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Islam and Sectarianism ( 28 May 2015, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Necessity of Tolerance among Muslims: Hazrat Said Nursi on Bridging the Sunni and Shi’a Sectarianism

By Prof. Henry Francis B. Espiritu, New Age Islam

29 May, 2015

Hazrat Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (circa 1877-1960), the Turkish Islamic mystic-theologian, who is considered as the renewer of Islam in post-Ottoman and early republican Turkey, devoted many treatises that exhort for the unity among Muslims the world over. For instance, his book Damascus Sermon (Istanbul: Sozler Publications, 2004; pp.78-81, 83-89) called on Muslims of the world to manifest what Nursi calls, Ittihad Muhammadi or Union of the Followers of Prophet Muhammad. According to Nursi, this is the most important step in achieving Islamic Renaissance so that Muslims will rise up once again to become leaders of a righteous society and a just civilization throughout the world. The whole content of Damascus Sermon from beginning to end is indeed a passionate call for Muslims to be united in their Islamic faith, civilization, and identity.

Hazrat Bediuzzaman Said Nursi’s fervent call for Islamic Unity is all the more needed in our contemporary times especially when Muslims nowadays seem to forget the very Qur-anic maxim of fraternal unity; “And hold fast to the secure rope of Allah and do not be divided from among yourselves (See Al Qur’an Surah Ahl Imran: 103).” Let us look at the contemporary situation of the worldwide Muslim Ummah (Community). Islam is divided into numerous bickering sects and groups that constantly fight each other even in so trivial a matter! It is indeed sad how efforts and resources are being wasted in Muslim brethren’s fighting each other instead of preaching the glories of Islam to the world. What is more heart-rending is when Muslims of different sectarian groupings physically commit violence against each other just to further their own points of view! May Allahu Taala have mercy on us, and save us from this sorry and pitiful situation of our Muslim Ummah. May Almighty Allah teach us to love one another since our Holy Prophet clearly declares that no person can be a true Muslim until he desires for his brothers and sisters what he desires for himself (Hadith Sharif from Bukhari and Muslim [Kitab’ul Akhuwwah]).

 In this essay, I will focus my attention to Hazrat Bediuzzaman Said Nursi’s impassioned call for Sunnis and Shi’a Muslims to love each other in unity and peace. This Naseehat (holy advice) of Nursi can be found in Risale-i-Nur: Flashes Collection (Istanbul: Sozler Publications, 2004 edition), specifically, in the Fourth Flash (pp. 35-43). In this section of his work, Hazrat Nursi singled out the Sunni and Shi’a Muslims for his holy advice on unity, since they both comprise the majority of the Ummah of the Prophet. It is deeply regrettable that throughout the past centuries, as attested by numerous instances in history, the rift between Sunni Muslims and Shi’as has done incalculable damage to the “Union of the Followers of Muhammad” (Ittihad Muhammadi); such sectarian divisions lead to much animosities, painful strife and unnecessary violence committed against each other. It behooves both Shi’a and Sunni Muslims to heed the call of Hazrat Nursi to live in the spirit of Islamic fraternity and unity. Let us now examine what Said Nursi has to say to us, believers in the One God, as to how both Shi’a and Sunni Muslims should manifest this Ittihad Muhammadi.

Nursi began his treatise in the Fourth Flash, by describing the great concern of the Blessed Prophet Muhammad for Islamic Unity. In the Prophet’s intense prayers and fervent supplications—during his lifetime and indeed, up until the Day of Judgment—the phrase, “oh my Community, oh my Community” (Ya Ummati! Ya Ummati!) can be heard as his constant prayer of intercession for his people. Hence as per Said Nursi, Muslims should imitate the Holy Prophet in praying for, and working towards Islamic fraternity and unity. This treatise clearly reveals Nursi’s adherence to the Prophet’s example of unity that although Nursi himself was a dedicated and orthodox Sunni Muslim, in his philosophical and theological writings, he always refers to Shi’as as his “brothers”, “fellow Muslims”, “fellow companions of Divine Unity”, “fellow lovers of the Prophet”, etc. He therefore considers the Shi’as Muslim believers for they too declare the fundamental basis of Islam, which is Allah’s Unity (Tawhid), and they likewise adhere to the belief in the Risalah (Messengership) of the Holy Prophet Muhammad. As per Nursi, “there are a hundred fundamental sacred bonds between you [i.e., Sunnis and Shi’as] which command brotherhood and unity (Risale-i-Nur: The Flashes Collection, op. cit., pp.36, 43). He therefore requested both Shi’a and Sunni Muslims to “leave aside unimportant matters, which necessitate division” (op. cit., p.43), and to assiduously labour for harmony, amity, concordance and unity among all Muslims of the world regardless of their sectarian affiliations.

