Sects in Islam

Study of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) gained the pride of place among Muslim scholars, and the study of Quran and Sunnah (model set by the Prophet) was done in the light of fiqh. In the age of decline and degeneration, the importance of the religious spirit is forgotten, and emphasis is laid on the externals or the form of religion. The result of this difference is that all academic discussions and debates on religion centre on technical and legal aspects. It paves the way for greater evil— emergence of many religious sects. As a result, a unified community is broken into a community of various different sects.

Video Transcript
Video Transcript

It is generally said that Muslims should have been millat-e-wahidiyya (one community) because their religious book, the Quran and also their Prophet is one. But in reality it is not so. Several faction or sects exist with the Muslim community. This however, is not only a Muslim phenomenon. It is a phenomenon, which can be found in all religions. It is observed that at the time of the founder of a religion, the religion is one - without any factions or sects but in latter generations its followers are divided into various sects. This phenomenon can be seen amongst the proponents of Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Jainism etc.

Among the Muslim community, there are some sects that may be termed as deviated sects because they have deviated from the right path [Siraat-ul-Mustaqueem] and a Hadith states that one who invents new things in our religion is not from us (Bukhari, Hadith: 2697). There are some other sects that have not deviated from the correct path and have been formed within the ambit of the correct teachings of Islam. It is imperative to differentiate between the above two categories of Muslim sects - one that has deviated from the real teachings of Islam and the other which has not.

Deviated sects

1. Dargah Sect

An example of the deviated sects is the dargah culture. This culture is found only in the Indian subcontinent and not in any Arab country. This is a complete deviation from Islam; there is no reference in the Quran or Hadith about it. The dargah culture was a result of the conversion of people from different faiths to Islam. These people professed the Islamic faith but because were not de-conditioned, they Islamized the effects of their previous culture.

Once I visited a temple in Rishikesh, which had several idols. My guide said to me that there was no difference between the Hindus and the Muslims as the Hindus worshipped standing idols of their gods and Muslims worshipped the lying posture. The guide was comparing the dargah culture - of prostrating in front of the graves of a revered elder - to the culture of worshipping idols in the form of statues. However, the truth is that the dargah culture is not a part of Islam.

2. Tafziliya Sect

Another sect is the Tafziliya sect. This sect believes that Hazarat Ali was supreme [afzal]. This concept is completely alien to Islamic teachings, as nowhere in the Quran or Hadith, any Companion has been considered superior to others.

3. Qurani Sect

Qurani sect is also one of the deviated sects. Those belonging to this sect believe in Quran as the sole source of Islam and they do not regard hadith as a source of Islamic teachings. The basis of this very claim is very unfounded as the same Prophet gave us both – the Quran and the Hadith. So, Quran may also be called as hadith-e-qudsi i.e. hadith which is from God.

Such deviated sects that are based on a bidat or innovation shall be considered rejected before God as there exits no rationale for their claim. A Hadith to the same effect states that if anyone innovates a thing that actually does not exist in the religion, then such an innovation shall be rejected.

Un-deviated Sects/ Fiqh Schools

There are some schools amongst the Muslims, which are not deviated. These are the Fiqhi schools and are four in number: Hanafi, Shaafai, Hambali and Maaliki. These schools derive the basis of their existence from the references from Quran and Hadith.

According to a Hadith, there are three authentic periods [Quroon] of Islamic history: the period of the Prophet, that of the Companions of the Prophet and that of the Companions of the Companions.

The development of Fiqh began during the Abbasid period, which came after the three authentic periods. It was found out that in some cases, there were varied narrations of a particular Hadith. This difference existed because the Companions performed rites - for example performing the namaz - in various ways. Now there arose a question of what to accept and what to not. This led to the formation of two opinions – the first view was that of the jurists or Fiqh scholars who said that there could be only one right way, the other view was that of a group of Muhadditheen who said that all these differences should merely be considered as a case of diversity. A Hadith to this effect stated that the Companions of the Prophet were like stars, following anyone of them shall lead one to the right path. (Kashful- Khifa, V:1 pg:146).

Heedless to the second point of view, jurists went on to form different schools of jurisprudence - each one defining their own set of Do’s and Don’ts. This Fiqhi categorisation was a bidat or innovation because it is was to be tacitly understood that if Companions did something in different ways then it meant that all these ways are acceptable before God; there was no need to make the differences an issue. This was a case of diversity and there was no need to bring uniformity in it.

It become important to point out that the differences were never on the basic tenets of Islam. For example, all the companions of the Prophet unanimously claimed that the Prophet prayed 2 units of namaz at Fajr, 4 units at Zuhr, 4 units for Asr, 3 for Maghrib and 4 for Ishaah; there was no debate on the number of units to be prayed. The controversy however was on non-basics e.g. position of our hands at the time of the niyyah. At the time of the companions of the companions, the differences on non-basics were taken as natural and people adopted, whichever way was convenient for them.

