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Interview: Maulana Wahiduddin Khan on Intra-Muslim Sectarian Dial

Mailinglist by reader @ 20.08.2007 17:05 CEST

Via: "Yogi Sikand"

Based in New Delhi, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan is a noted Islamic
scholar. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand, he talks about the
urgent need to promote dialogue and ecumenism between the different
Muslim sects.

Q: Although the Quran stresses Muslim unity, Muslims are divided into
numerous sects, and some of them see the other sects as enemies. How
do you account for this phenomenon of intense sectarianism and the
fact that, unlike in the Christian case, there is really no Muslim
ecumenical movement to bring the ulema of the different sects on a
common platform for serious dialogue?

A: I think this has much to do with the lack of modern education among
Muslims. As a result of the Renaissance in Europe, modern scientific
thought had a major impact on religious thought there, although there
was also fierce conflict between the Church and scientists. But the
scientific spirit promoted tolerance in matters of religion, and
because of this Christians, then largely based in Europe where the
scientific revolution occurred, were also inclined towards more
tolerance in matters of inter-sectarian relations. This had to do with
the scientific revolution in Europe and not with Christianity as such.

The serious lack of modern education and the scientific spirit among
large sections of the Muslim community gives space to professional
clerics to exercise their influence by seeking to establish the
veracity of their own sects by denouncing the other Muslim sects,
instead of seeking to build bridges with them. Rather than reaching
out to them, to seek to understand them or dialogue with them, their
approach is to brand them at once as 'enemies', 'infidels' and as
allegedly having strayed from the path of Islam. Maulvis of different
sects hurl fatwas against the other sects, denouncing them in harsh
However, I feel that it is only through serious and constructive
dialogue that you can reach out to other groups. If you feel these
groups may not be in accordance with your understanding of Islam, you
must seek to dialogue with them. Denouncing them will only further
promote conflict.

Q: Are you aware of any efforts being made today to promote
inter-sectarian dialogue and unity among the ulema of the different
Muslim sects?

A: Some efforts have been made in recent years in this regard.
However, their approach has been basically that of seeking to end
differences and thereby promote unity. This, however, can never work.
On the other hand, Christians associated with the ecumenical movement
tolerate intra-Christian differences but seek to promote unity despite
these differences. They agree to disagree. But there is no such
tradition among the Muslim ulema. They must understand that unity
cannot be had by trying to destroy differences. We should learn to
tolerate, not eliminate, differences and in that way the different
sects can indeed come closer.

Q: What do you see as the minimum common basis on which intra-Muslim
dialogue between the different sects can be promoted?

A: Unity should have a basis, and I think there are no differences
among the ulema of the different sects on the basics of Islam, which
can serve as the basis of dialogue. All recognized Muslim sects, Shias
as well as Sunnis, as well as the various groups within these two
larger categories, believe in Allah, the Quran and the Prophet
Muhammad. This is the basis for their unity. The four major Sunni
schools of jurisprudence and the main Shia school, the Jafari school
of the Twelver Imami (Ithnashari) Shias, are all based on the Quran
and Hadith, although they differ are on what I call 'non-basic'
issues. There will always be this disagreement on the 'non-basics' so
instead of trying to eliminate them, we should learn to accept them
and despite these seek to build unity on the foundation provided by
the 'basics'.

Q: Does it follow from your argument that those who are engaged in
promoting inter-sectarian rivalry take the 'non-basic' as the 'basic'?

A: Exactly. Take, for instance, the case of the conflict between the
Salafis and the Hanafis, both of who are Sunnis. Today, in India, many
Salafis and Hanafis see themselves as rivals of each other. But their
essential difference relates to a non-basic matter of some postures
during prayer and whether to utter the word ameen loudly or silently.
And then there are differences between them as to whether and how the
opening verse of the Qur'an should be recited by a worshipper praying
behind an imam. Now, these are trivial differences, but sectarian
maulvis have sought to make a mountain of this molehill and brand
sects who differ with them on such issues as deviant.

Many such differences and disputes have long historical roots that got
back to the period when the classical compendia of Hadith, reports
attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, began being put together. These
reports number in the tens of thousands. On several issues these
reports differ from each other. One reason for this was that the
companions of the Prophet, who are said to have first narrated these
reports, spent varying periods of time in his company. Consequently,
they reported what they had personally experienced or seen. So, one
companion said that he saw the Prophet uttering the word ameen loudly
in the course of his prayers, while another companion said that he saw
the Prophet uttering that word silently. Or, one said that he saw the
Prophet placing his hands on his stomach while praying while another
said he saw that he had placed them on his chest. This was because
companions were with the Prophet on different occasions and their
opinions are, therefore, equally valid.

