Muslim scholars address sectarianism

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Tahir Mustafa

Jumada' al-Ula' 20, 1434 2013-04-01

Special Reports

by Tahir Mustafa (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 42, No. 2, Jumada' al-Ula', 1434)

Sectarianism has reared its ugly head, not because it is natural, but that there are forces deliberately trying to stoke fears. Muslim scholars in Malaysia have taken a bold stand against such machinations and called for proper understanding.

Sincere, thoughtful Muslims are greatly anguished by the rising tide of sectarianism in the Muslim world... To be sure, only a tiny minority of people perpetrate such terrorist acts but the effect of their dastardly acts is horrendous.

Sincere, thoughtful Muslims are greatly anguished by the rising tide of sectarianism in the Muslim world. This has led to widespread killings in such places as Pakistan and Iraq where innocent people have been murdered in cold blood. The targets of such attacks are more frequently Muslims belonging to the Shi‘i schools of thought. What kind of ideology would allow people that insist on calling themselves Muslims to kill other Muslims simply because they have a slightly different understanding of Islamic history or pray in a slightly different manner? What ayat (verses) of the Qur’an or hadiths of the noble Messenger (pbuh) permit Muslims to kill an innocent person of any faith or no faith, much less a Muslim?

To be sure, only a tiny minority of people perpetrate such terrorist acts but the effect of their dastardly acts is horrendous. After all, a single bomb can kill scores of people. Informed Muslims have always known that such demonic ideology emanates from sick minds or is actively promoted by the enemies of Islam. We can identify some of the sponsors of this ideology of hate. The Saudi regime is notorious for promoting sectarianism because it knows no other way to keep Muslims divided, confused and distracted from the real issues facing the Ummah. But there are other players as well in this dastardly game of divide and rule. Evidence of this was provided on March 10 when a conference was held at Tel Aviv University. The conference theme was, “Shia-Sunni divisions” and speakers considered how these divisions could be deepened. The Zionists’ actions dovetail those of the Saudis and their hangers-on in different parts of the world. This should alert sincere Muslims to the conspiracies being hatched against them by their avowed enemies whether they carry the Zionist or Saudi label (not all Saudis indulge in sectarianism but the campaign has official sanction).

Fortunately, there are many thoughtful Muslims in the world that understand the deadly effect of sectarianism and are willing to speak out against it... Muslim scholars who appear to get easily “hurt” by opinions and interpretations of Islam outside their own school of thought were told to be more realistic.

Fortunately, there are many thoughtful Muslims in the world that understand the deadly effect of sectarianism and are willing to speak out against it. On the day that the Zionists held their conference on dividing Muslims, a seminar organized in Kuala Lumpur under the theme, “Islam without sectarianism,” discussed how to overcome these artificial divisions. Interestingly, the vast majority of speakers were Sunni scholars. In fact, there was only one Shi‘i speaker at the Kuala Lumpur seminar. Without exception all spoke out against sectarianism and warned Muslims of its deadly consequences. The seminar was not a public rally to rouse the faithful with emotional speeches. Instead, it was thoughtful and deliberative and the issues were discussed dispassionately in order to enlighten Muslims about the challenges facing them.

Muslim scholars who appear to get easily “hurt” by opinions and interpretations of Islam outside their own school of thought were told to be more realistic. “My message to them is ‘grow up’,” said Dr. Syed Farid Alatas, the prominent Malaysian professor who heads the Department of Malay Studies at the National University of Singapore. Professor Alatas was responding to question from a seminar participant on the growing threat of sectarianism among Muslims, organised by three local Islamic organisations: the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS); the Muslim youth group, Islamic Renaissance Front; and the Kuala Lumpur-based Islamic Book Trust (IBT), one of Malaysia’s leading publishers.

In his inaugural address, Dr. Mohamad Hashim Kamali, chairman of the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) of Malaysia traced the origins of different sects in Islam. “For the first 100 years, there were no sects in Islam,” Dr Kamali said in his thoughtful presentation. Even when Muslim scholars gave differing interpretations of various aspects of Islam, they did so in an atmosphere of mutual respect. No Islamic scholar ever insisted that his interpretation was final or that no other interpretation was possible. The Ottomans introduced the first “sectarian” constitution in the 16th century, according to Dr Kamali. This was an unfortunate development since it opened the way for others to do likewise and over time, sectarianism became entrenched among Muslims. The Ottomans, however, were not motivated by sectarianism; rather, their purpose was to facilitate court decisions in a country where the majority of people followed the Hanafi school of thought but its unfortunate consequences soon became apparent.

... most authoritative Muslim scholars continued to call for taqrib, or rapprochement between madhhabs (schools of thought), most notably between Shi‘is and Sunnis, by urging an end to condemnatory rhetoric between them.

