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The Shi'ite-Sunni divide
Part 2: Slowly building bridges
By Sultan Shahin

  • Part 1: How real and how deep?

    NEW DELHI - Many Muslims throughout the world, both Sunni and Shi'ite, are working towards dialogue and reconciliation between the two sects. They argue that it is just not possible to fully comprehend and much less to judge the historical figures of Islam and their motivations today, 13 or 14 centuries after the event, that led to the schism in Islam. Indeed, it is not possible to judge people even when events take place now in full view of the world media.

    If one cannot say for sure, for instance, whether Saddam Hussein did indeed pose an imminent threat to the Western (civilized?) world, how can one judge whether Hazrat Ali was at all involved in the murder of Hazrat Usman in 656, even though he continued to shield the killers throughout his caliphate? And do we even need to judge them today?, many ask.

    The ideological differences between the two sects that arose from these distant events have continued to bedevil relations, yet they are hardly of any vital significance to the practice of the religion of Islam. In fact, these are no more significant than the differences in the four recognized schools of thought among Sunnis themselves. Yet, many Sunnis complain that Shi'ites seem to take the fundamentals of Islam very much for granted, mainly focusing on glorification of Ali and martyrdom of Hussein and his family members.

    The strong theme of martyrdom and suffering in Shi'ite Islam does tend to exasperate many Sunnis. Shi'ites are believed to harbor a deep-seated disdain towards Sunni Islam. But anyone who knows about the bitterness with which Sunni sects like Barelvis and Wahhabi Deobandis in South Asia fight among themselves, each calling the other kafir (non-believer), for instance, these Shi'ite-Sunni differences would appear to be quite insignificant.

    In fact, in the early days of Islam, mainstream Shi'ites were not excluded from the life of the Muslim community, even though Sunni and Shi'ite scholars used to engage in quite heated debates even then. Both Imam Abu Hanifa and Imam Shafii, who together hold the allegiance of an overwhelming majority of Sunnis, were supporters of various Shi'ite causes. Imam Shafii actively participated in a Shi'ite uprising in Yemen, and Imam Abu Hanifa was involved in a Zaydi Shi'ite rebellion in Iraq. Indeed, Imam Abu Hanifa has openly acknowledged his indebtedness to the sixth Imam of the Shi'ites, Ja'afar as-Sadiq, for his own education in matters of hadith (sayings of the Prophet Mohammed) and fiqh (Islamic law).

    For all the centuries-old bitterness, however, Sunnis and Shi'ites agree on the core fundamentals of Islam - the Five Pillars - and recognize each other as Muslims. Some obscurantist Wahhabi mullahs in Pakistan, however, buoyed by their success in the case of the Sunni Ahmadi sect, have now started demanding that Shi'ites, too, be declared to be non-Muslim. Shaykh bin Baz of Saudi Arabia, whose Wahhabi rulers are in the forefront of spreading sectarian hatred, is said to have gone to the extent of declaring in an edict that the meat of the people of the book (Jews and Christians) is permissible for Sunni Muslims to eat, but not the meat slaughtered by Shi'ites.

    The main Wahhabi complaint is that the Shi'ites have changed even their basic declaration of faith, the shahadah. The Sunni shahadah is: "There is no god but Allah, Mohammed is the Messenger of Allah."

    But the Shi'ites add the following: "Ali is the Friend of Allah. The Successor of the Messenger of Allah and his first caliph."

    Some practical differences have also crept into the religious rituals of Shi'ite-Sunni sects. Shi'ites have a slightly different call to prayer, with some additional words glorifying Ali. They perform ablutions and say their prayers somewhat differently. For instance, they place their forehead onto a piece of hardened clay from Karbala, not directly onto the prayer mat when prostrating. They also tend to combine prayers, at times praying just three times a day instead of five. But this is mostly an individual practice based on convenience and is certainly better than not praying at all. In any case, Shi'ite mosques perform five-times-a-day prayers, as in Sunni mosques.

    While the basic scripture, the Holy Koran, is the same in the case of both sects, the Shi'ites prefer to rely on some different sayings of the Prophet and different narrators. They prefer sayings narrated by Ali and Fatima to those related by other companions of the Prophet, particularly Aisha. Shi'ite Islam also permits fixed-term temporary marriage called mutah, which is now banned by the Sunnis. Mutah was originally permitted at the time of the Prophet and is now being promoted in Iran, according to Islamic scholar Hussein Abdul Waheed Amin by "an unlikely alliance of conservative clerics and feminists, the latter group seeking to downplay the obsession with female virginity which is prevalent in both forms of Islam, pointing out that only one of the Prophet's 13 wives was a virgin when he married them".

    There are contradictions galore in the claims and accusations made by all the parties concerned. The most important charge against Hazrat Usman was that of making innovations and going beyond the Holy Koran and the Prophet's guidance. Hazrat Ali fought against these innovations. But he himself faced the same charge by his supporters-turned-rebels, the Kharjis, on the question of arbitration.

    Shi'ites rightly criticize the Umayyads for establishing their dynasty. Anyone who knows anything about Islam knows that the religion preaches complete equality among all human beings, except on grounds of piety. But Shi'ites also believe that the Prophet's dynasty should have continued to rule for ever, regardless of the merits of the individuals who would inherit the mantle. Many Sunnis consider as blasphemous the very idea that Prophet Mohammed wanted to establish a dynasty of his own.

    An opportunity for Shi'ite-Sunni unity did arise in 750. Following a Shi'ite-supported revolt led by Abu al-Abbass al-Saffah, almost the entire Umayyad aristocracy was wiped out in the Battle of Zab in Egypt. It was envisaged that the Shi'ite spiritual leader Jafar As-Siddiq, the great-grandson of Hussein, be installed as caliph. But when Abbas died in 754, this arrangement had not yet been finalized and Abbas' son al-Mansur murdered Jafar, seized the caliphate and founded the Baghdad-based Abbasid dynasty which prevailed until the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258.

    Another opportunity came much later. In 1959, Sheikh Mahmood Shaltoot, head of the school of theology at al-Azhar University in Cairo, the most august seat of learning of Sunni Islam and the oldest university in the world, issued a fatwa (ruling) recognizing the legitimacy of the Jafari school of law to which most Shi'ites subscribe.

    The fatwa made two points:
    1) Islam does not require a Muslim to follow a particular madh'hab (school of thought). Rather, we say: every Muslim has the right to follow one of the schools of thought which has been correctly narrated and its verdicts have been compiled in its books. And, everyone who is following such madhahib [schools of thought] can transfer to another school, and there shall be no crime on him for doing so.

    2) The Jafari school of thought, which is also known as "al-Shi'ite al-Imamiyyah al-Ithna Ashariyyah" (ie, The Twelve Imami Shi'ites) is a school of thought that is religiously correct to follow in worship as are other Sunni schools of thought. Muslims must know this, and ought to refrain from unjust prejudice to any particular school of thought, since the religion of Allah and His Divine Law (Sharia) was never restricted to a particular school of thought. Their jurists (mujtahidoon) are accepted by Almighty Allah, and it is permissible to the "non-mujtahid" to follow them and to accord with their teaching whether in worship (ibadaat) or transactions (mu'amilaat).

    Many believe that this fatwa can be made the basis of dialogue and reconciliation. It can at least constitute a bridge over the Shi'ite-Sunni divide. The late Imam Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran had shown promise in moving in this direction. His revolution in 1979 to oust the Shah was never called a Shi'ite revolution: it was always referred to as an Islamic revolution.

    Khomeini's 1989 edict (fatwa) of death on Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses is widely disputed, and on several counts. But the fact remains that it was in defense of the Prophet's wives, including Aisha, who had fought with Hazrat Ali and is therefore not regarded highly by Shi'ites. Rushdie had not "denigrated", even according to his Shi'ite critics, Ali or his sons or Shi'ism. He had trained his guns on Islam, Mohammed and his wives.

    Apart from many negative ramifications of Khomeini's fatwa - the identification of Muslims with bigotry in the West, for instance, began at this point - this had the positive fallout of bringing religious-minded Shi'ites and Sunnis together. But the opportunity was lost. Even those among Muslims who opposed the fatwa have to agree that there was nothing particularly Shi'ite about it.

    Under the circumstances created by renewed United States intervention in the Arab world, an urgent need for reconciliation is again being felt. If the discussions in the Islamic media and Internet chat-rooms are any indication, there may soon be some movement in this direction. Many Sunnis and Shi'ites are expressing dissatisfaction at the unnecessary and basically meaningless split. The tentative coalition being formed by Iraqi spiritual leaders Muqtada al-Sadr (Shi'ite) and Ahmad Kubaisi (Sunni) to jointly oppose the US-led occupation of Iraq may be a pointer to the future direction that the Shi'ite-Sunni dialogue and reconciliation movement may take.

    But there is also a realization that this is not going to be an easy task. It is common knowledge that the militant Pakistani organization Sipah-e-Sahaba, that is accused of targeted killing of Shi'ites, has for years been financed by the Wahhabi rulers of Saudi Arabia. Iran is said to be financing Tehrike-Nifaze-Fiqhe-Jafria, a militant Shi'ite organization in Pakistan. These two organizations have kept fanning the flames of growing Shi'ite-Sunni enmity in Pakistan.

    As for the Arab world, renowned US-based Islamic scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr says, "A great deal of money and effort has been spent in the last few years to fan the fire of hatred between Shi'ites and Sunnis in the Persian Gulf region, with obvious political and economic fruits for the powers-to-be."

    It was not too long ago that Arabs conferred "near-unanimous legitimacy" to Saddam's invasion of Iran in the 1980s on the specious plea that the growing Shi'ite power in the neighborhood was a danger to the Sunni Arab rulers of the Gulf region. The eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war, that did more than anything else to widen the Shi'ite-Sunni divide, was supported to the hilt by the Western powers.

    It is this unholy alliance of secular Arab nationalism of Saddam's Iraq, the Wahhabi Islamic fundamentalism of Saudi Arabia and Western imperialism with its massive media resources that has created the present perception of a vast Shi'ite-Sunni divide. It is not for nothing that the Western media seldom mention an Iraqi as Muslim. There are no Muslims in Iraq, only Shi'ites, Sunnis or Kurds; just as there were no Muslims in Kosovo, only ethnic Albanians.

    The fact that the widely predicted Shi'ite backlash against the decades-long Sunni domination of Iraq has not materialized may mean that the imperialist project of divide and rule has not succeeded in that country, at least so far. Now it is for Shi'ites and Sunnis in other parts of the world to build on the Iraqi example and seek to bridge the gulf separating the two sects to promote harmony and peace undeterred by the bigotry of extremists and the machinations of imperialist powers.

  • Part 1: How real and how deep?

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    Aug 28, 2003



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