Hazrat Bediuzzaman Said Nursi was aware that the issues dividing Shi’as and Sunnis are minor and trivial, and in his estimation, these matters should not be elevated to the point of causing division between these two major groups of Islam. Furthermore, he says that the quarrels between them are caused by misunderstandings and extreme partisanship among their respective adherents; rather than legitimate disagreements on the fundamental doctrines of Tawhid (Divine Monotheism) and Risalah (Divine Prophethood). Shi’as should understand that genuine Sunnis truly love the Ahlul-Bayt (the Holy Family of the Prophet) and true Sunnis always pray for their welfare. Sunnis, especially belonging to the school of Tasawwuf (Islamic Mysticism) always acknowledged Hazrat Ali as a fountainhead of marifat (gnosis) together with Hazrat Abu Bakr Siddiq. All authentic Sunni Muslims accord great respect to Hazrat Ali and his family by mentioning them in their Khutba (sermons), and by supplicating for the welfare of the Ahlul-Bayt in all their formal liturgical prayers. In addition, Sunnis understand and sympathize with the Shi’as’ extreme and oftentimes, exaggerated love for the Ahlul-Bayt since Shi’as feel that by doing so, they are complying with Rasulullah’s request for all true believers to love his immediate family (Holy Quran 42:23). Nursi however reminded the Sunnis who are the “People of Truth and Moderation”, to tolerate and forgive the extreme devotion of Shi’as to Hazrat Ali, since “it is always within the nature of unrestrained lover (Aashiq) to exaggerate the worth of the beloved” (op. cit., p.40-41).

While forgiving the Shi’as for their exaggerated love of Hazrat Ali and the Ahlul-Bayt, Nursi, likewise exhorted the “Sunni People of Truth” to continue giving due respect to the Holy Family of the Prophet. Sunnis should however be careful that they would not engage in extremism and exaggerations characterizing Shi’a devotions and partisanship to the Ahlul-Bayt. He asked the Sunnis to be people of moderation (Ahl-Ut-Tawwasat) and prudence (Ahl-Al Wasatiyyah), since these virtues promote unity and discourage division. He reminded both Sunni and Shi’a sectarians that exaggerations and extreme heroic admiration of holy personages in Islam would lead to the same sad fate of the Christians who were not able to appreciate the divine mission of the Holy Prophet Muhammad due to their excessive and exclusive love for Jesus Christ. The Shi’as also fall in the same mistake of the Christians, since in the former’s excessive and exaggerated devotion to Hazrat Ali, they deny the first three holy Caliphs of Islam; what is worse, they indulge themselves in cursing these holy Caliphs and Companions in their misguided infatuation and frenzied devotion to Hazrat Ali. As for the Shi’as, Hazrat Nursi advised them to cease and desist from attacking, slandering, hurling abuses, and cursing the Rightly-Guided Caliphs and the Holy Companions because cursing even ordinary believers is un-Islamic, unethical and is not characteristic of a properly cultivated human being. All the more unethical would it be, if one curses those Righteous Caliphs and Holy Companions who were sincere helpers, supporters, and friends of the Holy Prophet! Prophet Muhammad enjoined believers to be kind to one another, and to forgive one another. Indeed, it is against the beautiful etiquette of Islam Aadab-al Islamiyya) to love Hazrat Ali while at the same time abusing, slandering, maligning, insulting and cursing the Holy Companions of the Blessed Prophet (op. cit., pp.39-43).

 According to Hazrat Nursi, the Shi’as’ denial of the right of the Righteous Caliphs to rule the Islamic Ummah is also an outright denial of Allah’s Taqdeer (Divine Plan) since everything comes from the Will of Allah. Therefore, Almighty Allah permits the historical circumstances leading to the succession of the Righteous Holy Caliphs, Hazratan Abubakr Siddiq, Umar Farooq, Uthman Dhun-Nurain, and Ali Ibn Abi Talib. This historical succession of the Righteous Caliphate (Khulafa ur-Rashidin) was due to Allah’s Will, since nothing in this world happens without Almighty Allah’s expressed permission. In addition, not to accept the Righteous Caliphate’s sequence of succession is tantamount to non-acceptance of the Immutable Will of Allah which is always reflected in human history, circumstances, and events in life (op. cit.). Even Hazrat Ali himself submitted to the rule of his predecessor Caliphs and he even helped and advised them in whatever way he can in order for their Islamic reign to be successful. Shi’as who pride themselves by the name, “Alevis” (i.e., partisans of Hazrat Ali) should imitate this magnanimous act of Hazrat Ali towards his predecessor Caliphs. Shi’as should contribute their part to the amity and harmony of Muslims by respecting the Righteous Caliphs, and by standing beside their Sunni brethren in promoting Islamic understanding, cooperation and mutual goodwill (op. cit., pp.41-43). Thus, Hazrat Nursi advised both Shi’as and Sunnis alike to come to a just and mutual agreement with each other and to remove the trivial misunderstandings that divide each other for centuries.

