Books and Documents

Islam and Sectarianism (09 Jun 2013 NewAgeIslam.Com)

A Call to Global Muslim Communities – Inciters of Sectarian or Communal Violence May Stand 'Kafir’ In the Divine Court and Criminal on Earth



By Muhammad Yunus, New Age Islam

(Co-author (Jointly with Ashfaque Ullah Syed), Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, USA, 2009)

June 09, 2013

Theological, ideological and political differences in any community often precipitate sectarian division. This happens either in the natural course of history, or under the behest of vested interest or any other circumstances. In Islam the first prominent signs of differences emerged upon the death of the Prophet (632). His dead body awaiting burial, the community was tormented on the question of his succession. This marked a turning point in its history and precipitated the evolution of a fanatic breakaway sect (Kharijites) (659) and the birth of Shi‘a Islam (661). As, the mutual antagonism between these two sects and the mainstream Sunni Islam has caused colossal loss of life, sufferings and anarchy down the centuries to this very era, it is essential to bring across the purely political underpinning to this terrible divide.  

As happens in a situation of sudden leadership vacuum, the major groups in the community aspire to have their candidate fill up the vacuum. There were two major rival candidates:

i). Abu Bakr, the elderly father-in-law of the Prophet representing the Emigrants - the converts of the Meccan period who had struggled with the Prophet throughout his mission spanning some 23 years (610-632).

ii) Ali, also an Emigrant, and a cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet; his supporters, then known as Shi‘i (literally followers) believed in the divine right of leadership (Imamah) through family lineage.

The elders in the community chose Abu Bakr. Ali and his followers were not happy, though they accepted the community’s decision in the greater cause of Islam. The resentment in Ali’s camp continued during the successive caliphate (those of Umar and Uthman) and finally eased with his election after Uthman’s assassination (656). However, more anguish was in store for them.

Uthman’s supporters were critical of Ali for not avenging his assassin, who allegedly belonged to his [Uthman’s] camp. Thus the community was divided between the supporters of Ali and the sympathizers of Uthman. The differences were, however, more deep-rooted and had generated over time.

Uthman was of the Umayyah family of the Quraysh, who had entered Islam after the integration of Mecca – some 18th year into the Prophetic mission. During his caliphate (644-656), however, Uthman appointed members of his Quraysh tribe in many senior positions thus favouring those who entered Islam after the integration of Mecca (629), having failed to destroy it, and having made no sacrifices for it either. This had caused deep frustration and a profound sense of betrayal among the Emigrants (early Meccan converts), and more so in case of the supporters of Ali.  

The division between the rival camps reached a climax when Mu‘awiyah, a nephew of Uthman and governor of Syria claimed the Caliphate and sent a powerful army against Baghdad, the capital of the Caliphate. Ali dispatched a strong force to resist them. In the final encounter (July 28, 657), Ali’s army was on the verge of victory, when Mu’awiyah shrewd leader got his soldiers to raise the pages of the Qur’an in the air by fastening them at the tips of the lances. The sight of the sacred pages brought the battle to a halt. Mu‘awiyah then proposed arbitration to spare Muslim blood, to which Ali agreed. This alienated an extremist faction of his followers. They felt that arbitration between a genuine Caliph (Ali) and a Governor making a fictitious claim (Mu‘awiyah) was no more than a political ruse, and rebelled. Ali attacked their camp and almost annihilated them (659) but eventually one of their zealots assassinated him (Jan 24 661). This shattered Ali’s followers. They viewed Ali’s betrayal successively by the first three Caliphs and then by his own men as a sign of Divine trial. So they venerated him as their supreme saint, the Wali of God just as Muhammad was the messenger of God. The Shia Islam was born. The rebels who had broken away from Ali’s camp were called Kharijites (the secessionists). The first major sect was born in Islam.

It therefore follows that the evolution of Shi‘a Islam and the birth of the Kharijites have been purely the result of the external history of Islam post dating the demise of the Prophet and the completion of the Qur’anic message (5:3), and therefore do not derive from the Qur’anic message. With time both Shia Islam and the Kharjites were subdivided into many factions and the process continued down the centuries. Thus, writing in the fifth century of Islam, Abdul Quader Jilani enumerated some seventy-one sects, in addition to the mainstream Sunni Islam. The onslaught of history caused the disappearance of many of the marginal sects while localized circumstances created others. The fools among the Muslims who are blind to the machinations of history and aspirations and ambitions of humans sometimes blame the Qur’an for Islam’s sectarian fragmentation. The Qur’an, however, is clear and unambiguous in forbidding sectarian division:

“Say, He has the power to send torment upon you, from above you and beneath your feet, and to confuse you with sects (shi‘aon) to make you taste each other’s oppressions. See how we illustrate our messages that you may understand (yafqahun)” (6:65).     

