The Sectarian Card- Shia and Sunni divisions under the spotlight
The “Arab Spring” has seen the masses across the Middle East and North Africa rise up and protest against the various despotic regimes that have plagued the post-colonial set-up in the region. Irrespective of whether the regime was a republic, such as Egypt, or a monarchy, such as Jordan, all of the rulers suffer from a lack of legitimacy; and the people of the region all suffer from similar issues such as corruption, oppressive police states, and unaccountable government.
Amongst the issues, one which has reared its head amongst these protests has been that of sectarianism, both in Syria and Bahrain. In Syria, the ‘Alawī sect rules the country despite only making up less than 20% of the population, while in Bahrain the al-Khalīfa Sunni family rules over a majority Shī’ah population. For this reason, both governments have played the sectarian cards when they have been confronted with protests, in order to galvanise domestic and regional support against the protestors. In origin, neither set of protests are sectarian, but rather are representative of the movement across the region, which has seen the rise of the people against the illegitimate regimes whatever their identity. This is supported by the fact that the Bahraini demonstrations have been widely supported in other countries such as Egypt.
Though the sectarian split exists in Syria, in reality all of the Arab governments support the Assad regime and would prefer that the uprisings are suppressed, and therefore the same sectarian element has not emerged as strongly, even though the ‘Alawī sect is without any doubt considered outside of Islam by both the Sunnī and Shī’ah. Rather, the government has used the excuse that they are the bulwark against “Islamic extremism” and that those opposing them are not representative of the society there.
On the other hand, the Bahraini authority has used forces from the Gulf including Saudi Arabia to suppress its protests, going as far as attacking hospitals and arresting hospital task. The Saudi regime has been very forceful in backing the Bahraini government due to its own fear that protests in the region could spread into Saudi – which is why they have gone as far as to ban any form of demonstration and accounting of the government. It claims that the Bahraini protests are fostered by Iranian support, and so there is a struggle between the two powers going on in Bahrain, similar to the one in Iraq. As a result of these struggles, more sectarianism has been pushed through the media and the clerical classes in Saudi to mobilise opinion against the Bahraini protests, with the excuse that they are Shī’ah disbelievers and therefore the al-Khalīfa family is better.
It is with this background in mind that the following issues will be addressed:
- Why did Shī’ism arise?
- What is the ruling on the Shī’ah? Are they Muslims or not?
- What is the solution for the situation, and is it sectarian in nature? If not – what is it?
Why Did Shī’ism Arise?
The origins of the split between the Shī’ah and Sunnī can be traced back to the time of the Companions (ra) and the subsequent generation. The dispute was political in nature, with those who preferred ‘Alī (ra) to be Khalīfa ahead of the other companions labelled as Shī’atu ‘Alī (‘The faction of ‘Alī’). As positions hardened different beliefs developed, and so Shī’ism came to represent all those who preferred ‘Alī (ra), but included a spectrum – from those who simply had a political preference, to those who believed in the divinity of ‘Alī (ra).
Today, the majority of the Shī’ah belong to the Twelver sect, though there remains other sects such as the Zaydī’s in Yemen.
Both the Sunnī and Shī’ah believe in the necessity of the Khilāfah, and the disagreement relates back to whoshould be the Khalīfah. In answer to this question, the orthodox position is that the Khalīfah is determined by the choice of the ummah, while the Shī’ah disagreed and claimed that the question of leadership was decided by revelation. It is beyond the scope of this article to expand upon this here, but suffice it to say that this question lies at the heart of the disagreement between the parties, and its resolution would resolve all the branch issues in one go by dealing with the fundamental root contention.
The Ruling on the Shī’ah – Muslim?
The first question to be answered is – What makes a Muslim?
Someone enters into Islām with the pronouncement of the shahādatayn – ‘There is no God except Allāh, and that Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) is the Messenger of Allāh.’ Belief in Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) necessitates belief in the Qur’ān as the immutable word of Allāh. Belief in the Qur’ān means to believe in all that came in it, since the Qur’ān has been transmitted through mutawātir (mass transmission negating the possibility of any error) channels. Anything which is confirmed definitely in the Qur’ān as part of the belief, or is known by necessity, are conditions for belief in Islam. Issues which are not known by necessity, or are not definitely concurred upon in the Qur’ān and fall under the realm of ijtihād are areas where it is not permitted to make takfīr (pronunciation of disbelief) of the person who holds the different opinion, though they may be disputed with.
