Muslim unity is both one of the most common subjects that I am asked to speak about, and one of the most difficult. It is difficult not because it is complicated, but because it is so simple. The problem always is – what to say? The unity of the Muslim Ummah is not an idea or theory that requires articulation or inspiration; it is a simple reality attested to by Allah azzawajalla in several places in the Noble Qur’an. It is a simple matter of recognising the reality that what we have in common as Muslims far outweighs any differences that there may be between us; and that the things we have in common with other Muslims, whoever they may be, which are precisely the things that define and distinguish us as Muslims, far outweigh anything that we may have in common with other people who may be non-Muslim.
An instinctive understanding of the reality of the unity of the Ummah may be regarded as part of a Muslim’s state of fitrah: part of the God-given instinct with which we are born, an essential part of being born Muslim, in a state of innocence and purity, as all children are. Such a part of human fitrah is not easily set aside, of course; which is why, despite the many fault-lines now dividing the Ummah, ordinary Muslims everywhere still identify themselves as Muslims first and foremost, and instinctively identify with other Muslims in other places, however different their lives, circumstances and cultures may be. This is why Muslims from Nigeria, Bosnia, China and Malaysia can walk into mosques in each other’s countries and feel instantly at home, regardless of all the differences between them.
We recognise, of course, that many of the children that are born in this state of fitrah, in which they are Muslim by God-given instinct, are then led away from it by various influences, whether we think of these as temptations of shaytan, tests from Allah subhanahu wa ta‘ala, forces of circumstance or the effects of human socialisation growing up in families or communities that are not Muslim. Precisely the same process explains the reality of disunity in the Ummah: Muslims are misled from their instinctive unity because they fall prey to the temptations or seductions of forces drawing them away from it. These forces take many forms – nationalism, sectarianism, tribalism, racism, socio-economic snobbery, state-ism, political differences, factionalism of different kinds. These are not new phenomena; many of them were present even in the first Islamic community, society and state established by the Prophet (saw) himself under his own Divinely-guided leadership, and have been constant factors in Muslim history ever since. Yet their impact has always been limited. Even today, in the midst of some of the most disintegrative political circumstances that the Ummah has ever known, millions of ordinary Muslims all over the world identify with the struggle of fellow Muslims in places like Palestine, Bosnia, Chechnya and Somalia, despite years of nationalist propaganda; and recognise instinctively the position and leadership of men such as Imam Khomeini (ra) and Shaikh Hassan Nasrallah, despite the efforts of sectarian parties.
That is not, of course, to minimise the fact that many Muslims have lost sight of this reality, and fallen prey to forces of disunity. The risks and implications of this problem have long been seen in places like Pakistan, and have reached new levels in the current tragedy in Iraq. The ripples of sectarianism have spread from these centres and are being felt wherever there are Muslims; hence the many conferences such as this one.
The question that is commonly asked is: how do we promote or establish unity in the Ummah? This, frankly, is the wrong approach. All that is required is to recognise, resist and banish the forces of disunity, and enable the Muslims’ natural instincts to reassert themselves. The questions therefore are what the main causes of disunity in the Ummah are, and how we can counter them.
There are of course many factors involved; but the main one, I believe, and certainly one of the most damaging in political terms, is linked to the politics of identity. The Ummah is enormous and diverse; 1.8 billion people, approximately, dominating areas stretching over a quarter of the globe, and present in smaller communities over the rest of the globe. Inevitably, there are many differences between us – linguistic, cultural, social, economic, fiqhi, and differences of historical experience and conditions. The result is that Muslims, like everyone else, naturally and inevitably have multiple identities by which we define ourselves at difference times and circumstances. Sometimes we are Muslim, other times Sunni or Shi‘i; sometimes we are Arab, at other times Egyptian or Lebanese, or Moroccan or Maghrabi; sometimes we are Pakistani, other times Punjabi or Sindhi; here in Britain, we sometimes think of ourselves as British, at other times as Pakistani or Iraqi, or Londoners, or northerners, or working class or professional; and there are countless other identities we may use at other times, which may not necessarily be relevant to others. All of these identities are valid and acceptable, provided that we understand them only as qualifiers to our main identity as Muslims.
