How Muslims frame an issue determines whether they will find a solution to the problem. Neither iman nor unity is a private or personal affair. “Individuals have access to taqwa; societies have access to iman.”
Sectarianism and the deleterious impact it has on Muslim unity is related less to a deficit of moral awareness and observation than to a divided, immature, or nonexistent Muslim public mind. Certainly, our world contains plenty of “practicing” Muslims who observe their fasts, pray their salahs, and duly pay their zakah at the appropriate times of the day and year. But even so, these practicing faithful are the fuel of the sectarian inferno that is incinerating large swathes of the Muslim demographic in the world. That “unity is a byproduct of iman” is often heard in many Islamic circles. Those who air these sentiments, generally in slogan fashion (that is, they just say it, but have no idea what the two have to do with each other), suggest that if every Muslim had iman, unity would take care of itself; that if the numbers for Salah al-Fajr were the same as the numbers for Salah al-‘Id, that if every woman wore hijab, that if every Muslim ate halal meat, that if all of us stood up for qiyam and performed our post-salah du‘as in a certain manner, then all of this effusive devotional attention would somehow miraculously evolve into all of us being on the same page. This is the kind of reductionist thinking about iman that presents itself in the public space as sectarian violence and disunity.
You get unity when you work at it, not when you work at perfecting your prayer (though this is a part of it, certainly not all of it as some scoldingly suggest). Unity resides in the social domain, not in the personal one. Individuals do not have unity; people do. Part of the reason we can’t get at the solution to our problem is that we are framing the issue all wrong. It is impossible for any individual Muslim, regardless of his scholarship, erudition, and devoutness, to have iman — in its totality. Individuals have access to taqwa; societies have access to iman. In full bloom, iman is a social phenomenon, and thus only the Ummah has the best chance at having iman (or to a lesser extent, the Ummah’s leadership cadre, al-ladhina amanu) — in all its dimensions. Iman is not about riveting attention to the rules and rituals Allah (swt) has revealed for those things we already conform to, rather it is about extending that commitment to areas where His direction is less clear. There is no higher expression of devotion to Allah (swt) than to use His guidance to solve a problem for which He has not given an explicit answer. This requires social contact, social engagement, and a healthy exchange in which whatever is closest to Allah’s (swt) revealed word dominates.
In order to understand this in greater depth, we have to know what it means to have a public mind. The public mind precedes unity in the same way taqwa precedes iman. The public mind is nurtured by deliberation and challenge in the public space. When an individual Muslim makes a commitment to yield to Allah’s (swt) command and counsel (islam), his commitment can only be transformed into conviction (iman) when he is forced to justify his position in the face of queries, doubts and exchange in the public (social) space. This justification provided to another so that he too can understand a position of principle is what turns commitment into conviction. The intellectual commitment that begins in the mind and is then tempered through public debate and contention settles in the heart as conviction,
Are you not aware of he who argued with Abraham about his Sustainer, [simply] because Allah had granted him [earthly] power? Lo! Abraham said, “My Sustainer is He who grants life and deals death.” [The king] replied, “I [too] grant life and deal death!” Said Abraham, “Verily, Allah causes the Sun to rise from the east; cause it, then, to rise in the west!” Thereupon he who was bent on denying the truth remained dumfounded, for Allah does not guide people who [deliberately] do wrong (2:258).
This degree of comfort with exchange, evidence, and proof for the promotion of principle in the face of disagreement and conflict is what fosters the emergence and maturation of a public mind. Conviction (iman) resides in the public domain; there is no such thing as a private conviction that cannot face the challenge of a public opposition, either itself from a position of principle, or from a vested interest of some flavor. We Muslims are generally uncomfortable, especially insofar as the odds favor the secularists who have institutional and academic support for their positions, with taking our private “beliefs” into the public arena. Most of us cower at the thought of sustaining our positions in a public debate about our “religion,” our Prophet (pbuh), and our God. In a sense, this means we have no convictions, and thereby, as an aggregate, we have no social values. And so it ought to come as no surprise that munkars (social deviations) which dominate the public space are consuming our lives, not to mention the world’s resources and the security people count on to conduct their daily lives.
