Dr. John Andrew Morrow

Home » Uncategorized » Uniting the Ummah: The Foundations of Islamic Unity

Uniting the Ummah: The Foundations of Islamic Unity

Follow me on Twitter

Follow Dr. John Andrew Morrow on WordPress.com

Blog Stats

  • 41,151 visitors

Blog Stats

  • 41,151 hits

Uniting the Ummah: The Foundations of Islamic Unity

SHAFAQNA – Islamic unity has never been a problem for me or for people like me and trust me, there are many. There are not hundreds. There are not thousands. There are not tens of thousands. There are hundreds of thousands, even millions, of converts or reverts to Islam who feel the same very same way. I would even venture to say that there are upwards of one billion cultural Muslims who share the same sentiment. So, when we talk about Islamic unity, we are not a minority; we are actually the majority. The problem is that most of us are a silent majority or, more accurately, a silenced majority.

I have been a strong advocate for Islamic unity for the past thirty years. There are people in our communities who have been promoting Sunni-Shi‘ite unity for forty and fifty years. Scholars and sages have been doing it for centuries. The Imams of Ahl al-Bayt, peace be upon them, were doing it 1400 years ago. Our efforts have not been in vain. There have been successes. There have also been failures. We need to acknowledge that. We have a very serious problem. It is a problem that threatens Islam as a whole. It is a problem that targets the very heart of our Ummah. Considering the so-called Sunni-Shi‘ah conflict occurring in the Middle East, and much of the Muslim world, we must redouble our efforts.

While it will come as a surprise to many, the Imams of Ahl al-Bayt, peace be upon them, were some of the strongest proponents of Islamic unity. Rather than promote division and conflict, Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq urged Shi‘ites to pray with Sunnis: “He who prays with them standing in the front row, it is as though he prayed with the Prophet in the first row” (Saduq). The Imam also encouraged Shi‘ites to treat Sunnis as their brethren: “Visit their sick, attend their funerals, and pray in their mosques” (Saduq). Since the improper behavior of followers reflects poorly on their leader, the Imam told his followers to “Become an ornament for us, and not a disgrace” (Saduq). He also called upon his Shi‘ites to encourage goodwill among all Muslims, saying, “May Allah have mercy on a person who inculcates friendship towards us among men, and does not provoke ill-will among them” (Saduq). This Shi‘ite spirit of Islamic unity was shown by ‘Allamah Sharaf al-Din al-Musawi who ruled that the Shi‘ites of Lebanon should celebrate the birth of the Prophet on the same day as the Sunnis. Imam Khumayni took this a step further by declaring Islamic Unity week. Sayyid al-Sistani has also taken praiseworthy steps to promote peace and brotherhood between all Muslims in Iraq.

The very idea of “debate” between Sunnis and Shi‘ites is misguided as “debate” implies opposition with each party trying to defeat the other. It is foolish to believe that any party could actually “win” such a debate considering that Muslims have been polarized into two camps for nearly 1,500 years. The very idea of Sunni-Shi‘ah debate should be cast aside and replaced by inter-Islamic dialogue.

In order for Shi‘ites and Sunnis to move towards reconciliation, they need to recognize that any extreme polar position is only going to aggravate the conflict, not to mention providing outside forces inimical to Islam with a weak point they can exploit.

For starters, all Muslims, Shi‘ite, Sunnis, and ‘Ibadis, must cease cursing Companions of the Prophet and cursing one another as such actions merely increase animosity I have witnessed Salafis insult Fatimah, ‘Ali, Hasan, and Husayn; Sunni Muslims insult the Ahl al-Bayt, Twelver Shi‘ites insult the Sunni Caliphs, Isma‘ilis insult Imam Musa al-Kazim, Sufis insult Sunnis, and ‘Ibadis insult Imam ‘Ali. Surely, such behavior must cease from all sides. As Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq warned: “Do not revile them, lest they revile your ‘Ali” (Saduq). What goes around comes around, and it is time for a truce if not a treaty of perpetual peace.

As any historian of early Islam is aware, the Companions of the Prophet had their differences, cursed each other, and killed each other. Surely, the sound of mind should not seek to perpetuate such belligerent behavior ad-eternam. Questions of who was right and who was wrong are a matter of personal belief. There is no need to express them openly in contexts that arouse undue emotion. When it comes to some matters, Muslims need to let differences die with those who differed.

