Islamic Iran Leading Global Movement Against Sectarianism and for Unity (1)

Islamic Iran Leading Global Movement Against Sectarianism and for Unity (1)

Every year Muslims celebrate the birthday of the Prophet, upon whom be peace, with reverence and respect in the month of Rabi al-Awwal. Such celebrations are expressions of the deep love Muslims bear for the Prophet (saw). His birthday, however, needs to be considered as more than simply a celebration, important as it is. Almighty Allah Himself describes the noble messenger as the best of exemplars,(1) meaning that his example must be followed in all matters. In order to obey this divine command fully, it is necessary to know his Seerah (life-history) well. This is where the birthday celebrations of the Prophet (saw) assumes greater significance.

Last month there were several international conferences on the occasion of the Prophets birthday: in Cairo, Tehran and Istanbul. While the Islamic Republic of Iran has organized such conferences for 20 years to bring Muslims from different madhahib (schools of thought) together on a common platform, Cairo and Istanbul were welcome additions to this year’s celebrations. Al-Azhar University in Cairo established the Dar at-Taqrib bayna al-Madhahib al-Islamiyyah (the hall for accommodating Islamic schools of thought) more than 60 years ago by the efforts of Shaikh Mahmoud Shaltout and Shaikh Mohammad al-Husein al-Kashif al-Ghita, among others, to bring together Muslims to discuss the various schools of thought in Islam, and thus to foster Muslim unity. Dar at-Taqrib functioned through the nineteen-forties and -fifties before al-Azhar was nationalized by the government of Egypt, reducing it to an institution that merely served the narrow interests of the Egyptian nation-state. Dar at-Taqrib also fell victim to this process of nationalization and became dormant.

After the victory of the Islamic revolution in Iran, the Majma at-Taqrib bayn al-Madhahib was established there. It has held conferences for twenty years in a constant effort to narrow the differences between Muslims of different schools of thought. This year’s conference was held against the backdrop of the rising sectarian tensions in Iraq that have led to serious arguments among some Muslims. The Tehran conference chose the Prophets Seerah as its theme, as did the one in Cairo, while the Istanbul conference considered Muslim unity in light of the Seerah. At each conference, the questions of Muslim unity and how to achieve it were uppermost in everyone’s mind. It was also clear that Iraq is spinning out of control, and that the situation there will have serious consequences for the Ummah unless this issue is addressed seriously. Although some speakers from Iraq attempted to create the impression that all is well and that the sectarian conflict is only a minor irritant, not many conference participants accepted this. Iraq was not the main theme, but the sectarian violence there cast a dark shadow over the deliberations of all the conferences.

Not everything, however, was bleak. From Cairo came the good news of the revival of the Dar al-Taqrib, and that it will begin to work along the lines originally envisioned by its founders, to bring Muslims together.  This is an important development because Egypt, despite the numerous faults of the regime, is a major centre of Islamic learning and al-Azhar carries much weight in the Sunni world. Why and how al-Azhar and the Egyptian regime agreed to revive the Dar at-Taqrib is an interesting question. Among leading Muslim scholars there is growing realization that the sectarian divide is being manipulated by the enemies of Islam and can easily cause irreparable damage to the Ummah if not addressed in earnest.  The regimes in the Middle East understand that there are limits to how much they can exploit sectarian differences; hence the desire not to overplay their hand. The Muslim masses do not buy into the vile anti-Shia propaganda being produced by US-sponsored mouthpieces; in fact, throughout the Middle East Hizbullah leader Shaikh Hasan Nasrallah and President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad of Iran continue to enjoy enormous popularity for standing up to the zionists and Americans. This makes ordinary people feel empowered and their sense of dignity is restored, something the Arab regimes have demonstrably failed to achieve.

For all Muslims, the Seerah of the Prophet (saw) is a unifying factor.  There are no two Muslims, regardless of their background, who do not agree on the noble character of the messenger of Allah, his teachings, his achievements and his example as most worthy of emulation. Thus the Majma at-Taqrib conference in Tehran (April 6-9) was divided into different themes: his personality traits; his example at the family and community levels; his establishment of the first Islamic state and his dealings with other rulers. These are vast fields that offer rich material for research. At least 130 foreign guests from 46 countries covering every part of the world took part in the conference. The number of papers presented (70) was impressive, but it must be admitted that not every paper met the academic standards one expects at such conferences. There is a tendency among Muslims, even scholars, to treat such conferences not so much as opportunities to present serious academic work but as excuses to repeat what has already been mentioned in the Seerah books or to talk about contemporary issues. The latter would be acceptable if it were related to some aspect of the Seerah. The problem in Iraq is a good example; repeatedly, speakers returned to this theme but did not make the effort to link it to the Seerah, or how to use the Seerah to overcome the problem.

Muslims need to grow out of the habit of simply describing various aspects of the Seerah. This has already been done through the centuries; what is needed now is to analyze the Seerah to derive lessons from it. One telling point about the lack of serious scholarship on the Seerah is that there is no authoritative encyclopedia of the Seerah. 

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1. (The Holy Quran: 33:21)