Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Unbridgeable Shia-Sunni Cleavage in Islam

December 6, 2011

By Saeed Qureshi

This year too, all over the world and particularly in Pakistan, the Shia community observed the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, the grandson of the prophet of Islam, in a nerve-racking environment. In Pakistan they entered their congregational holy places as if entering a nuclear arsenal. Each and every person was subjected to body pat down by the security staff posted at entry and exit points. The entire country was placed under high alert with thousands of military and semi military personnel guarding the processions. Practicing of one’s faith is becoming extremely arduous in Islamic polities.

From the day Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) left the transitory abode of this world, the Islamic polity has remained divided into two unbridgeable branches: Shia and Sunni. Shias believe that the three successors of Prophet Muhammad were usurpers as the succession was the right of the blood relations of the prophet.

Shiite muslims also believe that the true leadership comes through the prophet's bloodline and 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.

This cleavage 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 Ommyad caliph Yazid the son of the founder of Ommyad 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 fifteen centuries.

Imam Hussain’s death commemorated each year by a passion play or the world-wide mammoth collective mourning has become the rallying point for the shia fraternity and identity. The martyrdom of Hussain nurtured the shia cause under the Ommyads and became the harbinger of the downfall of their dynasty.

With the exception of a few common beliefs and traditions Shias and Sunnis differ on a whole plethora of beliefs with regard to Sharia laws encompassing both juridical and ecclesiastical. The Shias believe in a lineage of twelve divine imams or spiritual leaders. Sunnis have four Imams but they are primarily interpreters of the Islamic Sharia law.

Historically, Sunnis and Shias have been at loggers head with each other from the martyrdom of Hussain to this day. 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.

They have been so irreconcilably hostile to each other that Islamic history is replete with their mutual annihilations and massacres. It is a colossal tragedy within Islam that this great faith is torn apart into two domains that can never reconcile or converge on several matters of faith till eternity.

While in the past they killed each 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.

A famous Muslim historian Shahrastani commented on the Sunni-Shia schism of creed in these words, “Never was there an issue than brought more bloodshed than the caliphate.” 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 who invited the Tartars to come to Baghdad.

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 Ommyad and Abbasids dynasties while the others were killed by these powerful family dynasties. As such the discord between Shias and Sunnis is not only of faith but also regional, ethnic and political.

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.

So to bridge the doctrinal and theological chasms between these two main sects within Islam would always remain a tall order unless the Muslim clergy decide to live in harmony despite their mutual differences of faiths and Sharia laws. Would that be possible within an Islamic state cannot be fathomed because both would vie for political power.

However if the islamic polity turns secular wherein all shades of 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 mosque and never fight.


  1. i agree with you, i also think religious harmony is needed for peace. thanks for this factual post

  2. very nice thoughts, thanks a lot for this post