by Zafar Bangash (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 42, No. 12, Rabi' al-Thani, 1435)
While the overwhelming majority of Muslims (67 percent) want unity in the Ummah, a small disruptive minority is determined to create chaos. To confront such divisive tactics, Iran’s Majma at-Taqrib organized an international Conference in Tehran to bring ulama of all Schools of Thought onto a common platform to strive for unity.
Only the Islamic concept of freedom can guarantee people’s rights and dignity, said the Rahbar, Imam Seyyed Ali Khame-nei in his wide-ranging address during celebrations of the birthday of the noble Messenger of Allah (pbuh). Several thousand people had gathered at the Bait-e Rahbari, the official residence and office of the Rahbar, for the occasion of Milad held on Rabi‘ al-Awwal 18, 1435ah (1-19-2014) in Tehran.
Among Muslims, the birthday of the noble Messenger (pbuh) is marked on two different occasions. The Sunnis mark it on the 12th of Rabi‘ al-Awwal while the Shi‘is mark it on 17th Rabi‘ al-Awwal.
Among Muslims, the birthday of the noble Messenger (pbuh) is marked on two different occasions. The Sunnis mark it on the 12th of Rabi‘ al-Awwal while the Shi‘is mark it on 17th Rabi‘ al-Awwal. In order to create unity, Imam Khomeini announced that Muslims should celebrate a Unity Week that would incorporate both dates — 12th and 17th of Rabi‘ al-Awwal — so that both positions can be accommodated. Thus, at a stroke, the Imam eliminated any arguments about the correct date or offending the sensitivities of others. Unfortunately, some Muslims have a tendency to indulge in endless arguments even on such occasions.
The Bait-e Rahbari is a sprawling but modest complex in the heart of Tehran. There are no highrise or exquisitely decorated buildings despite the Iranians’ flair for art and fine decoration. The surrounding neighborhood is equally modest. The only thing that separates the Bait-e Rahbari from its surroundings is the presence of the Sepah, the Revolutionary Guards, who politely but efficiently deal with all visitors coming to the complex. Everyone must go through security checks before being allowed entry into the Bait-e Rahbari.
Foreign guests are brought to the Bait-e Rahbari in good time and after clearing several security checkpoints, are ushered into the huge hall where the Rahbar would address the gathering. As is customary, a number of dignitaries accompany the Rahbar onto the platform while hundreds of other officials — Revolutionary Guards Commanders, top military officials, cabinet ministers, members of parliament as well as senior ‘ulama — are seated either directly in front or on the sides of the platform in the huge hall. There is separate seating for sisters.
Foreign guests — there were more than 300 from 58 countries to this year’s Unity Conference organized by Majma‘ al-Taqrib Bayna al-Madhahib — are given special respect and some of the senior ‘ulama or important figures from among them are also invited to briefly meet the Rahbar immediately after the formal program.
On such occasions, the president of Iran is also present. President Hassan Rohani was present on the platform as were Chairman of the Expediency Council Ayatullah Hashemi Rafsanjani, Majlis Speaker Dr. Ali Larijani, and Head of the Judiciary Ayatullah Sadeqh Larijani. The Larijanis are an important family in Iran. Another brother, Jawwad Larijani heads Iran’s Human Rights Council. He had formerly served as deputy foreign minister.
In most Muslim countries but especially in Iran every program starts with recitation from the noble Qur’an. Iran has produced excellent qaris who have won top positions in international qira’ah competitions. Appropriate ayat are chosen for each occasion. Since this was Unity Week and the birthday of the noble Messenger (pbuh) was being celebrated, the qari first recited ayat from Surah Aal ‘Imran (3:102–104) and then recited Surah al-Duha, the comforting surah revealed to the noble Messenger (pbuh) in the early period of Makkah.
President Rohani spoke first. He paid tribute to the noble personality of the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) drawing attention to his compassion and mercy and his kind and gentle dealings with everyone that came in contact with him. He also made reference to extremism and takfirism that are spreading in some parts of the Muslim world. He warned against such tendencies and invited Muslims to imbibe the values taught by the noble Messenger (pbuh).
One of the remarkable aspects of Iranian leaders is that they speak without notes. This does not mean they give rambling speeches. They always speak precisely as if reading from a written script. President Rohani had also addressed the opening session of the Unity Conference two days earlier. Again, he did not have any notes but touched on all aspects of Iran’s policy without once having to correct himself.
The Rahbar, Imam Seyyed Ali Khamenei’s speech was eagerly awaited. He started by drawing attention to the great personality of the noble Messenger (pbuh) who was sent as a mercy to all the worlds and his example is obligatory for all of us to emulate. He, too, touched on many aspects of the global situation and urged Muslims to draw lessons from the Sirah of the noble Messenger (pbuh) to solve their problems.
He drew special attention to the continued occupation of Palestine and said that the arrogant powers have tried but failed to obliterate the name of Palestine despite several decades of occupation and propaganda. Only Islamic resistance has been able to keep the spirit of freedom alive among the Palestinians and that it was the responsibility of all Muslims to assist them in this quest. Islamic Iran has taken the Palestine question very seriously and has done whatever in its power to assist the oppressed Palestinian people.
