Ever since our Holy Prophet(PBUH), whose gentle demeanour and compelling presence had kept his community united, left this world, the monolithic faith that he preached was destined never to be the same again. The political ascendancy of the Makkan aristocracy over the Ansars, the Ridda wars, the rapid expansion of the physical frontiers of the nascent faith, the empowerment of the Bani Umayyah and the two fitnas, leading ultimately to the tragedy of Karbala, were all events that brought the foundational principles of Islam into question and triggered a debate that shows no sign of abating.
The foray of the Arabs into the vast territory controlled by the Byzantines and the Persians generated some expected though unfortunate side effects. It not only managed to gradually shift the centre of gravity of the Islamic world away from Makkah and Medina, but also succeeded in creating a class of neo-capitalists out of the simple and frugal followers of the early faith. As more and more inhabitants of the newly liberated areas flocked to the Islamic banner, it became increasingly difficult to discern whether the battles were being fought for the glory of the faith or for personal enrichment. The lure and lust for power increased proportionally to the ever rising stakes.
Though a broad section of the community of Islam came to embrace the concept of a Caliph acting as God’s temporal deputy on earth, either through an engendered belief in this being the most correct course of action or through a simple acceptance of the fait accomplii, the question of whether the actions of an unjust ruler can supersede the laws of God and His Prophet continues to be a vexing one. It’s corollary is that acceptance of such a leader translates automatically into condoning the methods employed, namely the use of force and dirty dealing, to secure and perpetuate his rule. A similar basic issue which still bedevils a consensus is whether allegiance should be given willingly or whether it can be extracted through force, something which defeats it’s very purpose.
Amidst all this turmoil in the hearts and minds of people appeared a group which appeared to be cocksure of the soundness of their beliefs, the precursor of all violent ‘Islamic’ fundamentalists, who earned the nomenclature Kharjis(the rejectionists) or ‘those who go out’. Though the Prophet had forewarned his followers about the appearance of just such a group, dubbing them the ‘dogs of hell’, the Khwarjis considered themselves the purest of the pure, the only true interpreters of the word of God. ‘Judgement belongs to God alone’ was their rallying cry but each time they said that, they ended up projecting their own radical beliefs as the voice of God. It was however only when they began to terrorise the countryside around Nahrawan by setting up an inquisition to dispense the most brutal of punishments to those whose answers failed to meet their standards of rigidity, that Ali RA felt compelled to act against them. The Kharijites were completely routed at the battle of Nahrawan, with the handful of survivors drifting off towards Oman and Yemen to bide their time.
Abdullah Ibn Abad of the Banu Tamim broke off from the wider Khawarij movement around two decades after their defeat at Nahrawan to found what is known as the Abadi school. Abadi theology, which became the basis of this sect and which distanced itself from the takfiri doctrine espoused by the Khwarjis, was nurtured at Basra. Jabir Ibn Zayd of Nizwa, who took over the reins of the Abadi community from Ibn Abad, established a toehold in Oman, where his hadiths as well as the hadiths of the early Ibadi scholars, provided a solid foundation for their faith. They felt strong enough in due course to stage a revolt in Makkah and Yemen, but this was brutally put down by the Umayyad Caliph Marwan the Second. Ibadis in Shibam(western Hadramaut), though surrounded, managed to extract a peace deal from the Umayyads. It was in Shibam then that they continued to retain a modest presence for the next four centuries or so, while still paying taxes to the Ibadi authorities in Oman. The Ibadi Imamate, established in the inner regions of Oman sometime during the 8th century, was not an inherited one, but one based on election. Once the coastal areas of Oman became rich and powerful through conquests in Eastern Africa, Sultan Taimur of the Al Busaidi dynasty, taking advantage of the warring Ibadi factions, united the Imamate with the Sultanate, and thus it has remained over the years in one form or another. The current Sultan of Oman, who seized power from his father in 1970, managed to extend his writ over all of Oman, thereby effectively unifying the posts of the Imam and the Sultan, and renaming the country from Muscat and Oman to the Sultanate of Oman. The Sultanate now happens to be the only Ibadi-majority country in the world, with around 75% of the populace professing the faith.
