Repelling Sectarianism: The Case of Sunni-Shi`a Marriages
2 Rabi` al-Awwal 1438
For the past three years since 2013, we have been sounding the alarm about the growing threat of sectarianism creeping into our local community.[i] Sadly such a reality is now staring us in the face. Shortly after the Muslim Judicial Council’s (MJC) press conference in late October 2016, in which it uncritically embraced without verifying its authenticity a Saudi Press Agency report alleging that the Yemeni Shi`a Houthis attempted to destroy the holy ka`bah by launching a ballistic missile in the direction of the sacred city of Makkah,[ii] the MJC has now, on the 21 November 2016, issued a policy statement effectively declaring marriages between Sunnis and Shi`as (specifically the Ja`fari Ithna `Ashari group) prohibited (haram).[iii]
The MJC policy statement headlined as ‘Sunni-Shi`i marriages’ concludes as follows:
The MJC therefore adopts as a matter of policy the closure of doors on the performance and facilitation of such marriages. In terms of this policy, MJC members should in no way perform such marriages, nor facilitate their performance.
In this khutbah I would like to strongly condemn this so-called policy position which effectively declares marriages between Sunnis and Shi`as as prohibited (haram). Furthermore, I call upon all conscientious, fair-minded and just-loving Muslims to make their voices heard by challenging such retrograde and bigoted tendencies within our local community.
Raising Critical Questions
It is confusing to note that while the statement was issued by the MJC’s Fatwa Committee (Lajna al-Fatawa); it is described as a policy and not explicitly a fatwa (a formal religious decree or ruling). Moreover, this significant policy document is nowhere to be found on the MJC’s official website but was instead proudly posted on the Facebook page of a vigilante group that calls itself the Ahlus Sunna Defence League (ADL) Shi`a Awareness – South Africa.[iv]
This raises a number of disturbing questions:
- What is the difference, if any, between a policy and a fatwa in the view of the MJC’s fatwa committee?
- Why is the policy or fatwa not published on the MJC’s official website but proudly displayed on the ADL Shia Awareness Facebook page?
- How widely has the MJC consulted its members with respect to this serious policy position?
- Has this policy position been endorsed by all MJC members?
- Is this policy binding on non-MJC members?
- Will non-MJC members be intimidated or threatened with violence if they perform marriages between Sunnis and Shi`as?
- What is the status of Sunni-Shi`a marriages that were performed prior to this new MJC policy?
I will not be able to respond to all of these questions in this khutbah, but I am raising them so as point out the serious lack of clarity and legitimacy of this MJC policy document.
Excommunicating Shi`as from the Fold of Islam
The glib assertion in the policy that individuals aligned to the Ja`fari Ithna `Ashari group and ‘known to subscribe to certain beliefs that amount to a denial of the Deen’, are to ‘be identified and treated as kafir’, is of particular concern. Furthermore, it does not elaborate on what these beliefs might be. Given the seriousness with which the Shari`ah regards the accusation of heresy or takfir, this nebulous MJC policy position is all the more lamentable. We are reminded of the seriousness of takfir in the following instructive hadith (prophetic tradition).
In Sahih al-Bukhari (Hadith 6104) and Sahih Muslim (Hadith 60) it is narrated from the companion ‘Abd-Allah ibn ‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) that the Prophet Muhammad (may Allah’s everlasting peace and blessings be upon him) said:
“If a man declares his fellow Muslim to be an infidel (kafir), then the accusation will apply to one of them (meaning if the accusation is not true it will apply to the accuser).”
It is important to point out that there is no scholarly consensus (ijm`a) among Sunni Muslims, both classical as well as contemporary, that declares the Ja`fari Ithna `Ashari Shi`as as being outside of the fold of Islam. Moreover, the vast majority of Sunni scholars do not support the view of those who have declared the Ja`fari Ithna `Ashari as apostates despite their serious differences in matters of dogma and belief. It is no small wonder that the Saudi’s, in spite of their anti-Shi`a sectarian political proclivity, have not been able to prevent the Shi`a from performing the annual pilgrimage (hajj).
One of the most notable contemporary Muslim scholars who took a clear position on the question of Sunni-Shi`a relations is that of the former rector of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Shaykh Mahmud Shaltut (d.1963). Shaykh Shaltut issued a widely accepted fatwa (legal opinion) in 1959 that recognized the Ja`fari (Twelver) Shi`a school as a valid madh-hab (Islamic law school), and authorized the teaching of Shi`a jurisprudence (ja`fari fiqh) at the al-Azhar university[v]. Shaykh Shaltut’s spirit of accord (taqrib al-madhahib) between Sunni’s and Shi`as was carried forward by another famous Egyptian scholar, Shaykh Muhammad Abu Zahrah (d. 1974).[vi] It was the same noble spirit of conciliation that was championed in South Africa by one my own teachers, the late Shaykh Abubakr Najaar (d.1993), who himself served as President of the MJC from 1978-1982.
Non-Sectarianism and ‘The Amman Message’ (Risalatu `Amman)
Significantly, eleven years ago, 200 of the most influential contemporary Muslim scholars around the globe including, Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the late Shaykh al-Azhar, Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, Shaykh Ali Goma`a, Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah, Mawlana Taqi Usmani, Ayatullah Ali Hosseini Sistani and Ayatullah Ali Husseini Khameini, called upon Sunnis and Shi`as to rise above the differences that separate them and refrain from declaring each other as infidels (kafir). Their call was documented in the now famous 2005 Amman Message. The full text of the Amman Message and list of scholars who endorsed it can be found here: www.ammanmessage.com.
