By Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah
05 Jan 2018
Is it possible to conduct an impartial inquiry or trial to see where the truth lies in Shia- Sunni polemics? There are obvious difficulties. Taking both terms in general without commenting on extreme intra-sectarian developments later, let us see how we could proceed. This trial can’t be decisively decided on the basis of history where facts and interpretations mix, passions and ideological lenses colour narratives and the whole enquiry is inherently open ended. It can’t be in the court of (exoteric) theology because that is what is precisely to be judged and it can’t relinquish its own limitations to accommodate the other. It can’t be in legal or even philosophical courts that remain inconclusive given how inconclusive have been prolific polemical works. The jury or court must be acceptable to any neutral believer or analyst as well and its verdict such that could be validated somehow by anyone who bothers to take necessary steps in the direction. There remains one court acceptable in principle to both Shia and Sunni camps. This court is indeed available – and historically it stands endorsed by both Shia and Sunni camps – and is called esotericism. A few points for consideration by those who are obsessed by Shia-Sunni polemics:
We don’t find sharp absolute dividing line between Shias and Sunni – Sunnis too qualify, on intellectual-spiritual plane, as friends of Ali, and Shias are committed to Sunnah as validated on their own terms. We don’t find a sharp split – in the sense that fundamentals of Din or our eternal destiny are at stake – at the highest level (intellectual/spiritual). Where is the sectarian split in lives and views of major Companions, Imams and sages down the ages who lived, generally speaking, as if it hardly mattered? Like major divisions in major world religions, Shia-Sunni division is more an issue of choosing a different warranted point of view rather than different incompatible ideological position.
For the Sunnis differences with Shia camp are not on the deeper content of doctrine of Imamate that it appropriates in its Sufistic development but mostly on political aspect of the doctrine of Imamate and its theological scaffolding but even here differences are not very sharp. Sunnis have supported Shia thesis that the Caliph should combine spiritual and political functions as an ideal case. Allama Tabataba’i explains Shi’ite view that Sunnis would not object to thus “And the Spiritual Pole (Qutb), whose existence at all times is considered necessary by all the Sufis – as well as the attributes associated with him – correlates with the Shi’ite conception of the Imam… Sufi masters are "Shi’ite" from the point of view of the spiritual life and in connection with the source of Wilayat although; from the point of view of the external form of religion they follow the Sunni schools of law.” This is admissible despite certain Sufi Masters’ vehement critique of Shiism and Shi’ite reservations about mainstream Sufism in the name of Irfan. More fundamental questions are not of supposed usurpation of power or who betrayed whom if he/she ever betrayed but of taking sides in everyday Karbalas and identifying one’s Master (Pir) who is for almost all purposes virtually substitute of Imam. Shi’ite Islam is Islam’s resistance to status quo and Sunni Islam is the recognition that it is order and stability that is the goal of every revolution.
What distinguishes Shias and Sunnis is interpretation of certain historical events (it is only human to differ – major Companions differed in their readings of the same events) but esotericism would insist on focusing on understanding of the agency of God or Spirit in them in accordance with basic scriptural and spiritual premises – all events are in the hands of God and ultimately manifest His plan and the judgment is His.
Four “rightly guided Caliphs” correspond to something inside us and all wars are ultimately fought within. It is not merely a question of history where Sir Syed’s humorous response to the question of who was legitimate Caliph that he would himself have contested for the post would perhaps not be meaningless. Great epics are also interpretable spiritually as odysseys of soul. Muslims are required to “view the different phenomena of this passing world as symbols and portents of the higher world, not as persisting and independent realities.”
We find both Shia and Sunni metaphysicians and Masters of gnosis stipulating the same method and accordingly invoking each other without hesitation. We find, from Shia camp, Mulla Sadra building on Ibn Arabi and Imam Khomeni recommending Ibn Arabi’s Fusus al-Hikm to the President of USSR, for best appreciating the depths and heights of Islam. We find, from the Sunni camp, Imam Kashmiri recommending Mulla Sadra on last things. Almost all Sunni historians have taken Shia heroes as their own heroes in the great battle of Karbala.
Shia Sunni polemics matters mostly at theological and to a small extent at juristic planes – and academic historians don’t clearly convict or acquit either camp on various points – that are both transcended at metaphysical-esoteric plane. Polemics lives on in popular imagination (which fails to rise to metaphysical-esoteric plane) and is not entirely unwarranted given the fact that we can’t dissolve real historical – and human – conflicts of interests, classes and perceptions by fixing our gaze only transcendent and symbolic metaphysical or esoteric truths.