This is instinctive for most people in most circumstances. It is seen when ordinary people need to choose identities for themselves in non-controversial circumstances; hence the common phenomenon of Muslims supporting the football teams of other Muslim countries, rather than of any other countries, if their own teams do not qualify for major tournaments. At a more political level, it is seen in the instinctive support that Muslims show for Islamic movements in distant parts of the world, in circumstances that would appear irrelevant for people whose primary political identities are nationalistic or cultural. Thus Muslims everywhere identify with the struggle of the Chechens against Russia, more than with that of the Tibetans against China; while most non-Muslims in distant places might not particularly identify with either. These are generalisations, of course, but broadly true nonetheless.
However, this instinctive identification with Islam is sometimes distorted by our giving undue importance to other identities, under pressure of various circumstances or, as we might see them, temptations. In political terms, the most obvious of these is nationalism. For well over a hundred years there have been intensive campaigns to make Muslims think of themselves in nationalistic terms, first and foremost, from secular intellectuals influenced by Western nationalism during and since the colonial period, and the governments of post-colonial nation states. This has had its impact, of course, but not nearly as much as one might expect. But this modern nationalism is only one factor, and one that has roots also in the tribalism and cultural identities of different parts of the Muslim world that existed before the impact of Western colonialism. These too have various modern equivalents in terms of political identities, which can be analysed in great detail, and indeed have been by various people, often with agendas of their own. But this is not necessary or useful for the current discussion.
Most obviously, of course, when we speak of forces of disunity in the Ummah today, we have those that emerge directly from debates within the Ummah itself, although they are also influenced by tribal, cultural and nationalistic identities. The most prominent of these are Sunni, Shi‘i and other sectarian sub-identities. It is these that in our time are proving the most damaging to the fabric of the Ummah, for the simple reason that – unlike nationalist or cultural identities, which offer alternative local or cultural identities within the Ummah – these have the potential to be promoted as our true “Islamic identity”. This is not automatic; in many cases, such identities operate simply as sub-identities within the Muslim Ummah. However, there is a tendency for Muslims of different schools of thought to think of themselves as following the true or proper Islam, and others as somehow being lesser Muslims, even if they are not regarded as non-Muslim. From this, it is a small step to identifying primarily with one’s own sectarian community rather than with the Ummah as a whole. Such sectarianism can be understood in a number of ways; one interesting theory I heard recently is that it is a function of religiosity; the more “religious” Muslims are, the more likely they are to be prone to such sectarianism, or to accepting the siren-call of sectarian leaders. This may well often be the case, but it does not necessarily follow. This is not the place for a detailed analysis of sectarian behaviour or factors influencing it; what matters for us now is recognising it when we see it, and learning to avoid it.
The many differences between the social, cultural and historical experiences of Muslims, and in their understandings of Islam and how they choose to live it, can be regarded as vertical subdivisions within the broad and inclusive single Ummah, which are acceptable provided they are not permitted to threaten the overall unity of the Ummah. The division that we must be aware of, and which is truly significant, is between those who are committed to unity, implicitly or explicitly, and those who are penned into particular subdivisions and cannot see beyond them. This we may regard as a horizontal dividing line across the entire Ummah, cutting through every other subdivision. In every subdivision, we will find both those who are committed to unity, and those who cannot rise above the partial understanding of their particular sector of the Ummah, however that may be defined.
