Shia-Sunni sectarian conflicts have been a feature over most of Muslim history, and they have closely linked to the competition for power. It was this that led Syed Amir Ali (writer on Islamic history and society) to remark in his book, The Spirit of Islam, “Alas! That the religion of humanity and universal brotherhood should not have escaped the internecine strife and discord; that the faith which was to bring peace and rest to the distracted world should itself be torn to pieces by angry passions and the lust of power”.
Shortly after the death of the Prophet of Islam (PBUH), the early Muslim society was divided on the question of succession to the position of leadership of the community. A small group believed that the function must remain within the family of the Prophet, and backed ‘Ali’, whom they believed to have been designated for this role by appointment (ta‘yin) and testament (nass). They believed that the spiritual heritage bequeathed by Mohammad (PBUH) devolved on Ali and his lineal descendants. Hence, they repudiated the authority of the jama‘at (the people) to elect their leader. They became known as his ‘partisans’ (shi‘ah). On the other hand, the majority agreed on Abu Bakr as the leader on the assumption that the Prophet left no instruction on this matter. They gained the name ‘The People of Prophetic Tradition and consensus of opinion’ (ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah).
Besides the political dimension, there also existed a difference of opinion about the merits and functions of the successor to the Prophet. Sunni Islam considered the Khalifah to be a guardian of the shariah in the community, while Shi‘ism saw in the ‘successor’ a spiritual function connected with the esoteric interpretation of the revelation and the inheritance to the Prophet’s ‘hidden’ teachings. In contrast to the Sunnis, the institution of Imamate is fundamental to the Shias. The Imam, besides being a descendant of the Prophet, must possess certain qualities — he must be ma‘sum or sinless, bear the purest and most unsullied character, and must be distinguished above all other men for truth and purity. On the other hand, the Sunnis believe that the Imamate is not restricted to the family of Mohammad (PBUH), that the Imam need not be irreproachable (ma‘sum) in his life, and nor need he be the most excellent or eminent being of his time. So long as he is free, adult, sane, and possessed of the capacity to attend to the ordinary affairs of state, he is qualified for election.
In general, the Sunnis continued to support the established authority of Ummayads and Abbasides, though the later Sunni jurists accepted only the first four caliphs as full embodiments of the ideal of caliphate. For their part, various Shia groups continued to challenge the legitimacy of different caliphates for the most part of Muslim history. The Shias, however, enjoyed political power in the fourth century under the Buyides, who controlled all of Persia and wielded power in Baghdad, and later under the Fatimids in Egypt. Amongst the Shias, the Itna ‘Asharis, followers of the twelve saintly Imams, reprehended the use of force, and maintained an attitude of complete withdrawal from temporal power until Shah Ismail, the great Safavi monarch, made Ithna ‘Ashari Shi’ism the state religion of Persia. Under Shah Ismail a vigorous campaign was launched to convert the majority Sunni population to Shi’ism.
Consequently, one of the major developments during the Saffavid reign was the end of the mutual tolerance between Sunnis and Shias that existed in Iran from the time of the Mongols. A common form of Saffavid abuse was to curse Abu Bakr and Umar for having ‘usurped’ Ali’s right to be caliph. This hatred served two purposes: it reinforced Shia sectarian identity as it underlined Persian against Arab ethnicity. Another development was the Shia rejection of Sufism, and a growing concentration on law and the external observances of religion and ritual. Besides other factors, these anti-Sunni policies of Safavids were responsible for their deteriorating relations with the neighbouring Sunni powers such as the Mughals in India, the Ottomans in Turkey and the Uzbeks in Central Asia.
Dialogue on convergence
The frightening upsurge in Shia-Sunni sectarian violence in recent days in some countries that have left hundreds dead and thousands injured raises the question of whether there can be any possibility of dialogue between the two groups. Indeed, the deeply entrenched Shia-Sunni division remains the major obstacle to Muslim unity and the critics of Islam have consistently sought to play upon and fan the differences. Unfortunately, some Muslim ‘scholars’ have played into their hands, and through their bitterly sectarian speeches and writings have inflamed hatred between Shias and Sunnis on a massive scale.
For successful dialogue between Shias and Sunnis, it is essential to understand and analyse the nature of differences between the two sects from the doctrinal, juristic, intellectual and political perspectives. Furthermore, to be meaningful, the dialogue must take into consideration both the aspects of difference as well as of convergence between Shias and Sunnis. Most importantly, the dialogue should be restricted to intellectual level, and should not, at least at the outset, involve the masses. Furthermore, the dialogue should in its initial stages focus on issues of convergence rather than the divergences between the two groups.
It is important in this regard to examine the terms used to refer to dialogue between Shias and Sunnis. Historically, the first term that seems to have been used was ‘al-tasaluh’ or reconciliation between the two groups. Later, it was replaced by ‘tafahum’ or mutual understanding. Later on another term was coined: ‘al-taqarub’ or convergence. This term emerged with the establishment of ‘Dar al-Taqarub bain al-Mazahib al-Islamiyah’ by Mohammad Taqi al-Qimmi in 1945 in Cairo. The term ‘al-wahdah’ or unity and ‘hiwar’ or dialogue appeared later, as in the writings of leading jurists like Mahdi Shamsuddin. It seems that the sensitivity of the subject of Shia-Sunni relations had a direct influence on the terminology used for dialogue between Shias and Sunnis.
The continuing efforts from the Shia side to convert the Sunnis to Shi’ism with an aim to expand the domain of Shia rule has played a key role in the failure of the dialogue in the past. It has also made for many Sunni scholars to view the proposal for ‘convergence’ with suspicion, seeing it as a covert means to spread Shi’ism. Some Sunni ulema who had initially accepted the ‘convergence’ invitation later withdrew from the process. To add to this was the question of ‘taqqaiyah’ (or pious dissimulation) in Shi’ism, which remains a major obstacle in the process of dialogue. This raises doubts among many Sunnis about the actual intention of Shia offers of dialogue and creates endless confusion. Thus, it has provoked some Sunnis to believe that all statements issued by Shias that appear contrary to their original beliefs are actually a product of ‘taqqaiyah’ and are not sincerely meant. These issues have, therefore, led to a stagnation of efforts to promote ‘convergence’, at least from the Sunni side. The establishment of a Shia state in Iran in 1979 further complicated and intensified the issue, especially because of the direct political involvement of the Iranian state in sponsoring the activities of Shi’ite missionary groups to convert Sunnis to the Shia fold.
Some advocates of Shia-Sunni ‘convergence’ have argued that differences between Sunnis and Shias are of the same nature as differences that exist among the various Sunni schools of jurisprudence (fiqh). Confining his approach to the question of Shia-Sunni relations to discussion of differences of fiqh, the scholar Shamsuddin proposes a ‘Board of Convergence and Unity Issues’ comprising different Muslim groups, one of whose primary objectives would be ‘to work on juristic openness’ between them. On the other hand, some Salafi groups see the differences between Shias and Sunnis not simply as rooted in fiqh, but, rather, as fundamentally religious, based on the understanding that the faith of the Shias is tantamount to infidelity (kufr). This explains the absence of Salafi figures in seminars to promote ‘convergence’ or unity between Shias and Sunnis (Salafis advocate a radical worldview – strict return to the fundamentals of religion and rejection of any behaviour that was not specifically supported or enjoined by the Prophet Mohammed). For the Salafis, Shias can only be related to through ‘munazara’ or debate, in order to ‘prove’ the Shias as ‘false’ (batil) and the Salafis themselves as ‘true’ (haq).
It must be understood that the juristic differences between the Sunni schools of thought are not similar to the differences between Shias and Sunnis. The differences among the four major Sunni schools of jurisprudence are not in matters of faith (aqidah), and hence do not constitute a fundamental difference, unlike that between Sunnis as a whole and the Shias. One of the major differences between Shia and Sunni is in their definition of Sunnah (habit, practice or customary procedure) and Hadith (report or narration). There is a vital difference in the nature of acceptable Sunnah for both groups. The Shias accept only those hadith that have been reported by or attributed to the Ahl al-Bait or direct descendents of the Prophet (PBUH), whereas the Sunnis authenticate all the hadith reported by any of the Prophet’s companions (PBUH). Further, Shias include in their hadith collections not only statements attributed to the Prophet (PBUH) but also statements attributed to their Imams, whom they regard as infallible. Unlike the Sunnis, the Shias therefore place, in effect, the authenticated sayings of their Imams on par with the sayings of the Prophet and of Allah as contained in the Quran. Sunnis have developed a specific method of ‘criticism’ to authenticate the hadith, which emerged soon after the death of the Prophet (PBUH). On the other hand, the collection of hadiths available with the Shias does not appear to have undergone the same sort of rigorous critical examination as is the case with Sunnis.
