By Imam Abu Laith Luqman Ahmad
Muslim sectarianism is one of the greatest challenges for Muslims in this century. It affects Muslims worldwide and is responsible for much of the discord in local mosques, in the splitting of Muslim communities, and it contributes to widespread disunity, displacement of populations, and intrareligious killing amongst Muslims around the globe. So just what is Muslim sectarianism, and what is the view of sectarianism according to the sharia? What do Muslims need to know and understand about sectarianism, especially Muslims living in the United States, whose Muslim communities are younger and still in their formative stages?
For starters, we should know that there is no one singular brand or type of sectarianism. Muslim sectarianism has many forms, many categories, numerous tentacles and sundry manifestations. Some extremely harmful, and some not as harmful. Some violent, and some non-violent. Some sects are hyper cultish with elaborate rituals and liturgical nuance, and some are very simple. Some sects require initiation, and some don’t. Some sects are descriptive but not necessarily sectarian and some sects are sectarian at their core but vague in their description. Muslim sectarianism is a complicated notion with complicated and often deadly consequences. It reveals itself in varying ways according to time, place, people and sub-ideology. Some Muslim sects are relatively new to the fray and some are hundreds of years old. Some are built around charismatic individuals and others are built around ideas or supplemental philosophies. Some sects are enduring and many others are long forgotten, just flashes in the pan.
So let’s first take a look at the meaning of the word. According to the New Shorter Oxford Dictionary, a sect is a body or group of people subscribing to views that are divergent from other people of the same religion, and a sectary is a person who is zealous in the cause of his sect, whereas sectarian, according to Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., is a characteristic of a sect. It also means (1) having limited character or scope (2) adherent of a sect, and (3) narrow, bigoted. Furthermore, sectarianize is to make sectarian, and according to Wikipedia, sectarianism is form of bigotry, discrimination, or hatred arising from attaching relations of inferiority and superiority to differences between subdivisions within a group. Common examples are denominations of a religion, ethnic identity, class, or region for citizens of a state and factions of a political movement.
In the Arabic language, there are several words and phrases in the Quran that are used to denote, as well as denounce sectarianism; for example, the word hizb (حزب), as in the verse:
وَإِنَّ هَٰذِهِ أُمَّتُكُمْ أُمَّةً وَاحِدَةً وَأَنَا رَبُّكُمْ فَاتَّقُونِ فَتَقَطَّعُوا أَمْرَهُم بَيْنَهُمْ زُبُرًا ۖ كُلُّ حِزْبٍ بِمَا لَدَيْهِمْ فَرِحُونَ
“And surely this your religion is one religion and I am your Lord, therefore be careful (of your duty) to Me. But they cut off their religion among themselves into sects, each part (hizbin) rejoicing in that which is with them.” (Quran, 23:52-53). Here is means sect in a negative way. However, hizb, could also simply mean a group of people; as in the verse:
وَلَمَّا رَأَى الْمُؤْمِنُونَ الْأَحْزَابَ قَالُوا هَٰذَا مَا وَعَدَنَا اللَّهُ وَرَسُولُهُ وَصَدَقَ اللَّهُ وَرَسُولُهُ ۚ وَمَا زَادَهُمْ إِلَّا إِيمَانًا وَتَسْلِيمًا
“And when the true believers saw the clans, (confederate forces) they said: This is that which Allah and His messenger promised us. Allah and His messenger are true. It did but confirm them in their faith and resignation.” (Quran, 33:22)
In modern-day Muslim political parlance, some people use the word hizbee as a pejorative term, meaning someone who is a sectarianist, or a party loyalist as in political party, or a specific Muslim group, representative of a specific ideology. Another word used to describe sect in the Quran is shi’ite. I’m not talking about Shiite Muslims here, (although shi’ism is a sect of Islam), I’m talking about the word shi’ite itself, as in the verse:
إِنَّ الَّذِينَ فَرَّقُوا دِينَهُمْ وَكَانُوا شِيَعًا لَّسْتَ مِنْهُمْ فِي شَيْءٍ ۚ إِنَّمَا أَمْرُهُمْ إِلَى اللَّهِ ثُمَّ يُنَبِّئُهُم بِمَا كَانُوا يَفْعَلُونَ
“Surely they who divided their religion into parts and became sects (shiya’an), you have no concern with them; their affair is only with Allah, then He will inform them of what they did.” (Quran, 6:159)
The aforementioned verse is not referring to any particular sect; it’s referring to the act of breaking into sects and sectarianism in general. However, this conversation is not about semantics, and every Muslim sect have their arguments why they are not a sect, why they are not sectarian or why they are a sect, or are the saved sect, or the best sect of all. The general rule of Islam with regards to sectarianism is to avoid it:
وَاعْتَصِمُوا بِحَبْلِ اللَّهِ جَمِيعًا وَلَا تَفَرَّقُوا ۚ وَاذْكُرُوا نِعْمَتَ اللَّهِ عَلَيْكُمْ إِذْ كُنتُمْ أَعْدَاءً فَأَلَّفَ بَيْنَ قُلُوبِكُمْ فَأَصْبَحْتُم بِنِعْمَتِهِ إِخْوَانًا وَكُنتُمْ عَلَىٰ شَفَا حُفْرَةٍ مِّنَ النَّارِ فَأَنقَذَكُم مِّنْهَا ۗ كَذَٰلِكَ يُبَيِّنُ اللَّهُ لَكُمْ آيَاتِهِ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَهْتَدُونَ “
“And hold firmly to the rope of Allah all together and do not become divided. And remember the favor of Allah upon you – when you were enemies and He brought your hearts together and you became, by His favor, brothers. And you were on the edge of a pit of the Fire, and He saved you from it. Thus does Allah make clear to you His verses that you may be guided.” (Quran 3:103).