The first step to promoting unity is to recognize signs of prejudiced sectarian attitudes in ourselves, as well as in others. It is, for example, easy for those who regard themselves as unity-minded to slip into sectarian and divisive attitudes and behaviour; for example, by regarding members of some particular group as generally sectarian. Such a generalisation about members of a group, be they salafi or Shi‘i or barelvi (to name just a few possibilities) is itself a sectarian attitude. Another sign is whom we choose to identify with when observing events in the world today. We all identify with the Palestinians in their struggle against zionism, but the situation in Iraq is different. I have noticed a strong tendency for Sunni and Shi‘i Muslims outside Iraq, who have no direct involvement in the conflict there, to automatically identify more with members of their own communities, and to assume that they are in the right, rather than taking the objective view that this is a tragic conflict between Muslims, and being equally understanding of the political positions taken by all parties, even if this means sympathizing more with the positions of Muslims of other schools of thought rather than the positions of those who share our own school of thought. The same applies to the victims of violence; tragically, in Iraq today, members of all communities are guilty of atrocities against members of others. Yet many Muslims outside Iraq seem unable to see this; there is a tendency to sympathize more with some victims than with others, and an inability to regard those guilty of atrocities with the same degree of condemnation. I understand, of course, that there are deep-rooted historical and cultural bases for such feelings, but that does not change the reality that all the victims of sectarian atrocities are equally innocent, and that all the perpetrators are equally guilty, regardless of their schools of thought. In a sense, the situation in Iraq can be seen as a litmus-test of the degree of sectarian prejudice in our own minds and hearts.
This brings me to the main point of my paper: approaches to history and the effect they have on modern sectarian or anti-sectarian attitudes. There are a number of important points I wish to make on this subject.
The first is that historical disagreements are central to the emergence of two major sects in Islam, and often the excuse for disunity. These disagreements go back to the earliest days of Islam, and I need not revise them now. Instead, I want to start by saying something about how we think of them. The key point is that they are seen as sincere misunderstandings and differences of opinion among brothers and sisters in Islam; very few in either camp regard the other camp as outside the fold of Islam. Those who do are flying in the face of the consensus of ulama over the centuries, usually for political reasons. But the fact that they are simply differences of opinion between Muslims should be enough to ensure that they are not permitted to divide the Ummah. Among those committed to unity, there is a general agreement that we agree to disagree, without needing to discuss the areas of disagreement in detail, in case that agreement to disagree proves difficult to maintain.
This is perhaps a good approach if there is risk of friction, and if it enables us to work together on more important and immediate projects, such as resisting the external enemies of the Ummah. But it has limitations; for example, it is has little weight in the debate against those in the Ummah who are determined to exploit these historical disagreements to promote sectarian conflict. Countering such positions demands that unity-minded ulama of both communities address and discuss these issues in a spirit of brotherhood, understanding that it is a debate between brothers, that must be pursued with sensitivity and respect, and ensuring that nothing said by anyone is allowed to create more conflict. This is an essential progression from the “agreeing to disagree” position, and the only way that we will be able to counter those who deliberately sow discord, for example by vilifying the leading figures of the other side. This has long been recognized as a problem among some Shi‘is, which persists despite the condemnation of leaders such as Imam Khomeini (ra). It has traditionally been less of a problem among Sunnis (though by no means unknown) because the leading figures of the Shi‘i tradition, such as Imam Ali ibn Abi-Talib and Imams Hasan and Husain (ra) are equally revered by most Sunnis; and yet today we find booklets with titles such as Why Mu’awiyya was right being distributed by some Sunni groups in this country. Such obscenities can only be countered by unity-minded ulama of both schools being willing and able to discuss this history openly and frankly.
These five phases are: the period of the Prophet (saw); the period of the four “rightly-guided” khulafa’ and the conversion of khilafah to malukiyah, ending with the martyrdom of Imam Husain (ra); the period of the Muslim empires; the decline of Islamic political power and the rise of the West; and the period of contemporary Islamic struggle to reassert the political power of Islam at a time of Western global hegemony.