He pointed out that despite this, most authoritative Muslim scholars continued to call for taqrib, or rapprochement between madhhabs (schools of thought), most notably between Shi‘is and Sunnis, by urging an end to condemnatory rhetoric between them. “The Amman Message was a strongly worded fatwa coming from leading Sunni and Shi‘i scholars denouncing the idea of charging Muslims of any sect as kafirs [rejecters of Allah’s power presence and authority],” he added, referring to the declaration by prominent Muslim scholars and leaders in 2005. Dr. Kamali said while it would not be practical to abolish the madhhabs, Muslims “should focus on commonalities and we have so much of that,” reminding that the imams of the various madhhabs had left Muslims with a legacy of respect and not hatred.

Professor Alatas narrowed sectarianism to the rise of intolerance around the world, including Malaysia. He said it was unfortunate that Malaysian religious authorities too played their part in the process, getting involved in the demonization of the “other,” in this case the Shi‘is, whose local population is negligible. He warned that by continuously propagating stereotyped views on Shi‘i dogmas through the government media, the country risked becoming marginalized. “Malaysia is becoming a laughing stock in the international Muslim community, because no serious [Sunni] Muslim scholar demonizes Shi‘i scholars. Remember, the Shi‘is go to Hajj and no non-Muslim could attend the Hajj, and Iran [a Shi‘i majority country] is a member of the OIC,” said Dr. Alatas. He named several prominent Sunni scholars of the past who had recognised Shi‘ism as part of the Ummah, including past Grand Shaykhs of al-Azhar University, most notably Mahmud Shaltut through his famous fatwa of 1959. Others included prominent scholars and Islamic activists like Muhammad ‘Abduh, Salim Bishri, Muhammad al-Madani, Sayyid Sabiq, Hasan al-Banna (founder of the al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun) and Sayyid Tantawi. “You will not find a serious Sunni scholar who would define Shi‘is as not legitimate,” he stressed.

“Minor practices which are questionable should not be confused with the theological and jurisprudential school of thought... "

He said efforts to bridge sectarian gaps continued even today, and gave the example of the co-organiser IBT’s titles being displayed outside the conference hall, praising its selection of titles for representing both Sunni and Shi‘i writers. “Minor practices which are questionable should not be confused with the theological and jurisprudential school of thought. Similarly there are many parallels between Southeast Asian Muslims and Shi‘is,” said Dr. Alatas (a Sunni himself), adding that both sects could learn from each other.

Professor Alatas went on to say that Islamic authorities in the Malay world had once displayed more enlightenment in their response to different schools of thought, unlike the case at present where Islamic department officials in Malaysia have been busy imposing their limited understanding of religion on the Muslim masses. He gave the example of Habib Alwi bin Thohir al-Haddad, who served as mufti of Johor in the 1930s. He granted the ijazah (teaching certificate) to a Shi‘i scholar of that time.

In his paper titled “Accommodation — Not Antagonism”, Professor Crow gave an overview of current Muslim East politics, linking it with the agenda of sectarian strife by regional US-backed Arabian regimes. He also said it was critical that Muslims objectively study their respective schools of thought’s foundational myths. He lamented the so-called traditionalist scholars’ penchant for “polemical hostility,” hampering efforts toward convergence. “In fact, the most significant movements toward convergence in the past were undertaken by Islamic thinkers and authorities more open to the reasoned tradition of rational inquiry with its nuanced complexity and critical multi-level discourse, than to dogmatic Traditionalist self-affirmation of monolithic simplicities fuelling bitter polemic dispute,” said Professor Crow in his detailed analysis.

Dr. Haidar Bagir of Indonesia’s Paramadina University captured the audience’s attention with his use of the phrase “footloose jihadists” in making his case against what he called was the global export of sectarian strife to Muslim countries. “I don't know if some of these footloose jihadists have come to Sabah recently,” drawing chuckles from the floor. The issues in sectarianism are “much more complex than religious reasons,” said Dr. Haidar Bagir, a prominent philanthrophist who owns one of Indonesia’s largest publishing houses, and urged Muslims to reject attempts by certain regimes to manipulate sectarian sentiments.

But he saw hope in overcoming sectarian hatred following gestures by leaders from both sides who have called for a “ceasefire” of condemnatory statements. They include Iran’s leader Imam Seyyed ‘Ali Khamenei and Iraq’s Grand Ayatullah ‘Ali Sistani, who have discouraged inter-sect “conversions” because Sunnis too love the Ahl al-Bayt, the title used for members of the Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) family, whose sayings form the core of Shi‘i Islam. “These acts cannot be simply dismissed as taqiyyah,” said Dr. Bagir, referring to the practice of concealing one’s true intentions.

The seminar, moderated by the well-known Malaysian intellectual, Dr. Farish Noor was a bold attempt by leading scholars in Southeast Asia to tackle one of the most sensitive issues plaguing relations between Muslims in recent years. The organisers deserve credit for tackling such an issue through sensitive and sensible discourse. One hopes other scholars around the world would emulate the example of the Southeast Asian scholars.

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