Sectarianisms Origin And Its Non Legitimacy In Islam Religion Essay

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Sectarian identities between Sunnīs and Shi'ahs have become an inevitable reality among the Muslims. Each sect considers its sectarian tenets and dogmas as ideal and accurate. Both justify themselves on various grounds and arguments. The sectarian polarization does not confine to ideological differences only. The ideological disparity is converted to violent behaviour when they use force against each other in the form of bomb blast or firing in sectarian processions. This is, indeed, an alarming situation because it leads to social cleavages and jeopardizes social peace and harmony.

So far many studies have been made of the sectarian conflict but little information has been provided regarding the non-legitimacy of the sectarian identities in Islam. The present study will not only highlight the emergence of sects in Islam but will also bring to light the non-legitimacy of the sectarian identities in Islam by citing verses from the Holy Qur'ān and traditions of the Holy Prophet (SAW).

KEYWORDS: Sectarianism, Sunnī, Shi'ah, Qur'ān, Hadith.

The term sect has been derived from a Latin word sequi. It means 'to follow.' The words sect, sector and section signify division; whether it is a group of people as separate from the main body; a piece of land partitioned from the whole; segregation of book into chapters; an organisation into departments. In the terminology of religion it purports a body of followers; a school of opinion within a main religion.

According to Ernst Troeltsch, 'The religious organisation that does not admit secular society and its values.' He classifies sects into two types. Firstly, sects which are active in their antagonism to the new changes in the world. Secondly, sects which are passive and do not employ militancy in its antagonism to the new changes in the world.

According to H. Richard Niebuhr, 'The religious organisation whose protestant tendencies towards secular society, are changed due to change in composition of the sect by virtue of change in generation and socio-economic status of its members and thus shows accommodation to the secular society.'

According to J. M.Yinger, 'The sectarian organisation which retains its sectarian doctrines in spite of its generational changes. He termed such a sect as established sect.'

According to Bryan R. Wilson, 'The group of religious believers distinguished from the dominant prevailing form(s) of religion within a society due to evident divergence in doctrine, practice, and social ethos.'


The term sectarianism is the combination of two words i.e., sect and ism, which means a group of people and ideology respectively. Thus sectarianism means the ideology of a group making it different and distinct from others. According to Oxford Dictionary, 'it is the strong support for a particular religious or political group, especially when this leads to violence between different groups.' According to Musa Khan Jalālzai, 'it is the religious intolerance possessed by one religious sect against others due to its divergent doctrines.' It is also defined as, 'it is the exclusive adherence to a particular view, doctrine or school of thought in such a way as to consider other's views absolutely wrong and their followers as infidels.'

In the light of the above definitions, sectarianism can be defined as, 'the intolerant attitude of a particular school of thought towards others which divides different segments of society into antagonistic groups and creates hatred against each other on the basis of faith and beliefs system.'


Like other major religions of the world, sectarian division also occurred in Islam. The major cause of this sectarian division was political in its nature rather than religious. Immediately after the demise of the Holy Prophet (SAW), believers were divided over the question of succession to the Prophet (SAW). The Holy Prophet Muhammad (SAW) died on 8th June, 632 after an illness of fifteen days. It was a critical juncture because Muslims were confronted with the problem of the leadership of Islamic State. Moreover, the Prophet (SAW) had neither nominated anyone as his successor nor had he left any vivid directions in this connection. In such a critical situation, different groups claimed their right to lead the Muslims. A small group of people remarked that leadership must stay in the family of the Prophet (SAW) and that is why in later days they backed Άlī for that purpose and were known as Shi'ān-e-Άlī, which means the party of Άlī. Majority of the people forwarded the name of Abū Bakr for succession subjected to the will of the ordinary Muslims. The assumption was that because the Holy Prophet (SAW) left no clear instructions regarding his successor, so the matter should be decided through general will of the people. They got the title of ahl al-sunnah wa'l- jama'ah which literally means the group of people who believe in the sunnah of the Holy Prophet (PBUH).


Shi'ah justifies claim of Άlī as first and rightful Khalīfah due to his dual relationship with the Prophet (SAW) as his first cousin and son-in-law. Secondly, they believe that the Holy Prophet (SAW) had designated Άlī as his successor. They cite the proclamation of the Holy Prophet (SAW) which he made in 632 AD. After his last sermon on the Mount of Άrafāt, the Holy Prophet (SAW) was returning to Medīnah when he stayed at a place called Ghadīr al-Khumm. It was at this place that the Holy Prophet (SAW) made the following proclamation. The proclamation has been reported in different versions, the most popular being, 'he for whom I was the Mawlā (master) should hence have Άlī as his master.'

Thirdly, they criticise the principle of free-will of people for choosing the successor of God's messenger, reasoning that the will of the people may go wrong. Only the person who has enough knowledge of Qur'ān and Hadīth can lead Muslims in the right direction. That knowledge was available to those who were near and dear to the Prophet (SAW) - especially, Άlī and through him to his eleven male descendants.

