The Underlying Myths that Fuel Divisions in Islam …and How we Can Demolish Them

Sectarian divides within Islam are socially destructive, politically costly, and in the worst cases, result in unimaginable tragedy- they are certainly one of the main elements holding the Ummah back and are one of the favourite weapons that the enemies of Islam love to use against us. Beyond the well-known historical and political axioms that run through Islamic sectarianism, we can find psychological traumas and ideological myths that must be diagnosed, and in some cases, quasi-therapeutically treated and seriously questioned, argues. João Silva Jordão.

Editorial note: for reasons that will become obvious, the author has extensively used the term “Shia” and “Sunni” out of sheer necessity and for clarity, but paradoxically ultimately argues that we should try and phase out the use of these terms, particularly in what concerns the spiritual domain.

The Majority vs. The Minority – The Predictable Tango

Before we start analysing sectarianism within Islam specifically, we have to start with two propositions. Firstly, sectarianism in Islam is marked by the fact that the two “opposing” camps, Sunni and Shia, constitute a very clear majority and minority respectively. Secondly, in any dispute, the fact that there is a majority and a minority go a very long way in conditioning the general attitude and behaviour of either camp- and this is not specific to Islam. In any binary political dispute that juxtaposes a larger camp against a smaller camp, the majority will usually adopt an attitude akin to that which a majority is likely to adopt, and the minority, likewise.

And this awfully predictable Tango usually goes something like this: the majority will often blame the minority for being sectarian and for compromising the unity of the whole. The minority in turn will say that the majority usurped the leadership and that under its leadership, things would be better, and mistakes of the past would have been avoided. This is exactly the myth that runs through Communism’s historical divide between Stalinists and Trotskyites for example, which is also marked by a fierce dispute over succession as well as an ongoing debate over who was most worthy of inheriting leadership- and so too do we find a similar dynamic that runs through the main divide in Islam.

Another particularly important underlying myth behind both camps pertains to a general vision of what the Prophet came down to do in the first place.

In Sunni mythology, the Prophet incrementally turned an initially resistant and reluctant, even sometimes hostile Arab society into a virtually homogenous contingent of pure believers and unquestionable followers. The inner circle of this mass of unwaveringly faithful followers are the companions of the Prophet, the Sahaba.

In Shia mythology, the Prophet came as a reluctant messenger who was besieged on all sides, at all times, by either enemies, hypocrites or traitors- with only a very select few genuine followers. These rare genuine followers consist mostly of the Prophet’s family, the Ahl-ul-bayt.

Neither of these narratives are, of course, anywhere near nuanced enough so as to be able to realistically reflect how political struggles play out, nor how the psychology of the human mind operates, nor much less how religions spread and are practised.

And here is how these two myths are then used as rocket fuel to incite sectarian tensions and inevitably, violence- each side will paint the other as having an inherent hatred for the Prophet’s support base that their respective mythos enshrines.

The Sunnis will say that the Shia disrespect and insult the Sahaba. The Shia will say that the Sunnis praise those who wronged and hurt the Ahl-ul-Bayt. Each will find some way to project the historical foes of the ones they so love onto the whole of the “other” side, therefore making it all the more likely that they come to see their fellow Muslims as an enemy.

Much to do About a Lot- a More Realistic and Productive Narrative

So, let us try and start to unwind these destructive and unrealistic myths by proposing a more serene, realistic and perhaps more constructive narrative.

A much more realistic, theologically and religiously accurate view of what the very basic significance of Prophet Muhammad’s mission was that he was sent as a mercy to mankind so as to make those he encountered, and those whom he influenced, whether directly or indirectly, better persons than they were before. It is in no way necessary, nor desirable, to believe that he was either a perfect man surrounded by mostly vicious and treacherous characters whose sole purpose in life was to pretend that their conversion to Islam was sincere when in fact they wanted to destroy it from within, nor that he was a magical man whose effect on the society around him completely escapes the general trends of human behaviour so that he somehow turned virtually each and every person that he came into contact with into perfect human beings who were thereafter incapable of imperfection.

