Monday, November 10, 2008

Sects in Islam

Question: Does the whole of Islam agree on the contents and meaning of the Qur'an, or are there different groups who claim that only they are true and that all others Muslims fall short of the standard set by God? Western News coverage tends to suggest that Islam is not one big happy global family, and that even in Islam, experts disagree.

Answer: Alas, no, like all followers of all other religions, Muslims too are divided into sects, each believing what they have is right. But let me explain. Firstly, you may have noticed when I quote the Quran, at times I post translations by more than one translators of the same verse. Arabic language has great depth, and the same word can have different shades of meaning. When there is a difference of opinion, I usually tend to compare what others have understood, and try to pick the meaning I feel is the most appropriate. But this happens in very few verses, and it is, I believe, a kind of test for us. The major part is very clear and easy to understand and follow. Also, no matter how many times a person has studied the Quran, each new reading takes the reader to a new depth of meaning, so it is continuously instructing and spiritually elevating the indivisual……….. it is like a course book right from the pre-school to the PhD level! And beyond!Secondly, the major source of disagreements comes from sources other than the Quran. For instance, the books of hadith, the sayings of the Prophet, based on the memory of generations, compiled a 150 to 300 years after the death of Prophet Muhammad, are the main source of confusion. As I do not have any evidence of ‘purported ill intentions’, I like to believe that these were all good people like you and me, who tried to find and preserve whatever they could find attributed to the Prophet. But, as this was a human effort, based on memory of people who had heard from other people, this body of work definitely contains many many contradictions, with the Quran as well as within itself, and there are many sayings which the scholars say are falsely attributed to the Prophet. Treating the Hadith books as works of history would have been a great source for scholarly research, but treating them as articles of faith, with different sects believing in different sets of Hadith, has led to so much sectarian division.Also, some of the divisions started essentially as political divisions, such as the Shia-Sunni divide, and later on religious differences also germinated. The Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad and the Roots of the Shia-Sunni Schism by Barnaby Rogerson traces an interesting account.
Allah does not like sectarianism:
Chapter 6: 159 As for those who divide their religion and break up into sects, thou hast no part in them in the least: their affair is with Allah. He will in the end tell them the truth of all that they did.
Scholars from different sects have lately started sitting together, and are glad to report that there are few differences, and mostly minor in nature, amongst many sects. But, yes, there are some major differences also, but one hopes, with better education and easy access to research material, people will come more and more to common ground, and start treating differences in interpretation as human limitations, and not as reasons to part ways.
May Allah guide us all.

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