• Mohsin Ali

A Pathway to Intra-Sunni Theological Unity

Updated: Dec 27, 2021


With the name and praises of Allah, the All-Knower, the All-Wise



Summary of Main Points



  • Sectarianism is forbidden in Islam, yet various groups emerged relatively early in Islamic history.


  • In response, the Companions (ر) and their followers (who represented orthodoxy) remained steadfast on what they had inherited directly from the Prophet (ص) and this inherited tradition eventually came to be known as Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jama’ah.


  • As a matter of historical fact then, Sunnism is the only traditional and valid interpretation of Islam and all others are not. It is thereby sufficient for one’s salvation and nothing beyond is required in terms of a person’s system of belief. This is a critical point.


  • Unfortunately, Sunni scholars then divided into various subgroups themselves and in judging their opponents ex-communicated from Sunnism or even as disbelievers, pushed their differences onto the pubic too. The public then exacerbated the divisions, leading to centuries of intra-Sunni disunity and sectarianism, which today is quite evidently a source of much fitnah and a significant barrier to the ummah’s progress.


  • Not much thought or effort has been made in solving these differences and reuniting Sunnis. It is not even a passing consideration for most, despite the Qur’anic injunction to be united. The pathway to reunification presented in this article entails the following:


  • There are various categories of beliefs and practices. Some are compulsory, some essential, and some are speculative. A person’s Islam and Sunnism are determined by the first two (respectively), so disbelief and/or deviation can only result from a violation of these two, not the third.


  • The beliefs and practices the main Sunni subgroups (that is Ash’aris, Salafis, Deobandis, and Barelwis) form their individual identities and define themselves with (and differ over) are of the third category.


  • They are therefore superfluous to one’s Islam and Sunnism, so there is no need to identify with any of these subgroups, since they are not salvific. Meaning, one does not need to be an Ash’ari, Salafi, Deobandi, or Barelwi to be Sunni, which is actually what is important. This is the crux of the matter and applies to all, scholars and the public.


  • To foster greater intra-Sunni unity, the public at large and the more non-sectarian/reasonable scholars of each Sunni subgroup should therefore avoid proliferating controversial speculative issues and propagate only the obligatory and essential beliefs and practices.


  • As for the approach of some scholars whereby they call for unity between the various Sunni subgroups, but only without compromising their beliefs and practices and for common causes, this does not address the underlying problem and can never be a long-term solution to the prevailing discord.


Abstract


In this article, I will explore a possible method of achieving intra-Sunni theological unity amongst those who affiliate themselves to Ahl al-Sunnat wa al-Jama'at in general (such as Ash'aris, Salafis, Deobandis, and Barelwis), but are subsequently divided by internal sectarian differences. Working from within the Sunni paradigm, I will begin by classifying Islamic beliefs and practices according to their varying degrees of definitiveness and detailing the responsibilities Muslims bear towards each category. Thereafter, allocating the contentious issues of intra-Sunni sectarianism to one of these classes will allow me to determine the responsibility Muslims bear towards the contentious matters too and resultantly, present a method for creedal unity. Certain practical hindrances to the proposal will also be considered.


Introduction


Sectarianism is a problem that has plagued the ummah from a surprisingly early period, for as a matter of historical fact, its first occurrences were during the era of the Companions (ر). Crucially, the Companions (ر) themselves and their followers remained united upon the one theology that the former had inherited directly from the Prophet (ص) and in doing so established something extremely significant. That the core Islamic doctrines and practices had already been detailed by and inherited from Allah and His Messenger (ص) and cannot be contested in any way,


ٱلۡیَوۡمَ أَكۡمَلۡتُ لَكُمۡ دِینَكُمۡ وَأَتۡمَمۡتُ عَلَیۡكُمۡ نِعۡمَتِی

This day I have perfected for you your religion and completed upon you My favour

(Qur’an, 5:3)


وَلَا تَكُونُوا۟ كَٱلَّذِینَ تَفَرَّقُوا۟ وَٱخۡتَلَفُوا۟ مِنۢ بَعۡدِ مَا جَاۤءَهُمُ ٱلۡبَیِّنَـٰتُۚ وَأُو۟لَـٰۤىِٕكَ لَهُمۡ عَذَابٌ عَظِیم

And do not be like those who divided and differed after clear proofs came to them. They are the ones for whom is a great punishment (Qur’an, 3:105)


