In the last weekend of June, when I would normally have been busy sending the Crescent to press, I instead attended an international conference on Proximity amongst Islamic Schools of Thought at the Islamic Centre of England in London. This was one of a series of conferences on similar themes organized by the Majma al-Taqrib bayna al-Madhahib al-Islamiyyah (the World League for Convergence between Islamic Schools of Thought) in various cities around the world this year. The Majma al-Taqrib was established in Iran after the Islamic Revolution to continue the work begun by the Dar al-Taqrib bayna al-Madhahib al-Islamiyyah, established by ‘ulama from al-Azhar and Qum, including Shaikh Mahmud Shaltout and Ayatullah Kashif al-Ghita, in the 1950s. As one would expect, the conference in London was blessed by the attendance of a number of senior scholars and speakers, Shi‘i and Sunni, even though several prominent invitees were unable to make it, including Shaikh Muhammad Ali Taskhiri, head of the Majma al-Taqrib, who was refused a visa to enter Britain; Dr. Abdul Fatah al-Bazam, the Mufti of Damascus, whose talk was read out by someone else; and Dr Salim al-Awa from Egypt.
For those who attended the conference, there was both enlightenment and frustration. The enlightenment came from the contributions of people such as Shaikh Mohsin Araki of Qum, Shaikh A. Moezi of the Islamic Centre of London, Maulana Faiz al-Aqtab Siddiqi of Hijaz College, and Imam Mohammad al-Asi of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought and elected Imam of the Islamic Center in Washington, Dr Kamal al-Helbawi of the Ikhwan al-Muslimun, Hujjatul Islam Saeed Bahmanpour of the Islamic College for Advanced Studies in London, and Dr Mohammad Foad al-Barazi of the Islamic Association of Denmark, who led the protests against the publication of cartoons insulting the Prophet (saw) in that country last year. The frustration came largely from the attitudes of some attendees, whose commitment to the cause of unity was unfortunately not matched by an understanding of the best approach to achieving it.
There was of course unanimity on the importance of maintaining unity and avoiding disunity. The tone for the conference as a whole was set in a series of major talks on the first morning of the conference, beginning with the opening address by Shaikh Moezi, who, as Director of the Islamic Centre of England, was effectively the host of the conference. He placed the current problem of sectarian discord in the context of the clash between Western imperialism since its rise in the nineteenth century and Islamic resistance, which, he pointed out, have evolved in form and approach, reaching its current shape as a result of the Islamic Revolution in Iran nearly three decades ago. He pointed out that the West had set about exacerbating differences among Muslims after the Revolution, both to weaken Islam internally and to make it appear “primitive and violent” to those who might have been influenced by the Revolution, both Muslim and non-Muslim. Is it not time, he asked rhetorically, for Muslims to come together and prove the West wrong, and show the reality of Islam to all people. “If the truth of Islam is put across to people,” he said, “they would embrace it, provided that this was done with empathy, understanding and compassion”. The message, he said, must be of “peace, justice and humility”.
Once all of this understood, he said, the final question was how this could be achieved. The key, he said, was to focus on the most important principle of Islam, the oneness of Allah and the unity of faith; in other words, tawheed. This, he said, represented the distillation of all teachings and beliefs of all Muslims, and is the basis not only of proximity between Muslim schools of thought, but of unity between them. Also central to this, he said, was the role of the Prophet (saw), who spared no effort to establish the unity and brotherhod of the early Muslim community, and guiding them away from disunity and discord. Finally, he emphasised that the role of the ‘ulama is particularly important in achieving unity at the present time.
Islamic schools of thought only came into being as an expression of human rationality, long after the death of the Prophet (saw), and all constitute part of the rich intellectual tradition of Islam. Problems only arose when the following of these schools of thought was converted into a narrow-minded and inward-looking enterprise. What is required, therefore, is the “spread of the requisite rationality, the spritis of constructive Islamic dialogue, heartfelt solidarity and the continued search for common ground.”
Similar tones were set by two other senior Iranian ‘ulama. Ayatullah Muhammad Ali Taskhiri, the head of the Majma, whose paper was read out at the conference, emphasised that unity was something that Muslims needed to work towards as a rational choice, in order to avoid the problems of disunity. He pointed out the the Islamic schools of thought only came into being as an expression of human rationality, long after the death of the Prophet (saw), and all constitute part of the rich intellectual tradition of Islam. Problems only arose when the following of these schools of thought was converted into a narrow-minded and inward-looking enterprise. What is required, therefore, is the “spread of the requisite rationality, the spritis of constructive Islamic dialogue, heartfelt solidarity and the continued search for common ground.”
Hujjatul-Islam Mohsen Araki, a former director of the Islamic Centre of England, who is now a scholar at Qum, focused on the “social character” of Islam, as exemplified by all Prophets of Islam from Ibraham (as) onwards, as being at the heart of Muslim unity. This character is best represented by the personality of the Prophet (saw), on which there is no difference between Muslims of any sect or school of thought. Our attitude, he said, must be that we all love those who love the Prophet, and we all hate those who hate the Prophet. Differences of opinion or ijtihad that emerged after the death of the Prophet must not be made bases of conflict or hatred.
