A cursory glance at the state of the Muslims today shows us that we are desperately in need of unity on all its levels
The concept of unity is central to Islam, tawhid being the most important principle and doctrine of religion. Tawhid literally means “unification” and “the act of uniting” – of bringing disparate “realities” together under a single total vision and Reality.
On the doctrinal level tawhid means nothing less than understanding and seeing reality for what it is, on all its levels. It means to understand the unity – or unicity – of the Godhead in the first place and then to realize the unity of His creation in the second; all created things being nothing but the signs, words, and acts of the one God. Now, man being the greatest creation of God, is no exception to this rule.
Hence, unity on the human plane implies that first and foremost, men are united in their created Divine nature – God having inspired them with something of His Spirit. From there on down, any type of unity in the human sphere acquires worth in accordance with its awareness of the Divine and its efforts at trying to aim for and reach it.
The concept of the Ummah is precisely this type of unity. It is the concept of a congregation of humans self-consciously traversing the path to God. As the goal is one and the One, the Ummah is one. The Qur’an says:
وَإِنَّ هَٰذِهِ أُمَّتُكُمْ أُمَّةً وَاحِدَةً وَأَنَا رَبُّكُمْ فَاتَّقُونِ
Indeed this Community of yours is one Community, and I am your Lord, so be wary of Me. (Qur’an 23:52)
So the ideal is clear and straightforward. All those that are Muslim and are wary of their common Lord are a part and parcel of the Ummah and they, by Divine decree, must be united. But of course, the devil is in the details. For if any kind of details detract the Muslims from the application of this Divine precept, and then they truly must be from the Devil. If on the other hand, the details are aspects of the overall unity and fall in line with its ultimate purpose, they are acceptable.
This is because unity can be envisaged on different levels and different people, depending on their aptitudes and archetypes, will incline to one or more of these levels.
On the most outer, basic, and pragmatic level, there is the need to unite out of sheer necessity. This is the political unity of those who label themselves Muslims in an attempt to defer the attacks of those who oppose them. This is a temporary and tactical unity which cannot withstand the test of time because on this level, the hearts of the Muslims are still divided.
Nonetheless, this unity is still a real unity because of the necessity underlying it, and stands in opposition to the “false” or “virtual” unities of groups which rally around a common name or imagined cause in a superficial way.
On the most inner level is the unity which arises from man’s awareness of the Divine and hence, his own essence; the transcendent unity of God and the immanent unity of Divine nature and creation (fiťrat Allah) in man and the world. For in understanding these matters, man understands his origin and end, and his present state which lies between the two.
He grasps the fallen and falling nature of man in this world and so becomes able to engage his will to make amends and to constantly struggle in the way of regaining his original heavenly state. This struggle or way is what is known as “religion” (or din) and, when understood in its totality, is the highest and best way to achieve true unity among men.
Which of the two forms of unity must be chosen? Well, if the challenge of the Ummah is seen to be primarily a political defeat from the outside, then the first “pragmatic” method of unity will be emphasized. If on the other hand, the challenge of the Ummah is seen to be a decline from the inside, then the second type of essential or transcendental unity will be the most pressing. For the most part, the choice of perspective will depend on how the idea of Ummah is understood in the first place. The second understanding – the one based on the total and unitive understanding of reality – is not exclusive and can certainly include the first.
The same cannot be said of the first or political viewpoint.
What is clear is that the higher and more encompassing the understanding, the better will be the unity – of whatever type, level and extent, from the smallest groups and brotherhoods to pan-Islamic movements. Imam ‘Ali (‘a) counselled his companion Kumayl in the following way:
يا كميل ما من حركة إلا و أنت محتاج فيها الى معرفة
O’ Kumayl! There no movement [or action] whatsoever but that you need understanding for it.
The precursor to understanding is knowledge. So if understanding is necessary for any unity movement, knowledge is indispensable and without it more harm is done than good – no matter how good and noble the intentions and irregardless of how numerous the good deeds.
In a tradition from the most Noble Prophet (S) it is reported he said:
قال رسول الله (صلَّى الله عليه و آله) من عَملَ على غير علم كان ما يفسد أكثر مما يصلح
The harmful effects of a person who acts without knowledge are greater than his beneficial ones.
Knowledge and understanding are qualities which are divine in principle, for God is al-‘Alim and al-Hakim. As such quantity is not of primary importance. This means that even if a handful of believers in the One struggle to achieve a unity based on knowledge and understanding, it is of great consequence.
What’s more, the traditions tell us that their very coming together aids in achieving the necessary understanding. It is said in a tradition:
ملاقاة الاخوان نُشرة و تلقيح للعقل و إن كان نزراً قليلاً
Meeting with brothers brings about expansion and life [lit. impregnation] for the intellect – even if they be a small insignificant number.
This then seems to be the traditional logic and methodology of unity; to start on a human scale, based on quality not quantity, and to build up from there. There are many references to both the perfection of the intellects in the latter days and wit the coming of the Mahdi (‘a), the quality and strength of the believers in this age, and to the existence of such small groups of the faithful. In the recent history of the Muslims, Imam Khumayni wrote in his last will and testament of the formation of “cells of the party of God” throughout the world.
