So just what is Muslim sectarianism, and what is the view of sectarianism according to the sharia? What do Muslims need to know and understand about sectarianism, especially Muslims living in the United States? Muslim sectarianism is a complicated notion with complicated consequences. So for starters, know that there is no one single brand or type of Muslim sectarianism.
What is sectarianism?
Muslim sectarianism has many forms, many categories, numerous tentacles and many manifestations. Some extremely harmful, and some not as harmful. It reveals itself in varying ways according to time, place, people and sub-ideology. Some Muslim sects are relatively new and some are hundreds of years old. Some sects are built around individuals and some are built around ideas or supplemental philosophies. Some are hyper cultish with elaborate rituals and liturgical nuance, and some are very simple. Some sects require initiation, some don’t. Some sects are descriptive but not necessarily sectarian and some sects are sectarian at their core but vague in their description. Some are both. Some sects are regional and some are international. Some are all over the place and change with the changing of the times. So let’s first take a look at the meaning of the word.
- Sect: According to the New Shorter Oxford Dictionary; A body or group of people subscribing to views that are divergent from other people of the same religion.
- Sectary: a person who is zealous in the cause of his sect.
- Sectarian: According to Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th, sectarian (adj.) characteristic of a sect. Also, having limited character or scope. (n.) adherent of a sect., narrow, bigoted.
- Sectarianize: is to make sectarian
- According to Wikipedia, sectarianism is: a form of bigotry, discrimination, or hatred arising from attaching relations of inferiority and superiority to differences between subdivisions within a group. Common examples are denominations of a religion, ethnic identity, class, or region for citizens of a state and factions of a political movement.
That’s on the English side. However, we need to look at the Arabic side of the meaning of sectarianism because our primary scriptures are in Arabic, and the foundations of codified traditional knowledge in Islam are in Arabic. Thus, In the Arabic language, there are several words and phrases in the Quran that are used to denote sectarianism; for example; hizb (حزب), as in the verse:
وَإِنَّ هَٰذِهِ أُمَّتُكُمْ أُمَّةً وَاحِدَةً وَأَنَا رَبُّكُمْ فَاتَّقُونِ فَتَقَطَّعُوا أَمْرَهُم بَيْنَهُمْ زُبُرًا ۖ كُلُّ حِزْبٍ بِمَا لَدَيْهِمْ فَرِحُونَ
“And surely this your religion is one religion and I am your Lord, therefore be careful (of your duty) to Me. But they cut off their religion among themselves into sects, each part (hizbin)rejoicing in that which is with them.” (Quran, 23:52-53)
Hizb however, could also simply mean a group of people; as in the verse:
وَلَمَّا رَأَى الْمُؤْمِنُونَ الْأَحْزَابَ قَالُوا هَٰذَا مَا وَعَدَنَا اللَّهُ وَرَسُولُهُ وَصَدَقَ اللَّهُ وَرَسُولُهُ ۚ وَمَا زَادَهُمْ إِلَّا إِيمَانًا وَتَسْلِيمًا
“And when the true believers saw the clans (ah’zaab), (confederate forces) they said: This is that which Allah and His messenger promised us. Allah and His messenger are true. It did but confirm them in their faith and resignation.” (Quran, 33:22)
In modern-day parlance, some groups use the word hizbee as a pejorative term meaning someone who is a sectarianist, or a party loyalist as in political party, or a specific Muslim group, representative of a specific ideology.
Another word used to describe sect in the Quran is shi’ite. I’m not talking about Shiite Muslims here, I’m talking about the word shi’ite, as in the verse:
إِنَّ الَّذِينَ فَرَّقُوا دِينَهُمْ وَكَانُوا شِيَعًا لَّسْتَ مِنْهُمْ فِي شَيْءٍ ۚ إِنَّمَا أَمْرُهُمْ إِلَى اللَّهِ ثُمَّ يُنَبِّئُهُم بِمَا كَانُوا يَفْعَلُونَ
“Surely they who divided their religion into parts and became sects (shiya’an), you have no concern with them; their affair is only with Allah, then He will inform them of what they did.” (Quran, 6:159)
The above aforementioned verse is not referring to any particular sect; it’s talking about breaking into sects and sectarianism in general. However, this conversation is not about semantics, and every Muslim sect can present their arguments why they are not a sect, why they are not sectarian or why they are the saved sect, or the best sect of all.
Allah forbid the Prophet ﷺ from supporting sectarianism in our religion, and the Prophet forbade the people from arguing about doctrine. The Prophet ﷺ said, “No people ever went astray, after they were guided, except that they were overcome by arguing”.
