The massacre this week of hundreds of Shia mourners at Karbala, and the blasts at an Imambara in Quetta, Pakistan, resulting in the death of dozens of Shias on the day of Ashura, are gruesome reminders of the simmering sectarian conflict that has raged for centuries among Muslims, making a complete mockery of the rhetoric of Muslim unity. The much bandied-about slogan of Islamic brotherhood based on the notion of the pan-Islamic ummah falls flat in the face of continued Muslim sectarian rivalry.
Contrary to what Islamists, Muslim apologists as well as detractors of Islam would have us believe, the Muslims of the world are just about as fiercely divided as any other religious community. The Shia-Sunni dispute is only one, albeit the most prominent, division that has run through almost the entire history of Islam. In addition to the Shia-Sunni divide are the innumerable divisions that characterise the broadly defined Shia and Sunni communities.
Among the Shias, the main sectarian groups are the Ithna Asharis and the Ismailis. The latter have two main divisions, the Nizaris and the Mustailians. The Mustalians, in turn, are divided into the Daudis, the Sulaimanis, the Alavis and the Atba-i Malak.
Likewise, among the Sunnis, who form the majority of the Muslim population, there are several factions. In South Asia, the Sunnis are divided into what are popularly known as the Deobandis, the Barelwis, the Ahl-i Hadith and the followers of the cults of local Sufis who are not affiliated to any formal organisation. In addition to these are various Islamist groups.
Each of these many different Muslim groups claims to represent the single 'authentic' Islamic tradition, branding all others as having gone astray. Most of them insist that all other groups that claim to be Muslim are actually heretics, firmly outside the pale of Islam.
When faced with the reality of fierce intra-Muslim divisions, many Muslims are quick to explain this away as a hidden 'conspiracy' by the 'enemies of Islam' to destroy Islam and Muslim unity. While there can be no doubt of the fact that groups opposed to Islam have indeed taken advantage of intra-Muslim divisions, the argument of an externally-inspired 'conspiracy' cannot explain the origins of these divisions, and nor can it account for the continuing appeal of sectarianism among vast numbers of Muslims, particularly the 'ulama.
Even a cursory glance at early Muslim history reveals the existence and powerful influence of intra-Muslim sectarianism, starting soon after the death of the Prophet. No sooner had the Prophet left this world than Muslims began fighting among themselves. Lust for power and wealth was a determining factor behind most of these conflicts, which were then provided with suitable theological support.
Indeed, one could argue, sectarian divisions among the Muslims have had little to do with religion per se,
and at root represent conflicting claims for power and pelf. This is, however, not to deny the importance of
sectarian doctrinal developments in themselves, and the role that they have played in further instigating
According to a hadith (saying attributed to the Prophet), Muhammad had predicted that after his death the Muslim ummah would be divided into 73 mutually bickering sects. Of these only one would be destined to enter heaven, and all the rest would be punished with damnation in hell. When asked by his companions which this one saved sect (firqa al-najiyya) would be, the Prophet is said to have identified it as that group that abided by the Quran and his own practice (sunnah).
Now, each of the 73 or more sects that exist today asserts that it alone represents the 'authentic' Islamic
tradition, and that it alone abides by the Quran and the Prophetic practice. Every Muslim group claims to be
the one saved sect, and implicitly or directly argues that the other groups are, by definition, aberrant, not
really Muslim, and hence destined to doom in hell. This firm conviction of having a monopoly over religious
truth inculcates an unshakable self-righteousness that dismisses all other truth claims, whether of non-Muslim
religious communities or of other Muslim groups.
I am not in a position to pronounce on the legitimacy of the hadith that predicts the splintering of the ummah into 73 factions. Like many other hadith reports, it might well have been concocted after the Prophet's death and then attributed to him in order to legitimise the reality of intra-Muslim sectarianism. However, this report is not of merely academic value, for it continues to be frequently quoted in the writings of Muslim polemicists of different sects in order to stress their claims to representing the 'authentic' Islamic tradition. It is also continuously used to justify the preaching of hatred against other Muslim sects.
