Sectarianism Unbound by Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies

‘Taz’, a new channel on the Pakistani Geo TV network, is dedicated to twenty-four-hour news. There is a rapid-fire news bulletin every fifteen minutes: hence the name, Taz, or fast. But even after an endless stream of stories about sectarian violence, terrorist atrocities, suicide bombings, ‘target killings’, ‘load shedding’, political corruption and the defeats of the Pakistani cricket team with mundane regularity, there is still ample time left in the schedule. So the slots between the news bulletins are filled with what they call tazaabi tottas – acidic bits, short satirical skits. In one particular sketch, a man, sitting on a bridge, is about to commit suicide by jumping into the river. He is spotted by a passer-by who runs towards him shouting ‘Stop! Stop!’ The two men then engage in the following dialogue:

‘Why are you committing suicide?’

‘Let me die! No one loves me.’

‘God loves you. Do you believe in God?’


‘Are you a Muslim, or…’

‘Allah be Praised! I am a Muslim.’

‘I too am a Muslim. Are you a Shia or a Sunni?’


‘I too am a Sunni. What is your school of law?’


‘Me too! Do you belong to the Deobandi or Bralevi sect?’


‘Me too! Are you a Tanzihi (pure) Deobandi or a Takfiri (extremist) Deobandi?’


‘Me too! Tanzihi of Azmati branch or Farhati branch?’

‘Tanzihi Farhati branch.’

‘Me too!’ Tanzihi Farhati educated at University of Amjair or Tanzihi Farhati educated at Noor University of Mawad?’

‘Tanzihi Farhati educated at Noor University of Mawad.’

‘Infidel, kaffir! You deserve to die!’

The man who came to help then pushes the suicidal man over the bridge.

The humorous sketch gives us deep insight into the state of the Muslim ummah – the transnational Muslim community. It is simply not good enough to be a Muslim. You have to be labelled Sunni or Shia, and from there on progressively put in smaller boxes right down to which particular institution of learning you subscribe to. And those who deviate one iota, follow a different school of thought, or a different historic tradition, or a different fatwa issuing seminary, are, by definition, kaffirs – infidels who deserve to die.

Just in case you think that the sketch deliberately takes sectarianism to ridiculous lengths, consider how the Deobandi sect describes itself. The institution that established the sect, and from which it takes in name, Darul Uloom, Deoband, which in the words of Faizur Rahman is ‘the undisputed Islamic authority in India’, defines its creed as follows: ‘religiously Darul Uloom is Muslim; as a sect, Ahl-e-Sunnatwal-Jama’at (Sunni); in practical method (of law), Hanafi; in conduct, Sufi; dialectically, Maturidi Ash’ari; in respect of the mystic path, Chishtiyyah, rather comprising all the Sufi orders; in thought, Waliyullhian; in principle, Qasimiyah; sectionally, Rasheedian; and as regards connection, Deobandi’. So it is clear! Deobandis are, in descending order: Muslim, Sunni, Hanafi, Sufi, followers of the classical School of Ashari theology, cohorts of the Indian reformer Shah Waliyullah, and supporters of the ‘principles of some marginal scholar called Qasim and partisans of an even more obscure scholar called Rasheed!’

This absurd sectarianism is not confined to India. The Deobandi creed is just as dominant in Pakistan, Bangladesh and anywhere in the world we find South Asians. In Britain, for example, around 600 out of 1,500 mosques are under Deobandi control, seventeen out of twenty-six Islamic seminaries are run by Deobandis, producing around 80 per cent of all locally trained clerics. Worshippers attending these mosques, and children educated in these seminaries, are indoctrinated to denounce and hate all other varieties of Muslim, Shias, Ismailis, Bralevis (who are just as puritan but more mystical than Deobandis), as defective Muslims or outright unbelievers. Fatwas issued from the factory in Deoband are taken seriously by all those who follow the creed. A recent one forbids Muslim girls aged thirteen and above from riding bicycles. Another one insists that a husband can divorce his wife by simply uttering ‘I divorce thee’ three times; and if this is inconvenient, he can send a text message. In a famous case, a Deoband fatwa forced a woman who was raped by her father-in-law to annul her marriage. These fatwas are not just opinions to be laughed at or ignored. As Rahman points out, ‘they are treated and projected more as a decree, an order to be followed, a defining proclamation about what is to be believed and not believed.’ 

But these Deobandis are the good guys: in the sketch they are labelled ‘Tanzihi Deobandi’. Tanzih is a technical term regarding the assertion of God’s incomparability. Tanzihi Deobandis believe that God is transcendent and incomparable with no equal, and anyone who does not follow this ‘pure’ understanding of God, or believes in immanence, such as the Sufis, are polytheists. On the whole, Tanzihi Deobandis refrain from violence and limit their vitriol to denunciations. Indeed, Deoband has issued a famous fatwa denouncing violence and terrorism.

