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The Sunni-Shia dispute has its origins in the earliest years of Muslim history. Although history points to episodes of animosity, particularly in the earlier periods, the issue became dormant for many centuries. Indeed, the topic may have remained of only academic interest if it were not for the proliferation of sectarian violence across the Middle East and South Asia in recent decades.

Pakistan witnessed over 500 deaths due to sectarian violence in 2012, one of the deadliest in recent times. Since the invasion of Iraq, sectarian killings have significantly escalated, and Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have both seen tensions in recent years. Significantly, in recent months, Syria appears to be caught-up in a spreading sectarian conflict, with the proclamation by Hassan Nasrallah that Hizbullah would enter the conflict on the side ofwith Bashar al Assad.

Although the causes of these recent tensions are complex and multi-faceted, it is important to highlight from the outset that the age-old disagreements that define the distinction between Sunni and Shia cannot explain the current tensions we’re seeing across the Muslim world, nor can they explain their timing. In fact it is becoming increasingly clear that a narrative is being spun to specifically frame current tensions as a “Sunni-Shia” conflict.


Disagreements originated from the question of succession of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) – whether the first Khalif should have been Abu Bakr (RA) or Ali (RA) – but have since developed into broader disagreements about doctrine, jurisprudence and political organisation.

Despite their differences, however, the history of the Islamic lands that are now at the heart of so much tension demonstrate that what we are seeing today – serious reciprocating violence between Sunni on Shia – is almost without precedent. After the initial upheaval involving conflict between the “partisans” of Ali (RA) and the Umayyad and early Abbasid Khalifs, the largest Shia denomination – the ithna ashari (Twelvers) – entered a period of whatas is typically described as political passivity, disengaging from the broader political situation of the Islamic world whilst waiting for the return of the last of the twelve Imams – the Mahdi. As a result, occurrences of conflict and dispute subsided as the Shia initiated their “intizar” (waiting). Even during periods of later conflict – most notably between the Ottoman Sultans and Saffawid Shahs – the Shia Ulema refrained from endorsing or supporting the Persian Shahs, insisting on their by-then formalised doctrine of political passivity, leaving their Shahs to pursue their political agenda using Shiaism no more than symbolically.

As the Muslim world came under the direct threat from foreign colonisation, a number of projects emerged in the Muslim world that attempted to forge closer ties between the two communities. Attempts included measures by the Ottoman Khalif, Sultan Abdul Hamid II and the fatwa by Shaykh Shaltut of the al-Azhar University in 1959 regarding the validity of the Shia Twelver jurisprudence. Egypt also saw the establishment of ‘Dar al-Taqrib’ in Cairo in 1948 by Mohammed Taqi Qummi to bring together Sunni and Shia scholars in Egypt. In a letter published in 1969, the Shia scholar Musa al Sadr indicated that Dar al Taqrib was only one example of a long line of attempts that had been underway to forge closer links between Sunni and Shia.

The picture of the Muslim world is also more mixed than the often dichotomous portrayal of the conflict by the media. The as-Sham region is rife with examples of a long-standing mixed population, demonstrated through examples of inter-marriage. Lebanon for example has 362,000 families who have one Sunni and one Shia parent, in a country whose population is only 4 million. Since the onset of the invasion, Iraq has seen joint protests by Sunni and Shia, from joint Friday prayers, conferences and regular calls for co-operation. After the fall of Saddam, rallies saw demonstrators chanting “No Shia, No Sunni!”

This is not to paint an artificially rosy picture, or to avoid difficult questions about differences. It is to highlight however, that the scale and nature of the conflict we see before us is recent – a fact not only evident to Muslims.


It is clear that the historical dispute, even if dormant for a significant period of Islamic history, has been in part been exploited by foreign powers to promote instability in the Muslim world. Following the US invasion in Iraq, Western policymakers were eager to promote the idea that a Shia “crescent” – extending from Iran through Iraq to Lebanon – would become a key political consideration in the Middle East. The theory was subsequently discredited, for generalising mixed interest Shia groups into a single block. The Shia from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia cannot simply be put into a single block that thinks and behaves in the same way and which supposedly poses a challenge to a supposedly unified counter “Sunni” block (of which there is no such thing).

Furthermore, attempts have been made to frame numerous other events in “Sunni-Shia” terms. Saddam Hussein was described as a “Sunni” ruler who persecuted the Shia. Saddam was a secular socialist Baathist, not known for his religious credentials and persecuted Sunnis just as severely as he did anyone else. Bahrain conveniently described recent uprisings as a “Shia” uprising against the Sunni minority rulers. The uprisings were not committed in the name of a sect but against political injustices and against the denial of rights. Similarly, Iran and now Hizbullah’s co-operation with Bashar al Assad in Syria is perceived as an act of Shia brotherhood. This support for Bashar’s offensive is a grave error and humiliation for Hizbullah, evaporating any support they may have previously enjoyed from their offensives against Israel. But the ithna ashari Shia – of which Hizbullah and the Iranian leadership is comprised – have long viewed the Nusayri’s – the community from which Bashar and his father originated – as heretics owing to their peculiar beliefs that violate the fundamentals of Islamic doctrine. This support cannot be interpreted as an act of brotherhood, even though Iran has ambiguously referred to “cultural” and “religious” ties between the two countries in the past. Indeed, a number of Shia ulema have attacked Hizbullah and Iran’s decision to support Bashar, just as “Sunnis” did with the late Sunni Shaykh al-Bouti who likewise supported Bashar al-Asad. Rather, such support appears to be driven by political considerations, owing to the potential for regional instability if Bashar were to fall and the prospect of a leadership hostile to Iran that may arise in its place. Iran is acting to protect its interests both directly and through its Lebanese outfit. It is therefore an error to fall into the trap of simply accepting that all such conflicts being played before us are simplistically Sunni-Shia in nature. Muslims must prevent this new sectarian narrative from becoming a new status quo, a new prism through which conflicts in the Muslim world are interpreted, one that conveniently pushes attention away from the political interests of the actors involved in these conflicts.


