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Meeting the challenge of sectarianism
By Atai Karim


May 30, 2008

Friday Jamadi-ul-Awwal 24, 1429

THE Muslim world is facing many internal and external challenges. Sectarianism is one of them. Sectarianism may be characterised by dogmatism and inflexibility. In a narrow sense it denotes zeal for, or attachment to a particular sect.

Likewise, it connotes an excessively zealous and doctrinaire narrow-mindedness that would quickly judge and condemn those who disagree. However, in a broader sense, it refers to the historical process by which all the divisions in major world religions have come about.

In a general way, sectarianism is usually used as a pejorative term to describe division, intolerance and violence based on religion. Wherever religious sectarians compete, religious sectarianism is found in varying forms, like prejudice, bigotry, discrimination, malice, violence, and ill-will towards members of another sect. Sectarianism, in different forms, has been an issue among different Muslim sects and this practice has led the Muslims to disunity and weakness, intellectual and educational backwardness.

There are different types of sectarianism. It can appear in several, often inter-related forms, e.g. personal, cultural, institutional and structural. Sectarianism is also revealed in attitudes and behaviours, where one can easily observe the signs of hatred and prejudices. Sometimes, members of different sectarian groups take the form of name calling, titles or other forms of verbal abuse or discrimination. It can also take the form of physical violence.

Moreover, it is also most commonly observed through jokes and by using sectarian terms to describe the people. We find these examples in history, where different sects named each other with different names to look down upon them. Every sect has its own concept of others. All of us have our own religious ego and we tend to glorify our own faith in different forms, which encourages sectarianism.

Furthermore, disapproval of relationship and marriage, sectarian threat, harassment and discrimination in employment decisions has also been common forms of sectarianism. Within Islam there is scope for difference of opinion but unfortunately, in Muslim societies the difference of faith has crossed the boundary of tolerance and reached violence in terms of fanaticism and extremism. The violence and refutation of each other’s beliefs has become part of religious duty of different sects. Considering others infidel and ‘kafir’ is considered to be a favourable religious duty which enlarges the gap between different Muslim sects.

Sectarianism is known to have sparked religious violence throughout Muslim history. The main cause of it seems to be the attitude of exclusivity and fanaticism. According to Dr Riberio, inflexible attitudes, the claim of religious believers to an absolute and exclusive hold on truth, and the denial of the right of others to be different, are root causes of religious sectarianism.

Indeed, human beings have a tendency to exclude others and to see their own beliefs as right, and all others wrong. This tendency leads to violence and fighting in history. A question can arise here that why do people exclude others? One answer could be the religious rigidity, but another answer could be some personal material interests. There are many examples in history to show that most sectarian clashes and wars did not happen on religious basis, but also for material benefits, power and identity. So the development of sectarianism should be viewed religious as well as a political phenomenon.

Moreover, if we see the sectarianism in the Muslim context, it is clear that every sect considers others heretical sects, ‘kafir’ (infidel) and dweller of hell. Verses of the Quran and Hadith are used to disprove others’ faith and sect. Furthermore, every sect is trying to keep a specific physical appearance and insists on its identity which sometimes causes clashes of identities. In addition, there has been a close connection between poverty, sense of deprivation and religious violence.

People, who are poor and deprived, are usually used and engaged in sectarian violence. If the roots of sectarianism become strong in Islamic Ummah, it will pose a more serious threat to the unity of the Muslims than any external threat. Hence, it is the need of the hour that every member of the Muslim society played his/her role in creating an open-minded, flexible and tolerant society, where every Muslim sect can survive peacefully without any fear and can practise without anybody’s pressure.

A debate has been raging for a long period among Muslim intellectuals on sectarian differences. Each sect is unique and it is the beauty of Islam to be diverse. Diversity is the strength, not weakness within Muslim community and every member of the Muslim community has to respect it to promote peace and harmony within Muslim community. Within Islam there is scope for difference of opinion and Muslims should take these differences as blessings and should respect each other’s opinion, faith and ideas by showing tolerance and patience.

Tolerance, respect for each other’s ideas, pluralism and diversity are beauty and core values in Islamic tradition. Quran recognises diversity and tolerance of differences based on belief, ranks (64; 2; 6: 165), gender (49: 13; 53; 45), skin colour and language (30:22). Harmony between different religious, social grouping and communities is praised, and competitions, violence, force and control of any person or sect by any other is condemned.

It is important to note that Allah has created diversity and we should accept it in all humility. Diversity is in fact our test. Our response should be pluralism. Each sect is unique. It is Allah’s will to have diversity in the world and the believers have to live with it in a way which will promote peace and harmony. Quran confirms divine unity but it also recognises the diversity of culture, religions and ethnicity. Above this, it recognises freedom for humans to choose their way. “Let there be no compulsion in religion…” (Quran, 2: 256). In order to promote peace and harmony among different sects within Muslim community every member of the Muslim community including our leadership and stakeholders at different level can play a major role and can live as brothers and sisters.


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