The second point to make is that too often people make sectarian differences and issues central to their understanding of our history. For too many Muslims, the events of those years after the death of the Prophet (saw) dominate our understandings of both Islam and the history of the Ummah. Inevitably, this results in our focusing on the areas of disagreement rather than those of agreement, both in our understanding of Islam, as a result of which our understanding of Islam is distorted, and in our views of history. Linked to this is a tendency to understand the entire 1,400-year history of the Ummah through a sectarian prism, as though differences between Sunnis and Shi‘is have been the dominant feature of every stage of our history. Both these tendencies can be addressed by re-examining the various stages of our history, consciously focusing on our common historical experiences rather than the occasions when differences have divided us. Without going into great detail, for my emphasis is on the discourse rather than the history itself, I will suggest areas of consensus in five phases of our history, and how they can be read in unifying terms rather than divisive ones. These five phases are: the period of the Prophet (saw); the period of the four “rightly-guided” khulafa’ and the conversion of khilafah to malukiyah, ending with the martyrdom of Imam Husain (ra); the period of the Muslim empires; the decline of Islamic political power and the rise of the West; and the period of contemporary Islamic struggle to reassert the political power of Islam at a time of Western global hegemony.
The time of the Prophet (saw)’s life and work, which must be the starting-point for every history of Islam and Muslims, appears sometimes to be reduced to little more than a prologue for events after his death. This is often with the best of intentions, for periods of consensus are often perceived as less interesting than those of conflict, but the effect can be damaging. This period is unique in historical terms because many of the events of this period, particularly the statements and actions of the Prophet (saw) himself, constitute a part of Islam, rather than simply the post-Prophetic understanding of Islam and the history of the Ummah. This is reflected in the fact that there is little difference in Muslims’ understanding of the Seerah. There is no disagreement on the fact that the Prophet’s life and work constitute an ideal model for emulation by all Muslims at all times; that the Prophet (saw) represented in fact the personal embodiment of the Noble Qur’an, in the words of Umm al-Mu’mineen A’isha (ra). The sources of the Seerah used by all Muslims of all schools of thought are largely common; it is only in the interpretation of these sources that differences emerge, which is naturally a secondary matter.
It is also notable that, in studying the Seerah and the broader history of the period of the Prophet (saw), the same general dynamics are noted by almost all scholars; and that these are relevant to the situation confronting the Ummah today. For example, a key element of the Prophet’s political objectives was the consolidation of the embryonic Ummah by the banishment of tribal and other social distinctions and differences among Muslims. In other words, the Prophet himself was specifically focused on establishing the unity of the Ummah as the primary political identity of all Muslims. Then, such issues took the form of clan or tribal tensions between Muslims in Makkah; tensions between ansar and muhajirs in Madinah; and the racism that some Muslims showed towards Bilal (ra). Such problems were not automatically resolved when people became Muslims; they remained issues throughout the Prophetic period and after it. The Prophet’s response is instructive: at every stage he sought to minimise them, and to focus on the unity of the Muslims’ faith, their equality before Allah subhanahu wa ta‘ala, and so on. And time and again the Companions (ra) of the Prophet understood the truth of his words, only for problems to arise again later. And the success and expansion of the Islamic State increased the scope for such problems, for example when the conquest of Makkah resulted in many new Muslims joining the Ummah who remained steeped in the tribal traditions of pre-Islamic Arabia and had limited opportunity to be cleansed of them by direct exposure to the presence and teachings of the Prophet (saw).
