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Religion and Society

Sunnis and Shi’ites: Doctrinal Differences and Political Tensions

Islam’s acient schism brought new tensions between Saudi Arabia – a country claiming to be the protector of the Sunni community worldwide – and Iran, playing the role of the Shia patron

Sunnis and Shi’ites: how things stand today with this age-old divide/1. Despite the unitary doctrine that forms the basis of Islam, Sunnites and Shi’ites have been divided ever since the classical period. Political rivalries, particularly between the Ottoman and Persian Empires, have fuelled theological controversies until today. Attempts towards an agreement and reciprocal accusations.

 

 

‘God is one:’[1] is the doctrine of the tawhîd, the cardinal principle of Islam. One kind of logic has it that since there is only one God, there can be only one way to Him: it is the right way, the way of truth and the way of Islam, and it is therefore presented as the only one. At the same time the Qur’an exhorts believers not to split into sects (firaq).[2]

 

 

The oneness of God implies a oneness of doctrine and a unity (wahda) of the umma, the community of believers to which all who are Muslims belong. That may indeed be the ideal schema, but the history of doctrinal development, like the history of Muslim societies, shows an Islam that is not one but many, and believers have never been all united as one man around a single conception of religion. A hadîth that is said to be attributable to the prophet Mohammed provides an apt illustration of this ideal contradicted by the facts since it says in essence in its different variants that the Muslim community will be divided into 73 sects, 72 of which will go to hell while just one will be saved: ‘the community’ par exellence (al-jamâ‘a). Of course, if all regard themselves as the elect, the only thing that remains is to determine what is the ‘community’ at issue, or who to include in it and who to exclude from it. Islamic scholars have interpreted the word in terms of their respective approaches. Some have seen in it simply the just, those who follow the precepts of Islam (Ghazâlî);[3] others have enumerated precise categories (‘ulamâ’, exegetes, theologians…); still others have picked out the Sunnis (ahl al-sunna wa al-jamâ‘a), which is equivalent to saying ‘the majority of Muslims.’ It is quite obvious then how this hadîth has fed debates and polemics between the various branches of Islam.

 

 

The heresiographical literature and the polemics of the classical era between Sunni and Shi’ite scholars abound in debates and controversies and the history of ¬Islam is marked by events that have been – and still are – treated as indicative of the discord between the two groups. This history is shot through with political conflicts, conflicts that are sometimes expressed in confessional and doctrinal terms aimed at the stigmatisation of the ‘other.’ The same applies to the rivalry between the blocs formed respectively by the Ottoman Empire and the Persian Empire which, from the end of the sixteenth century – and after a few conversions had occurred in both camps – ended up having a Sunnite majority in the first case and a Shi’ite majority in the second. Overall however the Shi’ites were in the minority in the Muslim world and consequently incurred doubts as to their orthodoxy. They were labelled contemptuously as râfida (those who reject the authority of the first three Caliphs) or bâtiniyya (with reference to the esotericism of their doctrine).[4] This latter term also referred to the ghulât (‘extremists’, suspected of deifying Ali), who were excluded from Islam, whereas although the twelver Shi’ites generally incurred criticism, they were not totally excluded from the community. For its part the Ottoman administration did not recognise them as having a separate identity: the Shi’ites were confused with the Sunnis, they had to have recourse to the same tribunals and ¬abstain from practicing their particular rites, at least in public.

 

 

A first attempt at reconciliation was undertaken by Nâdir Shâh after he had laid siege to Basra in 1743. Finding himself in a position of strength, he included in the clauses of the peace treaty that he made with the Ottomans the recognition of the ja‘farite (Shi’ite) school of law. The Ottomans ultimately refused to accept this, but the attempt made possible the organisation at Najaf of a conference between Shi’ite and Sunni ‘ulamâ’. It was therefore only a partial failure. At the end of the nineteenth century the Ottomans in their turn undertook a conciliatory move in the direction of the Shi’ites. The initiative was dictated by two circumstances: the external threats that were shaking the Empire and the spread of Shi’ism in Iraq. Sultan Abdülhamid II instituted a Pan-Islamic policy aimed at consolidating his position as leader of Islam, reconciling Sunnis and Shi’ites in his role as Caliph and in his role as Sultan concluding an alliance with Iran. The Young Turks took this policy further and succeeded in rallying the Shi’ites, who fought by the side of the Turkish army in the jihad against the British. 