Over the course of 1,400 years of Sunni and Shi‘ite sectarianism, positions have become polarized and differences have become deeply entrenched. Muslims need to leave a little room for ambiguity. Despite what most Muslims would like to believe, early Islamic history was not black and white, and not everything was cut and dry. Muslims need to open up to uncertainty, move from the black areas into gray areas, and creative processes will emerge.

If Shi‘ites and Sunnis are sincere in seeking reconciliation, if they are honest about starting a dialogue, then they must agree to talk with respect. Both sides of the conflict need to be recognized. Both have wronged and been wronged. Muslims need to refrain from belligerence and leave room for forgiveness. They need to set emotion aside or moderate it with intelligence. They need to stop trying to prove each other wrong. They must unite on the values and beliefs that they hold in common. Since we are dealing with a complex, multi-dimensional, problem that is deeply rooted in history, there is no simple solution. We need to approach the issue from many angles. We need to implement numerous strategies. One such approach is to stress similarity instead of difference; to focus on what we share in common as oppose to what divides us.

When outsiders look at Islam, all they see are Muslims. They do not distinguish between various sects. If they were to examine issues of ‘aqidah or creed between the various Muslim groups, they would be hard-pressed to find grounds for division. The Sunni Muslims believe in:


Tawhid: Oneness of God

Nubuwwah/Risalah: Prophethood and Messengership

Kutub: Divinely Revealed Books

Mala’ikah: Angels

Qiyamah: The Day of Judgment

Qadar: Predestination


They are also fond of combining both faith and belief in Five Pillars of Islam, consisting of:


Shahadah: Profession of Faith

Salah: Prayer

Sawm: Fasting in Ramadan

Hajj: Pilgrimage to Mecca

Zakah: Alms


The Twelver Shi‘ite theologians prefer to separate creed from practice, presenting two lists, the Foundations of Faith, and the Branches of Faith.


Usul al-din


Tawhid: Oneness of God

‘Adl: Divine Justice

Nubuwwah/Risalah: Prophethood and Messengership

Imamah/Wilayah: Imamate or Guardianship

Qiyamah: Day of Judgment


Furu’ al-din


Salah: Prayer

Sawm: Fasting in Ramadan

Hajj: Pilgrimage to Mecca

Zakah: 2.5% charity

Khums: 20% alms

Jihad: Struggle

Amr bi al-ma’ruf: Promoting good

Nahi ‘an al-munkar: Forbidding evil

Tawalli: Attachment to Ahl al-bayt

Tabarri: Separation from the enemies of Ahl al-bayt


For all intents and purpose, the Zaydiyyah share the same beliefs of the Ithna ‘Ashariyyah. The main difference between both groups is in their concept of the Imamate, and the fact that Zaydiyyah fiqh is closer to Sunni Hanafi and Sunni Shafi‘i fiqh, with some elements of Shi‘ah Ja‘fari elements.

The Isma‘iliyyah theologians have organized their beliefs into Seven Pillars of Islam, consisting of:

Wilayah: Guardianship

Taharah: Purity

Salah: Prayer

Zakah: Alms

Sawm: Fasting in Ramadan

Hajj: Pilgrimage to Mecca

Jihad: Struggle


‘Ibadiyyah theologians have organized their beliefs into the following Five Pillars:


Tawhid: Oneness of God

‘Adl: Divine Justice

Qadar: Predestination

Wilayah/Tabarri: Attachment to Muslims and separation from unbelievers

Amr/Nahi: Promoting good and forbidding evil; implementing the Imamate when possible.


As can be appreciated from this overview, all Muslims believe in the following articles of faith:


Tawhid: Oneness of God

Nubuwwah/Risalah: Prophets and Messengers

Qiyamah: The Day of Judgment


Although non-Sunnis do not list the divinely revealed books (kutub) or the angels (mala’ikah) in their creeds, these are fundamental aspects of beliefs for all groups. If they do not cite them as individual items, it is because they form part of the belief in God and His Prophets.

The ‘Ibadiyyah and some of the Sunnis adds qadar or predestination to their articles of faith while other groups insist on free will. Along with Shi‘ite groups, the ‘Ibadiyyah focus on ‘adl or divine justice, whereas some of the Sunnis insist on qadir or omnipotence. This difference is the result of philosophical differences in which the Sunni stress Allah’s Omnipotence over His Justice, while the Shi‘ites stress Allah’s Justice over His Omnipotence. In practical matters, the hierarchical differences between divine attributes are inconsequential and do not make or break a Muslim. In fact, the majority of Muslims are completely unaware of such philosophical subtleties.