It is noteworthy that Shaykh Ebrahim Gabriels undersigned and endorsed the 2005 Amman Message on behalf of the South African `ulama. Although he is no longer president of the MJC, Shaykh Gabriels is still an active member of the current MJC. This latest MJC policy is in direct contradiction to this Amman Message, yet we have not come across any formal denunciation of the 2005 Amman Message from the Muslim Judicial Council. It begs the questions – what weight, if any, does the 2005 Amman Message carry within the MJC today, and what is the position of the signatory to this document and those on whose behalf it was signed in 2005?
The Inhumane Consequences of Sunni-Shi`a Conflict
Given the malaise of death, destruction, violence and hatred that is pervasive in the world at this point in time, and where this death and destruction is particularly pronounced in many Muslim-majority countries, this MJC policy is an affront to our humanity. It is truly deplorable that such a policy emanates from a body that claims to represent, and aims to govern, a large proportion of Muslims in South Africa. Instead of espousing much needed messages of tolerance and inclusivity, the MJC, with this policy position, espouses an agenda of sectarianism and intra-Muslim hatred.
The Claremont Main Road Masjid congregation unequivocally distances itself from this and similar agendas. Indeed, it is sectarian political agendas such as these that are currently spawning horrific violence and killing in the Middle East and elsewhere among Muslim communities.
Our Call to Stand Up Against the Advocates of Sectarianism
We call upon South African Muslims to remain vigilant of those who continue to export sectarian conflicts from the Middle East into our local environment. We are convinced that the vast majority of Muslims are not supportive of the current trend of sectarianism being fomented by certain individuals within the MJC. We call on local Muslims to reject the intimidatory tactics of the peddlers of hate and narrow-mindedness. We call on likeminded ‘ulama to speak out and re-assert the meaning and spirit of the 2005 Amman message. We call on everybody to reclaim the sacred values of love and tolerance espoused by the most primary source of Islamic guidance, the Glorious Qur’an.
I conclude with a hadith narrated by the companion Abdullah ibn `Umar and recorded in the collections of Sahih Muslim (Kitab al-Iman, Hadith Number 111), Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi and Nasa’i, which defines for us what it means to be a Muslim ‘in the fold of Islam’:
Islam is that you bear witness that there is none to be worshipped except Allah, and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, and that you should keep up prayer (salah), and pay the Zakat, and fast in Ramadan, and perform the pilgrimage to the House of Allah if you are able to do it.
We know these as the testimony of faith in Islam (kalima shahada) and the five pillars of Islam (arkan al-Islam). No one has the right to declare anyone who accepts this testimony of faith and these five pillars, as kafir.[vii]
Finally, Allah the Lord of Guidance, reminds us very poignantly in Surah al-Najm, Chapter 53, verse 30:
إِنَّ رَبَّكَ هُوَ أَعْلَمُ بِمَنْ ضَلَّ عَنْ سَبِيلِهِ وَهُوَ أَعْلَمُ بِمَنِ اهْتَدَى
“Surely thy Lord knows best who strays from His path, and knows best those who follow the guidance.” (Q53:30)
No one but Allah can know whose heart has faith and whose heart does not.
We make du`a and supplicate in the words of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (pbuh):
نِنَا، بَيْ ذَاتَ وَأَصْلِحْ قُلُوْبِنَا، بَيْنَ اَلِّفْ للّٰهُمَّ
لنُّوْرِ إِلَى الظُّلُمَاتِ مِنَ وَنَجِّنَا السَّلاَمِ، سُبُلَ وَاهْدِنَا
We ask Allah, the Lord of Compassionate Justice:
to reconcile and unite the hearts of all Muslims
in love and understanding,
to help us to resolve our differences and conflicts constructively,
to guide us towards paths of peace and guidance,
and to liberate us from all forms of darkness and inhumanity,
and leads us towards light and to affirm the full dignity of all.http://muslimviews.co.za/blog/2014/01/19/muslim-sectarianism-south-africa-symptom-cause/
[ii] For our view on the Saudi allegation against the Houthis see Voice of the Cape website article published on 11 November 2016 titled “Vigilance Against Sectarianism: The Case of the Alleged Makkah Missile Attack” For online version see here:http://www.vocfm.co.za/vigilance-against-sectarianism-the-case-of-the-alleged-makkah-missile-attack/
[iii] For the full text see “MJC Policy on Sunni- Shi`i Marriages” 21 November 2016 signed by MT Karaan. See ADL Shia Awareness Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/ShiaAwarenessPage/?hc_ref=PAGES_TIMELINE
[iv] I could not find the MJC’s policy/fatwa document on its official website: http://mjc.org.za/ While trying to establish its authenticity with MJC members many were not aware of the existence of the official policy document.
[v] For an excellent study of this development see: Rainer Brunner, Islamic Ecumenism in the 20th Century: Azhar and Shiism between Rapprochment and Restraint (Leiden, Brill, 2004).
[vi] Shaykh Zahrah dedicated a large portion of his principal book Ta`rikh al-Madhahib al-Islamiyyah (The History of Islamic law Schools), as well as sections of two other books Fi Ta`rikh al-Madhahib (On the History of Islamic legal Schools) and Usul al-Fiqh (Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence) to reflections on Shi`a jurisprudence
[vii] This is the same position that the 200 Muslim scholars who undersigned the Amman declaration pledged themselves to in 2005. The volte face by some of these scholars can thus be attributed to political agendas not that of dogma and belief. The Shi`a dogma and beliefs have not suddenly changed since the onset of the Arab Spring in January 2011.