Time to start mending the torn fabric of the Muslim Ummah: The Shia-Sunni Divide

Time to start mending the torn fabric of the Muslim Ummah: The Shia-Sunni Divide.

Not a month passes without the news of a Sunni attack on a Shia masjid in Pakistan and the other way around. There are increasing reports of sectarian Shia-Sunni conflict from Iraq.  Some of these may be exaggerated but others have a ring of truth to them.  Shias in Saudi Arabia live under duress.  There is only casual interaction between Shias and Sunnis in this country.  The rift between Shias and Sunnis appears to be increasing with time. 

One of the more disheartening facts about the Muslim Ummah appears to be its inability to deal with rifts within itself.  This undoubtedly leads to structural weakness of the community, allows outsiders to exploit this weakness and may result in the community imploding.  The Qur?an is explicit and insistent in its directives to remain united.

3:103 And hold fast, all together, by the rope which Allah (stretches out for you), and be not divided among yourselves; and remember with gratitude Allah?s favor on you; for ye were enemies and He joined your hearts in love, so that by His Grace, ye became brethren; and ye were on the brink of the pit of Fire, and He saved you from it. Thus doth Allah make His Signs clear to you: That ye may be guided.

21:92 Verily, this brotherhood of yours is a single brotherhood, and I am your Lord and Cherisher: therefore serve Me (and no other).

23:52 And verily this Brotherhood of yours is a single Brotherhood, and I am your Lord and Cherisher: therefore fear Me (and no other).

There is an equally emphatic denunciation of those who form sects and cause divisions.

6:159 As for those who divide their religion and break up into sects, thou hast no part in them in the least: their affair is with Allah. He will in the end tell them the truth of all that they did.

Inspite of these injunctions there are many fault lines in the community.  The one I would like to talk about in this article is the Shia-Sunni rift.

First some background.  Currently there are over 150 million Shias in the Muslim world.  The largest numbers are in Iran followed by India, Pakistan and Iraq.

Iran, Iraq and Bahrain have a Shia majority and Yemen is almost equally divided between Shia and Sunni.

Political discord about succession led to the formation of the party of Ali (Shia of Ali) now simply called the Shia.  The Shia believe that their religious leader or Imam has to be a direct descendant of Ali and is infallible. The Imam is the only source of religious instruction and guidance.

The five doctrines of Shiasm are, Tawhid, Nabuwwah, Resurrection on the Day of Judgment, Imamah, and Adl (justice).  Also different from Sunni Kalaam by some Shia is the validity of disinformation or ?Taqiyyah?, and the practice of time limited marriage or ?Muta?

Although the Shia follow the same Qur?an manuscript as the Sunnis there are variant readings of the Qur?an:

3:110 Ye are the best of peoples (Ummatin), evolved for mankind, enjoining what is right, forbidding what is wrong, and believing in Allah

In Shia reading of this verse Umma is replaced with Aimma (plural of Imam).  Scholars estimate that there are approximately 50 verses of the Qur?an for which there are variant readings.  The exegetical technique preferred by the Shia is ?Tafsir bil Ishara? or looking for the occult meaning of the verse.

There are significant differences in Hadith literature as well.  Shia call their Hadith the Akhbar.  The chain of narrators has to go back to Ali t and other Imams.  They reject Ahadith narrated by Abu Hurayra t and Aisha t.


The differences in rituals include saying ?Ali-yu Waliullah? in Adhan, combining of prayers (three instead of five), performing parts of the Hajj in open top buses and pilgrimage to the holy sites in Baghdad.  There are also slightly different timings for fasting.

There are many sub-sects among the Shias. These sub-sects are based largely on the number at which the chain of Imams is believed to have broken with the occultation, rather than death, of the last Imam in the chain. For example the Ithna Asharis or twelve Imamers (mostly Iranians) believe the chain broke with the twelveth Imam. Zaydis are the second largest group amongst the Shias, are the five Imamers.  The ?Ismailis? on the other hand claim the chain broke with the seventh Imam. The Ismailis consecrate the number seven and point out that there are seven heavens, seven orifices in the head, seven stages of knowledge, seven major prophets and world goes around in cycles of seven thousand years.

