Sunnis and Shias are closer to each other than it seems
SUNNI and Shia Muslims have no significant differences, nor disagreements, about the most fundamental and most consequential issues concerning both Islam and life.
It is no coincidence that Islam and life are bracketed here together, for Islam is an all-inclusive code of existence, while life, the way it has been created and is sustained by its Creator and Master, is what Islam universally stands for. The two are virtually synonymous.
Such existential issues are: the core precepts of Islamic ‘aqidah (faith or creed), principal worship rites, practices and services, general moral and ethical principles, family values, socio-economic justice and integrity, the inviolability and purity of human – especially Muslim – life, blood, property and dignity, architecture, urban planning and development, environmental protection, sustainability, safety, security, hygiene, and everything else that could be placed under the auspices of the notion of maqasid al-shari’ah (the purposes and objectives of Islamic shari’ah, namely, the preservation of religion or faith, life, lineage or future generations, intellect and property).
What normally transpires between us in the course of our routine interactions and dialogues seldom exceeds the level of ordinary and expected scholarly engagements. Though our discussions always take on a strong religious and philosophical penchant, our most profound disagreements normally do not.
It is only when we touch on certain highly sensitive and so, considerably overblown, misinterpreted and outright distorted historical episodes, political incidents and cases, military confrontations, as well as some sheer but overstated and rigid jurisprudential and minor ostensibly ideological and moral issues, which originated from, and feed on, the former, that our more serious disagreements start emerging and my being a Sunni, and theirs Shia, begin to show.
Sunnis and Shias, by and large, agree on most fundamental Islamic doctrinal (faith or ‘aqidah-oriented) and practical devotional aspects, which are underlined by both the Holy Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) Sunnah as common denominators of one’s belonging to Islam and his or her being a Muslim.
They believe in the same God, Almighty Allah, His infinite attributes and most beautiful names, the same prophet(s), the same angels and the same Day of Judgment. They share the same Islamic worldview and ethical system. They read the same Qur’an, Allah’s final testament to all humanity, regarding it as mercy, a guidance for the people, clear proofs or signs, and the criterion or judgment between right and wrong. They furthermore perform the same prayers, fast the same holy month of Ramadan, give away the same zakat and perform the same hajj (pilgrimage) to Makkah. They also face the same qiblah, that is, the Ka’bah or al-Masjid al-Haram in Makkah, and confront the same enemy, that is, Satan or Iblis and his large armies from the ranks of both the jinn and humans. They are all proponents of Jihad (an all-encompassing struggle to defend and promote Islamic beliefs and values) and the concept of al-‘amr bi-l-ma’ruf wa al-nahy ‘ani-l-munkar (enjoining good and forbidding evil). As they champion the notion of love for those who follow Allah’s path and dissociation with those who oppose and work against it. Lastly, they all aspire and do their best to secure the accolade of being Allah’s faithful and loyal servants, lavished in His love, gifted with His grace, showered with His immeasurable mercy, and, in the end, as a result, be admitted to His Paradise (Jannah).
What Sunnis and Shias generally disagree about, though often and in certain religious, historical and cultural contexts very important, is yet categorised as secondary, less significant and, at times, even utterly trivial subjects and problems.
What is thus needed is a thorough ethics of disagreement and conflict resolution in Islam. At the core of such an ethical system should stand the fundamental values of the general Islamic ethics, beliefs and morals. Its guiding principle should be the notion of separation between the fallible and changeable, and the infallible and immutable, and between the human and mundane, and the religious and divine, never allowing the former to encroach on and influence the latter. It should always be the other way around.
In the case of the Sunni-Shia differences and conflicts, the matter is rendered yet worse by numerous political and jurisprudential (religious) protagonists, both historically and at the present time.
In passing, in the early days of Islam and its embryonic culture and civilization, there were no such things as the concepts of Sunnism and Shi’ism. Religious sectarianism did not exist, and there was neither Shi’ism and Shi’i Islam, nor Sunnism and Sunni Islam. There were only Islam in its original and purest form, the first and best generation of Muslims (sahabah or the companions), and the most exemplary Muslim community which was conceived and molded by the heavenly vision of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
Of course – in addition – as time passed, there quickly emerged all those intrinsic and somewhat foreseeable issues and challenges that the people were confronted with and had to come to terms with if they wished to succeed in making any global civilisational impact. The concepts of Sunnism (ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah) and Shi’ism (shi’ah) were the products of subsequent times and subsequent generations that were characterised by people’s different mindsets, spiritual dispositions and socio-political ambitions.
While the modern Sunni-Shia conflicts rage, threatening to consume us all, many Muslim governments – principally in the Middle East – are proving utterly debilitated and hopeless, which hardly spells a surprise when everything is taken into consideration. So appalling are their decisions and actions that one often wonders if they are there to serve, or destroy, the interests of Islam and Muslims. Over and over again, such people of power and influence generate as much damage to the wellbeing of Muslims.
That is why, by the letter of the Qur’an and Sunnah, hypocrites and traitors are the worst categories of people, capable of causing most damage to the community as they act from within. Their moves are hardly predictable and hence, difficult to counter.
This Muslim governmental and institutional disgraceful ineptness notwithstanding, the ordinary Muslims and Muslim silent majorities ought to do something. Silence and inaction are no longer an option. We must bear in mind that one day we will all have to stand alone in front of Almighty Allah and answer to Him what we in our diverse capacities have done during these perhaps most testing, painful and frustrating times. It might not be much, but doing nothing should not be considered acceptable anymore, for it plays into the hands of evil protagonists.
- Dr Omer, an award-winning author, is an Associate Professor at the International Islamic University, Malaysia (IIUM).