Rethink history: undo sectarianism

Developing Just Leadership

Abu Dharr

Dhu al-Qa'dah 14, 1433 2012-10-01


by Abu Dharr (Opinion, Crescent International Vol. 41, No. 8, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1433)

Sectarianism exists on both sides of the divide. It is imperative to understand the root problems to overcome it, urges Abu Dharr.

Sectarianism is a hard nut to crack. This is so because each sectarian today (and this applies equally to Sunnis and Shi‘is) is calcified within centuries of self-righteousness that feeds on the other’s self-unrighteousness as it is perceived from each side of the sectarian divide. To illustrate this simple fact we shall take those two words that for sectarians justify their superiority. One of them is the word Ahl al-Bayt. In the “Shi‘i” sectarian understanding of history this refers to a select line of descent from the Prophet (pbuh). And here we have a variety of “Shi‘i” schools of political thought that identifies a line of the Prophet’s (pbuh) progeny who are the only Ahl al-Bayt, or the only ones qualified to stand in for the Ahl al-Bayt heritage. We shall spare ourselves the details that are to be found in this area between and among those who belong to the assorted narratives that fall under the title of Shi‘i. This type of transmitted understanding cannot comfortably accommodate the Prophet’s (pbuh) statement, “Salmanu minna Ahl al-Bayt: Salman is one of us — Ahl al-Bayt.” Salman [the Persian] was not from the Prophet’s lineage of descent.

On the other hand we have sectarians who come from the Sunni calcified traditions belonging to generations of Muslims who absented their minds from the political realm altogether. They speak highly of some sahabah while either barely mentioning other equal sahabah or neglecting some others of them altogether. Possession of power or lack thereof seems to have influenced such sectarians who belong to this narrative of history. In the course of Islamic history there were sahabah who took issue with other sahabah and in the trickle-down of information about such events the ones who had no power had no sahabah aura to them. Who can deny the fact that Abu Dharr is a sahabi? But because power did not play to his advantage as he took issue with the financial and economic privileges and refractory of certain other sahabis he does not occupy a prominent position within the pantheon of sahabah. Others who were in the mold of Abu Dharr in his and later generations do not fit the honorific of sahabah or tabi‘een. To name a few: ‘Amir ibn ‘Abd Qays, Kumayl ibn Ziyad, Zayd ibn Sawhan, al-Hasan al-Basri, and the list goes on.

If this is straining your memory of history, who is it that offers Imam ‘Ali, Imam al-Hasan, and Imam al-Husayn the honorific of sahabah? Sectarianism has made it impossible for some sahabah to belong to Ahl al-Bayt and for some from Ahl al-Bayt to be identified as prominent sahabah! Many committed Muslims of conscience and action have been shunted by this sectarianism that lives on. Power figures in the Umayyad regime capitalized on this sectarian dichotomy and got away with the unspeakable: they destroyed the Ka‘bah, they laid waste to Madinah, and they even killed with their own justification the Prophet’s (pbuh) grandsons. That justification for murder and mayhem has not been exposed and repudiated by today’s Muslims simply because the sectarian construct survives up until this very day, making it unlikely for Qur’anic common sense to prevail. As a result, powerless people lived in fear. The dynasties were not concerned with Allah’s (swt) power and authority as much as they were concerned with their political survival and any sectarian slant that served their purpose.

Why should anyone with a Qur’anic and Prophetic mind be unable to see Umayyad and ‘Abbasid power-mongers pursuing their own agendas and giving them an air of legitimacy by invoking whatever blank sanctity to their version of events? The tragedy of Karbala in particular should be an eye opener and a call to freedom of conscience and thought away from the sectarianism that surrounded it — by friend and foe alike. In plain language the Umayyad and ‘Abbasid rulers were dunya-centered. In lay language: they were in it for the money and for power. The Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have said,

Ma al-faqru akhsha ‘alaykum; wa lakin akhsha ‘alaykum al-dunya, an tunafisuha kama tanafasaha al-ladhina min qablikum, fa-tuhlikukum kama ahlakat-hum: It is not poverty that I fear bearing down on you; [rather] fear that the dunya [the desire for wealth and material possessions] will bear down on you; [I fear that] you will compete materialistically as those in times past did. At that time the dunya will ruin you as it ruined them.

