“Verily this Ummah of yours is one Ummah...” (Al-Qur’an, 21:92.)
“And hold fast by the covenant of Allah all together, and be not disunited...” (Al-Qur’an, 3:103)
The unity of the Muslim ummah is a reality proclaimed in the Qur’an, in the ayaat above and numerous others like them; it is one of the key strengths of the Ummah at many levels, from the cultural to the political. It is the unity of the ummah, the common understanding that all Muslims are brothers and sisters in faith, that makes Muslims feel at home wherever they may go in the Muslim world. However, translating this principle of unity into practical unity at a more functional level has always proved problematic; from the earliest days of Muslim history there have been differences and conflict within the ummah, as Muslims have disagreed on fundamental issues of politics and fiqh.
In recent times, there has been a sustained campaign to promote sectarianism in the Ummah in order to isolate Islamic Iran and minimise its influence over the rest of the Ummah. One of the immediate results of the revolution was a massive outpouring of sectarian, anti-Shi’i literature in the Sunni world, mainly funded by the Saudis and the Islamic institutions linked to them. The impact of this campaign has been immense, with many Sunnis, even those who have no truck with the Saudis, harbouring sectarian hostility towards Shi’is, to the extent of explicitly or implicitly questioning whether they are even Muslims. Such attitudes are based entirely on ignorance and misunderstanding, albeit deliberately promoted, but are immensely damaging nonetheless. The sectarian violence we are seeing in Iraq now, much of it generated by extremist Sunni groups who regard Shi’is as kuffar and legitimate targets for jihad, is a tragic example of the dangers of this approach. Even our Western enemies have recognised the potential for damage to the ummah by emphasising sectarian issues; from the outset the Islamic Revolution was described and discussed as aShi’i phenomanon rather than an Islamic one.
We should recognise, however, that these campaigns were successful only because they appealed to receptive minds. There has unfortunately been a tendency to sectarianism in the ummah for a long time; there have always been ‘ulama and political leaders, Sunni and Shi’i alike, who have preferred to emphasise differences between Muslims instead of what we have in common. This has been the case even among those whom Sunnis and Shi’as recognise as Muslims of different schools of thought, rather than being outside the Ummah. It is the effect of this sort of attitude, reflected in ingrained cultural and social behaviour on both sides, thathas, over decades and centuries, laid the ground for the sort of extreme sectarianism that has been deliberately cultivated in the last few decades. It is important to note, moreover, that this is not only a Sunni problem, although -- because of the success of the Islamic Revolution -- it has been whipped up among Sunnis in particulare. There have been plenty of Shi’i ‘ulama in Iran and elsewhere who have responded to the Saudi-financed campaign by choosing to emphasise their Shi’ism and attacking Sunnis, which attitudes have played into the hands of Sunni sectarians, and have also laid the ground for the Shi’i extremism in Iraq today. The reality that many Shi’is would prefer to ignore is that some Iraqi Shi’as have been responsible for numerous and appalling sectarian atrocities there, just as Sunnis have been.
Yet throughout Muslim history there have been voices in the ummah that have sought to minimise differences and focus on what Muslims have in common, rather than focussing on differences and areas of disagreement. Last month, Crescent carried coverage of the 19th Islamic Unity Conference in Iran, organised by Majma‘ al-Taqrib bain al-Madhahib Islami (Organisation for Convergence between Schools of Thought in Islam). This was created after the Islamic Revolution, but is part of a tradition of dialogue and co-operation that includes the Dar al-Taqrib al-Madhahib created as a result of the cooperation between Muhammad Taqi al-Qummi, a senior Shi’i ‘alim, and ‘ulama at Al-Azhar in Cairo in the 1940s. This cooperation led to Mahmoud Shaltut, rector of al-Azhar, authorising instruction in Shi’i theology at al-Azhar in 1959. At a less academic and rarified level, Muslim regularly show their instinctive understanding of the unity of the ummah by the global Muslim support for Hizbullah, a predominantly Shi’i movement, and indeed for the Islamic State of Iran, despite the efforts of sectarian Sunni propagandists. But that is not to say that some of the same Muslims aren’t also influenced by the propaganda to some extent; for example in adopting sectarian analyses of the situation in Iraq rather than those that transcend sectarian issues to focus on the bigger picture of which sectarianism is only a part.
Unity is, first and foremost, a state of mind; we must make a conscious effort to realise the unity of the Ummah proclaimed by Allahswt, by focussing on what we have in common rather than on our differences. As Iran is now moving back into centre-stage in the struggle of the Islamic movement, it is crucial that we rise above sectarian issues to stand united against the enemies of Islam, as they try to divide us and encourage internecine fighting between us, as tragically seen now in Iraq.