‘Do not have anything to do with those who split up their religion into sects.’- Qur’an 6:159
Interesting! Shi’a Muslims from Iran (and, perhaps, Shi’a Muslims from other countries too) were absent on Sunday, September 11, as Muslims converged on Mount Arafat for the most important aspect of the annual Hajj. This is the result of a fatwa (decree) to that effect by Iranian Mullahs. It is the second such fatwa (to boycott the Hajj) in less than three decades. As it was the last time, this year’s fatwa is silent on the indefiniteness of the boycott and whether Iranians now have to contend themselves with their regular pilgrimages to Qum and Karbala, two Shi’a holy centres in Iran and Iraq respectively which some adherents place on equal, if not higher pedestal, than Makkah and Madina. Few things will please Iranian Mullahs as having the power to relocate the Hajj!
The last time, the boycott lasted three years when it was declared in 1988 following the avoidable bloodletting of 1987. As if Hajj is not their main object and, in defiance of protests by Saudi authorities, Iranians had consistently taken time off during Hajj to demonstrate at some of the holy sites in Makkah and Madina against Israel and the United States of America since 1981. It is unlikely Iran laws permit foreigners to occupy Tehran streets to demonstrate against some foreign enemies! Anyway, the demonstrations came to a head during the 1987 Hajj and the ensuing confrontation with Saudi security forces claimed the lives of some 400 pilgrims, 275 of them Iranians, and 85 Saudi policemen. Expectedly, the sad events scaled down public demonstration by Iranian pilgrims.
The implication of the Hajj boycott is that, Iran’s seemingly unending diplomatic spat with Saudi Arabia may deteriorate to a point where Shi’a Muslims may be directed to see Qum as the new Qiblah! Sadly, it has been such hard-line and pharisaical tendencies that influence the conduct of many Shi’a Muslims across the world. Due to the varied interpretation it is bound to attract, the boycott is not likely to improve intra-Islam and inter-faith relations across the world. There is scant consolation for non-Shi’a Iranians who believe it is wrong to whimsically decree against one of the five pillars of Islam!
At the root of the problem is the dishonesty and zealotry that pervaded Islam at its infancy. Even before the death of Prophet Muhammad, there emerged a group among his followers who thought Ali, the prophet’s cousin, was the right person to occupy the post of Caliph as there was to be no prophet after Muhammad. The followers of Ali who took the distinct name of Shi’a adopted their position based on blood-ties between the prophet and Ali. Some extreme views within world Shi’a even suggest that Ali was the intended recipient of the message delivered to Prophet Muhammad!
But the prophet did not die without laying down the criteria for succession which was hinged more on competence than kinship. Even on his deathbed, the prophet virtually named his successor as leader of the Muslim community when he appointed Caliph Abubakar to lead the early Muslims in prayer. Miffed by the prophet’s choice, the followers of Ali thereafter saw every need to undermine Islam. Shi’a faithfuls are quick to dismiss insinuations that early followers of Ali were influenced and encouraged by Jewish elements in Madina. The forceful display of disaffection by supporters of Ali paid off when they got the chance to install him in succession to Caliph Usman. That, according to Islamic historians was the genesis of the schism within Islam. This meant that in their bid to steady the new faith, the early Muslims had to contend with a rebellion from within and battling stiff opposition from the pagan population of Mecca. More than fourteen centuries on, the trend continues.
Mainstream Muslims believe in and, recognise the diversity and peculiarities of multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies in accordance with the teachings of Prophet Muhammad. Muslims promote the idea of cohabiting in peace with people of the Book (Christians and Jews) in line with clear Qur’anic injunctions and as contained in the sayings of Prophet Muhammad. They also subscribe to Chapter 5 v 82 of the Glorious Qur’an which contains God’s clear, direct and specific injunction on tolerating and peacefully cohabiting the people of the Book.
To underscore his position, the Holy Prophet had no misgivings when, in the early days of Islam, he directed some persecuted early Muslims in Makka to seek sanctuary with Negus Negas or the King of Kings of the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia). Aside the warm reception extended to them, the Muslims who were forced to flee Arabia practiced their faith without molestation from their Christian hosts. That flight to Abyssinia, which came before the better-known flight from Makkah to Madina, was the first recorded Hijra in the history of Islam.
Unity is the main challenge confronting the Muslim community today and its attainment could serve as meltdown for the current security challenges and the resultant wanton destruction of human lives and property. In trying to tell the story of Islam in Nigeria as one not characterised by militancy, violence and intolerance, several pan-Islamic associations and inter-faith organisations have sprouted to project Islam in its true and undiluted picture as a religion of peace by preaching peaceful coexistence with and, showing tolerance for non-Muslims.
Sadly, there appears to be no hope for an end to the schism. How long the situation persists is unclear but, what is not in doubt is that, throughout his lifetime, especially in the twenty three years of his mission, Prophet Muhammad preached peace, reminded his followers to be their brother’s keeper and enjoined mutual co-existence with and, adequate tolerance of, non-Muslims. Prophet Muhammad never contradicted God’s injunction to mankind to show respect for constituted authority. And, for the sake of decency, Muslims have no reason to block footpaths (roads) as they are one of the five places Muslims are enjoined not to pray! Labelling and profiling other Muslims, refusing to submit to constituted authorities, constituting themselves an alternative government and becoming irritants to host communities which are some of the excesses Shi’as indulge in constitute open invitation to anarchy. Such excesses by other Muslim sects in Iran regularly attract maximum penalty from Shi’a authorities.
Even before his death, Prophet Muhammad knew some of those who claim they follow him will not hold fast to the cord of Islam as instructed by Allah. He also knew that a section of his followers will set aside his sayings and traditions to cause fitna, as was displayed, through unnecessary disputations, by the open defiance by early supporters of Ali. The desire to politicize the Hajj, as Iran has sought to do over the past several years, is an ugly extension of the fourteen-century old open defiance!
It is time Muslims begin to re-write the story of Islam which, for too long, has been left in the hands of dishonest clerics and their rabid followers!
Magaji <email@example.com> is based in Abuja.