As for that which is confirmed, for example Allāh has said in the Qur’ān:
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا آمِنُوا بِاللَّهِ وَرَسُولِهِ وَالْكِتَابِ الَّذِي نَزَّلَ عَلَىٰ رَسُولِهِ وَالْكِتَابِ الَّذِي أَنْزَلَ مِنْ قَبْلُ ۚ وَمَنْ يَكْفُرْ بِاللَّهِ وَمَلَائِكَتِهِ وَكُتُبِهِ وَرُسُلِهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الْآخِرِ فَقَدْ ضَلَّ ضَلَالًا بَعِيدًا
“O you who believe – believe in Allāh and His Messenger, and the Book which He sent to His messenger and the Book which He sent to those who came before him. Anyone who denies Allāh, His Angels, His Books, His Messengers and the Day of Judgement has gone far astray.” (An-Nisaa, 4:136)
The verse makes it clear that belief in Islam is based upon belief in Allāh, the Angels, all the revealed books ending with the Qur’ān, all of His Messengers and the Day of Judgement. Anyone who disbelieves in any of these is outside of the fold of Islam, whatever they may claim.
In this case, someone who claims that the Qur’ān is changed – has gone against these fundamentals of faith and is a disbeliever. Likewise, if someone believes in any person personifying God – like the ‘Alawī consider ‘Alī – then such people are also outside the fold of Islam since they have gone against the first of the shahādatayn.
However, if someone believes in something not known by necessity, or which is disputed, then this does not take them out of the fold of Islam – such as the position that the Qur’ān is the created Word of Allāh, or whether the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) did the ascension from Mecca to the Dome of the Rock and up to the heavens in physical body or not.
With this in mind – it should be noted that to make a blank assertion regarding the Shī’ah would be incorrect, due to the fact they accept the shahādatayn, and therefore are considered as part of the Muslim Ummah in origin. Beyond the fundamental beliefs stated previously they have additional beliefs, as there are many different branches which come under the umbrella of the Shī’ah, from those who prefer ‘Alī as Khalīfah over Abū Bakr and ‘Umar (may Allāh be pleased with them all), to those who claim divinity for ‘Alī. Therefore to declare any specific Shī’ah as a disbeliever requires clarification as to their beliefs, with the acceptance that they are in origin Muslims. To declare a specific person outside of Islam in this case would require a proof that they are going against something definitely proven in Islam, and is known by necessity.
Issues which remove a person from Islam
From the issues that would remove a person from Islam, which have been attributed to various sects of the Shī’ah:
- The claim that the Qur’ān was altered or is incomplete in any way
- The claim that the Qur’ān was wrongly revealed to Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم and it was intended for ‘Alī (ra)
- The claim that ‘Alī (ra) is a divine being
- The claim that the companions on masse are not Muslim
Though the above claims have been attributed to some factions of the Shī’ah, they are not agreed upon as the foundation of Shī’ah belief, which means that it is not possible to make a generalisation and rather each person should be discussed separately.
Other issues, such as the cursing of specific individual companions, or the belief that ‘Alī is better than Abū Bakr, do not reach the level of disbelief which removes them from the deen, though is considered extremely reprehensible.
Therefore, in approaching the question of the Shī’ah, it would not be correct to make general assertions; and rather since they have entered into Islam through their belief in the shahādatayn and believe in the fundamental aspects of the Islamic belief, to make a declaration of disbelief requires investigation into that specific individual’s understanding, since the issues mentioned above (1-4) are not universally held by those who ascribe themselves as Shī’ah.
Words of the Classical Scholars Regarding the Shī’ah
To summarise what is coming for those who are not interested in the more detailed discussion and references – Muslim scholars in the past did not do blanket takfīr of the Shī’ah. Rather they accepted them as Muslims in origin and some even accepted to narrate through them. Ibn Taymiyyah, who is often quoted as an authority on the Shī’ah, did not do a blanket takfīr of them, though he was very harsh with respect to their beliefs. Rather he considered them as Muslims who had gone astray. This is with respect to the generality of the Shī’ah.
1. When the Scholars mention that an opinion is Kufr, they did not intend specific takfīr of those who may have held that opinion
This is because someone could hold an opinion that is considered kufr according to one scholar, but it is notkufr according to another, so it is an issue of disagreement. Alternatively, it may be that the person who held that opinion is ignorant of it being an invalid opinion, and so their ignorance prevents them from being labelled as a disbeliever. (In other words, the conditions/preventions of making takfīr are not removed from such a person, and so until they are given the knowledge and understanding, they cannot be declared as outside the fold of Islām.)
