Challenging our sectarianised histories
The blight of sectarianism has its roots in a chauvinism that has permeated our understandings of Islamic history. Eradicating it requires us to challenge these received histories and the language in which they are presented, argues Muhammad al-Asi
Dear committed Muslims, brothers and sisters. As you all know, I’m sure you who are here and most of you who tune in, some of you might not know but there’s about 50 other individuals who tune in on a daily basis after this Jum’a. So, in the course of the week, there are about 300-400 other individuals who listen to this khutba. Some of them are listening because they are sincere. Some of them are listening because they are troublemakers but especially you who are out here, you understand what is taking place in the real world around us. We have exerted our mental and our physical capacity in trying to expose the stratagem, the master plan of these shayateen, and towards that end we will continue with Allah’s help and with his guidance.
We mentioned earlier, many times, that ‘asabiyya, this self-centeredness, whether it’s a tribal self-centeredness is or whether it is a nationalistic self-centeredness or whether it’s a racist, self-centeredness… comes in many forms. Whatever it is, it is an enemy to the committed Muslims because it plays itself out in warfare, just like we are seeing in today’s real world.
These khutbas, you can place them in the context of the killings that are going on; explosions, pass-by shootings, throwing hand grenades, opening fire randomly in certain areas just because they belong to Sunnis or Shias or whatever, all of this is meant to resuscitate this ‘asabiyya that we have been exposing so that at least we don’t fall prey to their plans. So we’re going back to the formative years, the years that are cited by today’s ‘asabiyya people. That’s what they cite. They go back and they say, this is what Imam Ali did or said and this is what Muawiya did or said and that’s what Ayesha did or said. So they go back there to try to fuel their own social egos, in other words for ‘asabiyya.
So this has been in the course of these Jum’as with the Taqwa of Allah, our number one concern. We’re not here to play politics. Some of these masajid, they want to play politics. Some of these masajid, they just want numbers. Some of these masajid, they are just status quo, live and let live. Some of these masajid are the mercenary types and it goes on and on. We thank Allah we don’t fall into that category and I think we attest to the fact that just by being here that we have broken loose from these ‘asabiyyat we are here, Sunnis and Shias, we are here, black and white. We are here, males and females. We are here, rich and poor, in any which way you want to look at it we’ve broken through these ‘asabiyya barriers.
Now …. the major ‘asabiyya in this country, is the racist ‘asabiyya. That’s the major one. The sectarian ‘asabiyya is a newcomer and it’s not as prevalent as the racist ‘asabiyyat here. So we’re going to go back and deconstruct this sectarian ‘asabiyya. We’re going, we’ve been, and we have continued to be in the process of deconstructing it. Most agree, most Muslims agree and other objective thinkers agree, that much of today’s sectarian polarization, the sectarian misunderstandings can be traced to the time when Muawiya (at that time he wasn’t king) was a governor in As-Sham.
Muawiya spread the notion that he and his clan and those who agreed with him were the only ones who qualified to address the assassination of Uthman. They were seeking revenge for the assassination of Uthman, outside of law and order; they’re supposed to be the law and they’re supposed to be the leaders. They’re supposed to be a type of authority. They’re supposed to be an organized civic society as today’s words would have it. But he (Muawiya) broke with all of that. If all the Muslims had given (and this is what happened), all the Muslims gave bay’a to Imam Ali, why didn’t this person in that context agree with all the rest of the Muslims and place this responsibility in the hands of the central government in Al-Medina? He didn’t do that. Had he done that, we probably would not have been struggling with the history that we have, but that’s what happened. This is a fact. We’re stating something that actually happened.
So he forced Imam Ali to take the position of bringing into the context of law and order this breakaway Muawiya. Muawiya, he was the one who broke from Al-Jama’a. There are some either ignorant or some mercenary Sunnis who give the impression later on and it lives up until today that Shias broke away from Al-Jama’a. This is absolutely wrong. It was Muawiyah who broke away from Al-Jama’a. He broke away from the Imama, the leadership of Ali-bin-Abi Talib, and thus he broke away from the rest of the Muslims’ bay’a to Imam Ali. He took this province of As-Sham, the Levant, he took it under his firm control and from there he began to say that he was the one who was going to level off this issue of the killing of Uthman.
