New Age Islam
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Islam and Sectarianism ( 15 Nov 2021, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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On How to Develop Tolerance among Sects in Islam

By Mohammad Ali, New Age Islam

15 November 2021

It Seems That Muslims Are Not Going To Embrace Tolerance towards Dissent Soon As an Ethical Value in Their Societies

Main Points:

1.    Appearance of differences is inevitable in religious matters.

2.    Prophet Muhammad instructed Muslims to tolerate dissent.

3.    Discussing speculative issues would develop tolerance among different sects and schools of thought in Islam.


Religious texts and ideas happen to be extremely subtle, thereby prone to multiple readings and understandings. Until or unless, there is an explicit expression, experts end up offering several interpretations, which are sometimes contentious, of a certain statement. These differences or contentions occur because of various reasons, which, interestingly, supply justifications for the validity of their positions. Most of the time, it becomes very hard to determine the validity of the reasons and the contentions which are based on them.


(File Photo)


However, it seems wrong and arrogant to reject contentions and differences under the pretext that they do not agree with one's own interpretation. Religions have suffered from this arrogance for centuries. Because of the intolerance towards dissent, religions have been sliced up into sects developing hatred that subsequently converted sects into warring groups. Such has been the fate of all religions in human history. But we have reached a point in time where people have started to realize the merits of tolerance towards dissent in order to build a peaceful society.

Islam is one of the world religions and is divided into various sectarian denominations. Like many adherents of other religions, Muslims have a history of violence and hatred towards other Muslim sects. And, in the light of the recent history of violence and separation, it seems that they are not going to embrace tolerance towards dissent soon as an ethical value in their societies.

However, it is ironic to see that Muslims, who have examples of tolerance towards dissent in their early history, were consumed by hatred and enmity of their brethren because they subscribed to a different opinion. The Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said that difference of opinion in my Ummah is a blessing. The Prophet knew that difference and dissent over a certain idea is a human thing and it is inevitable. Suppressing it would be tantamount to squashing creativity and thinking itself. That is why he instructed his followers that differences of opinion should be considered mercy for Muslim societies. It would mean that they were thinking.

Muslims remained faithful to the meanings of this report in the early period of Islam. That is why we have the companions of the Prophet and generations after them who had different opinions in religious matters. Muslim speculative theologians (Mutakallimīn) debated the nature of God, Prophethood, etc. Muslim jurists used to say that this is my opinion and I could be wrong. And this is someone else's opinion and he could be right. None of them claimed a monopoly over the truth or said that their understanding was the only true interpretation of the religious/Islamic texts.

Later, experts explained and limited the meanings and scope of the tradition, saying that differences are allowed only in matters, for example, of jurisprudence, and not in the matters of creed, such as God is one, or Muhammad is the Prophet of God. This is understandable because if Muslims start having differences about the idea of the oneness of God and the Prophethood of Muhammad, the foundations of Islam would collapse. But after some period, when Muslims started dividing into groups, they became so authoritative and rigid that they would not allow dissent. Whoever disagreed, they turned against them. Everyone claimed that only their understanding of Islam was true and the understanding of others was false and destructive. Such behaviour predominated the Muslim world in the later medieval period and was handed down to the Muslims in the modern world.

Even though sectarian behaviour and intolerance towards dissent persist among Muslims today, I would like to suggest a way that, I believe, would help curtail the feelings of hatred and intolerance in Muslim societies. Recently, I came across a post on a website with a good readership worldwide answering a question whether it is permissible for a Muslim to say "Ya Muhammad" when they ask for help. The answer to the question was that saying "Ya Muhammad" is an act of shirk and whoever would pronounce the phrase in order to seek help would be a Mushrik. The author of this post quoted references from the Quran and Hadith to substantiate his statement. While reading the post, I recalled that there are millions of Muslims who would not subscribe to this statement. They would argue that saying "Ya Muhammad" is permissible. To support their claim, they would also be able to offer several textual references from the Quran and Hadith. But, unfortunately, these people would be regarded as Mushrik by the readers of the blog post.

Shirk is the biggest allegation that one can put against a Muslim. Moreover, it strengthens the cycle of hatred and animosity among Muslims that has been continuing for centuries. These sorts of issues have become important topics of contentions among Sufis and Salafis today. It is important to note that such issues are related to theology, which means they are speculative and do not belong to the category of fundamental creed. Speculative means that they are inferred and deduced from a series of textual evidence and do not have unanimity. So, believing in them or disagreeing with them would not render a Muslim a Mushrik

The best way to offer one's opinion on a speculative issue, whether they are related to jurisprudence or theology, is to present them in a context of a group. For example, the author of the blog post could say that according to the Salafi school, saying "Ya Muhammad" is considered an act of shirk. Then this statement could be followed by the arguments in its support. After that, the author should also mention that there is another school of thought among Muslims, e.g., Sufism, and according to them saying, "Ya Muhammad" is permissible, and this should be followed by the arguments that they make to support their viewpoint. This method of discussing speculative issues would give a reader a chance to study both views. The reader would be able to understand that Muslim theology and jurisprudence are not a unitary entity and that they allow fresh thinking, creativity, and dissent. Furthermore, it would reduce rigidity and intolerance, the traits that Muslims require to get rid of as soon as possible.


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