Often, when lay people ask this question they assume there’s simply one objective answer. For those that do, here are some considerations:
This question usually concerns fiqh issues, the vast majority of which are open to sound interpretations (i.e. within certain parameters). On the majority of issues any response will not be definitive as there will be a number of valid opinions (i.e. ways of looking at it). So when you ask “what is the ruling on x?” what you’re actually getting at is: “what is your opinion on what God might have said on x?” So generally, when someone is asking about a ruling on an issue they’re seeking the scholar’s insight and view on what God might be saying about a specific scenario. One of the reasons fiqh has become so polarising (whilst it wasn’t so in earlier times) is because of fundamental mistakes people make in understanding the nature of fiqh and what jurists actually do.
The only time there is a definitive ruling is when the question pertains to a qat’i (decisive) matter, such as the obligation of the five pillars, the general prohibition of zina (extra-nikah sexual intimacy), profiting from riba (usury), consuming khamr (intoxicants) and so on. Whilst many of these are widely known amongst Muslims, many assume other issues are qat’i when they most certainly are not (musical instruments, or plucking eyebrows as topical examples).
As such, when one asks, “what’s the strongest (fiqh) opinion…” in matters of valid disagreements between jurists, they ought to understand that “strongest” will be according to the jurist they’re speaking to, since it’s subjectively the strongest opinion to him/her. If it was definitively the strongest opinion, then jurists wouldn’t have disagreed in the first place!
Fiqh rulings (ahkam) do not sit independently from our conceptions of God; they play a role in telling us something about the Lord, His will, and our purpose. A good jurist locates ahkam in the larger scheme of things, and all of the ahkam should come together to tell a story about the way God wants us to live productive and contented lives – the jurist doesn’t just take each one reductively.
Does this all mean that there aren’t more convincing ways of looking at things? Of course not, but there’s a difference between what’s more convincing which is subjective and dependent on how the enquirer sees the world and their faith, and objective truth. Fiqh rulings (ahkam) do not sit independently from our conceptions of God; they play a role in telling us something about the Lord, His will, and our purpose. A good jurist locates ahkam in the larger scheme of things, and all of the ahkam should come together to tell a story about the way God wants us to live productive and contented lives – the jurist doesn’t just take them reductively. As Ibn al-Arabi pointed out, the Sabbath-Breakers accepted not to fish on the Sabbath but fell short of the will of God because they refused to consider the wider scheme as to why God had prohibited it. Essentially, to concentrate on specific rulings on their own as if they’re the end-all and be-all is like obsessing over one brick at the expense of the entire house. No matter how strong a brick, if it’s out of shape, placed awkwardly, the wrong brick is used, or they’re stuck together with the incorrect bond the wall will eventually collapse. The same analogously goes with the shariah.
Should we not enquire about fiqh issues?
No we must, since we’re obligated to know how God wants us to live. However, lay people ought to identify what enquiring about a fiqh issue is: they seek practical godly resolutions to specific challenges they face by asking those more informed than they are on what God has sent to mankind by way of guidance. These informed persons utilise their intellectual and cognitive aptitude to provide what they see as holistic solutions appropriate to the context and faithful to what God has revealed.
What all of this suggests is that you ought to trust the scholarly aptitude of the person you’re asking rather than simply referring to randoms or some character on social media because you like a post or two or they seem like a celebrity. Inherently, it is THEIR opinion and reasoning that you’re taking on and not some abstract objective view everyone ought to be saying. Yes, jurists disagree with one another and legitimately consider others wrong, but they do so in a spirit of reconciliation open to the idea, however improbable as they see it, that they might be wrong having missed something. This is exemplified by the statement of al-Shafi’i: “I believe I’m correct with the possibility of being wrong, and I believe you’re wrong with the possibility of being correct.” Alternatively, they might consider both stances correct but that theirs is more appropriate or practical for the context (also a shar’i consideration).
You should also be inclined to believe the jurist you refer to has a godly disposition, and in the context of asking questions (istifta) it means that he is committed to understanding God in the way God intended so as to get people to a good place with Him and ultimately end up in paradise. In this situation people often think that the most socially restrictive view is then always best (which is illicitly wrong for reasons I’ll enumerate elsewhere) when it’s often the case that restrictive views are taken not because it’s strongly worked out that God wants this, but because it’s simply a marker of membership amongst specific groups/sects. Rebuking the (restrictive) ways of the Children of Israel, God says, “Do not say falsely, ‘This is lawful and that is forbidden,’ inventing a lie about God: those who invent lies about God will not prosper.” (16:116) Alternatively, some opt for the “make things easy” argument that, although generally legitimate, tends to speak to material interests or the ideological concerns of non-believers rather than what God wants. Yet God warns, “You will see the perverse at heart rushing to them, saying, ‘We are afraid fortune may turn against us.’ But God may well bring about a triumph or some other event of His own making: then they will rue the secrets they harboured in their hearts.” (5:52) Clearly, on both sides there are issues.
Much of this means that lay people ought to think about what aptitude really means so that they can identify it. You can’t assume someone’s ‘good’ at football if you don’t know what the game is or what makes a ‘good’ player – and in this scenario simply watching them play football doesn’t tell you anything. Social media ‘likes’ or ‘follows’ are irrelevant to determining scholarly aptitude, and so too are things like a melodious voice, adopting a foreign fashion sense, or the rhetorical abilities of preachers. Shar’i aptitude has a lot to do with good working knowledge of the shar’i sources including the context of verses/hadith (as well as their reliability), the ability to put them together coherently (or reconcile between them) in a way that speaks to the divine message in a macro way, using cogent reasoning that employs a rich array of hermeneutical tools, and being able to identify and calculate the most advantageous outcomes based on a deep understanding of the situation being addressed and God’s overarching will.
The dhanni (subjective) nature of most fiqh issues means you must trust the scholars you ask since you’re relying on their personal scholarly efforts, which also necessitates choosing them intelligently.