On the other hand, the Sunnīs' contention in considering Abū Bakr as a legitimate successor consists of the following arguments. Firstly, he was a distinguished member of the community in the sense that he was the close companion of the Holy Prophet (SAW); he was older than other contenders for caliphate; he was with the Holy Prophet (SAW) during his migration from Makkah to Medīnah, an event of such importance as to deserve mention in the Qur'ān (9:40); he had given his daughter Άisha in marriage to the Holy Prophet (SAW) and acted as his chief adviser. In addition, it was Abū Bakr who officiated as Imām (the person who leads the congregation in a mosque) during the Prophet's (SAW) illness. Also, the Sunnīs criticise the interpretation and understanding of the term Mawlā in the Prophet's (SAW) proclamation. The word Mawlā can be taken to mean a ruler or it can simply mean a friend. Due to different interpretation, they consider it to be too vague for any hard and fast conclusion to be evolved from it.

Thirdly, they regard succession as elective rather than hereditary. They defend the principle of free-will of the people for election of the caliph and that it is Islamic and not a foreign concept. The Άrabs used to chose their chieftains by exercising their free-will. They were against the law of primogeniture. In case of the Holy Prophet's succession, the matter was quite easy. Because he had not made any will regarding his succession. Moreover, there was neither written constitution nor any provision, which could guide Muslims for succession. In such a vague situation the principle of free-will of the people was genuine response to the situation. A reputed tradition also adds support to the principle of the free-will.

'My community cannot agree on error.'(Ibn-i- Mājah)


There also exist a contradiction between Shi'aism and Sunnīsm regarding the qualifications and functions of the Holy Prophet (SAW). Sunnīsm considers the successor of the Prophet (SAW) to be his Khalīfah who is to be the guardian of Shari'ah. On the other hand Shi'aism entitles such successor as Imām possessing prophetic powers of 'esoteric interpretation of the revelation and the inheritance to the Prophet's esoteric teachings.'

Moreover, they maintain that Imām as infallible with regard to character, making him unique from others for truth and purity. Conversely, the Sunnīs reject such qualification and termed them secondary. The primary thing is that 'he must be free, adult, sane and possessed the capacity to attend to the ordinary affairs of the state.'

Both Shi'aism and Sunnīsm have been further split into various sub-sects. The dominant sub-sects of Shi'aism are Isnā Άsharīyyah (those who believe in twelve Imams), Ismā'īlism (those who believe in seven Imams) and Zaidism (those who believe in five Imams). However, majority of Shi'ahs are Isnā Άsharīyyah. The sub-sects of Sunnīsm are Hanfī, Shāfī, Hambalī,and Mālikī.

An important aspect of Sunnīsm is that 'all Sunnīs accept first four Caliphs, Abū Bakr, 'Umar, 'Uthmān and Άlī as true vicegerents (Khalīfas) of the Prophet (SAW) who fulfilled this function in its fullness so that they are called the rightly-guided Caliphs (Al-Khulafa Al- Rashidūn)'. Sunnī jurists do not accept Umayyad and Άbbasid caliphate as righteous caliphs because in these periods the Islamic caliphate was not the embodiment of the whole Ummah but was transformed into Άrab kingdom. Sunnīsm accepts the authority of rulers even if they are oppressive. However, Shi'aism shows resistance against corrupt and oppressive rulers. That is the reason that the latter 'kept on challenging the legitimacy of different caliphates for most part of the Muslims' history.'


During the caliphate of Abū-Bakr, 'Umar and 'Uthmān, the Shi'ites were leading a mute life. In caliphate of Άlī, they were satisfied as their aim was fulfilled. In reign of Umayyed dynasty, Shi'ism was openly and secretly opposed and its followers were often persecuted. Άbbasid era marked the golden period of Shi'aism as there was little opposition to it. In the 3rd Islamic century and especially in the reign of Al-Mamūn, Shi'ites operated so freely that Άlī al-Rida, the eighth Imām of Shi'ahs, was chosen as successor of Al-Mamūn.

Fourth / Tenth centuries marked strengthening of Shi'aism. The Buyids who were Shi'ites gained political power not only in Persia but also extended it to Baghdad. Meanwhile, the Fātimids, who were Ismā'ilīs, conquered Egypt and organised a caliphate, which lasted for over two centuries (296/908-567/1171). In this period sectarian strives occurred in major cities like Baghdad, Cairo and Nayshāpūr.

During the reign of Safavī monarch Shah Ismā'il, the household of Shaykh Safi al-Din, a Sūfi master and also a Shi'ite, Shi'aism strengthened in Persia due to his expansionist policies. After a series of bloody wars with the local rulers, he succeeded in putting together Persia, piece by piece, into a country and in making Shi'aism the official religion in his kingdom.

Beside this, the Safavī monarch was engaged in converting majority of Sunnī population to Shi'aism. 'These anti-Sunnī policies of Safavides were responsible for deteriorating their relations with neighbouring powers such as Mughals in India, Ottomans in Turkey and Uzbeks in Central Asia.'