 

 

The Congress of Jerusalem

 

 

Pan-Islamism also had intellectual and religious leaders: above all, Jamâl al-Dîn al-Afghânî al-Asabâdî, but also Kawâkibî, ‘Abduh, Rashîd Ridà[5] and many others who adopted and pursued this policy. The basic idea, that of Jamâl al-Dîn, was simple. The inability of the Muslims to unite had accelerated the decline of the two great empires and opened the door to the European incursions. It was necessary to put together the torn body of the umma in order to deal with the invasions, eliminate doctrinal divergences and unite in political action. Union was the remedy for all ills. Even if these fine ideas were not taken into consideration at the time of the process of formation of modern states in the Middle East, they did have some success.

 

 

In 1931 in Jerusalem an Islamic Congress was held which brought together Sunnis and Shi’ites. The prayers at the al-Aqsà Mosque were led by the Iraqi cleric Muhammad Husayn al-Kâshif al-Ghitâ’, who called in his sermon for unity in the face of the attacks from the West and for the defence of Palestine. Similar appeals were repeated in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and dialogue took place between Shi’ite ‘ulamâ’, like Zanjânî, and the Rectors of al-Azhar, Marâghî and Shaltût. In 1948 an Iranian cleric, Muhammad Taqi Qommi, set up an association in Cairo to promote reconciliation between the sects of Islam (jamâ‘at al-taqrîb), with the support of the ‘ulamâ’ of al-Azhar and of Egyptian politicians. This association published a review, The Message of Islam (Risâlat al-Islâm), in which the debates between Sunnis and Shi’ites were conducted in a cordial atmosphere and, above all, reached their apogee when Mahmûd Shaltût, Rector of al-Azhar, published a fatwa in 1959 that recognised ja‘farite law as the fifth school of Islamic law, alongside the four Sunni schools. Although the association suffered from the rupture of relations between Egypt and Iran following Teheran’s recognition of Israel in 1960, and eventually abandoned its activities at the end of the ‘70s, it had nonetheless managed to take a big step in the history of taqrîb.

 

 

However, the good intentions of the meetings and declarations of principle concealed an unease due to the limitations of the movement for taqrîb and the actual impossibility of achieving it. A true reconciliation would have led to the mutual adoption of doctrines (a problem that was never really faced) or to the absorption of one party into the other, or of the minority into the majority. In fact in addition to the perennial appeals for unity, the debates that developed between the Sunnis and the Shi’ites from the beginning of the twentieth century contain a whole series of accusations against the Shi’ites by the Sunnis, followed by the Shi’ite ripostes, formulated as defences or apologetic discourses. There are two reasons for this: one docrinal, the other political The Sunni protagonists in the debates were partisans of Salafiyya, and therefore sympathisers with the Wahhabites. They called for reform and for the establishhment of an understanding between the sects in the framework of a return to the period of the salaf, the pious forebears, an era that was sacralised and idealised. However, the Shi’ites had a different conception of the history of that period, and a significant proportion of their doctrines was unacceptable to the Salafiyya. The two sides were not therefore in a position to understand each other, and they have continued their polemics down to the present day. Moreover, thanks to the pan-Islamic policy of the Ottomans, and following the fall of the Empire and the formation of the successor states, the Shi’ites have increasingly acquired visibility and freedom. They have told their own story, they have been free to practise their rituals, establish ja‘farite tribunals, and seek to obtain a position in the State (Lebanon) for themselves. Thus they have entered on a process of affirmation of their identity, which they have consequently not been at all inclined to deny, and all the time more or less in competition with the Sunnis (in Iraq, for example). The Shi’ites of Saudia Arabia have been the most discriminated against by the institution of the modern state of Wahhabite tradition: in 1927 certain ‘ulamâ’ published a fatwa that called on the Shi’ites to convert to Islam.                                                                                              

 

 

The intensity of the polemic went into something of a decline until the Iranian Revolution and the birth of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. The first reactions of the Sunni Islamist movements to this were actually quite positive. The appeal made by Khomeini to embrace the Islamic Revolution was directed at all of Islam and the attempts to export the revolution were aimed both at the Shi’ites and at the Sunnis. His unitarist discourse was based, again, on the alliance the Muslim world needed to form against the West on the basis of a body of shared doctrines. After him Khamenei would create a new medium of reconciliation, the Majma‘ al-taqrîb in 1990. However, in the early ‘80s some writings against Shi’ism and the ideas of Khomeini were published in Egypt, Jordan and other countries. A large number of their authors comprised Syrian Sunni Islamists in exile who were pointing the finger at the ally of the regime that was oppressing them, a regime defined as Shi’ite.  

 

 

Clash Points

 

 

Cases of conversion, greater visibility, processes of national integration, the new power of the Shi’ites: down to today, these have been the recurrent causes that have aroused reactions on the part of the Sunni world. Before studying the evolution of the crisis that developed after the fall of the Baathist regime in Iraq in 2003, let us reflect for a moment on the tenor of the controversies which, abstracting from the circumstances, manifest a significant continuity. While some debates had taken place in the atmosphere of an attempt at reconciliation, numerous theses and fatwa were also formulated to refute taqrîb, as by Ibn Bazz, Mufti of Saudi Arabia from 1993 up to his death in 1999.

 

 

The references of the Sunni authors are above all to the works of Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), the neo-hanbalite thinker who wrote a treatise, the Minhaj al-sunna, in reply to a Shi’ite author, al-‘Allâma al-Hillî who, in his Minhaj al-karâma fî ma‘rifat al-imâma, had sung the praises of Shi’ism. Moreover Ibn Taymiyya published a fatwa containing points that would then be taken up against those whom he defined as bâtiniyya and whom he accused of unbelief (kufr) and associationism (shirk). Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhâb, founder of Wahhabism, formulated the same accusations.                                                                                                               

 

 

These polemical writings were based in good part on the accusations made by the Sunnis against the Shi’ites and their doctrines; they did not go into the (very abundant) details but restricted themselves to general outlines.

 

 

The first accusation concerned the cardinal principle of Islam. The Shi’ites were accused of not respecting the doctrine of tawhîd, ‘associating’ with God the Imams and other ahl al-bayt[6] venerated by them. The special position that they reserve for Ali meant that they were called ‘extremists’ (ghulât). According to their adversaries, though contrary to what they themselves affirm, the Shi’ites have not accepted the Qur’an, which they suspect has been adulterated (tahrîf). Not only this, but they add two verses to the vulgate and are therefore themselves the adulterators. Moreover they do not accept the same corpus of hadîth as the Sunni, and have formed one of their own.                                                                                                      

 

 

Their doctrine of the Imamate (which is rejected by the Sunnis) leads the Shi’ites to deny the legitimacy of the first three Caliphs. They do not recognise the authority of the Companions of Mahomet, whom they insult (sabb al-sahâba), and they have a negative image of ‘Â’isha and other ‘mothers of the believers’. More generally, they have an erroneous conception of the period of the salaf. They are waiting for the Mahdî.                                                                

 

 

They have introduced blameworthy innovations (bid‘a), like the doctrine of intercession and the cult of the tombs of the Imams and the saints, some of whom are more venerated than the Ka‘ba of Mecca itself. Their annual commemorations of the martyrdom of Husayn provide for many practices considered as bid‘a, in addition to the fact that in these the Shi’ites express their hatred for the Sunnis.                                                                                                             

 

 

Their school of law diverges on many points relative to the cult and permits temporary matrimony, which they use as a means to encourage conversions (a question that has caused rivers of ink to flow). They practice dissimulation (taqiyya), and therefore they lie constantly about their true creed and sow discord (fitna).                                                                         

 

 

The exchange of accusations is reciprocal. On top of all that there are a great many preconceived ideas, prejudices and stereotypes, mixed in with conspiracy theories and other elucubrations. The controversies assume a particularly violent character between the Shi’ites and the Wahhabites. What has been offered above is a mere schematic presentation of them in relation to the subjects most debated. It is obvious anyway that many of the contentious issues belong to the actual foundations of Shi’ism and so cannot be abandoned or even questioned. 

 

 

The ‘Shi’ite Crescent’

 

 

In the mid-70s signs appeared of a Shi’ite revival in Lebanon under the influence of Musa Sadr. The advent of the Islamic Republic of Iran then provoked a shockwave. Shi’ite politico-religious discourse began to make waves on a broader front and impact to some extent on Islamic movements. However, it did not manage to clinch the adhesion to the export of the revolution which Iranian policy was hoping for: on the one hand, the Sunni movements rapidly distanced themselves from it; on the other, the Shi’ite movements themselves, which had long pre-existed the Iranian revolution, had their own agenda and nurtured reservations about Iranian projects for hegemony – not to speak of the clerical circles marshalled behind the a-politicism of the marja‘ Kho’i. Moreover, after the death of Khomeini in 1989, the flame of the revolution died down.

 

 

The fall of the Baathist regime in Iraq in April 2003 and the arrival in power of the Shi’ites in the context of the invasion by the United States has changed things. Iran has acquired power in the region, particularly in the Persian Gulf, and in 2006 the Lebanese Hezbollah won a clear political and military victory against Israel, which has increased their prestige in the Muslim world. The Shi’ites have become established from the Mediterranean to Pakistan. The leaders of political Shi’ism, Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad, gained in popularity by branding themselves successfully as the heralds of the Muslim worlds against Israel and the United States, in a climate redolent of a return to the revolutionary utopia dear to the 70s. In some demonstrations portraits of Nasrallah have been seen side by side with those of Che Guevara or Hugo Chavez.                                    

 

 

In December 2004, in an interview accorded to the Washington Post, King Abdallah of Jordan lamented the existence of a ‘Shi’ite crescent:’ extremely well founded on a tangible reality, the expression manifested the fear of seeing a kind of ‘Shi’ite-stan’ emerge, an entity that would develop from the Mediterranean to the Ganges and that would lie across economically and politically strategic zones, loyal in everything and for everything to Iran. The Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was equally disturbed by the growing influence of the Shi’ites, always suspected of being an Iranian fifth column. At the same time Morocco broke off diplomatic relations with Iran, accused of spreading Shi’ism in Morocco. In Jordan six Shi’ites were put on trial before a military court for having promoted Shi’ite ideology. In Afghanistan, certain Shi’ite works were thrown into the fire. In Saudi Arabia and in Bahrein certain Shi’ites were arrested while in Lebanon in May 2008 battles took place between Shi’ites and Sunnis. Finally and above all, interconfessional violence has continued in Iraq and in Pakistan.

 

 

In the meantime a series of appeals have been made against the ‘return of the fitna,’ which would play into the hands of the enemies of Islam, and numerous initiatives have been undertaken to try to calm the waters and control the situation. In 2004 the Amman Message took a step in the direction of tolerance, since it reaffirmed the validity of the eight juridical schools (Sunni, Shi’ite, and Ibadi) and prohibited takfîr (the accusation of impiety).[7]

 

 

In the first place the question is political. The tensions are linked to the rise to power of Iran and to its presumed centrality with respect to the Shi’ite worlds, these are phenomena which arouse alarm in the Sunni regimes, and above all in Saudi Arabia, Iran’s great rival in the region. Capital is made out of the religious aspect. It is therefore necessary to deconstruct the discourses and analyse each situation, situating it in its local historical and social context, and to separate the political from the religious, or rather to analyse how the two are connected. Since 2003 the Shi’ites have won numerous political victories, and today they have a stronger presence on the regional stage. Morever, even if the phenomenon of conversions remains minimal, Shi’ism is enjoying a certain success, in part owing to Iranian efforts to spread a Shi’ite religious culture that is at once rationalised and open to spirituality. This is in competition with the Salafite vision of Islam, which in turn has also been gaining ground.                                                                

 

 

Since the beginning of 2011 the Arab world has been wracked by unprecedented ¬disturbances, which have their origins in the peoples. Their motor is not therefore Islam, brandished as an ideology and “solution.” The claims go far beyond confessional divisions, even if they could bring these back to the forefront, as in the case of Bahrein or Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless it is clear that in these two countries the claims of the Shi’ites (whether as majority or minority), while they reiterate calls for the recognition of the rights of local communities, also echo the slogans common to all these movements.

 

 

[This article is an abridgment of an introductory lecture given at the symposium organised by Brigitte Maréchal and Sami Zemni in Brussels on the relations between the Sunnis and the Shi’ites, the proceedings of which are to be published shortly].

 

 

__________________________

 

 

[1] Qur’an 112:1 

 

 

[2] Qur’an 42:13; 2:136; 2:213; 2:285; 3:84, etc. 

 

 

[3] Abû Hâmid al-Ghazâlî (1058-1111), mystic and theologian, was one of the greatest thinkers and reformers in the history of Islam. Cf. Oasis 11 (2010), 66-69 [Editor’s note]. 

 

 

[4] The term derives from bâtin (esoteric), in contrast with zâhir, exoteric.  

 

 

[5] They were the greatest protagonists of Islamic reformism at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries.

 

 

[6] Literally, ‘the people of the house,’ i.e. the members of the family of Mahomet.

 

 

[7] Cfr. http://www.ammanmessage.com

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