Intrafaith Q&A on Sunni/Shi'i: ISNA

ISNA: Intrafaith Q&A on Sunni/Shi'i
Taken from Islamic Horizons (An ISNA Publication, November/December 2007/1427

ONE FAITH – Nineteen Questions about Shi’i-Sunni Relations by:

Mohamed Nimer, director of research at the Council on American Islamic Relations, is the author of "The North American Muslim Resource Guide: Muslim Community Life in the United States and Canada" (Routledge: 2002).

Asma Afsaruddin, associate professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Notre Dame, is the author of "Excellence and Precedence: Medieval Islamic Discourse on Legitimate Leadership" (Leiden: 2002).

Liyakat Takim, associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Denver, is the author of "The Heirs of the Prophet: Charisma and Religious Authority in Shiite Islam" (SUNY Press: 2006).

Is it accurate to speak of "Sunni Islam" and "Shi'i Islam"?

Muslims avoid identifying the Sunni and Shi`i traditions as different "Islams." But the two traditions, which developed over the course of centuries, shaped Muslim religious thought and practice.

What are their doctrinal commonalities?

Both branches share the same foundational religious beliefs rooted in monotheism, Muhammad's prophethood, a singular Qu'anic text, and a belief in final judgment. They agree on the core fundamentals of Islam: the six articles of belief (God, angels, scriptures, prophets, the next life, and destiny) and the five pillars of practice (testimony of faith, prayer, fasting, giving alms, and pilgrimage).

What are the important differences between them?

Mainstream Shi'is believe in the doctrine of the Imamate, namely, that certain descendants of the Prophet's family provided the ultimate, legitimate source of guidance after his death. This doctrine impacted how the Shi`i scholars evaluated the authenticity of hadiths as well as their respective views of Islamic ju¬risprudence. Over time, both branches of Islam developed parallel institutions of learning and a number of distinctive religious practices.

Was the origin of these two branches religious or political in nature?

Shi`i scholars believe that the community's leadership should have remained within the Prophet's family: in the hands of Ali, the Prophet's cousin and husband of his daughter Fatimah. An early community of Shi'is considered Ali to be the first Imam. This idea was subsequently expressed in the doctrine of the Imamate a central defining feature of Shi`i doctrine. Specifically, the Shi'is believe that the issue of leadership is religious in nature and that the Prophet explicitly named Ali as his successor. Sunni scholars trace the Shi`i community's genesis to what they consider to be political arguments about leadership after the Prophet's demise. They argue that many Companions supported the leadership of Abu Bakr, one of the Prophet's closest early followers, and that the leadership of Muslims falls under the control of the general Muslim community.

What about the claim that the Shi'is have a different Qur'an called the Mushaf Fatimah?

Shi'is and Sunnis use the same Qur'an. According to Shi'i scholars, the Mushaf Fatimah contains hadith narratives by Fatimah. It is not considered a holy scripture or a replacement for the Qur'an.

What is the Sunni view of the Ahl al Bayt (the Family of the Prophet)?

All Muslims' daily prayers include praise and blessings for Prophet Muhammad's family. The Sunni Hadith literature regards Fatimah, Ali, Hassan, and Husayn as Companions to whom the Prophet promised Paradise. These four people, along with other members of his family, are major narrators in Sunni books of Hadith. Ali is revered by Sunnis as the first young Muslim who risked his life for the Prophet. Sunnis consider him the last of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, while the Shi'is consider him the first Imam.

Do Shi’is believe that Ali is God?

Mainstream Shi'i and Sunni traditions hold such thinking to be a form of unbelief. While Ali was still alive, some people considered him to be God. They were later labeled ghulat (extremists).

Do Shi'is slander and ridicule the first three caliphs and Nishah?

This is a false generalization. Shi'is consider Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman to be great Companions and caliphs, although they believe that they did not attain the spiritual purity attained by Ali and the other grand Imams. As for A'ishah, the mainstream Shi'i position views her as the mother of all believers on par with all of the Prophet's other wives. Any Shi'i who slanders these people does so out of ignorance. Shi'i scholars have issued fatwas against cursing these major figures of Islam.

Do Shi`is and Sunnis celebrate different religious holidays?

In both traditions, the two major religious holidays are Eid al Fitr and Eid al Adha. Due to historical experience, Muslims in different countries may commemorate additional days of remembrance. For example, al Isra' wa al Mi'raj is commemorated in Shi'i and Sunni communities across the globe. Ashura, the day of Husayn's martyrdom at Karbala, (which coincides with the tenth day of the month of Muharram), is a widely observed occasion in Shi'i communities because it marks a turning point in their history. However Egyptians, almost all of whom are Sunni today but who once were ruled by the (Isma'ili) Shi'i Fatimid dynasty (970 1040), still commemorate it with special festivities. Until today, they pay special tribute to Husayn and his sister, popularly known as Lady Zaynab.

Does the Shi`i Sunni rivalry go back to the early days of Islam?

No. It is hard to pin down the exact date or period when the terms Shi `i and Sunni took on a communal or political meaning. A good part of Islamic literature was purposefully destroyed during the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258. But communal violence, as seen today in Iraq, is unknown in Islamic history. Ali was passed over in favor of other caliphs, but that event did not lead to a Shi'i-Sunni consciousness definitely not in the communal or ethnic sense. When Mu'awiyah, the governor of Syria, rebelled against Ali, most of the companions supported Ali. But Mu'awiyah was not acting as a leader of Sunnis; rather, he was acting as the head of the powerful Umayyad clan, which consolidated its political power and ushered in dynastic rule in the Muslim world.

