Maulana Yusuf Islahi, a prominent scholar and author from India, narrates the following
incident. Once, somewhere in southern India, argument developed between Hindus and Muslims
over a procession of Muharram floats (Tazias), a practice rather common in the
subcontinent to mark the mourning over the martyrdom of Sayyidna Husain, Radi-Allahu anhu.
Young Hindus were adamant not to let it pass through a certain intersection while Muslim
youth were as determined to go through. To avert the impending clash, older people from
the two groups got together and tried to workout a compromise. After much haggling, a
suggestion was made that the floats could be allowed provided they met some height
restriction. However a thoughtful Hindu elder asked: "How can we ask them to limit
the size of the float. They would have to use the size as prescribed in the
This incident is not typical of the Hindu-Muslim clashes that take place
routinely in India. The Maulana used it to highlight the pathetic work Muslims have done
in introducing Islam to their fellow beings. But it also highlights another important
fact: Many of our religious wars are based on ignorance.
This is even truer in case of our internal wars, those between Wahhabis and
non-Wahhabis, Barelvis and Deobandis, Salafis and non-Salafis, Hanafis and Shafiis, etc.
etc. We fight over issues that are peripheral as if they were central, or issues over
which Shar'iah itself allows a diversity of opinions as if there can be no two ways about
it. Or sometimes we have a legitimate concern but we present it in ways that are wrong and
damaging. In all those cases we do harm while being sure that we are doing good.
Consider the differences between the four schools of fiqh. As a rule these differences
occur on issues that are open to ijtihad; either the Quran and Sunnah provided no
clear cut and direct prescription or they include injunctions that on the surface
are contradictory. The leaders of the four schools of fiqh were qualified mujtahids
who used their tremendous knowledge and understanding to resolve the apparent conflict or
provide the missing answer. While the answers they come up with will be different, there
is no answer that can be called a munkar (evil), as long as it comes from a qualified
mujtahid. Shar'iah does not permit us to wage a war against other interpretations
because we can wage a war against evil only.
Certainly, these are not petty issues. The attention that scholars have given to them
and the academic arguments that have been developed around them are a testimony to the
fact that the minutest details of our religious observances have to be guarded carefully
so that ---unlike all other religions ---both their form and substance can be preserved
until the end of time. Yet the same scholars have also shown us how not to over-emphasize
When Imam Shafii offered fajr salat in the masjid next to Imam Abu Hanifas grave,
he omitted the qunut and the raising of hands at every movement, out of respect for
the great Imam. Imam Tahtavi writes about the visit of Qadi Abu Asim, a Hanafi scholar to
Imam Qaffal, a Shafii scholar. Imam Qaffal asked his guest to lead the prayers and asked
his muezzin to call the iqamah the Hanafi way. Qadi Abu Asim, on the other hand, followed
the Shafii way in leading the salat.
Such accommodation is possible when either practice is acceptable in both schools but
they differ on which one is preferable. Many of the issues that divide us fall in this
category. But even when such accommodation is not possible, we have to keep the
differences in their proper place and never let them eclipse the common ground. Our
"religious wars" are a result of ignorance or not following the religious
teachings, and not a result of following them. Here are some of the often-ignored
Shar'iah teachings in this matter.
- We must never lose the big picture. Two persons who truly believe in Allah, the last
Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, the Quran, and the Hereafter, will always be
closer to each other than any person who does not share these beliefs. One of the
unfortunate events in the early history of Islam is the war between Syedna Amir Muawiah,
and Sayyidna Ali, Radi-Allahu anhuma. The news came that the Byzantine ruler was planning
to invade Arabia to take advantage of this internal rift. Upon learning that, Sayyidna
Amir Muawiah wrote a letter to the Byzantines: "If your forces head this way, I will
be the first to join the army of Ali to stop you." This explains why early internal
friction --- unfortunate as it was --- did not stop or even slow down the tide of Islam
from reaching the four corners of the world.
- We must avoid heated arguments. The differences should be discussed in academic,
civilized manner, without being rude. It is difficult for most of us to see the light of
truth in the heat of the argument. "Argumentation extinguishes the light of knowledge
in the heart," says Imam Malik.
- Our interest should be in closing the gap, not in widening it. It requires
sincerity, humbleness, and understanding. During the British Raj, an English judge once
confronted a prominent Muslim scholar with a difficult question. "These other
religious leaders have declared you a Kafir (non-believer) and according to the
hadith when a Muslim declares another Muslim as Kafir, then he is right about one
of them. So what do you say about them?" The judge was knowledgeable and clever but
he had underestimated the wisdom of the Muslim scholar. "These people have given the
opinion because of their misunderstanding that I do not respect the Prophet, Sall-Allahu
alayhi wa sallam. And it is true that anyone who disrespects the Prophet, Sall-Allahu
alayhi wa sallam, is not a Muslim. So while they are wrong in applying it to me, I cannot
call them a Kafir."
- Consider unilateral withdrawal. If the issue is not of religious doctrine or law, we
should remember the hadith: "I guarantee a home in paradise for the believer who
walks away from a dispute despite being in the right."