While many Muslims talk about unity, their starting point is often flawed. It begins at the point where the other side is tolerated but not accepted as equally legitimate.
For more than 30 years Muslims of all backgrounds, especially scholars, public figures, activists and intellectuals have been working relentlessly to achieve unity in the Muslim Ummah. Realistically speaking, the results are not spectacular. Even though sectarianism in the Muslim world is due to foreign meddling that exploits natural fiqhi differences among Muslims, unfortunately they cannot escape blame for allowing imperialist powers to drag them down the sectarian path of self-destruction. The main reasons for falling into the sectarian trap is the fact that Muslims have been ignoring the elephant in the room and are unable to agree that in some instances, Islam welcomes and allows differences of opinion.
Muslims face obstacles in eliminating or even reducing sectarianism because apart from a small number of top tier ‘ulama, many Muslims have adopted a very narrow and simplistic formula of what unity means. The simplistic definition of unity by some Sunni and Shi‘i Muslims comes down to the following:
If you want to achieve unity you cannot question Abu Bakr’s right to the khilafah; while the Shi‘i side says, if you want unity you must not question Imam Ali’s right to be the first khalifah.
Some Sunni proponents of “unity” say, if you want unity you must admit that tawassul is shirk; while Shi‘i proponents of “unity” state that if you want unity you must declare that opposing tawassul is a great sin.
One group says you are not allowed to question what defines a sahabi, a companion of the Prophet (pbuh); while on the opposite side it is demanded that certain people must be crossed out from the list of Sahabah before any serious talk about unity can be initiated.
Islamic unity organizations and initiatives have not achieved the desired outcome because unity is not defined within the real parameters of existing differences.
The list can go on for tens of pages. Islamic unity organizations and initiatives have not achieved the desired outcome because unity is not defined within the real parameters of existing differences. Most unity initiatives have failed to develop a formula that emphasizes similarities and accepts differences. Differences cannot be the defining aspect of Sunni-Shi‘i relations, but they cannot be ignored either.
There are several Islamic unity formulas circulated by prominent scholars that are flawed. The concept that Shi‘i Muslims are to be regarded as Muslims, but must be labeled as a deviant group, can never be solid ground for unity. At the same time the formula that brands Sunni Muslims as Muslims, but as betrayers of the Ahl al-Bayt (a), can never lead to genuine unity. Another flawed unity formula advocates a complete abandonment of talk about any sort of differences due to the fact that Muslims are under external threat from imperialism and Zionism. This formula makes the entire unity project sound insincere, and comes across as “let’s not fight now, but later.”
The Muslim Ummah must also admit that because the Sunni side of the Ummah has been hijacked by the colonial-created and imposed Saudi regime, which employs sectarianism as a necessary strategic tool of political survival, the sectarian current on the Sunni side will “naturally” be stronger. On the Shi‘i side, the Islamic leadership in Iran is genuinely committed to Muslim unity. Even if some doubt Iran’s sincerity despite its unconditional support for Sunni Muslims in the Bosnian war and in Palestine, at least from a Machiavellian perspective Iran is actually implementing practical unity policies. It must be highlighted that no Marja-e Taqlid from the Shi‘i side has ever declared Sunnis as kafirs and no serious Sunni mujtahid has ever declared the Shi‘is as kafirs.
If that were the case, there is no doubt that one would have frequently heard quotes from top classical Sunni ‘ulama such as Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Shafi‘i, Imam Malik, Imam Ahmad, Imam al-Shaybani, Imam Abu Yusuf, Imam al-Nawawi, Imam al-Ghazzali and others about the kufr of Shi‘i Muslims. Yet, these quotes are rarely seen and when they are, their discovery leads to “Islamic” institutions bankrolled by the US-backed Saudi regime. It is instructive to note that no one ever referred to these “quotes” prior to the 20th century. The research phase of this report has shown that objective and thorough examination of Ibn Taymiyah’s and Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyah’s works reveals the fact that these classical salafi scholars never actually made takfir against Shi‘i Muslims.
Using the opportunity, it must be stated that Muslims must do thorough research on the real Ibn Taymiyyah whose views today are distorted by the Saudi “scholars” for hire. For example, a popular book by Ibn Taymiyyah titled al-Aqidah al-Wasitiyah is being circulated today as Sharh al-Aqeedat al-Wasitiyah, meaning commentary on al-Aqidah al-Wasitiyah. It is a commentary by Saudi court “scholars” twisting the meanings of Ibn Taymiyyah’s work. Studying the book of Ibn Taymiyyah titled Majma‘ al-Fatawah shows how unlike his contemporary “followers,” Ibn Taymiyyah was very cautious in matters of takfir. In his book Majma‘ al-Fatawah (Volume 7, p. 617) Ibn Taymiyyah states that Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) always treated even the well-known munafiq ‘Abdullah ibn Ubayy as a Muslim. This does not mean that Ibn Taymiyyah did not hold questionable views, but basic research shows that the Ibn Taymiyyah portrayed by Saudi pseudo-scholars is not the real Ibn Taymiyyah.
Another major obstacle to Islamic unity today is the fact that Muslims are not studying the primary sources of the other side. Due to the fact that Sunni Muslims constitute the majority of the Ummah, most studies of controversial issues are always conducted through Sunni sources only. The same applies to Shi‘is, but to a lesser extent as Islamic educational institutions in al-Najaf and Qum use many Sunni sources in their curriculum. As Sunni centers of learning in Egypt, Spain and the Arabian Peninsula became subjugated to foreign powers, the Sunni side of the Ummah is currently lagging behind in this aspect. Hopefully, the ongoing Islamic Awakening in the Muslim East will at some point in the future lead to the restoration of Sunni centers of Islamic scholarship to their previous authentic scholarly status.
To achieve unity, a credible Islamic institution must bring together the Islamic leadership of the Ummah not tied to corrupt and illegitimate regimes and chart out a practical and specific unity program that does not ignore the differences and can be implemented in the daily lives of ordinary Muslims. For example, there is a preponderance of books highlighting differences between Sunni and Shi‘i schools of jurisprudence. Ask a reasonably informed Sunni or Shi‘i, he/she will immediately tell you the differences, yet both would struggle to name similarities on contentious issues.
Another underestimated platform of unity is the Jumu‘ah Salah. Sunni and Shi‘i ‘ulama must rotate and deliver Friday khutbahs in each other’s congregations and not shy away from respectfully addressing contentious topics in a scholarly manner. There are hundreds of other practical things both sides can do to eliminate sectarianism, but without an institutionalized framework, socio-political and financial backing these types of endeavors for unity will have limited impact as the opposition to this approach possesses vast state resources.
In 2003 American political scientist and Islamophobe Cheryl Benard wrote a paper for the Rand Corporation (updated in 2007) called Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources, and Strategies. Benard’s paper is a straightforward neo-colonization roadmap. She states that “to encourage positive change in the Islamic world toward greater democracy, modernity, and compatibility with the contemporary international world order, the United States and the West need to consider very carefully which elements, trends, and forces within Islam they intend to strengthen… support the modernists first, support the traditionalists against the fundamentalists, confront and oppose the fundamentalist and selectively support secularists.” From an imperialist perspective her proposal offers a sound model. Analyzing the policies of the US government and of its major strategic partners, it is evident that they have fully incorporated Benard’s proposal on how to divide and rule Muslim societies. The only way to stop this brutal neo-colonization project from succeeding is for Muslims to chart a practical unity framework that highlights similarities, implements proximity of schools of Islamic jurisprudence, and acknowledges and respects Islamically-legitimate differences.