Curse of sectarianism

08 October 2004 Friday 22 Shaban 1425

Curse of sectarianism

By Qazi Faez Isa

The former Malaysian prime minister, Dr Mahathir, identifies "sectarianism as ummah's curse". The "fragmentation of a single, simple and forthright religion" resulting in Muslims becoming "backward, weak and unable to deal with the multitude of challenges they now face".

Mohammad Ali Jinnah was born into a Shia Khoja household, but never professed adherence to any divisive sect. When matters of his estate came to be considered before the Sindh High Court, it was declared that our leader was simply a Muslim.

Sectarian violence in the country is rampant; murderers kill those who do not belong to their sect. Seeds of fragmentation and intolerance sprout in the swamp of leaky governmental resolve. Weeds take root, are cultivated and entwine their trunks chokingly around the body politic.

General Ziaul Haq was Pakistan's first ruler to use Islam to perpetuate himself. He categorized citizens into sects. A ruler who divides his people into sects is a mufsidun, that is one who commits great sins and crimes, an oppressor, a tyrant. "Verily, Firaun (Pharaoh) exalted himself in the land and made its people sects ... Verily, he was of the Mufsidun" (28:4).

The Shia and the Sunni came to have different legal obligations. The Hudood and other "Islam"-labelled laws in respect of the crimes of murder, rape and theft were applied on the basis of sectarian interpretation.

General Zia also granted madressahs the power to award BA and MA degrees in Islamic Studies. Each sect and sub-sect (maslak) was permitted to teach its own curriculum.

Degrees were obtained without acquiring knowledge of all aspects of the discipline. The Shias demanded and got exemption from the compulsory deduction of Zakat. Unity with the sect and not the faith, became important.

The question of sect (shiah), division (firqa), dissension (fitnah) and groups (hizb) has been considered in the Holy Quran. "...Do not be divided (tafarraqu) in religion" (42:13). "...And be not of al-mushrikun (hypocrites, dividers, polytheists).

Of those who split up (farqawa) their religion and become sects, each sect rejoicing in that which is with it" (30:31 and 32). "And be not as those who divided (tafraqu) and differed (ikhtalafu) among themselves..." (3:105).

"And verily, this is My Straight Path (serate mustaqeema), so follow it, and follow not other paths (fatafaraqa), for they will separate you away from His path. This He has ordained for you that you may become the pious (al-muttaqun)" (6:153).

The path is clear and the pitfalls identified. As to the consequences of disobedience, "Say: 'He has power to send torment on you from above or from under your feet, or to cover you with confusion in sects (shiaan), and make you to taste the violence of one another'. "See how variously We explain the Ayat [signs] so that they may understand" (6:65)

The gunshot wound, the devastating bomb and the exploding grenade in our sectarian midst, has made us taste blood, as we trudge the sectarian divide. Most men and women blindly following their parents schismatic proclivities. A child in his innocence wants to know, "What a Sunni or a Shia is?"

The difference in fiqh may be unknown to the parents but the prejudice is passed on. Teachings of the faith lie beneath the murky waters of sectarian practices, adherence to which is vigorous and abiding.

The Quran continuously confirms the timeless quality of the Message. "But they (men) have broken their religion among them into sects, each group rejoicing in what is with it" (23:53). The words "what is with it" excludes the sacred whole.

The invader in Iraq knows about the 'Sunni Triangle' and about the Shiah in the south before he has learnt anything about Islam, or maybe he perceives these divisions as Islamic.

The Shiah Northern Alliance fought the Sunni Taliban in Afghanistan, and their neighbours resolutely stood by their favoured sect. Sect precedes faith in these divisive times.

The prescription is provided by The Book: "Verily, those who split up (faraqu) their religion and break up into sects, you have no concern with them in the least. Their affairs is only with Allah, who then will tell them what they used to do" (6:159).

The simple act of prostrating towards the Kaaba in worship of the One Lord made complicated by the array of mutually exclusive venues. Which mosque should one then go to pray in? First, where not to go: "And for those who put up a mosque to harm and cause disbelief and to disunite the believers... Never stand you therein" (9:107/108).

A mosque where another is invoked along with Allah, has become the practice in certain sects, and must also be avoided. "The mosques are for Allah: so invoke not anyone along with Allah" (72:18). And then, the mosque in which we should bow our heads in surrender to the Creator: "the mosque whose foundation was laid from the first day on piety" (9:108).

To abide by the Quran, habits need to be broken and prejudices abandoned by stepping out of our trenched beliefs (mazhab and maslak) and abandoning the practice of hurling abuse.

To save our selves from violence at each other's hands in this world and from the pit of the fire in the hereafter. "...And be not divided among yourselves, and remember Allah's Favour on you, for you were enemies one to another but He joined your hearts together, so that, by His Grace, you became brethren, and you were on the brink of a pit of fire, and He saved you from it. Thus Allah makes His Ayat clear to you, that you may be guided" (3:103)

We are "a single community (ummah)" (21:92) and must not "dispute (tanazalu) with one another" (8:46). But the study of differences amongst various schools of thought (mazahib; singular mazhab) has become a specialty. Abu al Darda, a companion of the Prophet, is reported to have said, "[To say] 'I do not know' is half of knowledge".

Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) repeatedly warned: "Do not engage in disagreement thereby causing discord among your hearts". When two Muslims were loudly arguing in disagreement about the meaning of a Quranic verse he said: "People before you perished only because of their disagreement about the Scripture".

In his famous sermon delivered at Arafat he said that "every Muslim is a Muslim's brother, and that Muslims are brethren". He abhorred fitnah (dissension). Shortly before his death he said, "O people the fire has been kindled, and dissension has been set in like segments of a dark night".

Hatred is generated in the names of the early Caliphs, but their conduct was exemplary. Abu Sufyan came to Hazrat Ali, after Hazrat Abu Bakar became Caliph, saying; "O Abu [father of] Hasan, stretch out your hand so that I may give you the oath of allegiance".

Hazrat Ali rebuked him: "By God, you do not intend anything but [to stir up] dissension (fitnah). We do not need your advice". Hazrat Umar during his Caliphate summoned a lady who was reported to be of ill repute. His summons scared her and she miscarried.

Hazrat Umar consulted the companions of the Prophet on whether he was responsible and had to pay diyah (compensation) to the mother. Some of the companions exonerated him of all blame.

He then asked Hazrat Ali, who replied: "If what these companions said is what they really think, then their opinion is wrong. But if they said that in order to please you, they have not given you proper advice. I believe that you have to pay compensation for the child."

The Khalifa accepted Hazrat Ali's opinion and acted upon it. Al Gazzali noted that amongst certain religious scholars there were "devalued seekers of patronage from rulers" and also those "who busied themselves in passing fatwas".

The condition afflicting the Ummah (Muslim community) noted by him, about nine hundred years ago, is similar today. "The floodgates of disputation gave rise to terrible fanaticisms and animosities which, in turn, led to bloodshed and destruction of Muslim lands" - consequence of the perversion of simple truths.

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