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Islam and Sectarianism ( 25 Feb 2013, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Inter-Sect Dialogue the Need of the Hour


By Dr Qasim Imam, New Age Islam

February 26, 13

According to a Hadith, Abdullah Ibn Amr narrated that the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) said, "My Ummah will split into seventy-three sects. All of them are in the Fire except one sect”. He said: "And which is it O! Messenger of Allah?" He said: "What I am upon and my Companions.”(Tirmidhi, Vol. 5, Hadith 2641)

This was one of the many predictions the prophet (pbuh) made about the future state of the Ummah. The Muslims are divided in sects and sub-sects. The division which is based on ideological differences on the interpretations of the Quran and Ijtihad is not confined to ideological differences but is cause of bloodshed arising out of the theory of Takfir. The entire Muslim world is in the grip of violence and bloodshed being unleashed in the name of preserving the purity of Islam. The extremists of each sect believe in the annihilation of the other sect to cleanse Islam.

When we have a look at the present state of Islam we are flabbergasted by the presence of so many sects and sub-sects among Muslims, each claiming to be the true representative of Islam thus being the sole claimant to the garden of Paradise. Though there are only two major sects in Islam – Sunni and Shia— there are various denominations and sub-sects in both the major sects.

There are four imams, Imam Azam Abu Hanifa, Imam Ibn Hanbal, Imam Shafi’I and Imam Malik. They are the founders of four schools of jurisprudence. Adherants of each imam consider themselves a separate sub-sect. Each sect follows some practices that others do not or differ in the interpretation of the Quran in their personal matters like prayers, marriage laws, divorce laws and other similar matters of life and death.

Then there are sub-sects among the Sunni Muslims that are based on Aqidah (beliefs). They are: Ash'ari, Maturid, iKharijites, Murjite, Mu'tazili,  Athari and Zahiri.

The Ash’aris introduced philosophical thought in religious beliefs though some scholars of Islam including Ghazali disapproved philosophy and held the philosophy of Aristotle and other philosophers’ heresy. The Asharites initiated the debate as to whether the Quran was the creator or created. This caused severe schism in the Muslim community and many scholars of Islam were killed as a result of this debate The group founded by Abul Hasan Ashari is said to have paved the way for closing the doors of Ijtihad and causing the stagnation of thought in Muslims.

The Maturidi sub-sect was founded by Abu Mansur Al Maturidi. It derives its existence from Ash’aris with whom it differs in certain beliefs. For example, the Ash’aris believe that faith increases and decreases while the Maturidis believe that faith remains static and it is piety only that increases or decreases. Maturidis recongnise the importance of conscience as they believe that the human mind can itself know without the help of revelation if murder or adultery or consuming alcohol is a major sin while the Ash’aris say that unaided human mind is not able to differentiate between good and evil without the help of revelation.

Mutazillis came into existence in the 8th century after a theological dispute between Hasan Basri and his followers. The disputes arose during their debate on whether sinners among the believers would remain in hell forever or for a short period; whether Quran was created or was eternal like God; whether evil was created by God. The Mutazillis believed that Islam and philosophy were compatible with each other. Thus after leaving Hasan Basri this group expanded their ideology and gave itself the shape of an independent sub-sect.

Murjites are yet another group which came into existence as a reaction to the Kharijites, another sect that assumed prominence during the reign of Hadhrat Uthman and had their climax during the reign of Hadhrat Ali. They even fought a war with Hadhrat Ali and were almost eradicated. However, the ideology took root in the Muslim community and has inspired even the Muslims of today. The Kharijites believed that those who commit major sins are infidels and should be killed. Thus they were the first group among the Muslims who invented the idea of Takfir, terming Muslims infidels and calling for their murder. They were known for their hard-line stand and rigid interpretations of the Quran and Hadith. The Murjites, on the contrary were the liberals who opposed the idea of Takfir as they believed that only God could judge who was a Muslim and who was a kafir. They followed the principle of ‘Delayed Judgment’. They said that only God will judge between a true Muslim and a kafir on the Day of Judgment and therefore Muslims should wait till the Day of Judgment and should not declare any one kafir in the world. However, they went so far as saying that Muslims will not go to hell. Only non-Muslims will do. Most importantly, they were tolerant towards non-Muslims and neo-Muslims who were not strict adherents of faith due to various reasons. They believed that once a man pronounces the kalmia expressing his belief in God and Prophethood, he should be left to his fate.