The battle of Karbala (680), during which Husayn (later named the third Imam) was martyred, is a turning point in the contemporary Shi'i historical narrative. But even then, there was no communal Shi'i versus Sunni identities. A number of the Companions who were later classified as Sunni actually sympathized with Husayn. Nor was Husayn the only Companion who rebelled against Umayyad rule. Abdullah ibn al Zubayr, a major narrator of hadith in the Sunni tradition, also rebelled and declared himself caliph in Makkah (683 92) before being killed by the Umayyad forces. Shi'i doctrine and communal identity developed over time, and those who were not classified as Shi'i became known as Sunni. The earliest evidence for this development can be dated to the Abbasid revolution (750).

How do Shi'i Sunni agreements and disagreements compare to those among Catholics and Protestants?

Invoking this analogy may help ordinary Christians make sense of Shi'i Sunni differences. However, the analogy is accurate only to a certain extent. The doctrinal and institutional differences associated with the Shi'i Sunni traditions are far less pronounced than those associated with the Catholic Protestant traditions. In addition, neither Islamic tradition has a
papal figure and their seminaries do not amount to a church structure, especially when compared to the Catholic Church's well defined hierarchical religious authority.

How do international Shi'i and Sunni influences today impact the development of Muslim life in America?

Such influences are more visible in communities of recent immigrants. Organizations that serve the religious needs of Muslims may assume a Shi'i or Sunni character. Also, there have been instances of intense communal disagreement, such as during the Iraq-Iran war. Still, it is not uncommon for Shi'is and Sunnis to pray together. Imams and activists from both traditions serve on regional and national bodies that present Muslim concerns. A recent poll found that the largest segment of American Muslim voters preferred to identify themselves as "just Muslim," rather than "Sunni" or "Shi'i." Moreover, many converts refuse to identify themselves with either label; arguing that such categories belong to historical experiences that do not relate to their lives. Religiously, there is nothing that can compel new Muslims to align themselves with either tradition.

What other sources of diversity impact Shi'i and Sunni life in America? Both communities are ethnically diverse. Are Shi'i and Sunni organizations in this country exclusive in their membership and services?

While many mosques may assume a Shi'i or Sunni identity, they are generally open to all for worship. Most Islamic schools do not require students or teachers to be of a certain persuasion, and several Muslim community regional bodies and public advocacy groups have been consciously inclusive. Yet some Islamic centers tend to follow policies of exclusion. While they have the legal right to do so, the mainstream community would view this position as rigid and possibly intolerant.

Is it true that the Persians used their Shi'i affiliation to keep their distinct identity?

No. Shi'is trace their origin to Arabia. Ethnicity was not even a factor in the monumental events of Shi'i history. Persia experienced both Sunni and Shi'i influences. Only during the Safavid dynasty (1501 1722) was the Shi'i interpretation promoted in today's Iran. The Turkish speaking Safavids hailed from contemporary Azerbaijan. However, most Turkish speaking Muslims are Sunni.

Are the Shi'is mainly Iranian while the Sunnis are mainly Arab?

No. Both groups are ethnically mixed, although Arabic and Farsi are two major languages in the Muslim world. While Iran has the largest number of Shi'is in any country, most Shi'is are neither Iranian nor Persian. And while most Arabs are Sunni, several Arab populations are mostly Shi'i. In fact, there are Shi'i minorities in most Sunni majority Arab countries.

Haven't the Shi'is and Sunnis been fighting one another for fourteen centuries?

No. However, communal tensions have shaped the course of history in the Muslim world. Until the contemporary period, there were only limited episodes of communal violence at times of serious political upheaval. Throughout history, both groups have lived side by side peacefully. Several Muslim regions even switched between Shi'i and Sunni affiliations. Even in today's Iraq, Shi'is and Sunnis have intermarried and lived in mixed communities.

How do you evaluate Shi’i-Sunni relations in the world today?

Generally, not great. But they vary. Iraq is experiencing an ongoing violent clash between Shi'i and Sunni militias. But such a clash is more rooted in Iraq's contemporary political history than in denominational tensions. Similar violence flares up in Pakistan every so often, but mainstream groups from both traditions have formed alliances against sectarianism and political corruption. In the Gulf region Shi'i and Sunni minorities, especially in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Bahrain, face discrimination. On the other hand, the Shi'i dominated resistance to the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon has been very popular among Shi'is and Sunnis alike.

Is it likely that the Shi'i Sunni violence in Iraq may spill over, to America?

Highly unlikely. Shi'i and Sunni groups in Iraq are engaged in a power struggle that is entangled with regional and global conflicts. In America, Muslims live in a totally different context and there is no reason for communal violence. Even at the time of heightened Shi'i Sunni tensions during the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s, there were no incidents of communal violence. Following Saddam Hussein's execution in 2006, some Shi'i owned businesses were vandalized. Such incidents signal a need for community leaders to engage in dialogue. Moreover, such incidents are isolated and the attackers' identities have not been confirmed. Following the attacks, leaders of both traditions met and issued statements of unity and condemned the attacks.


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