Here Allama Ibn Ramadhan reflects on the uphill task of Muslim unity, how this is dependent on understanding our multiple identities and willingness to embrace the Quranic principle of pluralism. A concept explained in the Quran “People, We created you all from a male and female; then split you into different races and tribes so that you may know each other. The most honourable in the sight of Allah is the one who is most mindful of Allah. He is the Knower and Aware.” (The Majestic Quran 49:13)
In December 2009, I led an important initiative of bringing different Muslim groups together in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It was a follow-up to the conference held in Manchester after the terrorist attacks in London on July 7, 2005. We want these leaders to discuss Muslim unity. We discussed how to put in place a relevant framework for unity. Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed, former Prime Minister of Malaysia, argued: “for the survival of Islam, Muslims must put aside ‘petty differences’ and deal with the challenges.”
Fast-forward ten years and not much has changed, Muslims are still divided on secondary issues. From moon sighting to the Sunni and Shia split; we are still bickering about historical events. At the peak of Muslim civilisation, al-Kindi, al-Farabi and Ibn Sina were debating in sophisticated techniques to answer difficult questions.
What is “Muslim unity”? The usual dreamland answer is uniformity or agreeing about the commonalities. Uniformity theologically is elusive, nor desired, differences exist and will remain. The problem is how we perceive them. It may also be due to an identity crisis. Who am I? ‘am I Muslim or British, or should I call myself or even Sunni or Shia?’. Further, ‘Am I a Hanafi or just a Muslim’. We need to learn that we can have multiple identities, and still be Muslim. Here is how a great scholar of medieval Islam identified himself: Mulla Ali Qari Sunni, Sufi, Hanafi, Matureedi, Makki.
In my opinion, Muslim differences do exist, and they mustn’t be disguised. With the acknowledgement of differences, next comes the concept of identity. The confused individual must concede and wholeheartedly embrace theological, and cultural differences. So, we can accept that there is no harm in being a Sunni or Shia, or even more commonly a Sunni, Sufi, Hanafi, Ja’fari etc. People should embrace identity rather than shy away from it. This is broadmindedness that willingly accepts differences and the rich diversity of the Muslims.
This requires an open and honest platform where scholars from different groups can debate, discuss, and contextualise the creedal, historical, and social differences in a friendly and scholarly manner. It requires questioning ourselves and others openly and freely without the threat of retaliation or judgement.
A framework for unity
The next stage is the implementation of a robust framework for dialogue among Muslims. In my opinion, this framework of understanding and cooperation has three levels:
- The first level is tolerance, meaning accepting others as they are,
- The second level accepts diversity. This diversity is expressed as multiculturalism.
- The third level is pluralism, the ideal approach to bringing out the best of people. Here we approach others amicably we are different but we can learn from each other. Allah said in Surah al-Hujurat “People, We created you from a male and a female, and made you into peoples and tribes so that you may get to know one another”.
This is the highest level and what is required in the modern world. Muslim unity is possible, we will mutually benefit from it, we will better understand the differences.