Posted by: Dawud Israel | October 14, 2018

17 Truths about Muslim Sectarianism

17 Truths about Muslim Sectarianism

I am a traditional Sunni Muslim with love for a Sufi understanding of Islam and studying the deen. But I’ve realized when it comes to Muslims talking about religious differences, Allah subhana wa ta’ala, Rasulullah ﷺ and the Qur’an itself have usually nothing to do with the differences among Muslim (or Muslim-related groups).

So I want to identify a number of truths for whenever we talk about ‘deviant’ sects or non-Sunni groups or misguided Sunni sects or what have you.

  1. There are no first hand accounts of the so-called ‘deviant’ group. It is all second-hand and third-party stories of what every single person of this group does or secretly believes. ‘These people do this or that’ or ‘I heard for so-and-so they do this.’ Lawyers call this ‘hearsay‘ and it is not valid evidence in court. Most of these stories are exaggerated, for the gullible and intellectually weak and utilized to encourage hatred – not hidaya. The reality is Islamophobes do the exact same to Muslims as Muslims do to deviant groups; they learn of Islam from anti-Muslim Arab sounding Christian preachers and have no first hand experience with practicing Muslims and stereotype us just as we do with Muslim sects.
  2. The followers of a sect have little knowledge of their beliefs and are therefore not really guilty of any deviance in any substantive way. Often their religious leaders deliberately hide their religious texts from their followers. I have not talked to a Shi’a or Qadiani follower who actually truly understood their beliefs. Their belief was cultural and blind following the religion of their family. Ulema know this too. I recall an opinion of Maulana Rashid Gangohi saying the leaders of Shi’a are not Muslim, but the same cannot be said of their followers.
  3. The ‘deviant’ beliefs are usually: 1) minute 2) ancient and 3) hypothetical and/or theoretical in nature, and therefore forgettable and not really ironclad written-in-stone beliefs. In fact, most of these beliefs don’t affect aqida’s to the core and could not be rationally and fairly discussed except amongst seasoned ulema familiar with very obscure texts. For example, I doubt many Deobandi or Tablighi brothers understand the reasons why Imam Ahmad Raza Khan opposed the ulema of Deoband almost a century ago.
  4. Muslim sects are political scapegoats for Muslim governments just as Muslims are scapegoats of Western governments. The cycle of oppression mimics its way down the geopolitical gutter.  The scapegoats are, almost always, poor. 
  5. It is easier for Muslims to work with Christians than it is to work with Muslims of different sects because one can preserve their moral authority as spokesperson of all Muslims.
  6. The main beneficiary of Muslim sectarianism are corporations and non-Muslim superpowers. If no sectarianism amongst Muslim exists, it is artificially created covertly by non-Muslim powers using false-messianism or colonial divide and conquer strategy explained in this video
  7. Most Muslims have not made full sense of the reality of difference in Islam. That is, they don’t believe there to be any divine wisdom in diversity or even the possibility of any divine wisdom. Only one correct way  of doing things exists. But why is it so hard to imagine Allah can accept diversity? We need to learn to imagine more than one valid truth, way or interpretation. The seven varying recitations of the Qur’an (listen here for a very different qira’at) and Khidr’s action in Surah al-Kahf are challenging for Muslims to make sense of.
  8. Religious difference very rarely manifests in day to day Islamic activity. Charity, compassion, prayer and fasting are all common amal for Muslims of all stripes. A Tablighi friend of mine became upset with me because I never told him the roommate he’d been living with for months was actually Shi’a. The only thing that tipped him off was when he heard his roommates’ full name. If it took months to notice, than I wonder how smart he was, or whether, my Shi’a friend was de facto Sunni and only Shi’a in name. On a 1 to 10 scale of Shi’a-ness, he was probably a 1 and I suspect most people who call themselves Shi’a are around there as well.   
  9. Overlapping sharing of religious, intellectual and spiritual resources is commonplace amongst sects. They all use same religious texts but re-work or re-interpret to suit their understandings. For example, the Salafi and Asharis all teach Aqida Tahawiyya but with different explanations. This summer I studied works of Imam al-Sha’rani, one work was taught by a Deobandi mufti and the other work by a Barelwi aalim but both managed to stay pretty neutral. Likewise, I recall reading a Salafi publication quoting Ibn Ata’illah discretely saying he was a zahid. 
  10. The Prosperity gospel is alive and well among Muslims. Many Muslim groups recruit only from the wealthy, privileged and attractive much like the modus operandi of Scientologists. The calculus is: Poverty leads to religious ignorance and confusion. The rich are learned and guided, while the poor are ignorant and astray. This enforces a prosperity gospel belief of privilege being an indicia of divine blessing and favour which is contrary to the example of the Ahlu-Suffa. You see this among MAC, sufi groups, modernists and perennialists. They all dress nice and buy quality goods to re-enforce the pious look, above and beyond that of the average Muslim. Likewise, you will see the same in church-going Christian families.
  11. Money is the main reason for barricading off other sects. At the back of everybody’s mind is the thought, ‘Money will be lost if our group cooperates with the other group, so lets not do it.’ The same goes with mosques not cooperating. There is very little basis for mixing money and Islam. The various for-money institutes in America, the Barelwi Madina City in Karachi with its Green Dome-d apartment complex, the various Ismaili and Qadiani ‘taxes’ are all about fuelling growth of the sect / group leader. Likewise, if you walk into the Aga Khan museum in Toronto you will not see a single photograph of Mecca or Madina because then they’d be indirectly endorsing the competition – the Saudis.
  12. Dress is used deliberately to indicate adherence to a specific religious understanding. We see even among Sunnis the different colours and styles of turbans, hijabs and abayas. Yet often the basis of dress has little to do with the sunnah dress.
  13. Sects do not neatly fit into binaries. For example, the Houthi Shi’a of Yemen, another sect no one had ever heard of are doctrinally closer to Sunni Islam than the Shi’ism of Iran. But they are hated by Sunnis for being Shi’a but also hated by Shi’as as being crypto-Sunnis. 
  14. Similar patterns of sectarian behaviour exist in other religions. I remember over hearing young Christians talk in a coffee shop of how they love the ‘foreign’ preachers and how it was great when they all stand up in unison. This eerily reminded me of the standing up in mawlids and the love of overseas scholars.  
  15. Even the most orthodox groups have a modicum of unusual and questionable activities that they may hide, overlook or sweep under the rug. For example, in many masjids you find the smell of onions in Ramadhan, but most Sunni ulema know angels stay away from the smell of onions. Are the mosques then void of angels? Guidance therefore is likely a difference in degree, not kind.
  16. There are sects in obedience as there are in disobedience – different types of religious personalities. The Qur’anic categories of the sa’imin, dhakirin and siddiqin are sects of obedience and are rarely talked about but these are the groups Allah talks to us about and wants us to join.  
  17. Truly righteous people can easily guide the misguided. Unrighteous people can easily misguide or fail to guide. These righteous people are inwardly worthy of being followed and Allah gives them sway over hearts. They put periods and full stops where the unrighteous put question marks and exclamation points. And only Allah can guide you to these righteous people.

