Islam enjoins unity among Muslims while allowing for differences of opinion. Such differences, unless expressed with the requisite civility, can easily lead to serious problems, even violent conflict as witnessed in places like Iraq, Pakistan and Syria.
For many Muslims and Islamic activists around the world, in so many different places and fields of work, the unity of the Ummah is a basic premise of everything we do. At the same time, differences of understanding, approach and methodology are inevitable in a global Ummah of more than 1.5 billion people, living in very different circumstances and confronting very different challenges in various places around the world. This diversity is often regarded as a strength of the movement, but there is always a risk that debate and differences of opinion become the basis for disunity and discord that can weaken the movement and play into the hands of our enemies.
Such internal problems, resulting in disunity where there should be unity, have become almost endemic in the Ummah today, most notably in terms of sectarian conflict between Muslim communities of different schools of thought. Such sectarianism takes many forms, from the murderous terrorism seen in Iraq, Pakistan and some other countries in recent years, to obvious biases in how Muslims around the world perceive political and other issues in places such as Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, for instance. By this I mean that those who automatically sympathise with one side or another in political issues in such places, based on their common following of some school of thought, rather than taking more balanced positions considering the political issues and realities on the ground, are as guilty of sectarianism as those who are more blatantly sectarian. And this is true even if the side they support happens to be in the right by other criteria; taking the correct position does not automatically legitimise the reasons for which that position is taken if those reasons are based on sectarian or similar considerations.
One thing that would help Muslims to see past such basic considerations would be an understanding of the Islamic movement as a historical phenomenon that operates on a timescale far longer than our own lives or those of our generation. Such a perspective enables us to see the Islamic movement as identical with the Ummah, with Muslims as part of a struggle to establish Islam on earth, however they may understand the process, from one of personal conduct to one of da‘wah, social reform or political transformation. With this understanding, we can see the numerous sectarian and other conflicts that blight the Ummah as internal problems that we must address together rather than allowing such conflicts themselves to be viewed as permanent defining and dividing lines within the movement.
Yet few Muslims are able to see either the Ummah or the Islamic movement in these terms. Although we pay lip service to the concept of unity, our effective understandings are more limited. We all tend to take partial views of the Islamic movement, views that we may characterise as “groupist,” in the same way that some Muslims overlay their faith in the unity of the Ummah with sectarian or nationalist attitudes. We have our own understanding of Islam and the Islamic movement, which we share with certain other Muslims, whom we may identify by our common school of thought, or our membership of or support for particular parts of the movement, such as Islamic Iran, the Jamaat-e Islami or Ikhwan al-Muslimeen. And then we make these understandings and perceived sub-sections of the Ummah into rigid and exclusive domains that we regard as the real Islamic movement, implicitly or explicitly dismissing others as misguided or worse. Such groupism is in fact as great a threat to the unity of the Ummah as sectarianism or nationalism.
One reason that we cannot, as an Ummah and a movement, rise above such limited perspectives, is that the Islamic movement lacks any common intellectual discourse, largely because of the absence of an institutional infrastructure to carry it. Instead, the movement consists of countless activists, groups and movements, operating separately and independently, and following different strategies, methods and movements according to their own particular perspectives and local conditions in their specific parts of the world. The movements currently consist, in other words, of numerous sub-systems, lacking any effective connecting framework. Such sub-systems take many forms, from individual movements of all sizes, to collections of movements linked by such factors as common outlooks, common histories, and common support for leaderships such as those offered by Islamic Iran or the Ikhwan. This is not the place to attempt a detailed analysis or typology of such sub-systems, except to say that they come is all forms and sizes, overlap and are in constant states of flux according to various changing factors, most notably the political vicissitudes of the times we live in.
One other point that can be made about these sub-systems is that all are full of writers, commentators, analysts and scholars producing ideas and writings, and putting them out for public consumption and consideration; but unfortunately most are reaching only limited audiences, and few are effectively engaging in any meaningful exchange of ideas with others in similar positions. The main reason for this is that the platforms on which such writings are published tend to be of limited perspective and reach; and the few that aspire to be something more usually fail because of the limitations of their resources, quality and management. What the Islamic movement lacks is an infrastructure for the circulation and exchange of ideas; and this absence is the greatest hindrance to the intellectual revolution that the movement needs to progress further from the situation established by the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which other movements have failed to emulate for various reasons.
The lack of an effective, movement-wide intellectual discourse through which scholars, thinkers, and activists can genuinely debate issues of every kind, focussing as much on what we have in common as on the things on which we differ, is one of the major obstacles to the emergence of a genuinely global Islamic movement. The establishment of such a discourse is an essential first step toward realising the unity of the Ummah and the Islamic movement that all Muslims instinctively recognise. Without it, affirmations of unity in theory, and appeals for unity in action, will remain little more than words in the wind.
This is a reprint of an opinion that was originally written by Iqbal Siddiqui in the Jan. 2012 issue of CI.