"I gave a lot of thought to the causes of the sorry state of this ummah, during the years of my captivity in Malta," said Sheikh-ul-Hind Maulana Mahmood-ul-Hasan. It was 1920, and at 69, he was not only one of the most distinguished scholars of his time, he also had spent a life time in political activism. His audience was a gathering of ulema, eager to hear the lessons of a life time of study, struggle, and reflection. His conclusion: "Our problems are caused by two factors; abandoning the Qur'an and our in-fighting." He spent the few remaining days of his life addressing these causes.
These reasons are valid even today. They are also related, the second being caused by the first. The Qur'an had declared us one brotherhood and had warned us against in-fighting. We have ignored those teachings and the billion-strong ummah has turned into an ummah fragmented into a billion segments.
A very large number of our internal battles is the result of narrowly defined self-interests. Islam could have been the force that helped us overcome that. Unfortunately, instead of letting it fulfill that role, today we have made even religion provide us with additional and unresolvable points of conflict. We fight over petty issues of fiqh. We fight over fine points of religious interpretation. We turn minor points of religious law into big battlegrounds while most important and fundamental teachings of religion are violated.
We do all this even as this religion has been under attack from all directions. Thousands of people become apostates every year in Pakistan. Qadianis (who declare Mirza Ghulam Ahmed of Qadian to be a prophet), and munkareen-e-hadith have been busy attracting our new generations to their falsehoods. Haram is being declared as halal. Our masses are ignorant of their religion and easily indulge in customs borrowed from polytheists. On top of all that is the western culture of hedonism, of shamelessness, of moral anarchy, that is invading our societies through film, television, radio, and obscene literature. Corruption of all sorts has permeated all layers of our society. Should not we be reflecting on this and asking ourselves what would the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, expect of us, the heirs of the prophets? In the hereafter shall we be able to give a sufficient answer by mentioning that we wrote a book on rafa-yadain (the issue of raising hands during certain movements in obligatory prayer)?
Once I saw Maulana Anwar Shah Kashmiri in a very sad mood. What is the matter, I asked. "I have wasted my whole life," he said. "You have spent your entire life in spreading Islamic teachings.
Thousands of your disciples are themselves ulema who are serving the religion. If that is a waste, what hope can anyone else have?" I insisted. "Look, what has been the main thrust of all our efforts," he replied. "It has been to show why Hanafi school is better than others. Imam Abu Hanifa did not need this. His grandeur did not need our approval. Imam Shafii, Imam Malik, and Imam Ahmed ibn Hanbal could not care less about it. All that one can ever prove in these matters is that a certain position is right but has the probability of being wrong and the other position is wrong but has the probability of being right. Moreover, these issues will not be resolved even in the hereafter. For Allah will not humiliate Imam Shafii, Abu Hanifa, Malik, or Ahmed bin Hanbal by showing that they were in error." Then he added: "Today when the roots of Islam are under attack, we have been busy taking care of the leaves."
It is not that debates or disagreements in religious interpretation are themselves evil. Today many western educated Muslims, with scant understanding of their religion do think that way. Some even suggest that we should bury all fiqhi schools and create a new one. This is neither possible nor desirable. Differences of opinion are inevitable wherever people have both intellect and honesty. Complete consensus on every issue is possible only when either everyone is dumb, so they cannot think of a different idea, or they are dishonest so they willingly agree with a position that they consider wrong. After all religious interpretations are not personal rights that can be sacrificed away.
The problem occurs when we overstate these differences. There were differences of opinion in fiqh among the Companions, their followers, and great Mujahideen. But they did not turn these into fights. They disagreed but they maintained respect and love for each other. The brotherhood remained intact. They had tolerance for the other view.
How can we have tolerance for something we know is wrong? Of course we cannot have any tolerance for anything clearly established as wrong by Qur'an or Hadith. We can never show accommodation for apostasy. We can never agree on changing the Shariah's established definitions of halal and haram. But beyond this there are issues about which Qur'an and Sunnah are silent or are subject to more than one interpretation. Here the mujahideen deduce the intent of Qur'an and Sunnah based on their best ability. Here disagreements are possible. As long as those involved are qualified mujahideen (like the four respected imams), their differing views have to be respected. We can follow only one opinion, and we should try and determine the one closest to the intent of the Shariah, but we cannot declare opposing views as evil. We exaggerate when we deal with people holding valid opposing views as if they were outside the bounds of Islam.
Overstatement (ghuloo) is the main cause of most fights involving our religious groups. It also happens with Islamic organizations. Most are doing useful work in the areas they chose based on their abilities and inclinations. Had they developed a spirit of cooperation and considered their differences as just a natural division of labor, together they could have become a formidable force. Unfortunately each one of them considers their work and methodology as the only methodology for Islamic work. If a person leaves one of these organizations to join another, he is treated as if he had recanted his faith. This is ghuloo. It produces the tribalism of jahiliya (the pre-Islamic period of ignorance) among religious workers.
Pious people are not extinct today. What we sorely need is the reformers who can rise above their narrow perspectives and heed the universal and unifying call of Islam.
[Adapted from two talks of Mufti Muhammad Shafi, the late grand Mufti of Pakistan, given in 1963.]