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Causes of sectarianism in Islam and it’s solution

January 23, 2012
We are witnessing many changes in the political landscape of the Muslim world. Countries like Egypt and Tunisia have removed their despotic regimes and this has culminated in the emergence (or façade) of democratic elections. In contrast, the uprisings are still continuing in places such as Syria and Yemen, where the leaders are still holding onto power with the promise of reforms and democracy. On other fronts, the US military is withdrawing from Iraq having left a so-called democratically elected government in place.

The concern for us as a Muslim Ummah is that this passage to democracy is being implemented in Muslim countries where disunity exists upon sectarian lines (like the Sunni and Shi’a in Iraq, Yemen, and Bahrain) and religious lines (like the Muslim brotherhood and Salafis in Egypt and Tunisia). The foundational pillar of Democracy is that the majority vote and political alliances establish the basis for governance. Therefore, the call to democracy in these areas will lead to politicians utilising the sectarian and religious differences in order to win support and power. A look at the sectarianism that has plagued the Iraqi democracy since its inception, and the problems with the confessional system in Lebanon, highlight that democracy is a totally inadequate solution, which only incites rather than coping with differences.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that diversity within religious and sectarian opinions has been distorted to create schisms within the Muslims Ummah. In the mid-19th century, the Deobandi Madrasas bought together Muslims who were hostile to British rule and were inclined towards a strict interpretation of Islam. On the opposing side, the Barelvi movement was founded as a reaction against the strict Deobandi and Salafi version of Islam. They called for a more liberal interpretation of Islam rejecting what they coined as extreme practices in Islam. These differences unveiled themselves in a detrimental way in the 20th century when the Barelvis allied themselves with the Ismailis and Ahmediyas to form the Pakistan movement. The Pakistan movement’s agenda was separation from India, whereas the Deobandis opposed the formation of Pakistan as they wanted to islamise all of India. Pakistan’s population today is made up off 50% of the people who are Barelvis and 20% are Deobandis; this has led to internal conflict in the country often erupting in violence and bombings. The Islamic institutions in Pakistan also segregate themselves along these lines with over 60% of the Madrasas following the Deobandi Muslims compared to 25% run by the Barelvi Muslims. These Islamic institutions promote an agenda where each side refutes the other and some elements pronounce takfir (pronunciation of disbelief) on the other.

The sectarian division between the Sunnis and Shi’as has also led to the political disunity that exists today in Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen, and Pakistan to mention but a few. The armed struggle between Sunnis and Shi’as in Yemen, Iraq and Pakistan alone has led to the death of thousands of Muslims. The origins of this disagreement can be traced back to the time of the Companions (ra) and the subsequent generation. The dispute was political in nature, with those who preferred Ali (ra) to be Khalifah ahead of the other companions labelled as Shi’atu Ali (‘the faction of Ali’). As time went on, different beliefs developed and Shi’ism came to encompass all those who preferred Ali (ra). The majority simply had a political preference to Ali (ra), whilst a minority believed in the divinity of Ali (ra).

The questions that we need to ask ourselves as an Ummah are: Do variations in religious beliefs justify disunity within the Muslims? How did the scholars of the past deal with differing points of view? What are the core Aqeedah issues that Muslims can bond upon? How can this spiritual and political unity be achieved?

If we look back at the scholars and pioneers from our illustrious past, we find that the Ash’ari scholars disagreed strongly with the views of the Literalists on many issues. These issues ranged from the definition of iman (belief), the manner in which to understand the sifat (attributes) of Allah (swt), in the usage of qiyas (legal analogical reasoning) and the permissibility of taqlid (following qualified legal opinions of a mujtahid) to a school of thought (madhhab). It is true that the Ash’aris strongly criticised the Literalist camp for their approach and views, but this was on the scholarly, intellectual level and must be taken in this context. Therefore, these differences in opinion did not result in the Ash’aris condemning the Literalists as heretics. On the contrary, the books of Literalist scholars like Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn al-Qayyim, Ibn Kathir were respected and quoted by Ash’ari scholars throughout history.

Similarly the Literalist scholars, whilst they also harshly criticised the Ash’aris, especially on some of their views such as the attributes of Allah (swt), their definition of the Qur’an as an expression of the speech of Allah, their definition of iman as being tasdiq (assent) in the heart and not including actions, and their justification of taqlid – they did not consider them as heretics or deviants deserving the wrath of Allah (swt).  Look at what Ibn Taymiyyah himself says:

It is not necessarily the case that everyone who makes a mistake in matters of ‘aqeedah is destined to be from the destroyed and the losers. Perhaps, the disputant was a mistaken mujtahid for whom Allah will forgive his mistake. It is also possible that he did not receive enough information about the topic to conclude that the proof has been established against him.” [Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmū’ al-Fatāwa, Vol. 3 p.179]

Further on in the same book, he mentions that even the Salaf differed on various issues related to belief. Regarding this he writes:

The early pious people (al-salaf) disputed about many of those issues. Yet none of them declared the others of having unbelief, evil or sin.” [Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmū’ al-Fatāwa, Vol. 3 p.239].

