By: Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh.
Bernard Lewis celebrates this year his ninety-eighth birthday. Perhaps he can now depart our world, believing that some of his wishes have been fulfilled in redrawing the map of the Arab and Islamic region along ethno-sectarian lines.
This well-known orientalist, who is a staunch supporter of Zionism and Israel, wrote his doctorate on the Assassins, a splinter sect of Ismailism, a branch of Shi‘a Islam. Lewis believed that the fragmentation of the Arab-Islamic region along sectarian and ethnic lines was the natural course of action in response to historical, geographical, and cultural dynamics.
He also saw this as a great service for the Zionist project and a guarantee for the survival of Israel as a “Jewish state,” in a region divided into similar ethno-sectarian entities. Lewis had an impact on the neo-conservative school and George W. Bush, who ordered the invasion of Iraq seeking to rearrange it on ethnic and sectarian bases.
On the Religious Vision:
However, the Arab-Islamic region, long before Lewis and his ilk, had witnessed sectarian conflicts; the disputes date back to the generation of the early companions of Prophet Muhammad. Difference is a second nature to humans, and people differ in religion, ideas, cultures, standards, priorities, tastes, knowledge, intelligence, wealth, power, and beauty…In this life, no leader, thinker, prophet, or even Allah (SWT), has been spared from people’s mockery and abuse.
However, there are rules of conduct and standards of life that almost all ideologies and beliefs agree on, such as the call for honesty, integrity, justice, and refraining from doing harm, regardless of how much people adhere to this or not. The problem here is not differences per se, but the ability to find a framework, rules, and regulations that manage the process of difference, in a way that would channel it into diversity and creativity, rather than conflict and destruction.
Islam has admitted the existence of differences between human beings. The Quran states, “We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other.” Islam also rejected coercion in religion, and provided the followers of other religions with protection and care, and gave them full rights. Islam contained provisions to manage differences among Muslims themselves. The Quran states, “If you differ in anything among yourselves, refer it to Allah and His Messenger”; and “If two parties among the Believers fall into a quarrel, make peace between them: but if one of them transgresses beyond bounds against the other, then fight (all) against the one that transgresses until it complies with the command of Allah.”
Throughout history, Muslim scholars in general followed the rationale of ‘Ali bin Abi Talib (The companion of Prophet Muhammad and the fourth caliphate) in conflict among Muslims. He stated that if the “deviant” faction is fought, those who flee are not chased down, those who are captured are not killed, and those who are wounded are not finished off. No spoils are extracted from them, and none of them are taken as slaves. This is what Ali did in fighting the Kharijites and other factions.
It was known in the schools of Islamic jurisprudence that a Muslim can not be declared an apostate unless he denies an unequivocal tenet of religion, or acted in a manner that can only be explained as apostasy. This has made the margin of tolerance and difference among Muslims and their sects very wide, including in matters of belief, worship, and transactions.
On the Historical Experience:
Many fall victim to the writings of Orientalists and those who adopt their views among modern Muslim and Arab historians, distorting the image of the Islamic history of the region, showing it as a history of ethnic and sectarian wars, conflicts, and disputes. Indeed, many orientalists deliberately focus on political history, conflicts between ruling dynasties, and seeking out contentious issues, which they then inflate and exaggerate. We do not deny that there are disputes and conflicts, which are a normal occurrence in the movement of history and the law of competition and conflict among peoples. However, we raise a thousand question marks about why the cultural history of our region is not emphasized, nor the aspects of social, economic, and cultural life when our Islamic civilization had led humanity for hundreds of years, and when our regions had enjoyed stability, religious tolerance, and prosperity, compared to Europe, which was mired in bloody religious conflicts.
The longest period of stability in Europe’s history was the one that followed the Second World War. All those who were killed for sectarian reasons in Muslim infighting throughout Islamic history (1400 years) number much less than Europeans who were killed by other Europeans in the First World War alone, or the Second World War alone!!
In general, Arabs and Muslims have suffered from instability and conflict in limited periods of time and in limited geographical scopes, mostly linked to political conflict and the rise and fall of their states. However, the countries that ruled in Arab and Muslim regions throughout history left people in general to decide their own personal, religious, and sectarian lives, as long as they did not compete with them over power. Because the majority of ruling dynasties and the overwhelming majority of Muslims were “Sunni,” the Sunnis never had sectarian zeal or felt that they are a sectarian entity, as much as they felt that they are the Ummah i.e., “the Nation,” and the sea that accommodated everyone. If they had sectarian zeal or imitated the model of the Spanish Inquisition, most other sects would have been uprooted a long time ago.
In general, the Sunni school was very stringent in shunning bloodshed and applying verdicts related to apostasy, placing very tough conditions for doing so. For this reason, religious tolerance, coexistence, and cordial religious preaching were the norm throughout Islamic history. Sunni scholars, (including Ibn Taymiyyah), did not declare mainstream Shi‘as as apostates, though they did so with small heretical esoteric sects. In the latter’s case, they relied on what was proven of their heretical views, but left what is secret to the judgment of Allah. Thus, the Muslim states and armies did not crackdown on those sects, uproot them, or coerced them in matters of religion.
Sheikh Dr. Mustafa Siba‘i, in his book Min Rawai‘ Hadaratina (Glorious Aspects of Our Civilization), cites many examples of religious tolerance. He quotes Khalaf bin al-Muthanna’s descriptions of popular scholarly sessions, which were held in the second Hijri century. Khalaf wrote: We have seen in Basra ten at a meeting. They were unmatched in the world in knowledge and gumption. They are the grammarian Khalil bin Ahmad (Sunni), the poet al-Humairi (Shi‘a), Saleh Bin ‘Abdul Quddus (a heretic Dualist), Sufian bin Mujashi‘ (Kharijite), Bashar ibn Burd (a lewd Shu‘ubi