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What are Sects, What are NOT Sects, in Islam

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Converts coming into Islam or even having lived as Muslims for many years are easily confused about terms used to describe the Muslim people.  Some of these terms would actually describe a member of a sect, and some would not.  I hope this helps to clarify WHAT IS A SECT, WHAT IS NOT A SECT.

Some terms are actually describing the particular Legal School a Muslim may have studied under.  So, for example, a Hanafi has studied under the methodology of Imam Abu Hanifa.  Imam Abu Hanifa had a certain valid methodology for the establishment and weighing of evidence, based on Qur’an and Sunnah.  We would no more call a Hanafi a member of a sect than we would a graduate from Oxford.  There is no Oxford sect, there is no Hanafi sect. The other valid methodological schools are Maliki, Shafi’, and Hanbali, making 4 valid schools in total.  All are based on Qur’an and Sunnah, with only a few slight variations in their approach to the practical interpretations of Islam’s sources.

Other terms describe the type of effort a person makes, like Tableeghi or Sufi.  A Tableeghi is someone who makes the effort of Tableegh, commonly translated as “preaching”.  However, the Tableegh effort is really about getting the common Muslim to move himself/herself for the sake of reviving their Faith.  We wouldn’t call a Tableeghi a sect member any more than we would an environmental or political activist.  Their beliefs are standard Muslim beliefs, and their daily practice of Islam is according to the 4 schools listed above (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’, and Hanbali).

The Tableegh effort was begun in Nizamuddin, Delhi, India by a Muslim scholar named Muhammad Ilyas Kandhelvi, r.a.  His primary concern was the disappearance of the Islamic practice in the common people.  Throughout the development of his religious movement, he took council with Muftis and other scholars to help determine the guidelines for the effort.  He originally called his idea “Tahreeki Iman” which means “moving or stirring of the Faith”.  The primary objective of Tableegh is to help the Muslim get out of the environment that has weakened his/her faith for regular retreats in the Mosques.  Tableegh has been active for 80 years, and has not only been instrumental in helping millions of Muslims come back to Islam, but has been one of the foundational efforts of bringing Islam to America.  Many mosques in our country came about after Tableegh workers helped local people get together.  Many Muslims attend the Mosque after having been visited by Tableegh Brothers.

A Sufi is not a member of a sect either, unless one has adopted beliefs or a legal school other than the original.  Sufi is a term describing one who makes “tasawwuf”, which is traditionally a spiritual discipline aimed at:

  1. Bringing Allah into constant consciousness
  2. Cleansing the heart and mind of unwholesomeness
  3. Curing spiritual diseases like hypocrisy, ostentation, laziness, and various weaknesses of faith
  4. Disciplining the mind, heart, and body to the complete obedience of Allah and practice of the Prophetic Sunnah
  5. Helping the individual develop internal strength so Islamic practice becomes easier.  This is important, because Islam was meant to be easy, not a burdensome chore.

A Leader (Shaykh) in Tasawwuf is like a doctor or a psychologist.  Through their learning and experience, they are able to suggest cures for our ailments.  We would no more call a Sufi a sect member than we would a doctor or engineer.  Could we say “He belongs to the doctor sect”, or “She is an engineering sect member” ?

Sunni Tasawwuf has its roots in the Qur’an and Sunnah, it’s just overlooked because most Muslims are hyper-focused on the Textual and Legal aspects of religion.  Rasulullah s.a.w. helped his companions reach such an enlightened spiritual state that they felt as though the unseen (Paradise and Hellfire) were in front of their eyes.  They were so consistent in their Faith and Worship that several of them were informed by Rasulullah that they would be in Paradise, though this knowledge did not make them arrogant or cause them to change their behavior.  This condition came about through their physical, psychological, and spiritual struggles toward self-rectification.  That is the authentic Sunnah which is sought after and focused on by the people sometimes called “Sufi”.  Sufi should never be used in a derogatory manner, the way some people do, as it not only defames the Sunnah, but many of our Imams, Scholars, and great Muslims throughout history.  Many of our leading scholars in America today are practitioners of Tasawwuf.