The Atharis are those who strictly adhere to the Quran, Sunnah and the practices of the holy companions in theological discourses. In other words they are the Salafists of today. They regard Imam Ibn Hanbal as their spiritual leader.

Zahiris are those who adhere to the outer meanings of the verses of the Quran and Hadiths.

In the Indian sub-continent, Sunnis are further divided into sub-sects like Deobandi, Barelvi, Ahle Hadith and other groups. Tablighi Jamat that follows Wahhabi ideology has began to assert as an independent sect that prefers marriage and other social dealings among themselves. It has a puritanical approach to religion professing a total segregation from political affairs.

Similarly, The Shia sect also broke into many sub-sects owing to the differences in the beliefs and practices. Major sub-sects among them are the Athna Ashri (twelvers), Zaidi, Alawi, Alvi and Ismaili. The Ismaili sub-sect also broke into other groups on small differences such as Nizari, Mustaali, Dawoodi Bohra, Sulaimani Bohra, Alavi Bohra, Druze and others.

Sufism is another sect that strives to achieve salvation and divine knowledge through meditation. The first scholar who recognized Sufism was Al Ghazali. Ibn Taimiyyah also had reverence for the great Sufi Abdul Quadir Gilani. However, Sufis also have various orders which follow its own rituals and beliefs within the frame work of Islam. Some of the major Sufi orders are Betakshi, Naqshbandi, Chishti, Owaisi, Qadri and Suhrawardi.

Then there is a breakaway group among Muslims called Ahmadiyya whose founding leader is Ghulam Ahmad Qadiani. The Ahmadiyas consider Ghulam Ahmad the promised messiah, Mehdi. The sub-group among the Ahmadiyya is Lahori Ahmadiyya that considers Ghulam Ahmad as only a religious reformer.

Other relatively small groups are Zikris, Ahle-Quran, Submitters and Nation of Islam. These groups were founded by the reformist thinkers like Muhammad Jaunpuri,Abdullah Chakralwi, Rashad Khalifa and Wallace Fard Muhammad respectively.

Given the fact that there are so many sects and sub-sects among Muslims, it becomes an uphill task to bring peace and harmony among the followers of these 73 sects. The belief of a particular sect that only they are on the right path comes from the second part of the Hadith quoted at the outset of this article which says that only one of the 73 sects will be on the right path. So every sect thinks that only it is on the right path and all the other 72 sects are heretics.  Certain hardcore believers among the Sunnis believe that Shias are Kafirs. Similarly, the Shias believe that some of the holy companions have exited Islam because of some ‘deviations’. The worst aspect of all these differences is that they have been backed by political powers or the governments in some Muslim countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

This sectarian divide among Islam has caused more bloodshed than communal clashes among religions. Muslims have been targeting Muslims on sectarian lines though they express their belief in the basic principles of Islam—faith in the unity of God and the prophethood of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).

It is therefore more important and necessary rather imperative on the part of the Muslims the world over to engage in inter-sect dialogue. Intersect dialogues only will pave the way for a better understanding among different sects and sub-sects and help in promoting tolerance among the Muslims. Differences of opinion are a blessing for the Muslim Ummah as the Prophet (pbuh) once said as it opens the road to creative thought and Ijtihad as long as the differences are confined to ideological levels. The differences or disputes should not turn into violent reactions and the process of Takfir.

Recently, the Muslim religious scholars and some Arab rulers have shown their willingness to participate in interfaith dialogue that seeks to bring the followers of different religions together. The monarch of Saudi Arabia a few years ago launched an interfaith campaign. However, the same monarchs and rulers have not shown any willingness to launch efforts to bring different sects and sub-sects within Islam together though inter-sect dialogue and harmony is more necessary than inter-religious dialogue. Ironically, the Pakistani and the Saudi government have been covertly backing and defending sectarian forces and promoting sectarian hatred. The attacks on Shias in Pakistan are a daily affair and the Shias of Saudi Arabia are constantly harassed by the Saudi government. Of late, certain parts of India have also fellen prey to sectarian conflagration. There are sub-sects that believe that it is not permissible to mix with the people of other sects as they are heretics. Therefore, such severe sectarian beliefs have only led to greater schism among Muslims that needs to be addressed immediately. In every country inter-sect dialogues should be initiated in which all the sects and sub-sects of Muslims should be invited and the way to a peaceful co-existence should be explored. The dialogues will also help the groups of Muslims shed their misunderstanding about each other and promote tolerance among Muslims. So long as it is not achieved, having dialogue with other religions will not serve any purpose. You cannot save others when your own house is on fire.