Given the alarming rise in sectarianism and emergence of takfiri groups in the Muslim world that are promoted by certain vested interests both from inside and abroad, the Rahbar said that such conduct was completely contrary to the teachings of Islam, the majestic Qur’an and the example of the noble Messenger (pbuh). Developing on this theme, the Rahbar said there is far more in common among Muslims of different schools of thought than what divides them and he urged all Muslims to focus on the commonalities to frustrate the plans of the enemies of Islam. He said that the enemies of Islam are trying to divide Muslims and divert their attention from their struggle for dignity and freedom, especially in Palestine. He cautioned the Muslims to be vigilant in this regard and not allow the enemies to sow discord among them.
The leader of the Islamic Revolution, however, gave a message of hope and said that the Muslim world is on its way to progress. He cited the great strides the Islamic Republic of Iran has made in different fields despite the sanctions and other restrictions that have been placed on it. He also said that attempts are being made to discourage Muslims and stifle the campaign of Islamic awakening. The Rahbar urged the Muslims to be vigilant and said if they strive in the way of Allah (swt) with sincerity, victory will be theirs.
His address was frequently punctuated by slogans raised by the audience sending salutations on the noble Messenger (pbuh) and his family and descendants. There was also vocal condemnation of the arrogant powers — the imperialists, Zionists and their local agents — throughout the speech. Such close interaction is seldom witnessed elsewhere in the world, especially the Muslim world where rulers either do not talk to their people or if they do so, they stand behind bulletproof cubicles.
Every year, Islamic Iran invites hundreds of guests from all over the world to participate in the Unity Week Conference. This year’s theme was “Unity in the noble Qur’an.” It was appropriate given the alarming rise in sectarianism in different parts of the Muslim world. There are certain forces and parties that deliberately push a sectarian agenda in order to divide Muslims. This is done to keep Muslims busy in endless conflict among themselves while their enemies sit comfortably watching Muslims shed each other’s blood.
In the opening session on January 17, Ayatullah Mohsin Araki, head of Majma‘ al-Taqrib Bayna al-Madhahib welcomed the guests and delivered his opening remarks. Dr. Hassan Tabbarian, deputy of Ayatullah Araki also spoke in the morning session as did Iraq’s former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari.
In his address at the opening session, President Hassan Rohani gave a comprehensive review of his government’s policies since being sworn in as president last August. He touched on Iran’s nuclear talks with the P5+1, his proposal at the UN General Assembly to accept a World Against Violence and Extremism (WAVE) that was adopted unanimously and Islamic Iran’s policy vis-à-vis the continued occupation of Palestine.
A number of other speakers addressed the conference in the opening session before the delegates were taken for Salah al-Jumu‘ah at the Mussalah in the heart of Tehran. Salah al-Jumu‘ah used to be offered on the grounds of Tehran University but since the Mussalah has been opened (it is still under construction but the main prayer hall is available for salah), Salah al-Jumu‘ah have moved there. The Mussalah is a huge impressive complex tastefully decorated on the inside. It is accessible by Tehran metro with a station located right underneath. This has helped reduce some of the traffic congestion that has plagued Tehran for years.
In the afternoon, there were parallel sessions held simultaneously to allow more speakers to present their papers. Given the very large number of papers presented to the conference, only a select few could be presented despite the parallel sessions. Even so, each speaker only had a few minutes to present the gist of his thoughts.
A new feature of this year’s conference was the parallel sessions held for sisters. This is a good idea since many sisters are unable to speak at the main conference given the sensitivities of some participants. Their sessions, according to our information (we were not invited to their sessions!), were well attended and there were some very impressive presentations. There is great talent among Muslim sisters that needs to be harnessed for the good of the Ummah.
The final session on January 19 went late into the night. The main address was by Ayatullah Hashemi Rafsanjani who is Chairman of the Shura-e Maslahat (Reconciliation Council). He also touched on the question of unity among Muslims and urged the delegates to avoid divisive polemics. He went so far as to say that it was time to put the argument about who should have been the first khalifah after the noble Messenger (pbuh) to rest. Nothing would be achieved by such arguments.
Throughout the sessions, both Sunni and Shi‘i ‘ulama addressed the conference. While everyone agreed that it is important to avoid divisions and strive for unity, it will have to be seen how many would actually put this into practice. In fact, in one of the sessions, one speaker made the valuable suggestion that such joint programs should be organized throughout the Muslim world. Some important steps have already been taken in places like Malaysia, Turkey and Pakistan to bring ‘ulama and representatives from different schools of thought onto a common platform and to agree on a common charter. This is an important first step and must be emulated in other places worldwide.
In the final session, two other important announcements were made: first, the names of the new Governing Council of Majma‘ al-Taqrib were announced. The Grand Mufti of Syria, Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun was elected to head it as were several vice presidents to assist him. Second, the various committees presented their reports. In addition to regular committees, there were also committees for specific areas such as Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, etc. These committees were tasked with recommending specific steps Muslims must take to assist the struggling Muslims and how to bring about peace in these societies.
It was emphasized that there should be respect for the Sahabah, the Prophet’s (pbuh) wives, and that the different schools of thought should be recognized and respected. It was pointed out that proximity did not mean converting Sunnis to Shi‘ism or vice versa; instead it meant respecting the views of both sides.