Khutbah Reflections August 2013: Handling Diversity and Disagreement in the Ummah
The Ethics and Etiquette in Disagreement – 9 August 2013
Celebrating Diversity Within the Muslim Ummah – 16 August 2013
Strengthening Religious Understanding – 23 August 2013
Developing a Sense of Spiritual Maturity in Facing Diversity – 30 August 2013
The series of khutbahs given across Singapore over the past month discussed a topic that is widely known but rarely publicly discussed: division and disagreement among the Muslim community in Singapore.
Ostensibly, the ummah in Singapore is fairly united. The vast majority of Singaporean Muslims follow the Shafi’i madhab in fiqh and the Ashari school of aqidah, and are either Malay by heritage or speak the Malay language. There appears to be little room for sectarianism or division given the general uniformity of the Muslim community here. In reality though, anyone with any involvement in the community knows about how much divison there really is. Those affliated with one teacher will condemn those affliated with another, and laymen will question the validity of one another’s tariqa, manhaj or other religious methodology. Even the learned are not immune to this, and their arguments lead to the confusion of the average Muslim. The age of the internet and Facebook on our smartphones means that these disagreements, which once were whispers in private gatherings, have become screams in the arena of social media. I found this particular section from the khutbah on 16 August very enlightening:
“Sometimes we see those with differences of opinion arguing on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and so on, when in fact there are those among us who have yet to be motivated to be closer to Allah s.w.t. We busy ourselves saying that so and so has been led astray, misguided or even deviated from the teachings of Islam, when in fact these issues that we are passionately debating about are issues that are still considered as khilaf (debatable) between the scholars. There are still many of our dear friends who have yet to know Allah s.w.t. and Rasulullah s.a.w, what more to fully understand Islam.” 1
What is the use of debating over the merits of Al Ghazali or Ibn Taymiyyah, for example, when there are so many out there who have never heard of either? Worse still, there are many who do not know about our messenger, the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, let alone those who know about Allah, our Lord and Creator? And how can we love Allah and His messenger without first knowing them? I am speaking here about people who were born Muslim, who would never outwardly reject their faith and yet have little understanding of what Islam truly entails. Should da’wah not first be directed to them?
There are some who are worried, justifiably, that encouraging a diversity of opinions in Islam will encourage the propagation of deviant or liberal viewpoints among Muslims in Singapore. However, as stated in the khutbah on 13 August entitled “Strengthening Our Religious Understanding” there are certain points of division that cannot be accepted and could lead to one leaving the fold of Islam entirely, such as deviation in key points of aqidah or denying the necessity of worship or the prohibition of major sins. It is important to emphasise that there are things which are not acceptable in Islam so as not to water-down our religion. Yet the vast majority of arguments are not on such issues but on matters which are a matter of khilaf. It is vital that we as an ummah do not let disagreements become division to the point where one believes him or herself superior to another Muslim and it becomes takabbur, or pride, which was the downfall of Iblis. I quote Shaykh Nuh Keller, who writes:
“Most of us have acquaintances among this Umma who hardly acknowledge another scholar on the face of the earth besides the Imam of their madhhab, the Sheikh of their Islam, or some contemporary scholar or other. And this sort of enthusiasm is understandable, even acceptable (at a human level) in a non-scholar. But only to the degree that it does not become ta’assub or bigotry, meaning that one believes one may put down Muslims who follow other qualified scholars. At that point it is haram, because it is part of the sectarianism (tafarruq) among Muslims that Islam condemns.” 2
This focus on the assumed shortcomings of others is something that can distract us from our primary concern of rectifying our own selves and purifying our own souls. From the khutbah entitled “Developing a Sense of Spiritual Maturity in Facing Diversity”, delivered on 30 August:
“If we notice, the conflicts and divisions that have weakened our ummah today are driven by differences of opinion, which actually result from an illness of the heart. This illness is called i’jab bilra’yi, or being proud of one’s own opinions… If we allow this illness to take control of us, without realising it, we will waste a lot of time looking for the mistakes and shortcomings of our own brothers, and we will then exaggerate it. As a result, we will no longer feel at peace with ourselves because we will view others with hatred.” 3
I know that I myself am guilty of such mistakes, and that I should seek from Allah the removal these sins of pride and fault-finding from my heart, and instill in me love and brotherhood for all, especially my fellow Muslims. I should strive to follow in the footsteps of Imam ash-Shafi’i, well-known for his humility even when debating others. Yunus as-Sadafi , a student and companion of Imam ash-Shafi’i, said of him:
“‘I have never seen a wiser man than ash-Shafi’i. I was arguing with him once about an issue and I left him. Then one day, he met me, held my hand and said: ‘Cannot we be brothers, even if we disagree about something?’’
Ahmad Zhaki Abdullah
Ahmad Zhaki holds a degree in English Literature from the University of London. He is a full-time executive at a local research institute and a part-time writer.