وَٱعۡتَصِمُوا۟ بِحَبۡلِ ٱللَّهِ جَمِیعࣰا وَلَا تَفَرَّقُوا

And hold firmly to the rope of Allah together and do not divide (Qur’an, 3:103)


This inherited theology was eventually contra-distinguished as ‘Ahl al-Sunnat wa al-Jama’at’ and ever since, the vast majority of the ummah has identified itself with this title. Thus, Sunnism is a living tradition stretching back to the Prophet (ص), his Companions (ر), and the majority of Muslims from the earliest generations and its very existence is the most significant proof for the validity of the tenets and practices it upholds. But it also finds precedent in the famous 'Hadith of Division'[1], wherein the Prophet (ص) foretold of the sectarian divisions to occur after him and as a solution instructs adherence to his way, the way of his Companions (ر), and the majority,


عَنْ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ بْنِ عَمْرٍو، قَالَ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم... إِنَّ بَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ تَفَرَّقَتْ عَلَى ثِنْتَيْنِ وَسَبْعِينَ مِلَّةً وَتَفْتَرِقُ أُمَّتِي عَلَى ثَلاَثٍ وَسَبْعِينَ مِلَّةً كُلُّهُمْ فِي النَّارِ إِلاَّ مِلَّةً وَاحِدَةً قَالُوا وَمَنْ هِيَ يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ قَالَ مَا أَنَا عَلَيْهِ وَأَصْحَابِي


Sayyiduna Abdullah bin Amr (ر) said, ‘The Messenger (ص) said, “…The Children of Israel divided into seventy-two sects and my nation will split into seventy-three. All of them are in the fire, apart from one.” They said, “And who are they, O Messenger of God (ص)?” He said, “What I am upon, and my Companions (ر)” ’ (Tirmidhi)

عَنْ أَنَسِ بْنِ مَالِكٍ، قَالَ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم، إِنَّ بَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ افْتَرَقَتْ عَلَى إِحْدَى وَسَبْعِينَ فِرْقَةً وَإِنَّ أُمَّتِي سَتَفْتَرِقُ عَلَى ثِنْتَيْنِ وَسَبْعِينَ فِرْقَةً كُلُّهَا فِي النَّارِ إِلاَّ وَاحِدَةً وَهِيَ الْجَمَاعَةُ ‏(‏‏رواه ابن ماجه‏)‏‏

Sayyiduna Anas (ر) said, ‘The Messenger (ص) said, “The Children of Israel divided into seventy-one sects and verily, my nation will split into seventy-two[2]. All of it is in the fire, apart from one, and it is the main body.” ’ (Ibn Maajah)


Thankfully, the initial growth in sectarianism did not persist much beyond the first few centuries and almost all of the groups that once claimed tenure of the truth in opposition to Ahl al-Sunnt wa al-Jama’at disappeared into the archives of history. Though a few did survive to contemporary times and expectedly some are even products of it, ultimately, for an ordinary Muslim seeking the right path, deciding between the various sects at this level should be relatively straightforward. They can either adopt the Sunni positions, which as a matter of historical fact were inherited from the Prophet (ص) himself, or one of the minority breakaway groups that came later (even if relatively soon after) and possess no initial legitimacy. It really is as simple as that.


The Problem


But there is another level of sectarianism whose dynamics are a little more complicated and it is also the most prevalent variety, namely intra-Sunni sectarianism. In other words, when ideologically opposed Sunni scholars form their own factions, brazenly claim Ahl al-Sunnat wa al-Jama’at for themselves, and exclude their rivals from its perimeter[3]. The theological status of these subgroups and how Sunnis ought to manage them will be discussed shortly, but first we need to understand why this kind of intra-Sunni sectarianism is problematic and why there is a serious need to address it, particularly for Muslims in the West.


Firstly, all of these groups wrongfully circumscribe Sunnism to their individual ideologies and to the exclusion of everyone else, and this is an injustice to the prophetic inheritance (as we shall see). Secondly, because they generally consider their rivals as either deviants or disbelievers, they squander their resources on fighting and refuting each other, instead and at the opportunity cost of addressing far more serious problems, such as Muslim apostasy; postmodernism; social failures; institutional reforms; et cetera. Thirdly, they have given rise to the toxic and epidemic ‘refutation culture’, with countless unqualified and overly enthusiastic individuals engaging in mutual, ill-mannered and ill-informed polemics and blaspheming, when all they achieve by it is the ruin of their hereafter. Thus, intra-Sunni factionalism has not only affected the scholarly class, but has heavily impacted the Sunni public and caused infighting and division among them too. 


