This examination of the roots of both Sunni and Shi‘i sectarianism is going to take some time and many articles to arrest the revulsion and loathing that present themselves every time one of these sectarians opens his mouth. He fills the air with denunciations and deprecations of Muslims who do not endorse his dodgy version of history or his stuck-up impression of events. Hopefully, through the course of this and following critiques, you will come to realize that the Qur’an itself as well as reliable information about our uniting Prophet (pbuh) is subject to their restricted interpretation of historical events when these should be evaluated in light of our approachable Qur’an and our accessible Prophet (pbuh) together. So, once again, and I think this will be said again and again, be patient as it will take time for the whole picture to come into view and for the truth concerning sectarianism to surface after being submerged under impolite centuries of unfamiliarity with the truth of the matter and a free-pass theocratic jahiliyyah.
One critical juncture in the turn of events at the earliest moment of our collective history is what is referred to as the Saqifah (canopy or sunshade) undertaking. This incident has become a reference argument particularly for Shi‘i sectarians who did not dispassionately do their homework. The summary of their conclusion is that Imam ‘Ali was absent from the Saqifah as he was tied down with preparing the Prophet’s blessed body for burial rites. And no one disputes that.
But the interpretation of related details pertaining to this occasion is where sectarians—mostly Shi‘i sectarians—go out on dangerous and provocative tangents. To abbreviate much of what they say, they claim that Abu Bakr and ‘Umar took advantage of Imam ‘Ali’s absence (probably a couple of hours) and stole the leadership of the Muslims for themselves – selfishly and brusquely choosing Abu Bakr to be the successor to Allah’s Prophet (P); thereby ignoring or disregarding Imam ‘Ali as the qualified and chosen-by-the-Prophet (P) leader of the ummah to rule after the Prophet (pbuh). Some Shi‘is couch this understanding and explanation of the Saqifah in mild sectarian terms while others phrase it in harsh—even offensive—sectarian expressions. This writer is aware that revisiting the details of this Saqifah chronicle runs the risk of emotional flare-ups with some edgy individuals. I’m sorry if these individuals permit their emotions to override their intellect. And I would advise that they take a deep breath and put their thinking ability in charge here.
Let us continue.
The first problematic component in deconstructing the disinformation and then reconstructing the actualities pertaining to the matters of the Saqifah is to concede the fact that the Qur’an does not explicitly state who the leader of the Muslims shall be after the Prophet (pbuh) passes on. Had the Qur’an (Allah’s words and guidance) stated such a factoid there would not have been this mental commotion that took on a “Sunni-Shi‘i” rift. To the best of my knowledge all objective and enlightened ‘ulema agree to this. The other component follows which is the belief that the Prophet (pbuh) explicitly assigned Imam ‘Ali to be the leader of the Muslims after he (pbuh) passes unto Allah’s company. This component (misunderstood and mis-explained by sectarians) is demonstrated by a historical fact referred to as Ghadir Khumm when the Prophet (pbuh) indisputably said:
النبي أولى بالمؤمنين من أنفسهم.
من كنت مولاه فهذا علي مولاه اللهم وال من والاه وعاد من عاداه
[The Prophet is [deserves to be] more in charge of the committed Muslims than they are in charge of themselves. Whoever considers me to be his predominant then [let it be known that] ‘Ali is [to be considered] his predominant. O Allah! Stand up for those who stand with him [‘Ali] and be in opposition to those who oppose him [‘Ali]]. The Sunni-Shi‘i divergence in this hadith occurs when both sides have not taken the time to focus their unbiased thinking on the word “mawla” in the hadith above. On the Sunni side, the word “mawla” is synonymous with significant and respectable a person of status; and on the Shi‘i side the word “mawla” is synonymous with leader and ruler.
Our intention here is not to break down and take apart the origins and evolution of Arabic words and their usages. Suffice it to say that there are other words in our common Islamic vocabulary that get lumped together as if they mean very much the same thing. In this context we have the following words massed and mashed together in a way that gives ammunition to the sectarians who fulminate with their diatribes and denunciations. Some of these words are “Khalifah”, “Imam”, “Amir al-Mu’mineen”, “mawla”, “waliy”, “waliy al-amr”, “malik”, etc…
What concerns us here is that the Prophet (pbuh), if we only cared to listen closely, said and used the word “mawla”. He did not use the word “Imam” (leader) and did not use the word “Khalifah” (successor). By thoughtfully expressing the word “mawla” the Prophet (pbuh) was nominating and recommending that Imam ‘Ali lead the Muslims by succeeding, contingent upon the Muslims’ favoring and endorsing him as their leader (Imam) and as his successor (Khalifah).