Some Western policy centres have used the Shia Sunni dispute as a propaganda weapon to discredit key Islamic notions such as the “ummah”, “unity” and Islamic rule. According to Graham Fuller of the RAND Corporation, “To speak of the Shia of the Arab world is to raise a sensitive issue that most Muslims would rather not discuss”. According to Francke “The Shi’a… present a sensitive problem that assails to the core of Muslim unity and undermines the traditional histiography of the Muslim state…”. The Library Journal suggests, “…the attempt to create a universal Islamist state is doomed to failure because of the conflicts between Sunni and Shi’a forms…”

The basic aims of such claims is to undermine confidence in any “Islamic” solution by suggesting Islam will simply inflame the situation and therefore prepare the ground for hoisting Western solutions on the Muslim world.

Indeed such policy centres are often eager to suggest secularism should be adopted by the Muslim world, claiming the West battled religious sectarianism for centuries and eventually settled on a solution that removed religion from political life altogether, hoping this would eliminate religious strife that afflicted Europe for so long. But secularism has an unproven track-record in resolving sectarian conflicts. This is partly down to the fact that secularism assumes public and private life can be neatly delineated when it simply cannot. Religion can be removed from the constitution and the statute books, but religious identity is not easily separated from public life. Personal beliefs influence decisions in all parts of life including political choices, and secularism does not prevent the possibility of religious groups participating in politics according to their religious interests, making it no less susceptible to competing religious agendas.

This is particularly relevant in regions of diverse religious association and where religious identity still plays a role in everyday life. Secularism in India has done very little to end communal violence in key states. Israel also claims to be a secular democracy – very few would suggest it has the least bit of credibility in resolving religious tensions in the region. Even within Europe, violence in Northern Ireland demonstrates that even a mature secular democracy has difficulty in dealing with sectarian conflicts. Secular states are just as susceptible to inter and intra religious conflict.

Of direct relevance to the Sunni-Shia issue, secularism is without precedent in both Shia and Sunni thinking – both demands Islam directs all aspects of life including temporal life. Reluctance by some Shia to engage in political matters in the absence of the Imams does not translate to a lesser desire for Islamic rule. Their willingness to live without Islamic rule was not because it was not necessary, but because its rightful leader was absent. There have however been significant changes in Shia political thought, challenging the passiveness to politics in the era of colonisation, that have led to the emergence of the “Wilayat al Faqih” model, permitting scholars to assume ruling positions, because according to one Shia marja “…the separation of religion from politics and the demand that Islamic scholars should not intervene in social and political affairs have been formulated and propagated by the imperialists; it is only the irreligious who repeat them”.


Secularism therefore not only has an unproven track record, it has no relevance to the Sunni-Shia question. To understand where we go from here, we must understand a little of the past. Prior to the emergence of secular nationalistic states across the Arab world, Islamic rule dominated the region, and Muslim and non-Muslim communities lived under its governance for centuries. It is ironic that only since its fall, we’ve seen serious sectarian and religious tensions flareup despite being under “secular” states from Palestine to Iraq and beyond.

Islamic rule treats its subjects as citizens who are guaranteed certain rights – it does not divide them into sectarian or other groupings nor treats them according to such distinctions. The law applies to all citizens, and whilst non-Muslims are exempt from laws that don’t apply to them, citizens are dealt with according to the rights Islam has afforded to them. Furthermore, citizens have the right – and in some cases the duty – to hold any state official to account, to representation and to hold any position within the state provided they meet the necessary prerequisites. Moving to the Islamic citizenship-based model and away from sectarian distinctions will re-address the strengthening sectarian identity that is taking root in some quarters of the Muslim world.

Furthermore, the state is prevented from seeking-out the private views of its citizens or prying into what they do in the sanctity of their own homes, based on Islamic rules that prevent spying and stipulate the state’s jurisdiction is restricted to temporal matters only. Islamic rule recognises differing views will exist amongst its Muslim population, providing they remain within the boundaries of the unanimously declared articles of belief. The Islamic State will not maintain exclusivity to a particular point of view or persecute those who don’t adhere to state sanctioned opinions. This does not imply there is no debate – far from it. Robust Islamic debate will continue, to facilitate the elevation of Muslim thinking.

It is the departure from these basic areas historically that have aggravated internal tensions in the Muslim world, not just between Sunni and Shia, but with other denominations. Earlier episodes of persecution, a political process that locked out dissenters or hereditary rule that made it difficult to account rulers, escalated this and other disputes unnecessarily and violated basic Islamic principles in the process. But Islamic Law is distinct from Muslim practice, and provides a clear basis for a non-divisive system and through which such historical errors are identified and addressed.

To conclude, the danger before us is of yet another conflict being provoked to add to the numerous already plaguing the Muslim world. Conflicts are being reframed to support a new sectarian narrative, one that is becoming dangerously acceptable. Not only will this reverse the long stability enjoyed by the Muslim world under Islamic rule and pour flames on an already desperate situation, it is also being used to pave the way to introduce secularism in the Muslim world. Aware Muslims must take heed and not fall into yet another trap being prepared by powers that wish only a weak and divided Muslim world.

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GLOBAL UMMAH SOLIDARITY - by moeenyaseen - 08-23-2006, 11:07 PM

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