Muslim Movements and Schisms


1. The Kharijites - the Early Seceders of Islam.

The first major sect that appeared in the history of Islam was made up of the Khawarij or Kharijites as they are known to us. The word means "those who go out", that is, seceders. They appeared as a separate group after the Battle of Siffin when Ali submitted his conflict with Mu'awiyah to arbitration. Although his followers had unanimously influenced him into this course of action, a section broke away afterwards, claiming that no caliph of Allah should submit the cause of God to the discretion of man. This group thus became the nucleus of the Kharijite movement in Islam, a dogmatic and fanatical sect which plagued Iraq for many years.

They taught that the Qur'an was the sole authority over every Muslim and thus believed that they could revolt against any form of secular Muslim rule and indiscriminately kill all unbelievers - including Muslims generally who did not join them - and carry off their property as booty. Ali spent much of his time fighting against the Kharijites who began to terrorise much of the Muslim world during his caliphate. They also claimed that anyone guilty of a grave sin was an infidel and would automatically be excluded from Paradise for ever even though he was a professing Muslim, unless he fully repented of his sin.

This group did not last long, however, (mercifully for the peace-loving Muslim communities in Iraq) but it did provide an example which was to be followed in later centuries by other sects, in particular the Wahbabis of whom we will hear more shortly. It also set the pace for a number of sects and divisions that were to take place in the coming eras, of which Shi'ite Islam has proved to be the most enduring.

2. The Mu'tazilah - the so-called "Free-Thinkers".

Within a hundred years after the death of Muhammad a somewhat rationalistic approach to Islam, influenced by Greek Christian thinking, began to challenge the dogmatic, deterministic nature of orthodox faith. Those who taught that man had a free will as opposed to the orthodox who believed that Allah's will was the cause and effect of all that is, were nicknamed the Qadariyah because they seemed to deny God's fore-ordination and control over all things and taught that man possessed this qadar, this power to determine his own destiny instead. These "free-thinkers" later became known as the Mu'tazilah, a name meaning "those who have withdrawn", allegedly derived from an incident where one al-Hasan was being asked whether a grave sinner was a believer or not.

The doctrine of an intermediate state in time likewise became one of the basic tenets of Mu'tazilism. Another major difference between the Mu'tazilah and orthodox Islam relates to the Qur'an, whether it is created or the uncreated Word of Allah. The Mu'tazilah taught that as God had neither place, form, body, movement or features, his speech must be considered as separate from his being and so the Qur'an must be created. During the climax of Mu'tazilite influence, when even one or two of the Abbasid caliphs supported their views, many orthodox scholars (including Ahmad ibn Hanbal) were severely treated because of their opposition to such views.

The major dispute between the two parties, however, was over the nature of God's being and his control over every man's destiny. An example of how both used the Qur'an appears from a debate between the prominent Qadariyah, Ghailan ibn Marwan, and the pious Ummayad Caliph Umar the Second. The former quoted the words "We showed him the Way: whether he be grateful or ungrateful (rests on his will)" (Surah 76.3) to show that man can respond to God's guidance as he chooses, but in reply the Caliph asked him to read on to the words "Whosoever will, let him take a (straight) path to his Lord, but ye will not, except as God wills" (Surah 76. 29-30) to prove the opposite.

In those early days the orthodox took expressions like the "face of Allah" (wajhullah) and other words implying that Allah creates with his hands, sees all things, and hears the prayers of the faithful, in a quite literal manner. Against such open anthropomorphism the Mu'tazilah reacted.

The well-known Muslim scholar Abu Mansur al-Baghdadi, in his treatise on the various "philosophic" systems that developed in Islam entitled Al-Farq baynal-Firaq, defined their doctrine as "the common denial that Allah has eternal qualities; the affirmation that Allah has neither knowledge, nor power, nor life, nor hearing, nor seeing, nor any eternal attribute; together with their view that Allah never had a name or an attribute. They claim, furthermore, that it is impossible for Allah to see with his eyes. They say that he himself does not see, nor does anyone see him" (Seelye, Moslem Schisms and Sects, p.116). Of their belief that man has the power to determine his own destiny he said:

The demise of Mu'tazilism came chiefly through the influence of one Abu'l Hasan Ali al-Ashari, for many years a zealous Mu'tazilite but later its strictest opponent. Having enjoyed a thorough grounding in the doctrines of the movement from within, he was able to use this knowledge very effectively against it in later years. Al-Ghazzali, the great Islamic theologian of the fifth century after Muhammad, also strongly opposed the "philosophic" movement in Islam and particularly attacked the Mu'tazilite belief that Allah's will could only be discovered through reason and reflection.

Despite such profound reasoning this great scholar's efforts to quench "free-thinking" in Islam contributed in some measure to the formalistic stagnation in thinking that followed in the immediate history of Islam and which has yet to shed completely the grip it has on Muslim mentality to this day. In recent times only a handful of scholars have had the courage to challenge the staid convictions of the orthodox and the dawn of progressive thinking in Islam is not yet on the horizon.

3. The Wahhabis - The Fanatical Reformists of Modern Islam.

During the middle of the eighteenth-century a resurgence of Kharijite thinking surfaced in the Arabian Peninsula. Known as the Wahhabi movement after its founder Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, it swept over the lands of Arabia, laying waste shrines, tombs, minarets and other edifices considered incompatible with orthodox Islam as taught by Ibn Taymiya and, before him, the arch-conservative Ahmad ibn Hanbal. In 1806 the Wahhabis conquered Mecca and soon terrorised the Muslim peoples as the Kharijites had done more than a thousand years earlier. There were few limits to their extremism.

Although they were subdued in due course by the Turks the Wahhabis exercised a fearful influence over the Muslim world around Arabia until the end of the nineteenth-century and the effects of this influence are felt to this day in the ultra-strict formalism of Saudi-Arabian Islam. (The ruling house of Saud, descended from the great Arabian ruler Ibn Saud, is Wahhabite in doctrine and origin).

During their heyday the Wahbabis emulated the Kharijites in declaring everything inconsistent with their ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam as heretical. Even the sheikhs of Mecca were forced to sign fatwas (religious decrees) admitting that they had lived as infidels prior to the Wahhabi "reforms".

Their major tenets, as opposed to traditional Islam, are their rejection of ijma (consensus), believing that the Qur'an and Hadith are the sole sources of theology and doctrine (the Kharijites held similar views about the Qur'an - the Hadith had not yet been formulated in their time); that no prayer can be offered to any prophet or saint (thus the tomb of Muhammad in Medina is screened off to this day to prevent Muslims from praying to him - a practice Muhammad would undoubtedly have endorsed); that Muhammad will only obtain permission to intercede for the Muslims on the Last Day (the Sunnis believe he has this power already); that the mawlud (birthday) celebrations of Muhammad, the lesser festivals and all ceremonies around the tombs of the saints are abominable heresies (bid'ah - "heresy"); and that rosaries are also an innovation and should not be used to count the names of Allah.

The Wahhabis were hardly a sect in Islam but rather a puritanical reformist-movement, determined to rid the faith of quasi-Islamic practices and innovations introduced over the centuries and not sanctioned by Muhammad. The excessive zeal of the movement, however, and its opposition to mainstream Islam eventually ensured that its wings would be clipped. Nevertheless its influence is felt throughout the Muslim world in many forms so this day.

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