Allah forbade the Prophet ﷺ from supporting sectarianism in our religion, and as a deterrent to sectarianism, the Prophet warned the people from arguing about religion and religious doctrine. The Prophet ﷺ said, “No people ever went astray, after they were guided, except that they were overcome by arguing”. [Tirmidhi]
Effectively tackling Muslim sectarianism in the Muslim world is extremely difficult. It’s hard to talk about it without arousing sensitivities. Additionally, addressing it is not a palatable frontline topic right know, and thirdly, Muslim sectarianism has been around for a long time; we have become desensitized to it. Thus, many of us have simply resigned ourselves to live with it and accept that there is nothing that we can do about it. However, not all of us have settled for acquiescent silence on this issue. Muslims all over the world are getting sick and tired of sectarianism and its often deadly consequences.
Muslims and major Islamic organizations in the United States are increasingly finding ways to unpack this volatile topic and sift it out; not by debunking or analyzing the ideology of every orthodox or heterodox sect of Islam, but by pushing the conversation to the surface, and working to establish communities that embrace Muslim diversity. In my opinion, Muslims living in the United States may have a somewhat better opportunity than others to break real ground on the issue of Muslim sectarianism because in the U.S., Muslim communities are relatively young in comparison to the Muslim world in general. They are still forming, and still developing a domestic identity. Dozens of masaajid in the United States at least, are requiring that new imams be thoroughly conversant in English in addition to their birth languages, and to be mentally equipped to engage the full spectrum of Muslim diversity in the masaajid where they serve. More and more American Muslim leaders are openly acknowledging our challenges with sectarianism and intrareligious bias and looking for ways to address it responsibly without violence and without recriminations.
The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ practiced a simple Islam based upon tawheed [monotheism]. He defined many of the principles of non-sectarianism throughout his life as well as during his farewell sermon when he said; “There is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab nor for a non-Arab over an Arab except by piety”. He ﷺ further elucidated the foundation for actionable non-sectarianism when he said: “verily your blood, your wealth, and your honor is sacred, like the sacredness of this day, of this month, and of the place”. He cemented his disdain for sectarian practices when he said: “do not return after I’m gone to being like unbelievers, some of you striking the necks (fighting) of others”. In other words; fighting each other.
There is no one way to combat Muslim sectarianism. Confronting it has less to do with polemics, and dissecting ideological arguments for or against every Muslim sect, than it has to do with promoting Muslim unity across racial, ethnic and ideological lines in spite of sectarianism. It comes down to giving Muslims a clear choice of how not be stuck in a sectarian modality. Unity is not for everyone; but it is certainly suited for people who want to be unified, and by all accounts, there are a lot of Muslims, all over the world who want to be united. At the end of the day, as many Muslims from all races and ethnicities are starting to understand, we are morally mandated to eschew sectarianism even if we can’t solve it altogether.
“وَلَا تَكُونُوا كَالَّذِينَ تَفَرَّقُوا وَاخْتَلَفُوا مِن بَعْدِ مَا جَاءَهُمُ الْبَيِّنَاتُ ۚ وأولئك لَهُمْ عَذَابٌ عَظِيمٌ”
“Be not like those who are divided amongst themselves and fall into disputations after receiving Clear Signs: For them is a dreadful penalty.” (Quran, 3:105)
The United States of America in particular, is a new frontier for Muslims. Nearly three-quarter of American mosques were established after 1980 which makes most organized Muslim communities less then 40 years old. There is still ample time to address Muslim sectarianism in our country in a sane, intelligent, and rational way and by the grace of Allah, and many Muslims are rising to the occasion. We have to create Muslim communities that are equally open to everyone; White, Black, Latino, Arab, Pakistani, Indian, Asian, African, low income, high income, educated and undereducated. Muslims living in the United States, as well as Canada, are slowly starting to move in that direction. This is the legacy of the Prophet of Islam ﷺ. This is the representation of non-sectarian Islam, and this is the conversation that needs to be placed squarely at the forefront. It won’t be an easy pivot, but it is a necessary one, and we’re making it, play by play. We’re not the only ones on this issue. Muslims in other countries are addressing sectarianism in their own ways as well. We’re just trying to do our part.
[Imam Abu Laith Luqman Ahmad is an Imam of a mosque in Northern California. He is also the CEO of ‘Mosque Without Borders’ (www.mosquewithoutborders.org), an organization that addresses racial, ethnic and religious sectarianism amongst Muslims living in the United States and the author of the book “Double Edged Slavery” a critical and authoritative look at the condition of African American and convert Muslims in the United States. He also wrote the book: “The Devil’s Deception of the Modern Day Salafi Sect”, a study of grass roots religious extremism. He blogs at imamluqman.wordpress.com, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org]