In the later stages in the life of any ummah or religious community, a phenomenon inevitably appears—that of its religion being divided up into different factions or sects. The Quran refers to this phenomenon of people splitting up their religion and becoming divided into sects, ‘each one exulting in what they have’ (30:32). Further, in this regard, God tells us:
Your religion is but one religion—and I am your only Lord, therefore, fear Me. Yet they divided themselves into factions, each rejoicing in what they had. (23:52-53)
These lines can be better understood in the light of another Quranic verse:
They have taken their learned men and their monks for their lords besides God. (9:31)
From these Quranic verses, it appears that the phenomenon of a religion splitting into factions is a historical process that emerges in the life of every religious community. This has happened in the case of Muslims, too. There is no exception to this rule.
How and why does this happen? In the later period in the life of a religious community, various reformers arise. These reformers’ interpretation of their religion is influenced by their circumstances. They begin to invite people to accept their faith as interpreted by them. Accordingly, a group of followers slowly starts to form around them. Gradually, these followers begin to develop a strong prejudice in support of their own particular school of thought. They believe that whatever the leaders or founding-figures of their group have said is the final word, the ultimate truth. This prejudicial mentality begins to harden, until each group is transformed into a distinct sect. Each sect becomes firmly convinced that it alone is true, and that all others are deviant. This is the historical process that the Quran indicates in the above-quoted verses.
In the light of this, one could say that the splitting up of a religion into factions that the Quran refers is about people following the religion fabricated by their leaders instead of the religion of God. When this happens, it does not mean that a religious community ceases to take the name of God and their prophet. Members of such a community continue to talk of God and their prophet, but, in reality, they follow the religion made by their leaders. They appear to take the name of God and their prophet, but this is only to seek to back their claim, with the help of references to God and their prophet, that their particular sect is correct.
It is undesirable, of course, for a community to be split up into rival sects. Such sects, no matter whether they call themselves ‘religious’ or ‘divine’, are guilty in God’s eyes of factionalism. Their case has nothing to do with genuine religious adherence. In God’s sight, they are followers of a religion that their elders have fabricated, and not the religion of God and God’s prophet.
This phenomenon of sectarianism is not something that was exclusive to religious communities in the past, before the advent of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.). In fact, it is something that happens with every religious community in its later period, when it declines. The Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) predicted that this would certainly happen among the Muslim ummah, too. According to a hadith report (recorded in the Sunan at-Tirmidhi), the Prophet (s.a.w.) said that the Children of Israel were divided into 72 sects, and his ummah would be divided into 73 sects. All of them will be in the fire except one. The Companions asked him who these people were, and he replied that they are those who were on the path of him and his Companions.
The figure of 73 mentioned in this report is not to be taken to indicate a particular number. Instead, it symbolizes a vast number. In other words, the report tells us that a vast number of sects would emerge among the Muslims. The number of such sects can be more than 73 or less than this figure. This hadith also does not mean that all of the ‘73’ sects will be doomed and that only one sect will be saved. In accordance with God’s law, salvation is always of individuals, not of communities or groups.
The concept of a single ‘saved sect’ or firqa al-najiya has absolutely no basis. It has nothing to do with the hadith of the Prophet (s.a.w.) quoted above. This hadith tells us that salvation in the Hereafter will not be on the basis of one’s sectarian affiliation. Rather, individuals from different sects, who, in their individual capacity, remain firm on the straight path shown by God, will be deemed worthy of salvation in the Hereafter.
As mentioned earlier, the splitting of a community into sects always starts with the leaders of that community. Under the influence of the conditions they are faced with, these leaders say something which, in later times, owing to exaggeration and prejudice, leads to the emergence of separate sects. Later, these sects become clearly-defined, separate communities.
This happens due to basically two factors. Firstly, what can be termed a ‘shift of emphasis’. The other reason is error in reasoning, or what in Urdu is called ijtihadi khata. I will provide examples of both of these, from both the past as well as the present-day.
The Sufis provide an example of a ‘shift of emphasis’ in Muslim history. Many leading Sufis appeared at a time when powerful Muslim Sultanates had been established. The Sufis perceived that the minds of the people had become overshadowed by politics, while, in contrast, the spiritual dimension of Islam had greatly weakened among them. In this context, the Sufis gave such great stress to the spiritual dimensions of Islam or ‘the affairs of the heart’ as if they were everything, or Islam in its entirety. Leaving aside some controversial methods employed by some of them, the case of the Sufis was, in essence, one of a ‘shift of emphasis’. This stance was akin to the hypothetical case of an Islamic scholar who, when faced with people who thought that masah alal khuffain (wiping leather socks while making ablutions before prayer) was not a very proper thing to do, wanted to popularize this practice, and so issued a fatwa opining it to be obligatory.
As a result of this ‘shift of emphasis’ by the Sufis, in the name of religion a certain esoteric religiosity spread among Muslims, while and rational thought and realism went into decline.