The Fiqhi categorisation was a result of wanting to make even the non-basics as uniform. As a result of this, namaz and other forms of worship got reduced to being a mere form or ritual. It is impossible to perform a spirited namaz when acting like a mechanical robot. Namaz is a living amal – it cannot be same for all the people. A routine namaz would be like a task performed by a robot while a spirited one would lead to emergence of many other things.

Prophet also read namaz in various ways; there was not one exact routine method. Hence there is diversity when spirit manifests in form, there can be no uniformity. Once while praying, the Prophet said after the ruku: “samiallah huliman hamida rabanna lakal hamd.” A companion who was also reading namaz, in the congregation added a few more words of dua. He said: “rabbana lakal hamdan kasiran taiyyiban mubarakan fih.” After the namaz ended, the Prophet enquired about the person who had added these words. Upon being told who did so, the Prophet told him that as he uttered those words, several angels rushed in to transmit it to God, that is, God was extremely pleased with it. (Abu Dawood: 654)

The companion was able to read such a spirited namaz because it was not a routine that he was discharging. When one is so deeply involved in an activity, differences are bound to exist. It is a natural phenomenon. 

These differences, which are naturally present in everyone’s namaz, were wrongly made the premise for the formation of various schools of jurisprudence. These sects had their respective references illustrating the correct way derived from the life of the Prophet. They devised the principle of preference or tarjeeh; which is incorrect because when even the Prophet and his companions read namaz in various ways, there was no question of one way being preferred over the other. The references, which the Fiqhi schools provided for the resolution of any controversial method, were correct but their categorisation on the basis of preference was incorrect. It was the spirit and not the inevitable diversity, which should have been the focus of attention.

Similarly there is a controversy whether amen should be pronounced loudly or softly after reading the verse Al-Fateha in namaz. When a spirited namaz is read then obviously the person would pronounce amen loudly otherwise in a routine namaz no such spirit would emerge, and hence amen would be pronounced softly.

Imam Shafayi wrote a book, “Kitab –ul-Umm,” which deals with the Fiqhi schools. In the book he says: “my opinion is right but others’ opinions can also be correct as they also have references.” This means that even if somebody considers his opinion on a particular issue correct because he has collected many references, there still is an element of doubt as another person might have an opposite opinion and he might also have a correct reference. The way out of such a dilemma was not to make differences in the non-basic issues a controversy but to accept it as diversity.

The Result

If we fail to allow room for diversity, as was done by the Fiqhi schools, there would be a shift of emphasis on the non-basics of the religion. This is what happened due to the formation of these schools. The entire focus was shifted to the discharging of the form of a ritual rather than its spirit. In spite of the entire Quran being a book, which lays emphasis solely on spirit, the Fiqhi categorisation led to shifting of this emphasis from spirit to form.  For example, a Hadith states that the namaz, which lacks spirit [khushoo], is not a namaz. (Kanzul-Ummal: 20088). Nowhere does the Quran mention as to how one should read namaz.

Similarly, a verse in the Quran states about the animal sacrificed on Eid-e-Adha:

Their flesh and blood does not reach God: it is your piety that reaches Him.” (22:37)

But now because of the shift of emphasis on to the form, the concern of people is the type of animal, its colour, its health etc.

There are two categories of Fiqh: Ahkami and Ibadati. In Ahkami Fiqh or matters relating to jurisprudence, there are diversities. For example, the Quran says that the hands of the person who steals should be cut. Now it doesn’t mention from where they should be cut off. So schools of Fiqh were formed to resolve this question. However, the diversities in the case of jurisprudence have not affected the religion or the religious beliefs of people.

But the Ibadati Fiqh led to the shift of emphasis of people from the spirit of religion to the form of religion. Ibadat is personal issue, everyone relates it to salvation and therefore they want to read the namaz in the right way as would be accepted by God. To read the correct namaz people only have the Fiqhi framework, which has reduced namaz to a set of rituals by emphasising too much on form. Now when people read namaz they are more concerned on how they are performing it and less on the spirit with which they are performing it.

The people who developed Fiqh in earlier times were not extremists. Example, Imam Hanifa once allowed a recently converted Muslim to read namaz in Persian. But this concession or allowance would not be acceptable by the Imams of today. This is because now the jurists have turned extremists, unlike the ones before. Anything new, which is innovated in religion, takes an extreme form.

According to a Hadith, ‘Prophet read namaz with shoes and also without shoes.’(Abu Dawood: 557). This Hadith illustrates that the form is not essential, what is important is the spirit. People today after reading the namaz immediately get up and when they walk out of the mosque they start talking about everything else but namaz. This is a result of emphasis on form, when spirited namaz is not read. The companions of the Prophet read spirited namaz; they did not immediately get up after praying, rather they remained seated in their places and pondered over their prayer. After praying they used to go home silently, contemplating and reflecting on the namaz that they read.

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