By: Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh.


Bernard Lewis celebrates this year his ninety-eighth birthday. Perhaps he can now depart our world, believing that some of his wishes have been fulfilled in redrawing the map of the Arab and Islamic region along ethno-sectarian lines.

This well-known orientalist, who is a staunch supporter of Zionism and Israel, wrote his doctorate on the Assassins, a splinter sect of Ismailism, a branch of Shi‘a Islam. Lewis believed that the fragmentation of the Arab-Islamic region along sectarian and ethnic lines was the natural course of action in response to historical, geographical, and cultural dynamics.

He also saw this as a great service for the Zionist project and a guarantee for the survival of Israel as a “Jewish state,” in a region divided into similar ethno-sectarian entities. Lewis had an impact on the neo-conservative school and George W. Bush, who ordered the invasion of Iraq seeking to rearrange it on ethnic and sectarian bases.

On the Religious Vision:

However, the Arab-Islamic region, long before Lewis and his ilk, had witnessed sectarian conflicts; the disputes date back to the generation of the early companions of Prophet Muhammad. Difference is a second nature to humans, and people differ in religion, ideas, cultures, standards, priorities, tastes, knowledge, intelligence, wealth, power, and beauty…In this life, no leader, thinker, prophet, or even Allah (SWT), has been spared from people’s mockery and abuse.

However, there are rules of conduct and standards of life that almost all ideologies and beliefs agree on, such as the call for honesty, integrity, justice, and refraining from doing harm, regardless of how much people adhere to this or not. The problem here is not differences per se, but the ability to find a framework, rules, and regulations that manage the process of difference, in a way that would channel it into diversity and creativity, rather than conflict and destruction.

Islam has admitted the existence of differences between human beings. The Quran states, “We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other.” Islam also rejected coercion in religion, and provided the followers of other religions with protection and care, and gave them full rights. Islam contained provisions to manage differences among Muslims themselves. The Quran states, “If you differ in anything among yourselves, refer it to Allah and His Messenger”; and “If two parties among the Believers fall into a quarrel, make peace between them: but if one of them transgresses beyond bounds against the other, then fight (all) against the one that transgresses until it complies with the command of Allah.”

Throughout history, Muslim scholars in general followed the rationale of ‘Ali bin Abi Talib (The companion of Prophet Muhammad and the fourth caliphate) in conflict among Muslims. He stated that if the “deviant” faction is fought, those who flee are not chased down, those who are captured are not killed, and those who are wounded are not finished off. No spoils are extracted from them, and none of them are taken as slaves. This is what Ali did in fighting the Kharijites and other factions.

It was known in the schools of Islamic jurisprudence that a Muslim can not be declared an apostate unless he denies an unequivocal tenet of religion, or acted in a manner that can only be explained as apostasy. This has made the margin of tolerance and difference among Muslims and their sects very wide, including in matters of belief, worship, and transactions.

On the Historical Experience:

Many fall victim to the writings of Orientalists and those who adopt their views among modern Muslim and Arab historians, distorting the image of the Islamic history of the region, showing it as a history of ethnic and sectarian wars, conflicts, and disputes. Indeed, many orientalists deliberately focus on political history, conflicts between ruling dynasties, and seeking out contentious issues, which they then inflate and exaggerate. We do not deny that there are disputes and conflicts, which are a normal occurrence in the movement of history and the law of competition and conflict among peoples. However, we raise a thousand question marks about why the cultural history of our region is not emphasized, nor the aspects of social, economic, and cultural life when our Islamic civilization had led humanity for hundreds of years, and when our regions had enjoyed stability, religious tolerance, and prosperity, compared to Europe, which was mired in bloody religious conflicts.

The longest period of stability in Europe’s history was the one that followed the Second World War. All those who were killed for sectarian reasons in Muslim infighting throughout Islamic history (1400 years) number much less than Europeans who were killed by other Europeans in the First World War alone, or the Second World War alone!!

