HAVING CHARACTERIZED THE “heart of our Tradition” as those curators, patrons and supporters—and their technical tools and writings which have preserved our understanding of the context and meaning of the Quran and Sunnah—we move on to reasons why Islamic Tradition has come to be neglected.

The First Obstacle: the Nishapur and Ummayyad Syndromes


Nishapur—strategically located in northeastern Iran on the old Silk Route to China—was one of the greatest and most prosperous metropolises of Islam—and, in fact, the world—from the 4th to the 6th Islamic centuries (10th to 12th centuries CE). It was destroyed by the inveterate rivalry between the Ḥanafîs and the Shâfiʿis (see Al-Ḥakam Al-Naysâbûri’s, Târîkh Naysâbûr in Richard Bulliet’s The Patricians of Nishapur, Harvard University Press, 1972).

Of course, there was a lot more involved in the mutual rivalry and hatred than the fiqhi differences between the Ḥanafîs and the Shâfiʿis, but the tragedy is that the interpretation of the words of Allah and of His Prophet ﷺ became a source of parochial identity-formation and narrow interests rather than of the unity of the ummah in the face of many external challenges.

The plight of Nishapur, unfortunately, is not exceptional in Islamic history. It has recurred regularly—thus the label “Nishapur Syndrome.”  Yet today’s ignorant sectarianism in the religious parts of the Muslim world far surpasses the worst of the past.

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My purpose in calling it the ‘Nishapur syndrome’ is to remind us that the problem cannot be blamed on modernity alone, and also that the consequences of such sectarianism, whether in the name of fiqhi or theological groupings, can be disastrous.

Since I am advocating a return to Islamic Tradition, I want to disclose the most nefarious features of narrow-minded and blind commitment to tradition, and state emphatically that this kind of wrongly labelled “traditionalism” needs to be fought and eliminated. But, at the other extreme, ‘throwing out the baby with the bathwater’ would be a tragic mistake.

The Umayyads

The Umayyad syndrome is the opposite of the Nishapur syndrome. If the Nishapur syndrome is to slaughter the ummah and its collective interests at the altar of theoretical minutia, the Umayyad syndrome is to sacrifice the essential commitments of Islam upon the table of unity, resistance, or other political interests.

The Umayyads ruled the Muslim world for about a century, 41 to 132 AH, after the Rightly Guided caliphate ended. It began with the relatively peaceful yet compromised reign of the Caliph Muʿâwiyah and ended with a time of caliphate-wide turmoil that led to the Abbasid takeover.

In between, there were some pious rulers, most of all, the Fifth Rightly-Guided Caliph ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd Al-ʿAzîz.

Yet the majority of the Umayyads, while not irreligious, were concerned with the “unity” that was necessary to maintain the political ascendancy of Muslims and the continued expansion of the Islamic caliphate. But for its sake, they were willing to sacrifice the key Islamic principles of shûra (consultation), musâwâ (equality), ʿadl (justice), taqwa (piety), and other values (qîm).

Persecution of Dynastic Rule Opponents

The Umayyads were “religious” caliphs, some of them as qualified as the most famous jurists of their times. But their religiosity had clear limits. The political unity of the Muslims under their rule was their justification for persecuting members of the family of the Prophet ﷺ and his Companions and many other pious objectors and critics.

They abandoned shûra in order to sustain a strong dynastic rule. But the Muslims did not take easily this turning of the caliphate to kingship. The history of the Umayyad period is filled with revolts, nearly a dozen major ones during their 90-year rule, most in the name of shûra and a return to the ways of the early caliphate. The revolt of the Companion ʿAbd Allah ibn Al-Zubayr nearly succeeded in taking over the caliphate.

The Umayyads waged constant expansionist jihâd, in part to distract from inner problems and to bolster justification for their abandoning of the virtues of the early caliphs. When ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd Al-ʿAzîz came to power for 30 months, one of his first decrees was to recall the Muslim armies from the bloody Byzantine frontier and return to the Islamic values of shûra (consultation), musâwâ  (equality), and ʿadl (justice).

Balancing Our Unity with Respecting Our Boundaries

Many Muslims in the last century, frustrated by the sectarianism of the traditionally religious, want to shed all traditional disputes, including those based on fundamental principles, in the name of unity and political advantage. This is a justified position. Unity of Muslims is a paramount virtue indeed. But it must not become an excuse for neglecting equally important, or more important, considerations.

None of the great Imams of Islam, all of whom emphasized unity (the most distinguished among them Shaykh Al-Islam Ibn Taymiyya, who is known for his particular concern for uniting all Muslims) abandoned intellectual, theological, and legal concerns for the sake of a vacuous unity. Similarly, Imam Al-Ghazali–who authored Fay ṣal Al-Tafriqa in order to promote tolerance of different interpretations to a limit—also advocated strict measures against those falâsifa (philosophical) and Bâ ṭini (esoteric) sects when they crossed all boundaries.

Ultimately, the Umayyad choices caused great harm, not the least of which were the abandonment of shûra and musâwâ (equality) among Muslims and the martyrdom of the grandson of the Prophet of Allah ﷺ. In the same way, the Umayyad syndrome has afflicted opportunists since then, including now, who undermine the worth of truth in the interest of worldly benefits and who cause great harm as a result.

The challenge is to find a middle path of Islamic Tradition that avoids both fanatic sectarianism and a unity that guts Muslims of their defining values and principles.

Dr Ovamir Anjum

Uwaymir Anjum is the Imam Khattab Chair of Islamic Studies at the Department of Philosophy, University of Toledo. He is also professor of Islamic Intellectual History at Qatar University. He studies the connections between theology, ethics, politics, and law in classical and medieval Islam, with a subfocus on its comparisons with western thought. Related fields of study include Islamic philosophy and Sufism. His dissertation, published in 2012 by Cambridge University Press, is entitled Politics, Law, and Community in Islamic Thought: The Taymiyyan Moment. His translation of Ibn al-Qayyim's Madârij Al-Sâlikîn is forthcoming.

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