The plethora of labels that engulf Muslims- Sunni, Shia, Salafi, Sufi, Wahabi, modernist, revivalist, traditional, progressive, moderate, extremist etc.- suggests the following questions: To what extent can Muslims see beyond these labels and strive for greater cohesion? To what extent do these labels represent boundaries that cannot and should not be crossed?
While these questions have recurred throughout Islamic history in one form or the other, it can be argued that they have acquired greater urgency in an age where social and geographical boundaries are more fluid, “other” people and ideas more visible, and information more dispersed. There is also a weakening of social and cultural structures that in the past insulated against the foreign and different.
Labels have been applied since the period of Companions when various groups broke away from the main body of Muslims on certain issues of creed. These groups were then labeled- Kharijis, Shias etc- and the main body distinguished itself by another label- Ahl Sunnah wal Jamaah. The justification for such labels were often traced to hadith and saying of the Holy Prophet and the Companions.
In time within these groups various sub-groups also developed, each with different tendencies and often at loggerheads with one another. The central conflict between these groups and sub-groups revolved basically around whose views truly represented the Prophetic legacy. The claim to truth then becomes a defining cause partitioning various groups off from one another, claims it is said will have consequences in the Hereafter.
There is another classification that is based on method, rather than truth. An example of this is the classification by certain scholars of three contemporary trends in Islam. The first, traditional Islam, proceeds on the wholesale acceptance of the scholarly tradition developed over many centuries. Practically this translates into Islam being practiced according to the well-known schools of law. The second, the revivalist, is more suspicious of this tradition and seeks a more direct engagement with the Quran and Sunnah. Then third trend, the “modernist” one, seeks to engage current knowledge and trends of thought and apply them to Islam. These divisions are broad and other scholars have refined them to create various sub-divisions. But even these sub-divisions tend to fall under one of these three “methods.”
What are we to make of these “partitions” based on truth and method. Firstly, I think it has to be recognized that they represent real differences that cannot be wished away. These differences were always with us and in probability will always be with us. There are degrees of right or wrong and we are going to be accountable for the group beliefs we hold. Similarly, there are different approaches to looking at Islam and these are often going to produce conflicting outcomes. Again, these approaches need themselves need to be based on firm evidence and a convincing rationale and so we are also going to be responsible for the ones we choose. In brief, we are going to have to take sides and choose options whether we like it or not since mutually opposing truth claims and methods are involved.
But does this necessarily mean that we are going to get bogged down in group thinking, in “partition” thinking, in constantly demarcating ourselves from other Muslims. Not so.
Another way of looking at the differences between various groups in Islam is as a spectrum encompassing various hues within the religion. These partitions overlap and it is this overlapping that creates space for joint efforts and strategic alliances, in spite of differences. This overlapping results at the most basic level from the consensus of the scholars on what constitutes the fundamentals of the religion (the basic beliefs in Allah, the Prophets etc.and the basic pillars of salaah, fasting etc) and what is necessarily known by Muslims with regard to right and wrong (the fact that adultery is prohibited, wine is forbidden etc.). All these are recognized as what constitutes Islam and what makes us Muslim. It is this which gives us an affinity with one another irrespective of our differences and immediately imposes upon us the obligations of respect and honour due to a fellow Muslim. Within sub-groups such an obligation is even more acute since they will often agree on the same truth claims and methods but may differ on ethereal (but important) issues of creed or non-obligatory (but significant) modes of practice. Such respecting and honouring, though, depends upon our own perspectives not being demeaned by others.
At a more intricate level differences in method, especially, are less rigidly divided than differences in truth claims. There is a lot of cross-pollination between the various methods involved – while a person maintains a basic frame of reference, traditionalist for example, he or she may easily and simultaneously be “progressive” in some respects and “revivalist” in others. Here a spectrum analysis indicates that a person cannot and should not be conveniently categorized for a view he or she may hold on a particular issue.
It is clear that differences between Muslim groups occur at the level of branches as opposed to fundamentals. This is not to minimize the importance of these branches. The primary sources of the Quran and Sunnah indicate that we will be responsible for the options we choose with regard to these branches- choices that are made on the basis of the sustained evidence and reason. Further, many Muslims speak in the name of an “Islamic” group, movement or party, glossing over the fact that it is a particular- and often not mainstream- brand of Islam that they propound. We must recognize that partitions are necessary and represent legitimate boundaries. Simultaneously, boundaries overlap and allow conversation and alliance. They do not foreclose dialogue. Muslims agree on fundamentals and defy easy categorization. It seems that that within one individual there should exist the space for respecting boundaries and being open to the other.