In Islam there is no concept of sectarianism. It is the religion of universal brotherhood. It does not recognise any distinction between man and man. It has put into practice the principal of equality to a degree unknown in any other religion. The very word Islam means peace and harmony and it prohibits bigotry and religious intolerance. It emphasises a classless society, equality and, justice and law for all irrespective of colour, creed or caste or status. It preaches generosity and tolerance even to the followers of other religions. The Holy Qur'ān, and Hadith of the Holy Prophet (SAW), fully condemned religious extremism.

The Holy Qur'ān condemns sectarianism and emphasises on unity in the following verses.

'Fasten the rope of Allah and do not sunder into sects.'(3:103)

In another verse Allah ordains,

'Verily, this is My way, leading straight; follow it: follow not (other) paths. They will scatter you about from His (great) path.'(6:153)

Yet in another verse Allah say,

'The same religion has He established for you as that which He enjoined on Noah, the which we have sent by inspiration to thee, and that which we enjoined on Abraham, Moses, and Jesus namely that ye make no divisions therein.'(42:13)

Islam gives due importance to the unification of the whole mankind by reiterated it in Quran as.

'Mankind! Reverence your guardian Lord, who created you from a single man.'(4:1)

The Holy Qur'ān condemns sectarianism so strongly that Qur'ān repudiates the Prophet's (SAW) relation with the advocates of sectarianism.

'As for those who divide their religion and break up into sects, thou hast no part in them in the least.'(6:159)

In another verse Allah ordains the believers as,

'And verily this brotherhood of yours is a single brotherhood.'(23:52)

Allah says that the believers have been divided despite the fact that the Holy Qur'ān forbids it. In a verse Allah says,

'And they became divided only after knowledge reached them.'(42:14)

The Holy Qur'ān does not like extremism neither in religion nor in worldly affairs. Islam accepts diversity of beliefs and values as an inescapable fact of life. It hates all forms of extremism and rigidity and enjoins on its followers to respect difference of opinion. All religions and cultures share a common set of universal values and Islam in particular, accepts all the goodness that civilisation can yield and advocates the unity of humanity and development of cordial relationship among the adherents of different faiths. Enlightened moderation is one of the most important features of Islamic principles. It is evident from the following verses.

'But commit no excess, for God loveth not those given to excess.'(5:87)

'And thus We have made you an Ummah justly balanced.' (2:143)

The enlightened moderation has been aptly described by the exponent of the Shāfī school of thought i.e., Imām Shāfī in these words, 'I consider my opinion accurate however, I do profess the possibility of error in it and consider others' opinion wrong however, I do not neglect the possibility of accuracy in it.'

Like the Holy Qur'ān, Hadith also prohibits people to be divided into sects. The Holy Prophet (SAW) so strongly disliked sectarianism that he declared severe punishment to its supporters. Following are some of the traditions is this connection.

'Collective unity has the support of Allah. He, who will separate from it, will go to the hell.'(Tirmizī)

In another tradition, there is the declaration of separating one's head from his body who is found to be involved in sectarian movements.

'He who will take a step for the destroying the collective unity and peace, cut down his head.'(Muslim Sharīf)

The Holy Prophet (SAW) looked the whole Muslim Ummah as a single body. In one of the tradition he describes this idea.

'The example of the Muslims' collective love and kindness is like a body, in which when one organ gets pain the whole body is sleepless and restless.'(Sahīh Muslim)

The companions of the Holy Prophet (SAW) fully acted upon the teachings of Islam. They never employed force in religious matters. The second caliph, Hazrat 'Umar (RA) inspite of his harshness never used force in religion. His slave Wasiqa, who was a Christian never converted to Islam. Someone asked about the reason of not using force in this matter. 'Umar replied that he has shown the right path, now this was up to him to embrace or not Islam.

Some semi-literate and critics of Islam maintain that the concept of sectarianism do exist in Islam. They give the citation of the tradition in which the Holy Prophet (SAW) has expressed that his Ummah will split into 73 sects and only one will go to Heaven. Here the authenticity of the tradition is right but the interpretation is wrong. Actually the main purpose of this tradition is to prohibit Muslims from being divided into sects rather than to be divided into sects. Thus it is crystal clear that Islam abhors all forms of terrorism and extremism because it is the religion of peace and enlightened moderation.


After the demise of the Holy Prophet (SAW), the believers were divided into Sunnī and Shi'ah sects. With the passage of time their sectarian identity became intensified. Both the sects developed an intolerant posture towards each other. Various political and religious leaders also extended their support to the adherents of their respective sects making the problem more acute. Thus, sectarian identity between Sunnīs and Shi'ahs became an inevitable reality among the believers of Islam.

In Islam there is no legitimacy of sectarianism. All are Muslims and there is no room for sectarian identity in Islam. It abhors schism and emphasized on unity and brotherhood. It condemns any distinction based on colour, creed, caste or status. It supports a tolerant society based mutual respect and reverence. It is totally against extremism and fanaticism. It favours a balance approach in every walk of life including religion. Islam likes collective unity and regards it a pre-requisite for the progress of society. Thus, Islam is a religion which believes in collective whole and discourages schism in any form and manifestation.