This process did not end with the death of the Prophet (saw), of course. What changed was that the new community faced a host of fresh challenges without the guidance of the man on whom they had depended for so many years. It is not my intention to discuss the events of these years, between the death of the Prophet (saw) and the tragedy of Karbala, in any detail, although that is not for fear of raising difficult issues. I firmly believe that these issues must be the subject of discussion between unity-minded scholars of all schools of thought, who must demonstrate that they can be discussed without rancour and conflict. Most Muslims have some knowledge of the events of this period, and there is no point in revising them here. I want to emphasise only three points. The first is that the problems are attributable at least partly to the re-emergence of politics based on divisive identities such as tribalism at the expense of a unifying approach. The second is that, at all stages, there were major players, including all those that most Muslims remember with respect, who acted to smooth differences and maintain the unity of the Ummah, even if there were differences on how this could be achieved; the fact that they failed should not detract from the sincerity of their efforts. And thirdly that, however Muslims may understand the events of these years, there is little difference between Muslims of all schools of thought on the result of these historical processes: the establishment of Muslim political authority which was fundamentally illegitimate (reflected in the traditional Sunni distinction between the “rightly guided” khulafa’ and the subsequent malukiyyah of the Umayyads); or the facts of the tragedy of Karbala. To this day, only a tiny minority of Sunni extremists have ever disputed the justice of Imam Husain’s cause or the damage done to the Ummah by his martyrdom. To me, the fact that these events, on which there is such broad consensus, can be made the basis for conflict to this day is truly incredible.
That leaves almost 1,400 years of Muslim history to be covered. This too I propose to discuss very generally, in three very broad phases, for obvious reasons. My object is to highlight certain points of commonality between the historical experiences of virtually all Muslims, which we could usefully focus on instead of tending to read our history in sectarian terms. As it happens, these are also points of the greatest possible relevance to the situation we are facing today.
Broadly speaking, two approaches emerged to the same problem: those of resistance and of accommodation. It has become a cliché to regard resistance as characteristic of the Shi‘i tradition, and the Sunnis to have been accommodating, but this is simplistic.The jihad and martyrdom of Imam Husain (ra) have come to symbolise resistance, and inspired a number of other political or military resistance movements over subsequent decades. But it should be noted that these were not restricted to leaders in the traditional Shi‘I pantheon. Many Muslims figures regarded as Sunnis also supported them; Imam Abu Hanifa, for example, the founder of the largest Sunni school of thought, was broadly sympathetic to the ‘Alawis in their opposition to the Umayyads, and supported Imam Zaid ibn Ali’s uprising in 122AH. It is safe to suggest that few Muslims today, either Shi‘i or Sunni, are aware of this.
The first of these three phases is that of the Muslim empires, from the Umayyad through to the Uthmaniyyah (Ottoman). There is little dispute between Muslims about the Islamic illegitimacy of these policies. A good deal of Muslim history, particularly in terms of political thought, can be seen as debating how to respond to this reality; what kind of coping mechanisms people found. Broadly speaking, two approaches emerged to the same problem: those of resistance and of accommodation. It has become a cliché to regard resistance as characteristic of the Shi‘i tradition, and the Sunnis to have been accommodating, but this is simplistic. The jihad and martyrdom of Imam Husain (ra) have come to symbolise resistance, and inspired a number of other political or military resistance movements over subsequent decades. But it should be noted that these were not restricted to leaders in the traditional Shi‘I pantheon. Many Muslims figures regarded as Sunnis also supported them; Imam Abu Hanifa, for example, the founder of the largest Sunni school of thought, was broadly sympathetic to the ‘Alawis in their opposition to the Umayyads, and supported Imam Zaid ibn Ali’s uprising in 122AH. It is safe to suggest that few Muslims today, either Shi‘i or Sunni, are aware of this. Better known is the fact that Imam Abu Hanifa was imprisoned for refusing to accept a position under Ibn Hurayrah, the Umayyad governor of Kufah. What is significant in not only that this happened, but that it is central to subsequent biographies of him, confirming tacit Sunni condemnation of the Umayyads and that resistance to illegitimate authority was regarded as laudable.
Equally, there are parallels on the accommodationalist side of the debate too. It is quite true to say that much Sunni political thought has been distorted by attempts to legitimise illegitimate regimes that appeared to be successful on the broader stage of history; this is widely recognised. Yet there are considerable similarities between the ways in which medieval Sunni thinkers did this, and the ways in which many Shi‘i scholars responded to the emergence of Shi‘i political power in the Safavid period. Ali Shari‘ati famously coined the term “Safavi Shi‘ism” to distinguish the Shi‘i thought of this period from what he regarded as the real ‘Alawi Shi‘ism.