Takfiri Deobandis, on the other hand, actively engage in ‘jihad’ against their fellow Muslims. A takfiri is a Muslim who accuses another Muslim of apostasy. And as far as Takfiri Deobandis are concerned, all other Muslims are apostates and a legitimate target for violence. Recent history has seen brutal acts of violence at the hands of Takfiri Deobandis against Shias, Ahmadis and other Sunnis, not to mention Christians, as well as those who stand up to defend them. Indeed,Takfiri Deobandi doctrine is so in flexible, so violent that it does not even spare moderate Deobandis themselves. A string of Takfiri Deobandi organisations in Pakistan, with names likeTehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (Army of Fighters), and Sipahe Sahaba (Soldiers of the Companions) have engaged in terrorist activities against their fellow Muslims for decades.

Where does this unyielding religious rigour of sects, which in its extreme form manifests itself in murderous totalitarian intent, come from? The simple answer is that we find it right at the formative phase of Islam. Islamic history is replete with the sectarian violence of the worse kind: from the homicidal tendencies of the Kharjis, the battle of Kerbala, the Shia/Sunnic onflict, to the cruel clamp down on the Ashari theologians by one Abbasid Caliph to the equally ruthless suppression of their philosophical and theological opponents, the Mutazalites, by another Abbasid Caliph. Sectarian violence led to the murder of three of the four ‘Rightly Guided Caliphs’: Umar, Othman and Ali. Islamic history, as Ebrahim Moosa argues, is not as rosy as most Muslims think.

The Kharjites emerged almost immediately after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632. They believed that history had come to an end after the revelation to the Last Prophet. From now on, there could be no debate or compromise on any question: the decision is God’s alone. To be a Muslim, they argued, is to be in a perfect state of soul. Someone in that state cannot commit a sin and engage in wrong - doing. Sin, was therefore a  contradiction for a true Muslim – it nullified the believer and demonstrated that inwardly he was an apostate who had turned against Islam. Thus anyone who did any wrong, and that included believing in the  wrong dogma, was not really a Muslim. He could thus  be put to death. Indeed, the Kharjites believed that all non - Kharjite Muslims were  really apostates and therefore a legitimate target for violence. They denounced  everyone who disagreed with them; and are implicated in various sectarian murders, particularly the murder of  Ali, the fourth Caliph. The Kharjites led several rebellions during the Abbasid period (749–1258), although they were eventually suppressed, but their thought has reoccurred in Islamic history with cyclical regularity.Their influence can clearly  be seen on ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328), the great grandfather of Wahhabism, and one of the most influential political scientists of Islamic history. Kharjite thought is also evident in the ideas of Muhammad ibn Abdel Wahhab (1703–1787), the founder of the Wahhabi sect. It shaped the outlook of Syed Qutb (1906–1966), the chief ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood. The extremist Muslim sects of our time, such as the Takfiri Deobandis, Hizb-ut-Tahrir and al-Muhajaroon, are essentially neo-kharjites.

Witness just how much sectarian violence there is in the formative phase of Islam. When Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, eventually became Caliph after the assassination of Umar and Othman, the second and third Caliphs, he was immediately faced with an insurrection. The insurgency was led by Aisha, the widow of the Prophet. Aisha was particularly incensed at the treatment of women and the new converts to Islam, and the fact that Othman’s murderers did not face justice. So what action did Ali take?He assembled a larger army, including the leaders of those who had mutinied against Othman, and set out for Basra to confront Aisha. At the ensuing bloody encounter of 656, known as the Battle of the Camel, Aisha was defeated and sent back to Mecca on the condition that she kept quiet. But even before Ali had recovered from the Battle of the Camel, he faced opposition from Muawiyah, a relative of Othman and governor of Syria, which led to the prolonged and inconclusive Battle of Siffin in 657. Ali himself was assassinated in 661; and in 680 was the Battle of Kerbala, where the Prophet’s grandson, Hasan, and his entire family, was massacred.

