Don’t get me wrong. It has its place, but it’s not some sort of overriding religious principle that many today think it to be. When unity is unchecked, it kills diversity and respect for differences.
In some things (let’s call them human fundamentals), we are united with all divinely-revealed religions and their Prophets like Nūh, Ibrāhīm, Mūsa and Isa (may Allah shower His peace on them all). We are united on the beliefs of monotheism, prophethood, and a Hereafter. We agree on the need for developing noble character, encouraging and supporting good, and discouraging and battling evil acts. In these things, there is unity, and division is prohibited. The Qur’an states: “[Allah] has laid down for you, O humankind – in whatever He has already revealed to you, O Muhammad – all the tenets of heavenly religion, the likes of which He had first enjoined upon Nūh, and that which He had thereafter enjoined upon Ibrāhīm, Mūsa, and Isa; namely: You shall be steadfast in establishing the religion of Allah. And you shall not divide therein!”
In other things (let’s call them Muslim fundamentals), we Muslims are united under the Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam). He gave us the Qur’an, his Sunnah, and he left his Companions as role-models for us. These are the fundamentals of Islam in which differences are not tolerated and upon which we include or exclude people into the family of Islam. About this, the Qur’an states, “And obey Allah and His Messenger, and do not dispute.”
However, indeed differences in thought, practice, color, culture, etc do exist. Some of that has nothing to do with deen and some of it does. The Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam) tolerated and encouraged such differences in his Companions. Imam Nasa’i narrates a hadith in which two Companions were traveling together without water. Both needed a purificatory bath (ghusl). One refrained from praying until he returned, and another did tayammum and prayed. On their return, the Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam) approved both. On another occasion, he commanded the Companions to pray `Asr at Banu Qurayzah. One grouped stopped and prayed along the way, and the other refrained until they got there. He did not criticize either group.The khalifa Hārūn Rashīd once offered Imam Malik to make his book of hadith and fiqh, the Muwatta, into the law of the land. Every Muslim would be Maliki from then on and forever. All Muslims would practice the subsidiary fiqh issues in the same way. Many pseudo-scholars, speakers, and self-taught intellectuals of today would have jumped at this opportunity. Their justification – unity. Imam Malik’s explanation:
There has and will always be legitimate differences in the non-fundamental aspects of deen. Learn what goes against the fundaments of deen so that you can prevent disunity there. Learn what is from legitimate subsidiary differences so that you can respect them. If you can respect these differences, you will also learn to respect differences in culture, ethnicities, and personalities while maintaining unity in human fundamentals and Muslim fundamentals.
By Dr. Mateen Khan