Sectarian Strife in the “House of Islam”

Sectarian Strife in the ?House of Islam?

Yoginder Sikand


Yesterday?s blast in a saint?s shrine in Pakistan, suspected to be the handiwork of Sunni extremists, exacted a toll of over twenty-five innocent victims. This incident is the latest in a series of sectarian attacks in Pakistan that have caused the deaths of thousands of people in recent years. The continuing conflicts between Shias and Sunnis and among different groups within the broader Sunni fold, not just in Pakistan but elsewhere too, itself is ample evidence of the fact that the notion of the pan-Islamic ummah, so central to the discourse of both Islamist ideologues and their Islamophobic opponents is just that?a fictional notion that has little or no bearing in the face of deep-rooted sectarian rivalries.


The ?House of Islam?, or dar ul-islam, as it exists today, is a house divided against itself. Although the Qur?an lays particular stress on the unity and brotherhood of all Muslims, in actual fact Muslims are fiercely divided among themselves on sectarian lines. Sectarian divisions had their origins in the early Islamic period itself and, instead of mellowing down, only seem to have further solidified with time. This is in striking contrast to the Christian, Hindu and Buddhist case. While Protestants and Catholics slaughtered each other in their thousands some centuries ago, today, barring in Ireland, such conflicts are unheard of. Shaivite and Vaishnavite Hindus once regularly waged fierce battles with each other but today these conflicts are buried in the pages of history books. Sectarian strife never took bloody forms among the tolerant, non-violent Buddhists, who devised more gentle methods of coming to terms with their differences. It is only among the Muslims that sectarian conflicts continue to be a contemporary reality. Such conflicts do not always take violent forms, most often being limited simply to promoting a sense of sectarian identity that is predicated on a fierce hostility towards rival sects. On occasion, however, these conflicts express themselves in the form of violent attacks, in which, inevitably, most of the victims are perfectly innocent people.


In many cases, intra-Muslim sectarian conflicts have little to do with religion as such, and are more related to social, economic and political factors. Yet, even in these cases, the fact that religion is able to be so easily marshalled to fuel conflicts calls for an explanation. The reason probably lies in the way in which most traditionalist ?ulama and Islamist ideologues understand their religion. As they see it, Islam alone is God?s ?chosen? religion and the only way to salvation. All other paths, they insist, are ?deviant? or even ?Satanic?. Consequently, their own sectarian understanding of Islam is upheld and championed as the single way to win God?s pleasure. Other religions and alternate interpretations of Islam are, consequently, seen as ?aberrant?, to be combated, preferably through peaceful persuasion, but if that fails, through violent compulsion or even terror, if the occasion demands. Further strengthening this proclivity to use violence to promote sectarian agendas is the absence of a single Church in Islam, unlike the Catholic case, that can lay down doctrinal orthodoxy. This allows the ?ulama of rival sects to assert their own claims to representing ?true? Islam as against their rivals. Shoring up sectarian identities in this battle over normative Islam necessarily entails branding rival Muslim sects as not really Muslim at all, as hidden ?enemies? of the faith.

Large sections of the ?ulama, in particular, have a vested interest in promoting sectarian rivalry. By fiercely condemning other Muslim groups as ?deviant? they are able to present themselves as the spokesmen of ?authentic? Islam, earning them the power, authority and worldly privileges that are associated with such a position. Sectarianism is deeply ingrained in the theological training that the ?ulama receive in their madrasas. Almost every madrasa is associated with one of the many different maslaks or Muslim sects, there being hardly any that are without such a sectarian affiliation. Several madrasas carefully train their students to combat rival sects, going so far as to brand them as ?anti-Islamic?. Numerous ?ulama, touted in their sectarian circles as ?Defenders of Islam?, have issued fatwas declaring other Muslim groups as outside the fold of Islam. Islamic bookshops, generally run on sectarian lines, stock voluminous tomes by ?ulama spewing venom against Muslims of rival faiths.



In order to substantiate my argument about the primacy of the ?ulama in sustaining sectarian rivalries let me discuss a booklet that I recently laid my hands on. Titled ?Relation with Heretics?, it is an English translation of an Urdu book titled ?Badmazhabon Se Rishta?. Penned by a certain Mufti Jalaluddin Ahmad Azmi, it has been published by the Delhi-based Kutub Khana Amjadia, an Islamic publishing house associated with the Barelvi sect.


