Dealing with Sectarianism and Inauthentic Islam

The seeker’s search for truth does not end once a particular religion is determined upon, contrary to what many may assume. The search for truth is what drives the search for knowledge, and as long as we are alive, the search for knowledge is never-ending. That is why every time we Muslims pray to Allah, we recite in the opening surah:

اهْدِنَا الصِّرَاطَ الْمُسْتَقِيمَ

Guide us to the straight path –

صِرَاطَ الَّذِينَ أَنْعَمْتَ عَلَيْهِمْ غَيْرِ الْمَغْضُوبِ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلَا الضَّالِّينَ

The path of those upon whom You have bestowed favor, not of those who have evoked [Your] anger or of those who are astray. (Surat al Fatihah 1:6-7)

This constant reminder, recited multiple times a day, is our plea to God to guide us into the fold of true knowledge. But we don’t just ask for guidance, rather we also ask God to protect us from the fate of those who have been led astray (and thus have no knowledge) and those who have earned God’s anger (by rebelling against God’s guidance). Essentially, we are striving to fight off these two qualities common among humanity – ignorance, and arrogance, for they are the sources of what cause people to disagree when it comes to religion.

Mankind was [of] one religion [before their deviation]; then Allah sent the prophets as bringers of good tidings and warners and sent down with them the Scripture in truth to judge between the people concerning that in which they differed. And none differed over the Scripture except those who were given it – after the clear proofs came to them – out of jealous animosity among themselves. And Allah guided those who believed to the truth concerning that over which they had differed, by His permission. And Allah guides whom He wills to a straight path. (Surat al Baqarah 2:213)

Here Allah teaches us the real historical cause for religious division: it was not rooted in intellectual problems, rather it was rooted in jealously and animosity after proofs had been established against the people. New sects, and entirely new religions have developed with the intentions of going away from the truth, as opposed to finding new ways towards it. After all, if Allah reveals something that incriminates you, the only way to escape the accusation is to deny the revelation in the first place! The claim that a new religion has found a better way to the truth than the one before it is actually a facade; God has given mankind guidance from the beginning, and what can there be besides guidance except misguidance?

Those who disbelieved among the People of the Scripture and the polytheists were not to be parted [from misbelief] until there came to them clear evidence –

A Messenger from Allah , reciting purified scriptures

Within which are correct writings.

Nor did those who were given the Scripture become divided until after there had come to them clear evidence.

And they were not commanded except to worship Allah, [being] sincere to Him in religion, inclining to truth, and to establish prayer and to give zakah. And that is the correct religion. (Surat al Bayyinah 98:1-5)

The people were given the guidance, but something within themselves caused them to split and disagree. In fact the messengers of God were sent to confirm what was given before, not create division among humanity. Religion is not the cause of what separates people, rather it is personal animosity between individuals and groups.

Narrated Abu Hurayrah: The Prophet (ﷺ) said: The Jews were split up into seventy-one or seventy-two sects; and the Christians were split up into seventy one or seventy-two sects; and my community will be split up into seventy-three sects. (Sunan Abi Dawud Book 42 Hadith 1, graded Hasan Sahih by Al Albani).

Knowing that the cause of religious division is something that comes from the bad qualities of people, it should therefore not surprise us that groups from among the Muslims will fall into the same traps as the civilizations before them. And if this is the case, then sects and factions calling to misguidance will exist within the professed folds of Islam.

How does one deal with sectarianism? How does one find out what is the correct information regarding an issue pertaining to religion? Well, Allah and his prophet have informed us about that:

O you who have believed, obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you. And if you disagree over anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, if you should believe in Allah and the Last Day. That is the best [way] and best in result. (Surat an Nisaa’ 4:59)

(..) This day I have perfected for you your religion and completed My favor upon you and have approved for you Islam as religion. (…) (Surat al Ma’idah 5:3)

Narrated `Abdullah: The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “The best people are those of my generation, and then those who will come after them (the next generation), and then those who will come after them (i.e. the next generation), and then after them, there will come people whose witness will precede their oaths, and whose oaths will precede their witness.” (Sahih al Bukhari Book 81, Hadith 18)

Here we are given a grading rubric of sorts; evaluating the truthfulness of claims can be done by referencing back to Allah Himself, or His Messenger, or the behaviors and practices of the Companions and early generations. If there is something vague in the religion, then the oldest (authenticated) interpretation regarding that issue is likely the most valid. The basic principle is that Allah perfected the religion of Islam at the end of the Prophet’s mission, and thus everything that later generations would need is found in that early time period.

It logically follows then that the earlier generations would have a more complete understanding of the full sunnah, and their opinions would be most correct due to their experience around the Prophet himself. When someone centuries later comes up with a newfangled way of interpreting an ayah, a point of aqeedah, or act of worship, then unless there is corroborating evidence to support it, it’s unlikely that it has a basis within the religion. That’s not to say that Islam cannot adapt to new scenarios and apply to the modern world; rather such is made possible due to the principles that are extrapolated and derived based on the scriptural evidences and interpretations of the first generations. Culture and custom has its place within Islamic Shariah, and that in of itself is proven by the examples of the past generations. Where there is issue is when the principles and core teachings of Islam are being added to, taken away, or changed:

It was narrated from ‘Abdur-Rahman bin ‘Amr As-Sulami that: He heard Al-‘Irbad bin Sariyah say: “The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) delivered a moving speech to us which made our eyes flow with tears and made our hearts melt. We said: ‘O Messenger of Allah. This is a speech of farewell. What did you enjoin upon us?’ He said: ‘I am leaving you upon a (path of) brightness whose night is like its day. No one will deviate from it after I am gone but one who is doomed. Whoever among you lives will see great conflict. I urge you to adhere to what you know of my Sunnah and the path of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs, and cling stubbornly to it. And you must obey, even if (your leader is) an Abyssinian leader. For the true believer is like a camel with a ring in its nose; wherever it is driven, it complies.” (Sahih, Sunan Ibn Majah, Book 1, Hadith 45)
So now the task is up to us to determine whether or not the claims of certain sects are validated based on Allah’s grading criteria. That which is not found to be part of the religion since its completion at the time of the death of the Prophet ﷺ, is something that has been introduced newly from the outside. This is what is termed an ‘innovation.’

Narrated Anas: The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “Some of my companions will come to me at my Lake Fount, and after I recognize them, they will then be taken away from me, whereupon I will say, ‘My companions!’ Then it will be said, ‘You do not know what they innovated (new things) in the religion after you.” (Sahih al Bukhari Book 81, Hadith 170)

‘A’isha reported Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: He who innovates things in our affairs for which there is no valid (reason) (commits sin) and these are to be rejected. (Sahih Muslim Book 31, Hadith 4589)

This rejected type of innovation is not to be confused with innovation in general; we Muslims in modern times may drive cars, eat foods, and use electronics that the people of the past didn’t have, however this worldly innovation is not what is being talked about. Rather, it is innovation “in the religion” itself. It is introducing, or changing the means with which we seek to get closer to, and understand, Allah and the way of life He has given us.

For example, one cannot invent a new type of worship and claim it is Islamically valid. After all, the functional definition of worship in Islam is ‘submission to Allah.’ In order for worship to even qualify as submission, there must be a prior command from Allah that is to be followed. If there isn’t one, then no submission occurs except towards one’s own desire to preform that action. The point of worship is to put the importance of something forward; how do you worship God if you don’t do it in the ways that He wants you to do? Invented worship is not worship at all. That is why, in Islam, all forms of worship are forbidden except what Allah has sanctioned for us and commanded us to perform.

Thus, we must be careful of blindly following traditions that have not been anchored within the sacred texts of our faith. Scholars and learned seekers of knowledge are highly respected in Islam, and their opinions hold weight proportional to the level of knowledge that they have attained…

O you who have believed, when you are told, “Space yourselves” in assemblies, then make space; Allah will make space for you. And when you are told, “Arise,” then arise; Allah will raise those who have believed among you and those who were given knowledge, by degrees. And Allah is Acquainted with what you do. (Surat al Mujadilah 58:11)

However, having knowledge is not equal to having wisdom or that ability to utilize that knowledge properly. That is why it is important to be able to trace a matter back to the strongest evidences and research the proper contexts, to make sure that it is being implemented authentically.

And they say, “None will enter Paradise except one who is a Jew or a Christian.” That is [merely] their wishful thinking, Say, “Produce your proof, if you should be truthful.” (Surat al Baqarah 2:111)

One must remember that every single human is fallible. Only Allah is the truly perfect being. Even the prophets of God made mistakes, however their minor imperfections were corrected by Allah directly, and they were incapable of truly sinning. Everybody else, however, is going to commit a real sin sooner or later.

