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Shia versus Sunni, the World’s Longest Running Feud
By Professor Nazeer Ahmed


A hundred years from today, when a chronicler writes about the presence of Islam in North America, he may well record that one of the principal achievements of this presence was the healing of the Shia-Sunni split. It will be recorded that America brought together Shias and Sunnis in its embrace and made them rediscover the commonality of their faith transcending the distractions of history and tradition.
The world’s longest running feud is not over Kashmir or Palestine or Chechnya, nor is it the Catholic-Protestant schism. It is the Shia-Sunni conflict. Measured in terms of historical longevity, it beats the Catholic-Protestant schism by a factor of three and the Palestinian conflict by a factor of more than twenty.
If a traveler from outer space were to visit planet earth, he/she would be astonished at the sheer tenacity of the passions and prejudices that govern human life. And the Shia-Sunni conflict would easily top the list of issues that arouse ugly passions.
Muslims vehemently deny it, but they have made Islam a parochial religion mired in the past. Islam was revealed as a universal deen from the heavens. Muslims have made it a religion based on history. What is preached is different from what is practiced. The transcendence of the Qur’an and the universality of the message of the Prophet have been replaced by the parochialism of those who claim to practice them. The contrast between Islamic precepts and Muslim practices is the most convincing illustration of how divine ideas get compromised when they are introduced into the matrix of human affairs.
The mutual misconceptions between Shias and Sunnis are mind-boggling. Talk to a taxi driver in Johannesburg or a porter in Kuala Lumpur, and you will hear an earful of misinformation about Shia and Sunni beliefs. Some Sunnis believe that the Shias have their own version of the Qur’an. The word Rafzi (a derogatory term meaning deviant) is repeatedly invoked in conversations. On the other hand many Shias believe that the Sunnis are turncoats and apostates who revel in the tragedy of Karbala.
The animosities and scornful labels have been there since the assassination of Ali (r) in the year 661 CE. For a long time thereafter some (Sunni) Umayyads used to take the name of Ali (r) with derision. Caliph Omar bin Abdel Azeez (d 719) put an end to this abhorrent practice. On the other hand, some Shias continue to send tabarra on the names of Abu Bakr (r) and Omar (r) to this day and to show disrespect to the name of Aisha (r ).
The endless dispute is even more astonishing when you consider that it has its basis in history, not in doctrine. The origins of the dispute were forgotten, bitterness was entrenched and became a tool for politics and power. History was later elevated to dogma.
Much of the often bloody history of Shia-Sunni conflicts is well known. The Sunnis believe in the Ijmah of the companions. The Shias believe in the primacy of succession through Ahl e Bait. The former resulted in the institution of Khilafat, the latter in the evolution of Imamat and Wilayat. And the feud has continued long after either institution has ceased to have relevance to the contemporary world.
These differences were contained during the Khilafat of Abu Bakr (r) and Omar (r) but burst into the open with the assassination of Uthman (r). The ensuing civil wars were inconclusive and ended only after the assassination of Ali (r) and the abdication of Hassan (r) in favor of Amir Muawiya. The conversion of the Khilafat into a dynasty brought on the tragedy of Karbala, which is a benchmark in Islamic historiography.
Thereafter, the Shia movement went underground, focusing primarily on the social and the spiritual. The Abbasid revolution (750-51 CE) gave some hope for Shia-Sunni reconciliation. This was not to be. The Abbasids deftly used the Shias in the uprising but abandoned them once they were in power. The persecution of the Shias continued.
The subsequent centuries have been a continuous saga of political rivalries between these two groups. The Sunnis have been the dominant political group but on occasions the Shias have challenged the political primacy of the Sunnis. In 945 CE, the Ithna Ashari Buyids briefly occupied Baghdad only to be expelled by the Seljuk Turks. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, the Fatimids, another branch of Shia Islam, successfully challenged the military primary of the Sunni Abbasids in Baghdad and ruled an empire extending from Morocco to Syria from their capital of Cairo. For over a hundred years, it was Sunni Islam that was on the defensive. There were Shia kingdoms as far away as Multan (Pakistan) and Samarqand (Uzbekistan). The Fatimid power shriveled from within due to its narrow social base (they were not successful in proselytizing the Sunnis) and received its coup de grace at the hands of Salahuddin Ayyubi (1171 CE).
With their political power fading, the Fatimids launched the deadly assassin movement. Many a stalwart historical figure fell to the dagger of the assassin. Included among these were the brilliant grand vizier Nizamul Mulk of Baghdad (1091 CE), Mohammed Ghori , conqueror of Delhi (1206 CE), the Atabeks Maudud (1127 CE) and Zengi (1146 CE) of Mosul. Salahuddin himself narrowly escaped the assassin’s dagger on several occasions.
