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 , 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.