I hope from this people can see how much of the intellectual and spiritual truth and power of Islam gets lost in the economic, political, sartorial pressures and historical, psychological and sociological realities. The labels are bigger than the differences.

Love of money, love of authority and power are the real obstacles to unity of Muslims. Sectarianism originates from narcissism and a love of the nafs. The reality of istighfar goes against any notion of feeling one is guided or saved from Hellfire. The stick should go against one’s own nafs – not against the nafs of others.

In the previous ummahs, like those of Bani Israel, they had to do qitaal for forgiveness — a group had knives and others kneeled, a cloud descended with darkness, they were ordered to kill each other until the cloud lifted and then they were forgiven. I feel this is a perfect metaphor for Muslim infighting – only their is no forgiveness.

The Truth of Islam is an amalgam of various narratives. This is why you find the great masters of Sunni Islam were trained in different madhaib. You also find the scholars saying no one can be an aalim if they only have one shaykh. The more of the tradition of Islam one learns, the more hesitant one becomes to condemning different Muslim sects. Often, their will be a kernel of truth or logical rationale as to why a ‘deviant’ group does what they do. But this should not make one complacent with pure unadulterated misguidance when it rears its ugly head. 

The ummah is so big that their are groups of Muslims out there you have never heard of and never will and even if you did, you would not be able to understand them in a fair manner due to a lack of information and contact. Most Muslims had never heard of Rohingya Muslims until recently and most still don’t know much about them. If we found out the Rohingya were not Sunni then would our sympathy for them change? 

Differences can keep away misguidance. For example, many modern Sunnis have found it fashionable to say music is halal, yet, we have Shia texts tell us it is clearly haram. So even if one group were to go completely off the rails on one issues, another group stands as an intellectual bulwark against them. 

Religious activity as Muslim minorities reduces sectarianism and increases cooperation. Nobody cares about sectarian differences when Muslims are few. And that is as it should be. Who cares about theological differences if you can’t pray jumuah or eat halal meat?  Sunnis and Shi’as in Canada, America and Britain need to work together to get halal meat slaughtered and to have Muslim cemeteries in the West. Regardless of how separate and apart they want to be – they have shared ongoing concerns as religious minorities. The non-Muslim community doesn’t care about the religious differences. In fact, most non-Muslims still confuse Muslims with Sikhs and Hindus.

The history of cooperation and shared history among Muslim sects and Muslims and non-Muslims is suppressed or hidden. Some campuses of the early Darul Uloom in India permitted diversity in teachings – where many different sects taught under the same roof – including Qadianis, Bohras and Shia – but later on the Darul Uloom’s changed to a Maturidi-Hanafi standard curriculum. Another example is tombs/mosques in the Holy Land shared by Muslim, Jews and Christians, sites like Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka shared with Hindus and Buddhists, Sufi tombs in Pakistan and India shared with Sikhs and Hindus. In some Indian towns, the Hindu temples will stop their prayer sounds when the adhaan plays. Alliances and shared spaces are practicalities that overlook theological differences so everybody benefits in the long-term. Their is a fraternity of belief in this age of materialism and godlessness common to all religious adherents. The number of adherents need to outnumber non-adherents for any one religion to thrive, let alone, survive. Nobody has the power to create a monopoly or displace other religions. Everybody has to share in order for any one community to get a blessing; either we are all blessed, or no one is. 

I feel these truths will show us what truly matters to us as Muslims and what doesn’t. How we can move forward as a community and not hold each other back? How can we claim guidance if we can’t even overcome our most base instincts and stupidity? I hope I have helped in that regard.

Subhana kallahumma wa bihamdika ash-haduana la illaha illa ant astaghfiruka wa atubu ilayk, ameen.


  1. Excellent post!

  2. Reblogged this on | truthaholics.

  3. […] is an article taken from the MUSLIMOLOGY Dawah Research and Development Blog. Source: 17 Truths about Muslim Sectarianism by Dawud Israel, who says: I am a traditional Sunni Muslim with love for a Sufi understanding of […]

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