Interview with Maulana Wahiduddin Khan on Intra-Muslim Sectarian Dialogue

Yoginder Sikand

Posted Aug 20, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Interview with Maulana Wahiduddin Khan on Intra-Muslim Sectarian Dialogue

by Yoginder Sikand

Based in New Delhi, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan is a noted Islamic scholar. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand, he talks about the urgent need to promote dialogue and ecumenism between the different Muslim sects.

Q: Although the Quran stresses Muslim unity, Muslims are divided into numerous sects, and some of them see the other sects as enemies. How do you account for this phenomenon of intense sectarianism and the fact that, unlike in the Christian case, there is really no Muslim ecumenical movement to bring the ulema of the different sects on a common platform for serious dialogue?

A: I think this has much to do with the lack of modern education among Muslims. As a result of the Renaissance in Europe, modern scientific thought had a major impact on religious thought there, although there was also fierce conflict between the Church and scientists. But the scientific spirit promoted tolerance in matters of religion, and because of this Christians, then largely based in Europe where the scientific revolution occurred, were also inclined towards more tolerance in matters of inter-sectarian relations. This had to do with the scientific revolution in Europe and not with Christianity as such.

The serious lack of modern education and the scientific spirit among large sections of the Muslim community gives space to professional clerics to exercise their influence by seeking to establish the veracity of their own sects by denouncing the other Muslim sects, instead of seeking to build bridges with them. Rather than reaching out to them, to seek to understand them or dialogue with them, their approach is to brand them at once as ‘enemies’, ‘infidels’ and as allegedly having strayed from the path of Islam. Maulvis of different sects hurl fatwas against the other sects, denouncing them in harsh terms.

However, I feel that it is only through serious and constructive dialogue that you can reach out to other groups. If you feel these groups may not be in accordance with your understanding of Islam, you must seek to dialogue with them. Denouncing them will only further promote conflict.

Q: Are you aware of any efforts being made today to promote inter-sectarian dialogue and unity among the ulema of the different Muslim sects?

A: Some efforts have been made in recent years in this regard. However, their approach has been basically that of seeking to end differences and thereby promote unity. This, however, can never work. On the other hand, Christians associated with the ecumenical movement tolerate intra-Christian differences but seek to promote unity despite these differences. They agree to disagree. But there is no such tradition among the Muslim ulema. They must understand that unity cannot be had by trying to destroy differences. We should learn to tolerate, not eliminate, differences and in that way the different sects can indeed come closer.

Q: What do you see as the minimum common basis on which intra-Muslim dialogue between the different sects can be promoted?

A: Unity should have a basis, and I think there are no differences among the ulema of the different sects on the basics of Islam, which can serve as the basis of dialogue. All recognized Muslim sects, Shias as well as Sunnis, as well as the various groups within these two larger categories, believe in Allah, the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad. This is the basis for their unity. The four major Sunni schools of jurisprudence and the main Shia school, the Jafari school of the Twelver Imami (Ithnashari) Shias, are all based on the Quran and Hadith, although they differ are on what I call ‘non-basic’ issues. There will always be this disagreement on the ‘non-basics’ so instead of trying to eliminate them, we should learn to accept them and despite these seek to build unity on the foundation provided by the ‘basics’.

Q: Does it follow from your argument that those who are engaged in promoting inter-sectarian rivalry take the ‘non-basic’ as the ‘basic’?

A: Exactly. Take, for instance, the case of the conflict between the Salafis and the Hanafis, both of who are Sunnis. Today, in India, many Salafis and Hanafis see themselves as rivals of each other. But their essential difference relates to a non-basic matter of some postures during prayer and whether to utter the word ameen loudly or silently. And then there are differences between them as to whether and how the opening verse of the Qur’an should be recited by a worshipper praying behind an imam. Now, these are trivial differences, but sectarian maulvis have sought to make a mountain of this molehill and brand sects who differ with them on such issues as deviant.

Many such differences and disputes have long historical roots that got back to the period when the classical compendia of Hadith, reports attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, began being put together. These reports number in the tens of thousands. On several issues these reports differ from each other. One reason for this was that the companions of the Prophet, who are said to have first narrated these reports, spent varying periods of time in his company. Consequently, they reported what they had personally experienced or seen. So, one companion said that he saw the Prophet uttering the word ameen loudly in the course of his prayers, while another companion said that he saw the Prophet uttering that word silently. Or, one said that he saw the Prophet placing his hands on his stomach while praying while another said he saw that he had placed them on his chest. This was because companions were with the Prophet on different occasions and their opinions are, therefore, equally valid.

