Sunni Islam and Shia Islam

By Saeed Qureshi:

Muslims as religious entity have never been united, nor can there possibly be one brand of Islam ever. The irreconcilable conflict between Sunnis and Shias is a pernicious spillover from the past precisely from the moment Prophet of Islam Hazrat Muhammad (SAW) breathed his last. The ongoing orgy of blood and mutual killings in Pakistan is not a new phenomenon. It has been there for centuries wherever Muslims societies existed. It is a colossal tragedy within Islam that this great faith is torn apart into two domains that cannot reconcile or converge on a common creed.

The issue of succession after the demise of the prophet has been the bane of the unity among the Muslims for all these 14 centuries. Never was there an Islamic issue than the caliphate which brought so much of destruction and bloodshed between two leading sects of Sunnis and Shias. It is still a living issue prompting both sides to spill each others’ blood with religious fervor. In the present times in Syria, the civil war that has consumed 40,000 people is primarily between Shia Salafi minority rulers and the majority Sunni population.

The prophet did not nominate a successor during his lifetime. The prophet’s death provoked a crisis. He died without any male progeny and without a clearly designated successor. Although, the prophet remained indisposed for several days before his death and he had plenty of time to decide as to who would be his successor, he did not take that vital decision. It was during his last moments that he wanted to dictate his will and nominate his successor. But those who were around his bed did not write the will because the prophet was in a state of faintness.

Following the demise of the prophet, the impromptu decision by a few of his close companions chose Abu Bakr as his successor and the first caliph. That led to a conflict between the prophet’s own family of Banu Hashim and the traditionally rival clan of Banu Umayyad. That nomination was not accepted by prophets’ family headed by his son in law, cousin brother and later the fourth caliph Hazrat Ali. The first three caliphs were from not from the Banu Hashim tribe.

Shiite Muslims believe that the true leadership comes through the Prophet’s bloodline and that his cousin and son in law Ali-ibne-Abi-Talib was the divinely ordained successor. They claim that Allah and his prophet had clearly designated Ali as the only legitimate successor. 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. The supporters of Ali always looked up for an opportunity to see Ali as the caliph. But their wishes and endeavors were blunted by the more crafty and powerful Umayyad notables.

However, the murder of the third caliph Hazrat Usman by the pro Ali supporters known as Kharjis intensified the rivalry between the prophet’s family and the Umayyad tribe. After Hazrat Osman, it was Hazrat Ali took the mantle of caliphate (656-661 C. E.). The deprivation of Ali of the office of the caliph through arbitration and later his death divided the Muslims into two irreconcilable groups for ever. When Hazrat Usman was murdered, one of the mourners predicted that the cleavage caused by his assassination would never be bridged till the doomsday. That prophecy holds true to this day.

This cleavage further sharpened when Imam Hussain, his entire family (excepting women and one male) and accompanying followers were massacred in the desert of Karbala near Baghdad by the troops of then Umayyad caliph Yazid, the son of the founder of Umayyad dynasty; Amir Muawiyah.  Yazid to Shias is like a devil while Sunnis treat him like other caliphs. The Islamic unity has therefore, remained a mere myth and elusive goal for all these fourteen centuries.

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 in any way.

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. 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 Shias believe in a lineage of twelve divine imams or spiritual leaders. On the other side, besides four caliphs, Sunnis have four Imams but they are primarily interpreters of the Islamic Sharia law. Barring Ali, Shias discard the three caliphs as usurpers.

The Islamic history is replete with their mutual annihilations and massacres. In the past, the Sunni and Shia dynasties have been taking turns for wreaking havoc upon each other. During the Shia dynasties in Egypt, North Africa, Sicily, Spain, Arabian Peninsula, Syria and Iraq, Iran & Azerbaijan Sunnis have been terribly persecuted.

Conversely, in Sunni Muslim dynasties, Shias had suffered with terrible discrimination and massacres. The sack and pillage of Baghdad in 1258 by the Mongol hordes was the result of the rivalry between a Sunni caliph Mustaasim and a Shia vizier Mohammad bin al-Kami. Kami invited the Tartars to come to Baghdad.

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 to them as if they were killing a non-Muslim. In Islam a heretic or apostate person or sect is more condemnable and liable to be punished with death than a non-Muslim who has clear denomination of not being a Muslim faithful and has come under the protection of the state as a Zimmi or dhimmi.

In all the Middle Eastern Islamic regimes there is always a simmering tussle, between the 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 most of the Shias religious and spiritual leaders are buried

One dimension of the Arab spring is the upswing in the ideological conflict between Sunnis and Shias in Iraq, Bahrain and Syria where it is now turning into a civil war. In Iraq from the early days of Islam to Saddam Hussain’s era to the present dispensation of Nouri al-Maliki, the Sunni-Shia feud has always been mostly underneath the societal disorders and internal upheavals.

In Bahrain the minority Sunni regime is in place while in Syria, it is the Shia minority that is at the helm and wreaking all brutalities on the Sunnis. Presently in Baghdad the Sunni majority population is protesting against the Shia minority government for maltreatment and discrimination.

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. The entire country is placed under high alert with thousands of military and semi military personnel guarding the processions.  Still the suicide bombers, callous murderers and sharp shooters from their rival sects keep killing them. Practicing of one’s faith is becoming extremely arduous in Islamic polities.

In the present times Saudi Arabia and Iran are hostile competitors in upholding the Sunni and Shia creeds respectively. The Saudis are aligned to the Christian West and America to browbeat and even contain the growing leverage and influence of Iran in the region. This antagonism is entirely faith based besides the historical rivalry between the Arab and non-Arab Muslims (Ajam). Some of the Shia spiritual leaders migrated to Iran during the Umayyad and Abbasids dynasties while the others were killed by these powerful family fiefdoms. As such the discord between Shias and Sunnis is not only of faith but also regional, ethnic and political.

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 they pray in the same mosques and never fight. The writer is a senior journalist and a former diplomat.

Recommended For You

About the Author: Tribune