A second factor for the emergence of sectarianism is, as we mentioned above, error in reasoning or ijtihad. An example of this is provided from the Abbasid period. At this time, hadith reports and the narratives about the Companions of the Prophet (s.a.w.) were collected and compiled in book form. People now learned that among the Companions there were many minor differences in matters of the method of worship. Guidance in this regard was provided in the Hadith, because the Prophet (s.a.w.) is reported to have had said about his Companions that whichever of them people followed they would be rightly guided.
According to this hadith report, minor differences in methods of worship were because of the phenomenon of diversity, and they were not a question of truth versus falsehood. Each of these methods was equally proper. But the fuqaha or legal specialists in the Abbasid period engaged in ijtihad and declared, ‘Truth cannot be many’. Then, they debated among themselves and adopted one or the other method of worship and declared that the other methods ought to be abandoned. Different fuqaha did this with regard to their particular methods of worship. In this way, various schools of fiqh came into being. Later on, exaggeration and bias led these schools to finally turn into distinctly separate maddhabs of jurisprudence.
Consider an instance of a ‘shift of emphasis’ leading to sectarianism from the contemporary period. This concerns the group commonly known as the Tablighi Jama‘at. The founder of the Tablighi Jama‘at, Maulana Muhammad Ilyas Kandhalvi (d. 1944), observed that people had generally become lax about their prayers. In the words of Allama Iqbal:
Masjiden marsiya khwan hain ki namazi na rahe
(Mosques lament that sincere worshippers no longer remain)
Faced with this situation, Maulana Muhammad Ilyas Kandhalvi gave great stress to the importance of prayer. He launched a full-fledged movement to encourage people to pray. But later on, this movement fell prey to exaggeration and prejudice. Its followers began to think that religion was just another name for praying in mosques and travelling from place to place. But the fact is that the dawah of Islam and the Islamic mission are centred on the human being, not on the mosque as such.
An example of an error of ijtihad from the contemporary period is provided by the Jama‘at-e Islami, which is based on the ideas of Maulana Sayyed Abul ‘Ala Maududi (d. 1979). Maulana Maududi was born at a time when various political movements were powerful in different parts of the world—communist movements, democratic movements, movements for national independence, and so on. At this time, generally speaking, people considered politics to be the most important thing. Maulana Maududi was influenced by these conditions. And so he presented Islam in such a way as if it were a political system and as if its purpose was to establish its rule all over the world. In accordance with this understanding, he developed a political interpretation of the Quran and expressed the sunnah or practice of the Prophet (s.a.w.) in political terms. This was clearly an example of an error in ijtihad, because Islam is a divine movement, and not some political movement (A book of mine in Urdu, titled Ta‘abir ki Ghalati (‘Error of Interpretation’) has been published on this subject. It has been translated into Arabic and published under the title Khataun fil-Tafsir).
To solve the problem of sectarianism, each group must continuously introspect. They should continuously examine, and in an impartial manner, the ideas of their founding-figures or leaders. They should examine teachings and practices of their leaders in the light of the Quran, the book of God, and the sunnah of the Prophet (s.a.w.). They must engage in this sort of analysis with a completely open mind. No religious movement or group can be exempted from this self-examination. It will help in elucidating the truth and in enabling every group to once again discover the religion of God and become established in it.
To consider a religious scholar or leader's words said under the influence of certain conditions, cannot, in its initial stages, be regarded as akin to sectarianism. Rather, it reflects his particular way of thinking, or his personal ijtihad. But when a group emerges around this person, and this group is infected with a prejudicial mind-set and gets crystallized as a distinct sect, the problem of splitting religion into sects begins. This problem slowly begins to grow, till it becomes extreme, so much so that every group, consciously or unconsciously, begins to think that it alone is in the right and that all other groups are false or deviant. This is called tahazzub in Arabic, or ‘groupism’, which the Quran (23:53) refers to. People who fall prey to this psyche of tahazzub refuse to listen to any criticism of themselves, no matter how legitimate it may be.
Religious factionalism is certainly an issue. It is not, however, an eternal problem. Under the influence of circumstances, this happens with every religiously-defined community. But, alongside this, a solution to this problem is also undoubtedly present—and that is, introspection. An individual introspecting about himself or herself is one sort of introspection. In addition to this, the Quran also teaches us what can be called ‘collective introspection’, as the following Quranic verse indicates:
Believers, turn to God, every one of you, so that you may prosper. (24:31)
From this verse we learn that success, in the sense of reforming one’s conditions, is linked to collective repentance. In this regard, Muslim community institutions must clearly and openly decry sectarian rivalry; the Muslim dar ul-qazas must issue relevant fatwas; and the Muslim media should publish articles about this issue. In this way, collective efforts can be made towards the collective repentance that the Quran talks about.
This is the way to help solve the phenomenon of sectarianism.