In recent months there has been a lot of talk about both unity and how it is to be achieved. Some time ago, the Amman Message spoke of an agreement between scholars of virtually all of the major traditions within Islam. They spoke of the need to return to the intellectual and spiritual roots of our beloved din: calling others an ‘unbeliever’ or a ‘hypocrite’ were rightly castigated as being morally and religiously wrong. Moreover, the differences between each school of thought was rightly said to be the outcome of differences amongst the learned. Thus, accusations of kufr and nifaq among us ordinary Muslims were strongly criticised.
More recently (in the last few weeks in fact), another similar move has been made by a number of the major scholars within the broad Sunni community. The Sunni Unity Pledge has spread like wildfire all over the Islamosphere, provoking intense discussion and reflection. [You can find the pledge itself here; further discussion can be found here, here, here, here, here and here].
I have always been struck by the often heard calls for ‘unity’ within the Muslim Ummah, and have often wondered exactly what such calls mean. As such, I’d like to offer a few thoughts on the topic myself. Before I do, though, I will say up front that I endorsed both the Amman Message and newly emerging Sunni Unity Pledge.
Why? Principally because I felt, and still feel, that it is more important for us all to learn to respect one another than it is for us to become involved in theological niceties. Theology is an often obscure and difficult subject, which is why it is properly the domain of trained scholars. Does that mean that theological study and reflection as such are off limits to everyone else? No, of course not. Apart from anything else, even if I thought so, people would still engage in such things anyway. What it does mean, I feel, is that we should respect the learning of our theologians and leave the fine points of detail to their learned discussions.
Moreover, I think it also means that all of our learning is as nothing measured next to the truth of God. Even the most learned shaykh among us would readily accept that they know little of the ultimate truth of things. In other words, I am referring to humility. I have been educated and I have struggled hard to learn about Allah and Islam. But, in the scale of things, I know nothing; indeed, I am nothing! So why should I waste my life in attacking others?
As I understand it, this issue touches on wider issues of debate, belonging and ultimately, identity. I have written about the ethics of dissussion elsewhere (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). As such, I have no wish to reproduce these thoughts. Suffice it to say, that our tradition is one of respect for differences of opinion. The Islamic tradition is also very firm on matters of adab.
Questions of belonging and identity, asked in various ways, have come to dominate much of our internal dialogue of late. Here in the UK (I believe the issue is broadly similar in the US), these questions include:
- Who is a Muslim?
- Who isn’t a Muslim?
- What does it mean to be a Muslim?
- What does it mean to be a Muslim here and now?
- What is the relationship between religion and culture?
- What place should tradition have and role should it play?
- How should the broad Islamic tradition be understood and applied in a relevant and meaningful manner in this time and place?
- What does the existence of different schools of thought, different traditions actually mean?
- How should difference be understood?
- How should Muslims with different ideas/beliefs be approached in an Islamic manner?
- And, ultimately, what is unity and what does it mean to speak of a united Ummah
These are important and weighty questions. Moreover, they are questions that have been asked, in one form or another, by Muslims throughout history. I, for one, believe that everyone has a right to join in this discussion and everyone has a role to play within it. Upon reflection, this is because these questions relate as much to the individual as to the communal, as much to the private as to the public.
What does unity mean, then? I do not believe that unity means uniformity. That is, we don’t all have to think the same thing and believe the same thing to form a united community. We don’t have to speak the same language, nor do we have to dress in the same manner (nor eat the same food). What we do have to do, I would argue, is to treat each other like our own brothers and sisters. This is more than merely tolerating contentious ideas (whilst inwardly rejecting the people who hold them). It is about valuing the other person, even when they say something which you strongly disagree with. It is about striving to understand the inner language of expression by which different Muslims (and all people) speak about their understandings of the Divine. It is about struggling to hear what the other person is really trying to say.
This is why I endorsed the Amman Message and the Sunni Unity Pledge. I feel that they are steps in the right direction, taken from within the spirit of the Islamic tradition. I hope to see more initiatives of this nature, insha Allah. I also hope to see more Sunni-Shi`a dialogue, insha Allah.