So we had two right opposite positions. I don’t care how you look at this or how you read it or how you explain it, this overall history belongs to all of us. It’s very unfortunate that in today’s world we have those who are the majority Muslims who have inherited the description of Sunnis. They don’t even know what it means….When I say they don’t know what it means, what I mean by that is they don’t know what it means in the political context. Of course, any Sunni would know what it means to be a Sunni as far as offering his prayers, his rituals, et cetera, et cetera. When it comes to this political context that we are trying to throw light on, they don’t know what it means. If they did know what it means, they would not be today fuelling their own ‘asabiyya by saying that the Shias, they are a breakaway sect from Islam. If we understood our own history, no one would say that, but that’s the mainstream information about this subject. So as these positions hardened, it was that al-Jamal, as-Siffeen and an-Nahrawan, the three major political, military battles that took place. As these positions hardened, there are some people, they might be in the right camp or they may be in the wrong camp, but in themselves, they’re sincere….So there’s a person who comes up, the person’s name is Shab’ath bin Rabi’. He comes up to Imam Ali, when he sees that this is becoming a very serious military division, it’s going to have the potential of splitting the Muslims probably forever. It’s a life and death issue. He comes up to him and he says, “Ya Amir al Mumineen”, those words, all Muslims know, “Ya Amir al Mumineen, would you not win over Muawiya by giving him some type of authority and also give him some type of status so that he can be, he can appreciate what you do to him for him?” I mean raise the person, give them some status; he’s already the governor of As-Sham. Okay? Everyone knows that, but right now he is in a renegade position. This person is saying to Imam Ali, try to contain this guy. Give him something, add a little more to what he has and have everyone know that you here are not in a position to fight him, but you’re in a position to contain him. Of course, Imam Ali knew Muawiya much better than this (maybe) person of goodwill. He knew him better than that, so decided he need not give him anything.
Once again, once again, what is at work here is ‘asabiyya. They had this ‘asabiyya, and from there this ‘asabiyya, right now has transformed itself into a political party, which has nothing to do with the words that we use nowadays. People exchange these words, Sunnis and Shias, what we’re looking at here has nothing to do with today’s average person’s understanding of those calling themselves Sunnis and those calling themselves Shias. So Imam Ali addresses this ‘asabiyya. Now before I quote Imam Ali, let me remind some of you of the ‘asabiyya that’s mentioned in the Qur’an. The children of Prophet Ya’qub (upon whom be peace), … Ya’qub had 10 or 12 or so many children.
They expressed ‘asabiyya, Yaqub’s children, children of a prophet, they expressed ‘asabiyya. The reason they could not get along with their brother, Yusuf; this is their brother, the reason they couldn’t get along with him and his brother is because of ‘asabiyya. They said to him, “We see that our father is inclined more towards our brother Yusuf and in his inclination to our brother Yusuf he’s like side-lining us being that we are an ‘usba among ourselves, put together, we are the members of an ‘asabiyya. From there on they are called Bani Isra’eel because of their ‘asabiyya. They become the Israelis and today they have explained their racist, discriminatory, militarist, murderous nation state on the basis of this ‘asabiyya and then they said “certainly our father (Ya’qub) he is in a manifest obscurity.”
The Prophet (pbuh), when this ‘asabiyya presented itself during his time, he said “part with it because it has a foul odour to it.” Now we come to Imam Ali, what did he say about this ‘asabiyya that is now roaring. The ‘asabiyya before was sort of managed in a concealed manner; oh, it’s in a family, it’s in the family of Ya’qub. There was no propaganda to it. The ‘asabiyya that was about to break out in the time of Allah’s prophet in Medina between the Muhajireen and the Ansar…w as smothered because of the Prophet’s strict wording. Now this ‘asabiyya has taken on a military proportion. It has the thunder and the roar of the military. So Imam Ali said the following in this context: “extinguish what has been concealed in your hearts of the combustion of ‘asabiyya and put out the bad feelings of Jahiliyya. (because this ‘asabiyya could be traced all the way to the pre-Islamic times) for this fire in the belly, when it happens within a Muslim, it is because of the influence of as-Shaytaan. It’s because of the influence of as-Shaytaan.”
