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Living with Difference

A study of the intellectual history of Islam reveals that long before they became symbols of political identity, five distinct spiritual approaches to faith had already evolved.

People often speak about the days of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) as a golden age when Islam was undivided by sects. This is a trap. As long as we hold in our minds the idea of "one" pre-sectarian Islam, we will continue to perceive some sects as "deviant" groups that must be reformed or even eliminated.

The notion of the existence of a monolithic, non-sectarian Islam is a myth, and the oft-quoted hadith, "my ummah will divide itself into 72 sects and all except one will go to hell," is pure fabrication. To think that the early followers of Islam, the companions of the Prophet, would all have held identical views about religion is an insult to their intelligence. Furthermore, to suggest they all had the same spiritual experiences is to negate their individuality. The companions were some of the finest minds of their time. The Prophet encouraged them to contribute their originality to the faith they had adopted: "Difference of opinion in my ummah is a blessing."

Apart from notions of a pre-sectarian, homogenous Islam, another common misconception clouds our view, blurring the distinction between sect as political identity and sect as religious approach. There is evidence that the Prophet discouraged the politicization of differences and prohibited divisions based on vested interests. However, categorizations based on spiritual approaches abounded, with groupings such as the First Believers, the People of the Bench, the People of Badar, the People of the House, and so on. These distinctions were fluid and overlapping: some men, such as Hazrat Ali and Hazrat Abu Bakr (RA), belonged to more than one group. A study of the intellectual history of Islam reveals that, long before they became symbols of political identity and vested interests, five distinct approaches to the faith evolved: a creative identification with the sacred text, or Sunnism; a yearning to be in the presence of the sacred beloved, or Shiaism; a symbolic interpretation of the faith, or Ismailism; turning to one’s own psychology, or Sufism; and emphasis on reason, or Itezalism.

In order to understand how simple differences in approach were transformed into markers of political identity, it is necessary to examine the intellectual history of Islam, which is roughly divided into four phases: the days of the companions (first century AH or 7 AD); the days of the pioneers (2 AH or 8 AD); the days of the despots (3 AH to 12 AH or 9 AD to 17 AD); and, finally, modern political systems.

In the first phase, the companions of the Holy Prophet differed from each other on several occasions, both during his lifetime and after his death. Unfortunately, the value of this diversity has rarely been explored in an unprejudiced manner.

Hazrat Umar (RA) can easily be identified as the first Sunni, in view of his eagerness to interpret the text of the Holy Quran independently. There can be no doubt about his love for the Prophet, and yet when the Prophet offered to write something down "to save the ummah from going astray," Umar objected strenuously. Iqbal calls Umar "the first critical and independent mind in Islam who, in the last moments of the Prophet’s life, had the moral courage to utter these remarkable words: The Book of God is sufficient for us". In later years, Umar also discouraged the practice of writing down hadith in an effort to guard against the pollution of the tradition.

How different was this attitude from that of the Ashab us Suffa, or the People of the Bench, who would live day and night in the Prophet’s mosque, eagerly memorizing every word he uttered. Incidentally, Hazrat Abu Huraira, the famous propagator of hadith, belonged to this group. It cannot be denied that the differences between Abu Huraira and Umar were fundamental: "Umar would have flogged me if I had narrated so many hadith in his days," Abu Huraira later confirmed.

Sufism, with its tendency to take an anecdote and develop it into a spiritual metaphor, perhaps has its foundations in the practices of the People of the Bench. This group of companions had no worldly relations, no family ties, no property, preferring to live in the holy radiance of their murshid, the Prophet himself. This was an early version of Sufism, nurtured by the Holy Prophet himself.

If Sufis can trace the beginnings of their creed back to the days of the Holy Prophet, Shias, who believe in a sequence of Imams (the Prophet’s spiritual heirs), also cite a number of examples from the Prophet’s life to substantiate their beliefs. Some of these, such as the Prophet’s saying "mun kuntu maulah", are usually refuted by mainstream Sunnis.