In general, Arabs and Muslims have suffered from instability and conflict in limited periods of time and in limited geographical scopes, mostly linked to political conflict and the rise and fall of their states. However, the countries that ruled in Arab and Muslim regions throughout history left people in general to decide their own personal, religious, and sectarian lives, as long as they did not compete with them over power. Because the majority of ruling dynasties and the overwhelming majority of Muslims were “Sunni,” the Sunnis never had sectarian zeal or felt that they are a sectarian entity, as much as they felt that they are the Ummah i.e., “the Nation,” and the sea that accommodated everyone. If they had sectarian zeal or imitated the model of the Spanish Inquisition, most other sects would have been uprooted a long time ago.

In general, the Sunni school was very stringent in shunning bloodshed and applying verdicts related to apostasy, placing very tough conditions for doing so. For this reason, religious tolerance, coexistence, and cordial religious preaching were the norm throughout Islamic history. Sunni scholars, (including Ibn Taymiyyah), did not declare mainstream Shi‘as as apostates, though they did so with small heretical esoteric sects. In the latter’s case, they relied on what was proven of their heretical views, but left what is secret to the judgment of Allah. Thus, the Muslim states and armies did not crackdown on those sects, uproot them, or coerced them in matters of religion.

Sheikh Dr. Mustafa Siba‘i, in his book Min Rawai‘ Hadaratina (Glorious Aspects of Our Civilization), cites many examples of religious tolerance. He quotes Khalaf bin al-Muthanna’s descriptions of popular scholarly sessions, which were held in the second Hijri century. Khalaf wrote: We have seen in Basra ten at a meeting. They were unmatched in the world in knowledge and gumption. They are the grammarian Khalil bin Ahmad (Sunni), the poet al-Humairi (Shi‘a), Saleh Bin ‘Abdul Quddus (a heretic Dualist), Sufian bin Mujashi‘ (Kharijite), Bashar ibn Burd (a lewd Shu‘ubi

[racialist]), Hammad ‘Ajrad (another heretic Shu‘ubi), Ibn Ra’s al-Jalut (Jewish), Ibn Nazir al-Mutakallim (Christian), Umar bin al-Mu’ayyed (Magian), and Ibn Sinan al-Harrani (Sabi’ah). They met and discussed poetry and current events.

In some exceptional periods of history, Muslims suffered from religious sectarian oppression, as happened to the people of North Africa under the ruling Shi‘a Isma‘ili Fatimid dynasty. Similarly, Sunnis in Iran were persecuted when the Safavid state adopted Twelver Shiism, and forced people to convert to Shi‘a Islam.

When the Ottoman State ruled Iraq in the first half of the sixteenth century, most of southern Iraq was still Sunni. The south gradually became a Shi‘a-majority region between 1750 and 1900, although it was still under the control of the Ottomans, a Sunni state that had adopted the Hanafi School.

Western colonial powers that occupied Muslim countries tried to stoke sectarian and ethnic sentiment, using the tactic of divide and conquer. Despite these powers’ secular calls, they provided cover and protection for Christian missionaries in Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and Indonesia… The French colonial administration divided Syria along sectarian lines (e.g. Damascus, Aleppo, Druze, Alawites, Greater Lebanon), while extending protection and preferential treatment to Christians, feeding sectarianism and intolerance. The British, Italians, and Dutch were not much different than the French in their policies.

Independent movements in the Arab and Muslim worlds took a nationalist form that brought together all the components of the nation against colonialism, and did not take a sectarian form. Everyone could participate in them and even had the potential to lead them. Indeed, Sultan al-Atrash (Druze) had led the Syrian revolt against the French 1925–1927. Muslims and Christians worked hand in hand in the Palestinian revolts against Britain and the Zionist project, giving distinguished examples in resistance and national unity. In general, the Islamic trends and movements of renaissance, reform, and the Islamic revolutions were not sectarian or extremist. Furthermore, the people of the Arab region, who are Sunnis in their overwhelming majority, were not hostile or suspicious of the pioneers of pan-Arab nationalism, many of whom belonged to other sects, such as Michel Aflaq, Zaki al-Arsuzi, Constantine Zureiq, and many others.