One could argue that all this violence was a product of political machinations. And one would be right. But one must also acknowledge that the two major sects of Islam are a direct outcome of this bloodshed. As Moosa argues so well, Sunnism and Shiaism are political theologies constructed in history by fallible and politically motivated individuals. On reflection and close scrutiny of history the supposed brotherhood of Islam never really existed. It is more a manufactured narrative than consistent lived reality. Muslim history begins with fragmentation. It was the generation of the Companions who perpetrated the original civil wars from which the major contours of Muslim sectarianism first emerged. The Sunni predilection of putting the Companions beyond questioning by encasing them in the mantle of perfection, Moosa suggests, is the original and misguided historic fiction on the basis of which sectarian division has been constructed and is maintained. The host of old and new sects that have emerged since, from Ismailis to Alawis, the Salafis, the Wahhabis and the Deobandis, all hark back to this illusory history to define their particular brands.

And yet, paradoxically, any inquiry of any of the various sects, conservative or modernising, moderate or extreme, will elicit the confident assertion that Islam is one. Every shade of Muslim opinion agrees that Islam offers a unique and indivisible brotherhood (and, ofcourse, lesser included sisterhood) of believers that flows from the Oneness of God. The Prophet said, they will tell you, that difference of opinion in my ummah is a blessing. Muslims believe in unity in diversity. But in reality Muslims have never really been united in their history. Unity in diversity, the proclaimed special possession of true Islamic consciousness, is a mirage. Somehow, Muslims have been averse to the idea that difference of human interpretation about organisational and cultural performance of religion need not detract from common and superior submission to One God.

How we lift the Muslim consciousness and apologia from the sectarian mire, from cursing the runningdogs, be they Shia, Sunni, Salafist, Ismailis, Ahmadis, Alawite or whatever, is a profound question that requires urgent analysis. What does the ubiquitous upsurge of virulent sectarian divides across the Muslim World tell us about the nature of belief and how it is crafted and grafted as the key stone of identity? Is the irreducible truth of Muslim existence doomed to be the fragmentation of sects which encode and define the life of tribes, ethnicities, nationalities, languages, colours and classes?Or is there still the possibility that Islam can be recovered as the idea that transcends such human divisions – as the concept of unity in diversity suggests?Is it the nature of Muslim identity or something more complex in contemporary circumstances that has brought conflict, instead of a willingness to live and let live, to the fore across the Muslim World? Indeed, is sectarianism really the sole and pernicious reality of all the Muslim World?It is not sufficient merely to wrestle with the evident problems of sectarianism. Lurking behind what is done and said in the name of various sects stands the far more profound question of how sects arise and whether the specific historical narratives they proffer stand the test of critical reasoning now and for the future. The most potent question is not whether sectarianism is fundamental to Muslim identity but whether the doctrine advanced by the sects – any or all of them really answers the current and future needs of Muslim societies.

How should sectarianism be understood? First and most obviously it is not specific to Muslims. Indeed, sectarianism is not even the special preserve of religion, though critics would have us think this is the case. The murderous twentieth century provided ample proof that doctrinal and ideological nicety, the splitting of hairs to refine and define an ever purer and more rigorous truth, was as easily marshalled by militant secularism as any religion. Communism might be secular, atheist and totalitarian, but one had to select one’s brand of totalitarian ideology: Leninist, Stalinist, Maoist or the ever-aberrant Trotskyist variant to name only some of the available formulations. Right thought according to any of these variants had to be as ruthlessly pursued as right belief, and imperfect thought as rigorously hounded and violently punished as any Inquisition could manage. This draconian secular rigour goes back to the original terrorists: those children of the Enlightenment who were the masters of the French Revolution. It was they who unleashed The Terror of Madame Guillotine to resolve their ideological disputes, establishing the convention which has been depressingly followed by so many secular revolutionaries thereafter. There is an infallibly utopian connection at the heart of sectarianism. It is the utopian concept that right belief and thought is essential to the successful achievement of paradise, whether the conception of paradise is earthly, materialist or spiritual, or celestial and hereafter. In the sectarian vision it is doctrine, creed and ideology, the bedrock of proper understanding, that are the key not just to knowing the world but to changing it for the better. The true meaning of sectarianism is that believing and thinking the world a better place is more necessary than just muddling through and doing your best with good intentions. It is always much easier to recognise the flaws and problems in sects to which one does not subscribe. However, as this issue of Critical Muslim demonstrates, there is an intimate link and common connection between all forms of sectarianism. One could as easily be discussing the decades of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland constructed along the fault line between Catholic and Protestant Christians as any Sunni/Shia battlelines: the salient issues, overt and covert, would be the same. Sectarianism, once the genie is unleashed, is a chilling antidote to Muslim self-satisfaction, aproperriposte to the inveterate Muslim tendency to talk up their moral high ground vis-à-vis other religions.

