Sects are created when people begin to develop differences in beliefs and practices and these become so strong as to demand distinct identities.
Whenever members of a religious group hold their views simply because their religious leaders hold them and no evidence is demanded in support of them, a religious sect has appeared.
The Quran condemns sectarianism in strong words. God tells the Prophet (PBUH) “As for those who have created schisms in their order, and formed different sects, you have no concern with them. Their affair is with God. He will tell them the truth of what they were doing” (6:159). In God’s eyes, it is a crime to be involved in sectarianism. He urges all Muslims to “Hold on firmly together to the rope of God, and be not divided among yourselves. …” (3:103). He enjoins Muslims to come together as brothers.
Sectarianism has several causes, some of the more prominent of which are mentioned in the Quran. The main reason seems to be extreme attachment to religious personalities. Such individuals are revered to such an extent that whatever they believed in, whatever they said or did, is often considered to be the final word.
Asking questions of an elder who professes to be a religious individual may be tantamount to sacrilege. When people follow their own religious leaders to such extremes, they do not listen to any other point of view, and their perspective is likely to be clouded by emotions.
Such a phenomenon is not restricted to Muslims only. When God sent his messengers one after the other, essentially carrying the same message, the idea was that people would accept those messengers too who came later. God made some messengers different, or superior, to others in some ways.
As a consequence, people who followed these messengers were so impressed with them that they refused to follow any others. They disputed and fought with each other, despite the fact that each messenger had brought the same message. The fact was they had become completely besotted with the personality of the messenger whom they accepted first, and their own ego thereafter played a role in not allowing them to listen to any other message.
Another main reason for sectarianism to flourish is exaggeration. People exaggerate the virtues of their beliefs and practices, and downplay and even badmouth other beliefs to the extent that strong prejudices for and against are created and no one is ready to listen to and reflect on an alternative point of view. God requires people to “… not exaggerate in your religious matters unjustifiably, and follow not the wishes of a people who had erred before, and led many others astray. …” (5:77)
Sectarianism is carried so far that people begin to declare those who differ from them kafir, and at times even begin to believe that killing them is a religious deed. This is the biggest crime in Islam, for it is not only murder, but it is murder in the name of Islam, and those who commit this crime also commit the audacity to take upon themselves the task that belongs to God only.
The solution to sectarianism lies in taking a rational view of what religious people say, always searching for the truth, and letting go of what may or may not have happened in the past. The Quran says: “Those were the people who have passed away, theirs the reward for what they did, as yours will be for what you do. You will not be questioned about their deeds” (2:134).
The Quran also asks us not to force our views on others. “There is no compulsion in matters of faith. …” (2:256). Others should not be coerced, directly or indirectly, into accepting a belief or a practice to which their hearts and minds do not relate.
When we speak about others, we should not use abusive or insulting language: “Do not revile those who invoke others apart from God. …” (6:108).
If all sects decide that all are Muslims, despite their minor differences, and vow to discuss their views politely and with mutual respect, sectarianism may well be eliminated altogether.
Ironically, one of the important reasons proposed to justify sectarianism is a hadith which says that the Muslim ummah shall be divided into 73 sects, all except one of which are doomed. The sect promised salvation shall be the one that will follow the Prophet and his companions.
Many sects present this hadith to claim they are the ones who have been promised salvation. In truth, the hadith is condemning the same evil that the Quran condemned: sectarianism. The only group of Muslims who were free from even a shadow of sectarianism were the companions of the Prophet. They were known by no other name except Muslims.
Published in Dawn News, January, 17, 2014