British Muslims Maturing Beyond Sectarianism

Teenagers hands playing tug-of-war with rope

By Shaikh Muhammad Nizami

It seems to be the growing sentiment of many Muslims that a maturation of Islamic thought that helps British Muslims find a comfortable and productive space in British society is direly needed. Social maturation is a complex process, so any assumption that a brief article can chart its course might be overly ambitious. However, to resolve anything of a complex nature the first step naturally requires a shift from one-dimensional perspectives to an appreciation for nuance, and from naysaying to positive contribution.

Now there are always various attitudes we can engender when looking at things; driven by a positive outlook we would come to recognise the countless opportunities God has afforded us to live in the UK productively, and in understanding the faith we ought to appreciate the scope to evaluate and develop. The fostering of a constructive and virtue-seeking approach might begin with an appraisal of each issue with the following considerations: what does God want, and how will we ascertain that He wants it that way? Do we fully comprehend an issue we take interest in, or want to hold an opinion on, as well as all of the influencing variables involved? How can we resolve an issue or put forward a solution that benefits the greatest number of people in a way that is workable – taking into consideration established processes, social norms, and public sentiment? And how do we define that ‘benefit’? What are we driven by: is it a commitment to revelation, a love of God, and seeking out what is valuable, or a loathing of adversaries, a mentality informed by post-colonial anguish, ghettoised comradery, and misplaced self-admiration?

Seeking virtue and productivity requires dexterity, and carries with it the risk of being misunderstood. Identifying causes to misunderstandings as well as identifying impediments allows us to progress unencumbered. Here I intend to briefly explore the way sectarianism has limited Islamic thinking and the significance of us all appreciating meaningful conversations rather than shunning inquiry.

Over the past two decades we have been particularly witness to the destructive nature of partisanship; it demolishes everything, from creativity and erudition to God consciousness and simple common sense. Good people end up standing by bad things, intelligent people by silly things, and inconsistency generally reigns supreme. Often people argue, not out of a sense of addressing great inaccuracies (in fact they might actually agree with the sentiment they express antipathy against) but because sectarian allegiance always trumps. It is unfortunate but not exactly surprising, “But they tore themselves into disputing factions; each party ecstatic with what they had.”[1]

Often, it is the collective hype that draws loyalty, not an accurate analysis of each and every issue. Even contemporary scholars and intellectuals whom we might hold in esteem fall into it. For example, a number of very well known scholars from sufi backgrounds zealously denigrated Ibn Taymiyyah for years, having never read his scholastic contributions but instead fell back on second-hand criticisms of those like the Shafi’ite Imam al-Subki or cherry-picking quotes from Ibn Hajr al-Asqalani. Similarly, there have been famous salafi personalities who continue to deny the scholarly aptitude of al-Ghazali having never even read through Ihya Ulum al-Din. Some take a slightly different approach, having partially read one book by notable scholars such as al-Qardawi, Ibn Bayyah, Taqi Usmani or Ibn al-Uthaimin, they hastily conclude all of their insights and scholastic contributions to be of little value. Many laymen have proved no better, belittling the learned or completely negating their position whilst incapable of providing even the most basic indication of what they would then deem to be worthy qualifications.

But the irrationality sectarianism cultivates isn’t something new, we have witnessed magnificent scholars of the mediaeval past who, aside from their brilliant contributions to various fields of Islamic learning, also exhibited unreasonable arguments out of sectarian prejudice and in support of their school of thought, be it theology or law. Conversely, it may be argued that the Hanbalite theologian and legal philosopher Abu Bakr b. al-Qayyim was often disparaged because of an approach that refused such partisanship; whilst he was very clearly a member of the Hanbali school, for Ibn al-Qayyim and those like him fiqh or aqidah was premised on figuring out what God wanted (as gleaned from revelation) rather than simply flying the flag of the Hanbalites. It is for this reason that he recorded the following sentiment in his Tariq al-Hijratain:

“It is our custom in all issues pertaining to the faith, overarching or minutia, to hold what it necessitates, and not position one against the other nor to incline with one sect against the other. In fact, we agree with any sect in what they exhibit of the truth and disagree with that which opposes it – and we hold no exception for any sect or statement. It is our hope with God to live in this way and die likewise.”

For all of the binary reasoning employed today in the name of upholding tradition and deferring to the ancients, it is ironic that the venerated scholars of old were extremely nuanced, dealing with each issue individually, attempting to conceptualise the exact point of consideration accurately, and offering fair critique, holistic analysis and well reasoned conclusions. Yet many Muslims either willfully ignore a progressive approach – and by progressive I mean a creative way to move beyond an impasse rather than simply register protest – or seek to characterise today’s thinkers as deviant only because of aversion towards anything contrary to their uninformed partisan paradigms. As the British historian Arnold Toynbee concluded, civilisations rose by responding successfully to challenges under the leadership of creative minorities composed of elite leaders with civilisations declining when their leaders stopped responding creatively.