So, we’ve clarified that Hanafi’s, Malikis, Shafi’s, Tableeghis, and Sufis are NOT sect members.  They are practitioners of Allah’s Divine Command and Prophet Muhammad’s Sunnah, through either a particular scholarly discipline or by enjoining a particular type of effort that Muslims need.  Their beliefs and daily practice is all Islam in its clearest authenticity.

What is a Sect ?

As I’m writing this, I’m holding in my hand a copy of  a 10th century book written by a great Imam named ‘Abdal Qahir al-Baghdadi.  The Imam was such a great scholar of Qur’an, Hadeeth, and Islamic Law that his contemporaries and the scholars who came later agreed he was “one of the Imams of the principles of the Religion and foremost authorities of Islam by consensus of its most eminent and competent scholars.”  In other words, he has been regarded as one of the highest authorities on Islam’s Beliefs and Principles of Creed.  His name and writings are referenced by other great Imams like an-Nawawi, al-‘Asqalani, and al-Qurtubi.  The name of the book is “Al Farq bayn al-Firaaq”, meaning The Distinction between the Divisions.

He opens the book with the Hadith of Prophet Muhammad saying that the Israelites divided into 71 divisions, the Christians into 72, and his Ummah (nation of followers) would be divided into 73 divisions. And in another Hadith:

On the authority of Ibn Umar (Allah be pleased with him) from the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), who said: “Verily Allah will not gather my Ummah (followers) upon misguidance, and Allah’s hand is over the (unified) group, and whoever dissents from them departs to Hell.”

Then the Imam al-Baghdadi continues, saying:  “(sectarian and blameworthy) division is not of the same type as the disagreements between the Imams of Knowledge, in the branches of legal rulings, or in the chapters of what is lawful vs. what is prohibited, for there is nothing in these(disagreements) (equaling) disbelief or misguidance in whatever they disagreed in pertaining to the rulings of (these) branches.”

In other words, a SECT is not made by disagreements between the Scholars in what is Sunnah in our Deeds.  Sects are made by those who adopted misguided beliefs about Allah, the Prophet, the Qur’an, or other Articles of Faith.  They are those who make their personal notions as judges over Allah’s Religion, seeking to divide the Believers by imposing their whims on others.  A detailed description of Sects is beyond the level of Muslims who are new to Islam, so I won’t discuss it here.  It is a subject quite dangerous to the faith of the individual who is not firmly grounded in Islamic theology.  The way to avoid being in a misguided sect is to stay within the main group of Sunni Muslims, learn their beliefs, learn the rulings of their Imams, and always ask Allah sincerely for Guidance.

It’s understandable that a Convert wants to be “just Muslim” when they think other “titles” or descriptions indicate they would belong to a sect.  What this article seeks to explain is that one should learn Islam as the Muslims always have, which could make one a Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’, or Hanbali.  These are the rightly guided schools of Islamic Knowledge.   Doing that does not make you a member of a Sect:  it connects us to the authentic sources of Islam.

The differences between the schools are minor and are due to the fact that each Imam would have a slightly different ruling based on Qur’an and Sunnah evidence.  For example, where we place our hands in Salah, what time is the ‘Asr prayer, what is Sunnah in making Wudu, what are the specific requirements for slaughtering an animal.  They are only slightly different, and all have authentic evidence.

All 4 Schools(Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’, and Hanbali) are based on Qur’an and Sunnah, and use a comprehensive knowledge of Qur’an and Sunnah to establish their rulings.  Each of the 4 Imams have been followed by hundreds of millions of Muslims.  Their Schools have been rigorously authenticated through the diligent efforts of the greatest Imams and Scholars the world has ever known.

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