Now you can read this ‘asabiyya in history. I’m giving you the historical context, but you can also read it today, in today’s world, …you go to a certain masjid and you begin to sense there’s a sectarian ‘asabiyya in this masjid, or you begin to sense that there’s a racist ‘asabiyya in this masjid or you begin to sense there’s a nationalist ‘asabiyya in that masjid. It’s all ‘asabiyya.
‘Asabiyya was so pronounced that when Islam was there in the time that we are speaking about, remember this is the first century of Islam, during that time, there were tribes, one tribe that was split. Some of that tribe was with the Umawis and some of that tribe was with the Alawis. One tribe, and you can put together a bunch of these tribes and you’ll find some of them on this side and some of them on the other side. We’re taking right now a statement from a particular person who expressed the way he felt about this. He saw he was on one side with some of his tribe fighting against some of his tribe who belonged to the opposite side. They’re fighting, this is a war. He comes from the tribe of Azd and that Azdi tribe, part of it was in Iraq and part of it was in As-Sham and this person’s name was Mihnaf ibn Saleem. Here he’s expressing how he feels about this because now Islam, Islam meaning the commitment to Allah absent the ‘asabiyya, has forced the Muslims to be divided… He says, “one of the most serious and damaging problems is that we have been forced to face off against our own people. By Allah, what we are doing is we are cutting off our hands with our own hands and now we are clipping our own wings with our own sword.”
Let me be more to the point. You see part of your family on the other side of the firing line and you’re shooting and they’re shooting; both of you are shooting at each other. A person who still has an ‘asabiyya in him, this is the way he’ll think about it. And he expressed himself and this is just one expression of many that come to us or should come to us and inform us today so that we are not put in the same position to think of these affairs within an ‘asabi mind.
When Imam Ali made up his mind to go to Siffin, one of the individuals around him in his camp came to him protesting. He said, “Do you want to take us to our brothers from the people of As-Sham so that we kill them, the same way you took us to fight against the people of Basra, the ones we took on in warfare?” Another expression of how this thing was not an easy thing. This meaning, this military encounter between two sides was not an easy decision that was implemented by all who were involved.
There is a person whose name is Shimr ibn abd al-Khath’ami – don’t confuse one Shimr with another Shimr. This Shimr was from the people of As-Sham. He attacked another person, his name is Abu Ka’ab. Abu Ka’ab was the leader of the Khath’am ‘asabiyya in Al-Kufah. I want you to go to the heart of the issue. The heart of the issue is this ‘asabiyya confrontation. So he strikes him and he kills him. They belonged to the same extended family and (this happened) because of the ‘asabiyya that was fuelled by Muawiya.
So he turns around, he walks away and he’s crying, because he did this, not to any individual from his extended family. this was a noble person, a chieftain of his own Khath’am tribe. Remember this person, the killer, comes from As-Sham, meaning that he’s in Muawiya’s camp, he killed another one of his extended family in Imam Ali’s camp and he felt very sad, remorseful, very bad that all of this had happened. Then he said this, ‘May Allah have mercy on you Abu Ka’ab. I killed you to obey people and you are dearer to me than these people.’ Who’s the people he’s referring to? He’s referring to Muawiya’s camp. “But I don’t know what to say, the only thing I can see is Shaytaan has managed to place this sedition between us and among us. And I could only see Quraysh now playing with us.” Remember Quraysh is that argument that Muawiya had to justify his political position in taking revenge for the assassination of Uthman. A person like this saw through what he was doing.
