The Prophet’s (pbuh) Sunnah and Sirah are the two fundamental reference points after the noble Qur’an on which all Muslims agree. He is the best of exemplars (33:21) and obedience to him alongside that of Allah (swt) is obligatory upon every Muslim. It is for this reason that Muslims organize elaborate programs to celebrate the birthday of the noble Messenger (pbuh) that falls in the month of Rabi‘ al-Awwal. Whatever the form of celebration, the purpose is to learn from the example of the noble Messenger (pbuh), with a view to implementing those ideals in our lives.
One other point must be noted before we discuss the importance of Muslim unity. Among Muslims there is a slight difference of opinion about the exact day of the Prophet’s (pbuh) birthday. The “Sunnis” believe that it is the 12th of Rabi‘ al-Awwal while the “Shi‘is” say it is the 17th. To accommodate both dates, the Islamic Republic of Iran proposed a week of Muslim Unity. It is called Hafta-e Wahdat (Week of Unity) so that Muslims from both schools of thought can come together to honor the memory of the noblest of all human beings ever to grace the face of the earth.
Unity is a cherished ideal that every Muslim must strive for at all times, especially today when sectarianism is deliberately promoted to create divisions in the Ummah. Regrettably attempts at division have succeeded to some extent causing immense suffering in the Muslim world. The enemies of Islam — imperialists and Zionists — fear Muslim unity. They know that if the Muslims were united, their plots would fail. The imperialists and Zionists would no longer be able to exploit the Muslim world or its resources. Islam’s enemies succeed not because they have superior ideas but because they have penetrated the world of Islam imposing their own agents as rulers, who implement their master’s agenda.
Let us also consider the aspect of differences of opinion in the Ummah that the noble Messenger (pbuh) described as a blessing. Implicit in such permission is the fact that differences have to be expressed in a respectful manner without causing disruption. Regrettably, this is far from the case today. There are groups, organizations, and regimes that thrive on divisions among Muslims. Takfirism — the phenomenon of declaring other Muslims as kafirs — has erupted with full fury despite such pronouncements being expressly forbidden by the noble Messenger (pbuh). The disrupters go further: they take such declarations as a license to kill other Muslims, contrary to Islamic teachings. In Madinah, there were munafiqs in the ranks of Muslims but the noble Messenger (pbuh) prohibited their killing.
The disrupters are often more successful than unifiers because it is easy to create doubts in the minds of people. This does not mean Muslims should give up removing misunderstandings or abandon the quest for unity. There is no better starting point than the Sirah of the noble Messenger (pbuh). But before considering the application of the Sirah, Muslims must be clear that the imposition of alien ideas and institutions on their societies will not achieve the desired results.
The dilemma facing Muslims today is this: a tiny minority insists on aping Western values while the masses long for the implementation of Islamic principles starting with the Sirah of the Prophet (pbuh). If ideas are the foundations of a civilization, then the Islamic civilization cannot be built on ideas borrowed from others. Only ideas rooted in the values and teachings of Islam will bring about the desired results.
In Makkah, the Prophet’s (pbuh) companions included Bilal, Salman, and Suhayb (ra). They were non-Arabs. Muslims today will have to similarly rise above differences of race, color, language and sect and strive for the larger goal of Muslim unity. This is what the Unity Week is all about. At the annual Unity Week conference in Tehran, scholars from all over the world and from all schools of thought in Islam are invited to not only share ideas but also develop mutual understandings and respect. Allah (swt) reminds us in the noble Qur’an,
“Muhammad is Allah’s Apostle; and those who are [truly] with him are firm and unyielding toward all deniers of the truth, [yet] full of mercy toward one another” (48:29).
Muslims must inculcate the beautiful attribute of “mercy towards one another” by developing a clearer understanding of the Qur’an and the Sirah. It must be inclusive and based on the divine principles of fairness and justice. Tribal or sectarian interests have no place in this struggle. Those who pursue such interests cannot claim to represent Muslims, much less the totality of Islam.
Zafar Bangash is Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought