Alternative Concepts for Explaining the Sunni-Shia Friction

Alternative Concepts for Explaining the Sunni-Shii Friction, by Mazen Hashem

The essay starts with commenting on three fault lines that trigger frictions between Sunnis and Shiis: the fiqhi line, the mental image of history, and folkways differences. The popular explanation of the Sunni-Shii friction is that it is a matter of sectarian religious difference. This essay offers an alternative explanation, arguing that the friction could be adequately understood from a perspective that analyzes majority-minority dynamics. The essay concludes with pointing to the ample common ground between Sunnis and Shiis at the level of values and ultimate socioeconomic aims.

The Fiqhi Fault line

To the average Muslim, fiqh stands for Islam itself as it represents an easy-to-understand template of the good conduct. Most people become troubled by minor fiqhi disagreements because they are not fully aware of the extent to which there are acceptable fiqhi variations within the corpus of ulama’s work. When it comes to the Sunni-Shii divide, the average person would interpret such fiqhi variation as a deviation from Sharia itself. Interestingly, the fiqhi gap among some of the major Sunni mathhabs is larger than the gap between the Jaafari Shii mathhab and some Sunni ones.

This aspect of disagreement becomes further problematized when cast as a creedal disagreement, as a matter of aqidah. This is a gross miscategorization since Sunnis and Shiis mainlines totally agree on the creedal basis of Islam: oneness of Allah, the prophethood of Muhammad, the Quran as the final revealed book, etc. Note that there are though some specialized differences between Islamic groups that are discussed in the books of aqidah, but these are not the kind of issues that characterize disbelief and conceptual polytheism. Imam Ashari, the foremost authoritative source of Sunni creedal issues says clearly that “we do not ascribe ‘kufr’ to any of the people of the qiblah.” Even Ibn-Taymiya, who was not fond of Shiis, says that only offshoot Shii groups that ascribe divinity to Ali or claim that Angel Jibril made a mistake in delivering the message are considered kafirs. Interestingly, there are three Islamic aqeedah schools, the Ashari, the Mutazili, and the Maturidi, with which most Muslims are unfamiliar. Furthermore, those schools do not align neatly with the Sunni-Shii divide. Shiis lean toward the Mutazili School, although it developed under the Sunni Abbasids. It is well-known that one of the unique characteristics of Islam is that it has no institutional basis for validating the faith of people. Common sense says that Shii scholars carry the responsibility of making clear their rejection of the offshoot ideas similar to those mentioned above, and that Sunni scholars should not get hooked on historical debates.

The History Image Fault Line

Despite that Sunnis and Shiis share the same Muslim history, they have radically different constructions of such a history. The root of such disagreement does not lie simply in the differing interpretations of historical events but in the focus on different aspects of it. While the Sunni perspective is aware of the deviations that occurred in realm of politics, they focus their attention on the civilizational achievements of Muslims. Shiis, on the other hand, focus on the problem of a “stolen” leadership from those who deserve it. Such position from the Shiis enrages Sunnis as it trumps marvelous Muslim civilizational achievements, acknowledged by Muslim as well as non-Muslim scholars. Shiis avoid talking about civilizational achievements and insist on focusing on the downside aspects: political domination and repressing Shii radical groups. For Sunnis, the claims of historical repression that are popular in Shii stories resemble urban legends that cannot stand the scrutiny of historical-scientific research. Furthermore, when Shiis gained political control in Muslim history, they were not less royal than Sunni rulers that Shiis disparage.

Popular analysis in some Arab media outlets paints the issue in terms of a revival of the Sassanid Empire, or in terms of the rise of the Savadis to recapture control. Notwithstanding that states do tend to seek regional hegemony, doom-ridden nationalistic analysis turns into rhetoric. The impact of the Savadis on Shiism is well-known. It was in that era that Shiism constructed many of its customs and popular myths as an ideology to buttress Savadi’s political control. However, in so doing the Shii Savadis were not very different from the Sunni Ottomans who were mustering their political control through sponsoring Sufism. It is much more defensible to relate contemporary Shii revival to the Qajari period (1799-1925) rather to the Savadis (1501-1722). The Qajari period was marked by political instability, which prompted Shii clerics to overcome their dominant norm of quietism and to get engaged in politics. In contrast, the Sunni ulama of this period had a state that speaks on their behalf and did not feel the need to be as much politically engaged. Ironically, contemporary political fragmentation in today’s Muslim countries looks like a Sunni Qajari period were Sunni clerics are showing more interest in and willingness to engage in politics.

The Customs Fault Line

Muslims lived their history in highly pluralistic settings. Therefore, different groupings of people maintained their local cultural practices, which intermixed with Islamic elements. For the average person, the folkways that are imbued with an Islamic spirit replace the root ideas of religion itself. For example, both the Sunni and the Shii go to the mosque and get a spiritual lift through listening to preaching and stories, but such preaching is of different genres and invokes the memories of different personalities. Shiis feel that Sunnis do not give due respect to ahl al-bayt, the progeny of Prophet Muhammad. Sunnis on the other hand are troubled by the thick rituals of Shiism as they reflect the properties of the cult of saints, foreign to pristine Islam. In contrast, most of the myths and thick rituals within the Sunni tradition were housed in Sufi orders, which despite their popularity do not represent the mainstream tradition as in the Shii case.

These differences stay mute in peaceful times; however, in the times of extreme uncertainty and political agitation they become the focal point in mobilization and intensify the conflict. Furthermore, when political violence targets venerated symbols, revenge becomes sadistic, justified on the basis of denigrating the sacred.

Majority-Minority Dynamics

In all societies, the majority considers itself as the default and sets the rhythm of public life. It holds a sense of entitlement and considers itself the reference point. The voice of minorities gets overwhelmed. Minority members feel that they are sidelined and that they do not get the due respect they deserve.

When a minority is very small, it usually opts either toward invisibility and withdrawal, or toward a colorless participation in the public order. However, when a minority is quite large, it seeks to itself an acknowledged presence.  Overall, the Shii population is around 15% of total Muslim population, which represents a critical threshold that is small enough not to dominate the Muslim seen but large enough not to disappear. It would be no surprise, then, that Shiis feel that they are marginalized and that their input is not given due consideration.

It is well established that minorities in Muslim history enjoyed relative peaceful coexistence. But no social existence is perfect, and moments of strained social relations could be registered in Muslim history. It is typical for the majority not to pay attention to the specific instances where a minority has been wronged. While the majority focuses on the positive overall orientation, the minority focuses on the exceptions. Forwarding to recent events in Iraq and the fatal aggression against Shii markets and religious sites, Shiis cries what they label as “the silence of the majority.”  The Sunni majority get puzzled as the perpetrators do not represent them nor do they come from its mainstream. And when Shii bandits revenged, they were as immoral as Sunni bandits.

So far the focus was on the overall representation of Shiis among the total Muslim population. However, for an adequate understanding, one should consider the specific ratio of their population in different countries and the specific context in which they live. For example, the ratio of Shii in Syria is very small, and they quietly advance their cause. If we speak of the Shii of Afghanistan who from near one fifth of the population, we cannot understand their case without invoking their ethnic Hazara affiliation and their spatial concentration in a specific geographical location. As a significantly large minority, the recent upward mobility of Shii in Lebanon is part of their rejection of the social class snootiness of modernist and westernized Lebanese Christians and Sunnis.  If we speak of the Shii of Iran, where the Sunnis are a small minority, we find that Shiis act in a disdaining majoritarian attitude. Moreover, since Iran is led by Shii clerics, the state is very sensitive to anyone from an Islamic mold who challenges their religious legitimacy. Therefore, there is no surprise that they are more tolerant toward nonMuslims than to Sunnis.

Group Identity

Majority-minority relations cannot be reduced to numerical representation, rather, such relationships usually hinge on the issue of identity.  To a great extent, the jealousy between Sunnis and Shiis is a matter of ascertaining an identity that houses collective memories and group pride. It is important here to note that people carry multiple and overlapping identities. Which one takes priority (the Islamic, the national, the ethnic, the local, family name, etc.) depends on the context that the group is going through as well as the sophistication level of the person.

Societies in Muslim history were organized around communities, not individuals. In such a setting, different groups naturally maintain their group identity. That is true for Shiis. Only on the political level Shiis were often excluded, and when they managed to get political power, Sunnis were excluded. Note however, that exclusion was based on not being of the group rather being of a different sect. Polity in Muslim history was entrusted, or “subcontracted,” to the group that best maintains its internal solidarity, which allows it to server the needs of communities and protect them from external aggression. Again, particular identities in the khilafa federal/confederal system were systematically maintained. That changed with the arrival of the modern nation-state after the colonial era, which organized the society around individuals—the citizen. Such arrangement did not succeed in nonEuropean societies, inflaming alienated group identities. Neither a capable effective state that renders services to citizens was achieved, nor was the older communal welfare network system able to naturally function. Group identities, then, wait the opportunity to get mobilized, seeking at least status and recognition, if nothing else. The tensions of identity clashes reach a breaking point when persecution and physical aggression take place, regardless of the circumstances that originally led to the conflict. Two contemporary cases serve as an illustration to this idea: the Darfurians and the Kurds.

The Darfurians of Sudan, who are Muslims and Sunnis, had to experience a human catastrophe due to complex circumstances of tribal competition, state failure, and external intervention. The artificiality of the British drawn boundaries of the feeble nation-state of Sudan and its failure to establish political legitimacy is at the root of the problem. The result was the rise of a more sharpened identity of the Darfurians. The Kurds who lived in considerable peace within the Ottoman’s decentralized control were forgotten from 1916 Sykes Picot pact between Britain and France that gave birth to the modern states of the Middle East. The contiguous area in which Kurds historically lived became divided among four states. The ideology of nationalism was engulfing the Third World, and the ensued Kurdish resistance became dominated by communist-leaning groups at the time when the Soviet Union was buying influence in the area. The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) adopted a program of violent revenge against Turks, killing thousands of civilians (in addition to Kurds who opposed the PKK); the Turkish military responded with vengeance, clearing many Kurdish villages. Violence cemented a Kurdish political consciousness, regardless of the circumstances that led to violence and despite that the PKK tactics do not necessarily receive the approval of the average Kurd.

Similar identity dynamics recently took place with the Shiis. The Shiis of Iraq (in addition to Iraqi Kurds) carried the brunt of Saddam’s regime repression. That in turn re-enlivened the Shii identity. With the rise of political sectarianism after the fall of regime, disagreement flared on what to do with the new situation. Identities were further polarized, and each group accuses the other of being a traitor: a traitor at the time of Sadam’s regime or a contemporary traitor. As Shii propaganda equated Sunnism with being a “Saddami relic,” the unenlightened response of some Sunnis was to argue that Saddam was a “mumin,” meeting the technical conditions to be considered a believer! However, there is no quarrel that the Baathi regime of Saddam was a nationalistic, leftist, secular, areligious, and equal-opportunity oppressor. Kurds and Shiis received most of the repression because of the degree of threat each posed to the regime, not because of creed and sect; indeed, the Kurds are overwhelming Sunnis. Yet, afterwards, identities clashed on the Sunni-Shii divide. A political conflict stemming from the disagreement on how to manage the country after the invasion has been turned into a sectarian one. Ironically, in this perplexing political environment, the Shiis chose Umayyad-like pragmatism while the Sunnis chose Hussaini-like idealism.

The Common Ground

It does not take a learned person to recognize the both Sunnis and Shiis share an Islamic outlook based on the values of Islam and its social orientation. The very logic of Islam is rooted in the idea of unity of the creator and the centrality of the transcendental guidance in refining human conduct. Sunni as well as Shii lines consider that the righteous deeds of taqwa are the basis of individuals’ worth, upon which they will be responsible at the Day of Judgment. Furthermore, both lines assert collective responsibility in seeking truth and rejecting myths at the cultural level, and fighting tyranny (taghoot ) at the sociopolitical level. Sunni and Shii traditions revere personal purity, the family institution, and the role of motherhood. Furthermore, they converge on the centrality of the concepts justice, mercy, and moderation, considering them as the cornerstone of the moral social order.

The Sunni-Shii rift started early in Muslim history as a political schism, then slowly developed into a community, a faction, and a sect. Ironically, the thrust of this schism was exactly centered on how to actualize the above-mentioned qualities of Islam. The Sunni-Shii historical political disagreement was, at its roots, a disagreement on the political arrangement that would preserve the values of Islam. Muslims of today has the option of recognizing the common ground on which their different factions draw or to plunge into sectarian rivalry. They can work on the elaboration of the paramount Islamic values in a materialistic-secularist world making ijtihad in how best they can be applied within contemporary contexts, or they can bury themselves in suspicion, internal wrangling, and faultfinding. They can recognize their civilizational mandate, or stay in the shadows of the other.




One thought on “Alternative Concepts for Explaining the Sunni-Shia Friction

  1. nakba 2021/09/20 عند 9:01 ص Reply

    Excellent 👌😊 Samir

    Sent from AT&T Yahoo Mail on Android

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