For British Muslims at the beginning of the maturation process, creative responses seem to be far down the line; we must first appreciate the importance of constructive questions that seek to make our relationship with God meaningful and Islamic normative ethics practicable. A good example of this venture is found in the scholastic investigations of Ibn Taymiyyah [2]:

“So (the idea of) following his (the Prophet’s) example might pertain to the action type (how it manifests), and at times to its species (the essence of the undertaking). He might do something the value of which overarches that specific manifestation (or other manifestations) and is not specific to it, since what is of moral value (mashru’) is the general affair. An example would be of his cupping which was out of a need to extract contaminated blood. So is imitating (the Prophet) specific to the act of cupping or is the intent simply to remove blood in a way that is most conducive? It is known that emulating the Prophet is morally legislated. But the important thing to note is that if the country is hot whereby blood rises to the skin, cupping is better, and if the country is cold whereby blood settles in the vein, removing the blood by cutting open the vein (phlebotomy) would be most conducive.”

Ibn Taymiyyah begins the conversation on prophetic actions marking the difference between type and species, and exploring this distinction in the context of bloodletting by investigating the most appropriate method of capturing the essence of the undertaking rather than concluding that it is the specific manner that was intended by the Prophet. Given his willingness to explore the topic, might we adduce that were Ibn Taymiyyah alive today, he might question whether blood-letting itself is now a beneficial medical treatment in light of other medical discoveries? Would he be charged with being a ‘modernist’ for simply asking the question? Ibn Taymiyyah went on to present other examples, continuing:

“…Similarly, so when he ate dates and bread made from barley (and their like) – all the staple food of his country, does (the notion of) emulating the Prophet mean to specifically intend dates and barley to the extent that it is done by those who neither have dates growing in their lands nor does barley make up their staple diet, but where their staple consists of wheat, rice or other things? It is known that the second is legislated, the evidence of which is that upon the conquest of new regions the Companions would eat the staple of the respective country and wear the clothing of those lands, rather than intentionally seeking the staple foods of Madinah or its clothing. For if the second (i.e. seeking the staple foods of Madinah or its clothing) was better for the Companions they were worthiest of choosing the better.”

While many fittingly hold Shaikh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah in high stead, such sentiments would undoubtedly be deemed questionable by some if uttered by a scholar today. They would argue it to be a deprecation of ancient Madinan culture and with misplaced zeal unconnectedly quote hadith on Madinah’s virtue. Perhaps even more controversial would be how Ibn Taymiyyah continued:

“And (another example) from this topic of discussion is his overarching practice, and that of his companions, to wrap a loin cloth and fasten it. So is it better for everyone to fasten and wrap a loin cloth, even with a shirt? Or is it better to wear trousers with a shirt – without the loincloth or wrap? This is something the scholars have debated but the second opinion seems rather more obvious.”

Now in the contemporary western context the topic incorporates countless issues which should be legitimately open for debate, such as the legislative value (mushru’iyyah) of siwak – is God’s favour specific to using a twig from the Salvadora persica tree or is it the general notion of teeth-brushing (albeit with a toothbrush) that is envisioned? In fact, if we’re to follow the method of analysis adopted by Ibn Taymiyyah, and using his reference to clothing as an example, what does it suggest about the way Muslims might dress in the western world and the popular notion of ‘Islamic clothing’ amongst western ethnic minorities? Extending his reasoning might mean challenging the preferability of wearing a thobe/kameez/kafni or abayah – I don’t mean jilbabs discussed in the Quran, but how jilbabs culturally manifest. And that’s not to mention that all the aforementioned are largely the cultural attire of the Arabian Gulf and South Asia, not ancient Madinan clothing.

Now it is at this juncture that aggressive detractors stir, and the immature resort to juvenile labels such as ‘(religious) liberal’, ‘modernist’, ‘reformist’ or their like, as if initiating a discussion on what Allah and His messenger intended is some covert plan to encourage believers to expose their awrah. And if a retort is based on the reasons found in the hadith of Ibn Umar on facial hair [3], that we must differ from polytheists, even culturally, then what are the parameters to ‘differing’ – as in how far does such an endeavour go? The topic is beyond the scope of this article and one that I may address thoroughly at another time, but what remains relevant is the need to appreciate such investigations and view them in a positive light – we happily do so when a medieval scholar does exactly the same (Ibn Taymiyyah’s exploration a case in point). Misplaced and trenchant dogma is the essence of ignorance and ungodliness since it then boils down to what a group have arbitrarily decided they prefer to do rather than what it is that God actually wants. Such sectarianism leads to restricted and selective readings and the construction of an intellectual culture completely at odds with the methodology of those we claim to venerate.

If we refuse to mature, accept substandard and parroted religious instruction that has become the staple of sectarianism, neglecting the need for nuance, a substantiated outlook and rabbaniyyah [4], then many of the anxieties and internal conflicts individual Muslims face will remain unresolved. And rather than creating an environment that induces intellectual inquiry, spiritual growth, decency and the celebration of God, we sink ever more into the depths of despair, confusion, and regression, not only hampered by ailing hearts but also debilitated intellects.

Taken from

[1] Quran 23:53

[2] see: Majmu’ al-Fatawa (Kitab al-Salah).

[3] The Prophet said: “differ from the pagans, leave facial hair to gather (mu’aafah) and trim moustaches.” (al-Bukhari and Muslim)

[4] a rich term intimating cultivated godliness.

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