“As for those who split their religion into sects (shi‘aon) - you have nothing to do with them (O Muhammad!). Their affair is up to God, and He will tell them of what they had been doing” (6:159). 

“(Believers! Do not be) among those who have split their religion and become sects (shi‘aon) – each faction pleased with what they have (by way of tenets)” (30:32).

“God has enjoined on you the religion (din) that God had ordained for Noah, and that We have revealed to you (O Muhammad), and that We ordained for Abraham and Moses and Jesus. So holdfast to the din and make no division in it…” (42:13). 


As in Christianity, the sectarian division in Islam has resulted in inter-sect accusations, communal riots, civil wars and even wars between nations. Thus, the Islamic dynastic Caliphate (Umayyads and Abbasids) saw many Shi’ite and Kharjiite revolts, and Shi‘a-Sunni antipathy and bloody encounters have punctuated Islamic history down the centuries to this very day.                        

The fact remains; sectarianism is an exaggerated form of tribalism. Islam came to root out tribalism but ended up with sectarianism because of obvious historical reasons. Fourteen centuries have passed since the birth of Islam and the global civilization has moved far away from tribalism and sectarianism; so it is time for Muslims to take cognizance of the fact that their sectarian division is out and out a construct of history and has nothing to do with the teachings of the Qur’an.

Finally some reminders to Islamic theological and intellectual leadership – particularly the Ulema, the clerics, heads of madrasas, seminaries, Imams of mosques as well as the bigoted elite ignorant of the Qur’an’s condemnation and dangers of sectarianism.

i) No category of people have any legitimacy to claim spiritual supremacy over members of other sects or to declare them kafir on the ground of theological or doctrinal differences because only God knows the rightly guided (6:117, 17:84, 28:56, 28:85 and 68:7). 

 ii) Since the Qur’an does not recognize the collective identity of sect of a person and repeatedly and unambiguously singles out good deeds and Taqwa as the common and only divine criteria for judging humanity after faith [1], there is no religious ground to call a member of any sect or any other religion for that matter a ‘kafir’ in spiritual sense, or pass a fatwa of militant jihad against a rival sect or religious group, regardless of its theological orientation – for God best knows the deniers of the divine decree - ‘the 'Kafirun’ – unless this word is used in a generic innocuous sense as a dissident or opponent.

iii) No Muslim can deny that God (Allah) is for all humanity (Rabb al ‘Alamin). He is the sustainer of the divergent communities of the whole world that encompasses all religions, sects, sub-sects and tribes (49:13). On the day of Judgment, each person – believers, polytheists as well as the atheists will be called to account for his deeds (and Taqwa) (22:17). No human being, regardless of his station in life can pass any judgment about any other sect or religion prior to the Judgment day as a Divine Agent, as God has not given any such authority to any group of people. Hence, those Ulema, mosque imams and theologians who preach sectarian exclusivism or incite sectarian or communal violence against a rival religion (Hindus, Christians, Jews, Sikhs for example) or rival sects (Ahmadis for example) deny the truth of Islam’s pluralism and may themselves stand ‘kafir’ in the divine court and criminal on earth.

 iv)  All major religions have deconstructed the violently divisive theological heritage of their faiths, attained inter-sect harmony and marital ties. They are realizing their role as God’s deputy on earth through advancement of universal knowledge, science, technology and art forms and establishing cohesive and progressive societies, but the Muslims are tenaciously clinging to their divisive theological roots and remain “confused (and atavistic) with sects and tasting each other’s oppressions (6:65), each faction pleased what they have (by way of tenets)” (30:32).

Summing Up. It is time for the Muslims, particularly the younger generation to attain inter-sect harmony, claim no sectarian supremacy, regard no other sect kafir on doctrinal ground, and feel free to perform prayer or take Iftar during the month of Ramadhan in any Islamic mosque regardless of its sectarian label; and of course, marry across the sects. It may sound revolutionary at this moment, but if the Muslim Ulema, theological and intellectual leadership turn a deaf ear to the Qur’an’s dire warning against sectarianism and draw no lesson from history and today’s ground realities, they may themselves be playing the kafir (through their persistent denial of the Qur’an’s warnings) and lure the Umma to a civilisational suicide and the Muslim youths of this era will bear the brunt of divine wrath which is already descending “from above them and beneath their feet.”