This Prophetic hadith can be added to many other hadiths of our perfect Prophet (pbuh) that in many ways advise and imply but do not command and demand the coercion of Imam ‘Ali into becoming the “head of state” after the Prophet (pbuh). The “Muhajiroon” and the “Ansar”, it appears, were more aware of this dynamic than the tens of thousands of others in the Arabian Peninsula who in the last couple of years of the Prophet’s lifetime became Muslims—just sketchily distancing themselves from their tribal temperament, clannish character, and “nationalistic” disposition. Add to that the fierce opposition represented by the Mushriks of Makkah who just recently surrendered to the rising Prophetic power of al-Madinah and were carrying with them over twenty years of battle-scars, wars, and hostilities to the Prophet (pbuh) and the closest people to the Prophet (pbuh)—especially Imam ‘Ali who was an Islamic war-hero and whose sword was still dripping with the plasma of the Prophet’s Makkan enemies. Some programed and coached “Sunni” students and scholars think that all of Makkah became “Sahabah” after those 20 odd years of Makkan mushrik confrontations and warfare against the Prophet (pbuh) and his immediate family, the Muhajireen, and Ansar devotees. The answer to such a Sunni contention is the Prophet’s description of the erstwhile Makkan opponents when he liberated Makkah and summoned all these ex-enemies of his and asked:
ما تظنون أني فاعل بكم؟ قالوا أخ كريم وابن أخ كريم. قال (ص): اذهبوا فأنتم الطلقاء
What do you think I will do to you [now that you are “citizens” of an Islamic governance]? They [the mushriks of Makkah] replied: [But] you are a brother and a nephew [meaning you are one of us]. He (pbuh) said: [You can] go [now]! You are released [from any technical penalties, you are] free.
Notice that the Prophet (pbuh) did not say “you are my relatives”; he did not say “you are my Sahabah”; he said “you are al-Tulaqa’” [dismissed and set free].
This would mostly explain why the Islamic seat of power remained in al-Madinah and never was relocated to Makkah by the Khulafa’ and the Imam where it would be joined to the Ka‘bah. This means that Makkah was militarily liberated—but psychologically and socially Makkah remained largely unable to methodically and exhaustively get along with the new Islamic order of the day. These were the currents that were stealthily at work within the demography and sociology of al-Hijaz and Arabia.
Within this mainstream lay people environment, the Prophet (pbuh) departed this life. The mood within the general Muhajireen and Ansar public (and this is where both Sunnis and Shi‘is miss the point) found itself caught between the requirement of the Qur’anic Shura requirement and the Prophet’s “mawla” recommendation. In these sensitive and frail moments of tribalistic nationalism at al-Saqifah a decision had to be made that would hold the general population together – knowing that the undercurrents of pre-Islamic customs, tired beliefs, and insular social organization of the tribe and the family outside the maturation and experience of the Muhajireen and Ansar needed the wrong signal and decision to erupt into an internal civil war between those who struggled with the Prophet (pbuh) for over 20 years to obtain equity and equality and those who fought against him for over 20 years to maintain inequality and the status quo—the latter having the advantage of pulling in the rest of Arabia through a history of tribal solidarity and what we may call today the “national ethos”. This tribal solidarity cum nationalistic ethos would ominously burst out into the open by Mu‘awiyah and Bani Umayyah during the last six years of ‘Uthman’s time in power.
It is extremely and existentially important for us Muslims today (Sunnis and Shi‘is) to factor in these communal characteristics, tribal traits, and societal aspects in Makkah, al-Hijaz, and Arabia to fully and fairly understand what happened in the Saqifah of Bani Sa‘idah when the majority Ansar of al-Madinah came together with the Muhajireen in the non-plotted absence of Imam ‘Ali for purposes of sorting out these volatile matters.
As for the first and foremost of the Muhajireen and the Ansar, as well as those who follow them in [the way of] righteousness—Allah is well pleased with them, and well pleased are they with Him… Al-Tawbah, ayat 100