To illustrate the point, let me cite a recent instance. Some months ago I attended a massive Barelvi gathering in Bombay, where I listened to the impassioned speeches of numerous Barelwi 'ulama thundering against various other Muslim groups. Later, I asked a Barelwi scholar who was present on the occasion to tell me what he thought about the fiery diatribes of the 'ulama against other Muslim sects. Especially at a time when Muslims in India are being hounded by Hindutva fanatics, was it right, I asked him, for the 'ulama to promote intra-Muslim strife? Was it not important for the 'ulama to help promote Muslim unity instead?
The 'alim turned to me, and answered without batting an eyelid, 'The Prophet had predicted more than 1400 years ago that the Muslims would be divided into 73 sects, all but one of which would go to hell. Now, if we try and promote unity between the sects that would be going against the saying of the Prophet himself. And that would be a very grave crime indeed!'
I was, of course, aghast at the reply, but I chose to let the 'alim go on with his ranting.
Let me cite another instance. Last year I met an 'alim who teaches at a madrasa affiliated to the Ahl-i Hadith, a sect known for its strict literalism and hostility towards all other Muslim groups. This 'alim is considered to be a great champion of the cause of the Ahl-i Hadith, his principal achievement being having penned numerous tracts to prove that the Deobandis, the Barelwis and the Jama'at-i Islami, all fellow Sunni groups, have allegedly strayed from the path of 'true' Islam, and hence, for all practical purposes, are not Muslim at all.
I put the same question to him, asking him why, particularly at a time when Muslims in India are faced with
such odds, he was making matters even more difficult for them by fanning intra-Muslim conflict. He handed me a
bunch of his pamphlets and said, 'Read them and you will know why I am doing this'. 'Islam says that our sole
purpose must pronounce the truth (haq baat), no matter what the cost', he argued. 'And the truth is what I
have written in these books about the other groups that call themselves Muslims. They have actually wilfully
or otherwise distorted Islam and are far from the path of the Prophet.' 'We have to speak out against them, no
matter what the consequences. The truth must be clearly distinguished from error', he firmly announced.
As I see it, much of the responsibility for fanning intra-Muslim sectarian strife rests with the traditional 'ulama of the madrasas. Unlike Christianity, Islam has no place for an official priesthood that can lay down the official doctrine. In principle, in Islam there are no intermediaries between man and God, the relation being direct and unmediated. While this makes religious leadership in Islam more democratic in theory, it also means that the 'ulama of different Muslim groups are free to stake their own competing claims to represent 'true' Islam, branding other Muslim groups as deviant. This fuels intra-Muslim disputes that can often take a violent turn.
It also means that the 'ulama of the different sects can easily use the absence of a central religious
authority that lays down the official doctrine in order to promote sectarian rivalry to advance their own
vested interests. By dismissing other Muslim sects as aberrant they put forward their own claims of being the
authorities of the sole 'authentic' Islam tradition.
As centres for the training of would-be 'ulama, the traditional madrasas have emerged as the major bastions of narrow sectarianism. Each madrasa is affiliated to a particular sect or school of thought. One of the principal aims of the madrasa is to promote the version of Islam of the particular sect it is associated with, and to dismiss other, competing versions as aberrant. Hence, most madrasas include in their syllabus what they call ikhtilafiyat or the dismissal of other Muslim groups as deviant. Much of the focus of the fatwas and the literature that the 'ulama of the different sects produce is also geared to branding other Muslim groups as virtually 'un-Islamic'.
In this way, the 'enemy' within comes to be seen as even more menacing than the 'enemy' without. The internal 'enemy' appears as constantly on the prowl to lead the followers of the sole 'true' sect astray. Some years ago, I met a student at a madrasa in Uttar Pradesh. He engaged me in a heated debate, seeking to prove that the beliefs of his own sect were true, angrily dismissing other Muslim groups as infidels. He insisted that his mission in life was to 'serve the cause of Islam, by warning Muslims against the enemies of the faith'. I asked him who he thought the 'enemies of Islam' were. I presumed he would identify them as Hindutva fanatics or Zionists or American imperialists, but I was mistaken.