These are differences on relatively minor or what are called in
Arabic furui issues, but some present-day sects take them as major and
use these to denounce other sects, who have different opinions on
these issues, as 'un-Islamic. This is really unfortunate and betrays
an extreme form of intolerance which has no sanction in Islam.

Q: How did the classical Muslim scholars approach this issue of these
minor differences in the Hadith reports?

A: Over time, two broad responses emerged to this question. One was
that which was represented by experts in Hadith, the muhaddithun. The
other was that which was articulated by specialists in Islamic
jurisprudence or fiqh, the fuqaha. The first sought to reconcile these
differences in a spirit of tolerance. This was in line with the Hadith
report wherein the Prophet is said to have declared that his
companions were like stars and that he who follows them would be
guided. This represented an acceptance of diverse opinions, or what is
called tawassa in Arabic, in what appear to be conflicting Hadith
reports that are traced through different companions. This reflected
an understanding that on these relatively minor issues diversity must
be tolerated. There was no difference between the companions on major
or 'non-basic issues, or what is called in Islamic legal parlance,
usuli issues. Even the Shias and the Sunnis are united on these basic
issues, such as belief in one God, in the Quran, the Day of Judgment,
prayer, the pilgrimage to Makkah and so on.

So, the position of the muhaddithun was like that of someone who
enters a room and finds people sitting, and accepts that they are, in
that position, engaged in the same act, although their sitting
postures maybe different.

On the other hand, many fuqaha took a different approach. They argued
that there is no division in truth, and that there can be only one
true opinion on any matter attributed to the Prophet. So, they argued,
in contrast to the muhaddithun, that either the report which says that
the Prophet uttered the word ameen in prayer loudly is true or the
other tradition that says he uttered it silently is true, and that
both cannot be true and valid at the same time. But faced with
conflicting Hadith reports that are traced back to different
companions of the Prophet, they declared some reports to be true and
others to be weak or false. It is like someone demanding that everyone
present in a room sit exactly in the same posture.

This approach helped solidify sectarian differences, as each sect
sought to claim that its own approach to the Hadith was right and that
of the others was wrong. And in the process, some fuqaha sought to
deny some Hadith just because the school of jurisprudence which they
followed had different opinions on issues that these Hadith reports
referred to. For instance, the noted Deobandi scholar Allama Anwar
Shah Kashmiri argued that several Hadith reports in the collection
known as Sahih Bukhari may not be fully authentic just because they
differ from the Hanafi position on some matters. The hardcore Wahhabis
adopt a similarly rigid position and condemn other schools of Islamic
jurisprudence as deviant. This is a form of extremism or what is
called ghulu in Arabic. There is a Hadith report that warns Muslims
not to take to ghulu in matters of religion because earlier
communities met with a dismal fate precisely because of this. Perhaps
this is because extremism based on such trivial differences on
non-basic issues leads inevitably to sectarian strife and conflict.

If we had followed the approach that the muhaddithun had advocated by
accepting the legitimacy of diversity of opinions among Muslims on
non-basic issues perhaps we would not have faced this problem. I think
one way out of the sectarian mess is to adopt the approach of the
muhaddithun. All Muslim sects agree on the basics of Islam, and on
non-basic issues we should agree to disagree.

Q: Some ulema might argue that there is no point in seeking to bring
the different Muslim sects closer. To justify this argument reference
is often made to a Hadith report which claims that the Prophet
declared that after his death his community would be divided into 73
sects, and that only one sect, called the firqa al-najiya in Arabic,
would attain salvation. This sect would be that which follows the path
of the Prophet and his companions. Each sect claims to be that one
chosen firqa al-najiya, implying, thereby, that the other sects are by
definition deviant or false. How do you look at this Hadith report and
the way it is sometimes used to legitimize sectarian conflict?

A: This Hadith report is in the form of a prediction, not a
commandment that Muslims must be divided into several sects. Now,
there is a big fallacy that surrounds popular perceptions of this
report, in that it does not actually talk about the firqa al-najiya.
It does not refer to any particular chosen sect. What the Prophet was
referring to here were individuals who follow his path and that of his
companions, who he said would be saved. He was not referring to a
particular sect. This obviously means that those who are saved could
belong to different sects, provided they follow the Prophet and his
companions. This is because, as the Quran says, God will decide the
fate of people after their death based on their own actions as
individuals. If we look at this Hadith in this way, it can be used as
a means to promote inter-sectarian harmony, rather than to promote
conflict, as it often is.