As an example, Sheikh ibn Taymiyyah mentioned, in explaining what was meant by the scholars when they declared that ‘whoever declared a particular opinion was a disbeliever’ had to be understood within a context. He stated “rather, what is narrated from each of them is that he does takfīr of whoever said some opinion, and what was intended was that that opinion/word was (in itself) kufr, in order to warn against it [and therefore it was not intended to mean that the person who said it was necessarily a disbeliever]. And if an opinion is kufr, it is not necessary to do takfīr of everyone who says it with ignorance and ta’wīl (interpretation)”
It is necessary to lay that foundation as it is sometimes seen that there are narrations from different scholars doing takfīr of the rāfidah (the more extreme Shī’ah are labelled in the classical texts as the Rāfidah – pl. Rawāfid– and they are mentioned in various places, often citing that they are disbelievers). In other places, narrations regarding the same scholars make it clear that they consider the rāfidah as Muslims, such as through their acceptance to transmit Ahādith (Prophetic narrations) via them. This seeming contradiction has been explained above – that their labelling of the beliefs as disbelief is to warn against them, but that they did not necessarily consider the specific person believing in them or calling for them as a kāfir.
2. Amongst the scholars were those who accepted narrations from the Rāfidah
The following quotes highlight the position of some of the classical scholars in accepting narrations through innovators (and amongst the conditions for the acceptance of a narration are: Islam, and righteousness oradalah). There was a difference opinion amongst the scholars in this issue, and Imām Baghdādi mentioned those who accepted narrations from innovators:
“and from those who accepted this (narrations from innovators) from the jurists was Abū Muhammad ibn Idrīs al-Shāfi’ī who said, ‘and the statement of the people of desires (innovators) is accepted, except for the khātibiyya of the rawāfid due to the fact that they attest and agree to false witnesses’, and it is narrated that this is the opinion of ibn Abī Laylah and Sufyān al-Thawrī and similar to this has been narrated from Qādi Abū Yūsuf”
It can be noticed that the statement makes clear that apart from one group from the rawāfid, Imam al-Shāfi’ī and others mentioned accepted narrations from the Shī’ah generally, meaning that they accepted them as being Muslims and also as being just.
In Ibn Hajr al-Askalāni’s commentary on Ibn Salāh – he mentions:
“The people divided into 3 opinions with respect to narrations from the Rāfidah – the first opinion is total rejection (of narrating from them), the second opinion is total permission (of narrating from them) except for those who lie and fabricate, and the third is a nuanced opinion which accepts the narration of a rāfidī who is known to be trustworthy in what they relate, while rejecting the narration of those who call to their innovation (their Shī’ah beliefs) even if they were considered honest.”
This comment also makes it clear that the rāfidah were not considered as outside of Islām, but rather there was dispute over whether their narrations could be accepted, since their beliefs could be construed as removing the necessary characteristic of trustworthiness (adālah).
Ibn Qayyim also mentioned similar – stating:
“As for the people of innovations who are in agreement with the people of Islām, but they differ with them over some fundamentals, such as the rāfidah, the qadariyyah and the jahmiyyah, and the extreme murji’ah, who are on other than Islām – these and those similar to them can be divided into 3 categories”
He then goes on to mention the categories, with the first category being those who were ignorant, unable to get clarification of the deviancy of their views and were following others. He classed these as Muslims. As for the most harsh category – the third class of people who had had their deviancy explained to them, but they continued to follow their innovations out of partisanship etc. – ibn Qayyim stated that such a person would be considered afāsiq (sinful) at a minimum, and the issue of making takfīr of him was dependent upon ijtihād.
What can be seen from all the quotes above is that the rāfidah were considered as Muslims in origin, with the discussion forming around whether to accept or reject any narrations or witness statements from them.