Amr ibn al-‘As counsels Muawiya in the battle of Siffin, tells him the following: “We raised the Masahif (Qurans) on our swords and we say, whatever is in these Masahif is to judge our differences, the differences we have between each other, these Masahif serve to adjudicate the disputes that we have.” This was a move. This was a ploy to instigate within the camp of an Imam Ali, another form of ‘asabiyya; the holier than thou phenomenon. So when this happened in the camp that was on the right side of the issue because of this, a self-centeredness among certain elements in that camp, we had (arise) a new ‘asabiyya that Imam Ali would deal with later on in the Battle of Nahrawan. Nope. I’m going to stop here for a moment and ask you, can any one of you with the decades of your lifetime with you, can any one of you listening to all of this, can any one of you churn out this ‘asabiyya today that has Muslims killing Muslims? You’ve heard the narrative. What makes a Muslim, I asked you, what makes today a Muslim able to kill another Muslim citing the history that we are covering? Obviously, it is a wrong reading of this history. Otherwise if you’re just reading this like, like facts, try to cover this territory like your facts; gravity is a law of physics. When someone speaks about gravity, does anyone feel ‘asabiyya? Anyone feel charged against someone else? No, because it’s a fact and if we can revisit these events as facts minus this ‘asabiyya, we will clear this charged atmosphere that right now is fuelling civil wars. So when this new ploy was used, raise these Masahif, some people thought that there was goodwill on the other side. Right now they want to arbitrate these differences using the Masahif, the Qur’an, Allah’s words themselves, the ayaat and the surahs of the Qur’an. What more do you want?
So when Imam Ali realized that some people right now are beginning to form a new ‘asabiyya for themselves. He said to them, “Woe to you. They don’t raise it for the purposes that you see. They are not even versed in its own meanings.” Its own meanings, meaning the meanings of these Masahif that they are raising.
What would cause anyone to feel ‘asabiyya, when we, when anyone mentions this, unless there’s some type of person who is covering this history, he himself is emitting ‘asabiyya. He himself is not able to present these issues as facts. So what he does, he talks through the subject matter verbally but non-verbally his gestures, his movements, they emit this poisonous ‘asabiyya. And here we go, that’s another fuel that’s high octane for this civil strife and these civil wars that these shayateen are planning. Imam Ali goes on to say, “The only reason that they raised this for you is to fool you, to outmanoeuvre you and to trap you.’ Some of his followers said to him, “Those folks, they’re calling us to Allah’s book and you are calling us to the sword. You will recall al-Ashtar (a military commander in one of the battles), and withhold him from killing other Muslims or else we’re going to do to you what we did to Uthman.”
What do you do when you’re put in a position like this? Imam Ali knew right now that we have a new ‘asabiyya, now this ‘asabiyya has come to his own camp. How are you going to deal with this? He had to deal with it in the best possible way. What you’re going to have right now, it’s not enough to have one civil war you’re going to have right now another internal civil war. You can’t have that happen. So he acquiesced not because he didn’t know the truth, not because he was weak and not because he was playing politics, he was doing this to as much as possible shrink, collapse the ‘asabiyya that has shown its face in his own camp.
Now both sides have accepted the arbitration, there’s a person who is going between both sides. The person who’s going between both sides is al-Ash’ath and we notice one of the decisions that was a very major difference between him and Imam Ali. Remember both of them are in the same camp. Imam Ali wanted ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Abbas to represent his side in this arbitration. This Ash’ath did not want that to happen because of ‘asabiyya. Abd Allah ibn Abbas is the cousin of an Imam Ali. So he preferred Abu Musa al-Ash’ari and he eventually filled in that role. But the way the decision was made was to avoid complicating an internal ‘asabiyya, not to feed this ‘asabiyya anymore. And from here on, we knew how history developed, there was this class of people called al-Qurra in Iraq, they were the first ones who agreed with an Imam Ali to go to this tahkeem. They had to see the gimmicks and the shenanigans of the other side (because) they wouldn’t listen to what Imam Ali when he was advising them. They had to suffer, meet the other side and realize that they were being fooled, that they were tricked. And then they turned to an extreme that manifested an ‘asabiyya known as Khawarij.
And they hid under that word, “there is no governance except that which belongs to Allah.”. And Imam Ali said “they’re saying there shouldn’t be any type of governorship, but there has to be some type of governorship whether it is in the right direction or in the wrong direction”. Or else we’d rather be living in a jungle. When you don’t have an amara (governorship) go to a jungle and live there, there’s no amara there. But if you have civil society that civil society needs decision makers and those decision makers, whether they are making their decisions in a way that is in the virtue of Allah or whether they are making it in the way that is in the vice of as-Shaytaan, society requires it.
