Crossroads of Islamic Divisions
By Ebadur Rahman
On March 24th 2008, SHURUQ, a New York University (NYU) club dedicated to “celebrating the many cultures represented in the Muslim world,” put together an event that served particular importance in our times of extreme tension and animosity between people of different views and beliefs. The second in a series of diverse events, this program was entitled “Crossroads of Islamic Divisions: A dialogue for Sunnis and Shi’as to discuss how to bridge divides within our communities and to examine the differences between these two branches and discover commonalities.”
This program brought together two very accomplished and respected speakers, one Shi’a and one Sunni. Sayed Ammar Nakshawani is a dynamic and popular speaker educated in psychology, law, and politics. In Islamic studies, he has completed his masters degree and will obtain his PhD from Exeter University this year. He came together with Dr. Muneer Fareed, the current secretary general for Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), a professor of Islamic studies, and the co-founder of American Learning Institute for Muslims (ALIM).
The program started off with a recitation from the Qur’an and introductions by SHURUQ co-chairs, Shermeen Rahman and Sahal Kango, who expressed their hope that Muslims would find a window into different perspectives through this event. The program was moderated by Irfana Hashmi, a third year PhD candidate at NYU, who began by bringing the Amman Message to the attention of the audience as a historical landmark and beacon of hope for the future of Sunni-Shi’a relations. The Amman Message, signed by many of the world’s leading Muslim scholars, involved ”Three Points,” which included a push for recognition of the diverse schools of thought in Islam, a precise definition of who is a Muslim and a call to cease unwarranted declarations of apostasy and disbelief based on this definition, and an appreciation for the scholarly preconditions required for legal rulings.
In his address, Sayed Ammar Nakshawani quoted from the Qur’an, the Prophetic traditions, and sayings from the Islamic scholarly and intellectual legacy. He also drew from the sayings of Prophet Jesus, peace be upon him, Malcolm X’s definition of brotherhood as a two-way street, and the words of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who said “We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.” Sayed Ammar emphasized the role of the university as a prime place to build brotherhood, where Muslim students of different backgrounds and beliefs can come together and do their best to understand one another.
Speaking on the topic of unity and brotherhood, professor Nakshawani divided the concept of brotherhood into three groups, which consisted of that of blood ties, that of humanity, and that of faith. The first of those groups based on blood ties comes in the Qur’an where we are told the story of the two sons of Adam and how jealousy led one to kill the other (5:27) as well as the story of the children of Jacob, in which jealously led to throwing the prophet Yusuf (Joseph) into a well and claiming that he had been devoured by a wolf (12:15-17). However, in many places in the Qur’an, Allah also gives us the example of Moses and Aaron, who, with mutual respect and love, strengthened each other in their mission of prophecy. Similarly, we have the well-known, beautiful story of the two grandsons of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him and all the Prophets of God) who came with the most beautiful of etiquettes to correct an old man who was performing the ablution incorrectly. After giving these examples, Sayed Ammar concluded his remarks on this first group by saying that just as we have and show love and concern for our kin, our brothers and sisters in humanity and in faith have similar, if not greater, rights over us.
In his description of the second group, humanity, the speaker referred to Imam Ali (may Allah ennoble his face) as having said that people are of two types, either your brother in faith or your equal in humanity. The Qur’an calls for people to appreciate their diversity and “to come to know one another” (49:13). It even calls on those outside Islam to find a common word between one another (3:64). Sayed Ammar gave the example of the Prophet sending his Companions to the Christian Abyssinian ruler Najashi for shelter and protection. He also gave examples of the early scholars of Islam interacting with those outside the faith, including atheists, and he described the beautiful etiquette required of Muslims even if we disagree on core issues of faith. What then of those whom we share most matters of faith with, agree upon the prophecy of our beloved Messenger, read the same scripture, and pray in the same direction?