The book describes the author in glowing terms, bestowing on him the pompous title of ?Faqih-i Millat? or the ?Jurisprudent of the [Muslim] Community?. His, the book says, ?is a name to be proud of?. Born in 1933 in a village in Uttar Pradesh, Mufti Jalaluddin received his theological training at a leading Barelvi school, the Madrasa Islamia Shams ul-?Ulum, Nagpur. He was one of the closest disciples of the leading Indian Barelvi scholar, the late Arshad ul Qadri, among whose various ?achievements? was his penning of numerous fierce diatribes against rival Muslim sects such as the Deobandis, the Wahhabis and the Shias. He also studied under Mustafa Raza Khan Barelvi (whom the book anoints with the title of ?Mufti-e Hind? or the ?Mufti of India?), son of the pioneer of the Barelvi sect, Ahmad Khan Barelvi. He later taught at several Barelvi madrasas in India and founded one himself?the Dar ul-?Ulum Amjadia Arshad ul-?Ulum, at Ojha Ganj in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Here he also established a centre for training muftis to deliver fatwas. He is said to have continued delivering fatwas for a period of over thirty years till his death in 2001.


The Mufti was, the book says, a staunch defender of the Barelvi sect. The Barelvis claim that they alone represent the authentic Sunni tradition, and that all other Muslim groups, Sunnis as well as Shias, are actually not Muslims at all. The leading scholar of the Barelvi sect, Ahmad Raza Khan, issued numerous fatwas branding various other Muslim sects as infidels, and, as a devoted disciple, the Mufti followed closely in his footsteps, as the contents of this booklet amply illustrate.


The central argument of the booklet is that Barelvis (whom the Mufti addresses simply as ?Sunnis?, dismissing the other Sunni groups? claims to the Sunni tradition as false) should have no social relations with other Muslims on account of the ?deviant? religious beliefs of the latter. These Muslim groups, he insists, are not Muslim at all. He reserves the choicest abuses for them: ?adversaries?, ?heretics?, ?apostates? and even ?enemies of the exalted prophets?. To have social relations with such people, he says, would inevitably lead to a weakening of the faith of the ?true? Muslims so much so that they would ?become in behaviour rude and impudent to Allah, to the Prophet and to venerable religious persons?.


The Mufti sees the world in stark Manichaean terms. Humanity, he tells us is divided into two groups: ?Muslims? and ?Infidels?. The former consists of ?true? Sunnis, that is those who follow the creed associated with the Barelvi tradition. The latter comprises all others, including those who claim to be Muslims but are, in the Mufti?s considered opinion, are non-Muslims for all practical purposes. These ?Muslims?, he says, are actually ?pretender apostates?, who recite the Islamic creed of confession and offer prayer in the Islamic manner. Because they ?pretend? to be Muslims, he says, they are ?the most mischievous and dangerous?, preaching ?blasphemy in the guise of Islam? and ?abus[ing]? God and the Prophet Muhammad. ?They are dogs of people belonging to inderno [sic.]?, he declaims. Resembling ?true? Muslims outwardly, they are able to ?deceive? the pious and cause them to weaken their faith in Islam and even to rebel against God?s Will, which the Mufti identifies with his own Barelvi interpretation of Islam. 


?Pious? Muslims, the Mufti insists, must have nothing but hatred in their hearts for such ?apostates? and ?heretics?. He backs up his case with selective quotations from the corpus of Hadith, statements attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. For the interest of the reader I am quoting these statements as they appear in the booklet:


?When you come across a heretic, treat him peevishly because Allah Ta?ala holds every heretic hostile?.
? The heretic gets out of the fold of Islam just as the hair is pulled out of kneaded flour?.
? The heretics are the dogs of those whose abode is hell?.
?Whoso [sic.] respected heretic [sic.], he actually helped in demolishing Islam?.


?Heretics? who claim to be Muslims must be treated with scorn and disdain, the Mufti announces. To respect a heretic, he argues, is to ?disrespect and belittle? the sunnah, the prophetic tradition, because the Prophet himself has laid down that heretics deserve no respect. They do not deserve even civic courtesy, the Mufti insists. ?It is not correct to treat them politely?, he writes, ?because Allah Ta?ala hold [sic.] them hostile and does not accord acceptance to any prayer offered by them?. ?Belittling the sunnah? by acting contrary to the Prophet?s advice and befriending ?heretics?, he insists, ?leads to overthrowing the foundations of Islam?.  Hence, no mercy should be shown to the ?heretics? at all. In support of his argument the Mufti quotes a hadith in which the Prophet Muhammad is said to have ordered: ?If they [the heretics] fall ill, don?t visit them to enquire about their health. If they die, don?t attend their funeral?Don?t salute them. Don?t sit with them. Don?t drink water with them. Don?t take meals with them. Don?t marry with them?Don?t offer prayers along with them?.