Equally, there are parallels on the accommodationalist side of the debate too. It is quite true to say that much Sunni political thought has been distorted by attempts to legitimise illegitimate regimes that appeared to be successful on the broader stage of history; this is widely recognised. Yet there are considerable similarities between the ways in which medieval Sunni thinkers did this, and the ways in which many Shi‘i scholars responded to the emergence of Shi‘i political power in the Safavid period. Ali Shari‘ati famously coined the term “Safavi Shi‘ism” to distinguish the Shi‘i thought of this period from what he regarded as the real ‘Alawi Shi‘ism. Perhaps it would be equally valid to speak of an Umayyad/Abbasid Sunnism. Certainly one can draw parallels between the roles of Mulla M. Baqir al-Majlisi, for example, in the Safavi state and countless Sunni scholars who have gone down in history as “ulama as-sultan”. To say so is not to attribute blame, nor to suggest that any community has made fewer or more mistakes in its history; it is merely to say that the two histories have far more in common than many people realise or admit; and that, once openly acknowledged, without defensiveness, these similarities can be the basis for the development of a common historical discourse in which all Muslims can learn from our common experiences.
The same is true of Sunni and Shi‘i responses to the period of Muslim decline and Western imperialism, which were two separate processes, although closely linked. The Western imperial challenge was not, of course, the first time that Muslim powers had come under attack from external enemies, and every time Muslims responded in similar ways. As it became clear that the established Muslim powers, be they in India, Egypt or Iran, were not able to maintain even the minimum standards of success that had traditionally been made the criteria for legitimacy, Muslims responded in certain ways. One tendency was to reconsolidate traditional positions, reworking and updating them to try to cope with the changed circumstances. This was true in both the Sunni and Shi‘i spheres, although the latter perhaps coped more effectively, with the triumph of the usuli school over the akhbari in the eighteenth century, partly because of the smaller size and greater consolidation of the Shi‘i religious establishment. There was also the emergence of “reformist” thought, from scholars arguing that the traditional positions had failed and that Muslims needed to rethink their understanding of Islam and its role in society in particular. Although this trend became dominant during the colonial period, it can in fact be traced back to thinkers in the pre-colonial Muslim world, such as Ibn Taymiyya and Shaikh Waliullah Dehlevi, reacting to local problems rather than those posed by the West. Similar ideas emerged among Shi‘i thinkers as well, albeit a little later, probably because of the different historical experiences of the Sunni countries and Shi‘i ones. In Shi‘i discourse, its most prominent advocate has been Ali Shari‘ati. In both communities this tendency was immediately controversial, but has become more accepted over time, as traditionalist positions have generally proved inadequate in reacting to the changed historical situations. Both trends of thought have of course evolved over time, both spontaneously and in response to the rapidly changing historical situation facing the Ummah.
Alongside these intellectuals trends, and interacting with them, has been the emergence of political Islamic movements, reacting in turn to the failures of the established Muslim order, the establishment of colonial rule, and the emergence of the post-colonial political order. The forms these took depended largely on the situation they faced. Some, before the impact of colonial rule, were initially political, such as that of Uthman dan Fodio in West Africa. As Western powers increasingly encroached on the Ummah, jihad movements emerged, such as those of Imam Shamil in the Caucasus, Sayyid Ahmed Shaheed and Sayyid Ismail Shaheed in India, and the Sannusis in Libya. Over time, these were replaced by political movements, such as Jama‘at-e Islami in the south-Asian subcontinent and the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen in the Arab world. These have come to dominate the Muslim response to Western hegemony in the contemporary period.
