The unity of Muslims as one nation would remain a myth and unattainable goal unless the Muslim clergies of both the sects reconcile on living in harmony despite their mutual differences of faith and laws.

By Saeed Qureshi

The execution of prominent Shia clergy Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr along with other 46 persons on 2 January 2016 by Saudi government has hyped the centuries old rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. On 15 October 2014, Al-Nimr was sentenced to death by the “The Specialized Saudi Criminal Court” for “seeking foreign meddling’ in Saudi Arabia, ‘disobeying’ its rulers and taking up arms against the security forces”.

Saudi Arabia has snapped diplomatic relations with Iran. Iran in retaliation has placed a ban on imports from Saudi Arabia. The Gulf States have issued statements condemning Iran for attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran and interfering in the internal affairs of Arab states.

The latest conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a spillover from the past. The conflict between Arab and non- Arabs or Arabism versus Ajam dates back to the pre-Islamic eras. The Sassanid empires known as Ajam (non Arabs) had always subjugated the Arabs. However after the advent of Islam, The Arab Muslims conquered the whole of Persia and Iraq in 633- 651 AD. The Battle of Qādisiyyah fought in 636 AD was a decisive military conquest which paved way for the subsequent Islamic victories completed in 651 CE when the last Sassanid emperor Yazdghard was killed while fleeing.

In later times Persia or Iran also adopted Islam with majority professing Shia brand of Islam.

In the post-Islamic era, the main cause of rivalry is not only ethnic and regional but also religious. The Iranians profess the Shia branch of Islam while most of the Arab countries particularly Saudi Arabia are strict Sunnis. The cardinal dispute between Sunnis and Shias arose over the succession of Prophet Muhammad (saw).

The prophet did not nominate a successor during his lifetime. The first three successors or caliphs were not from Banu Hashim: the clan of Prophet Muhammad. The Sunni sects believe that the four successors of Prophet Muhammad or caliphs were legitimate as they were chosen by the community in accordance with the custom of those times. Shiite Muslims believe that the true leadership comes through the Prophet’s bloodline and Allah and his prophet had clearly designated prophet’s cousin and son in law Ali-ibne-Abi-Talib as the only legitimate successor. They profess that the first three caliphs usurped the divinely ordained right of Hazrat Ali to be the Imam or the caliph after the demise of the founder of Islam Prophet of Muhammad.

Although there are several scores of sects and denominations within the fold of Islam, the level of animosity and bitterness that exists between the two leading sects of Sunnis and Shias is horrendous. There is no way that their doctrinal rift can be healed and reconciled.

With the exception of a few common beliefs and traditions, Shias and Sunnis differ on a whole range of beliefs with regard to Sharia laws encompassing both juridical (criminal and civil) and ecclesiastical. The Shia and Sunni division in Islam is so drastic and hard that they do not pray together in one place. Shias do not pay Islamic tax Zakat while in Islam it is considered to be one of the five principle obligations. The Shias believe in a lineage of twelve divine imams or spiritual leaders.

The murder of the third caliph Hazrat Usman was followed by a chaotic civil war period in which Ali fought first with prophet’s wife Hazrat Aisha and second time with Amir Muawiyya the Ommyad governor in Syria. In an arbitration held to decide as to who should be the caliph, Ali lost and Muawiyya won. Thereafter the conflict between Sunnis and Shias accelerated. Hazrat Ali died on 29 January AD 661 following an attack no his life two days earlier by a KharjiAbd-al-Rahman ibn Muljam in the grand mosque of Kufa.

The Sunni Shia cleavage further sharpened when Imam Hussain the younger son of Hazrat Ali and his 72 companions were massacred in the desert of Karbala near Baghdad by Yazid the then Ommyad caliph and son of Amir Muawiyya.

For the last 1500 years Islam has remained split into these two branches with some common beliefs though mostly irreconcilably divergent. In history the division of Islam between Sunnis and Shia has witnessed the mutual sack and pillage, annihilations and massacres by both the groups whenever they got a chance. One can find a precedent of the Sunni-Shia ideological conflict and fratricide in the faith based animus between Catholics and Protestants in 15th century and onwards.

In the past, the Sunni and Shia dynasties have been taking turns for wreaking havoc upon each other. The Sunni dynasties had been suppressing the Shias in the Sunni regimes.  One such example is that of the Ommyad caliphate from 661-705 AD. Due to oppression and persecution of Ummayd caliphs, the Shia spiritual leaders or Imams took refuge in Iran which later became the spiritual center of Shia Muslims. Several Shia Imams are buried in Iran.

Conversely Sunnis have been terribly persecuted during the Shia dynasties in Egypt, North Africa, Sicily, Spain, Arabian Peninsula, Syria and Iraq, Iran & Azerbaijan.

 The pillage and destruction of Baghdad, the cradle of Muslim civilization for seven centuries resulted from the ideological animus between the Sunni caliph Mustaasim and his Shia Prime Minister Mohammad bin Ali Kami. As a result of that rivalry, out of two million population of Baghdad, 1.5 million were massacred by the army of Hilaku Khan secretly invited by Ali Kami. The Mongols hordes burned and razed to the ground all mausoleums, museums, institutions of learning and research, big buildings, mosques and libraries.. Baghdad was turned into a ghost city with river Tigris full of books and the human blood for miles.

Presently in the Middle Eastern Islamic regimes there is always a simmering tussle, between Sunni and Shia populations. For instance in Bahrain, the Sunnis are in minority but ruling. Conversely in Syria the Sunnis are in majority and Shias are in minority but are at the political helm. Same division and cleavage prevails in Iraq where Shias have a thin majority over the Sunnis.

In the sectarian vendettas, thousands of Sunnis and Shias have died in Pakistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East. In Pakistan the Shia community observes the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, the grandson of the prophet of Islam, in a nerve-racking environment. They enter their congregational places as if entering a nuclear arsenal. Each and every person is subjected to body pat down by the security staff posted at the entry and exit points.

While in the past they killed each other with swords, in the present times they resort to mutual slaughter by suicide bombing, target killing and bomb blasts. The Shias are branded as infidels by the majority Sunni sects and therefore, their murder is justifiable for the latter as if they were killing a non-Muslim.

The unity of Muslims as one nation would always remain a myth and unattainable goal. The bridging of the doctrinal and theological chasms between these two main sects within Islam would always remain a tall order unless the Muslim clergy of both the sects reconcile on living in harmony despite their mutual differences of faith and Sharia laws. Would that be possible within an Islamic state cannot be fathomed.

However, if the Islamic polities turn secular wherein all faiths are allowed to practice freely without harming each other, this most coveted goal can become attainable.  The example of such religious harmony can be witnessed in western societies where Muslims with divergent faith including Sunnis and Shias pray in the same mosques and never fight.

The writer is a senior journalist, former editor of Diplomatic Times and a former diplomat.This and other articles by the writer can also be read at his blog www.uprightopinion.com.