The Shi‘ah Ithna ‘Ashariyyah, the Shi‘ah Zaydiyyah, the Shi‘ah Isma‘iliyyah, and the ‘Ibadiyyah all believe in Imamah although their chains of Imams are different as are their qualities, attributes, and qualifications. In many respects, the Shi‘ite and ‘Ibadi belief in Imamah is similar to the Sunni belief in khilafah. Whether it is an Imam or a Caliph, whether he inherits his title or is elected, whether he is a righteous leader or an infallible Imam, Sunni, Shi‘ite, and even Sufi Muslims believe in some form of religious authority, both spiritual and political, which should rule the Ummah and establish the shari‘ah.

As can be seen, all Muslims share the same creedal concepts and religious practices. They all believe in one God, the Prophethood, and the Day of Judgment. They all believe in angels and revealed books. They all pray, fast, make the pilgrimage to Mecca, and pay charity. Although the Sunnis do not list khums, jihad, promoting the good and forbidding evil, in their creed, all Sunnis accept these as religious obligations.

Although a Nasibi would reject the obligation to love the Prophet’s Family, and the prohibition of dealing with those who hate the Prophet’s family, every true Sunni and every true Sufi loves and blesses the Prophet and his Family. Evidently, all true Muslims follows the shari‘ah, be they Sunni, ‘Ibadi, Shi‘i Ithna ‘Ashari, Shi‘i Isma‘ili, Shi‘i Zaydi, or Sufi.

If there are any differences between Sunni, Shi‘ite, ‘Ibadi, and Sufi Muslims, they are relatively minor and revolve around aspects of religious practice. Muslims need to recognize and respect their tiny technical differences. They need to remember that jurisprudence is not a goal in and of itself but a means to a goal, namely, the remembrance of Almighty Allah. As important as proper observation of Islamic practices may be, far too many Muslims focus on the form of worship as opposed to the essence of worship.

Islamic unity certainly does not mean uniformity. It does not mean that all schools of fiqh [jurisprudence] should merge into one. It merely means that there is more than one “right way” to do things, and that jurists have differences of opinion, based on different interpretations of the Qur’an and Sunnah and on different methodologies. Within certain limits, every ruling is “right” according to the jurist who derived it. Every opinion is “correct” depending on one’s point of view. All jurists agree on the issue, but they view the issue from a different perspective. One issue can be viewed as harammakruh, and halal [forbidden / reprehensible / permissible]. In Islam, every issue can be seen from a 360-degree angle and there is ample room for a wide range of opinion.

In many areas of Islamic law, differences of opinion are mainly differences of degree. These differences are a mercy and a blessing from Allah. No Muslim is obliged to submit to one set of rulings. Each Muslim is free to follow the rulings of the mujtahid or mufti[jurist] of his choice, to leave the taqlid [emulation] of one faqih [jurist], and to commence the taqlid of another he deems to be the most learned. Since all people are different, they have different levels of din [religion], different levels of faith, and different levels of understanding. There is no coercion when it comes to conforming to certain rulings.

In closing, I would like to encourage all Muslims to unite on the basis of their common beliefs, remembering that unity does not imply uniformity. Muslims may come from various legal, theological, and philosophical traditions, but they are all one in the Oneness of God. Muslims must reject absolutist literalist attitudes and embrace a Universal Islam, becoming multi-dimensional Muslims far removed from the fundamentalist fallacy. They need to embrace Islamic pluralism and Islamic diversity in accord with the Oneness of Allah and the Qur’anic message brought by the Messenger of Allahan Islam which includes rather than excludes, an Islam which enriches rather than impoverishes, a centrist, middle-road Islam (2:143), which opposes extremism, for as Almighty Allah says, “Do not be excessive in your belief” (4:165; 5:81).

While Islam rejects religious relativism and exoteric religious pluralism, it does accept that all revealed religions share the same esoteric spirit. Whether it is Judaism, Christianity or Islam, all revealed religions believe in One God, the Prophets, the Day of Judgment, and the Ten Commandments. However, before Muslims can unite socio-politically with the true ahl al-kitab, they must unite with themselves, embracing Islam as a totality, accepting the entire Islamic pie rather than a single slice. If the Europeans say, “All roads lead to Rome,” we say, “All roads lead to Allah,” and this is precisely what the Qur’an teaches: Tawhid is one, but the number of paths to Allah is equal to the number of human souls.

By Dr John Andrew Morrow for the Shafaqna Institute for Middle Eastern Studies

1 Comment

  1. Islam is a way of life in every field Islam guides you in your daily life to be a good Muslim and follow the teaching of Islam means a good human. Muslim scholar

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: