Shia-Sunni Dialogue: Maulana Kalbe Sadiq’s Theology of Islamic Ecumenism
Posted Jul 24, 2005

Shia-Sunni Dialogue: Maulana Kalbe Sadiq’s Theology of Islamic Ecumenism

Maulana Kalbe Sadiq is one of the leading Ithna Ashari Shia ‘ulama of India. He hails from a learned Shia family of Lucknow that has produced numerous scholars in the past. A distinguished ‘alim himself, he also holds a doctorate from the Aligarh Muslim University. He has played a seminal role in charting a new course for the ‘ulama in contemporary India by establishing schools imparting both modern as well as Islamic education for boys and girls. He is an outspoken advocate of Shia-Sunni unity as well as of Hindu-Muslim dialogue.

The crucial need to improve Shia-Sunni relations is one of the major focuses of Kalbe Sadiq’s writings and speeches. In contrast to many other Shia ‘ulama, Kalbe Sadiq uses the traditional institution of the majalis (sing. majlis), lectures held in the month of Muharram to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, to repeatedly stress the need for better relations between Shias and Sunnis. This is particularly the case of the numerous majalis that he has delivered in Pakistan, where Shia-Sunni violence has now assumed extreme forms. Often, his majalis are attended by both Shias as well as Sunnis. His lectures are not particularly Shia in any narrow confessional sense. He refers constantly to the Quran, and to those traditions attributed to the Prophet which both Shias and Sunnis accept, linking these to events of contemporary importance.

Several majalis delivered by Kalbe Sadiq at various locations in India, Pakistan and North America are available on the Internet, and this article is based on these. Kalbe Sadiq repeatedly stresses that the majalis have two basic purposes: to inform and to reform. In other words, the majalis are intended to impart knowledge about the true meaning of Islam as well as to reform people’s beliefs and practices accordingly. Kalbe Sadiq’s majalis generally deal with issues of contemporary concern, such as Shia-Sunni strife, Hindu-Muslim conflict, modern education and women’s rights. The majalis invariably begin with a verse from the Quran related to a particular issue, which is then elaborated upon, linking the verse with the issue at hand. This discussion forms the major section of the majlis. In contrast to the majalis of many other Shia ‘ulama, the narration of the sufferings of Imam Hussain and the family of the Prophet (ahl ul-bayt) form only a part of Kalbe Sadiq’s majalis, often taking up considerably less than half the total duration of the lecture.

Kalbe Sadiq’s case for Shia-Sunni unity, as expressed in his majalis, is based principally on arguments drawn from the Quran. He consciously avoids referring to theological differences between Shias and Sunnis groups, and, instead, repeatedly evokes the Quran to stress Muslim unity. In one majlis he claims that Shias and Sunnis ‘share 97 % of their beliefs in common’, and that it is these common beliefs that should be the basis of Muslim ecumenism. He argues that all those who believe in one God, the Prophet Muhammad and the Quran, and who share the same creed of confession of the faith (‘There is no God but God and Muhammad is the Prophet of God’) must be considered Muslims, irrespective of their other differences. He does not deny the differences between the Shias and Sunnis and between the different sects within each of these two major groups, but insists that these are relatively inconsequential. Hence, despite their differences, he says, they must identify themselves and each other simply as Muslims. He reminds his listeners that the terms ‘Sunni’, ‘Shia’, ‘Deobandi’, ‘Barelwi’, ‘Ahl-i Hadith’, names of various contemporary Muslim sects, are not mentioned in the Quran, where ‘true believers’ are identified simply as ‘Muslims’. Hence, he says, Muslims, irrespective of the sects they belong to, must consider themselves as Muslims alone.

The Quran’s repeated exhortations to the believers to remain firmly united are often invoked in Kalbe Sadiq’s majalis, particularly in reference to the issue of Shia-Sunni strife. Kalbe Sadiq quotes the Quran as declaring that causing disunity and strife among the Muslims is tantamount to the grave sin of shirk or associating partners with God. Shirk, he says, is even worse than disbelief (kufr) and is the only sin that God will not forgive. He explains this Quranic reference as suggesting that divisions within the community lead to Muslims following the lead of mere humans who claim to be the authoritative spokesmen of Islam, and who then assume the place of the Quran as a source of guidance. In other words, sectarianism causes the substitution of God by mortals, which is a form of shirk. Hence, he argues, leaders of different sects who brand other Muslims as kafirs are actually guilty of shirk, a far more heinous crime than kufr.

Kalbe Sadiq sees the problem of Shia-Sunni strife as essentially a political issue, and not a religious one. He insists that the vast majority of Shias and Sunnis actually regard each other as fellow Muslims and wish to live in peace together. On the other hand, he says, two ‘enemies’‘America’ and the ‘mullahs’have a vested interest in promoting Shia-Sunni hatred. He refers to Samuel Hungtington’s thesis of the clash of civilisations as claiming that Western hegemony is today faced with a major threat from Islam, and that the only way to neutralise it is to promote divisions and sectarian strife within the Muslim fold. Equally, if not more, culpable, he says is the role of what he derisively refers to as the ‘mullahs’. He makes a clear distinction between the ‘ulama, on the one hand, and the ‘mullahs’, on the other. The ‘true’ ‘ulama, he stresses, deserve the greatest respect, for they were firmly committed to Islam. On the other hand, he insists, the ‘mullahs’ are half-baked scholars who are ever ready to sell their conscience and faith for worldly triflings. Such ‘mullahs’, he says, have been present throughout the history of Islam, starting with the chief qazi or judge at the court of the tyrant Yazid, who is said to have passed, at Yazid’s request, a fatwa calling for the killing of Imam Hussain, in return for which he was richly rewarded.

Such unscrupulous ‘mullahs’, Kalbe Sadiq says, are found among all Muslim sects, both Sunni as well as Shia. They have a vested interest in branding all other Muslim groups as kafirs and promoting violence against them, for only in this way can they assert their own claims of being the ‘authentic’ spokesmen of Islam. The more shrill their rhetoric and the more violent their attacks on other Muslim groups the more support they are able to garner, which, in turn, translates into more power and pelf for themselves. They thrive on the ignorance of ordinary Muslims, for only by keeping them ignorant, both of the world as well as of true Islamic knowledge, can they survive. Knowledge (‘ilm), then, assumes for Kalbe Sadiq a particular urgency, especially, although not only, in order to promote Shia-Sunni unity. Thus, the Unity College that he runs in Lucknow has both Shia as well as Sunni students.

A central feature of Kalbe Sadiq’s discourse, including his case for Shia-Sunni unity, is the notion of adl or insaf (justice). He quotes the Quran as saying that God’s purpose in sending a succession of prophets, heavenly books and laws (shari’at) was simply one: to eliminate injustice (zulm) and ensure the rights of all creatures of God. The purpose of religion is not simply to instruct people to worship God, but, equally importantly, to inspire them to promote love and justice in society. Islam, he says, teaches that the ‘rights of God’s creatures’ (huquq ul-‘ibad) are as important as the ‘rights of God’ (huquq allah). He goes so far as to say that if one is confronted with the choice between the two, one should choose the former, for ‘creatures of God need to have their rights respected’, while God is in need of nothing. God will not forgive one’s sins, he says, if one violates the huquq ul-‘ibad. On the Day of Judgment, one’s prayers and ritual worship will not be of any help to a person who tramples on the rights of others.

As Kalbe Sadiq explains, the concept of huquq ul-‘ibad is a comprehensive one that takes into account the rights of all of God’s creatures, animate and well as inanimate. Even the earth has its rights that need to be respected. Misuse of the earth’s resources is also a sin. Likewise, animals, too, have their rights, and so do trees and plants. All human beings, irrespective of religion, also have their basic human rights to dignity, equality and freedom, and one cannot be a Muslim in God’s eyes unless one respects these rights as well. Kalbe Sadiq repeatedly stresses that Islam forbids the taking of the life of any innocent person, no matter what his or her religion. To do so is a zulm or tyranny. He quotes the Quran as saying that killing an innocent person is tantamount to slaying the whole of humanity. He points out that here the Quran does not qualify the statement to restrict it simply to Muslims alone. Rather, to kill any innocent person, irrespective of religion, is a grave sin. Hence, he argues, ‘mullahs’ who instigate their followers to kill innocent people belonging to other Muslim sects or to other religions are agents of the devil, and are flagrantly violating the commandments of the Quran.

Kalbe Sadiq often refers to the concept of jihad, but insists that it simply means a struggle for the cause of justice and in the path of God, which may take peaceful or violent forms depending on the context. He says that armed jihad can be waged only in self-defence, and must be directed only at people who actively persecute Muslims on account of their faith. Non-combatants, the old, the poor, women and children must not be touched, and their houses of worship must be treated as sacrosanct. He bitterly critiques self-styled Islamic groups, particularly in Pakistan, who have been involved in numerous attacks on places or worship, Shia, Sunni as well as other, and the killing of scores of worshippers and innocent people, insisting that their actions are in complete violation of Islam. This, he says, is no way to advance the cause of the faith, and has only succeeded in giving Islam a bad name.

Respecting the huquq ul-‘ibad, as Kalbe Sadiq sees it, is not a passive acceptance of the rights of others, and nor is it an individualistic affair. Rather, it is a task incumbent on all Muslims to actively struggle against injustice and to work for a socially just world where there shall be no poverty, illiteracy, hunger and want, and where all people, irrespective of sect, religion and ethnicity, will live in prosperity and harmony. A true Muslim must dedicate his life to working towards the establishment of such a society. The ideal society that the ‘Imam of the Age’, the twelfth Imam whom most Shias believe is presently in occultation, will usher in would be one where everyone is contented, and where peace and justice prevail. But, in the meanwhile, every Muslim must struggle for social justice for all. God, Kalbe Sadiq says, has taken an oath (ahad) from the true ‘ulama (sahih ‘ulama) that ‘they shall not rest for even a moment till they eliminate every injustice from the world’. It was that burning passion for justice, he says, that drove Imam Hussain with his small band of 72 devoted disciples to fight against the large army of the tyrant Yazid. Hussain’s martyrdom at the battle of Karbala, he says, signifies the divine imperative to constantly struggle against oppression and to fight for the rights of all creatures of God.

Both Shias and Sunnis revere Hussain, Kalbe Sadiq says, and both recount his martyrdom as the ultimate sacrifice for the cause of justice. Hussain, then, is a symbol that can unite Shias and Sunnis, despite their differences, and to help them to jointly struggle against oppression. Indeed, Kalbe Sadiq argues, the symbol of Hussain can be shared by people of other faiths as well, and he refers to numerous Hindus who also honour Hussain. He repeatedly stresses that Hussain’s ‘no’ to oppression must inspire Shias and Sunnis to firmly oppose the killing of innocent people, irrespective of religion, for this is a form of extreme oppression that Hussain spent his life struggling against. Shia-Sunni sectarian violence, he stresses, is a gross affront to the sacred memory of Hussain. If both Shias and Sunnis are sincere in their devotion to Hussain, he says, they must loudly denounce and act against those who spread sectarian strife.

Kalbe Sadiq’s elaboration of central Quranic principles and his presentation of key figures of Islamic history (most notably the Prophet, Imam Ali and Imam Hussain) thus provides a general framework for Shia-Sunni unity. He repeatedly stresses that his arguments are based on the Quran, for, he says, God has taken it upon Himself to preserve the Quran from corruption. By confining himself largely to the Quran, he is able to appeal to both Shias as well as Sunnis. He rarely refers to the corpus of Hadith, both Shia and Sunni, arguing that God has not promised to preserve it free of error, unlike in the case of the Quran. He notes that many ahadith attributed to the Prophet are actually later fabrications, often concocted to suit the interests of different contending groups. Likewise, he says, the rivayats or sayings attributed to early Islamic scholars, some of which might seem to promote sectarianism, are not fully reliable. Only those Hadith and rivayats maybe accepted, he says, that are in accordance with the Quran. The same care must be taken, he urges, with the Quranic commentaries of the classical scholars other than the twelve Imams, for, after all, they were mere mortals and were not ‘infallible’ (ma’sum). As the stock of human knowledge grows with time and as the wonders of creation are unfolded through modern science, he says, our own understanding of the Quran will develop, providing new meanings that were unavailable to past generations. This, he argues, is itself a sign of the divine nature of the Quran, in that it is able to provide guidance to suit the needs of different times. By thus developing a dynamic and context-sensitive reading of the Quran Kalbe Sadiq seeks to promote an exegesis that is relevant to our own age and can provide suitable guidance on issues of contemporary concern, including on the vexed issue of Shia-Sunni relations.

Kalbe Sadiq does not deny the existence of significant doctrinal differences between Shias and Sunnis, and nor does he renege on his own commitment to the Shia understanding of Islam, although he does appear to differ from many traditionalist Shia scholars on some points. He seems to suggest that all Muslim groups have the right to their own understandings of Islam, but insists that this must go along with ‘tolerance’ (tahhamul) of other views. He says that a ‘true ‘alim’ is one who, while committed to his own understanding, seeks to express it through peaceful dialogue and through scholarship, and not through violence directed against others or by issuing fatwas declaring other Muslim sects as infidels. That, he says, is the way of the ‘mullahs’. Because the ‘mullahs’ have deliberately built a wall between the different Muslim groups, he argues, Shias and Sunnis have grossly distorted ideas about each other. He appeals for the ‘ulama of different Muslim sects to interact with each other on a personal level, for only in this way can mutual misunderstandings be removed. Shia-Sunni dialogue must not remain limited to the level of the ‘ulama alone, however. Kalbe Sadiq goes so far as to argue that the present system of separate mosques for Shias and Sunnis, and, within the Sunnis, for the Deobandis, Barelwis and Ahl-i Hadith, must be done away with. All Muslims, he says, must worship together in common mosques. This will enable Muslims of different sects to interact with each other, which, in turn, will go a long way in clearing up their misconceptions and suspicions.

To his Pakistani listeners Kalbe Sadiq often upholds the Indian Muslim example as a model to emulate. He claims that, unlike in Pakistan, Shia-Sunni violence is virtually absent in India, although he does admit this has much to do with the fact that Muslims in India are a minority faced with the common threat of aggressively anti-Muslim Hindutva. He refers to his own close personal links with numerous Indian Sunni ‘ulama, and speaks of the honour in which he is held in Indian Sunni circles. This is no empty boast, for Kalbe Sadiq does enjoy considerable respect among Indian Sunni leaders, one indication of which is his having served as the vice-president of the Sunni-dominated All-India Muslim Personal Law Board for several years. If this can happen in India, he says, there is no reason why Shias and Sunnis cannot do the same in Pakistan or elsewhere for that matter.

Originally printed at, and reprinted at TAM with permission.