thoughts on Islam as an organized religion and the relevance to sectarianism

I have well documented issues with sectarianism. But I’ve often wondered if it is logically possible to not be part of a sect in actual practice within an organized religion? Human beings are often inclined to define things as the opposite of other things, so what is it that prevents someone from saying “she’s part of that sect of people who don’t believe in sects”?

I am not happy with referring to not believing in sects as a sect, and I believe the need to do this for the sole purposes of differentiation and recognition through categorization is a weakness in human logic and understanding that cannot be helped. Our brains were made to function this way, and this is stated throughout religious texts. The Qur’an repeats that we are only given capabilities which are due to us, and there are hadith that communicate concepts to us in limiting vocabulary simply so that we can understand them as human beings: in a hadith, the Prophet is narrated to have said that by Judgment Day there will be 77 sects, and only one of them will be correct.* It’s interpreted from what the Qur’an has dictated that this one sect is the sect of no sect. …But, even in the language of the hadith, it’s still a sect.

The contradiction doesn’t bother me as much as it annoys me, because I understand that it is not a true contradiction, only one that exists through how little we comprehend and how inadequately we define concepts as human beings. I do not believe that this is a definite thing that is impossible to change, but it has resulted in the way we have structured society.

And that brings me to something I will be casually brewing in my mind the next couple of days: is our need to make things sectarian a result of the constructions of organized religion? Is Islam meant to be an organized religion if there are supposed to be no sects? Sects arise, time and time again, when the religion becomes involved in power and politics. Are the laws of Islam truly meant to be political like so many men have claimed?

I don’t believe that organized religion is inherently bad (obviously, as I belong to one.) There can be positive outcomes (feelings of belonging to a community, having people to turn to, organized charities, peaceable promotions of understanding, etc.) as well as negative outcomes (hostile indifference to humanity among members and toward outsiders, becoming a corrupt political force, etc.) and when patriarchy is involved those with male privilege destroy everything within the religion that is “feminine”–sympathy, kindness, understanding, coexistence–pushing it aside as weakness that prevents them from obtaining full control over civilization, and ultimately they attempt to redefine the religion as something it never was, or as just a fragment of the whole, in order to keep women from rising against them because over centuries these women now believe that this is the original message.

There is no doubt that Islam is to be somewhat political–the Qur’an dictates legal practices. But many of the details in the Qur’an that would make the practices more just are deliberately and conveniently left out in actual practice. For example, in the case of adultery, the Qur’an clearly states:

But punishment shall be averted from her (the accused) if she calls God four times as witness that he (the accuser) is indeed telling a lie. (Qur’an 24:8)

This does a number of things: (1) It allows a woman to be like, “Yeah, [even if I might be lying] I’m going to choose not to pay for that sin here on Earth and take it up with God instead.” (2) It does this all while still warning that lying and adultery are not sins taken lightly, but as long as the consequences do not hurt anyone other than the ones who practice them, the punishments are not to be enforced by the community. (3) It thereby reinforces that those who do not agree to your beliefs should not have to live under a legal system constructed by them, especially since the Qur’an says that adulterers have sinned so greatly that they can just keep marrying other adulterers, which is a bitter way of saying do what you want in your communities because if your beliefs are different you are not bound by the social contract set up in someone else’s interpretation of Islam. It is the mentality of the all-competing, all-conquering, freedom-consuming patriarchy that extend these laws to those unwilling to live by them, and assumes that Islam by default must be patriarchal even despite the dictations of the Qur’an.

And yet these dictations of tolerance and forgiveness and mind-your-own-business are overlooked and actively ignored when a religion comes into contact with power–at least in a patriarchy. Hadith like this are never referred to:

Narrated Abu Dhar: The Prophet said, “Someone came to me from my Lord and gave me the news (or good tidings) that if any of my followers dies worshipping none (in any way) along with God, he will enter Paradise.” I asked, “Even if he committed illegal sexual intercourse (adultery) and theft?” He replied, “Even if he committed illegal sexual intercourse (adultery) and theft.” [Bukhari, Volume 2 Book 23 Number 329]

Instead people look at (false) hadith to invent an Islam that is too political, or they make it political the wrong way, as I was discussing with the gracefully thoughtful Metis, who said the following about the punishment on adultery when I referred to verse 24:8 encouraging dismissal of the punishment for adulterers in the circumstance that at their own discretion of what actually took place they simply say I didn’t do it. :

Nahida, I suddenly had a brainwave :) I think sharia is sometimes unfriendly to women because those implementing it and indeed even those who create it look more at hadith than Quran. This could be because Quran gives rules whereas hadith shows how those rules were used in various situations. I was going through research on hadd punishment in Pakistan and it seems like there are at least two ahadith (definitely in Malik’s muwatta) which show that a woman’s witness for herself are to be rejected if there is no other evidence that she is teling the truth! I was shocked that it’s even in a reputable sahih because it looks obviously odd. Again one can argue that Quran only lays down laws but they were indeed implemented in various ways and there could have been situations where a woman’s witness was rejected. WaAllahu Alam.

this hadith she is referring to is a clear violation of the Qur’an and yet is actually taken seriously, because it’s a perfect way of dismissing a “feminine” aspect of the religion–forgiveness and the live-and-let-live mentality–and instead implementing the laws of men, for a patriarchy that hungers after political power. And that–using false hadith and making things up in the name of religion for the purpose of making it more politically organized–results in sects. This isn’t a new concept: it’s basically the same one on which the the premises of this blog have been based. But the (possibly imagined) relationship between sectarianism and organized religion is something I plan to quietly analyze. It seems that in order for there to be sects, there must be other sects with which these sects disagree, and throughout history this nearly always happened for political reasons as the religion became more and more of an organized religion.

