In Islam difference of opinion is permitted but in a respectful manner. Sectarianism is a deliberately propagated ideology of hate in which one group of Muslims denounces another as ‘kafirs’ and even resorts to killing. Such hate ideology must be exposed and confronted.
O you who have become securely committed [to Allah]! Be overcautious of Allah [and His retribution] as is due to Him, and do not allow death to overtake you before you have surrendered yourselves unto Him (i.e., become Muslims).And hold fast, all together, unto the bond with Allah, and do not draw apart from one another… (3:102–103).
There is hardly a Muslim of any “sect” — Sunni, Shi‘i, Deobandi, Barelvi, Wahhabi, etc. — who is not aware of these words of the majestic Qur’an. While Allah (swt) calls us Muslims or mu’mins, we have adopted other labels and some of us even kill those of other “sects” that we disagree with. Nowhere in the Qur’an does one find the word Sunni or Shi‘i, so how did we end up with these designations?
True, different interpretations of the Qur’an and of Islamic history are possible but we — the Muslims — would do well to keep in mind that the noble Messenger (pbuh) treated all his companions with love and affection. This does not mean that every sahabi was of equal standing or knowledge, yet a divergent group of people from Arab, Persian, Roman, Abyssinian and other backgrounds intermingled and lived together as brothers in faith. The only criterion of distinction was taqwa.
Today, however, taqwa seems to be lacking among most Muslims, hence the hate-filled allegations against one another as well as routine killings of those we disagree with. The Qur’an is emphatic about not killing an innocent person because it amounts to killing the entire humanity (5:32). All Muslims — even those that indulge in wanton killings — read these ayat of the noble Qur’an yet it appears as if Muslims have become consumed by collective insanity. How did the ummatan wasatan (the equitable Ummah) as described in the noble Qur’an lose its way into narrow-minded sectarianism that is tearing it apart? Surely, Muslims did not scale great heights in all fields of human endeavour — science, astronomy, medicine, mathematics, statecraft, etc. — through sectarianism. Nor was it the sword (or the gun) that spread the message of Islam to the rest of humanity notwithstanding the vicious allegations of anti-Muslim writers. The Islamic civilization lasted nearly 1,000 years, a feat never achieved in history before or after Islam.
There are historical reasons for differences among Muslims primarily over the question of succession after the Prophet (pbuh) left this earthly abode but this did not harden until after the martyrdom of Imam Husain (ra) in 61ah (680ce). Prior to the tragedy of Karbala, there had emerged among those that usurped power by subverting the khilafah into mulukiyah an attitude that the Algerian writer Malek Bennabi described as “the Jahili spirit [of ‘asabiyah] contending with the Qur’anic spirit [of ‘adl].”
Sectarianism is first and foremost a political rather than a theological issue and is used by those in power that lack legitimacy. They want to keep Muslims busy in polemics by playing on their raw emotions. Those who say that the Sahabah (Companions) should not be insulted are absolutely correct. Without getting into debate about who qualifies as a companion, how can these people then ignore the fact that it was Mu‘awiyah who had started the campaign of vilification of Ahl al-Bayt (the Prophet’s (pbuh) family), particularly Imam ‘Ali (ra)? Even so sacred a space as the minbar of the masjid, including the one in Masjid-e Nabawi, was not spared from this hateful and un-Islamic campaign? Are those calling themselves “soldiers of the Sahabah” prepared to answer this question honestly? Do Imam ‘Ali (ra) and Ahl al-Bayt not qualify as Sahabah?
We cannot close our eyes to the fact that terrible things happen on both sides of the Sunni-Shi‘i divide. In the month of al-Muharram, for instance, some — repeat some — Shi‘i zakirs indulge in all kinds of vilification of the Sahabah who were close to the noble Messenger (pbuh). This must stop. Fortunately, the Rahbar of the Islamic Republic, Imam Seyyed Ali Khamenei has issued a fatwa declaring such vilification haram. Those (Shi‘i) Muslims that claim to love Ahl al-Bayt ought to pay close attention to the Rahbar’s fatwa/advice and act accordingly.
While we may not be able to end all our problems immediately, it would help if we understand the root cause of the problems and who benefits from propagating them. The late Dr. Kalim Siddiqui had good advice for Muslims: if “Shi‘is” were to become a little less Shi‘i and the “Sunnis” a little less Sunni and both a little more Muslim, we would all be much better off. Are we prepared to heed this advice?
Zafar Bangash is Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought