New Age Islam
Mon Jan 18 2021, 02:50 PM


Islam and Sectarianism ( 10 Dec 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Islam and Intra-faith Unity - Is it Possible?



By Asghar Ali Engineer

 (Islam and Modern Age, December 2012)

 Muslims often talk of what they call Ummah wahidah i.e. one united community and always pray for it. Every year on the occasion of hajj also the imam of Ka’bah also prays for it at Jabal al-Rahmah (i.e. Mountain of Mercy) and yet Muslims remain deeply divided in several sects and display mutual rivalry. It is not only question of Shi’ahs and Sunnis but there are several sub-sects among these two major sects.

Often it leads to bloodshed too. Extremists like Taliban kill non-Wahabi Muslims on large scale and we witness this at its worst in countries like Iraq where Taliban have killed thousands of Muslims in sectarian basis. It is not even revenge killing but killing simply on the basis of sectarianism. This is of course to increase ones political power. It is interesting to note that though in Iraq Shah’s are in majority yet it is they who are being killed in large numbers in bomb blasts.

 One can understand theological debates between two sects but to kill is beyond ones comprehension. Of course the Ulema with extremely narrow outlook like Saudi clerics or Taliban (who are just ferocious fighters without any knowledge of theology or even elementary Islam) consider Shias as Kafirs and they, therefore, consider it as quite legitimate to kill Kafirs.

 When such sectarian wars are going on is it possible to unite all Muslims for which clerics themselves keep on praying on every available occasion. Or is sheer hypocrisy? They Qur’an, all these clerics know very well, exhorts Muslims not to divide themselves into sects which will reduce their power and yet they denounce each other as Kafirs. The Qur’an says, “And obey Allah and His Messenger Ands dispute not one with another, lest you get weak-hearted and your power depart, and be steadfast Surely Allah is with the steadfast.” (8:46)

 This is clear directive from Qur’an to Muslims not to dispute with each other as their power lies in unity and if they fight mutually their power will go and they will be weakened. This is very sound advice given to Muslims. Islam had come to unite all mutually fighting Arabs and had succeeded in creating unity. But this unity did not survive beyond the death of Prophet (PBUH) the whole history of Muslims is full of mutual fight and bloodshed.

 It is interesting to note that some tribes were busy fighting each other and some tribes had come together, breaking tribal barriers to form inter-tribal corporations to carry on highly profitable international business as in Mecca. But despite these intertribal corporations tribal identities were very powerful and tribal identities remained divisive. Islam’s emphasis on brotherhood remained, by and large, theoretical and in practice tribal identities remained alive and kicking.

 These identities became much more assertive when struggle for power began after the demise of the Prophet (PBUH). It was not only inter-tribal rivalries but also between different clans of one tribe.  The tribe of Quraish, for example, was divided between Banu Hashim to which Prophet (PBUH) and his family (ahl al-bayt) belonged and Banu Umayya and these two clans were deeply divided. Also, there were other clans.

 Though in Islam all were equal (equality of believers is very important doctrine in Islam) and yet when it came to successor of the Prophet the people of Quraish tribe advanced their claim that the successor (i.e. the Khalifa) should be only from Quraish as it is most experienced tribe in diplomacy and international affairs and not only that it should not be from among Banu Hashim as Prophet himself was from Banu Hashim and now Khalifa should also not be from Banu Hashim. This proviso for non-Hashmi Caliph was to rule out candidacy of Ali who was son-in-law of the Prophet and a Hashimite.

 Thus power struggle began between different tribes and clans and divisive forces came to the fore. The claim of the Quraish was advanced to rule out candidacy of Ansar (Prophet’s helpers in Madinah) who belonged to the tribes of Aus and Khazraj and then a compromise was sought that a caliph should be from Quraish and one from Ansar. However, that would have created more confusion and ultimately Abu Bakr from Quraysh was chosen.

 And when Islam spread among non-Arabs the power struggle became more acute and ultimately it led to civil war among Muslims during Usman and Ali’s Khilafat in which more than 70,000 Muslims were killed. Dr. Taha Husain, a noted historian from Egypt calls it Fitna al-Kubra i.e. the great insurrection. Some historians have pointed out that during the first three Caliphs Hashimites and Ansar were discriminated against and we find very few Hashimites and Ansar among holders of high offices in the power structure.

 These were all Arabs and when it came to non-Arab Muslims discrimination was even more and it is such discrimination which led to great insurrection and in which Umayyads succeeded in wresting power from others and Umayyad rule violated all principles and values of Islam. Except one Caliph Abdul Aziz all other Umayyad caliphs were tyrants and oppressors.