The terminology used to discuss sectarianism requires some consideration. Is there a difference between a cult and a sect? Is sectarianism the same thing as a denominationalism? Can one make such comparisons across religions?When the Sunni/Shia divide is likened to the distinction between Catholic and Protestant, Muslims will cringe even if they do not howl in protest. Yet, the ability of every religion and ideology to admit of different human interpretations of its common core essentials is the connective tissue linking each and every epithet used to describe this phenomenon. To name something a sect often implies regarding it asaquasi-religious cult, and a cult is invariably seen as questionable quasi- religion. Yet religious sects often begin and operate in cultic fashion.

In a sect or cult, there is a ‘follow the leader’ mentality which ministers to the human need for answers to all the big enduring questions of life, the universe, and everything, which reduce the problems of ordinary life to simple prescriptions of dos and don’ts. Moosa describes Sunnism as ‘a pan optic framework of juristic and theological authority, which requires compliance in order to instil in its adherents a distinct kind of Islamic identity. Jealously guarding this framework for thought and practice with its discrete historical memory is viewed as a primary obligation by those who monopolise religious authority in Sunnism, namely, the ulama, the religious scholars. ’In Shi’ism, Imranali Panjwani tells us, authority belongs to the Twelve Imams, who belong to the family of the Prophet and are considered sinless. The last one, Imam Mahdi, would you believe, is in occultation. In his absence, ‘the burden of leadership falls on the jurists’ who ‘extrapolate legal rules from narrations ’to lead the community towards its promised utopia. Until the mid-nineteenth century, we learn from Faisal Devji, the Ismaili leader was ‘an absent one, even when he could be identified with a personage such as the Aga Khan, a Persian nobleman whose descendant is today the undisputed imam’. He duly arrives in India in 1842, becomes the first Aga Khan, and proceeds to claim his religious mantle. The Aga Khan’s authority, writes Devji, has ‘deprived the Ismailis of their intellectual history and context, and has made of them the fodder for any fad or superstition that comes along, even turning Ismailism into a secular cult of personality’. The authority in the Tablighi Jamaat, according to Zacharias Pieri, rests solely on the family of the founder Mohammad Ilyas Kandhalvi. Indeed, Pieri describes Tablighi Jamaat as a family business. For the Ahmadis too, the family of the founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, is paramount. As Hassan Mahamdallie discovers in his rare interview with ‘Huzur (His Holiness) Mirza Masroor Ahmad, Khalifatul-Masih V (fifth successor of the Messiah), the supreme head of the worldwide Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’ and the great-grandson of ‘the Promised Messiah and Reformer Hadrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’ of Qadian, Pakistan, every Ahmadi must take an oath of allegiance to the leader ‘pledging total obedience’. Hizb-ut-Tahrir do not recognise anyone as a legitimate leader of the Muslim community. Indeed, for Hizb-ut-Tahrir, writes Mohamed Nawab Bin Mohamed Osman, ‘no current state in the world is Islamic and all are regarded asdar al-kufr (abode of infidels) or daral-harb (abode of war)’. Utopia will return ‘only with the establishment of the Caliphate’; so they devote most of their energy on fighting one and all to establish a state where a Caliph can be appointed. So it goes on: all sects revolve around the uncritical veneration of an individual, present or absent, or a group assumed to have authority to act on behalf of the leader, who lays down the law, provides a pre-digested blueprint for life,and tells the community to ‘do this’ and ‘don’t do that’. At the heart of sects there are always systems replete with structures of authority.

It is comforting to have an infallible leader who provides simple answers to the complexities of life in a far from ideal world. But sectarianism also seems to apply to grander more sophisticated endeavours to wrestle with meaning. It seems to imply both intellectual, philosophical rigour and historic transmission of a diversity of human constructs, interpretative schema devised as complete answers to the origin and purpose of existence. A sectarian grouping always has doctrine and creed, an ideology which fashions a complete cultural complex of ways of doing, being and knowing. The sectarian hold to a particular world view fashioned from the matrix of their religion. And the horrid truth is all sectarian visions claim to be complete and capable of delivering the only satisfactory and sufficient understanding of The Truth. So the Sunnis see their interpretation as the very raison d’être of Islam. The Shia claim that their complex theology, the essence of which, according to Panjwani, ‘has always been the personality and values of Ali’, is the Grand Truth of Islam. ‘It was the prophecy that the time would come when the Muslims would not be a practising Ummah, and at that time a person would come to revive Islam, and he will be the Messiah’, the Ahmadi Khalifa tells Mahamdallie. ‘We believe that person has come in the person of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad to teach us the true teachings of Islam which is already in the Holy Qur’an. So what we do is according to the teachings of the Holy Qur’an and Sunnah of the Holy Prophet. This is the true Islam – or the real Islam’. Each sect claims to possess‘ real Islam’, often justifying its claim by theological word play. Sects offer ready-made human interpretation given as the ‘correct’ meaning or means to understand everything. There is nothing humble or unassuming to be found anywhere in the sectarian lexicon because the lines of demarcation have to be policed by the adepts who specialise in and therefore control collective understanding.

