By Sultan Shahin, Editor, New Age Islam
7 October 2008
The revolutionary initiative of Maulana Kalb-e-Sadiq in bringing Indian Muslims of the two Shia and Sunni sects together on the occasion of Eid has gladdened the hearts of many Muslims in the country. So did Mohtarma Syeda Hamid’s first ever act recently as Qazi in a Sunni couple’s nikah ceremony. This may be the right time and it seems to have engendered the right atmosphere to discuss Shia-Sunni ideological differences and real prospects for unity in as objective a manner as possible.
It seems in order to explain at the outset that having come from a Sunni background I may have inherited and imbibed some Sunni misgivings and prejudices but on a conscious level I try to remind myself that Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) was neither Shia nor Sunni and we are essentially followers of the Prophet and Prophet alone. Every other revered figure in Islame only comes after him. Also, primarily Shia-Sunni differences were political in nature and ideological constructs came much later, probably just to invest these differences with a greater permanency, and perhaps again in pursuit of political goals.
I also feel that if it is so difficult in this day and age, with all sorts of media following us all around 24/7 to know exactly what is happening and who is doing what under what political motivation, it would be futile for us to participate in 7th century battles all over again. As we cannot go back in time and fight with Prophet Mohammad in the battle of Badr and Uhad, we can also not go back and save his family from the massacre at Karbala.
The choice before us today is whether we keep fighting this 14-centuries old battle or desist from it and make peace in order to be free to focus on other challenges and goals that may be more relevant for the times we live in. One of these being mapping an agenda for the 21st century Islam, rethinking each and every postulate of Islam in the light of present-day realities, despite all the opposition this would evoke from the obscurantist elements of our society.
Mohtarma Syeda Hamid and Maulana Kalb-e-Sadiq’s initiative requires an equally determined follow-up. Please see: Shias, Sunnis celebrate Eid together in Lucknow
While Shias and Sunnis are at each other’s throats in several countries including in our own neighbourhood in Pakistan, in India, Muslims, the second largest Islamic community in the world after Indonesia, seldom quarrel as violently on sectarian lines. Indeed a Shia lady Mohtarma Sayeda Hamid recently performed the Nikah ceremony of a Sunni couple in Lucknow. Please see: Woman performs nikah, bridges Shia-Sunni divide too
Similarly, in many other countries with Muslim communities, there is little evidence of Shia-Sunni violence. Indeed, in recent years there has been significant cooperation between the two groups in previously divided countries like Lebanon, though of course differences continue and can turn violent anytime in future unless the world-wide Muslim community makes a conscious effort to bridge the ideological gap which appears large but in reality is quite small as our present discussion will show. With the US, or at lest a section of its administration, seriously considering the creation of separate Shia states around southern Saudi Arabian and Iraqi oil fields - that would be small enough to be run as protectorates - the Islamic world would face a major challenge in reconciling Shia-Sunni ideological differences in a hurry.
And even if such a hare-brained idea was not implemented, the very real possibility of a Shia fundamentalist regime a la Iran eventually rising in Iraq on the ashes of the secular Sunni-led administration of Saddam has the potential to overturn the delicate sectarian balance of power in the Arab, if not the Muslim world. Which raises the question, will the world Muslim ummah (community) be able to rise to the challenge? Maulana Kalb-e-Sadiq’s initiative may be a small but very important step in this process and this is why I repeat with all the emphasis at my command that we should not let the opportunity thus generated slip away.
How real and how deep is the Shia-Sunni divide?
In the final analysis, it all comes down to one question: how real and how deep is the Shia-Sunni divide? How much of it is ideological, and how much caused by political and social vested interests? Is there an element of tribal, ethnic and class struggle also involved? On the other hand, how much of apparent sectarian harmony is promoted by external factors – the perceived threat from Hindu fundamentalism in the case of India, and the need to drive out the US occupation forces in the case of Iraq?
Both Shias, who constitute a 15 percent-strong minority of the world's Muslims, and the rest of the Muslims who are Sunnis, follow basically the same ideology. Minor ideological differences and major misunderstandings have, however, crept into their perceptions of each other in the course of the history of their quarrels that spans almost the entire Islamic history of about 1,400 years.
The genesis of the Shia-Sunni divide lies in a dispute over succession to the Prophet Mohammed that started soon after his death in 632 AD, even before his funeral, and culminated in the brutal killing of his grandsons and other family members at Karbala, in modern-day Iraq.