The general rule of Islam with regards to sectarianism is to avoid it:
“وَاعْتَصِمُوا بِحَبْلِ اللَّهِ جَمِيعًا وَلَا تَفَرَّقُوا ۚ وَاذْكُرُوا نِعْمَتَ اللَّهِ عَلَيْكُمْ إِذْ كُنتُمْ أَعْدَاءً فَأَلَّفَ بَيْنَ قُلُوبِكُمْ فَأَصْبَحْتُم بِنِعْمَتِهِ إِخْوَانًا وَكُنتُمْ عَلَىٰ شَفَا حُفْرَةٍ مِّنَ النَّارِ فَأَنقَذَكُم مِّنْهَا ۗ كَذَٰلِكَ يُبَيِّنُ اللَّهُ لَكُمْ آيَاتِهِ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَهْتَدُونَ “
“And hold firmly to the rope of Allah all together and do not become divided. And remember the favor of Allah upon you – when you were enemies and He brought your hearts together and you became, by His favor, brothers. And you were on the edge of a pit of the Fire, and He saved you from it. Thus does Allah make clear to you His verses that you may be guided.” (Quran 3:103).
The purpose of Mosque Without Borders is not to debunk or analyze the ideology of every orthodox or heterodox sect of Islam but to empower and teach those Muslims who don’t want to belong to any sect, and who prefer not to practice a sectarian styled Islam, in ideology, or in spirit. This is not about semantics, or polemical acrobatics. This is about the lives of real Muslims who are concerned with living their religion and not arguing with each other about it. This is about sectarianism and the negative impact it has on the lives of Muslims.
The Prophet’s ﷺ view on sectarianism and it’s by products
The Prophet ﷺ outlined many of the principles of non-sectarianism throughout his life as well as during his farewell sermon when he said; “There is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab nor for a non-Arab over an Arab except by piety”. He ﷺ further elucidated the foundation for actionable non-sectarianism when he said: “verily your blood, your wealth, and your honor is sacred, like the sacredness of this day, of this month, and of the place”. He cemented his disdain for sectarian practices when he said: “do not return after I’m gone to being like unbelievers, some of you striking the necks (fighting) of others”.
Sectarianism also has to do with abandoning the principles of islamic brotherhood, disregarding the idea of racial equality, and lack of respect for the sanctity of life, honor and wealth as outlined by the Prophet ﷺ in his farewell sermon. Perhaps the most obvious and widespread manifestation of sectarianism is racism, but it is not the only manifestation of it.
Muslim sectarianism has been around ever since shortly after the death of the Prophet ﷺ. The Prophet warned us against it, the Quran warns us against it, and the Muslim world has suffered by it in the worse ways. The first social issue relating to sectarianism addressed by the Prophet ﷺ was racism. He addressed it by freeing slaves and elevating the status of the ex-slave to that of an already free non-slave Arab. He reiterated this principle thought out his tenure as a prophet of God. Even at the end of his life, he appointed Osama ibn Zayd as general of the Muslim army who included Umar and Abu Bakr and Osama was barely eighteen years old.
Sectarianism brings out the very worst in the Ummah, from the wars between the companions of the Prophet ﷺ, to the massacre of Muslims by other Muslims in so many countries, to the fratricidal warfare between Muslim groups throughout the ages, and even what we see today in many Muslim countries and now in the United States and elsewhere. Different groups calling the other unbelievers, mosques being bombed. Violent extremism, petty mosque politics, racism within the ummah in many Muslim countries and even her in the unites states. It can all be traced back to racism, sectarianism and the notion of the other.
Muslim sectarianism in the modern sense;
There are many faces of Muslim sectarianism. Sectarianism in the modern sense is the belief that your particular sect represents the whole of Islam, or that the addendums of faith, belief, and practice, representative of your sect, embodies the whole of Islam or the entirety of the message of Allah and His Prophet ﷺ whereas someone not subscribing to your additions, is considered less of a Muslim or even not a Muslim.
For example, if you believe that the sheikh of your sect is the only one that possesses true guidance of Islam and that believing in him and following him is necessary to obtain salvation, then you are sectarianized. If you believe that you must call yourself by the name of your sect, or a group in order to be rightly guided, then you have been sectarianized. If you believe that your brand of Islam is the only true brand of Islam in exclusion to all other brands of Islam, then you are sectarianized. If you cannot pray behind this or that person because they do not ascribe to your sect, then you are sectarianized.