It is this dunya that has brought us to where we are today: no din priorities, no hot-pursuit of knowledge, no soul-clinging to justice, no intra-Islamic tolerance, and no self-confidence resulting from altruism.

Even during the time of the Prophet (pbuh) the Quran was revealed to adjust and correct committed Muslims. Listen and learn,

[Hence], O you who are securely committed [to Allah’s power and authority], when you embark on a [military] task in Allah’s cause, use your discernment, and do not — out of a desire for the fleeting gains of this worldly life — say to anyone who offers you the greetings of peace, “You are not a person of commitment,” for with Allah there are gains abundant… (4:94).

There was in the time of Allah’s Prophet (pbuh) those who thought they were committed Muslims and wanted people to think that they were committed Muslims. But Islamic commitment is ascertained by behavioral evidence and a transparent social character. After our beloved Prophet (pbuh) passed away the revelation of the Qur’an ended and it is left up to us — the carriers of this meaningful Qur’an — to examine and evaluate policies and politicians in particular. You will notice that during the Prophet’s (pbuh) lifetime when revelation was still in progress there were numerous ayat to evaluate military efforts. Look at Badr’s evaluation in Surah al-Anfal, Uhud’s evaluation in Surah Aal ‘Imran, and al-Khandaq’s evaluation in Surah al-Ahzab, etc. In this close reading of the Qur’an we observe how Allah (swt) reconstructs those critical times and retraces what they did from a position beyond their “selves” and their “lives”. If in that process they made mistakes, He points them out,

…[remember what you felt] when they came upon you from above you and from below you, and when [your] eyes became dim and [your] hearts came up to [your] throats, and [when] most conflicting thoughts about Allah passed through your minds… (33:10).

All this and much more for those who follow Allah’s words carefully and thoughtfully is in the Qur’an concerning that first and unique generation of committed Muslims. But none of this was meant to give them a halo of infallibility; even they knew that they were not self-righteous and holier-than-thou.

Sectarianism has made it impossible for some sahabah to belong to Ahl al-Bayt and for some from Ahl al-Bayt to be identified as prominent sahabah! Many committed Muslims of conscience and action have been shunted by this sectarianism that lives on.

It is a sad comment to say that the Umayyad and other dynasties were to use the qualities of that humble generation around the Prophet (pbuh) with all its imperfections yet with all its selflessness and sacrifices to legitimize their usurpation of power and then cast that into the sectarian mold that we still suffer from today. From here on in, it was the regimes and dynasties that would evaluate and assess individuals and people. When committed Muslims were wrong in the time of Allah’s Prophet (pbuh) the faultless Qur’an would tell them directly and objectively that they were wrong and that they had to correct themselves. And with the Prophet’s (pbuh) leadership they did.

But when errant regimes and dynasties took over the leadership of Muslims they began to use opinions of some live-and-let-live scholars to justify their credibility and rationalize their legitimacy. Facilitating this whole process was the sectarian divide. The opposition to dynastic and autocratic rulers came from many who initially identified with Imam ‘Ali. So they had to be labeled. And labeled they were. Money and power back then acted like money and power do today. Establishments and governments can label the most honest person around as a weirdo, a goof-ball, or as may be more understood in today’s political climate an anti-Semite — and lo and behold that tag sticks like white on rice! This happens to almost all opposition forces in history. In our time we have the pejorative of “socialist” or “communist,” we have the derisive of “subversive” or “radical,” and in the Islamic sphere we have the derogative “Shi‘i” or “Ikhwani” just to name a few. But it should be clear to the discerning.

We know that this exposition may have touched on some raw nerves. But we have no choice but to speak the truth with the kind heart of brothers who seek justice,

There has now come to you an admonition from your Sustainer, and a cure for all [the ill] that may be in men’s hearts, and guidance and grace to all who are committed [to His power and authority] (10:57).

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