The Shia-Sunni divide would have made some sense if any Sunnis justified the massacre at Karbala. No Sunnis do. The victims of Karbala are universally treated as martyrs. Both Sunnis and Shias mourn their deaths in the month of Moharram and commemorate the 40th day (chehlum) of the grisly event. During the 10-day long Ashura, when each evening Shias commemorate the Battle of Karbala, with a wailing imam whipping the congregation into a frenzy of tears and chest beating, the Sunnis, too, perform similar rituals. The only difference is that of intensity. While the Sunnis merely shed tears, listening to graphic descriptions of what happened at Karbala and beat their breasts with their own fists, the Shias shed blood, beating their breasts and shoulders with little knives and other sharp implements.
Dispute over succession to the Prophet
The Shia-Sunni split occurred in the decades immediately following the death of the Prophet and has deepened since. Sunnis regard Hazrat Ali, a son-in-law of the Prophet, as the fourth and last of the Khulafa-e-Rashedeen (rightly-guided caliphs) - successors to Hazrat Mohammed as leader of the Muslims). He followed the first caliph Hazrat Abu Bakr (632-634), the second Hazrat Umar (634-644) and the third Hazrat Usman (644-656). Shias feel that Ali should have been the first caliph and that the caliphate should pass down only to direct descendants of Mohammed (PBUH) via Ali and Fatima. They often refer to themselves as ahl-al-bayt or "people of the house" (of the Prophet).
The flash points for riots, as in Pakistan at times, are usually provided by the extremist Shia insistence on abusing the first three caliphs publicly, even while passing through Sunni areas in a procession during Moharram, and the Sunni insistence in turn of trying to stop this provocative practice.
The Shias believe that the first three caliphs usurped power which legitimately belonged to Hazrat Ali. The Sunnis revere Hazrat Ali as much as they respect the first three caliphs, and do not like the Shia practice of tabarra (ritual slander of the first three caliphs). Shia scholars say that tabarra is not a part of their customary practice and only misguided people indulge in it. "If some Shias do slander the three caliphs, they do it out of ignorance and should seek God's forgiveness," says US-based Islamic scholar Dr Shahid Athar.
Shias consider the first three caliphs as companions of the Prophet (sahaba) and administrators, though not spiritual leaders (imams). Shia imam Hazrat Jafar Sadiq himself was a scion of the family of first caliph Hazrat Abu Bakr. But Sunnis object as they believe, wrongly, that all Shias indulge in this odious practice of cursing and ridiculing the first three caliphs, if not in the streets in Sunni areas, then at their homes.
It seems that Hazrat Ali himself accepted the first two caliphs, Abu Bakr and Hazrat Umar, without any reservations, though he may have differed with some of their policies. He became a candidate for Khilafat (caliphate) only after the assassination of the second caliph. He could not reconcile himself to the elevation of Hazrat Usman as the third caliph and joined the ranks of the opposition almost immediately. A man of rigorous piety, he differed in his perceptions and interpretations of the Holy Quran and Hadith with all the three caliphs, but especially with Hazrat Usman.
Khilafat was essentially an administrative position, requiring statesmanship and pragmatism more than piety and valour, even though a khalifa was both the spiritual and temporal head of state. These traits are not mutually exclusive, but they are certainly rare. Also, Sunnis believe that the Prophet could not have possibly promoted the hereditary principle as the Quran that he brought to this world repeatedly insists that heredity or race or wealth or any quality other than piety cannot bestow any superiority on any person.
Hazrat Ali was held in universal esteem. The Prophet himself had described him as Babul Ilm, the Gateway to Knowledge. But one can see why the Quraish, the ruling tribe, had reservations about his elevation to khilafat following the Prophet's death when one studies the history of his own reign.
Hazrat Ali's rule was marked by internecine conflict, vacillation and marked errors of judgment on his part. He became embroiled in conflict from the very first day. He had been chosen as khalifa in an extraordinary situation. The third khalifa, Hazrat Usman, had been killed by rebels, including a son of the second khalifa, Hazrat Umar, as he was reading the Quran in a mosque. He had been under siege for some time. During riots preceding the assassination, Hazrat Ali largely kept aloof and did not defend the khalifa, while acting as a spokesman for the rebels at times.
Thus, when he was appointed khalifa, the very first question he faced was what to do with the killers of his predecessor. He decided not to act against them. He was, however, opposed by Hazrat Aisha, wife of the Prophet and daughter of the first caliph Hazrat Abu Bakr, who accused him of being lax in bringing Hazrat Usman's killers to justice. After Ali's army defeated Aisha's forces at the Battle of the Camel in 656, she apologized to Ali and was allowed to return to her home in Medina, where she withdrew from public life.