Evidently then, intra-Sunni sectarianism is a persistent and crippling difficulty, and solving it is quite necessary if we are to overcome some of the major problems the ummah currently faces. And given the failure of the undoubtedly sincere, yet insufficient calls for intra-Sunni unity thus far, clearly a more robust approach is needed and this is what we shall explore.

The Framework


Before we set out the potential pathway to intra-Sunni theological unity, it is essential that we first cover the taxonomy or classification of tenets and rulings in the Sunni tradition, as this will form the basis of our proposal.

1. Conditional Doctrines


Firstly, entering the religion of Islam simply requires belief in its testimony[4], there is no god besides God (Allah) and Muhammad (ص) is His messenger. But the words 'God' and 'messenger' convey certain meanings that may be understood at basic or more detailed levels. Also implied in this testimony is the existence of a message from God to be adhered to[5], for without this the Messenger Muhammad (ص) cannot fulfil his purpose. But what details these three are comprised of is subject of the categories that follow, so all that is required for entry into the religion is a basic understanding and acceptance of ‘God’, ‘messenger’, and a ‘message from God revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (ص)’ to be followed.

Furthermore, because this testimony is the sole condition for entering into Islam, ignorance, rejection, distortion or amendment of its meanings in any way, by definition, will exclude one from the religion because theologically it forms what it means to be Muslim at the most basic level[6]. As such, it fundamentally distinguishes Islam from other religions and ideologies too, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Alawism/Nusayrism, Sikhsim, Qadianism/Ahmadiyyah, Nation of Islam, et cetrea.


2. Evident Doctrines and Practices


Once a person accepts the testimony of faith and becomes Muslim, the beliefs and rulings detailed in God's message then become applicable and this message is in two forms - the Qur’an being the word of God and the Sunnah being the ‘way’ of the Messenger Muhammad (ص). These are the primary references of Islam and serve as its root sources of information[7], so there is no way of knowing what Islam declares and ordains without these two sources. Their acceptance is therefore clear and obligatory for membership to the religion, subject to one’s knowing of them[8] and anyone who denies the Qur'an or Sunnah after knowing what they are simply cannot be Muslim.


As for the actual tenets and practices detailed in the Qur'an and Sunnah, whatever is clearly stated[9] in the Qur'an and both clearly stated and mass-transmitted[10] in the Sunnah is obligatory to accept, subject to one’s knowing them. So anyone who denies them or distorts their meaning effectively denies and distorts the message itself, which is heresy. This is because their absolute and definitive nature (both in interpretation and transmission) dictates that they can be determined from the Qur'an and Sunnah by a rational mind without further elaboration and there is nothing that can reasonably be presented to indicate to the contrary, such as with belief in the Attributes of God, the Angels, the divine books, all of the Prophets (ع), the Last Day, destiny, heaven and hell; and laws such as the five daily prayers, fasting in Ramadhan, zakaat, hajj, the prohibition of alcohol, murder, stealing, fornication and adultery, homosexuality, lying, backbiting, slander, et cetra.


Of course, this does not mean it is completely impossible to provide alternative interpretations or in the case of mass-transmitted Sunnah, deny its authority or authenticity, but it can only be achieved through patent irrationality and distortion. Groups guilty of this include the Mushabihha and Mujassima who describe God corporeally; the Jahmiyyah who denied certain attributes of God altogether; the Qur'anists who deny the authority of Sunnah; extreme Sufis who deny the obligation of prayer, fasting, et cetera for themselves; and others besides. Due to the necessarily heretical nature of any violations of the evident category, there is no scope for divergent views here even for the sake of unity.


3. Essential Doctrines and Practices


Like the evident category, these can be proven through the Qur’an and mass-transmitted Sunnah, but here, the specific verses and mass-transmitted Sunnah they derive from are not clear to the same extent and carry an extremely minor possibility of interpretive speculation[11]. Conversely, their interpretation is explicit, but they derive from sources besides the Qur'an and mass-transmitted Sunnah and not absolutely established, though authentic nonetheless[12] (in other words, authentic Sunnah that is not mass-transmitted). So they do still provide close to certainty[13], are almost definitive[14] and as the name suggests, necessary to accept subject to one’s knowing them, but after being informed of them, their denial or distortion is not apostasy, but an extreme deviation[15] from the right path.


