by Ahmet Aslan (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 42, No. 10, Muharram, 1435)
Pakistan has been gripped by sectarian violence for decades but in recent times, it has become more vicious. Committed Muslims, representing “Shi’is” and “Sunnis” from many parts of the world gathered in Turkey to work toward ending this unnecessary conflict in the Ummah.
While Syria and Iraq have been engulfed in bloody sectarian violence, a promising development took place recently to end sectarian bloodshed in Pakistan. Last month, members of some of the most influential Shi‘i and Sunni groups in Pakistan met in Bodrum, a popular holiday destination in Turkey, to end the ongoing bloodshed that has claimed the lives of thousands of innocent people since 2000 and even earlier. The meeting was initiated and organized by the Universal Justice Network, an umbrella organization that represents more than 200 Muslim NGOs around the world.
The highlight of the three-day meeting was Imam Muhammad al-‘Asi’s speech titled “On Search of the Prophet and Unity/Perils of Disunity.” Fellow at the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT) and mufassir of the noble Qur’an, The Ascendant Qur’an, seven volumes of which have been printed so far, Imam al-‘Asi has a very good grasp of the affairs of the Ummah.
In addressing the issue of sectarianism, Imam al-‘Asi highlighted the Prophet’s (pbuh) strong connection to the society he lived in and his outstanding exemplary role in dealing with the affairs of society. In particular, Imam al-‘Asi emphasized that the Prophet (pbuh) always considered the people to whom he was delivering the message as his people (ahlī) even though they were mushriks. He stressed that according to the noble Qur’an this was also the practice of all the earlier prophets as they always played a unifying role in society rather than being divisive.
He concluded that while there are contextual issues regarding the ongoing sectarianism in the Muslim world, he pointed to the lack of “social imān” in Muslim societies as the main reason. What this means is that Muslims are not involved in the affairs of society as they ought to be thereby allowing venomous concepts to seep in. Imam al-‘Asi’s thoughts, borne of deep contemplation of the Qur’an, the Sirah and Muslim societies were extremely well received by all participants at the conference. They all accepted his arguments and there was almost unanimous acclaim for his deep contemplation over the issue.
Subsequent meetings between the participants, however, showed that Muslim leaders of the Ummah needed more contemplation and self-criticism to fully grasp the real causes of the problem. Almost all participants unanimously pointed to foreign influence on and interference in Muslim societies, namely British and the US imperialism, which created and fuelled the schism among the Shi‘is and Sunnis in Pakistan and elsewhere. They also named lack of education, poverty, cultural baggage and national characteristics (i.e., emotionalism) yet they failed to acknowledge their share of the problem, not fully imbibing the social instructions of the Qur’an and the Prophet (pbuh).
Western powers together with their local regimes have indeed incited and exploited the rifts among Muslims, but it is the Muslims themselves that have allowed them to exploit these weaknesses. If Muslims do little or nothing but watch the heinous crimes committed against their brothers and sisters in Islam, such interference will continue.
Nevertheless, the delegates discussed some of the core issues affecting Pakistani society and the ongoing sectarian violence and tried to find practical solutions to the problem.
After three days of deliberations, they signed a declaration containing 11 points that all Muslim groups should adopt. According to the declaration “abusing the family of the Prophet (pbuh) — including his wives — companions and relatives as well as the religious opinions and beliefs of Muslim groups is haram and is against the Shari‘ah.”
Further, the declaration stated that “differences within the Ummah should never lead to issuing takfir against fellow Muslims, and if it does lead to issuing takfir we declare such action to be haram and against the Shari‘ah.”
The declaration also acknowledged the disruptive and diversionary effect of sectarian conflict by stating that “the conflicts in Palestine and Kashmir are fundamental issues facing this Ummah and on which there is unanimity.” The declaration strongly condemned “the instigation of sectarian division and internecine conflict within the Ummah to divert attention away from Palestine and Kashmir.”
The meeting and declaration that emerged were promising developments since it was the first time that representatives of influential Pakistani groups from both Shi‘i and Sunni backgrounds came together to discuss very serious issues affecting Muslims, and they managed to come up with a declaration that denounced sectarian rhetoric and violence.
Participants included Sahibzada Muhammad Hamid Raza, head of Markazi Dar ul Uloom Jamia Rizvia Trust, the biggest and oldest madrasah of the Sunni Barelvi sect in Pakistan; Allama Ibtisam Elahi Zaheer, who is a renowned scholar in Pakistan and has served as Secretary-General of Jami‘at Ahle Hadith Pakistan and Chairman of the Qur’an o Sunnah movement; Allama Syed Niaz Hussain Naqvi, who has been a senior judge in the high courts of the Islamic Republic of Iran for 27 years and is currently the principal of religious education institution Howza Ilmia Jamia al-Muntazar; Allama Muhammad Sadiq Qureshi, vice president of Minhaj-ul-Qur’an International; Liyaqat Baloch, General Secretary of Jamaat al-Islami Pakistan and Member of the Punjab provincial assembly; and Muhammad Sarwat Ejaz Qadri, President of Pakistan Sunni Tehreek.
The attendance of Allama Muhammad Sadiq Qureshi was especially significant since his organization Minhaj-ul-Qur’an had adopted a sectarian discourse until last year. Then its leader, Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri changed the organization’s outlook by denouncing its sectarian stance and embraced a more unifying position.
Given the seriousness of the issue, there were scholars and activists from a number of other Muslim countries and communities including South Africa, Turkey, Iran and Lebanon. Inspired by wide-ranging discussions and the conference declaration, the participants decided to work toward concrete solutions for ending sectarian violence and creating a cohesive and united Muslim community in Pakistan that perhaps could serve as a model for other parts of the Muslim world.
As part of their commitment to keeping the momentum for unity alive, the participants decided to meet again in a year’s time, also in Turkey. The follow-up meeting would evaluate the work done and reflect on changes implemented in their practices. And perhaps they could come up with more tangible solutions to this artificially created problem that is tearing the fabric of the Ummah apart.