One of the first lessons that all I learnt from all my teachers of Islamic sciences is the great maxim, “Our opinion is right with the possibility of being wrong and that of others (other recognized schools) is wrong with the possibility of it being right.” I was always told that it refers to furoo’ (subsidiary issues) only.
Lately, however, I observed some liberals using it to speak for producing space for differences on even the fundamentals. Knowing this I decided to search for the original statement.
Khalid Zaheer attributes to Imam al-Shafi’i (d. 204 AH) and puts it the following way on his site:
“I am convinced about the veracity of my opinions, but I do consider it likely that they may turn out to be incorrect. Likewise, I am convinced about the incorrectness of the views different from mine, but I do concede the possibility that they may turn out to be correct.” — Imam Shafa’i
Many others have also attributed to it to the Imam.
Firstly, I failed to find it attributed to Imam al-Shafi’i in any classical work . The statement was mentioned by al-Hasfaki (d. 1088 AH) and others but the earliest scholar to whom I could trace it is al-Nasafi. Ibn Nujaym al-Hanafi (d.970 AH) in his al-Ashba wal Naza’ir writes:
قال في آخر المصفى: إذا سئلنا عن مذهبنا ومذهب مخالفينا في الفروع، يجب علينا أن نجيب بأن مذهبنا صواب يحتمل الخطأ ومذهب مخالفينا خطأ يحتمل الصواب؛ … وإذا سئلنا عن معتقدنا ومعتقد خصومنا في العقائد يجب علينا أن نقول: الحق ما نحن عليه والباطل ما عليه خصومنا هكذا نقل عن المشايخ رحمهم الله تعالى
(Al-Nasafi) said at the end of al-Musaffa: “When we are asked regarding our opinion and the opinions of those who differ with us in the issues of secondary nature (furoo’ i.e. issues of fiqh as are differed upon by the mujtahid imams), it is upon us to say that our opinion is correct with the possibility of being wrong and the opinion of those who differ with us is a mistake with the possibility of being correct, … and when we are asked about our beliefs and those of the ones who differ with us regarding them it is upon us to say that truth is on what we stand and falsehood is what on which our opponents are. This is so reported from our teachers, may Allah have mercy upon them.”
See: Al-Ashbah wal-Naza’ir, (Beirut: Dar al-Kotob al-Ilmiyya, 1999) vol.1 p.330
Mark the contrast. The red is about furoo` (subsidiary issues); the blue is about usool-al-din (fundamentals) where differences are not tolerable e.g. hadith as a primary source of law and the first source of Qur’anic commentary.
Before Ibn Nujaym, Ibn Humam (d. 861 AH) mentioned it but Ibn Nujaym traces it back to Abu al-Barakaat al-Nasafi (d.710 AH). To the best of my knowledge this statement cannot be attributed to Imam al-Shafi’i nor is it traced back to anyone before al-Nasafi. If anyone has a due reference suggesting to the contrary, kindly do share.
What further supports this is that Ibn Hajr al-Haithmi (d. 974), a well known scholar of Shafi’i school, discusses the statement in some detail at the end of his Fatawa al-Fiqhiyya yet he does not attribute it to Imam al-Shafi’i.
And Allah knows the best!