Following the destruction wrought by the invasions of Timur (1375-1402 CE) and his conquest of India, Persia, Egypt and the Ottoman Empire, there were social and spiritual convulsions in the region of eastern Anatolia and Azerbaijan. Several political-religious movements were born in this caldron. Towards the end of the fifteenth century, Safiuddin, a Persian-speaking Turk, established a military-religious cult around himself and founded the Safavid dynasty of Persia (1499). The Safavids waged a relentless war against the neighboring Sunnis in Samarqand to the North and the Ottomans to the West. Safiuddin adopted the Ithna Ashari version of Islam, persecuted the Sunnis and reduced them to a small minority in the Persian heartland. The Safavids were contained only after the Ottoman Turks defeated them at the battle of Chaldiron (1524). However, warfare continued with the Great Moguls of India over control of Afghanistan (1605-1655) and the Ottoman Turks over control of Azerbaijan (1595-1639). The Safavid-Mogul rivalry, which was an echo of the Shia-Sunni rivalry, extended even to the Sultanates of the Deccan and was a primary reason for the advance of Mogul armies into southern India under Shah Jehan and Aurangzeb (1640-1707).
The Shia-Sunni split takes its deadly toll even today. In Iraq, not a day goes by when rival Shia-Sunni groups take the lives of hundreds of innocent people. Even assuming there are hidden hands behind this anarchy, the carnage is historic in its magnitude and can only result in the death of a nation. In Pakistan, intermittent attacks on Shia and Sunni mosques and places of congregation continue, hardening the ill will between the two communities.
Islam in America has a unique opportunity to heal these wounds. There are over three million Muslims in America. And there are over a million Iranians, a large majority of whom is Muslim. America has produced Muslim scholars of the first rank who have transcended Shia or Sunni labels and have made lasting contributions to Islamic sciences. The name of the eminent scholar Seyyed Hussein Nasr immediately springs to mind. America is the melting pot of nations. Muslims here are cosmopolitan. Shia-Sunni marriages and familial relations are commonplace in this land.
There are also pressures from modern geopolitics. Shias and Sunnis realize that they face common challenges. With this realization there have been attempts on the international scene to reconcile the opposing points of view. In 1959, the eminent scholar Shaikh Mahmoud Shaltoot of Al Azhar issued a fatwa that “the Ja'fari school of thought, which is also known as ‘al-Shia al- Imamiyyah al-Ithna Ashariyyah’ (i.e., The Twelver Imami Shi'ites) is a school of thought that is religiously correct to follow in worship as are other Sunni schools of thought”. It is also recognized that the Zaidiyah school of fiqh is also historically valid. In numerous writings Imam Khomeini encouraged the Ithna Ashari Shias to pray with the Sunnis. Unfortunately, such voices of reason were drowned out in the oil politics of the Gulf and the drum beats of the Iran-Iraq war.
This is not to minimize the obstacles to a Shia-Sunni reconciliation. There are religious leaders on both sides who are so mired in their own rote learning that they cannot separate what is history from what is doctrine. Many a mufti, when asked why it is not possible to have a common Shia-Sunni school of fiqh will throw up his hands in the air and declare: “Their sources are different. How can we even begin?” The process of fiqh is so institutionalized that a solution is unlikely to emerge from the traditional scholars.
Instead, reconciliation will emerge from the educated masses, the men and women of the soil who have their faith in the Qur’an and who love the Prophet. They will find the Shia and Sunni labels to be irrelevant. They will bypass the processes of the different schools of fiqh, but will find commonality in the conclusions, the ethics and the injunctions for akhlaq (good character) derived therefrom. Does it matter what sources were used and what process of deduction was followed to establish the pre-eminence of Adl (justice) and Ehsan (the most beautiful deeds) in social relations? Aren’t Adl and Ehsan dictated by the Divine Word? In the emergence of a common Muslim ethic, transcending the Shia and Sunni brands, the Internet can play a vital role. I urge the educated and qualified Muslim youth in North America to undertake this noble but challenging task using guidance from broad-minded ulema, Shaikhs and Imams wherever they may live and whatever their title may be.
Such a consensus emerged at least once before in Islamic history. Faced with the prospect of near annihilation from the Mongol invasions (1219-1302), the Islamic world turned its vision inwards. Nasiruddin al Tusi (d 1274), a distinguished scientist and man of letters, compiled his famous treatise Akhlaq e Nasiri (1273) as an ethical guide for Muslims. This book, written by a Shia scholar became required reading in the Sunni Mogul courts of India (1526-1707) and to a large extent governed their administration.
This then is our vision: Men and women arriving in America from distant shores wherein they faced prejudice and persecution will fuse together a new personality in this new land on the basis of Adl and Ehsan. They will enjoin that which is good and beautiful and forbid that which is extreme and offensive to others. They will be neither Sunni nor Shia but universal in character and uniquely Islamic believing in and practicing Adl and Ehsan. In Ehsan there is healing. In Ehsan there is forgiveness. In Ehsan there is love. In it there is divine presence.

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