Anas (RAA) narrated that Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) said: “All the sons of Adam are sinners, but the best of sinners are those who repent often.” Related by At·Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah with a strong chain of narrators. (Bulugh al Maram Book 16, Hadith 1477)
The implications for us as seekers of knowledge are important: we must be careful of raising the status of other humans beyond that which is acceptable. While respect for elders and earlier generations is very important, a balance must be struck so that human beings are not made out to be gods that are called upon and worshiped in a similar manner to saints and idols of polytheistic religions.
They have taken their scholars and monks as lords besides Allah , and [also] the Messiah, the son of Mary. And they were not commanded except to worship one God; there is no deity except Him. Exalted is He above whatever they associate with Him. (Surat at Tawbah 9:31)
The sad reality is that there is a large portion of the Muslim Ummah that holds misguided beliefs and engages in dubious worship practices, ultimately going against the purpose of the revelation in the first place.
Unquestionably, for Allah is the pure religion. And those who take protectors besides Him [say], “We only worship them that they may bring us nearer to Allah in position.” Indeed, Allah will judge between them concerning that over which they differ. Indeed, Allah does not guide he who is a liar and [confirmed] disbeliever. (Surat az Zumar 39:5)

The pagans of Makkah also believed in Allah; they thought their idols were a means for them to get closer to Him. Rather, this is a false assumption that essentially says the Mercy of Allah is limited and inaccessible to the majority of humanity. Islam came to establish true tawhid, which removed any such intermediary between the creation and the Creator.

Even among Muslims who value the importance of the sunnah and the methodology of the predecessors, the issue of blindly following shuyookh (or religious leaders) exists in some circles. Sometimes it takes the form of extremeness in following a madhhab (school of thought), other times it is something more direct.

The modern day madhhabs are the result of the efforts of major scholars of the past to reconstruct the best picture of the sunnah available at the time, given the evidences they believed were the most authentic. Their own internal disagreements were issues of scholarly debate; it never took them to the point where separation from the majority occurred. They simply had different methodologies – hence the term ‘madhhab’ or school of thought. However, evidence might be brought into light which supersedes the position of a madhhab on a particular matter. Therefore, it can be said that while it is not blameworthy to follow a madhhab, it is blameworthy when stronger evidence is brought to attention and is ignored in favor of the madhhab. While it may be safer for the layman to use the madhhab as a shortcut, instead of needing to derive rulings himself, every Muslim is obliged to follow the strongest daleel (evidence) where it leads him, even if it means going against the madhhab.

The above madhhabism is a situation where the object of blind following is a far-removed figure in history. However, it is also possible that the shaykh in question is a direct teacher of the student. Operating under the assumption that the shaykh’s spiritual status is much greater than that of the student, the shaykh then serves the role as a ‘spiritual doctor’ to the student, prescribing certain acts of worship at certain times to help in the student’s tazkiyat ul nafs (purification of the soul).

It is He who has sent among the unlettered a Messenger from themselves reciting to them His verses and purifying them and teaching them the Book and wisdom – although they were before in clear error – (Surat al Jumu’ah 62:2)

Purification of the soul is indeed a major part of the Muslim’s life, and the essential goal behind performing acts of worship. However, when an individual starts playing the role as a spiritual doctor, several problems start creeping up. This issue requires a bit of an explanation from myself, due to all the confusion it’s caused, so allow me to elaborate the problems with this specific methodology in tazkiyat ul nafs:

First of all, no matter how high a person’s spiritual status is, as long as they are living, then the devil can still whisper to them and cause them to fall. Whether that is in the form of overt sinfulness or covert hypocrisy, the point is that no human is ever free from this danger. Even if he is the most learned man among his people with the biggest beard and most humble of character, he still possess the capability to respond to the callings of shaytan. There is no such thing as suddenly becoming ‘safe’ from it. Thus, no one can truly call themselves a ‘master of Islamic spirituality’ in the same way that is said about other Islamic sciences. In fact, when someone believes that they are at such a point that they feel confident enough about themselves spiritually to teach others, then that in of itself is a sign of hypocrisy.

Al-Harith bin Suwaid said: ” ‘Abdullah [bin Mas’ud] narrated two Ahadith to us, one of them from himself and the other from the Prophet (s.a.w). ‘Abdullah said: ‘The believer sees his sins as if he was at the base of a mountain, fearing that it was about to fall upon him. The wicked person sees his sins as if (they are) flies are hitting his nose” he said: “Like this” – motioning with his hand – “to get them to fly away.” (Sahih, Jami’ at Tirmidhi Book 37, Hadith 2685)
Second, if you tie your own spiritual development to another individual, then you’ve essentially made them responsible for your own salvation. Since this person is nowhere near the level of prophethood, they are bound to make mistakes. Any mistakes they make, you are going to emulate without being aware because you’ve limited your scope of knowledge solely to this individual. By placing all of your hopes and desire for salvation into this person, you’ve essentially created an intermediary between you and Allah. It is Allah alone who deserves to be the source of salvation, not the shaykh. If one were to desire a more effective spiritual development, then they need to learn fear of Allah and develop God-consciousness without the presence of a shaykh serving the legislative function of God on Earth. In fact, Allah states that it’s He Himself that purifies the hearts of people, not the people themselves:

Have you not seen those who claim themselves to be pure? Rather, Allah purifies whom He wills, and injustice is not done to them, [even] as much as a thread [inside a date seed].

Look how they invent about Allah untruth, and sufficient is that as a manifest sin. (Surat an Nisaa’ 4:49-50)

Third, piety is not measurable by human means. One may look at another person and get a sense of their level of religiosity, however there is no way to truly look into another person’s heart and find out just how close they are to Allah. That is entirely part of Allah’s exclusive domain of knowledge. Thus, there is no way to qualify or quantify a minimum level of piety in order to practice spiritual medicine, nor a way to measure the real sickness of the student-patient. It’s all guesswork, and for all we know the blind might be leading the blind in this scenario. Ultimately it’s not up to us to purify other people – rather it’s between the individual and Allah exclusively.
And no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another. And if a heavily laden soul calls [another] to [carry some of] its load, nothing of it will be carried, even if he should be a close relative. You can only warn those who fear their Lord unseen and have established prayer. And whoever purifies himself only purifies himself for [the benefit of] his soul. And to Allah is the [final] destination. (Surat Faatir 35:18)
Fourth, what does the shaykh prescribe for the student? Sometimes they are adhkar or supplications to be recited at certain times in a certain amount. Other times they are behavioral changes that the student must comply to. This begs the question: why these particular prescriptions? Are there scriptural evidences that specify the time and amount best suited for these actions, or are these determined by the shaykh himself (or his teacher, or teacher’s teacher)? If it is the latter, then the shaykh has essentially created his own sunnah, and his own shariah. If the shaykh is merely following the sunnah exactly, then that in of itself begs the question of why even need the shaykh to spiritually guide you if the sunnah of the Prophet suffices?
There has certainly been for you in the Messenger of Allah an excellent pattern for anyone whose hope is in Allah and the Last Day and [who] remembers Allah often. (Surat al Ahzaab 33:21)
Finally, this relationship opens the door to a plethora of other innovations. You have the shuyookh that claim legitimacy through access to esoteric and secret chains of knowledge that only a privileged few have access to. You have those that claim to have experienced certain spiritual states that make them ‘one with Allah.’ Then you have those that claim that they are no longer accountable before Allah and proceed to commit major sins. Accumulating all of the above, this mentality creates such a dependency on the shaykh and an air of mysticism and supernaturalness that it simply begs for people to start worshiping at his grave after he dies. The Shaytan is ever subtle, so we must recognize the paths that take us into the grey areas lest we find ourselves falling into the dark.

Narrated An-Nu`man bin Bashir: The Prophet (ﷺ) said “Both legal and illegal things are obvious, and in between them are (suspicious) doubtful matters. So whoever forsakes those doubtful things lest he may commit a sin, will definitely avoid what is clearly illegal; and whoever indulges in these (suspicious) doubtful things bravely, is likely to commit what is clearly illegal. Sins are Allah’s Hima (i.e. private pasture) and whoever pastures (his sheep) near it, is likely to get in it at any moment.” (Sahih al Bukhari Book 34, Hadith 5)

Despite the existence of these corrupt shuyookh, there still exist those religious scholars and leaders who really embody the spirit of Islam. These scholars know that their job is to simply convey the message, spread the knowledge, encourage following the sunnah, and leave the rest up to Allah. These are the people that require proper behavioral etiquette, patience, and respect from the seeker of knowledge; at the same time the rights of the seeker are never violated by being asked to pledge himself to the shaykh. Thus, the real scholars are distinguished by their message of calling towards Allah and the sunnah as opposed to calling to themselves or their self-branded spiritual path/essential servitude. For the individual seeker, their job is to implement what they are taught in order to purify themselves. True Islamic spirituality is defined by the Prophet himself:

It is narrated on the authority of Abu Huraira that the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) said: Ask me (about matters pertaining to religion), but they (the Companions of the Prophet) were too much overawed out of profound respect for him to ask him (anything). In the meanwhile a man came there, and sat near his knees and said: Messenger of Allah, what is al-lslam? -to which he (the Prophet) replied: You must not associate anything with Allah, and establish prayer, pay the poor-rate (Zakat) and observe (the fasts) of Ramadan. He said: You (have) told the truth. He (again) said: Messenger of Allah, what is al-Iman (the faith)? He (the Prophet) said: That you affirm your faith in Allah, His angels, His Books, His meeting, His Apostles, and that you believe in Resurrection and that you believe in Qadr (Divine Decree) in all its entirety, He (the inquirer) said: You (have) told the truth. He (again) said: Messenger of Allah, what is al-Ihsan? Upon this he (the Prophet) said: (Al-Ihsan implies) that you fear Allah as if you are seeing Him, and though you see Him not, verily He is seeing you. He (the inquirer) said: You (have) told the truth. (…) (Sahih Bukhari Book 1, Hadith 7)

Indeed there are levels of faith, and levels of closeness to Allah. Islam is the first level, where the outward deeds are established and professing belief occurs. Iman is comprehending the existence of the matters of the unseen such as the Resurrection and the Divine Decree. Finally, Ihsan is perfection of the person’s submission to God, such that it is as though he sees Him even though he doesn’t. The person who earns this has a very high status with Allah:
No doubt! Verily, the Auliya’ (close friends) of Allah, no fear shall come upon them nor shall they grieve,
Those who believed (in the Oneness of Allah – Islamic Monotheism), and used to fear Allah much (by abstaining from evil deeds and sins and by doing righteous deeds).
For them are good tidings in the worldly life and in the Hereafter. No change is there in the words of Allah. That is what is the great attainment. (Surat Yunus 10:62-64)

We cannot determine for sure if someone is a wali of Allah, and Allah didn’t make it our job to pass judgment on people. However, He does tell us that there are high stations reserved for those who do get close to Him, so that we may strive as individuals to reach such statuses. We should always try to improve ourselves, never thinking that what we have is enough. When stagnation settles in, it is only a matter of time before deterioration occurs.

Thus, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to one particular shaykh; rather, our search for knowledge is as broad as the East and the West. When we learn from multiple sources, we are able to synthesize a much better understanding that is balanced by different points of view. By taking this wide approach, we are able to reach a much more rich and nuanced pool of knowledge that takes us closer to the truth and does not limit us to the same physical limitations as the people before us. And in fact, when one looks at the major scholars of Islamic history, we see this precise methodology when it comes to acquiring knowledge. In their search for the complete understanding of the sunnah, they were forced to travel from city to city looking to access the knowledge that was passed down from the earlier generations.

It is true that we do not have access to the same companions and successors as the previous generations, and that is indeed a great disadvantage. However, we are not left without our own advantages: our global age has connected us far more efficiently than ever before, and this gives us a much better opportunity to share with each other the knowledge that we do have. Moving into the future, the dissemination of knowledge should take priority if we are to be the Ummah we are meant to be.

وَكَذَٰلِكَ أَنزَلْنَاهُ قُرْآنًا عَرَبِيًّا وَصَرَّفْنَا فِيهِ مِنَ الْوَعِيدِ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَتَّقُونَ أَوْ يُحْدِثُ لَهُمْ ذِكْرًا

And thus We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur’an and have diversified therein the warnings that perhaps they will avoid [sin] or it would cause them remembrance.

فَتَعَالَى اللَّهُ الْمَلِكُ الْحَقُّ ۗ وَلَا تَعْجَلْ بِالْقُرْآنِ مِن قَبْلِ أَن يُقْضَىٰ إِلَيْكَ وَحْيُهُ ۖ وَقُل رَّبِّ زِدْنِي عِلْمًا

So high [above all] is Allah , the Sovereign, the Truth. And, [O Muhammad], do not hasten with [recitation of] the Qur’an before its revelation is completed to you, and say, “My Lord, increase me in knowledge.” (Surat TaHa 20:113-114)

‘Abdullah b. Mas’ud reported Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: There should be no envy but only in case of two persons: one having been endowed with wealth and power to spend it in the cause of Truth, and (the other) who has been endowed with wisdom and he decides cases with the help of it and teaches it (to others). (Sahih al Bukhari Book 6, Hadith 324)

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