By Mohammed Khako
Al-Jazeerah, January 28, 2007
The words Sunni and Shi'i (or the derogatory form, Shiite) appear regularly in news, but few people know what they really mean. Understanding Sunni and Shi'i (sometimes written as Shia) beliefs is important in understanding the conflict in Iraq (resulting from the US occupation of Iraq). The centuries old Shi'i-Sunni differences are the major obstacle to Muslim Unity. There are scholars on both sides – Sunni and Shi'i, like Imam Khomeini and Shaikh Shaltut of Al-Azhar who have done their best to minimize differences and bring unity, but they were not successful due to the misinformation prevailing in the common masses of Sunnis about the Shi'a (school of thought). While a great deal of money and efforts is being spent to fan the fire of hatred between Shi'is and Sunnis in the Middle East with obvious political and economical fruits for power to be. Special interest groups have always fanned these differences for their benefit.
This is what Imam Khomeini said some twenty years ago
“ The filthy hands which aggravates the differences between Shi'i and Sunni Muslims belong to neither to the Shi'is nor the Sunnis. They are the hands of colonialists, which plan to take Islamic countries out of our hands. The colonial powers which want to plunder our wealth through various schemes and conspiracies are the ones who hatch plots for creating division under the pretext of Shi'a or Sunna. Muslims worldwide should not fall in to trap set by those who seek division and mutual hatred. Anyone who is responsible for instigating sectarian division and violence is either an enemy of Islam, or doing the work of the enemies of Islam”
The majority of Shi'i Muslims share all the core belief of Sunni Islam. Shia and Sunna (Islamic schools of thought) have many things in common. They both believe in One God (Allah), follow the same Prophet Muhammad (Peace and blessings of God be upon him), as the last Prophet, offer five daily prayers, perform the fast in the month of Ramadan, go to Mecca for pilgrimage (Hajj), recite the same Qur'an (Holy scriptures) and give alms – Charity (Zakat). There is no theological or spiritual dispute between the Shia and Sunna schools. Rather, the differences are really ethnic and political. While in the matter of Islamic jurisprudence, difference are minor. Sunnis and Shi’is are considered by most to be brethren in faith. In fact, most Muslims do not distinguish themselves by claiming relationship to any particular group, but prefer to call themselves simply “Muslims”.
The factor that most distinguishes Shi'is from Sunnis is the belief in a special representative of God, after the end of Prophethood, called an Imam. The Shi'i Muslims believe that following the Prophet Muhammad’s death; leadership should have passed directly to his cousin/son-in-law Imam Ali. The Imam has both a spiritual role of guidance as well as a politico-social role of rule over Muslims in order to enforce Islamic law. The Shi'is hold that there are twelve Imams, with Ali being the first, Al-Hussain the third. The twelfth and final one, Imam Mahdi (after whom Muqtada al-Sadr named his military wing the “Mahdi Army”) is in a supernatural state of occultation awaiting his return to establish a just order on earth. During his period of occultation, per his instructions, the Ayatollahs are his representatives and the obedience due unto him in both a religious and political sense devolves unto them. The difference between Ayatollah Sistani and Ayatollah Khomeini —both Iranians educated in Najaf, Iraq—is of degree and not of kind.
To grasp the mind-set of any Ayatollah, it is enough to quote Imam Al-Hussain. “The conduct of affairs and the laws should be in the hands of the learned and spiritual leaders of God who are the trustees of what He has made prohibited and lawful. The reign of affairs must be in their hands…” Ayatollah Sistani and others in the Najaf seminary belong to the older quietist school, while some Ayatollahs from Islamic seminary in Qom, Iran, believe in clerical activism and come from the school of thought that religion and politics are inseparable.
The Shi'i are more hierarchical, with ayatollahs (clerics) have more power. The Sunnis are more self-governing. Initially the difference between Sunnis and Shi'is was merely a difference concerning who should lead the Muslim community (Ummah) after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in early 7th century. The Sunni-Shi'i divide is similar to Protestant-Catholic split in Christianity. Shi'is are far more passionate and attached to the love of the Prophet Muhammad and his family (Ahlul-Bayt /Imams). Shism is more Catholic-like just as Catholics recognized Saints, Shi'is believe in Imam (saint) as an intermediary between man and God. Shi'i pilgrims who go to the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf and Imam Al-Hussain in Kerbala, Iraq could be like Catholic pilgrims who go to the shrine of Fatima in Portugal or to the Vatican.
Sunnis are more Protestant-like. The Sunni cleric is more like a Protestant pastor, whereas a Shi'i Ayatollah is more like a bishop or a cardinal, except that Shism has no pope (Well, a lot of Shi'is looked at Imam Khomeini in the past and Khameini now the same way Catholics look at the Pope - Al-Jazeerah Editor). Just like Protestant and Catholicism, both follow the same scriptures, both follow the same story of Jesus, but have a different ethos of Christianity. The same is true for Shi'is and Sunnis.
If there are no genuine differences among Shi'is and Sunnis, then why all this bloodshed in Iraq? Looking at histories of religion, we know there were disputes over interpretations and versions of narration (Hadith). These disputes among communities over time can lead to conflict. The disputes have become politicized, for instance, many years of war in Northern Ireland and in Europe were due to territory disputes or independence from Vatican or British domination. So the Sunni-Shi'i issue has the same flow. In Iraq today, why are the Shi'is and Sunnis so antagonistic? It is because, much like Northern Ireland, the theological boundary marks the boundaries of different communities and their identities.
In Washington, newspaper editorials talk about civil war, Shi'i militias, and Sunni insurgents (resistance fighters) in Iraq. There is too much at stake to get swept up by minor differences and divide the Muslim community along Shi'i and Sunni lines. We are all Muslims, and that is the most important thing to remember. Just as God delivered Moses and his people free on the day of Ashura from bondage, death and despair, I pray God delivers the greater Middle East from the bondage of hatred, death, and war. The best way to commemorate the supreme sacrifice of the martyrs of Karbala on Ashura on Jan 28th is to shun sectarian and other prejudice and follow the principle of peaceful coexistence, tolerance and mutual respect to create unity and cohesion in the community. The martyrdom and the supreme sacrifice of Imam Al-Hussain on the plains of Karbala should give Muslims the lesson of tolerance, moderation, forgiveness, harmony and tranquility between followers of all school of thought.