However, there can be no dispute about the event of hijrat or hijrah, which Shias also interpret as a justification for their faith: when the Prophet was leaving Makkah, his cousin Ali was left behind to put on the Prophet’s cloak, sleep in his bed and dispense of amanats (goods deposited for safe-keeping) to their owners. This, to the Shias, is a symbol of imamat-- replacing the Prophet after he has departed and carrying out responsibilities on his behalf.

Meanwhile, rational interpretation of the faith, which became the creed of the Mutazillah (or rationalists), can be justified through several invocations in the Quran itself, such as: "Why don’t you think?" Similarly, they symbolic interpretation of religion and a preference for the batin (hidden) over the zahir (outward), the major thrust of the Ismaili creed, can also be traced back to the Quran: "Verily we have led astray through this Book some people just as we have guided some others." Their approach is also supported by the straightforward Quranic assertion that there are metaphorical and allegorical verses (mutshabihat).

By the beginning of the 2nd century AH the social fabric of Arabian society as it was known to the companions was entirely transformed. Within the next 100 years, great pioneers appeared on the intellectual horizon, such as Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Jaffar, Iman Malik, Wasil bin Ata, Hasan Basri, Bayazid Bustami and Abdullah bin Maimun. This period marks the height of free intellectual activity in Islam, before wisdom sought patronage from kings. A result of this blossoming was the codification of the philosophical principles of the five schools of Islamic thought, which bore the names of the pioneers mentioned above.

But even as vastly divergent interpretations of the faith were being put forward and codified, the men who carried out this work did so without hostility towards those who did not share their views. There are several instances when this unity of purpose was demonstrated. For instance, Iman Baqar, the father of Imam Jaffar, is said to have once approved the jurisprudence of Abu Hanifa. Similarly, even in his later years, Imam Abu Hanifa was often seen attending lectures given by Imam Jaffar. Imam Jaffar. Imam Abu Hanifa had close links with the Shias of his times and even sponsored a Shia revolt against the Caliph Mansur. When summoned by Mansur, Abu Hanifa further antagonized the caliph by declining an offer to become a qazi (judge), thus refuting the caliph’s authority. He was consequently thrown into prison where, according to Sunni sources, he was martyred on the orders of the caliph.

Similarly, Wasil bin Ata, the founder of the Mutazillite school (Itezalism), was an ardent pupil of Imam Jaffar.

Apart from the mutual respect that many early pioneers had for each other, all were united in their stand against the Abbassid caliphs. Caliph Mansur tried to suppress their voice by force, and failed. His grandson, Haroonur Rasheed, was more tactful. Haroon is the epitome of absolute power in Muslim History. With him begins the age of the real despots, unhindred by the fear of enlightened revolts.

Haroon was quick to notice the differences in interpretation that existed among followers of the great pioneers. He selected Abu Yousuf, one of the brightest pupils of Abu Hanifa, and offered him the specially-created post of judge of the Judges (Qazi-ul-quzza). One of the greatest ironies of history, this pupil of Abu Hanifa accepted the post which his teacher had refused at the cost of his own life.

Under the patronage of Haroon, the newly appointed Judge of the Judges undertook to revamp the judgments of the liberal Abu Hanifa, virtually destroying all the written documents of his teacher and replacing them with his own verdicts, mostly calculated to increase the power of the monarch. As a result, Sunni Hanafi jurisprudence, as it developed under royal patronage, came to include the assertion: "Abu Hanifa was surely mistaken on this count."

Haroon also managed to create divisions between the followers of different sects: it was now declared that all except the Sunnis were misguided, and that even the Sunnis should follow only one jurist. As such, a follower of Abu Hanifa should not under any circumstances consult a ruling from the Malikis.

Nothing could have offended Abu Hanifa more than this pronouncement. For Haroon and his descendants, meanwhile, the greatest advantage of this ruling was that they could now prevent their political supporters (the Sunnis) from lending an ear to the "members of the opposition" (the Shias). Some of the myths that still perpetuate sectarian prejudice must have originated as part of Haroon’s segregation campaign.

