The curse of sectarianism

Roshan picRoshan Muhammed Salih is 5Pillars editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RMSalih


In the light of Ammar Nakshawani’s recent incendiary lecture on the first generation of Muslims after the Prophet (pbuh), Roshan Muhammed Salih argues that mainstream Muslim communities need to adopt a zero tolerance attitude towards sectarianism.

As a Sunni Muslim I found Ammar Nakshawani’s lecture in Leicester on October 9 to be outrageous, provocative, sectarian and highly irresponsible. He directly called the first two caliphs of Islam “terrorists” and linked the terrorism that we see from groups like ISIS today to their alleged actions.

Sunni Muslims in general (not just Salafis) will take what Nakshawani said as a direct insult to them and many will develop a hatred in their hearts for Shias. And in turn this hatred may push Shia Muslims into a polarized position towards Sunnis.

So although Nakshawani may passionately believe what he said and may have a lot of academic knowledge and oratory skills, it seems he has little or no wisdom.

Sunni-Shia relations

I am someone who traverses the Sunni and Shia communities very easily. As a Sunni I may differ with Shias over their interpretation of Islamic history but I am nevertheless respectful of them, as I am with any Muslim who is respectful of what I believe.

In that attitude I follow the vast majority of Sunni scholars throughout history who have always recognized the Shia to be fully Muslim even if they disagree vehemently with them over certain issues. My attitude has always been that there is far more that unites us than divides us, and that if we are divided as an Ummah we will be easy pickings for our real enemies – the Islamophobes and racists, the Zionists and imperialists.

In general I haven’t come across high levels of sectarianism among Shia Muslims and those who are sectarian tend to exist on the fringe of the community, such as the Kuwaiti preacher Yasser Al Habib.

But Ammar Nakshawani is not a fringe person in the Shia community and has a very large following; he has even appeared at Sunni-Shia unity events! So his blatantly sectarian lecture is extremely worrying and I really hope that the mainstream Shia community acts to distance itself from it.

Sectarian rhetoric

However, while Nakshawani’s speech was outrageous given the sectarian climate we live in, let’s not use it as an excuse to make crass generalisations about Shias.

Ammar Nakshawani
Ammar Nakshawani

The fact is that the major Shia scholars – those with the greatest religious credentials and the largest worldwide followings – have expressly forbidden the insulting of those that Sunnis hold dear. And compared to these leaders (such as Ayatollah Khamenei and Ayatollah Sistani), Ammar Nakshawani is not significant.

And my own sect, especially, has no right to take any moral high ground given the amount of anti-Shia and anti-Sufi sectarian rhetortic within our ranks. I won’t name any of the mainstream figures within my community who indulge in this out of a desire not to inflame the situation, but it wouldn’t be difficult to post some YouTube links if I really wanted to.

But the point is that sectarian rhetoric can have deadly consequences: there are wars going on in the Muslim world where sects are being targeted simply because of who they are and what they believe. People are literally being slaughtered and sectarian rhetoric can only be used to encourage and justify that slaughter.

Meanwhile, here in the UK sectarianism is literally ripping families and communities apart.

The way forward

So what is the way forward? Not a fantasy-land way forward where we all hug each other but a realistic solution?

There are, of course, some Sunnis and Shias who believe in total unity; in holding events together, praying together and even marrying one another.

But there are also many reasonable Sunnis and Shias who do not want to go that far. Instead, they want to effectively lead largely separate existences and only co-operate on areas of mutual concern – such as Islamophobia and Palestine. And that’s fine as long as both communities don’t incite against the other, which effectively means that Sunnis stop making takfir and Shias stop insulting the Sahaba.

But what we all must oppose is the public demonisation of the other by fringes (and increasingly mainstream) figures on both sides.

A good place for us all to start is The Amman Message which, despite being problematically sponsored by the King of Jordan, is still the most comprehensive modern document detailing what Islam is. The Message was signed in 2006 by a wide range of extremely prominent scholars from all schools of thought.

ammanIt states:

“Whosoever is an adherent to one of the four Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi‘i and Hanbali), the two Shia schools of Islamic jurisprudence ( Ja‘fari and Zaydi), the Ibadi school of Islamic jurisprudence and the Thahiri school of Islamic jurisprudence, is a Muslim.

“Declaring that person an apostate is impossible and impermissible. Verily his (or her) blood, honour, and property are inviolable.

“Moreover, in accordance with the Sheikh Al-Azhar’s fatwa, it is neither possible nor permissible to declare whosoever subscribes to the Ash’ari creed or whoever practices real Tasawwuf (Sufism) an apostate. Likewise, it is neither possible nor permissible to declare whosoever subscribes to true Salafi thought an apostate.”

Finally, notice that I haven’t challenged what Nakshawani said in this lecture in this article and I’ve done that deliberately because I’m not an Islamic scholar.

That said, I do know that the matters he discussed have been disputed ever since the Sunni-Shia split emerged and by much greater minds than us, and they’ve yet to be settled.

And it is precisely because they have yet to be settled at a scholarly level that many ulama recommend that the layman does not involve himself in complex issues above his comprehension. The potential for misunderstanding and emotional reaction is just too great for these sensitive issues to be openly discussed on social media for example.

So unless you’ve spent your whole life studying this stuff your opinion simply doesn’t count and doesn’t matter.

In the meantime, as 5Pillars editor I can guarantee that we will continue to cover the entire British Muslim community to the best of our ability and will stand against those who spread sectarian hate, no matter what sect they belong to.

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