What divides them anyway seems not less important at its own level and unity doesn’t mean identity – differences ought to be respected as otherwise we would be bored to death by monotony and silence. News, debates, discussions and conversations will die for want of object.
As long as key claims of Islam regarding Unity, Messengership and eschatology are shared by Sunnis and Shias in principle, the thesis of split loses its cutting edge and may be read as Islamic parallel to similar “splits” elsewhere in world religions. It is thanks to catholicity of Sunnism and accentuated moral and intellectual orientation of Shi’ite Islam that Islam achieved such prominence both in terms of numbers and cultural-civilisational influence. The world would be poorer without the “split” that seemingly divided Islam internally but strengthened it against a host of intellectual, spiritual and moral challenges. Developing philosophy and a host of sciences and catering to emotional – and tragic dimension of life – Shia tradition enormously helped flourishing of Islamic culture. Shi’ite Islam owes its identity and moral energy to the imagined other of Sunni Islam. Recall Iqbal’s Asrar-i Khudi: “By the Self the seed of hostility is sown in the world/It imagines itself to be other than itself./It makes from itself the forms of others/In order to multiply the pleasure of strife.”
Extreme judgments against each other sometimes heard (e.g., “Sunnis are Jews” “Mahdi will kill Sunnis before he will kill infidels” or denial of heaven to each other) are all based either on extra-Quranic non-Mutwattir and thus probable reports on whose basis beliefs can’t be unproblematically derived or on interpretations/interpolations that have been and could be challenged. Esoteric reconciliation is verifiable in principle and thus certain. Doctrinal positions dividing Sunnis and Shias are all based primarily on probable extra-Quranic reports or contested interpretations of certain widely accepted nearly certain reports and buttressed by contested reading of Quranic verses. Objections against each other can’t be sustained in absolute terms by the Jury. Far from the Haqq al-Yaqeen of Esoteric claims, even Ayn Al-Yaqeen and Ilm Al-Yaqeen is not obtainable in such historical analyses and interpretative endeavours.
Should we take too seriously sectarian preachers-theologians who see the Sun from a crevice/window in a room and fail to taste its heat as first hand verification or metaphysicians/sages who see the Sun – or better who get consumed by the Sun – and let the Sun be seen by removing themselves from closed rooms and coming into the open basking in its light and warmth?
There is no official declaration or consensus – and there is hardly a warrant or possibility for having it – of mutual excommunication of Shias and Sunnis from either the fold of Islam or Heaven. Opinions, speculations, guesses, Fatwas quoting this or that source that can’t be independently and unproblematically validated in the Quran and contradict basic tenor of Tradition don’t constitute decisive knowledge that should bother us too much. Theology and politics often mix up and create a mess that sages and artists can clear.
In light of the above, the jury consisting of select fraternity of sages – spiritual-intellectual elite – acquits both Shias and Sunnis against any charge that would affect their essential orthodoxy and thus salvific claim. It sees Sunni and Shia denominations as branches of a single tree that are united deep down at roots (Iman and Islam) and thus fruit of ihsan/gnosis as well. The jury allows both separate playing fields. It doesn’t see them competing but complementing perspectives. In sum it appears that Shia Sunni “split” is not to be lamented but its providential necessity appreciated.
One of the most succinct arguments for seeing Shia Sunni split as providential is in Nasr’s masterly comprehensive preface to Tabatabi’s classic Shi’ite Islam and in Ideals and Realities of Islam. A true friend of Ali will love to become, like an ideal Sunni, a saint or sage who extends his understanding of universal orthodoxy, at a higher level, to all religions that are committed to Divine Unity. Both Shias and Sunnis have on questions connected with history partially ascertainable truth. Both have a point that is best discerned by rigorous analysis of key concepts and interiorizing them and then one asserts one’s name, with Salman, as Muslim (best understood as submitter to Truth that is the invoked or ideal name of all authentic believers of every tradition) rather than this or that Muslim.
Translating/ publishing/ distributing books written by/on Sunni scholars/thinkers from the other camp needs courage and deserves appreciation. It is also timely to see focus on shared heritage of Islamic artistic and poetic traditions and writings of sages like Syed Ali Hamdani in this connection. Mirza Nasir Ali as patron (how desperately Kashmir is in need of patronage of academic projects and scholarships for some brilliant minds – we need more Wahshi Sayyids and Nasir Alis), G. H. Gazi as organizer and activist and Irfan Turabi as an explorer of cultural treasure of Na’t and Marsiya – his Tosha- i-Qalander and other works are 2017 gifts from Kashmir to the legacy of Abu Turab – have been contributing to these endeavours for which we should be grateful.