 Hazrat Nursi reminds both Shi’as and Sunnis (and indeed all Muslims) that the purpose why they should always be in harmony with each other is for the realization of the success and victory (faith) of Islam in this present world. Amity and fraternity among all Muslim groups (Jamaat) are for the purpose of Ittihad Muhammadi (unity of all the followers of Prophet Muhammad). All Muslims are Ahl-al Qiblah (people of one direction and perspective); thus, they should manifest this oneness of mind and heart at all times (Cf. Damascus Sermon, op. cit.). In Hazrat Nursi’s Damascus Sermon, he plainly states that when the worldwide Islamic Ummah will comply with this call of unity, then Nusrat (help) from Allahu Taala will come from on high, and will make the Muslim Ummah victorious once again. Nursi says:

 “And so, O Sunnis who are the People of Truth and Alevis [i.e. Shi’a sectarians], whose way is the love of the Prophet’s Family! Quickly put an end to this meaningless, disloyal, unjust, and harmful dispute between you. Otherwise, the atheistic current, which is now so influential, will make one of you a tool against the other, and use the one to crush against the other. And after defeating the one, it will destroy the tool. Since you are believers in Divine Unity, it is essential to leave aside unimportant matters, which necessitate division while there are a hundred fundamental sacred bonds between you, which command brotherhood, and unity.” (Risaleh-i-Nur: Flashes Collection, op. cit., p. 43)

 In the above-mentioned quote, Nursi makes it very clear that if Sunnis and Shi’as fail to live in harmony, the enemies of Islam—who themselves are the very ones who fanned these sectarian quarrels within the Islamic World—will stand benefited from all these irrelevant wrangling among Muslims. God forbid that these anti-Islamic and atheistic forces will use one group of Muslims to destroy the other. The Islamic belief in Divine Unity (Tawhid) should be carried in its practical manifestations of unity, goodwill, understanding, cooperation, and harmony, for Muslims to be able to thwart and confound the divisive machinations of the enemies of Islam. It is only by applying the practical dimensions of Tawhid in our dealings with our fellow Muslim brethren that Almighty Allah’s help (Nusrat) will once again descend on the Muslim Ummah.

As for Hazrat Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, it is a divine sign of the truth of Islam that all Muslims, despite their adherence to varying schools-of-thought (in Fiqh or jurisprudential rulings)—yet when it comes to the fundamental principles that makes the person a Muslim (i.e., the Kalima-the foundational creed of Almighty Allah’s Unity and the Messengership of the Holy Prophet Muhammad)—the whole Islamic Ummah is truly united in upholding such fundamentals of faith. According to Nursi, the Holy-Quran-an itself is a living symbol of how Muslims from different backgrounds, nationalities, and sectarian or jurisprudential persuasions are truly in unanimous agreement and are absolutely united in the certainty of their conviction as to the veracity and integrity of its contents and the purity of its texts (See, Hazrat Said Nursi’s book, The Staff of Moses (Asa-i-Musa). Istanbul: Sozler Publications, 2002; pp. 162-172). Therefore, since all Muslims are truly one and united in upholding all the fundamental truths of the Islamic faith and the integrity of the texts and contents of the Holy-Quran, it is indeed useless and counterproductive to the propagation of Islam if Muslims continuously fight, wrangle, and quarrel over superficial, minor, and trivial issues.    

To close this essay, allow me to offer my sincere Naseehat (advice) in pursuance to Hazrat Bediuzzaman Said Nursi’s call for all Muslim brethren to dwell together in peace and harmony with each other. Dear brothers and sisters, Almighty Allah’s help (Nasr/Nusrat) can only come if Muslims will begin to love their fellow brethren as themselves. With Allah’s Nusrat also comes His faith (victory) [See, Al Qur’an, Surah Nasr: 1-3]. The first step therefore to achieve Islamic Renaissance is for Muslims to live together in peace and unity. Insha Allah, if both Shi’a and the Ahlus-Sunnah Muslims (and indeed all differing Muslim Jamaah) will heed to this spiritual advice of Hazrat Nursi, Islam will become a great spiritual force in the world and there will be a true Islamic Renewal (Tajdeed Islamiyyah) on the face of the earth. Let us fervently pray and passionately labour to achieve Hazrat Said Nursi’s dream and vision of a Universal Muhammadan Unity (Ittihad Muhammadi). May the All-Loving Allah have mercy on the Ummah of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may all believers in Allah’s Oneness manifest unity and fraternity among each other so that Allah’s religion will be victorious in this whole wide world. Ameen, Summa Ameen!

 Professor Henry Francis B. Espiritu is Associate Professor-VI of Philosophy and Asian Studies at the University of the Philippines (UP), Cebu City. His research interests include Islamic Studies particularly Sunni (Hanafi) jurisprudence, Islamic feminist discourses, Islam in interfaith dialogue initiatives, Islamic environmentalism, the writings of Imam Al-Ghazali on pluralism and tolerance, Turkish Sufism, Muslim-Christian dialogue, Peace Studies and Public Theology.