One of Hazrat Usman's relatives, the powerful governor of Syria, Muawiya, however, would not accept this situation. He wanted the killers to be brought to justice. He also refused to pay homage to the new khalifa. Hazrat Ali marched out with his army to enforce obedience. Muawiya stopped him at Siffin. After facing each other for several months, a famous battle took place. Hazrat Ali was on the verge of victory when the treacherous Muawiya hoisted copies of the Quran on lances as a request for peace and settling the dispute through arbitration. Hazrat Ali accepted arbitration. But some of his followers thought that this was against the guidance given in the Quran and changed loyalties. These dissidents were called kharjis (rebels).
Hazrat Ali's vacillation at this point proved disastrous. He agreed for arbitration against the best judgment of some of his more orthodox and pious followers, at a time when victory after a long and hard battle was in sight, but did not accept the verdict when it went against him. The arbiters appointed by both the parties decided that Hazrat Usman had been killed unjustly and, therefore, his killers should be punished. Before marching on to try and resume his campaign against Muawiya, however, he appealed to the rebels to come back.
But the kharjis, most of them pious Muslims, decided that as Hazrat Ali had disobeyed the Quran by accepting arbitration, he did not deserve their obedience. When the kharjis did not listen to his appeals, Hazrat Ali proceeded to massacre them, thus turning many of his erstwhile followers into bitter enemies. He could not march against Muawiya as his followers deserted him in large numbers, accusing him of un-Islamic behaviour in violating the agreement for arbitration. Subsequently, the task of appointing a khalifa was left to the same two arbiters, one of whom had been earlier nominated by Hazrat Ali himself. Neither of them was prepared to even consider him as a candidate.
It maybe my Sunni upbringing speaking, but Hazrat Ali's performance as a caliph makes it difficult to question the judgment of the early Muslims who did not consider him for the post of the first khalifa in the most trying situation in which Islam found itself with the death of the Prophet. In any case, the Prophet had virtually shown his preference for his close friend and companion Hazrat Abu Bakr during his last illness by asking him to lead the prayers which he was himself going to join for the last time before his death.
History of discord
After Hazrat Ali's death, Muawiya declared himself caliph. Ali's elder son Hasan accepted a pension in return for not pursuing his claim to the caliphate. He died within a year, allegedly poisoned. Ali's younger son Hussein agreed to put his claim to the caliphate on hold until Muawiya's death. However, when Muawiya died in 680, his son Yazid usurped the caliphate. Hussein led an army against Yazid but, hopelessly outnumbered, he and his men were slaughtered at the Battle of Karbala. Hussein's infant son, Ali, survived, so the Prophet's line continued. Yazid formed the hereditary Umayyad dynasty. The few Muslims who remained supporters and followers of these martyrs, even under Yazid's brutal rule, called themselves Shi'iaan-e-Ali (partisans of Ali) or just Shia. The silent majority of Muslims who acquiesced in Yazid's caliphate were called Sunnis.
Shias continued to revere those born in Mohammad's family through Ali and Hasan as imams or spiritual teachers. But the hereditary line became extinct in 873 when the last Shia imam, al-Askari, disappeared within days of inheriting the title at the age of four. He had no brothers. The Shias refused, however, to accept that he had died, preferring to believe that he was merely "hidden" and would return. When after several centuries he failed to return, spiritual power passed to the ulema, a council of 12 scholars who elected a supreme imam. The best known modern example of the Shia supreme imam is the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of Iran who ushered in the Islamic revolution overthrowing the US-supported Shah in 1979.
Resemblance with Catholic-Protestant split
The Shia-Sunni split in Islam has gradually come to resemble in some ways the Catholic-Protestant split in Christianity, with the Shias developing along the Catholic lines and Sunnis resembling Protestants in some respects. The Shia imam has come to be imbued with Pope-like infallibility and the Shia religious hierarchy is not dissimilar in structure and religious power to that of the Catholic Church. Sunni Islam, on the other hand, is even less hide-bound than the independent Protestant churches.
Unlike the Shias, Sunnis do not have a formal clergy. They do respect Islamic scholars and jurists, but do not feel bound by their fatwas (religious edicts). Shias believe that their supreme imam is a fully spiritual guide, who has inherited some of Hazrat Mohammed's inspiration ("light"). Shia imams are believed to be infallible interpreters of law and tradition. Sunnis use the term imam with a small "i" to denote the prayer-leaders in their mosques.
