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The Shia Imams and Muslim Unity (Part 1)

Jun 3, 2011, 4:01 PM | Article By: ‘Ali Aqa-Nuri - Translated by Hamis Waqar

This is the first part to a series of articles that will outline the stance of the Shia Imams with respect to Muslim unity. The article begins by defining the meaning of 'Muslim unity' and goes no to enumerate the characteristics of such unity, especially as found in the Quran and the Sunnah. It then outlines some practical methods of creating unity and preventing divisions, by giving examples from the sirah of the Prophet(s). The next part will continue by touching on the advent of exaggeration (ghuluw) and the forging, infiltration, and distortion of traditions. The section will conclude by referencing the main topic of the series by noting that the Ahl al-Bayt stuck firm to the foundations of seeking unity. The common qualities of these spiritual authorities in their theological, political, legal, and social debase was their compassion and moral uprightness, as their goal was always guidance towards the ultimate truth.




In general usage, the terms wahdah and itihad mean unity, unison, solidarity, convergence, unanimity, unification, indirection, community, and agreement about an issue. One of the characteristics of a movement seeking unity is that it works along a single path or in a single direction with the purpose of reaching a single goal. These two terms-i.e., wahdah and itihad-in the meanings that have been mentioned are antonyms of terms such as 'multiplicity', 'dispersement', 'dispute', 'division', 'sectarianism', and 'divergence'. Therefore, unity is turning division into solidarity; divergence into convergence; dispersement into juncture; various opinions into a single opinion; and the specification of a common and agreed upon goal in order to choose the path leading to it.

One is faced with various paths and possibilities while trying to depict a role model for Islamic unity. The reason for this is that modern scholars, reformists, and followers of the various Islamic sects and theologies have their own particular opinion about this concept. For instance, many scholars today consider Islamic unity on one or more socio-political dimension as a form of union, mutually beneficial. Others give importance to religious commonalities and correcting religious misunderstandings, and this is called 'bringing the schools of thoughts together' (taqrib madhahib), or in better terms 'bringing together the followers of these schools.' In reality, the type of unity that is true and desired is that which applies to both the socio-political dimension and the ideological-religious one. This is the lasting unity held upon the firm foundations of the proximity of the beliefs of the various schools-it is a foundations of proximity between the principles and pillars of the schools and not just a superficial coming together of a few scholars of a few sects.


Some people consider that the path leading to Islamic unity and the proximity of schools can be achieved only by adhering to the Islamic commonalities and expelling sectarian differences and merits. Others speak about a convergence of schools or choosing one of them (as a point of fusion). Yet others state that the only way to achieve unity is by returning to the age of the righteous companions and their successor (salaf) and to relive their lifestyle. Again, there is a group that expresses the view that Islam should do away with all schools of thought and yet another which seeks unity though inviting others to their school.


Each one of these scholars, despite the sympathy that they have for the Islamic community as a whole, relied upon the accepted political and religious views of their own school of through. It is self-evident that following their opinions is not only impossible but actually leads it even further differences. Every Islamic school of thought is firm upon its beliefs and derivations (ijtihad); that same is true for every theological or jurisprudential scholar, and this desire to defend one’s school, of course, is quite natural. However, the interference of particular sectarian elements and using them within the discussion of unity will no get us anywhere-it will only lead to an incorrect definition of unity and an improper encouragement towards it.


The desired and effective from of Islamic unity is one that gives importance to the benefits and goals of the proximity of religious beliefs and which stem from people who have many commonalities despite their denominational differences. Muslims, for instance, believe in a single God, recognize, the Messenger, and follow a common heavenly scripture called the Quran. Their main goal is success in this world and the next as well as proximity with Allah. 


By presenting more suitable and more intellectual methods-which have roots in the path of the Ahl al-Bayt and are founded upon concrete religious sources-the desired unity can be achieved. The characteristics of such a unity include the following:


First: The desired Islamic unity affirms that Muslims, despite their various theological, jurisprudential, and political ideologies, are a single Ummah. The foundational elements of this Ummah are the acceptance of common principles such as: the oneness of Allah, prophethood, resurrection, and accepted by all Muslims. With the acceptance of this principle, none of the small differences and various jurisprudential, theological, or historical opinions could harm the oneness of the Ummah.


The deviant groups and innovators, such as the ghulat (extremists) and the nawasib (enemies of the Ahl al-Bayt)-with precision being taken to the meanings and instances of these two groups-have always been rejected by the Islamic society. They have been considered outside the fold of Islam by the two main sects and are separated from other Muslims. Therefore, Islamic schools of thought are permitted to protect and defend their denominational uniqueness-of course, this is only if it has a legitimate uniqueness that can be defended by firm Quranic beliefs which are part of the definite commonalities and principles of Islamic thought. True seekers of unity must draw a line between the foundational religious elements and denominational qualities, regardless of how defendable they are. The unique jurisprudential and theological particularities of their school of thought, even when they truth, should not be included in the definite principle of religion. This is especially the case for beliefs that are of less importance, such as the eternality of the Quran or other historical controversies including the issue of predestination, justice, and holiness. Those who focus on these minor issues and reject each other or call each other disbelievers do not seem to consider whether themselves are being just or holy.


Second: Islamic unity dictates that intellectual disputes with other schools of thought must be in accordance with the standards of ethical debate, tolerance, and morals. Each school, while remaining firm to their beliefs, must treat and speak to others courteously. In such a unity, instead of labeling others as being corrupt, misunderstanding each others' views, insulting one another, and nitpicking minor details, what takes its place is the respect for opinions, the regard for compassion and religion, and the desire for forgiveness of others. There is no place for hurting one’s emotions or religious beliefs; there is no place for emotional judgments about other group; and there is no place for dissolving particular religious schools in an attempt to force their adherents into other one-all in the name of achieving Islamic unity.


Third: The type of unity of Muslims that is correct and which is desired is one based on religious sources and principles. This should be considered a religious duty, stemming from individual desire. A contingent unity-i.e., a temporary one emphasizing the necessities of the time or the existence of a present or potential danger (which could also be called 'tactical unity' or 'political unity') will only keep the fire alive under the ashes. If individuals of a particular group-who are considered "polytheists", "apostates", "disbelievers", "hell-bound", more impure (najis) than dogs "are tolerated for a certain time due to some contingent benefit, their acceptance will not be obtained. On the contrary, due to the hypocrisy inherent in this from unity, the hatred for the other group will be increased. What is necessary is a permanent and strong unity, which is when the scholars of the Islamic schools of thought officially recognize others within the fold of Islam-despite the differences in their levels-as "Muslims", "believers", and "people of salvation."  They must no consider that they are the only ones who believe and that their accepted ideologies and versions of history form the yardstick separating faith from disbelief. The resistance and the differences between the schools of Islam have not always been, and are not, equal to the resistance and differences of religion and the code of practice. It is possible to intellectually cooperate with others, to enjoin them to the good, and to forbid then from evil.

To be continued.