The Importance of Shia-Sunni Dialogue

Maulana Waris Mazhari (tr. Yoginder Sikand)

Posted Sep 7, 2009      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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The Importance of Shia-Sunni Dialogue

By Maulana Waris Mazhari

(Translated by Yoginder Sikand)

Historically, there have been few efforts among Muslims to address and reform the ways in which the different Muslim sects, particularly Shias and Sunnis, consider and relate to each other. In part, this is because the tradition of ijtihad has been largely lost and Islamic thought has fallen prey to stagnation and rigid taqlid or blind conformity to past precedent. Had Muslim scholars cared to revisit much of their inherited intellectual tradition, we would have been spared some of the horrors of intra-Muslim, particularly Shia-Sunni, rivalries and conflicts that have, over the centuries, taken a terrible toll.

In its origins, the Shia-Sunni split was a product of a particular political context and a particular political conflict, which should have been addressed and solved. However, this did not happen, and these differences were magnified by taking on a religious colour. No serious efforts were made to reduce or to put an end to these differences. Instead, they were allowed to further widen over the centuries. Today, in many places, Shia-Sunni conflicts have become acute, taking a heavy toll of precious human lives. Lamentably, some extremist forces among both groups are fired by a fierce hatred for each other, and see each other as veritable infidels.

Certain misunderstandings on both sides have helped build a massive wall between Shias and Sunnis. So, for instance, many Shias wrongly believe that Sunnis are enemies of the Ahl-e Bayt, the family of the Prophet, and that they respect the murderers of Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet. Likewise, many Sunnis erroneously believe that Shias regard the existing Quran as having been tampered with, that they abuse the companions of the Prophet and that they engage in sexual license in the name of muta or ‘temporary marriage’.

In actual fact, these views are baseless, exaggerated or else taken completely out of their contexts. Shia scholars have repeatedly stressed that they do not believe that the Quran was modified or tampered with. The number of Shias who openly abuse (tabarra) the companions of the Prophet is relatively very small. And muta or temporary marriage is regarded by the Shias as permissible only under certain conditions. It must not be forgotten that according to Sunni scholars permission for muta was given in the early period of Islam. Ignoring all this, many Sunni scholars wrongly use arguments that applied to some ancient extreme (ghali) Shia groups in the past that upheld some extreme and clearly un-Islamic views and attribute these views to the present-day Ithna Ashari or Jafari Shias, who form the majority of the Shia population. This is very unfortunate. Likewise, it is also lamentable that some Shias accuse Sunnis of hating the Ahl-e Bayt or Imam Hussain. This is completely wrong. The way the Sunnis express their love for these personages may be different from that of the Shias but certainly no one can accuse the Sunnis of hating them.

It is not easy to remove negative stereotypes that different social and religious groups have of each other. Generally, most people are unwilling to come out of the narrow grooves into which they are stuck and seek to understand others dispassionately. In this regard, one also has to take into account certain political factors responsible for further widening mistrust between Shias and Sunnis. The Islamic Revolution in Iran gave a major boost to anti-Shia sentiments in Sunni quarters as many Sunni Arab rulers feared that it might inspire similar revolutionary anti-regime and anti-imperialist movements in their own countries. Lamentably, they and influential organizations allied to them played a major role in fanning hatred and promoting propaganda against the Shias. They produced a massive amount of anti-Shia literature which they widely disseminated, and in this some of our Indian Sunni ulema were also involved.

Today, a fairly large number of socially conscious Shias and Sunnis are seriously interested in promoting Shia-Sunni dialogue and understanding. It must be admitted that Shia leaders are taking much more interest in this regard than their Sunni counterparts. The Iranian Government has even set up a special organization, called Al-Majma al-Alami Li’t Taqrib Bayn al-Mazahib al-Islamiya, for precisely this purpose, something that no government of any Sunni country has done.


The only sensible and proper way to approach the question of Shia-Sunni relations and to seek to improve them is through dialogue. Such dialogue must be predicated on both groups working with each other on issues on which both of them are agreed, and on searching for points for discussion and exchange with regard to issues on which they differ. Shia-Sunni dialogue, it must be recognized, is indispensable for the project of wider Muslim unity, solidarity and ecumenism. Through this sort of dialogue both groups can benefit and learn from each other. And yet, throughout the centuries, this work of dialogue has been almost wholly neglected. It is necessary, therefore, to take up Shia-Sunni dialogue not just as a political necessity but also as a religious imperative. Both Shias and Sunnis believe in the same Quran, which exhorts believers to hold fast to the rope of God and not to split into sects. It is precisely because the issue of Shia-Sunni dialogue has not been seriously taken up by the Shia and Sunni religious leadership that imperialist forces inimical to Muslims and Islam have taken, and continue to take, advantage of these sectarian differences to weaken both of them. It is intriguing in this regard to note that while today various Islamic groups are talking so much about inter-religious dialogue—something that, of course, is very welcome—they continue to completely ignore the pressing need for intra-Muslim sectarian dialogue, such as between Sunnis and Shias and between the different sect-like groups among the Sunnis.

It is urgent that socially conscious Shia and Sunni ulema seriously take up the issue of Shia-Sunni dialogue. In this they must be inspired by a genuine concern for the other. They must seek to understand each other. They must desist from heated polemics. They must also stop thinking that dialogue can only happen when the supposedly rival party gives up the views that the other party does not agree with. Obviously, no dialogue can at all happen if this is the case.  It is also imperative that Shias and Sunnis refrain from promoting hate-driven propaganda against each other. Instead of seeking to discuss their differences in a serious and academic manner, often these are brought out into the streets by rabble-rousers who have a vested interest in stirring Shia-Sunni strife. This is precisely what has transformed Pakistan into a living hell of sectarian hatred and war. Such elements must be sought to be socially ostracized and marginalized.

This year, on the occasion of Eid, Sunnis and Shia jointly offered prayers in Lucknow . This was a very welcome development. It was a result of the initiative taken by two leading Islamic scholars of the city, the Shia leader Maulana Kalbe Sadiq and the Sunni scholar Maulana Khalid Rashid Firangi Mahali. Steps towards dialogue and unity like this are a very encouraging portent and must be promoted.

While talking about Shia-Sunni ecumenism, one must also raise the question about the possibility of Sunnis accepting the Shia Jafari school of Islamic jurisprudence or fiqh as a legitimate one, a fifth school in addition to the existing four schools followed by most Sunnis. The Jamia Al-Azhar, one of the largest and most influential madrasas in the Sunni world, recognizes the Jafari school, in addition to the Ibadi and Zaidi schools, as legitimately Islamic. Half a century or so ago, Shaikh Mahmud Shaltut, rector of Al-Azhar, had even advocated the inclusion of the Jafari school in the madrasa’s curriculum. Unfortunately, no such efforts have been made in the madrasas of South Asia . The chances of this happening in Pakistan are very slim, but if some notable madrasa in India does this it can have a wide-reaching impact. A prominent feature of the Ithna Ashari Jafari school of fiqh is that it has kept the doors of ijtihad open, in contrast to most Sunni schools. This is why it has more flexibility and capacity for change than its Sunni counterparts, and this aspect can be made use of by other schools of fiqh. Likewise, if Shia scholars accept the logic, as the Sunnis do, that the basis of accepting or rejecting a Hadith report should be the truthfulness or otherwise of its narrators, and not that the narrator must necessarily be from the family of the Prophet, they can, at least to some extent, benefit from the more well-preserved corpus of Hadith traditions of the Sunnis. In this way, too, the yawning gulf that separates Sunnis and Shias can be addressed to a considerable extent.

‘Ordinary’ Shias and Sunnis must also seek to work together on common issued at the social level. They, as well as their religious leaders, can participate in each others’ religious and social gatherings and even admit them into their organizations. This can serve be a means for them to share their views and for their views to come closer. As of now, unfortunately, in India there is just one notable Muslim organization that has a mixed Shia-Sunni membership. This is the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board, whose Vice-President is the noted Shia scholar Maulana Kalbe Sadiq. The Board needs to further increase the number of its Shia members. Other Muslim organizations in the country that claim to speak for all Muslims should do the same. At the social level, too, consistent efforts must be made to seek to reduce the Shia-Sunni divide. In this regard, I would like to cite the instance of Iraq , where mixed Shia-Sunni unions account for almost a third of all marriages. In India , in contrast, such marriages are very rare. According to some broad-minded Sunni scholars, such as Shaikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, such marital alliances between Shias and Sunnis are indeed permissible.

In other words, Shia-Sunni dialogue needs to proceed on two broad fronts: at the level of socially conscious and broad-minded ulema of both groups, as well as the level of ‘ordinary’ Shias and Sunnis. This sort of effort at promoting intra-Muslim dialogue must also go along with moves to promote dialogue between Muslims and people of other faiths. As I mentioned earlier, this is not simply a political or social necessity, but, more importantly, it is something that Islam directs its followers to do.

A graduate of the Dar ul-Uloom Deoband, Maulana Waris Mazhari is the editor of the Tarjuman Dar ul-Ulum, the official organ of the Delhi-based Deoband Madrasa’s Graduates’ Association. He has written extensively on issues related to contemporary debates about Islam, including on inter-faith relations, women’s issues, peace and terrorism, from a distinctly progressive perspective. Some of his articles can be accessed on the Internet.