The experiences of the two communities are not as different as some would like to make out. These parallels, when they are explored, will give the lie to both Shi‘i claims that the success of the Islamic movement inspired and led by Imam Khomeini (ra) is attributable entirely to Shi‘i political traditions, and the claims of some Sunnis that the Islamic Revolution in Iran is completely irrelevant to the challenges facing Islamic movements elsewhere. Both these claims are staples of sectarian discourse on both sides of the divide (and both claims are used, ironically, by both sides to justify their own positions).
The evolution of political resistance in Iran followed a slightly different path, reflecting both the different nature of the Shi‘i religious experience and Iran’s unique political experience, not losing its formal political independence at any stage, but coming under indirect Western power for much of the twentieth century. Perhaps because of the greater solidarity of the religious establishment, as well as the more localised and shorter scope of the process, there was a smaller variety of responses; but nonetheless, many of the responses (and the explanations and justifications given for them) paralleled those in parts of the Sunni world. This is not the place for a detailed study, but the key point is that the experiences of the two communities are not as different as some would like to make out. These parallels, when they are explored, will give the lie to both Shi‘i claims that the success of the Islamic movement inspired and led by Imam Khomeini (ra) is attributable entirely to Shi‘i political traditions, and the claims of some Sunnis that the Islamic Revolution in Iran is completely irrelevant to the challenges facing Islamic movements elsewhere. Both these claims are staples of sectarian discourse on both sides of the divide (and both claims are used, ironically, by both sides to justify their own positions).
The Islamic Revolution in Iran heralded the current phase of Muslim history: that of all-out confrontation between the Western hegemonic powers, their allies, and their agents in the Muslim world, primarily the post-colonial Muslim nation-states on the one hand and Islamic movements on the other. Some Sunnis resent suggestions that this phase starts with the Islamic Revolution, as though this disparages the efforts of Islamic leaders and movements before 1979; that is not the intention. But the reality is that the Islamic movement in Iran achieved what movements elsewhere had failed to achieve, and are still struggling to achieve nearly 30 years later. Of course, the situation is much more difficult now; it is true to some extent that the Islamic Revolution caught the West unawares. Nonetheless, to suggest that other Islamic movements can learn nothing from the Iranian experience is to disregard the lessons of the only successful model in recent Muslim history, which we can hardly afford to do, considering the scale of the challenge facing us and the relative paucity of resources – by which I mean intellectual resources, as well as material – at our disposal. The relevance of the Islamic Revolution to the global Islamic movement is something that we at the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought have discussed in greater depth, notably through the Crescent International newsmagazine. In this situation, to remain bogged down in sectarian readings of history, instead of focusing on the ample commonalties between our experiences, is utterly criminal.
What I am proposing, in suggesting that we should focus on commonalties in our histories instead of the areas of difference, is by no means a radical new discourse on Muslim history. It is merely an explicit recognition of what the vast majority of Muslims understand already, and is implicit in the relations and cooperation between Islamic movements in Sunni and Shi‘I parts of the world, including the Islamic State of Iran and Hizbullah on the Shi‘i side, and groups such as Hamas, the Ikhwan, the Jama‘at-e Islami and numerous other movements on the Sunni side. This conference is an example of such relations and cooperation; the question is why, all too often, such cooperation is restricted to the topic of unity itself, instead of extending to other topics as well.
What we require is a campaign of thought and action that specifically highlights the numerous commonalties of our historical experiences, particularly in areas that are highly relevant to the challenges facing the Islamic movement today, instead of focusing on particular episodes of difference and conflict, as though those are by definition the most significant parts of our history. Time and again Muslims are exhorted in the Qur’an to consider the errors of previous generations. The challenge facing us now is to put the rich and varied history of the Ummah since the time of the Prophet (saw) – the history of a quarter of the world’s population for nearly a millennium and a half – to the service of our future generations, instead of writing it off simply as a period of error and deviation from which we can gain nothing but excuses for disunity and discord.