Haroon’s son, Mamoon, offered royal patronage to the Mutazzilites, but the guiding principle of his policy remained the same: the Sunnis were now beheaded if they refused to become "rational". Meanwhile, the Ismailis, an offshoot of the Shias, were considered the most dangerous of all sects for their symbolic interpretation of the faith, which turned the universe inside out. They became the common target for all rulers.

It is said that Mahmed of Ghazni attacked India 17 times, not to fight the Hindus but to "punish" the Ismailis of Multan, who were all lined up and beheaded. Ibne Sina could not find shelter anywhere in the Muslim world just because he was an Ismaili living in the days of the powerful Mahmud. Naturally, hostility breeds hostility.

Consequently, some Ismailis developed a cult of killing contemporary rulers after taking a doze of hashish (or assiss, hence the European word, assassin).

While the Ismailis were widely persecuted, Sufis were for the most part left alone, primarily because the Sufi masters never developed political pretensions. In addition, the Sufis remained relatively safe owing to the very nature of their thought, which could not be exploited for political purposes. It ought to be mentioned here that the execution of eminent Sufis such as Mansur Hallaj and Sarmad was instigated by theologians, not kings. By and large, the Sufis’ distance from the royal court established them as the "other" pole of Muslim society, not a direct threat to political power. The Sufi creed was not generally regarded as a serious challenge to officially sanctioned faith since their teachings were eclectic, hailing Ali as their master and Abu Hanifa as a saint, while borrowing from the Ismailis to build up an inexhaustible store of parables. Rumi, the greatest Sufi poet, is claimed both by the Sunnis and the Ismailis as one of their own.

Today, at least in theory, there is no place for despotism in modern political systems, which are based on the will of the people. If sectarian prejudices continue to divide the ummah, and if believers with one approach still refuse to give a fair hearing to the "others", it is for two reasons. Certain religious leaders perpetuate the brutal divisive mindset of sectarian politics to further their own vested interests.

On a spiritual level, meanwhile, the legacy of the despots continues to haunt us. We are told that we are incapable of understanding the Quran, of making our own interpretations. Myths about the "others" also persist.

In this atmosphere of divisiveness, the basic thing for us to remember is that no single sect within Islam can offer itself as a complete religion. All five sects must be joined in order to be whole, and this whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. In practice, this means dialogue between sects: each must read and learn from what the others have written.

The major obstacle in the way of such dialogue once again involves an error in perception, a failure to distinguish between three levels of religious discourse. First, there are rituals, such as a particular way of offering prayer. Hence Shias offer their five daily prayers in three shifts while Sunnis insist that prayers must be offered no less than five times a day. The Prophet had permitted both options, making it a matter of pure convenience.

The second level of religious discourse is polemic: over the centuries, sectarian conflicts have produced a bulk of lower-order writings aimed not at understanding religion but at forging loyalty to the sect and, in turn, to the king who patronized that sect. However, such arguments have long outlived their utility. A new way of framing discourse must be found.

The third level of religious discourse is philosophical, a realm within which borrowing by one sect from another is most convenient and also most fuitful. Throughout the previous centuries, the greatest minds within each sect have remained detached from the polemic around them. Instead, they have concerned themselves with higher-order thinking, perfecting the path to divine truth. Today, there is an urgent need to rid the higher-order literature of each sect from sectarian stigma so that it might be shared by all Muslims.

In many ways, today’s Muslims are more fortunate than their ancestors. They need not fear a Haroonur Rasheed, nor must they cower to a European colonial master. In most cases, the last few decades have accorded Muslims unprecedented freedom of thought and intellect. Perhaps freedom is only won by those who fight for it.

The companions were some of the finest minds of their time. The Prophet encouraged them to contribute their originality to the faith they had adopted: "Difference of opinion in my ummah is a blessing."

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