These are differences on relatively minor or what are called in Arabic furui issues, but some present-day sects take them as major and use these to denounce other sects, who have different opinions on these issues, as ‘un-Islamic. This is really unfortunate and betrays an extreme form of intolerance which has no sanction in Islam.

Q: How did the classical Muslim scholars approach this issue of these minor differences in the Hadith reports?

A: Over time, two broad responses emerged to this question. One was that which was represented by experts in Hadith, the muhaddithun. The other was that which was articulated by specialists in Islamic jurisprudence or fiqh, the fuqaha. The first sought to reconcile these differences in a spirit of tolerance. This was in line with the Hadith report wherein the Prophet is said to have declared that his companions were like stars and that he who follows them would be guided. This represented an acceptance of diverse opinions, or what is called tawassa in Arabic, in what appear to be conflicting Hadith reports that are traced through different companions. This reflected an understanding that on these relatively minor issues diversity must be tolerated. There was no difference between the companions on major or ‘non-basic issues, or what is called in Islamic legal parlance, usuli issues. Even the Shias and the Sunnis are united on these basic issues, such as belief in one God, in the Quran, the Day of Judgment, prayer, the pilgrimage to Makkah and so on.

So, the position of the muhaddithun was like that of someone who enters a room and finds people sitting, and accepts that they are, in that position, engaged in the same act, although their sitting postures maybe different.

On the other hand, many fuqaha took a different approach. They argued that there is no division in truth, and that there can be only one true opinion on any matter attributed to the Prophet. So, they argued, in contrast to the muhaddithun, that either the report which says that the Prophet uttered the word ameen in prayer loudly is true or the other tradition that says he uttered it silently is true, and that both cannot be true and valid at the same time. But faced with conflicting Hadith reports that are traced back to different companions of the Prophet, they declared some reports to be true and others to be weak or false. It is like someone demanding that everyone present in a room sit exactly in the same posture.

This approach helped solidify sectarian differences, as each sect sought to claim that its own approach to the Hadith was right and that of the others was wrong. And in the process, some fuqaha sought to deny some Hadith just because the school of jurisprudence which they followed had different opinions on issues that these Hadith reports referred to. For instance, the noted Deobandi scholar Allama Anwar Shah Kashmiri argued that several Hadith reports in the collection known as Sahih Bukhari may not be fully authentic just because they differ from the Hanafi position on some matters. The hardcore Wahhabis adopt a similarly rigid position and condemn other schools of Islamic jurisprudence as deviant. This is a form of extremism or what is called ghulu in Arabic. There is a Hadith report that warns Muslims not to take to ghulu in matters of religion because earlier communities met with a dismal fate precisely because of this. Perhaps this is because extremism based on such trivial differences on non-basic issues leads inevitably to sectarian strife and conflict.

If we had followed the approach that the muhaddithun had advocated by accepting the legitimacy of diversity of opinions among Muslims on non-basic issues perhaps we would not have faced this problem. I think one way out of the sectarian mess is to adopt the approach of the muhaddithun. All Muslim sects agree on the basics of Islam, and on non-basic issues we should agree to disagree.

Q: Some ulema might argue that there is no point in seeking to bring the different Muslim sects closer. To justify this argument reference is often made to a Hadith report which claims that the Prophet declared that after his death his community would be divided into 73 sects, and that only one sect, called the firqa al-najiya in Arabic, would attain salvation. This sect would be that which follows the path of the Prophet and his companions. Each sect claims to be that one chosen firqa al-najiya, implying, thereby, that the other sects are by definition deviant or false. How do you look at this Hadith report and the way it is sometimes used to legitimize sectarian conflict?

A: This Hadith report is in the form of a prediction, not a commandment that Muslims must be divided into several sects. Now, there is a big fallacy that surrounds popular perceptions of this report, in that it does not actually talk about the firqa al-najiya. It does not refer to any particular chosen sect. What the Prophet was referring to here were individuals who follow his path and that of his companions, who he said would be saved. He was not referring to a particular sect. This obviously means that those who are saved could belong to different sects, provided they follow the Prophet and his companions. This is because, as the Quran says, God will decide the fate of people after their death based on their own actions as individuals. If we look at this Hadith in this way, it can be used as a means to promote inter-sectarian harmony, rather than to promote conflict, as it often is.

There is another point concerning this Hadith report that I want to talk about. This relates to what is meant when the Prophet says that those who follow his practice and that of his companions will be saved. Some people take this in a very narrow, literalist sense, and say that following the Prophet’s practice means insisting on using a tooth-stick, as the Prophet did, or to adopt Arab dress and so on. Actually, I think what is actually meant here is essentially the ethical and moral model of the Prophet and his companions.

Basic to this ethical model is the principle of tolerance in matters that are not basic to the faith but which do not at the same time impinge on the basics of the faith. This tolerance on non-basic issues among Muslims is reflected in the lives of the Prophet and his companions, and this is something that the different Muslim sects need to realize. Once a companion of the Prophet recited some words of praise to God aloud while in prayer in addition to those that are normally recited by Muslims in their prayers. The Prophet heard this but did not get angry. A similar instance is that of the response of the Caliph Umar to the question of reciting the taraweeh prayers during Ramadan, which the Prophet’s companions, including Hazrat Umar himself, did not recite. One day Hazrat Umar came to a mosque and found people saying the taraweeh prayer. He did not join them in this, but nor did he scold them. Instead, he remarked that this was a ‘good innovation’. The se two instances suggest that when the above-mentioned Hadith talks about the need for us to emulate the model of the Prophet and his companions, it also exhorts us to accept differences among the Muslim sects on non-basic issues. This is also the only way to promote inter-sectarian unity. 

Q: If such minor differences lie behind the genesis of the different Muslim sects, how did these sects become so solidified over time?

A: Minor differences over one small issue gradually lead to further differences, owing to a host of factors, including political motives and vested interests. Take the case of the Shia-Sunni divide. In its origins, it had nothing to do with any differences over the basics of Islam. It was entirely a political issue as to who should lead the Muslim community after the demise of the Prophet. Later, in order to justify these differences some religious beliefs and claims were developed so that the two political groups eventually emerged as two different sects. Later, within the broader Shia and Sunni fold new sects emerged, essentially over succession to the post of Imam in the case of the Shias or over being the rightful representative of the Prophet’s Sunnah, in the Sunni case, and religious doctrines were marshaled to justify these rival claims.

Q: In several madrasas students are taught to despise and counter other Muslim sects, based on the assumption that their own sect alone is true. This is also reflected in the polemical sectarian literature produced by numerous ulema associated with madrasas. How do you see this problem?

A: I think this has, in large measure, to do with the vested interests of some ulema who thrive on sectarian controversy in order to proclaim themselves as ‘representatives’ of Islam and Muslims. By condemning other sects they seek to prove that their sect alone is correct, that they alone have the Truth with a capital ‘T’. And it also has to do with a certain sort of inertia and hostility to change. Teachers in many madrasas have been taught, from the beginning of their careers, to teach such polemical, sectarian works, and so if you ask them to replace these by books that talk of inter-sectarian dialogue, they might well refuse, not just because they may not agree with the need for dialogue or because they might oppose acceptance of other sects but also because they are trained only in teaching a particular set of books and no other. And if they are forced to teach entirely new books they might find themselves unemployed.

Q: It is also argued that forces inimical to Muslims and Islam have also played a crucial role in promoting inter-sectarian strife among Muslims, such as, for instance, America’s consistent attempt to set Sunnis and Shias against each other in Iraq. What do you have to say about this?

A: Competition is part of God’s plan. There has always been and shall always be clash of interests and egos. People and nations want to dominate others. This is inevitable, given the freedom to choose between right and wrong that God has given us. Others may seek to divide you, but the point is that you should develop the capacity to prevent others from doing so. So, yes, the United States is seeking to inflame sectarian conflicts in Iraq, but we Muslims must learn how not to fall into this trap. We must learn to dialogue with and accept the various Muslim sects so that the efforts of others to divide us do not succeed. God says in the Holy Quran (3:120) that the conspiracies of others cannot cause any harm to those who are steadfast and do right, because God is aware of all that they do.

Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.