The first unit after the “meetings of brothers” is the local community, the jama’ah. The Noble Prophet (S) said:
أيها الناس! عليكم بالجماعة و إياكم و الفرقة
O’ people! Enjoined for you is the community and forewarned [and detrimental] to you is disunion [and separatedness].
Beyond this level of “community” are higher levels.
Now all of these levels are alluded to in the Law by institutions such as the congregational prayers – which begin with just two Muslims, the Friday prayers, the enjoining of good and the forbidding of evil (amr bi al-ma’rufwanahi ‘an al-munkar) in society, jihad, and finally and most prominent in its symbolism, the Hajj.
So this is the methodology and these are the steps to achieve higher and higher forms of unity. A glimpse of where this can lead to is achieved by combining these levels with the inner or esoteric understanding of unity. In our time the greatest exponent of such a breadth and depth of understanding was Imam Khumayni. His son, Ahmad, summed up the vision of his father in this regard in the following way:
Imam wanted unity on all levels… unity on the international front – as Imam believed that the world’s oppressed should attempt to unite against the oppressors; unity of the followers of religions and prophets in opposition to profanity, infidelity, and arrogance; unity of the Ummah and Islamic countries so as to fight and counter the attacks of the enemies of the Islamic world; unity of Shias, Sunnis and orthodox Islamic schools and sects within the Islamic world…
Imam Khumayni was emphatic and insistent on especially the unity between the different sects and schools of thought in the Muslim world. To the extent that he said: “We are united with Sunni Muslims – we are one – because we are Muslims and brothers. If a person says anything that causes division between Muslims, then know that such a person is either ignorant or wants to sow the seeds of dissension between Muslims.”
Moreover, in line with his esoteric understanding of unity – something for which there is ample room within the Shia school of thought – he gave a fatwa making it wajib and obligatory on the Shias to participate in the congregational prayers of the Sunnis during the Hajj.
A cursory glance at the state of the Muslims today shows us that we are desperately in need of unity on all its levels – from the inner or esoteric and transcendental to the outer or exoteric and political – and on all its scales – from a study group of two Muslims to the super-collective that is called the Ummah.
But we will not achieve it by just being aware of the need, nor by harbouring a thousand good intentions. The methodology has been shown to us weak and imperfect beings by the all-Perfect Being and His prophets, saints and friends (‘a).
Glimpses of this all embracing vision cum ideology and methodology have been presented above. What remains now is for us to ponder and think. Given this need, should we not be doubling our efforts? Should we not renew our vigilance? Should we not stop being complacent and happy with the name of “Muslim” or “Mu’min”, but rather try to make the din everything in our lives?
How can we claim to be the followers of tawhid when we practice disunity?!
We talk of Islam but follow sectarianism as our way! How can we change the state of affairs? What must be done?
What we must do is gain and apply the knowledge that has been handed down to us. We must follow the lead of the ’ulama, such as Imam Khumayni, who discounted secondary differences and divisions and remained fixed on the Divinity and His plan for man, in all its dimensions from the mystical to the political – or rather, the political based on the mystical and the exoteric on the esoteric. God tells His beloved Prophet (S):
قُلْ إِنَّمَا أَعِظُكُمْ بِوَاحِدَةٍ ۖ أَنْ تَقُومُوا لِلَّهِ مَثْنَىٰ وَفُرَادَىٰ ثُمَّ تَتَفَكَّرُوا …
Say, ‘I advise you just with one [thing]: that you rise up for God, in twos, or individually, then reflect…’ (Qur’an 34:46)
We the Muslims have been advised by the best of God’s creation to rise to the occasion. Let us try to obey. Individually or collectively, we must increase our knowledge; then apply the knowledge and hence gain wisdom and understanding. If we are sincere in this, grace and blessings will descend – as this is God’s promise – and we will be able to form the small cells of believers or communities that we have been encouraged to do.
It will be the coming together of such qualitative and enlightened groups of the faithful, by their following the One Light of the heavens and the earth and under the leadership of Its human representative, that will lead to the formation or manifestation of the Single Ummah (the ummatanwahidah referred to in the Qur’an).
We previously saw that the Hajj has been called the “sustentation of the people” or the place of “rising”. As such, it not only is a lasting monument to the plain of Alast, where we all stood and acknowledged our Lord, but it is also a foreshadowing of the final Resurrection, where we will be once again impelled to recognize His absolute Dominion and Sovereignty over creation.
The coming together of Muslims of all walks, tongues, and races every year for the Hajj then – as a commemoration of our common Origin, our common End and our absolute abasement in His presence – is a rhythmic tribute to the presence of the One in the many. It is a graphic reminder of our potential – of what we could be in breadth and depth, quantity and quality, dunya and akhirah – if only we witnessed His signs and believed in His word during the rest of our lives as we do in the Hajj.
وَاعْتَصِمُوا بِحَبْلِ اللَّهِ جَمِيعًا وَلَا تَفَرَّقُوا …
Hold fast, all together, to God’s cord, and do not be divided [into sects]. (Qur’an 3:103)
The selection taken from the “Hajj, manifestation of unity” by Shuja Ali Mirza.