Classification of mankind

Q103 :In the Qur'an, human beings are divided into three groups: believers, hypocrites and non-believers. However, we find in writings about Islam further groupings under such headings as: good Muslims, true believers, Sunnis, Shiites, etc. Please comment on this method of classification.

A103 : What you have said about the classification of mankind in the Qur'an is certainly true. The second and longest surah in the Qur'an, entitled "The Cow", or "Al-Baqrah", opens with a description of three groups of people which include all mankind. Anyone who reads this account cannot fail to note that Allah describes the main features of the believers in a few short verses. Similarly, two verses outline the main features of non-believers. A much longer account is needed to describe the characteristics of hypocrites. This is due to the fact that a hypocrite puts on a false appearance. The hidden reality needs to be discovered in order to recognize what sort of person he is. Indeed, a hypocrite is a non-believer who tries to appear as a believer. He alleges that he belongs to the first group while he lacks its most essential quality: Faith. He belongs to the second group, i.e. the non-believers, but he tries hard to hide this fact. How is his reality to be discovered? To help believers recognize those who falsely claim to belong to their community, Allah outlines certain features which all hypocrites share in common. There are certain subtleties which must be recognized if hypocrites are to be known. It is useful to mention here that Muslims are not required to determine whether any particular person is a hypocrite or not. Their keen insight should help them determine who is making a false claim. When they doubt the sincerity of a particular person, they must not pronounce a final judgment on him. They should beware of any danger which may be caused by him. But that is as far as they should go. They accept his claim and leave it to Allah to judge him as He knows his true status. Writers on Islam often use such descriptions as good Muslims and true believers. This is however, not a sub-classification of the people whom Allah has included in the group of believers. It is simply a matter of style. It is just as a writer who says that if a Muslim wants to give credence to his claim to belong to the group of believers, then he should behave in a certain fashion. To a writer in Islam, the phrase, "a good Muslim", refers to a person who translates his belief in Islam into practical deeds. We must not read these descriptions as adding another quality which distinguishes groups of Muslims as such. Otherwise, we would have to recognize another group which we may describe as "false Muslims". This is obviously a contradiction in terms. If a person is false, he cannot be a Muslim. If he is a Muslim, then he belongs to the group of believers which Allah has described at the outset of the second surah of the Qur'an. If we want to use the phrase "false Muslim" we can only use it as synonymous with a "hypocrite". This is not what is intended by writers in Islam when they add descriptions of good and true to the class of believers. These qualifying adjectives are simply meant for emphasis. The division of Muslims into Sunnis and Shiites is a different matter altogether. The origin of this division dates back to the early days of Islam, when a split took place between Ali, the fourth ruler of the Muslim state of the Prophet, and Mu'aweya, the governor of Syria. Subsequent events meant that this division continued into the following generations and later acquired an intellectual basis and led to the formulation of the Imamiah concept among the Shiites. It is possible to describe the Shiites as a sect of Islam, while the Sunnis represent its mainstream. As you realize the division between Sunnis and Shiites is totally different from the classification of mankind into believers, non-believers and hypocrites. In the Qur'anic classification, the operative criterion is that of attitude to the very basic concept of the Oneness of Allah and the message of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). In the second grouping, we are saying that Muslims can either belong to the mainstream of Islam whose adherents are known as Sunnis, or they belong to the Shi'a sect.

Our Dialogue ( Source : Arab News - Jeddah )