Example of some types of sectarianism are people who ascribe to the terms, Salafi, Ahlul hadith, and Atharaee, Tijaani, Qaadiri, Naqshabandi, and Ikhwaani, just to name a few; if you consider calling yourself by these names as a religious obligation and that those who don’t ascribe to these names are less of a Muslim than you, or that you are a better Muslim than they, simply because of the sectarian title, then this is sectarianism. If you as an adherent of a particular sect, believe that only people of that sect are rightly guided, then that is sectarianism. If you are a member of a Muslim ideological group and believe that your group represents the totality of Islam in exclusion of other groups than you are a sectarianist. If because of group or sub-ideological differences, you declare the other to be an unbeliever your calling yourself. One of the hallmarks of sectarianism is to direct anything ranging from simple disdain or hostility, or the grand charge of heresy towards the other group that is different from your sect.
Granted, combatting Muslim sectarianism is no simple proposition. Some people have already crossed the line and need to be un-sectarianized. Sectarianism is taught, and it can be un-taught. There is a sectarian mindset, and there is an unsectarian mindset. It’s a monumental problem for converts because Muslim converts come into Islam pure of faith and are then taught sectarianism as they come along. Another problem is the colonial mental hold that the intellectual molestation that occurs through the multiplicity of different spheres of influence and teaching methodology thrust upon convert Muslims. I break it down in my book Double Edged Slavery. This stuff didn’t happen overnight and it was very methodical, which on the one hand makes it a multi-layered problem but on the other hand makes it easy to trace how we got to this point, especially if you understand Muslim history. It is possible for a person to back his or her way out of sectarianism; it’s called deprogramming.
De-programming is not for everybody, but there are a lot of Muslims who do not want to be a part of a sect, there are a lot who do not want to be racist, and there are many who do not want to be an extremist in their religion, and who do not want to be jumping from one sub-ideology of Islam to another, and who do not want, groupie- type Islam, following someone who doesn’t have clue who you are. Problem is, not many Imams, or teachers are equipped to deal with this issue. Many Imams have no training whatsoever in the classical sciences of Islam which is problem also because you end up making stuff up, making up ideology, and jumping on ideological bandwagons with little or no training. That doesn’t help much either.
There is no one way to combat sectarianism since sectarianism and people who practice it or believe in it differ from time to time and from place to place. Fighting sectarianism is not so much as deconstructing every Muslim sect and polemicizing ideological arguments against it. It has more to do with promoting unity in spite of sectarianism and giving Muslims a clear choice on how not be stuck in a sectarian modality whereas you believe your sect offers the only path, or the best path to salvation. Unity is not for everyone; it’s for the people who want to be unified.
This is about the disruption of lives, the breaking of the bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood, about fratricide, incessant debates about micro-doctrine, splitting of communities, arguing, fighting, fitnah in our masaajid. There has to be a better path for people who want to escape the boundaries, the hubris, and the sometimes insanity of Muslim sectarianism.
I believe that there are Muslims out there who don’t want to sectarianize, who believe in what Allah says in the Quran, who believe in the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and what was reported from him according to authentic sources and believe that they will someday meet Allah, and want to meet Him as a Muslim, and not as an adherent of any sub-sect of Islam. That is their choice and people should be made aware that there is such a choice.
Changing the sectarian narrative
The United States of America is a new frontier for Muslims. Most organized Muslim communities are less then 40 years old. There is still time to address Muslim sectarianism in our country in a sane, healthy, and rational way. We have to create Muslim communities that are equally open to everyone; White, Black, Latino, Arab, Pakistani, Indian, Asian, African, low income, high income, educated and undereducated. This is the legacy of the Prophet of Islam ﷺ. This is the picture of non-sectarian Islam, and this is the conversation that we must have. In my 50 years of observing the trajectory of Islam amongst Black American Muslims and coverts, micro-sectarianism has never worked for us, and I doubt if it ever will.
Imam Abu Laith Luqman Ahmad
Imam Abu Laith Luqman Ahmad is a writer, consultant, and Associate Imam and resident scholar at the Toledo Masjid al-Islam in Toledo Ohio. He is a former executive committee member of the North America Imams Federation (NAIF), a founding member of COSVIO, (the Council of Sacramento Valley Islamic Organizations), and the author of the new book “Double Edged Slavery“, a critical and authoritative look at the condition of African American and convert Muslims in the United States. He is also author of the book: “The Devil’s Deception of the Modern Day Salafi Sect“. The Imam blogs at imamluqman.wordpress.com, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Collected by Abu Eesa at-Tirmidhi.
 Collected by Bukhaari and Muslim.
 Collected by Bukhaari and Muslim.
 Collected by Bukhaari and Muslim.
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