But the doctrine and practice offered by sects are not only claimed to be but actually are indeed the recovery of ‘real’ history. Therefore, followers are guaranteed authenticity which has been the missing ingredient in the corrupted practise of religion. A logical consequence of this is the doctrine of beingamong the elect. As Osman points out, Hizb-ut-Tahrir regard themselves as ‘the chosen Muslimelites who will save the Muslim world and restore the glorious days’. The Shia think that they will be chosen by the Mahdi, when and if he arrives, as the true believers. The Ahmadis entertain similar hopes. Sectarianism is inevitably dogmatic and thereby confers the assurance of superiority upon its adherents. People are always attracted by the self-assurance of being ‘elect’, ‘chosen’. By means of adherence to an elect creed, of course, one is guaranteed both rectitude and salvation. It is the most comforting notion amidst the complexities of a messy, imperfect world and the difficult choices on offer.

Sectarianism draws adherents and is always collective and communal. But the community that sectarianism generates also has its nefarious side. Both Osman and Mahamdallie acknowledge that Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the Ahmadiyya have strong bonds of community. Indeed, Osman notes, many educated people join the Hizb-ut-Tahrir to discover and acquire a sense ofcommunity. But both draw parallels with the revolutionary far left. Hizb-ut-Tahrir is structured like a communist party. The command structure of the Ahmadiyya, writes Mahamdallie, ‘is similar to the Leninist democratic centralism that allows the leadership to shift the membership quickly to respond to external events with maximum unity and effectiveness’ .Just as members of a communist cell have to pay subs, the Ahmadis pay chanda, one-sixteenth of their income, for the activities of the community. Like the communists, they have ‘ideological underpinning and clarity of purpose that gives each member the self-confidence to win arguments and draw people closer to their world-view. In both cases the organisational structure and internaldecision-making reflect the outward-facing nature of a small combative and self-sacrificing body of activists focused on building membership and increasing influence. ’Just as Marxists predict a capitalist crisis and revolution, so ‘the Ahmadiyya are motivated by the millennial urgency that “the Latter Days” are upon us, and that the world is heading towards “destructionanddevastation”. Ditto the Shias, with their special subs, khums, which are handed over to the jurists, and, in the words of Panjwani, the ‘Messianic beliefs’ which are ‘a crucial part of the lives of the Twelver Shia who pray to God to hasten al-Mahdi’s re-appearance’. If sectarianism provides a sense of community then it is a controlled, structured, regulated community that revolves around a venerated figure and behaves like a Messianic cult. Being in a cult is like being inside The Matrix: most of what you know is manufactured mythology, the rest is political construction. Like the protagonist of the Turkish filmTakva, discussed by Suhel Ahmad, you are sucked deeper and deeper into an authoritarian enclave whose sole purpose is to perpetuate itself.

Of course, sectarianism also provides identity. Indeed, there is a general presumption amongst Muslim scholars as well as Western academics that all Muslims can be pigeon holed according to sectarian identity. When real resources and access to real power are at stake it may be vital to assert a particular identity. Seeking to adjust or realign historic injustice can flare along sectarian lines. However, it is not the doctrinal difference but the differences in treatment and entitlement that are the substance of conflicts. The important question is whether this means all who lay claim to a sectarian identity know and understand the meaning of the doctrine and creed to which they assert allegiance. Is identity- informed adherence to known and comprehended doctrines or a conventional matter, an inheritance of custom and tradition which is ‘rationalised’, by myth and folk tale, the potted self-justificatory history of the community? This is not to suggest that Sunni or Shia, or this group or that, are indifferent to doctrine but rather the more commonplace realisation that the full nature of the abstruse points of doctrinal difference between sects is a mystery to most people. Most Shias are as much Sunni as Shia for they believe, just like the Sunnis, that the Qur’an is the Word of God, that Muhammad is the last Prophet, and the Sharia is the law of Islam. And, as Moosa notes, ‘every Sunni is also a proto-Shia’ simply ‘because demonstrating love for the Prophet’s family, and showing sympathy for Imam Husain, the Prophet’s martyred grandson, who strived for political justice in the face of Umayyad tyranny, is implicit in the Sunni creed’.

Both Medina Tenour Whiteman and Yasmin Saikia suggest that the invariant assumption of sect as identity has grave limitations.The problem of how to comprehend identity reminds one of the classic Hollywood westerns. In westerns, at some point, the heroin variably picks up some mundane item and instantly knows not only which Indian tribe is in the vicinity but can wax extensive about their beliefs, customs, way of life and inevitably their imminent threat since Indians were in a perpetual state of hostility. Identity is rendered down to simplistic propositions as fixed, bounded and a matter of essential difference. This way of understanding identity was something  of a British invention. It was the basis for the construction of the ethnographic state by which the British defined, pigeon holed and marked as different the various groupings of people they encountered in India. Once pigeon holed, the meaning of their divisions could be reassessed and reassigned as suited the needs and interests of the British Raj. This might or might not be a ‘martial race’ depending on when one inquired. It is worth remembering that much the same is true of the focus and prominence given to sectarianism in the Muslim World. That is, until Whiteman and Saikia suggest that instead of being fixed and bounded, a sectarian identity is one within and among a range of Muslim identities that are compound and complex. The option exists to be a non-adjectival Muslim and it is situation and circumstance, often decided by powers beyond one’s control, that determine whether or not sectarian affiliation is the most important aspect of identity.

The problem Saikia encounters in Iraq, where no one recognises the identity of just plain Muslim, is not just an indication of passionate concern for doctrine. We must remember that it has a great deal more to do with recent history. Whatever sectarian problems existed under the rule of Saddam Hussein they have been exacerbated by the American presumption that sectarian division was the only reality to explain Iraq. Sectarianism became a metaphor for the balkanisation of everything. Since only a sectarian communal identity was possible then every matter of life, death and human wellbeing had to admit to a sectarian connotation. Sectarian identity became the passport to or what debarred one from opportunity and possibility.It was a call to arms that ruined a country, as so many other Muslim countries are being ruined not because of differences of belief, custom and religious practice but because these are the shorthand for inequitable and unjust failures to make genuine political accommodations for all individuals irrespective of their communal identities.

Peter Mandaville is clear that we should all know better and admit the possibility of the existence of ‘vanilla Muslims’, with ‘no special sectarian sauces, no madhhabi sprinklings, notariqa toppings’. Mandaville suggests we should ‘think of sect in relation to Muslimness in much the same way as we think of Islam in relation to personhood’. A Muslim is a Muslim–full stop. The trouble is this requires a major change in critical consciousness among Muslim and non-Muslim alike. If the rest of the world deals with and treats people as if sectarian identity is what matters, no amount of self-declaration that one is a ‘vanilla Muslim’ will make any difference. The Sunni/Shia faultline may be as threadbare as the power struggle for regional hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, so long as that translates in to different ways of funding, promoting and setting sectarian groupings against each other across the Muslim World, ‘vanillaism’ remains a distant dream. In the aftermath of major change, when national provision has ceased to be reliable, people fall back upon whatever support systems they can find to survive periods of chaos. In such circumstances, community, defined by sectarian identity, may become vitally important. Does this mean sectarian identity will always be crucial in any and all circumstances? History suggests this is not the case. Vanillaism oscillates with sectarianism and the barometer is the distribution of social, political, cultural and economic justice with equity and opportunity for all.

Indeed, sectarianism frequently begins with demands for social justice. As Johan Siebers notes, ‘a sect constitutes an alternative and incompatible reading of revelation against the orthodox ruling one’, a reading it sees as more likely to deliver the justice it seeks. Thus sectarianism and dissent often go hand in hand. And dissent, one hopes, starts as the exercise of critical reason, a reaction towards or against the dominant theory of truth. The temper of dissent is the perception of error that leads inevitably to reformist fervour, the mission to set the world to rights, to make it a better place. In the birth historically ascribed to a sectarian vision there is nobility. Sectarian visions do not emerge full blown. They fashion historical narratives to explain the jostling for power and authority, which is often purely human, with ideological, doctrinal and creedal meaning. Sectarianism is a coalescing, a coming together of re-writings of history designed to make sense of what often turn out to be senseless, abstruse arguments over matters which in and of themselves are not central to improving the quality of human life in this world.

Salafism,Tablighi Jamaat and Hizb-ut-Tahrir, all began as dissenting reform movements seeking justice and equity. The late-nineteenth-century founders and leaders of the Salafi movement, such as Jamalad-Din Afghani (1839–1897), the advocate of Islamic modernity; Mohammad Abduh (1849–1905), the jurist and Mufti of Egypt; and Rashid Rida (1865–1935), considered to be among the most influential scholars of his generation, were rational, inventive thinkers. Driven by a passion for social justice, they were, as Cavatorta writes, ‘keen on western innovations particularly in technology and education’. While the Salafis are motivated by an intense desire to ‘build a moral order within which Muslims can lead “the good life”, the Tablighi offer the return to the simplicities, the imagined simple faith and practice of the first Muslims. Afghani and his colleagues introduced the idea of a ‘pan Islamic unity’ against the colonial powers. Hizb-ut- Tahrir seeks that unity in the singular system and authority of the Caliphate. The key question is not about the doctrines of these movements, but whether their idea of what is original and therefore necessary to being a ‘proper’ Muslim and creating a moral order for ‘the good life’ is knowable from history. What were the social mores and customary practice of the Prophet’s Mecca? Was it the rigorous sexual segregation insisted upon by Salafis and Tablighis? Was the denigration of non-Muslims,à la Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a key policy in the Medina of theProphet? Did the Prophet implement a ready-made ‘Sharia’ in the multi-religious society he led as demanded by these sects?How can we know when the sources from which answers are sought encrust and cloud our perception of the very historic truth these sects hope to reclaim?This is, of course, not to say we can know nothing of history but rather that history is ever open to argument, a subject of human interpretation. There is never a ground zero, self-evident and unequivocal, to which to return because humans interpret and invent as much as they inquire, examine and record. Furthermore, normal practice – the nature and performance of the accepted routines of cultural life – tends to be the last thing to be explained, if it is at all, because it is so normal and obvious. And that is why it has to be reconstructed carefully with critical reason from the morass of historic interpretation.True, there is something of a sectarian proposition in the assertion that the realm of human existence is time and change. Yet Muslims have to deal with the complexities of the thought that the culture of Mecca and Medina of the Prophet was distinct to and different from the pattern of behaviour manufactured as orthodoxy over the course of centuries. In which case there is nothing to go back to; only a way of going forward.

Placing authenticity back in history can be reassuring. Was there indeed a Caliphate in Muslim history in the sense of a unitary system of governance? Did the title accorded to the first four Caliphs (literally, ‘successor’, substitute, lieutenant, viceroy) have the meaning of Caliphate under the Umayyads, Abbasids and Ottomans?Was the historic notion of Caliphate not more imaginary than real, a political instrument more than a religious institution? And if religious interpretation is always, as Moosa, Panjwani and Devji demonstrate, a matter of power and authority, is not the Caliphate the ultimate expression of this tendency?Ultimately, accepting doctrinal rectitude always adds up to diminishing individual human agency by giving over power and authority to an individual or body that is equally human and therefore liable to be or become fallible or corrupt. Dissent and the spirit of reform it inspires are no guarantee that critical reason and practical improvement will survive the experiment.

The profoundly disturbing consequence is that however much sectarian affiliation may begin with critical reason and are formist instinct,it transforms into a complacent mindset that not only shuns genuine critique but becomes quite irrational. Sectarianism becomes the packaged set of answers that no longer interrogate real questions,and degenerates into customary practice and tradition. Inevitably this signals the end of critical reason about one’s own beliefs. In the sectarian world view it is only the shortcomings of other sects, religions and ideologies that can be critically examined to be found wanting.

Sectarianism is a cause of death and devastation across the Muslim world and we should all be ashamed to acknowledge the horror perpetrated in the name of sectarian religion. And yet, we cannot do without sects. Sectarianism is the acknowledgement that no individual or group has the complete and absolute mastery of interpretation. As Siebers argues through retelling the ring parable of Nathan the Wise, the differences between monotheistic religions and the factions, sects and denominations within them can actually lead to wisdom. There is no fool-proof way to tell a fake sect from a real one. Only through living a life that is pleasing to God can one be true to what one believes and hence prove the worth of one’s sect. It is through historical struggle and experience, by confronting orthodoxies with heresies,that we acquire this wisdom.

In his perceptive analysis of an essay on ibn Sina (980–1037) by the German Marxist writer and thinker Ernst Bloch (1885–1977), Siebers points towards another ‘sectarian movement that is as old as philosophy itself’: free thought ‘for the sake of God’, which ‘in an ironical-dialectical inversion’ is perhaps the true heresy. Bloch identified an undercurrent of enlightenment religious thinking devoted to humanity, justice and freedom: a ‘true’ sectarianism. Bloch traces this to the ideas of Ibn Sina who created ‘a whole new way of thinking about the natural world, one that fits in with the tradition of materialism but also pushes it ahead to a way of relating to nature that no longer sees the natural world as an imperfect image of the Divine, but as a not-yet complete, not yet fully realised, but dynamic and growing reality’. Ibn Sina wants us to place our hope not just on God’s grace but also on our own abilities as well as material processes in the natural world. Ibn Sina saw the world as full of ‘the real possibilities of all things to be come other than what they are, to become who and what they are’.The world is ‘fermenting, throbbing, fuming’ with the life impulse, pregnant with meaning, full with viable future alternatives, and a dynamic form that ibn Sina calls ‘the fiery truth of matter’. He sees God not as a distant, abstract figure but as an active, moving, creative Deity: ‘The sacred…is Allah as influx by nature itself’.