Uniquely included within the essential class are the significant identifying aspects of Sunnism (the set of beliefs and practices that makes Sunnism what it is), such as the belief that Allah is not to be described by what He has not described Himself, the righteousness of all the Companions (ر), the superiority of Abu Bakr and Umar over all the Companions (ر), the Islam of believers who sin, that sins are effective in this world, et cetera; and no other groups. But because the method of determining these aspects is slightly more involved than with the conditional and evident categories, their denial or distortion is not heresy per se and one would remain within the remit of Islam (which is defined by the conditional and evident categories).


The groups that violate the essential class and oppose Sunnism include the Khawaarij, Zaidi Shi'ah, Mu’tazilites, some Muslim philosophers, et cetera. However, it should be noted that some of the groups mentioned in this and the previous category are very diverse in themselves to the extent that the doctrines and practices of some of their adherents have been declared disbelief, whilst others’ errors are deemed to be less serious. Additionally, those that are considered Muslim despite their deviations are of course still part of the Muslim ummah and generally enjoy the rights and privileges that all believers do, a fact often overlooked by some Sunnis. So it is possible for Sunnis to unite with these groups, depending on the severity of the external and internal difficulties that may call for it.


4. Speculative Doctrines and Practices

Since the conditional, evident and essential categories are definitive and required[16] as they are, they are also agreed amongst the various Sunni subgroups and are sufficient to ensure one’s being Muslim and Sunni respectively[17]. So everything beyond them by definition will be undetermined and not required, irrespective of their ultimate validity or otherwise.


Necessarily then, speculative beliefs and rulings are derived from indefinite sources and/or they depend on expert analysis[18] to make meaningful deductions from[19], to the point that (unlike the essential category) no established interpretation exists. Due to these inherent characteristics, they cannot be classed with the definitive and decisive category, and differences of opinion are also very possible between the Sunni scholars here. But how we manage them depends on the severity of the differences:


A. Uncontroversial - If any differences on speculative issues are tolerable between the scholars (neither side believes the other has contravened anything decisive and is still within the remit of Islam and Sunnism), then one is permitted to adopt any opinion without much concern. This is possible even if one side believes something to be necessary within the scope of its own group (so it cannot be definitive per se) and another forbidden because these judgements are still based on speculative evidence and reasoning (as opposed to heretics and deviants whose violation of the decisive category ejects them from the remit of Islam and Sunnism respectively). And this is entirely possible given that Sunnism has already accepted this method with the differences between the four madhabs. For example, on the necessity or prohibition of reciting the Fathiha in the loud congregational prayers between the Shafi’i and Hanafi schools, respectfully.


B. Controversial - If the speculative differences between the subgroups are intolerable (where one group claims a particular speculative doctrine or ruling is legitimate whilst another claims that it violates the definitive categories), then it is imperative that the public and even most scholars just abstain from that particular tenet or practice, regardless of which position may actually be correct or incorrect. For example, if subsect X regards something speculative to be permitted or even good, while subsect Y regards it as a violation of the decisive categories (and therefore intolerable), then subsect X should just abandon that particular tenet or practice, regardless of its validity in their view. This is because:


  • Firstly, as per our classification above, abstinence from speculative-controversial beliefs and rulings will have no bearing on one’s being Muslim or Sunni whatsoever, whilst adopting them carries a rational possibility of misguidance[20]. So it makes no sense to take the risk of accepting them when they contribute nothing towards one's Sunnim and salvation, and can possibly be significantly incorrect.


  • Secondly, affirming them will certainly exacerbate sectarian discord and compromise Sunni unity, which is an evident obligation. These are costs far greater than any benefit gained from adopting speculative-controversial doctrines and practices, so the far more prudent and rational approach would be for everyone to just refrain from them altogether,


عَنْ اَلنُّعْمَانِ بْنِ بَشِيرٍ رَضِيَ اَللَّهُ عَنْهُمَا‏- قَالَ: سَمِعْتُ رَسُولَ اَللَّهِ ‏صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏-يَقُولُ‏، وَأَهْوَى اَلنُّعْمَانُ بِإِصْبَعَيْهِ إِلَى أُذُنَيْهِ، إِنَّ اَلْحَلَالَ بَيِّنٌ وَإِنَّ اَلْحَرَامَ بَيِّنٌ وَبَيْنَهُمَا مُشْتَبِهَاتٌ لَا يَعْلَمُهُنَّ كَثِيرٌ مِنْ اَلنَّاسِ. فَمَنِ اتَّقَى اَلشُّبُهَاتِ فَقَدِ اِسْتَبْرَأَ لِدِينِهِ وَعِرْضِهِ. وَمَنْ وَقَعَ فِي اَلشُّبُهَاتِ وَقَعَ فِي اَلْحَرَامِ كَالرَّاعِي يَرْعَى حَوْلَ اَلْحِمَى يُوشِكُ أَنْ يَقَعَ فِيهِ. أَلَا وَإِنَّ لِكُلِّ مَلِكٍ حِمًى, أَلَا وَإِنَّ حِمَى اَللَّهِ مَحَارِمُهُ...

(مُتَّفَقٌ عَلَيه)


Sayyiduna Nu`man bin Bashir (ر) said that he heard the Messenger of Allah (ص) say, ‘Indeed the lawful is clear and the unlawful is clear. Between the two are doubtful matters which most people have no knowledge of. Whoever avoids the doubtful matters absolves (himself) concerning his religion and his honour. And whoever falls into doubtful matters falls into the unlawful just as the shepherd who grazes (his flock) around a private pasture almost grazes (his flock) in it. Behold! Every king has a private pasture and Allah’s private pasture is what he has prohibited.' (Agreed)


وعن الحسن بن على رضي الله عنهما، قال‏، ‏ حفظت من رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم‏، دع ما يريبك إلى ما لا يريبك‏ ‏(‏‏رواه الترمذى وقال‏، حديث حسن صحيح‏)‏‏‏‏‏


Narrated from Sayyiduna Hasan bin Ali (ر) that he said, ‘I memorised from Allah’s Messenger (ص), “Leave that which causes you doubt for that which does not cause you doubt.” ’

(Al-Tirmidhi)


  • Laymen by definition are unable to make sufficiently informed decisions on speculative issues, so their affinity to any group on speculative -controversial issues ought to be an irrelevant consideration from the outset.


  • Both the scholars and public who debate these delicate issues often do so aiming to win arguments, defend their particular subgroup, and bolster their egos, rather than sincerely seek guidance and closeness to God. To this effect, Imam Abu Hanifah once forbade his son Imam Hammad from debate saying,


كنا نُناظر وكأن على رؤوسنا الطير مخافة أن يَزلَّ صاحبنا، وأنتم تُناظرون وتُريدون زلَّة صاحبكم. ومن أراد أن يزلَّ صاحبه فقد أراد أن يكفر صاحبه فقد كفر قبل أن يكفر صاحبه (مناقب أبي حنيفة للموفق المكي)


We would debate as though there were birds (sitting) on our heads[21] lest our interlocutor slips. But you debate intending that your opponent errs. And whoever intends that his interlocutor errs has intended that he commits apostasy[22] thereby committing it before his opponent does. (Manaaqib Abi Hanifah, Muwaffaq Makki)


The Emperor has no Clothes


Having explored the nature and dynamics of Sunnism, we are now in a position to set out the pathway to intra-Sunni theological unity. In other words, to what extent are the prevailing Sunni subgroups (such as Ash'aris, Salafis, Deobandis, and Barelwis) justified in obligating adherence to their particular ways and in declaring their opponents heretics or in some cases even disbelievers?


Based on the preceding discussion, such claims can only be justified if the identifying aspects of a particular Sunni faction (the unique set of beliefs and practices that define it) are from the definitive categories. But the standards for achieving this are high indeed, in fact almost impossible in modern times. Not only must their evidence (both the source and interpretation) be of an explicit or at the very least close to explicit nature[23], the fact that the decisive beliefs and rulings have already been fully detailed by the earliest generations (salaf) firmly prevents the prevailing subsects from making any such claims. So their identifying aspects will always be speculative-controversial and cannot be a basis for obligating anything on anyone. In fact, they are to be avoided altogether.