The horrific events surrounding Karbala created unease amongst a large segment of the inhabitants and in the course of a few years gave rise to the phenomenon of Mukhtar Al-Saqafi. Mukhtar first sought the patronage of Imam Hussain’s sole surviving son, Imam Zainul Abideen, in avenging the martyrs of Karbala, failing which he turned to Muhammad Ibn al Hanafiyyah, a step brother of Imam Hussain. After achieving his mission and then dying a martyr, his supporters, the Mukhtarriya, or the Kaysannia as they were more popularly called, attained the status of a cult, which considered Hazrat Ali RA and his three sons, Al-Hasan, Al-Hussain and Muhammad Ibn al-Hanafiyyah as successive divinely appointed imams and which also believed in the reappearance of the Mahdi, the occulting imam, for dispensing retribution and justice before the qiyamah.
As a counter reaction to the Kharji doctrine, and possibly in an endeavour to staunch the criticism levelled against the Umayyads because of their immoral and unjust ways, there emerged the Murji’ah, which shrank from judging human conduct, leaving this exclusively to God. This was again an extreme position, which left the field open to the rulers and their camp followers to indulge in unhindered exploitation and debauchery. The Umayyads understandably lent their weight to this philosophy.
Doubts regarding the morality or otherwise of human actions and individual or collective culpability still persisted. The al-Jabariyah or Mujabirah were quick to jump on the bandwagon of Qadar, also mentioned in the Quran as the decree of Allah, to absolve man of all culpability over their actions since everything, in their opinion, was dictated by God. The Qadriyyah or Mufawadah belief however falls at the other end of the spectrum in that humans have complete control of their destiny to the extent that God does not even know what we will choose to do. Majority of Sunni scholars have over time gravitated to a middle position wherein humans have freedom of choice, though God has knowledge of everything that will transpire.
When asked about the issue, Imam Jafar as-Sadiq, the 6th ordained Imam of the Shias, clarified that there is no compulsion from Allah’s side, nor is there absolute delegation of power (tafwid) from Allah to man, but the real position lies between the two extremes. He went on to elaborate that predetermination(qada) and Divine decree(qadar) are amongst the secrets of Allah. Regarding the doctrine of bada(change of man’s intention to undertake a particular action), he explained that this concept cannot be extended to Allah, as some are prone to do, since no believer can conceive of bada happening to Allah regarding some matter, causing Him to regret.
The worldliness of the Umayyad dynasty(661-749 CE) resulted in the creation of a large body of people who revelled in the materialism of the era, while a smaller number of pious men were equally repulsed by such profligacy. The latter group found a champion in the shape of a revered theologian named Hasan al-Basri(b.642 CE). Having spent time in the midst of companions like Hazrat Ali RA and Hazrat Anas bin Malik RA, he not only established a school of religious thought in Basra, but did not also hesitate to criticise the unjust policies of the governors in Iraq. Sufi thought encompassing asceticism, Quranic meditation, piety, humanism and a predilection for Zikr and night prayers first appeared in small pious circles like that of Hasan Basri, followed some four centuries later by another renowned mystic Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani(1078-1166 CE) in Baghdad. Jilani RE, whose lineage could be traced to the 8th Shiite Imam Ali ar-Raza, preached to a small select circle of followers about the importance of humility, piety, moderation and philanthropy. His sons however formed a formal order which has since spread to nearly all corners of the world. Other tariqas or silsilas like Shadhili, Chishtiya, Rifa’iyya, Suhrawardiyya and Naqshbandiyya soon followed. Hazrat Moinuddin Chishti, who is known as a mujaddid(reviver) of the Chishtiya order, brought the silsila to India at the turn of the 11th century. His shrine in Ajmer continues to be thronged with pilgrims of all denominations. Most of these orders claim to have received their esoteric knowledge from Hazrat Ali RA, but identify themselves as Sunni; Chishtiya and Naqshbandiyya are Hanafi, Shadhiliyya is Maliki, while Qadriyyah is Hanbali. They are however the polar opposite of other Sunni groupings in their beliefs and rituals.
The landscape of present day Pakistan is dotted with shrines of Sufi saints, who still continue to exercise a larger than life influence on their devotees: Abdullah Shah Ghazi in Karachi, Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai in Hyderabad, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan, Shah Ruknuddin in Multan(which is also known as the city of saints), Baba Farid Ganjshakar in Pakpattan, Baba Bulleh Shah in Kasur, Data Ganj Bakhsh in Lahore, Bari Imam in Islamabad and Rahman Baba in Peshawar. Though their annual urs continue to attract millions of devotees, the impact of their humane teachings have witnessed a steady erosion since the 1980s by the influx into the country of a petrodollar fuelled intolerant version of Islam, which has even infected the Sufi-cum-Barelvi community in its own way.