Iman is a public mind socialized to Allah’s (swt) command and counsel, not something privatized to the letter of a moral code that separates the spirit of its expression from the administration of social justice. Iman is a collective will and institutional momentum launched by Allah’s (swt) dispensation into the arena of social disharmony, governmental corruption, corporate greed, economic chaos, and military depredation. A Muslim public mind is what is necessary to deal with munkars of this nature; no amount of individual altruism will fit the bill, “With all this, [remember that] those who are bent on denying Allah’s power presence in human affairs are sponsors of one another; and unless you act likewise [among yourselves] oppression will reign on earth, and great corruption” (8:73).
Today, we need not look beyond our living rooms to know that oppression and corruption seep into every aspect of our troubled and desperate lives. This means that there is no bona fide Muslim public mind. A divided self-image does not a public mind make. One side of our public mind says that the other side has a defective ‘aqidah (theological perspective), thereby moving its adherents into the field of kufr, and then subsequently rationalizing their illicit murder. The other side of our public mind counters, not by saying the same thing, but by inferring the same conclusion. Neither side is cognizant of the fact, despite its potential usefulness, that the word ‘aqidah is neither a Qur’anic nor prophetic word. In this debate and its lethal consequences, both sides have privatized iman, not only in the sense of moving it out of the public space and into an exclusive personal domain, but in the capitalist sense of owning something that cannot be owned.
By giving themselves the license to define what a Muslim is and what he isn’t, there are those who have come to “own” iman; and their endorsement decides whether or not someone can be labeled a Muslim. In the secular capitalist and materialist world we live in, how is this different from a corporation claiming to “own” rainwater (Bechtel in Bolivia) or a royal family claiming to “own” fossil fuels? In the absence of a vibrant public mind, no one can confidently counter the latter position by placing a hadith of the Prophet (pbuh) in the field of public debate, “People are to collectively administer three [commodities]: water [resources], what [vegetation] the earth produces on its own, and energy [resources].” Moreover, how is this different from the people of previous scripture, who by claiming a chosen status, have come to privatize or “own” God, not by what they say, but by what they do? In the same way, a parochial Muslim public mind only has a problem with ‘aqidah because it cannot place the concept in the context of its inception and subsequent development (which was to distinguish a Muslim from a non-Muslim, not to separate a Muslim from his brother).
It is this void in the Muslim public mind that is quickly filled by criminal enterprises, otherwise known as monarchies and dictatorships. They come in and give their own meaning to something that belongs to the Muslim public mind. ‘Aqidah is one such concept, which can only be clarified after open deliberation, challenge, and participation by all legitimate positions on the subject. ‘Aqidah does not belong to a school of thought, an individual scholar, association, organization, or government. But because our public mind is 14 centuries late in arriving to its appointment with destiny, criminal governments have appropriated well-intentioned ideas to kill off principled political dissent by labeling it as theological heresy.
This is the ignorance we haven’t conquered in our tortured history; that same pattern is being applied to disastrous effect today as yesterday. Our ignorance — cultivated by quarantining Allah (swt) from the public space and ceding the responsibility of its administration to His would-be rivals for power — is still being fostered, maintained, perpetuated, and exploited by socializing institutions, otherwise recognized as fraudulent governments. They all work through a liberally funded establishment of court scholars and an elaborate network of pundits, intellectuals, and academics who populate the media, think tanks, universities, and NGOs. Some of these governments — chiefly Saudi Arabia, and also the United Arab Emirates and Qatar — have gone public with their sectarian provocations, going to the extent of training and funding Salafi shock troops for sectarian wars of attrition in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Algeria, and Mauritania. Others — the US, the European Union, and Israel — have demonstrated a high degree of comfort with the public face of Muslim sectarianism represented by Arabia et al., while themselves hiding in the shadows behind an increasingly transparent rubric of popular representation and human rights that fronts for a geostrategic pathology at the root of which is the suspension of Islam, the Qur’an, and Muhammad (pbuh) from the public space as the impartial arbiters of social justice.
Unity is a byproduct of iman. But any iman that is owned or privatized does not belong to the Muslim public mind. Any and all who claim it (by what they do, not by what they say) are the ones who are courting kufr, “Woe to those who write scripture of their own dictate and then say, ‘This comes from Allah.’ They do this for a trifling price. Woe, then, unto them for what their hands have written, and woe unto them for all that they may have gained!” (2:79).