 Many uprisings took place during the Umayyad period and Umayyad governors like Hajjaj bin Yusuf killed thousands of Muslims (according to one estimate one hundred thousand) to suppress these revolts and yet Umayyad dynasty could not survive for long, let alone stabilize itself. It was during this period that new sects like Kharjiyyah and Zaudiyyah came into existence who kept on battling the Umayyad rulers.

Rhuas many of these sects came into existence due to struggle for power and for overthrowing the tyrant rulers. Like other extremists, the Khwarij (Seceders) were sub-divided into several sub-sects. The tyranny and exploitation of the Umayyads also led to certain minor sects who believed in pre-determination (Jabriyyah) and freedom of choice (Quadriya) also came into existence which no longer exist. They were wiped out. Similarly one more sect called Mu’tazilah or rationalists in Islam came into existence but it had different kind of origin.

 There is an interesting book called Al-Farg bayn al-Firag (i.e. the difference between sects) written by al-Baghdadi tells us there were more than 100 sects in the first century of Islam itself. Of these some sects undoubtedly were born because of ideological differences and differences in interpretation of certain verses of Qur’an or acceptance or non-acceptance of certain Ahadith too.

 Mutazila, As pointed out before, believed in rational interpretation and they were first rationalists of Islam and believed that Qur’an was created by Allah and like all other creations is going to be destroyed. The other Muslims, on the other hand, believed that Qur’an is coterminous with God and will subsist along with God and hence cannot be destroyed. Hundreds of Muslims were killed due to this controversy.

Since Abbasids who came to power by overthrowing the Umayyads, supported this controversy, it acquired political hue and anyone who supported creation of Qur’an supported Abbasids and opposed Umayyads. It is interesting to note that though Abbasids were Arabs (they were from the family of Prophet’s uncle) their supporters were mostly non-Arabs. Abbasid raised their army in Iran through their missionary Muslim and Iran became their support base. It is how a section of non-Arab Muslims (i.e. of Persian origin) shared power with Abbasids. Iran slowly adopted Shi’a version of Islam which was different from Arab Islam which was overwhelmingly Sunni. There were Shi’a Arabs too in Iraq, Kuwait etc. which were immediate neighbour of Iran.

 Thus political rivalries and power struggle also led to creation of sects within Islam. Abbasids were also overthrown finally in 1258 which was end of universal state of Islam as the noted historian Toynbee calls it. Then various regional states came to power but maximum number of sects came into existence in the early period itself. During Abbasid period one Ismaili sect also came into existence.

 This Ismaili sect which believed in leadership (Imamate) of his elder son Ismail who predeceased his father Ja’far al-Sadique, very prominent Shi’ah Imam of his time. The Isma’ilis, it must be said, though were a small minority, were highly organized underground sect and because of secret political activity succeeded in establishing their empire in West Africa and subsequently in Egypt according to Abbasids this Fatimid Empire as Isma’ilis called it as they took great pride in being progeny of Prophet’s daughter Fatima. They made highly significant contribution, like Abbasids, in the field of knowledge and founded the al-Azhar Islamic university and also founded the city if Cairo. They also developed a new theology by interpreting Qur’an in the light of neo-Platonism. The Isma’ilis also claims that they compiled the Rasa'il-e-Ikhwan-us Safa(i.e. Epistles of Ikhwanus Safa which are considered as Encyclopaedia of Islam.

 The Isma’ilis were subdivided in several sects of which two major sects – The Nizaris or Isma’ilis and Bohras still survive and are most tightly and well knit organized and tightly controlled communities due to their historical legacy.  The Bohras particularly are highly controlled and exploited community they are highly submissive to the priesthood and priesthood functions like the medieval church issuing dictates which must be followed.

In eighteenth century Arabia where today Saudi Arabia is located the Sunni Islam faced its greatest challenge in the form of Wahabi Islam. One Abdul Wahab from the Najd area rose against certain Sufi practices and uncompromisingly denounced Sufi practices and called it kufr. It adopted extreme postures and militant ways. Abdul Wahab and his family members entered into alliance with the House of Saud who adopted Wahabi Islam ultimately captured political power and today rules over Arabian Peninsula.

As it has very rich deposits of Petroleum it is flush with money and has become most influential Islam through its rich donations to various Islamic organizations. Though Wahabis are in minority Wahabi Islam is most visible Islam due to its rich resources. It has been spending billions of dollars on construction of madrasas and mosques where Wahabi Islam is practiced.