Therefore, the Arab and Muslim environment was a safe and tolerant nurturing environment for centuries for all denominations and religion. Any violations of this norm were exceptional, temporary and limited.

The Rise of Sectarianism: 

In the past years, extremist intolerant movements emerged, and sectarian manifestations began to appear in the region. The most prominent reasons for this emergence are:

1. Western colonialism backed certain minorities, spreading among them fears of the Muslim majority. This prompted leaders and movements within these minorities to seek protection from the colonial powers, or request guarantees and special privileges that safeguard their positions.

2. Some leaders and movements in sectarian minorities tried to form blocs to protect their interests. For instance, Alawites in Syria infiltrated the Syrian army and the Ba‘ath party, using both institutions later to dominate the state in Syria. This has made a broad segment of Syrians feel that they have been sidelined on the basis of sectarian considerations, with little chance for democratic change or peaceful transfer of power. This has caused reactions that took a sectarian and fanatic character.

3. Many Arab regimes established after decolonization, which adopted pan-Arab nationalism and secular ideologies, ruled in a tyrannical and corrupt way. At the same time, they fought moderate Islamist movements, persecuted them, and chased them out, denying them the freedom of action. This created a vacuum in the Islamic arena, besides a sense of oppression, injustice, and political despair, leading to the emergence of extremist groups that were not well versed in Shari‘a studies, political experience, or the affairs of life in general. With the absence of guidance, and with the regimes’ insistence on dealing with them solely from a security-military approach, these movements isolated themselves and took on the form of insurgent movements that did not defer to Shari‘a-based rules developed by Muslim scholars. They went too far, declaring opponents as apostates and engaging in wide-scale bloodshed.

4. Western-American support of Israel, its occupation of Palestine, and its expulsion of its people has angered broad segments of the Arabs and Muslims. The latter two explained that this support is based on religious and cultural backgrounds. What further reinforced their sentiment and convictions were the United States’ occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the sufferance of Muslims in Bosnia, Chechnya, Myanmar (Burma), Kashmir, the southern Philippines and elsewhere.

5. The success of the Islamic revolution in Iran has not only caused concerns among Arab and Western regimes, but also among some Sunni Muslims. At a time when Arab regimes stoked sectarian sentiment against Iran, to evade internal demands for reform and confronting the Israeli enemy. Some Western powers were happy to see inflamed sectarian passions among Muslims, to preoccupy them away from their major issues in change, reform, renaissance, and the liberation of Palestine.

On the other hand, the Iranian conduct in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen was not comprehensible to large segments of Muslims, specifically the Sunnis, who perceive it as sectarian in nature, leading to a lot of hostility against Shi‘as in general. Also, the sectarian behavior of governments that ruled Iraq after the United States’ occupation has helped fuel these sentiments. New hotbeds of conflict that were interpreted from a sectarian viewpoint also emerged in Bahrain, eastern Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and elsewhere.

Towards an Appropriate Way Out:

Sectarian and religious intolerance is not limited to Muslims and their areas, but it is widespread all over the world, and it may be Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, or Hindu, etc. There are “Great Powers” whose policies have also been mired by religious and cultural agendas, further fueling the conflict.

Sectarian conflicts may drag the region into a state of fragmentation and disassembly, which only benefit their enemies. This type of conflict is blind and destructive for all, including those regimes that play the game of sectarianism or behave along sectarian lines.

The first steps for a treatment lie in respecting the will of the peoples of the region and the right to choose the political systems that they want, to prevent outside interference, to secure a positive and free environment for moderate Islamic movements to operate, and to refrain from attempts to marginalize and eradicate them.

The Arabic version of this article appeared on Al Jazeera Arabic digital magazine, issue 24, Feb 2014.