The third group was the core issue in the night’s talk on unity and brotherhood between Muslims. In his description of the brotherhood of faith, Sayed Ammar quoted the Qur’anic verse that states, “The believers are but one brotherhood” (49: 10), and discussed the linguistic implications of the verse indicating that our brothers in Islam have an even greater right over us than our blood brothers. Profound lessons for us can be found in the story of the Companions who were about to engage in a tribal fight in Medina until the Prophet reminded them of the gift of Islam that Allah had bestowed upon them. Sayed Ammar emphasized the pairing between those who emigrated from Mecca and the Medinans that was introduced immediately by the Prophet upon entry into Medina as an example of faith providing a greater cause of commonality than differences.
A united brotherhood, however, does not imply that there be no differences of opinion, but rather that those differences should be engaged with dialogue and respect.
The distinguished speaker concluded by insisting that even if our interpretations of history are different, we can still come together in common dialogue with each other as Muslims. The Imams of the different Islamic schools have differed with each other throughout history but have had the utmost respect for one another, defending their honor and even sitting at each others’ feet as students of knowledge.
Dr. Muneer Fareed, the second speaker in the night who comes from a Sunni background, started his talk by mentioning that the Muslim community’s interest in unity is necessary not only for practical reasons but also due to our religious obligation to it. According to Dr. Fareed, as human beings, we aught to celebrate our unique diversity, but at times need to contain it in the interests of communal harmony. He said that although our perspectives of the past and future may be somewhat different, there are elements in our faith that bind us. The absolute requirements of faith are belief in God, in the Prophet, and in the Qur’an. We differ in the details of these beliefs, such as those dealing with the issues of imamate, prophecy, and the Qur’an. Differences regarding the details occur not only between the Shi’a and Sunni sects, but also between the different theological schools within both Sunni and Shi’a Islam. However, Islam has provided us with mechanisms to advocate for unity while also negotiating the diversity within us.
Among the factors that separate the two sects of Muslims are their different perspectives on history. Sunnis have prided themselves on the dynamic spread of Islam throughout the world, while Shi’as have emphasized the loss of the transformative power that touched and refined the first generation of Muslims under the guidance of the noble Messenger.
Another difference between the two sects is the fact that the Sunnis have had a predominantly majority perspective throughout Islamic history, whereas Shi’as have had a mostly minority perspective. This difference has had a profound effect on the views that those who have been marginalized and experienced injustice have towards the dominant group, which may not give those injustices much weight, and on which narrative the history books tell.
Dr. Fareed highlighted the fact that Sunnis must realize that there is a difference between Sunni and Shi’a methodology that gives Shi’a Muslims a different perspective on the role of texts and the interpretive role of the family of the Prophet. Only through an understanding of that background can sense be made of accusations of ‘bida’ (innovation) or as Dr. Fareed termed it “contra-sunna”. Dr. Fareed expounded later in the night about how many Muslims from Sunni backgrounds today are unappreciative of the importance and respect that Sunni Islam gave to the family of beloved Messenger, the Ahl al-Bayt.
Perhaps a greater understanding, appreciation, and love for the Prophet, his family, and his companions can serve as a means of greater unity between the different groups of Muslims, especially as Sayed Ammar mentioned later in the night, as we leave the month of the Prophet’s blessed birth. God willingly by developing this common ground, Muslims could then better address the many challenges that lie before the entire Muslim community, regardless of their coming from either Shi’a or Sunni backgrounds.
After the two lectures, the speakers engaged in a lively but civil discussion with the audience. The program ended with remarks by our respected and inspiring imam, Chaplain Khalid Latif, who spoke about the environment of respect and the spirit of working together that he and the Islamic Center at NYU are attempting to facilitate and nurture. More information about the center and the mission to establish a mosque in downtown Manhattan can be found online at www.icnyu.org.
[Editor's note: Sidi Ebadur Rahman is a close friend of the IslamCrunch family. This post marks his first article on IslamCrunch and we would like to extend our gratitude to him for allowing us to post his work. Little brother, thank you for honoring us.]
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