Despite these major differences, both Shias and Sunnis share certain fundamental beliefs, such as faith in one God (Allah) and the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Both consider the Quran as God’s last and final revelation. They both have a roughly similar method of prayer, both observe the prescribed fast in the month of Ramadan, and recognise the centrality of the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), and the payment of the zakah or poor-due. As far as the phenomenon of intellectual pluralism and differences of opinion is concerned, it should be noted that these are natural phenomenon that cannot be avoided in any religious community. There is nothing wrong with this unless it is associated with imposing dictatorship or intellectual extremism.
The Muslim ummah has for long suffered from sectarian and intellectual antagonisms that have severely affected it throughout its history. This antagonism is reflected in conflicts between various groups such as the Jabriyah and the Qadriyah, the Murjiyah and their foes, and the Ashairah and the Mutazila, in addition to the different schools of jurisprudence among the Sunnis, such as the Hanafis, Shafi’is, Hanbalis and Malikis. These differences still exercise a considerable intellectual impact on present-day Muslim social life but are no longer the source of serious conflict. On the other hand, Shia-Sunni differences still remain the cause of violent conflict. At the beginning of the last century, numerous reformist Shia and Sunni ulema attempted to seriously study this question. A significant effort in this regard was the establishment of the Dar al-Taqrib bain al-Mazahib al-Islamiya in Cairo in 1945 with the aim of promoting dialogue and resolving differences in line with jurisprudential (fiqhi) ijtehad. It sought to promote cooperation between different Muslim groups on the basis of mutual respect. Nevertheless, some hardliner chauvinists from both sides sabotaged the process of this mission.
Adding to the already strained relations between the Shias and the Sunnis is the continuing conflictual relationship between Salafis and Shias, with the Salafis being vehemently opposed to Shi’ism. This is still reflected in many recent Salafi writings. Thus, Dr Nassir bin Abdullah Al-Gefari, in his recent two-volume study on ‘mas’alat al-taqrib bain ahl al-sunnah’ or ‘The Issue of Convergence between Shiites and Sunnis’, argues that, “The invitation of convergence is a bidat-i kubra (major sinful innovation) aiming at granting kufr and zalal (infidelity) legality in name of Islam. This talk of convergence has caused great loss to the ahl al-sunnah…”. Some Shia scholars have responded by using somewhat similar language, mouthing scathing critiques of what they call as “al-wahabiyah”, a term that the Salafis do not like for themselves.
Undoubtedly, today the Muslim ummah is facing a dangerous situation with few precedents in history. At this critical juncture, the Salafis have adopted an extremist approach toward Shias and should be held responsible for creating an atmosphere of differences among the ummah. The perception of the Salafis about the other sects, including the Shias, is based on the ruling of the Salaf ulema, and these are likely to entertain a certain degree of misconception. Hence, there is an urgent need for the ulema of different groups to understand each other, and to reach out in order to eradicate mutual misconceptions. In order to gain a proper understanding of Shi’ism it is essential for the Salafi ulema to study the thinking of the contemporary Shias as presented in their literature.
It must be remembered that Shias and Sunnis have no differences whatsoever in what they regard as the main sources of their faith: the Quran and Sunnah, although the ways in which they interpret these are somewhat different. As for the juristic opinions of the Salaf (forbearers), while they are indeed to be respected, they represent ijtehadat that can be accepted or rejected. Therefore, considering the Quran and Sunnah as the main and direct criterion by the ulema of different schools might go a long way in promoting the acceptance of opinions of other schools, at least at the intellectual level.