Rather, the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was a magnificently successful wide-spectrum social reformer with a Divine Mission and Message- not someone who could suspend the basic rules of human limitations for those around him nor solve the contradictions of human existence all in one go.

After all, is it not obvious that one of his main messages is that we are all capable of sin and virtue, and that we should try as best we can to decrease our sins and increase our virtues so as to pass with the best grade possible in the exam that we call life? So that we make use of Islam to the best of our abilities so as to honour our souls in this predicament that we all find ourselves in? So that we try to follow the Islamic method as best we can as we make our way through this temporary, imminently imperfect, ever-testing, ever-trialling dunya?

We must, firstly in the name of truth, eloquence, historical rigour and basic standards of intelligence, and perhaps as importantly, in the name of healing our Ummah and neutralizing the endemic sectarianism running through it and the horrors that it produces, meet in the middle. And this convergence should not, and cannot be done in a coy, reluctant, nor passive manner- not least because the most sectarian voices also tend to be the loudest and most vehement. We must be proactive, and completely unafraid to stand up to the pernicious sectarian voices for the simple reason that they are in and of themselves a test, a fitnah that we must face up to- whether that battle be fought in fighting the sectarian impulses within ourselves, or in standing up to those most intent on spreading sectarianism by urging them to turn to piety and righteousness instead. This is a fight we simply cannot walk away from.

Muslims Can Unite Around the Concept of the ‘Rashidun’

But this general overview will not be enough to fight sectarianism. The dispute around the succession of the Prophet Muhammad as the leader of the Ummah is at the centre of sectarian strife and will continue to be. We must find specific ways and ideas with which to heal the wounds and move forward.

The concept of “Rashidun”, which asserts that the first four caliphs of Islam were rightly guided, can be a central beacon of hope for an Islamic community increasingly torn apart and destroyed by sectarian strife. After all, if Sunni-influenced historical interpretations tend to call the first four Caliphs “Rashidun”, i.e., the rightly guided Caliphs, surely there is no need to lionise anyone past the fourth Caliph, Ali ibn Abu Talib, as if it was some sort of religious obligation. Any leader that came after the “Rashidun” should be evaluated strictly on a case by case scenario- and this advice is particularly poignant for Sunnis. On the other hand, Shias would do well to completely disregard concerns regarding the righteousness of any of the first three Caliphs, as there is plenty of evidence that the Prophet Muhammad loved and thought highly of them all- and surely he knew best.

Another angle one may adopt is the following – when dealing with the leadership dispute one must seek to circumvent the orthodox leadership dispute in and of itself, insofar as the leadership dispute is the discussion over who should have sat on a certain chair, or who should have been given what political position, responsibilities and title at a certain time in history, and for what reason they did or did not.

The distance of time that separates us from the period during which the leadership dispute actually took place acts like a moat which will be filled with spite, frustration and ultimately the loss of vision regarding what the discussion over the leadership dispute seeks to establish in the first place, what its primary objective is, or at least, should be. At  root, the discussion really seeks to inform us regarding the true principles of Islam, its content and priorities and ultimately, how one should go about fulfilling one’s religion to the best of one’s abilities.

Apart from locking us in endless historical debates, the distance of time between ourselves and the events being discussed is only getting greater, and so too are the problems that it causes. One way to fight against the destructive force, that is the spite that these debates inevitably generates, is to transform the debate around the leadership controversy  by reconceptualizing what the concept of leadership actually means, and do this in light of the actual teachings of Islam, more specifically, by analysing how leadership is transmitted and communicated, and most importantly, to realize that religious leadership, in the full theological and spiritual sense, surely supersedes political power as conceived in a secular, material sense.

For clarity, let’s take a step back- one can say that Prophet Muhammad’s leadership over us all as Muslims is not one that relies neither on his physical presence nor distance, nor does his authority begin at the time of his having amassed any degree of political power, nor is it diminished by the events in which he will have lost it. Rather the root of the legitimacy of his leadership stems from his teachings and legacy, which are transported through time by means of books, stories, sayings and other media, as well as a more direct form of leadership felt by the directly inherited results of the Prophet Muhammad’s actions. One can extract some degree of insight from this alone, namely, by looking at, for example, at the leadership of Imam Ali and Abu Bakr as not being necessarily reliant on their political power, and much less in their ascension to the official position as leaders of the Ummah.