One lesson we learn from these past scholars is that our religious differences should only be confined to intellectual and scholarly dialogue and debate and not spill over into accusations of heresy, segregation and violence. Another lesson is that these scholars had a very pure understanding of what constitutes disbelief, and what differences Muslims can have while still remaining within the creed of Islam; this allowed them to always remain unified in their bond as Muslims. Therefore, for Muslims to look beyond their differences today, it is essential that we understand what pillars of faith make us believers and where debate is allowed. Allah (swt) has said in the Qur’ān:

O you who believe – believe in Allāh and His Messenger, and the Book which He sent to His messenger and the Book which He sent to those who came before him. Anyone who denies Allāh, His Angels, His Books, His Messengers and the Day of Judgement has gone far astray.” [TMQ Al Nisa:136]

This verse makes it clear that belief in Islam is based upon belief in Allah, the Angels, all the revealed books ending with the Qur’an, all of His Messengers and the Day of Judgement. Anyone who disbelieves in any of these is outside of the fold of Islam. Anything which is confirmed definitely in the Qur’an as part of our creed, or is known by necessity, forms the conditions for belief in Islam. There are matters in the Qur’an which are not known by necessity, or are not definitely agreed upon and hence fall under the realm of ijtihad. These areas form the scope for diversity in opinions and scholarly debate; it is not permitted to make takfir of the person who holds the different opinion, though they may be disputed with.

Revisiting the matter of the Sunni and Shi’a divide, there are many assertions made against the Shi’a creed. In particular there are four contentious areas: the claim that the Qur’an was altered; the claim that the Qur’an was intended for Ali (ra) and was wrongly revealed to Muhammad (saw); the claim that Ali (ra) is a divine being; the claim that all the Sahabi are not Muslim. These set of beliefs are held only by a few sects today; therefore, as long as Shi’as adhere to the fundamental aspects of the Islamic creed and do not deviate into any of these four erroneous beliefs, they should be regarded as Muslims. Other controversial issues include the cursing of specific individual companions and the belief that ‘Ali is better than Abu Bakr; though this behaviour is reprehensible, it does not constitute disbelief. A study of past scholars like Ibn Taymiyyah, who is often quoted as an authority on Rafidah (the more extreme Shi’as are labelled in the classical texts as the Rafidah), confirms this point of view. When asked about someone preferring the Jews and Christians ahead of the Rāfidah (a good example considering that today some scholars have told the Muslims to be more afraid of Iran than Israel), he replied:

Everyone who was a believer in that which Muhammad (saw) brought, then he is better than everyone who disbelieved in it, and even if that believer had an aspect of innovation, irrespective of whether it was the innovation of the khawarij or the shi’a or the murji’ah or the qadariyyah or other than them; the Jew and the Christian are disbelievers and their disbelief is known by necessity from the deen of Islam. And if the innovator considered himself to be in agreement with the Prophet (saw), not against him or disbelieving in him – then even if it was considered that he had committed disbelief, his disbelief is not like the disbelief of the one who lied against the Prophet (saw)” [Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmū’ al-fatāwa, Vol 35 p 201]

This illustrates that Ibn Taymiyyah harshly criticised those he deemed as holding deviant beliefs; however, he still considered them separate and better than the non-Muslims since they share the same fundamental belief in Islam and are therefore are part of the Ummah.

The stance taken by the aforementioned scholars shows us that first and foremost we need to unite upon the fundamentals of Islam and understand that we are one Ummah. The differences that exist between us need to be accepted, as long as they lie within the remit of Islamic difference of opinion as defined above. Indeed, these differences and others like them are unlikely to ever be resolved completely, and the Muslims lived for centuries under the Khilafah, despite their differences in the details of belief. This unity can only remain in the hearts of the Muslims until it is transformed into a political reality; this political unity cannot be achieved through democracy as we have discussed. As a system, democracy will always take the majority vote and legislate in accordance with this view and hence cause disunity amongst the factions. This political unity based upon the Islamic creed can only be realised through the Khilafah. The Khilafah system is not dependent upon the whims of the majority; rather each human being’s rights under the Khilafah are guaranteed by the revelation, which is used as the basis of law.

Ibn Taymiyyah writes about ruling by the laws of Allah (swt) in his book, Minhaj-As-Sunnah:

Undoubtedly, whoever does not believe that it is obligatory to rule according to that which Allah has revealed to His Messenger is a Kafir (disbeliever), and whoever thinks it is permissible to rule among people according to his own opinions, turning away and not following which Allah has revealed is also a Kafir…So in matters which are common to the Ummah as a whole, it is not permissible to rule or judge according to anything except the Quran and Sunnah. No one has the right to make the people follow the words of a scholar or ameer, shaykh or king. Whoever believes that he can judge between people according to any such thing, and does not judge between them according to the Quran and Sunnah is a Kafir.” [Ibn Taymiyyah, Minhaj as-Sunnah, 5/130-132]

The above statement of Ibn Taymiyyah demonstrates how vital the Khilafah is for the Muslims. The Khilāfah would adopt the necessary rules and laws from the shariah that are required in the society, such as the hudūd punishments, the levels of taxation and so on It would leave the personal issues to the individual and his own relationship with Allah, and upon this basis a solid foundation for the unity of the Ummah would be established. History has shown us (as with the fitnah at the time of Imām Ahmad), that it is not productive for the Khalifah to try to impose one set of beliefs upon the whole Ummah as it simply leads to disunity, resistance and is ultimately futile. It has also shown us that when rulers adopt sectarian positions, thus dividing the Ummah, the Muslims as a whole become weaker and open to outside exploitation.

In conclusion, with the Muslims unified under a single leadership to run their affairs according to Islam, the effects of sectarian and religious differences will be minimised. All Muslims will have recourse to the courts and to be judged according to Islam, and will be left alone with respect to the details of their personal worship. The State will clearly define the fundamentals of the Islamic Aqeedah and delineate those who fall outside of Islam (such as the Alawi and Ismaili sects) and will represent Islam on the international stage, not a particular sect.

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  1. A Basit permalink

    Very good article. I need to contact you for a short interview. Please provide contact details.

    • Ws

      Sorry for the late reply. We have been offline for a while. Let me know if you are still interested in that interview.


      Muslim Spring

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