The importance of the Islamic fraternity is a popular lecture topic among scholars and speakers. It is stressed, repeatedly, how important it is for Muslims to be united, how important it is for the Ummah to exist, a boundary-less arch of camaraderie, engulfing Muslims everywhere, only by virtue of their faith.
The Prophet of Islam, peace be upon him, on one occasion thrice sent out a search party to find the corpse of an ugly and unpopular companion, and then personally ordered the burial and funeral. Or another example, in which the Prophet was gifted a bunch of grapes; he quickly ate the bunch in front of the person who gifted it to him. The man left, content. The Companions who saw this, asked the Prophet, not out of scorn or friction, why he did not share the grapes with them, for the Prophet always shared. The Prophet replied that the grapes were so sour, that they would have winced whilst eating them, which would have upset the man, so he forbearingly ate them to prevent this. Such a small example of companionship, but so vibrant. Islam is filled with such examples; the Quran has riveting stories and verses that promote companionship.
But for sure, there are vile and flagrant violations of this; secretarianism, inter-Muslim violence, racism, sexism, etc. How did the Ummah stray so far from the beautiful teachings of togetherness and compassion that is so strongly emphasised in the Quran and Sunnah? Even more importantly, can any trace of these teachings be identified today?
The ugly cleavages in the Muslim world cannot be denied. But in understanding what unity is indicative of, the source of this ugliness is exposed. Unity is, like good manners and character, a product and an indicator of piety; an indicator of the success of ritual worship. For example, congregational prayers are emphasised. The obligation of praying correctly, with wudhu etc., still falls on the individual, but prayer also has a social dimension; rows after rows of people, all equally humbled before the Almighty. Similarly, Zakat, the obligation to pay is on the individual, but the social dimension is also profound. Another example, Hajj, maybe the grandest example, is an obligation on the individual, but takes place in state of ihram, in which differences are nullified, and all singularly circumabulate the Kabah. If the individual fulfils their obligation to worship, and the social dimension is respected, this should, at least theoretically, yield a cohesive and unified Ummah.
So a source of ugliness of division is perhaps the lack of engagement in worship. Where worship is carried out sincerely, saintly pockets of unity emerge; some (emphasis on some) mosques boast a wonderfully inclusive setting, as do ISOCs, charities etc. I genuinely believe that the unity and love seen in such pockets cannot be rivalled by any community or group.
But where the worship is inadequate, division emerges. The division is a result of our failure to sufficiently reform our hearts through worship. But the division is certainly not the inability or inadequacy of Islam to produce unity. The Prophet’s community of Madinah proves that Islam can produce unity, and some eras in the Islamic empire provide further examples, all the way until today, where saintly pockets of togetherness still exist. Muslims have, are, and can be united.
So the disunity seen today should not be viewed as inevitable. Neither should it eclipse those saintly pockets. But nor should the saintly pockets eclipse the deep fissures. They both exist together; where the pockets exist, worship has succeeded in reforming hearts. Where it does not, worship is inadequate.
In sum, Islam provides the strongest possible basis for unity, and this is enshrined in it’s rituals; where we worship successfully and properly, unity emerges, a signpost of the reformation of the heart at the hands of prayer. But where division emerges, something has gone wrong with the worship.
This is an attempt at a spiritual explanation of unity/disunity. There is certainly a socio-political-economic one, relating to the nation-state, the demise of the Islamic empire, economic causes of war, foreign intervention etc. These are also an important part of the story, and simply thinking of the picture in purely spiritual terms, yields an incomplete story. (Or maybe, given Islam’s holistic worldview, everything is spiritual).