“This community of yours is a single community, and I am your Lord, so worship me.” [Sūrah al-Anbiyā’: 92]
In this verse, Allah articulates one of the most important social principles of Islam: that all Muslims should be united by the bonds of brotherhood and love. Allah enjoins this upon the Muslims in decisive terms, so there can be no reservations about it.
This is further emphasized by the fact that this verse is repeated almost verbatim in Sūrah al-Mu’minūn. The brotherhood of Islam transcends all boundaries. It applies to all Muslims for all time.
In Sūrah al-Anbiyā’, the very next verse reads: “But they cut their religion up among them, yet to Us they shall all return.” [Sūrah al-Anbiyā’: 93] This refers to the dissention and enmity that occurred among the people who had previously been given the scripture. It is mentioned to warn the Muslims not to go down the same path.
In Sūrah al-Mu’minūn, the Qur’an relates the stories of various prophets like Moses, Aaron and Jesus, and concludes by saying: “This community (ummah) of yours is a single community, and I am your Lord, so be God-fearing.” Here, the Qur’an confirms that the Muslim community is one and not many. Then the next verse reads: “But they cut their religion up among them, each group rejoicing in the part of the scripture that was with them”[Sūrah al-Mu’minūn: 53]
This verse, by making reference to scripture, explains how the dissention developed among the various Jewish and Christian sects. Each group focused on and stressed specific aspects of their faith, rejoicing in those tenets to the exclusion of other equally important aspects of their religion which other sects emphasised.
Both verses mention the crucial phrase “But they cut their religion up among them …”.
It is interesting that the words chosen here are like those describing cutting up a piece of cloth or an article of clothing. It is as if the complete faith is a raiment that beautifies the one who dons it. This image is reinforced elsewhere in the Qur’an where we read: “But the raiment of righteousness,- that is the best.” [Sūrah al-A`rāf: 26]
Alas, those who were given the previous scriptures took the religion as a bane of contention and rent it into shreds. Each sect went away with a different scrap of it, equivalent to having a sleeve or a collar or a hem. The only people who were successful were those who steered clear of the dissention and kept their religion intact, with all of its principles, essential teachings, and moral values.
The dissention which caused the people of the past to rip their religion in shreds was partially the result of intellectualising religious matters without a sound basis. People are not immune from the influence of personal desires in their intellectual pursuits. They can easily be misled by a desire to vindicate a personal understanding, even in the face of contrary evidence. These verses warn against the selective bias that can lead us astray in the pursuit of knowledge. Selective bias can cause us to take from the scripture only what supports our views and ignore that which indicates anything to the contrary. It can operate in a more subtle way, causing us to overemphasise certain matters at the expense of others.
Allah refers to the Jews and Christians cutting up their religion through focusing on different aspects of the scripture. This describes the intellectual basis of the division that ensued. What each group focused on was essentially true in and of itself. It had its basis in the scripture. However, their understanding was distorted by bias, with “each group rejoicing in the part of the scripture that was with them.”
This verse is eloquent in its description of the psychological dynamics behind the problem. Each group draws its strength from what it focuses on, since the followers of each group distinguish themselves and assert their separate identity through those aspects of the religion they overemphasise. This compels them to go even further in exaggerating their differences, since this is how they assert their own legitimacy and are able to perceive themselves as superior to others.
As a consequence of these dynamics, the Jews and Christians gradually ceased to be able to identify with their broader religious communities, and instead identified more and more strongly with whatever particular sect they belonged to.
It is important to understand that these verses are not condemning disagreement, since there are legitimate differences in understanding that do not contradict with the essentials of faith. The Companions of Prophet Muhammad and those who came after them disagreed quite a lot. Likewise, the early scholars of Islam, including great jurists who founded the four schools of Islamic Law had legitimate disagreements on a large number of issues.
The sects that these verses are referring to did not find their own internal cohesion on the basis of the clear essentials of faith, but rather on the basis of particular issues which they overemphasised and made the basis of their religious self-identity. In doing so, they had to ignore or marginalise other equally important aspects of their religion Their group loyalty was not founded on positive work, but rather on the exclusivity of their ideological focus. They understood something specific and based their religious loyalty on conformity to this understanding. Every group did the same thing and the religious community was broken up into rival sects, each belittling the teachings of the others. The fact that each group held to something of the truth, and based their arguments on the scripture, made it all the easier for them to persist in their self-deception. Sectarian loyalty, in this way, replaced genuine religious identity.
This is an important lesson for us. Allah has warned the Muslims in a number of ways not to become like the people who were given the earlier scriptures. We are told not to allow our hearts to become like theirs had become. Allah says: “Is it not high time that the believers’ hearts should be humble for the remembrance of Allah and the Truth which has been revealed (to them), and that they should not become like those who were given the scripture before them, for whom long ages passed and their hearts grew hard?” [Sūrah al-Hadīd: 16]
Likewise, Allah tells the Muslims not behave the way they had behaved in the pursuit of religious knowledge, saying: “You perceive them as being unified, but their hears are divided. This is because they are a people bereft of sense.” [Sūrah al-Hashr: 14]
This type of dissention afflicts those whose faith has become weak, since the religion prohibits dissention. It also afflicts those whose intellects have grown weak, since reason dictates that the people of the faith community should remain united, bear their differences patiently, and work together for achieving spiritual and worldly good.