The Opinion of Ibn Taymiyyah
Ibn Taymiyyah is oft-quoted for his opinions on issues of belief, and is particularly used in regards to the Shī’ah due to his authorship of the book “Minhāj al-Sunnah” which was a comprehensive refutation of the Shī’ah. However, as mentioned previously, he has often been quoted out of context or with lack of understanding to back up the claim that the Rāfidah in their entirety are disbelievers. Amongst his many comments about the Rāfidah in this book are statements such as that they are the most dangerous enemies of the Muslims, that they are greater in disbelief than the Khawārij, that they were the furthest from the deen, and that their beliefs were the most disgusting beliefs. Despite this, a complete reading of ibn Taymiyyah can only lead to the conclusion that even though he was a fierce critic of their beliefs, he did not consider them as outside of Islam and did not make specific takfīr unless specific investigation was made.
a. The Rāfidah are Muslims
As a clear example – he stated:
“And many of the innovating Muslims, from the Rāfidah and Jahmiyyah and others, travelled to the countries of the disbelievers, and many became Muslim at their hands, and benefitted from that, becoming Muslim innovators, which is much better than remaining as disbelievers”
When he was asked about someone preferring the Jews and Christians ahead of the Rāfidah (a good example considering that today some scholars have told the Muslims to be more afraid of Iran than Israel), he replied:
“Everyone who was a believer in that which Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم brought, then he is better than everyone who disbelieved in it, and even if that believer had an aspect of innovation, irrespective of whether it was the innovation of the khawārij or the shī’ah or the murji’ah or the qadariyyah or other than them; the Jew and the Christian are disbelievers and their disbelief is known by necessity from the deen of Islām. And if the innovator considered himself to be in agreement with the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم, not against him or disbelieving in him – then even if it was considered that he had committed disbelief, his disbelief is not like the disbelief of the one who lied against the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم”
Ibn Taymiyyah makes it clear that despite the harshness with which he addressed those he considered as deviants holding heretical beliefs, he considered them separate and better than the non-Muslims since they share the same fundamental belief in Islam and therefore are part of the Ummah. In this he makes clear the priorities of where allegiances should lie.
b. Praying behind the Rāfidah
In another section, in response to the question about whether it is necessary to investigate the beliefs of the imām before praying behind him, as part of his response Ibn Taymiyyah states:
“And likewise, if the Imām was appointed by those in positions of rule, and there is no benefit in leaving the prayer behind him (such as setting an example in front of the people), then here it is not upon the person to leave the prayer behind him (you should pray behind him, because the importance of prayer in congregation overrides in this instance praying behind an innovator), rather prayer behind the best imām is better (and not a reason to leave the prayer with this person), and all of this is with respect to the one where sinfulness is apparent from him, or innovation which clearly contradicts the Book and the Sunnah, such as the innovation of the Rāfidah and the Jahmiyya and their likes”
As can be seen in this fatwa, ibn Taymiyyah permitted the prayer behind the Shī’ah if there was no other imām appointed to lead the prayer in the area. In the following section he also criticizes those who would refuse to pray behind the rāfidah in such a situation, claiming that they had fallen into the same way of thinking of the rāfidah – which is to make takfīr of those they disagreed with – alluding to the fact that the people of Sunnah did not maketakfīr of those they disagreed with, even if those they disagreed with made takfīr of them.
c. His opinion regarding the Rāfidah Twelvers (Ithnā ‘ashariyyah – who are the majority of the contemporary Shī’ah in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon)
Ibn Taymiyyah knew about the opinions of the Twelver Shī’ah, and specifically their opinion that they believed that their Imāms were free of sin in the same manner as the Messengers. In commenting upon this, he compared the Twelver Shī’ah to the Ismaīlī Shī’ah:
“The Twelvers are much better than the Ismaīlī’s, because in spite of their ignorance and misguidance, there are some who are Muslims in their heart and outwardly – and they are not hypocrites and infidels, since they are ignorant, misguided and followed their desires. As for their leaders, who know the reality of the hidden agenda of their call, they are hypocrites; and as for the lay people who do not know the hidden agenda, they may be Muslims”
And so here it is plain that ibn Taymiyyah is not making explicit general takfīr of the Twelvers, let alone takfīr of specific individuals from amongst them, since even his general takfīr of their leaders would still be reliant upon the conditions of takfīr being met before ruling upon an individual.
d. Cannot rule on specific Rāfidī individuals as being disbelievers
This issue has already been mentioned previously, but it is worth mentioning the specific opinion of ibn Taymiyyah here as well, to explain what has just been mentioned. When discussing the issue of takfīr of innovators and whether they would spend eternity in hellfire, he makes the statement regarding takfīr of a specificKharijī or Rāfidī:
“But to make takfīr of a specific individual, and to rule that they would spend eternity in hellfire, rests upon fulfilling the conditions of takfīr and eliminating all the issues that would prevent it”
In summary – it would be incorrect to attribute the idea of a general takfīr of the Shī’ah, or the Twelver Shī’ah sect, to Ibn Taymiyyah, or his student Ibn Qayyim as mentioned previously. Rather, it has been shown that Ibn Taymiyyah considered them as Muslims in origin, with specific individuals possibly being ruled as disbelievers after investigation. Rather, he explicitly mentions the position that they can be prayed behind, that good can come from them, and that they are to be preferred ahead of disbelievers.