Racial and ethnic pride, too, entered into the picture later to further exacerbate relations between the sects. Inheritors of non-Arab, mainly Persian and Indian civilizations, turned to Shi'ism largely to create for themselves a separate identity and occasionally to express dissent if they felt Arab rulers were not treating them fairly.
The spread of Shi'ism was not always voluntary either. Indeed, the Shia Safavid dynasty in Iran imposed Shi'ism on the Sunni population in the early 16th century. R M Savory of the University of Toronto writes in the Cambridge History of Islam: "The imposition of Shi'ism on a country which, officially at least, was still predominantly Sunni, obviously could not be achieved without incurring opposition, or without a measure of persecution of those who refused to conform. Disobedience was punishable by death, and the threat of force was there from the beginning. As far as the ordinary people were concerned, the existence of this threat seems to have been sufficient. The ulema were more stubborn. Some were put to death; many more fled to areas where Sunnism still prevailed - to the Timurid court at Herat and, after the conquest of Khurasan by the Safavids, to the Ozbeg capital at Bukhara."
Though there are Shias everywhere in the Muslim world, the only overwhelmingly Shia country is Iran. The majority of the populations of Iraq, Yemen and Azerbaijan, too, is Shia. There are also sizeable Shia communities in Bahrain, the east coast of Saudi Arabia and in Lebanon. Hizbollah, which forced the Israelis out of southern Lebanon in 2000, is Shia.
Slowly building bridges
Many Muslims throughout the world, both Sunni and Shia, 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, which 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 Shias seem to take the fundamentals of Islam very much for granted, mainly focusing on glorification of Hazrat Ali and martyrdom of Hussein and his family members.
The strong theme of martyrdom and suffering in Shia Islam does tend to exasperate many Sunnis. Shias are believed to harbour 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 Shia-Sunni differences would appear to be quite insignificant.
In fact, in the early days of Islam, mainstream Shias were not excluded from the life of the Muslim community, even though Sunni and Shia 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 Shia causes. Imam Shafii actively participated in a Shia uprising in Yemen, and Imam Abu Hanifa was involved in a Zaydi Shia rebellion in Iraq. Indeed, Imam Abu Hanifa has openly acknowledged his indebtedness to the sixth Imam of the Shias, Hazrat 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 Shias 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 Shias, 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 Shias.
The main Wahhabi complaint is that the Shias 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 Shias 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 Shia-Sunni sects. Shias 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, Shia mosques perform five-times-a-day prayers, as in Sunni mosques.
While the basic scripture, the Holy Quran, is the same in the case of both sects, the Shias 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. Shia 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 Quran 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.
Shias 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 Shias 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 Shia-Sunni unity did arise in 750. Following a Shia-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 Shia 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 Shias 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-Shia al-Imamiyyah al-Ithna Ashariyyah" (ie, The Twelve Imami Shias) 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 Shia-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 Shia revolution: it was always referred to as an Islamic revolution.
Fatwa of death on Salman Rushdie
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 defence of the Prophet's wives, including Aisha, who had fought with Hazrat Ali and is therefore not regarded highly by Shias. Rushdie had not "denigrated", even according to his Shia 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 Shias and Sunnis together. But the opportunity was lost. Even those among Muslims who opposed the fatwa have to agree that there was nothing particularly Shia 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 Shias are expressing dissatisfaction at the unnecessary and basically meaningless split.
India’s Shia-Sunni unity can serve as a beacon of hope
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 Shias, has for years been financed by the Wahhabi rulers of Saudi Arabia. Iran is said to be financing Tehrike-Nifaze-Fiqhe-Jafria, a militant Shia organization in Pakistan. These two organizations have kept fanning the flames of growing Shia-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 Shias 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 Shia power in the neighbourhood 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 Shia-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 Shia-Sunni divide. It is not for nothing that the Western media seldom mention an Iraqi as Muslim. There are no Muslims in Iraq, only Shias, Sunnis or Kurds; just as there were no Muslims in Kosovo, only ethnic Albanians.
The fact that the widely predicted Shia 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 Shias 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.
India’s Shia and Sunni communities can serve as a beacon of hope in this process. Let us follow up on recent initiatives by Mohtarma Syeda Hamid and Maulana Kalb-e-Sadiq and keep moving in the direction of genuine, frank dialogue leading to real unity.