Shia philosophy is chiliastic, awaiting the return of the ?occulted Imam.? In the absence of the Imam his surrogate, for example an Ayatollah, has absolute authority.
As a result of the massacre of Imam Husayn (Ali?s son and Prophet Muhammad?s grandson) and his followers at Karbala, there is also a pervasive sense of martyrdom. Annual commemoration of this massacre occurs in the first ten days of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar.

The Shia and the earlier Khwarij conflicts, very early in the life of the Muslim community, had a profound impact on the political philosophy of Sunni scholars.  To counter any further risk of civil war Islamic orthodoxy adopted certain extreme remedial measures in order to face historical exigencies of an extreme nature.  These became part of Islamic orthodoxy after the cessation of Ijtehad.  To maintain Ummah?s solidarity and save it from dogmatic civil wars, Fazalur Rahman writes, the doctrine of ?submissiveness to the de facto authority? became supreme.  ?The Sunnis had forever become the King?s party, almost any king.  The orthodoxy adopted the extreme of obedience and conformism? (Methodology)


The origin of the Shia rift about political succession appears to have been complicated by personality conflict. Shia blame the first three Khalifa?s as being usurpers.  In the past it became routine for Shia to publicly vilify the first three Khalifas.  After Ali t became Khalifa opposition to him was mounted by companions of the Prophet Talha and Zubayr.  They were joined by Aishat, in what is known as the ?battle of the camel.?  Shia scholars blame Aishat as the instigator of this conflict.  Sunni scholars find Aisha?s explanation that it was the inaction of Alit to punish Uthman?s t killers that led to the battle of camel valid. You would not find anyone among the Shia named Aisha, Talha or Zubayr.

There is tendency among Muslims to ignore these differences and even deny their existence.  There is the hope if don?t talk about the problem it will go away. History teaches us that the problem merely simmers below the surface and comes to boil from time to time.

The first step is to start a formal dialogue to find areas of commonality and built upon them.  There are indeed many differences but there are also many areas of common interest both in theology and politics.  The wisdom in this approach has found support in two recent articles.  One is a Fatwa by the well known scholar Yusuf Qardawi on Shia-Sunni dialogue.  He writes the most important rule is to ?concentrate on the points of agreement?, not on areas of difference. Of the former, the most salient are those that deal with ?the fundamental issues of religion?. On the other hand, he suggests, most of the points of difference between Shias and Sunni have to do with ?minor? issues, and hence must not be allowed to become an obstacle in the process of dialogue. He is cognizant of the fact that Shias do not recognize the Sunni books of Hadith. Nevertheless, he points out that most of the traditions contained in these books are considered as authentic by Shias also, either as reports narrated by sources they consider trustworthy or else as points of view of Shia Imams. On the whole, he concludes, ?there is a great deal of agreement? between Shia and Sunni jurisprudence.

A local scholar Abdul Malik Mujahid writing in the American Muslim in an article titled ?A Call for Shia Sunni Dialog: Why and How? lays out practical steps to achieve the goal of Shia-Sunni rapprochement.  Mujahid?s suggestions would be good starting point for a joint committee of Shia and Sunni scholars to discuss.  The first step is to convene this type of a meeting.

In addition to achieving unity of the Ummah and stop the ever widening rift there is also the simple matter of survival in a century that is decidedly hostile to all Muslims, Shia or Sunni, Sufi or Salafi.  It is prudent to start mending the tears in the fabric of our Ummah.

Javeed Akhter is the Executive Director of the International Strategy and Policy Institute (ISPI).  Their website is at http://www.ispi-usa.org/index.htm