We’ve dealt with ‘asabiyya when it was beneath the surface. We dealt with ‘asabiyya when it was in transition and from here on this ‘asabiyya became what we call in today’s world political parties, and when we speak about political parties, we mean political parties that are, that have as their engine and as their fuel and as their transmission this ‘asabiyya.
Now, to try to give this a finishing touch, the word Shia, in today’s world because we’ve inherited 14 centuries of ‘asabiyya, in today’s world, the average person says, oh, shia, anyone who uses the word shia then automatically what comes to mind is those who in one way or the other, to one degree or the other with whatever explanation or the other, say that they are followers of Imam Ali. There are so many versions and so many interpretations of this that it goes beyond numbers. But anyone who says the word shia today, they automatically think, okay, these are the followers of an Imam Ali. This understanding today is a result of an accumulation of these ‘asabiyya, because the word shia doesn’t mean that, it doesn’t mean that in the linguistic depth of the word and it doesn’t mean that in the political definition of the word. In the Qur’an and in the Sunnah it doesn’t mean that.
I’m going to tell you what I mean by this. First of all, let me quote for you the tahkeem when both sides, the side of Imam Ali and the side of King Muawiyah, when they decided that they are going to arbitrate this whole affair, the following was written: “This is what both agreed to adjudicate. Ali ibn Abi Talib and Muawiya ibn Abu Sufyan, Ali on behalf of the people of Iraq and whoever is included in their partisanship inclusive of Muslims”. Okay. Up until here you say, okay, yes, this proves not what you’re saying. It proves that the Shia of Ali are the people of Iraq. So he has his Shia but it doesn’t stop here. The following sentence says “the adjudication of Muawiya on behalf of the people of Al-Sham and whoever is of their shi’a, Muawiya had his shi’a, in the wording of the tahkeem that was agreed upon between both sides. The same wording for the two different political and ideological positions, the same wording that Imam Ali had his shi’a, Muawiya had his shi’a and no one said, oh there’s something wrong with this wording, omit that and say Muawiya and his ansaruhu, his supporters or Muawiya and his ashabuhu, his companions. No one said that. This is the way the wording of the tahkeem was put together by both sides and when you review the word shi’a in the Qur’an it doesn’t have the meaning that was gained throughout these 14 centuries of a growing ‘asabiyya.
I know I’m going to be a little maybe too harsh for some of you. Does it matter? Bear with me. There’s something called tough love. The Prophet, because of the ‘asabiyya that we have, the Prophet, the people around the Prophet, are called the Sahaba. That’s also in looking at the word sahaba, just like we’re looking at the word shi’a. Does it mean something peculiar to Sunnis?
It doesn’t mean that linguistically, it doesn’t mean that when you follow it in the Qur’an and even in the hadiths, it doesn’t mean that. So if shi’a doesn’t mean what it means to us today and sahaba doesn’t mean what it means to us today, if we can liberate ourselves, go back to the origin, go back to the source, linguistically and Qur’anically, who of you will feel comfortable? This is going to strike your own personal ‘asabiyya. Who of you will feel comfortable even though the Qur’an and the Sunnah validates what I’m going to say? Who feels comfortable to say shi’at Rasulillah, instead of saying ashabu Rasulillah you say shi’at Rasulillah. That throws a monkey wrench in the ‘asabiyya way of thinking. Instead of saying shi’at al-Imam Ali, you say ashabul Imam Ali. That also throws a monkey wrench in the ‘asabiyya mind because you’ve grown conditioned and accustomed and engineered to say certain things in certain ways without even thinking through what you said. You just inherit that. You hear a scholar you have confidence in or any person you have confidence in and you take it for granted. We think these issues have to be rethought so that we’re not out there killing ourselves.
Imam Muhammad al-Asi is currently working on the first-ever English Tafsir of the Qur’an titled: The Ascendant Qur’an: Realigning Man to the Divine Power Culture. He is based in Washington D.C. This article is the edited transcript of one of his Friday khutbahs delivered on 6 September 2013.
The full khutbah can be heard at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W_koh9G5puQ&feature=youtu.be