'Yes, these non-Muslims are enemies, I agree', he said, 'but they are not our most dangerous foes'. I asked him to clarify his cryptic reply. He went on to explain: 'Muslims know that these people are non-Muslims, and, therefore, by definition, are enemies of Islam, so there is no need to preach against them'. 'However', he hastened to add, ' what Muslims don't know is that other groups that call themselves Muslims are not really Muslim at all'. He rattled off the names of various Muslim sects, both Shia and Sunni.
'They are wolves in sheep's clothing', he angrily declaimed. 'They take the name of Islam simply to mislead
the Muslims and cause them to stray from the faith'. 'They are even worse than the non-Muslims', he added.
'Non-Muslims oppose Islam because they are ignorant about it, but these people, while they know the Quran and
the Hadith, deliberately distort Islam and do the work of the devil'.
I listened in silence to this impassioned diatribe, but the student's remarks hardly surprised me. I had been through the madrasa's curriculum, and had noted numerous texts taught to the students that were geared specifically to the refutation (radd) of various other Muslim groups, declaring them to be clearly outside the Muslim fold.
The institutions of the 'ulama and the madrasa as they have come to be developed, then, appear to be heavily invested in promoting sectarian divisions. This explains why many 'ulama been so averse to any moves to promote intra-Muslim dialogue at the doctrinal level. To my mind, there have been no serious attempts, in India at least, to bring the 'ulama of different sects together to sort out their doctrinal differences.
True, groups like the Muslim Personal Law Board and the Milli Council do have representatives of different Muslim sects, but while seeking to promote common Muslim interests, they have consciously stayed away from addressing the theological dimensions of the sectarian problem. While they do issue statements from time to time decrying sectarian strife and calling for Muslim unity, they have not sought to seriously engage with the fundamental question of theological differences that underlie sectarian divisions.
At the global level, while several 'ulama have played an important role in engaging in inter-religious
dialogue, particularly with Christian theologians, few have been seriously concerned with promoting dialogue
at the theological, as opposed to the political, level between the different Muslim sects.
There is simply no Islamic counterpart of the Christian ecumenical movement that in recent years has made bold moves to promote understanding and cooperation among different Christian groups. Moves to promote Muslim unity often take the form of appeals for Muslims to come together to present a common front against those who are branded as 'enemies of Islam', and who are accused of fanning intra-Muslim differences to serve their own purposes.
Such negative appeals, while having powerful emotional value, do little to overcome internal Muslim
differences in the long run. The sense of unity that the image of a common 'enemy' is calculated to promote is
necessarily short-lived, for such a unity lacks solid foundations based on positive principles. As the
Pakistani case so well illustrates, once the external 'enemy' (in this case the 'Hindus') is overcome, 'enemy'
within once again emerges as a powerful vehicle for mobilisation of religious sentiments.
Muslims would do well to consider the example of the Christian ecumenical movement. Christian theologians active in the movement remain committed to their own different interpretations of their faith. And yet that has not deterred them from reaching out in a spirit of positive appreciation to other Christian groups who have traditionally been considered their rivals. It is not the fear or hatred of a religious 'other' that drives them to promote Christian unity.
Rather, it is a spirit of openness and love and commitment to their common (although divergently understood) faith that impels many involved in the ecumenical movement. Considering the way the 'ulama function, however, one fears that many more Karbalas and Quettas will happen before they finally wake up to seriously confront the issue of intra-Muslim strife and the urgent need for Muslim ecumenism. In the meantime, however, the world might well have left them far behind.
Yoginder Sikand is the author of Sacred Spaces: Exploring Traditions of Shared Faith in India and Inter-Religious Dialogue and Liberation Theology: Interviews with Indian Theologians and Activists