Sec­tar­i­an­ism In Islam

1. It is impor­tant to real­ize that, unfor­tu­nate as it may be, it is a divi­sion that has already been made and accept­ed by the Mus­lims and by the adher­ents of these sec­tions. It would, under the cir­cum­stances, be unre­al­is­tic to refute the exis­tence of these sects. These sec­tions do exist, even if their exis­tence is against the teach­ings of the Qur’an and the Sun­nah of the Prophet (P), but it would be self-decep­tion to assume that they will cease to exist in the near future.

2. There is a tra­di­tion which declares that Islam has 72 (73, accord­ing to anoth­er ver­sion) sects.Ibn Majah, Kitab al-Fitn, Chap­ter 17 : Iftaraq al-Umam It is usu­al­ly argued that this nar­ra­tion patron­izes or even encour­ages the for­ma­tion of sects in Islam. Even though its sanad does not have any flaw, but its mean­ing is usu­al­ly not understood.

Its cor­rect under­stand­ing can be either of the following :

    [a] that the fig­ure men­tioned in this nar­ra­tion does not rep­re­sent an actu­al num­ber, but is just a metaphor. Also, the style of the matn of this nar­ra­tion is not a descrip­tion of these sects, but rather a warn­ing of their pos­si­ble emer­gence. So, this hadith describes a warn­ing of the Prophet (P) that a large num­ber of sects could appear in the Ummah if the peo­ple did not observe the teach­ings of Qur’an, like :

    … hold fast, all of you togeth­er, to the cable of Allah, and do not sep­a­rate…” [Qur’an, 3:103] (Pick­thal­l’s tr.) 

    Hence in light of this way of expla­na­tion, it is clear that this nar­ra­tion does not encour­age the for­ma­tion of sects, but, on the oth­er hand, warns the Mus­lims to keep them­selves away from those activ­i­ties, which lead to the for­ma­tion of sects. 

    [b] Anoth­er expla­na­tion of this nar­ra­tion has been giv­en by Goldz­i­her. He believes that this nar­ra­tion orig­i­nal­ly meant that Islam had 73 virtues (not sects) as against the 71 virtues of Judaism and 72 of Chris­tian­i­ty. The term virtues was mis­un­der­stood and trans­formed into branch­es or sects.To sup­port this state­ment of his, Goldz­i­her has pro­vid­ed a ref­er­ence to one of his own arti­cles, which, in addi­tion to being in the most dif­fi­cult Ger­man, was pub­lished in Vien­na in 1874. It is safe to say that it is impos­si­ble to obtain in this part of the world. Thus, I have no idea of what the intel­lec­tu­al basis of his above state­ment about this nar­ra­tion was.

3. From the basic def­i­n­i­tion of a Sect” in Islam, we may regard as real sects in Islam as only those groups, whose mem­bers depart­ed from the Sun­nah on essen­tial issues of fun­da­men­tal impor­tance for Islam, and who, on such issues, con­tra­dict the Ijma’.

Ash-Shahras­tani in his famous al-Milal wan-Nihal (1:4) writes that the faith of Sun­ni Mus­lims was noth­ing else but the prin­ci­ples of Islam set forth by the Prophet(P) him­self, and the Sects” in Islam were out­side of the Sun­ni faith, and were four only : al-Qadriya, As-Sifatiya, al-Khawar­ij and Shi’a.

Divi­sion of this kind dates back to the ear­ly days of Islam and was not (ini­tial­ly) caused by ques­tions of reli­gion, but by the ques­tions of the con­sti­tu­tion of the new state. Since pol­i­tics is but a part of the Deen” of Islam, there­fore these polit­i­cal ques­tions were blend­ed very soon with the reli­gious back­ing, and thus the sec­tar­i­an­ism became sound and permanent.

Ash-Shahras­tani in al-Milal wan-Nihal writes :

In every age, the great­est num­ber of times the swords were drawn was on the issue of Ima­mate, rather than on any oth­er issue.Ash-Shahras­tani, al-Milal wan-Nihal, 1:16 (Cairo, 1948)

Ash-Shahras­tani has men­tioned the fol­low­ing events to be the caus­esibid. of true sec­tar­i­an­ism in Islam :

  • The dif­fer­ences between Ali (K) and Mu’awiya (R) on the Caliphate. 
  • The dis­obe­di­ence of Kharijites. 
  • The per­sis­tence of She’aan-e-Hay­dar-e-Kar­rar on the exclu­sive claim of Caliphate (Ima­mate) for Ali (K) and his progeny. 
  • The (the­o­log­i­cal) debates of Jabr-o-Qadr and their polit­i­cal rel­e­vance to imply that a incom­pe­tent Caliph was the will of the God and thus could not be replaced except by God Himself.

4. From today’s per­spec­tive, the dif­fer­ences in the var­i­ous Mus­lim groups are of the fol­low­ing nature :

    [a] Basic Dif­fer­ences : These are the same dif­fer­ences, which orig­i­nat­ed sec­tar­i­an­ism in the first place, and exist only between Sun­ni and Shi’a Mus­lims. Thus there are only 2 sects” (in the true sense of this word) in Islam.

    [b] Sec­ondary Dif­fer­ences : These dif­fer­ences are relat­ed to the sub­or­di­nate and minor issues of prayer, zakat, inter­pre­ta­tion of Qur’an, etc. These dif­fer­ences exist among the Sun­nis, between Ahl-e-Hadith, the four fiqahs, etc.

Now, dif­fer­ences of type [b] can be elim­i­nat­ed to a rea­son­ably accept­able degree by per­mit­ting the respec­tive group to fol­low its own set of inher­i­tance or fam­i­ly etc. Laws (which will be called its Per­son­al Law”), but restrict­ing all the groups to fol­low the Civ­il & the Crim­i­nal Law of that Group, whose adher­ents are in major­i­ty in the area in question.

So, in Pak­istan, for exam­ple, the Law of the Land is the Hanafi inter­pre­ta­tion of the Qur’an and the Sun­nah, while all oth­er groups are free to fol­low their respec­tive Per­son­al Law. Sectarianism In Islam 1Endmark





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