Take one of the most significant contemporary intra-Sunni disputes as an example, the Barelwi-Deobandi differences. All of the identifying aspects of both Barelwism and Deobandism are speculative-controversial, whether they be Barewism’s haazir-naazir, ilm al-ghayb, noor-bashar, mukhtaar al-kull, istighaatha, mawlid, urs, khatams, et cetrea; or Deobandism’s imkaan al-kidhb, wahdat al-wujood and wahdat al-shuhood, the ‘true’ meaning of the khatamiyyah of prophethood, istighaatha, et cetrea. Thus, adopting any of these will contribute absolutely nothing to one's Sunniness, but may possibly compromise it and will certainly violate the obligation creating and maintaining Sunni unity, as discussed above. They should therefore be avoided altogether, regardless of their actual validity or invalidity.


Another highly contentious issue in Sunnism is the interpretation of God’s attributes. Whilst both Ash’aris and Salafis affirm their existence and realness at an evident level and negate their likeness to creation (which is evidently required), for Ash'aris, their actual meanings and modalities are unknown and to be consigned to God (tafweedh al-ma’nah wa al-kayf), whereas to Salafis, their meanings are known and only their modalities are not (ithbaat al-ma'nah wa tafweedh al-kayf). The problem is that the Ash'ari position necessitates that the Salafi view is akin to likening God’s attributes to creation and the Salafi position necessitates that the Ash'ari view is akin to denying their realness. They are thus mutually exclusive, or at least, this is how the difference is framed.


The problem in uniting the two factions is that some of the followers from both sides believe their stance to be essential (unlike with the Barelwi and Deobandi dispute), which makes it more difficult for them to compromise. For example, Deobandis reject the Barelwi view of the Prophet (ص) being both human and light in essence (noor-bashar). But even to Barelwis, his being human is evident and being light is only speculative. So Barelwis can suspend their belief in the latter and achieve unity with Deobandis on the Prophet (ص) being only human without compromising their Sunniness (though their pride may be damaged somewhat by having to relinquish one of their identifying features). The same can be said for the Deobandi understanding of the finality of prophethood and the other differences between them. With the interpretation of God’s attributes however, apparently, there is no basic common understanding between Ash'aris and Salafis that they can both unite over (other than God’s attributes being real and unlike creation’s).


An alternative proposal that could solve this Ash'ari-Salafi difference then would be for both sides to relegate their difference from essential to speculative-uncontroversial. This will allow them to maintain the necessity of their individual positions as per the scope of their own groups and not have common ground, and concurrently avoid having to apostasise one another. But what makes their positions speculative-uncontroversial? Firstly, neither can prove that their stance fulfils the requirements of the essential category of beliefs, so their being essential is a false claim by both Ash'aris and Salafis. Secondly, there are reports from the early generations apparently supporting both views. The Ash'ari position for example has been reported from Imam Muhammad, the famous disciple of Imam Abu Hanifah,


اتفق الفقهاء كلهم من الشرق الى الغرب على الإيمان بالقرآن و الأحاديث التي جاء بها الثقات عن رسول الله (ص) في صفة الرب عز و جل من غير تفسير ولا وصف و لا تشبيه فمن فسر شيأ من ذلك فقد خرج مما كان عليه النّبي (ص) و فارق الجماعة فإنهم لم يصفوا و لم يفسروا و لكن أمنوا بما في الكتاب و السنّة ثم سكتوا (شرح أصول اعتقاد أهل السنة للالكائي و العلو للذهبي)


All the jurists, from the East to West, agree upon (affirming) belief in the Qur’an and those Hadiths brought forth from the Messenger (ص) by authentic narrators regarding the description of God mighty and exalted, without explanation nor description nor similitude. So whoever explains anything therein, leaves what the Prophet (ص) was upon and separates from the community, for they did not describe or explain (them), but believed in what is in the book and sunnah, and then remained silent. (Sharh Usool I'tiqaad Ahl al-Sunnat wa al-Jamaa'ah, Al-Laalikaa’i and Al-‘Uluw, Al-Dhahabi)


و قال محمد بن الحسن في الأحاديث التي جاءت، إن الله يهبط الى سماء الدنيا و نحو هذه من الأحاديث، إن هذه الأحاديث قد روتها الثقات فنحن نرويها و نئمن بها و لا نفسرها (المرجع السابق)


And Muhammad bin al-Hasan said regarding the Hadiths that have come (to us, such as), ‘Indeed Allah descends to the sky of the world’ and (other) similar Hadiths narrated by authentic narrators, ‘We narrate them, believe in them, and do not explain them’. (Ibid)


Contrarily, Imam al-Muzani, the famous disciple of Imam Shafi’i writes in his Kitab Sharh al-Sunnah,


عال الله على عرشه في مجده بذاته و هو دان بعلمه من خلقه (كتاب شرح السنة للمزني)


Allah rose over His throne in His majesty with His essence, and He is close to His creation with His knowledge.


And this is only possible with an ostensible interpretation of the verses of the Qur’an that describe Allah having 'risen over' His throne (as per the Salafi interpretation), rather than abstaining from any or a figurative explanation as per the Ash'ari method.


Some Practical Issues


Now despite the dangers and irrationality of delving into speculative-controversial issues, if someone still decides to do so, understandably, those of the opposing view will not sit passively in silence and allow this individual to propagate what they believe to be erroneous. They will more than likely respond harshly, leading the individual to reciprocate the criticism (plus a bit more) and the cycle will continue indefinitely along with all the division and hatred that follows. Unfortunately, this is precisely the 'refutation culture' we see being played out today with both scholars and the lay public embroiling in these issues and pronouncing deviation and heresy on one another with absolutely no regard for its effects,


عن أبي أمامة رضي الله عنه قال، قال النبي صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم ما ضل قوم بعد هدى إلا أوتوا الجدل ثم قرأ رسول الله صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم، ما ضربوه لك إلا جدلا بل هم قوم خصمون (مستدرك الحاكم)


The Prophet (ص) said, ‘No nation went astray after it was guided except that it was given disputation.’ Then the Prophet (ص) recited, ‘They did not present it to you except in disputation. Rather, they are an argumentative people.’ (Mustadarak, Al-Hakim)


Barelwis, Deobandis, Salafis and Ash'aris all maintain and propagate speculative-controversial beliefs, then their rivals respond, which leads to counter refutations and nothing but disunity and mutual hate results. As far as I can discern, the only viable, long-term and theologically justified solution to this vicious cycle is for each faction to simply abandon their speculative-controversial beliefs. The Shafi’i Mufti of Madinah in his time Shaykh Ahmad bin Isma’eel al-Barzanji whilst addressing the dispute between Barelwis and Deobandis on the issue of khalf al-wa’eed writes in his Kamaal al-Tathqeef wa al-Taqweem,


لكن أقول مع هذا نصيحة له ولسائر علماء الهند أنه ينبغي لهم عدم الخوض في هذه المسائل الغامضة وأحكامها الدقيقة التي لا يفهمها إلا الواحد بعد الواحد من فحول العلماء المحققين فضلاً عن غيرهم من عوام المسلمين...فلأجل ذلك يجب عليهم عدم الخوض في هذه المسائل إلا عند الاضطرار الشديد (كمال التثقيف والتقويم)


But I say with this advice to him and the rest of the scholars of India that it is incumbent to avoid delving into these obscure matters and their delicate rulings which none but a select few of the expert research scholars comprehend, let alone the generality of the Muslim public... Due to this, it is necessary to avoid delving into these matters, except under extreme compulsion.


Though Shaykh Al-Barzanji strongly advises avoiding speculative-controversial issues because of their complexity, implied here is that they are inherently unrequired for Sunnism too, otherwise he would not have stressed of abstention altogether. And evidently, his address is specifically to the scholarly community, so they should not presume themselves free of it.


Given the prevailing situation, some may argue that the proposal presented in this article is impracticable because the scholars who specialise in sectarianism or have made a name for themselves in the industry are too entrenched in their particular ideologies to see any different and will not be prepared to compromise. But the benefit of the proposal is that it does not require the cooperation of such individuals should they decide to oppose it, individuals regarding whom the following Qur’anic verses apply most aptly in their general meaning,


إنَّ ٱلَّذِینَ فَرَّقُوا۟ دِینَهُمۡ وَكَانُوا۟ شِیَعࣰا لَّسۡتَ مِنۡهُمۡ فِی شَیۡءٍ إِنَّمَاۤ أَمۡرُهُمۡ إِلَى ٱللَّهِ ثُمَّ یُنَبِّئُهُم بِمَا كَانُوا۟ یَفۡعَلُونَ


Indeed those who divided their religion and became sects, you are not party with them in anything[24]. Their affair is with Allah alone. Soon thereafter, He will inform them of what they used to do (Qur’an, 6: 159)


...ٱلَّذِینَ فَرَّقُوا۟ دِینَهُمۡ وَكَانُوا۟ شِیَعࣰاۖ كُلُّ حِزۡبِۭ بِمَا لَدَیۡهِمۡ فَرِحُونَ


...Those who divided their religion and become sects, each group rejoicing with what they have (Qur’an, 30: 32)


What it does require is the cooperation of the public at large and the mutual agreement of the more reasonable scholars of each Sunni subgroup to avoid speculative-controversial issues and propagate only the decisive and speculative-uncontroversial beliefs and practices. This would be the ideal scenario, but realistically, under the current climate, perhaps it is unlikely to happen soon. Nonetheless, it is possible for imams and speakers to at least in the public sphere be unaffiliated and this would be a good place to start.


As for the approach of some scholars whereby they call for unity between the various Sunni subgroups, but only without compromising their beliefs and practices and for common causes, this does not address the underlying problem and can never be a long-term solution to the prevailing discord. A good example of its already having failed is in Pakistan when during the struggle for independence from the British Raj and then in campaigning against Qadianism, the Deobandis, Barelwis and Ahl al-Hadith worked in tandem. But now that the dust has settled, the enmity between them has never been greater and there seems to be no end to it in sight. So this unity was not theologically grounded, but of expediency and its collapse was inevitable.

Concluding Remarks


What is apparent from our analysis is that Allah has placed very limited responsibilities on ordinary Muslims as far as intra-Sunni sectarianism is concerned and the simple rule is that if a doctrine or practice is not definite and decisive (conditional, evident and essential) and is controversial (as defined above) it should just be avoided. This is the best route to take because it is the only method of guaranteeing one’s Sunnism, achieving theological unity, and concurrently avoiding having to affiliate with any of the feuding Sunni factions.


With the new and more serious challenges of apostasy, post-modernity and a host of others on the rise, Sunnism can no longer afford to maintain its sectarian environment and it is hoped that this proposal will provide a viable and amicable solution to the problem, and an escape route for those who have sunk to its dark depths. The question now is, are the various Sunni subgroups brave or even willing enough to finally put their centuries old disputes behind them for the greater good of the ummah?


And Allah the Highest knows best.


 

[1] حديث الافتراق


[2] In other versions, seventy-three.


[3] Of course, not all the scholars who ally themselves to a subgroup promote this kind of partisanship, but those who do (of whom there are many) seem to carry significant influence and success in promoting this divisive narrative, and often have the implicit endorsements of their more passive colleagues too.


[4] Shahaadah


[5] ‘Islam’ means submission.


[6] For example, to add ‘Ali is the wali (friend) of Allah’ or Mirza Qadinani (or anyone else) to messengership, et cetrea.


[7] قطعي الثبوت


[8] Since they are the main references of the religion, it is impossible to conceive that someone could accept Islam without first knowing what the Qur’an and/or the Sunnah are. There is some detail on what distinguishes their role the articles of the testimony's in creedal terms, but this is not the appropriate place for the discussion.


[9] قطعي الدلالة

By way of the language employed, or the grammar, et cetrea.


[10] The entire Qur'an is mass-trasmitted (mutawaatir), but not the Sunnah, so this condition is primarily applicable to it only.


[11] ظني الدلالة بالظن الغالب

Arising perhaps from a small ambiguity in the language or grammar employed, the scope of the text, et cetra.


[12] ظني الثبوت بالظن الغالب


[13] الظن الغالب او الطمأنينة


[14] But for convenience, we will include the essentials category amongst the definitive aspects going forward.


[15] الضلالة و البدعة


[16] أي ضروريات الدين او من الدين بالضرورة


[17] This I find to be one of the beautiful aspects of Ahl al-Sunnat wa al-Jamaa’at and it is the foundation of this proposal.


[18] الاجتهاد


[19] الظني


[20] Being speculative and controversial in nature, they could potentially violate the decisive doctrines and practices.


[21] With extreme caution and humbleness.


[22] Depending on the topic of debate.


[23] Which precludes their being differed on amongst the Sunni factions in the first place.


[24] You have no association with them.

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