What we are seeking is to spiritualize the very concept of leadership, instead of falling into the vulgar limitations of secular and material conceptions of leadership.

Thereafter one must define the extent to which the leadership dispute is in fact a leadership not merely pertaining to sitting on a symbolic or literal throne nor in the holding of any worldly political title during the age in which the two lived. In fact the leadership dispute is more easily recognized in the throne that is in our very understanding, the throne upon which sit those whom we consciously or subconsciously grant our respect and ultimately to whom we defer when it comes to many of our decisions and thought processes by means of a relationship of trust, i.e., faith. And all of this while of course remembering at every turn that, realistically, none of us will never even come close to the merit and high-status of the first four Caliphs, and that our thoughts, attitude, words, and actions should reflect this accordingly.

Demolishing Sectarian Divides- the Theological Argument

Now let us look at some Quranic verses that call on us to bridge sectarian divides and promote religious and political unity within the religion of Islam and in our Ummah:

3:103 – You shall hold fast to the rope of Allah, all of you, and do not be divided.

6:159 – Those who divide themselves into sects do not belong with you (Oh Prophet Muhammad). Their judgment rests with God, then He will inform them of everything they had done.

23:52 – Verily this (your nation, the Ummah) is one nation, and I am your Lord, so keep your duty to Me.

30: 31-32 – (Adhere to), turning in repentance to Him, and fear Him and establish prayer and do not be of those who associate others with Allah; like those who divide their religion into sects; each party rejoicing with what they have.

42:14 – And they did not become divided until after knowledge had come to them – out of jealous animosity between themselves. And if not for a word that preceded from your Lord until a specified time, it would have been concluded between them. And indeed, those who were granted inheritance of the Scripture after them are, concerning it are in disquieting doubt.

And if the religious calling isn’t enough to galvanize us into fighting sectarianism- even though it certainly should be- then we can apply simple logic. Here one will have to engage in a certain paradox, perhaps even an unfortunate one, and yet possibly necessary contradiction, which pertains to the very use of the terms Sunni and Shia. After all, as one will have noticed, not least throughout this article, these terms are used often because we need to use them for theological, historical and political analysis- after all, even in this article, which argues against sectarianism, both terms have been used extensively. But one can argue that even though the use of these undeniably sectarian denotations are inevitable, one can also say that we should certainly seek to phase them out when we refer to our own religion- and eventually, seek to remove them from our vocabulary altogether, especially when it comes to strictly religious affairs.

After all, has the Quran and the Prophet not instructed us that, if we believe in God and His Messenger, that we are to be called “Muslims”, and that this is the term we should preferably apply to each other, as well as ourselves? If we have been specifically instructed on how to define our religion, as we have been, who are we to impose, on ourselves or on others, any addendums, whether it be for clarity, for clarification regarding proto-tribal affiliations, or indeed for whatever reason we personally may see fit, such as providing specificities on which school of thought we prefer or which branch of jurisprudence we adhere to?

Have we come so far apart that the term “Muslim” isn’t good enough for us? Is it because we are so proud of our own sect that we insist on using these terms? Or worse still, do we insist on using them out of spite for our fellow Muslim brothers and sisters, to the extent that we need to generate a gap between ourselves and them, even going as far as effectively splitting our single religion into several religions- even if it clearly goes against what we have been advised by the Quran and the Holy Prophet himself?

Surely saying that we are Muslims is more than enough.

I made this choice a long time ago. When someone asks me what religion I follow, I only ever have one answer- I am a Muslim, thank God.

João Silva Jordão, is a Muslim convert, political activist and PhD candidate in urbanism. He has a particular interest in trying to analyse modern problems using the timeless paradigm that is Islam. In his activism he takes a particular interest in studying mechanisms that allow for the generation of more just cities and develops mechanisms for the incremental verticalization of city centres.