1. The underlined statement is based on the Qur’an’s following verses and pronouncements relating to good deeds and Taqwa:

i) Good deeds as the common criterion for earning divine approval to all faith communities -  2:62, 2:112, 4:124, 5:69, 64:9, 65:11.

ii) Faith and good deeds as the primary requirement for divine approval: 2:25, 3:57, 4:57, 4:122, 4:173, 5:9, 7:42, 10:4, 10:9, 10:26, 11:23, 13:29, 14:23, 17:9, 18:2, 18:30, 18:107/110, 19:59/60, 19:76, 19:96, 20:75, 20:112, 21:94, 22:23, 22:50, 22:14, 22:56, 22:77, 24:55, 28:67, 28:80, 29:7, 29:9, 29:58, 30:14/15, 30:44/45, 31:8, 32:19, 34:4, 34:37, 35:7, 38:28, 39:10, 39:33/34, 40:58, 41:8, 41:33, 41:46, 42:26, 44:22, 45:15, 45:21, 45:30, 47:2, 47:12, 67:2, 77:41-44, 84:25, 85:11, 95:3-6, 98:7, 99:7/8, 103:2/3.

iii). The universal dimension and primacy of taqwa - 3:113-115, 5:93, 49:13, 74:56, 91:7-9.

iv) Those imbued with taqwa (muttaqi) are promised divine approval - 13:35, 47:15, 51:15, 52:17, 54:54, 77:41, 78:31, 91:8, 92:6, 92:17, and 96:12.

v). The Qur’an privileges taqwa over the symbolism associated with some of its core spiritual tenets. Thus, it declares:

•        “Take provision for the journey (for pilgrimage), but the best of provisions is taqwa” (2:197)

•        “Neither the flesh nor the blood (of sacrificial cattle) reaches God, but your taqwa does indeed reach Him…” (22:37).

•        “Fasting as a means to attain taqwa” (2:183, 2:187).

•        “Personal clothing is to cover nakedness, but the cloak of taqwa is the best dress” (7:26).

•        “Those imbued with taqwa will stand above those who obsessively acquire luxuries of life” (2:212, 47:36).

•        “Every human being regardless of religion or godlessness is a recipient of a breath of divine spirit (15:29, 32:7-9, 38:72).”

•        “God is the wellspring of taqwa and forgiveness” (74:56).

•        God vests him with a polarity of instincts - the ‘nafsul lawwama’ or the conscience (75:2)’ and the ‘nafsul ammara’, the base or animal instinct (12:53). Thus all human beings regardless of religion can attain the height of moral uprightness (taqwa) or fall into the depth of moral depravity or evil (91:8).

•        On each individual rests the responsibility of his soul (5:105).

   Muhammad Yunus, a Chemical Engineering graduate from Indian Institute of Technology, and a retired corporate executive has been engaged in an in-depth study of the Qur’an since early 90’s, focusing on its core message. He has co-authored the referred exegetic work, which received the approval of al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo in 2002, and following restructuring and refinement was endorsed and authenticated by Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009.

URL: http://newageislam.com/islam-and-sectarianism/muhammad-yunus,-new-age-islam/a-call-to-global-muslim-communities-–-inciters-of-sectarian-or-communal-violence-may-stand--kafir’-in-the-divine-court-and-criminal-on-earth/d/11975



  • Dear Athar Azimabadi Sahab!
    Your point taken. The truth that we cannot hide is that the school ahle sunnah wal jamah evolved at least a hundred years after the death of the Prophet as until al-Shafi'is time, Sunnas were attributed to the Prophet as well as other people/ sources. Besides, the Qur'an does not connect its message with the Sunnah of the Prophet for had it done so, it would have frozen Islam in time and place to seventh century Arabia. Thus the doctrinal underpinning of Sunni Islam is also of post Prophetic origin as other learned commentators have argued. The article however does not root the Sunni Islam to the Prophet's era, but lays emphasis on the core message of Islam, individual accountability to God regardless of sect and lays down recommendations to diffuse sectarian differences.  Thanks.  

    By muhammad yunus - 6/10/2013 6:29:59 AM

  • Both Shia-ism and Sunni-ism are non-Quranic constructs. Only Islam is a Quranic construct. Let us hope Shias and Sunnis stop killing each other.
    By Ghulam Mohiyuddin - 6/9/2013 11:32:18 PM

  • If God is the only one to know who is “rightly guided” ((6:117, 17:84, 28:56, 28:85 and 68:7) then I think there should be no question about my sect (Sunni) being correct and yours (Shia) incorrect. Mr Azimabadi has put it most beautifully and I cannot add anything to it. However I would like to add that Mr Azimabadi says “As far as I know, the Islam of the Quran and the Prophet is just "Islam" -- neither Sunni, nor Shi'a, nor Kharijite.” But each sect thinks that they are following the “Islam” of the Quran and the Prophet.  Sunnis think they truly follow the Quran; Shia, Kharijite, Wahabi all think the same. We have to learn to live among diversity and that is what my article (Postmodernism and Islam) talks about. There should be no unity in interpretation because it would then kill individual freedom and individual differences. We just don’t have to learn to tolerate (which is not a nice term) but we also need to respect each others’ beliefs, except those beliefs which when disagreed with, their followers would then harm you (for example- the Wahabis).

    The Quran says “hold to the rope of Allah” The “rope” is the Quran and the Prophet’s actions. But the issue is that each thinks that my interpretation is correct, each thinks that he follows the Prophet (pbuh) the most. This is where the problem arises: first of all it is being said, that the Quran has 7 layers of understanding, each deeper than the other and we are scratching only at the top surface; secondly although we have one version of the Quran, but we have so many hadidths (Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawood, Tirmizi etc), this creates more problem. Who is to decide which hadidth is the “sahih” (authentic) one and which one is “zaeef” (weak).

    I believe, and my belief can be wrong, that God’s saying that He only knows who is “rightly guided” is telling us to be humble and not get too smug because although we have proclaimed the ‘shahada’ , we pray 5-times a day, we fast, we give zakat etc we can still be in the wrong. Even if we do these things Allah is telling us don’t get too complacent. The best example I can give is to quote the Quran, it says “let not the latter make fun of the former, for the former may be better than the latter”. We should keep this in mind. 

    By Syed Manzoor Alam - 6/9/2013 11:29:56 PM

  • Thank you for your response Yunus sb. My concern is not just with the wording of your sentence, but rather with its import. Even in your amended sentence, you are still saying that Shi'a and Kharijite Islam are non-Quranic historical constructs -- and, by implication, that Sunni Islam is the only "true" Islam, born in the Prophet's own time and derived from the Quran. But that is not what Shi'as or Kharijites think. For them, it is Sunni Islam that is a non-Quranic historical construct. Indeed, we know that the biggest enemies of the Prophet soon took command of "mainstream" Islam, which became known as Sunni Islam.

    Therefore, which Islam is "Quranic" and which is a post-Prophet historical or political construct is a matter of perspective. As far as I know, the Islam of the Quran and the Prophet is just "Islam" -- neither Sunni, nor Shi'a, nor Kharijite. All these sects are historical constructs, born of the power struggle that ensued after the Prophet's demise. So naming any one or two of them as a non-Quranic product of history is, in my view, incorrect. And that is what I was pointing out earlier.

    I may be completely wrong in my knowledge of these matters, or incorporating this perspective (for mine too is only a perspective) may throw off your article in an unintended direction. So please do not feel obliged to "correct" anything. I am just glad that you, as well as Sadaf and Aiman Reyaz saheban, took note of my comment.

    By Athar Azimabadi - 6/9/2013 10:56:08 PM

  • Instant comment posting has been removed. 
    By Aiman Reyaz - 6/9/2013 7:03:50 PM

  • Wonderful article and a very nice analysis by Mr Azimabadi. I would like to say that Mr Yunus, I think, is not judging others by calling others 'kafir'; he is warning others to take heed and mend their ways because they (who constantly call others 'kafir') too can be in the wrong. This is different from those who brand others as 'kafir' and are bent on either converting others into Islam or killing others because they do not follow their(extremists) way of life. To put it simply Mr Yunus, according to my interpretation, is saying 'you may stand kafir on the Day of Judgement so please introspect within' while majority of other extremists say ' you are kafir and either you convert to my religion or I will kill you'. 
    By Aiman Reyaz - 6/9/2013 7:01:32 PM

  • Dear Athar Azimabadi Sahab,

    This follows my last comment to you:

    Would it be ok if I rephrase the ambiguous statement as follows:

    "It therefore follows that the doctrinal evolution/ crystallization of Shi‘a Islam and the birth of the Kharijites have been largely the result of the external history of Islam post dating the demise of the Prophet and the completion of the Qur’anic message (5:3), and therefore do not directly derive from the Qur’anic message

    Please feel free to put in or delete a word or two to bring the statement in tune with the pluralistic spirit of the article.