As of now, I do believe that Islam is supposed to somewhat of an organized religion–much less of one than it is in many “Islamic” countries. It sounds strange to suggest that there are degrees of organization, but Islam has never been quite as organized as, say, Catholicism. The dangerous thing about this might be that we may not know how organized a religion is unless we have another for comparison because the very way we’ve structured our societies is based on the way we often think in opposites rather than negations.

*I don’t take this hadith as seriously as most people; there’s no need when the Qur’an (6:159) already covers the idea, and I am especially skeptical because its exact language is “only one (sect) will go to Heaven” which kind of violates my personal guidelines to hadith authenticity and which can potentially be used by judgmental asshats to put down others.

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5 Responses to thoughts on Islam as an organized religion and the relevance to sectarianism

  1. almostclever says:

    I really do believe people look way too into law/shariah and hadith, and focus only on that aspect. Of course, for those living in a country that enforces shariah, maybe it simply IS focused on more than anything else, by the state – therefore the people also. These verses are simply words for us, yet in a shariah enforced country, the outcome of people's thinking on these words becomes law – directly affecting their lives. Maybe this has something to do with some people's intense focus on it.

  2. Nahida says:

    "I really do believe people look way too into law/shariah and hadith, and focus only on that aspect."I agree. There should be more depth in interpretation. We were not created to be such shallow creatures. Zuhura had a quote from a movie: "Allah is too big and too open for my Islam to be small and closed."

  3. Metis says:

    One thing that I have never failed to notice about early Islam is the encouragement and emphasis on confession of sin. Maybe because it was such a powerful turning point and people believed that for the first time in history of Arabia they had found an intermediary between themselves and God that they didn’t want to miss that chance of communicating with God that they almost obsessively confessed their sins. Some even confessed to sins they committed before converting to Islam at which the Prophet said what was done before Islam is washed away by conversion to the new religion. In such a scenario we notice both men and women honestly owning up to what they had done. There is therefore a confidence in their honesty displayed by verse 24:8 for those in power of judgment and awarding punishment. Yet on a personal level this was hard. Recall that Aisha consistently claimed she was innocent and nothing happened at Ifk yet a full vigorous inquiry continued for weeks meanwhile she got ill and broke down repeatedly. Allah had to intervene and prove her innocence in the end. But other ordinary women are not so lucky. So we have that very personal example of the Prophet as well when he didn’t really believe Aisha’s witness.I have a different take on the hadith you have quoted (Bukhari, Volume 2 Book 23 Number 329). I think Islam is an organized religion (again I feel there isn’t anything wrong with that) because there is strong emphasis on community action/behaviour and social reaction. IMHO the hadith refers to a scenario *after* a person has undergone punishment on earth. That is to say, even if a person has “committed illegal sexual intercourse (adultery) and theft” they will enter Paradise because if they worship only Allah then they follow His laws which means they would first willingly confess their crime and endure punishment for it on this earth. A good Muslim in early Islam was one who accepted their follies, confessed their sins, corrected their behaviour and willingly purified their soul by going through punishment awarded to them. That is why we had many, many people confessing to the Prophet. They wanted redemption. I think ahadith like the one you quoted are studied by those drafting Shariah but because there is a background to them the consequence is different. If this hadith were to be read in isolation and implemented as it stands every thief or adulterer would do what they pleased and then offered their salah with the confidence that they were going to Jennah anyway.

  4. Nahida says:

    Oh, I didn't mean that I wanted to hadith to be referred to in law, just that it should allow Muslims social protection from judgment. You actually have the same take on the hadith that I do: I'm jut convinced that people use hadith that specifically sentence those who have committed certain sins to Hell in order to judge them and demean them. I've heard a hadith that claims that all musicians and prostitutes go to Hell, over and over, even during sermons, but I've never heard this one. And I feel the result is that we have an image of God that is unforgiving and straight up scary despite the emphasis on God's mercy."I think ahadith like the one you quoted are studied by those drafting Shariah but because there is a background to them the consequence is different."But I think it's precisely the background that they ignore. How else would they consider valid hadith that go against the Qur'an itself–the Prophet himself believed those who both confessed their sins and insisted they were innocent. And yet–that's not what happened."If this hadith were to be read in isolation and implemented as it stands every thief or adulterer would do what they pleased and then offered their salah with the confidence that they were going to Jennah anyway."You know, in writing the post I sort of agreed, which is why I wrote in parenthesis that she may be lying. But then I thought about it afterward… and I honestly don't think that this is what would happen. Not in the case of adultery anyway, since the punishment and court of thievary is different and you're less likely to get away with it. The Qur'an is strict enough for everyone to remember that you have to go through Hell first and pay dearly and deservedly for your sins before you are forgiven if you haven't paid of them here. I really think we've lost a lot of trust in our communities, which made this the wrong kind of organized religion–bound together by fear and hatred of women instead of trust and forgiveness as it was meant to be. I think we need to shift it back to the right kind of organized religion. (Not that right and wrong are black and white.)

  5. wallacesc07 says:

    Nahida, thank you so much for your posts. The idea of sects is not new to me; I grew up Baptist, but it is interesting that while it was quite normal for me in Christianity, I hate the idea in Islam. I came to be Muslim because I agreed with its tenets and found myself drawn by the Quran and history. Now, when I meet people and tell them I am Muslim, often their follow up question is, “Do you know the difference between Sunni and Shia?” I think this is their indirect way of asking if I know which one I am and should be. I refuse to put any of those labels on myself because it would be giving up the simplicity I love about Islam: there is one God, worship him, and follow his messengers.

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