 There is direct clash between Sunni (Barelvi Islam) and Wahabi (Deobandi Islam) as far as India is concerned. There may or may not be clash of civilizations but there is certainly clash between Habi (Deobandi) and Sunni (Barelvi) Islam. In India too Deobandi Islam is most influential but it is not only because of Saudi money it is also because of its contribution to India’s freedom struggle and opposition to two nation theory.

We have thrown light on emergence of various sects so that we can understand the challenges of dialogue and harmony between these various sects. Some of these sects are involved in international politics and thus have all the greater challenge. The fight between the Wahabi Saudi regime and Shi’a Iran is one of the challenges. Both countries are competing for leadership of the Islamic world.

It is well-known that Saudi Arabia is very unhappy that Iran is developing nuclear energy or allegedly enriching weapon grade uranium. It may or may not be true but Saudi fears that if Iran succeeds in that it will become second rate power and Iran will have the leadership; many western journalists tell us that Saudi is urging Israel secretly to bomb Iranian nuclear installation.

It is no secret that the Saudi is unhappy with any Shia regime emerging as powerful nation. Syria and Iraq are again the example before us. Syria is not a Shia power as such but the ruling family is Nuseri Shi’a but the majority is of Sunni Muslim. Still Saudi Arabia is not happy because Syria is part of Iranian alliance and Iran, Syria and Lebanese Shias under the leadership of Hasan Nasrallah have emerged as quite a force in that region and it is no secret that Saudi is underwriting cost of weapons being supplied to Syrian rebels and want to see Syrian ruling family of Basharat-al-Asad defeated. Saudi Arabia stands with America today.

Similarly Saudi is not happy that balance of power has shifted in favour of Shias in Iraq due to introduction of democracy. In Iraq Shi’a population is more than 64 per cent though before US invasion power was in the hands of Saddam, a Sunni. The daily bomb explosions in Iraq are taking place with the backing of Saudi Arabia. It is not much of a secret. Though Iraq is not in open alliance with Iran but nevertheless is a Shi’a majority country. It can turn to Iran and after all they are neighbouring countries.         

Now the question is how these different sects of Islam can unite either power struggle between them or their hardened doctrinal positions. Yes, indeed it is very challenging job. As for power struggle even the Muslims belonging to same sect fight ferociously as for example, the Abbasids and Umayyads fought and killed each other. They belonged to the same sect but to two different clans. Even two brothers can fight for power as Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb fought.

Let us then leave fight for power aside and try to do something for unity of Muslims across different sects. Thus we try to unify those sects who have doctrinal differences but there is no power struggle between them. Here also we will have to make certain exception as for example unity between Shias and Sunnis at international, national and regional levels. Unity between Iran and Saudi Arabia may not be possible at international level as it involves power struggle between the two but may be possible at regional and national levels as in India, Afghanistan or even Pakistan.

What is likely to come in our way at this level is narrow-mindedness or rigid positions of certain theologians. But it is not as difficult a challenge as when power struggle is involved. We have to raise awareness both among Shias and Sunnis through campaigns and dialogues. It was achieved to some extent in North India. Both agreed, through dialogues and peace talks not to take out processions which expressed each other’s doctrinal positions.

In India again though there is antagonism between Sunni Muslims and Wahabis but the same remains in certain limits and does not assume violent form. Yet both assert their right over properties and do not welcome each other in their mosques. But they declare prayer said behind the other as Haram (not permissible) and even instruct their followers not to get Nikah (marriage) performed by the other and if done so they should get it performed by their own Quazi. Otherwise the children born of such union will be illegitimate.

However, this ‘restrained antagonism’ between different sects is more feasible in India as Muslims are in minority in India and often under attack from rightwing Hindus. Thus willy-nilly they have to unite. But wherever Muslims are in majority such unity becomes less feasible as there is no security fear from non-Muslim majority.  However, it should not be impossible even in Muslim majority countries if it is not result of outside conspiracy and governing by wise leadership which tries to bring about unity.

But unfortunately there are very few leaders around with wisdom and no personal interests. Our leaders generally want to compensate for sincere efforts by empty rhetoric on certain occasions and as a result no such unity is ever built up.   Now there are many serious challenges before us. Let us now go beyond empty rhetoric.

Asghar Ali Engineer is an Islamic scholar who also heads the Centre for Study of Society & Secularism, Mumbai.

Institute of Islamic Studies, Mumbai