Ibn Sina’s work, as we know, was condemned and publicly burnt. But the torch of his fire was transmitted by later philosophers, such as ibn Rushd (1226–1198) and ibn Tufayl (1105–1185). The movement came to be known as the Mutazalites, or the rationalist school of Muslim thought. It was eventually suppressed by the guardians of orthodoxy: an assault that began with the edict of the Abbasid Caliph Qadir (947–1037), who banned Mutazalite ideas and thought, and lasted for centuries. Ironically, in the plethora of sects we find in the Muslim world, it is the only one conspicuous by its total absence.

The point of ibn Sina’s position is simple: what begins as a dissenting position requires continuous critical reason to develop a sectarian approach to questions of religion. Or as Devji puts it: ‘heresy or dissent is a form of thought integral to the sect as much as it is to Islam’; and ‘the loss of this principle of opposition betrays both the sect and its parent body’. Today’s dissent can easily become tomorrow’s orthodoxy. Nobody of questions or answers can stand for all time. Critical reasoning is not the prerogative of only the past – it is the necessity of every generation. Sectarian doctrine can  provide a framework in which to ask questions, but no framework is absolute or fixed forever, all need review, reconsideration, revision and constant critique if they are to remain relevant.

Critical reason can and should stimulate a diversity of interpretations of the meaning and application of the message of Islam and its insight into human nature and activity. It should, as Moosa suggests, ‘confront theological and ideological systems for what they are: human constructions and paradigms that were made at certain times and places to serve certain interests and ends’. What sects define as ‘Islam’ is not ‘the polished sheen of doctrines and creeds supported by scriptural texts and proclamations presented as teachings authorised by God and his Prophet’. Rather, they are ‘a complex sedimentation and evolution of teachings, which took place over many centuries’. ‘Doctrines’, Moosa says, ‘are like snowballs: they accumulate layers of material from the diverse environments in which they roll’. Moosa’s brave examination of the origins of Sunnism suggests it is time to relearn Muslim history, or rather expose Muslims to more dissenting critical reason about their own history.

The ‘Taz’ channel also broadcasts the animated children’s series Burka Avenger, the brainchild of the Pakistani pop singer Haroon. Setina Halwapur (City of Sweet Confections), a fictional town in northern Pakistan, its protagonist is a burqa-clad super heroine. Jiya, whose name means life, is an unassuming teacher, an amalgam of tradition and modernity, at a girls’ school. She does not wear the hijab, or scarf, or a veil of any kind. Orphaned as a child, she was brought up by her adopted father, Kabbadi Jan. Kabbadi is a popular wrestling sport in the Subcontinent. True to his name, Kabbadi Jan turns the little girl into a fighting machine as she grows up. The children of Halwapur are menaced by Baba Bandook (Mr Gun) and his cohorts, who represent the Taliban, Tafkiri Deobandis, and other extremist sects. Baba Bandook wants to stop the educationof girls, ban music and dance, and banish happiness from Halwapur. It is left to Jiya to shroud herself in a burqa and fight the sectarians. But Jiya’s burqa does more than hide her identity. It symbolises the shroud that confines rationalist thought in Islam. Thus, looking like Cat Woman or Wonder Woman would not do. The main weapons in Takht Kabaddi, the fictional marshal art, she has learned from Kabbadi Jan are pens and books. Her battle is not for some utopian Islamic Dream but for reasoned discourse. This is why, at the end of each episode, Jiya draws a moral lesson from the story. She fights for humanity, justice and freedom with ibn Sina’s fiery truth of matter.

In one episode, Baba Bandook persuades the citizens of Halwapur to banish a small group of farmers because they grow radish, unlike most others who grow carrots. After harmony is restored, and Baba Bandook is defeated yet again, Jiya addresses her audience: ‘Children! All humans are born equal. Don’t ever look down on others because of their colour, race, nationality or sect. Only the communities that live in peace and harmony with others ever see progress’. Or, to put it another way: sectarianism that vaunts and swaggers its illegitimate claim to be the only representative of what Islam is and means, that demeans and demonises other sects, can never achieve progress. The only sectarianism worthy of our attention is the one that is critical, reasoned, questioning and compassionate. You can, if you like, label this sectarian impulse simply as ‘Muslim’.