In his hate-filled invective against his sectarian rivals the Mufti goes so far as to advise the Barelvi faithful to institute what he calls an ?all-out Islamic boycott? against all ?Muslims? other than the Barelvis, because they are not really Muslims at all, or so he claims. They must be treated ?harshly?, he says, adding that this is an ?excellently [sic.] justified method of treatment? because God and the Prophet have commanded ?true? Muslims to deal with ?infidels? in this way. ?This order was given to the holy Prophet, peace be upon him, who is the embodiment of excellent manners?, the Mufti announces. ?From this?, he adds, ?it is evident that treating infidels harshly comes under excellent manners?. Being ?enemies of Allah?, they should, the Mufti pronounces, ?be kept away like dogs?. Inter-marriage and inter-dining with them is resolutely forbidden, as is praying along with them in the same mosques. So, too, are even the most basic courtesies. To befriend them or even to have affection for them, the Mufti declares, leads to ?enmity? towards God and the Prophet Muhammad and inevitably to ?infidelity?, so contagious and enticing is their spiritual pollution. If ?true? Muslims were to adopt any other course they would, he warns, be consigned to Hell and would be ?the butt of the course of Allah Ta?ala, the angels and all other people?.


To bolster his appeal to his fellow Barelvis to consciously cultivate hatred in their hearts for ?heretics? if they wish to save themselves from Hell-fire, the Mufti quotes the medieval Sunni scholar Jalaluddin Suyuti, who is said to have written about a certain man, presumably a Sunni, who used to frequent the company of Shias. Because of this ?crime? he was unable to recite the creed of confession (kalmia tayyiba) on his death-bed, which would have assured him of entry into heaven. The message, therefore, is that if they want to enter paradise, the Barelvi faithful should have not even the most basic social relations with non-Barelvi ?hereical? groups. This is because non-Barelvis, by definition, are said to be ?enemies? of Islam, and of Allah and His Prophet The Mufti provides a list of such ?heretical? sects that, while claiming to be Muslim, are what he calls ?infidels? and ?apostates?. These comprise a large section of the Muslim community, and include the following: the Ahl-i Quran(who believe only in the Qur?an and not in the Hadith), the Ahmadis (who believe in Mirza Ghulam Muhammad as a prophet succeeding the Prophet Muhammad), the Shias (who criticise certain companions of the Prophet whom the Sunnis revere), the Deobandis (who are accused by the Mufti of denying the finality of the prophethood of Muhammad,  and his knowledge of the Unseen), the Wahhabis or Ahl-i Hadith (who deny Sufism and the need to follow one of the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence), and the Jama?at-i Islami (whose founder, Abul ?Ala Maududi, is alleged by the Mufti of having insulting the prophets, their companions and revered Sunni leaders). Collectively, these groups are condemned for allegedly ?insulting? the Prophet Muhammad, and hence are branded by the Mufti as ?the biggest mischief-mongers?.


Accusing these groups of ?apostasy?, the Mufti pronounces his sentence on them. Ideally, he says, an ?Islamic ruler? must sentence them all to death, and must refuse to ?accede to their repentance [sic.] and intention to return to the fold of Islam, because of the severity of their crime: their alleged insult to the Prophet Muhammad. That, however, Mufti laments is not possible in India today. Hence, he exhorts the Barelvi faithful, they should turn to the best alternative: to institute a complete ?religious boycott? of such people.


The Mufti?s is not a lone voice in the wilderness, and nor are the Barelvi mullahs the only ones that preach such hate-filled poison. Similar diatribes against rival sects have been and continue to be penned and preached by mullahs belonging to other sects as well. The central role of the mullah in fomenting sectarian strife is, therefore, undeniable. Yet, when confronted with the undeniable reality of sectarian rivalries within the ?House of Islam?, self-righteous Muslim apologists generally place the blame on non-Muslim ?enemies??variously described as Christian Crusaders, Jewish Zionists and crafty Brahmins. Islam, they claim, has, from early times onwards, been the victim of hidden ?conspiracies? by its enemies to destroy it. These ?enemies? of Islam, being non-Muslims, are, by definition, seen as ?enemies? of God as well. Accused of being virulently opposed to God, their major mission in life is, it is alleged, to conspire against God?s ?chosen? religion. This explains, so Muslim apologists claim, the emergence of numerous sects and the continuing sectarian rivalries among Muslims. It is as if non-Muslims would like nothing more than have Muslims killing themselves and thereby blotting out Islam from off the face of the earth.


In this explanation of Muslim sectarian strife the central role of the ?ulama is conveniently ignored. While cannot deny the fact that certain non-Muslim powers have indeed played on Muslim differences to pursue their own goals, to claim that intra-Muslim strife is entirely their handiwork is, obviously, ridiculous. By providing a misleading prognosis of the disease, Muslim apologists only prolong the sectarian cancer. It is only when the primary role of significant sections of the ?ulama in promoting sectarian strife is recognised and when more inclusive and accommodative ways of dealing with difference are devised that the sectarian menace bedevilling the ?House of Islam? can be effectively countered.