Modern Scholars who did not make takfīr of the Shī’ah
The list of modern scholars who did not make takfīr of the Shī’ah is too long to mention, rather those who madetakfīr are limited to a few from the Arabian Peninsula and the sub-continent. To mention a few of the specific names who did not make or agree with general takfīr of the Shī’ah – includes the Sheikh al-Azhar al-Shaltūt who gave the fatwa recognising the Jafarī school of thought as a legitimate school, Saudi sheikhs Salmān al-Ouda and Ibn Uthaymīn, Syrian scholar al-Bāni, Sheikh Mustafa Ceric, Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, Sheikh Wahba Al-Zuhayli, Sheikh Ramadan Al-Buti amongst many others.
The Khilāfah is the Solution to remove Sectarianism
The problems of sectarianism have always been used to disunite the Muslim ummah as a whole, and to pit Muslims against each other, keeping them internally divided. This can be witnessed plainly in what is going on in Bahrain at the moment, what has occurred in Iraq recently and what has been happening over Lebanon over the last few decades. This is because the Muslims do not have a united leadership which can represent us globally and project our unity (despite our internal differences – which pale in insignificance compared to the differences between the Ummah of Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم and the rest of the people). The call to democracy in these areas is proven to exacerbate the issues, since democracy is based upon majority votes and following the whims of people, and so politicians often utilise the sectarian card in order to win support and power. This is analogous to the Western politician who uses the immigration card to win support from his own constituents.
As a system, democracy will always fail the minorities – which is why modern democracies have had to cope with this through the addition of constitutional restrictions upon their treatment. A look at the sectarianism that has plagued the Iraqi democracy since its inception, and the problems with the confessional system in Lebanon, highlight that democracy is a totally inadequate solution, which only incites rather than coping with differences. This is a systemic issue linked to the basis of democracy, and cannot be solved by piecemeal solutions such as constitutional limitations.
The correct solution for the Muslim Ummah is to understand that she is one Ummah, despite her differences. Indeed, these differences and others like them are unlikely to ever be resolved completely, and the Muslims lived for centuries under the Khilāfah and various states despite their differences in the details of belief. What is required from the Ummah is to accept their differences and unite upon their fundamentals, and this is represented in the Khilāfah. The Khilāfah system is not dependent upon the whims of the majority and constitutional limitations to protect minorities, rather each human being’s rights under the Khilāfah is guaranteed by the revelation, which is used as the basis of law.
All Muslims, whatever their understanding of Islam, believe in the unity of the Muslims and that this unity should be manifested politically. All Muslims, whatever their belief, also believe in the necessity to implement Islām in all of life’s affairs. All those issues which are personal – such as the prayer, the fasting, and the details of the belief – should be left to the individuals by the Khalīfa, and the Islamic State would not try to impose one unified belief upon the whole of the people. Rather, if someone accepts the shahādatayn and what it entails, they are accepted as a Muslim and will be treated as such. Islām did not come as a totalitarian system to impose every last detail upon its adherents, and one of the mercies of Islām is its capacity for differences and to accept those different ijtihāds.
History has shown us, as with the fitnah at the time of Imām Ahmad, that it is not productive for the Khalifah to try to impose one set of beliefs upon the whole ummah as it simply leads to disunity, resistance and is ultimately futile. It has also shown us that when rulers adopt sectarian positions, thus dividing the ummah, the Muslims as a whole become weaker and open to outside exploitation. Rather the Khilāfah is to adopt the necessary rules and laws from the Sharī’ah that are required in the society such as the hudūd punishments, the levels of taxation and so on, and to leave the personal issues to the individual and his own relationship with Allah, and upon this basis a solid foundation for the unity of the Ummah would be established.
With the Muslims unified under a single leadership to run their affairs according to Islām, such sectarianism as being played out in Bahrain and Syria will be minimised. All Muslims will have recourse to the courts and to be judged according to Islām, and will be left alone with respect to the details of their personal worship. The State will clearly define what is a Muslim and delineate those who fall outside of Islam (such as the ‘Alawī and Ismaīlī sects) and will represent Islām on the international stage, not a particular sect.