    By muhammad yunus - 6/9/2013 4:55:12 PM

  • Dear Sadaf,
    Thank you for posting your comment so promptly - it is reassuring that some learned people read it within hours after posting and also make critical comments that is essential for honing up of ideas. 

    I have taken Athar Azimabadi Sahab's point as you will note in my parallel comment.   

    By muhammad yunus - 6/9/2013 4:41:14 PM

  • Dear Athar Azimabadi Sahab.

    I think we are saying exactly the same thing in different ways:  "the "fundamental" problem with fundamentalist Islam lies not in any particular interpretation, but in the tendency to consider one particular faith and its one particular interpretation (whatever it might be) as right, and sit in judgment over other faiths and interpretations."

    Secondly, I honor your objection to the phrase  "do not derive from the Qur'anic message" and will get it rephrased in the article.

    I am really grateful to you for pointing this out because what I really meant was that the doctrinal differences were post Prophetic era and you know human language is never perfect. I will also encourage you to read all my articles critically and spot flaws for I am doing a very sensitive work and a wrong word or phrase paced unwittingly can earn me perdition.
    Thank You.

    By muhammad yunus - 6/9/2013 4:32:55 PM

  • Mr. Athar Azimabadi has pointed out something very vital in developing a cogent understanding of what we believe actually. And he has done it in the best possible manner. Our discussions should actually reach such level of communication and those who are in serious communication here must take notice of it.
    By sadaf - 6/9/2013 12:08:19 PM

  • Islam's utmost priority today must be to emphasize the sinfulness of killing and of all forms of physical violence. Violence against members of another sect, or followers of other religions, or atheists, apostates, homosexuals or adulterers must be equally taboo and repugnant to Islam.

    Our second priority must be to learn to respect differences in beliefs between sects and religions. We must accept the fact that our way is only one of several ways to reach God. Considering our way to be the only right way is un-Islamic.

    By Ghulam Mohiyuddin - 6/9/2013 11:08:06 AM

  • Thank you Yunus sb. for another educative article. Once again, you show how important it is for us, as Muslims, to respect the beliefs and interpretations of others and live in harmony with them.

    But please let me point out a couple of lines from your article that don't seem to resonate with your own broader thinking. At one point, you note that "the evolution of Shi’a Islam and the birth of the Kharijites have been purely the result of the external history of Islam post dating the demise of the Prophet and the completion of the Qur’anic message (5:3), and therefore do not derive from the Qur’anic message". Calling non-Sunni interpretations of Islam non-Qur’anic doesn't sound like the best way of promoting sectarian harmony to me. After all, harmony cannot just arise from tolerance of other sects. It requiresgenuine respect for other beliefs, an acceptance that they might be right and we might be wrong.

    Towards the end, you also suggest that "if the Muslim Ulema, theological and intellectual leadership turn a deaf ear to the Qur’an’s dire warning against sectarianism and draw no lesson from history and today’s ground realities, they may themselves be playing the kafir". But isn't calling some people kafir -- for whatever reasons -- one of the main concerns about absolutist Islam today? Isn't that a tendency that you often denounce in your own articles?

    In my humble opinion, the "fundamental" problem with fundamentalist Islam lies not in any particular interpretation, but in the tendency to consider one particular faith and its one particular interpretation (whatever it might be) as right, and sit in judgment over other faiths and interpretations. That is why we have so many varieties of fundamentalist Islam -- from Wahhabi/Salafi to Muslim Brotherhood to Shia brands. And, occasionally, we Liberals/Moderates display the same tendency to judge others and call them kafir, even as we say only Allah has the right to judge someone's beliefs.

    Of course, there is nothing wrong in criticising particular interpretations, ideologies or faiths. We cannot move forward without doing that. But criticism is one thing, sitting in judgment over others is quite another. Walking that thin line is what being "liberal" is all about.

    By Athar Azimabadi - 6/9/2013 10:26:34 AM

Compose Your Comments here:
Email (Not to be published)
Fill the text
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the articles and comments are the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect that of NewAgeIslam.com.