joseph (peace be upon him) was falsely accused of wrongdoing: “(Joseph) said: She it was who asked of me an evil act. And a witness of her own folk testified: If his shirt is torn from the front, then she speaks the truth and he is of the liars. But if his shirt is torn from behind, then she has lied and he is of the truthful.” [Sûrah Yûsuf: 26-27]
It is the same effort we saw being exerted by Solomon (peace be upon him) to arrive at the identity of the child’s true mother.