Dr Kamal al-Halbawy, an Egyptian Ikhwan leader based in London, explicitly assumed the role of responding to the Iranian overtures on behalf of Sunni Muslims. He welcomed the openness of the Iranian ‘ulama, and expressed his solidarity with their call for open discussion of common issues as a basis for unity. He reminded the conference that al-Azhar had long ago ruled that “the School of the Ahl al-Bayt” (i.e. the Ja‘fari or Shi‘i fiqh) is recognised as one of the legitimate schools of thought in Islam, alongside the major Sunni schools of thought. He said that this understanding was central to obeying the Qur’anic injunction forbidding extremism and maintaining the Ummah on the “middle way”. Proximity depends, he said, on respecting differences between the schools of thought, without denying them or pretending that they do not exist. There were differences between Muslims even at the time of the Prophet, he reminded the conference; but he quoted the modern Egyptian scholar Muhammad Abu Zahra (d. 1974) as saying that differences should end with the deaths of those who differed, not become the basis for lasting conflict.
It was on this basis, he said, that he was involved in talks between ‘ulama of different schools of thought in Britain aimed at the rejection of bigotry and the promotion of brotherhood between Muslims. The objectives of these talks, he told the conference, was to work for the dissemination of true Islam, promoting the unity of the Ummah, forming committees for dialogue, and agreeing a common identity as Muslims.
Consensus of such important generalities underpinned much of the rest of the conference, with useful contributions from speakers such as Maulana Faiz Siddiqi, speaking on the role of Muslim minorities in the West; Shaikh Mohammad Bagher Naseri of Iraq, who gave a passionate appeal for practical steps to be taken to end the sectarian conflict in his country; Hasan Mussa from Sweden; Dr Anas Shaqfah of Austria; and Dr Mohammad Foad al-Barazi from Denmark, who outlined a comprehensive programme for promoting unity and co-operating between Muslim communities living in non-Muslim countries.
The only area where there was some lack of consensus, resulting in frustration between some of the conference participants, was on how to approach the historical issues on which there has traditionally been disagreement between Muslims of different schools, particular the period of political disagreement following the death of the Prophet (saw).
The only area where there was some lack of consensus, resulting in frustration between some of the conference participants, was on how to approach the historical issues on which there has traditionally been disagreement between Muslims of different schools, particular the period of political disagreement following the death of the Prophet (saw). Although there appeared to be general consensus among all participants that disagreement on these issues need not be a barrier to unity, as they were relatively insignificant compared to all Muslims’ shared love for the Prophet, there was still some reluctance to discuss them.
Imam Muhammad al-Asi of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought, who has recently been studying these issues, and discussing them during his Friday khutbahs outside the Islamic Center in Washington DC, made them the subject of his talk on the evening of the first day of the conference. His approach is to re-examine the various issues on which there has been controversy, seeking to minimise the areas of difference and look for a common understanding on which Sunnis and Shi‘is can agree. Even this, however, appeared too much for some of those at the conference, including the chairman of the session in which Imam al-Asi was speaking, who seemed to think that these areas are so controversial that any discussion of them risks causing discord.
For such people, the favoured approach is simply to ignore these issues and pretend that they don’t exist, rather than acknowledging and discussing them. In some circumstances, this is certainly the best approach; in his paper Error, Deviation, Correction and Convergence in Muslim Political Thought (1996), the late Dr Kalim Siddiqui said that such issues could be “black-boxed” -- a scientific term meaning that they should be set aside for resolution at a later time -- in order to avoid controversy and to focus the attention of the global Islamic movement on more immediate problems on which all Muslims do agree.
However, Imam al-Asi was working on a slightly different approach, supported by other speakers at the conference, including this author, which suggests that once there is agreement that the differences between schools of thought are secondary to the consensus on key issues such as the Qur’an and the Sunnah and Seerah of the Prophet (saw), that the differences are primarily historical rather than fiqhi, and that disagreement on them need not be an obstacle to fraternal harmony and Islamic unity, it should be possible for ‘ulama and scholars to discuss these differences openly and frankly without risk of conflict.
Imam al-Asi was unfortunately not able to complete his presentation due to lack of time, but his approach was supported the following day by Hujjatul Islam Mohammad Saeed Bahmanpour of the College of Advanced Studies in London. In his paper called ‘The true unity is achieved only through constant exchange of ideas’, Agha Bahmanpour emphasised that open and constant discussion of such issues was essential for achieving true unity, but that such discussions needed to be based on certain ground-rules to avoid dissension. In particular, he said, all parties need to base their arguments on the Sunnah and the Seerah, on which there is no dispute; he reminded the conference that even the different readings of some parts of these subjects by ‘ulama of different schools of thought are in fact based on the same original sources. The dispute, he said, is based not on the person of the Prophet, but on the interpretation of what came from the Prophet, and of events after the Prophet. These, he said, we must be open to debating frankly, without bitterness and hostility; and the key to achieving this is for scholars of all schools to be open to disagreement and criticism of their own ideas without reacting emotionally or personally.
This is, of course, a matter of scholarly debate, and it is perfectly legitimate to argue, as Dr Kalim did, and as some continue to do, that such matters are best “black-boxed” until a later date. However, there are also dangers to this approach; partly because of the implication that Muslims of different schools of thought are unable to discuss such matters amicably, and also, more importantly, because it prevents unity-minded scholars from developing effective alternative understandings of Muslim history to counter the propaganda of the sectarian Muslims on both sides of the divide, who continue to use divisive versions of the same history to promote their own, deeply damaging sectarian agendas.
It is, of course, always the case that the level of most discourses trails behind that of the leading edge of the Islamic movement, which is defined by the most advanced of Muslim scholars and thinkers. It is only the fact that a far-sighted few carry the discourse on to new levels that keeps the discourse as a whole moving forward, despite the conservative inertia of the majority of scholars. This may be where we are at this time: with the challenge of sectarianism demanding a radical new approach from those scholars willing to address historical issues head on, confident that they can do so without risk of backsliding into unnecessary controversy, even though many of those who are genuinely committed to a unity approach remain fearful of the implications of their own understanding.