There is another point concerning this Hadith report that I want to
talk about. This relates to what is meant when the Prophet says that
those who follow his practice and that of his companions will be
saved. Some people take this in a very narrow, literalist sense, and
say that following the Prophet's practice means insisting on using a
tooth-stick, as the Prophet did, or to adopt Arab dress and so on.
Actually, I think what is actually meant here is essentially the
ethical and moral model of the Prophet and his companions.

Basic to this ethical model is the principle of tolerance in matters
that are not basic to the faith but which do not at the same time
impinge on the basics of the faith. This tolerance on non-basic issues
among Muslims is reflected in the lives of the Prophet and his
companions, and this is something that the different Muslim sects need
to realize. Once a companion of the Prophet recited some words of
praise to God aloud while in prayer in addition to those that are
normally recited by Muslims in their prayers. The Prophet heard this
but did not get angry. A similar instance is that of the response of
the Caliph Umar to the question of reciting the taraweeh prayers
during Ramadan, which the Prophet's companions, including Hazrat Umar
himself, did not recite. One day Hazrat Umar came to a mosque and
found people saying the taraweeh prayer. He did not join them in this,
but nor did he scold them. Instead, he remarked that this was a 'good
innovation'. The se two instances suggest that when the
above-mentioned Hadith talks about the need for us to emulate the
model of the Prophet and his companions, it also exhorts us to accept
differences among the Muslim sects on non-basic issues. This is also
the only way to promote inter-sectarian unity.

Q: If such minor differences lie behind the genesis of the different
Muslim sects, how did these sects become so solidified over time?

A: Minor differences over one small issue gradually lead to further
differences, owing to a host of factors, including political motives
and vested interests. Take the case of the Shia-Sunni divide. In its
origins, it had nothing to do with any differences over the basics of
Islam. It was entirely a political issue as to who should lead the
Muslim community after the demise of the Prophet. Later, in order to
justify these differences some religious beliefs and claims were
developed so that the two political groups eventually emerged as two
different sects. Later, within the broader Shia and Sunni fold new
sects emerged, essentially over succession to the post of Imam in the
case of the Shias or over being the rightful representative of the
Prophet's Sunnah, in the Sunni case, and religious doctrines were
marshaled to justify these rival claims.

Q: In several madrasas students are taught to despise and counter
other Muslim sects, based on the assumption that their own sect alone
is true. This is also reflected in the polemical sectarian literature
produced by numerous ulema associated with madrasas. How do you see
this problem?

A: I think this has, in large measure, to do with the vested interests
of some ulema who thrive on sectarian controversy in order to proclaim
themselves as 'representatives' of Islam and Muslims. By condemning
other sects they seek to prove that their sect alone is correct, that
they alone have the Truth with a capital 'T'. And it also has to do
with a certain sort of inertia and hostility to change. Teachers in
many madrasas have been taught, from the beginning of their careers,
to teach such polemical, sectarian works, and so if you ask them to
replace these by books that talk of inter-sectarian dialogue, they
might well refuse, not just because they may not agree with the need
for dialogue or because they might oppose acceptance of other sects
but also because they are trained only in teaching a particular set of
books and no other. And if they are forced to teach entirely new books
they might find themselves unemployed.

Q: It is also argued that forces inimical to Muslims and Islam have
also played a crucial role in promoting inter-sectarian strife among
Muslims, such as, for instance, America's consistent attempt to set
Sunnis and Shias against each other in Iraq. What do you have to say
about this?

A: Competition is part of God's plan. There has always been and shall
always be clash of interests and egos. People and nations want to
dominate others. This is inevitable, given the freedom to choose
between right and wrong that God has given us. Others may seek to
divide you, but the point is that you should develop the capacity to
prevent others from doing so. So, yes, the United States is seeking
to inflame sectarian conflicts in Iraq, but we Muslims must learn how
not to fall into this trap. We must learn to dialogue with and accept
the various Muslim sects so that the efforts of others to divide us do
not succeed. God says in the Holy Quran (3:120) that the conspiracies
of others cannot cause any harm to those who are steadfast and do
right, because God is aware of all that they do.

Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies,
Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.




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