The major schism in Islam was created following the demise of Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam over the question of his succession. Those who believed that Muhammad had proclaimed Ali, his cousin and son in law, as his successor were named as Shiaat e Ali (Partisans of Ali). The larger group who believed that no such proclamation had been made and relied on Ijma e Umma (consensus of the nation) in election of a successor, later came to be known as Sunniites (followers of the tradition of the Prophet) when the official schools of thought developed. This was the first major division of the Islamic faith.
Later smaller and sometimes insignificant splinter groups seceded from the mother groups. Over the centuries following the great divide, there was an unending bloodshed within Muslims to establish supremacy of their faith. This bloodshed took the form of persecution and genocide whenever a minority sect was caught in a radical majority rule.
Due to colonisation of Arab and Muslim lands in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with more immediate and common challenge at hand; and also due to growing nationalistic affinities the sectarian hatred was subdued in most Muslim areas. However, the Iranian Revolution, which overthrew the secular rule of Reza Shah Pehalvi and established Wilayat e Faqih (the Shiite lexicon for governance), a sense of sectarian tension reemerged at inter state level in the Middle East and sectarian polarisation developed in Islamic countries having sizable minority sect populations as well as in countries having reverse rule i.e. ruled by minority sects (Iraq, Bahrain and Syria).
Those sectarian frictions of the 80’s and 90’s have turned into full scale civil wars in Iraq and Syria during recent years. Vested interests, leaders from the two sides, international power politics, quest to achieve regional supremacy and traditional rivalry of Saudi Arabia and Iran all played their part in widening the gulf between Shiahs and Sunnis.
Given the history of the great divide in Islam and also the present sectarian strife, it may come as a surprise to most readers that there are startling similarities in the beliefs and practices of the two major Muslim sects. Both believe that shahada (bearing witness) to Oneness of Allah and Finality of Prophethood of Muhammad; and belief in qiyama (the day of Resurrection) are enough to be a Muslim or to convert to Islam. And to be a good practicing Muslim, one needs to recite the Shahada, offer compulsory prayers, fast during the month of Ramadan and perform the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca (for the able and capable). These are the articles of faith and practices mutually agreed among all schools of Sunni thought and agreed, along with additional beliefs and practices, by the Shia school of thought.
There are only very minor differences in the practices stated above and those too are only in the details rather than the basics. Based on independent research by a student in search of truth and common ground, I can safely claim that these similarities are so huge in volume that they would require a separate article or rather a separate volume to discuss all. But suffice to say for the present discussion that these similarities provide a common ground to build on unity of the Ummah.
This article is not a religiously authoritative work but provides a common sense approach to bringing peace to Muslim lands in particular and the world at large in general.
The following common sense logic is offered to all to come to peace with themselves and with others:
1. Right to Believe. Everyone has the the right to believe in anything that he believes as much as we have the right to believe in anything that we are believing. The Holy Quran spells out this right unequivocally in the case of non-believers. Then how can the same right not be granted to brethren in faith?
2. Diversity of Beliefs. All of the people of this world cannot and shall not converge to a single faith. Neither it is ordained by Allah nor it is desired of the Muslims to try to convert others to own faith. On the contrary, the Quran stresses on the Holy Prophet to not worry about those who do not heed to his message. Why would Allow burden the Ummah with a responsibility from which He has absolved the Prophet. The same logic applies to a micro level concerning the small differences in believes and practices among Muslim sects.
3. Pillars of Belief. All Muslim schools of thought believe that anyone who believes in unshared and undivided oneness of Allah, prophethood of Muhammad SAW as the last prophet of Allah and the qiyama (the day of judgement) is a Muslim. These are the basic pillars of belief. Today, centuries after the inception of Islam, we can neither add to nor subtract from these pillars. It becomes a rejection of Islam itself, if anyone declares a person who believes in these pillars as a Kafir (non-believer).
4. Beliefs vs History. Beliefs and history are two different subjects and should not be mixed together unnecessarily.
5. Respect for Others’ Feelings and Beliefs. Islamic principles as well as desire to establish good social order demands that we avoid any action, gesture or speech which may have the slightest potential to hurt others or cause rift in the society. Quran clearly forbids us to be disrespectful to even idols. How can Islam condone disrespect for religious personalities of others’ sect.
6. Accountability of Beliefs. The right to hold anyone accountable for one’s beliefs rests with Allah alone and everyone will be answerable to Allah for his own beliefs and of none other.
7. Religious Liberties. Religious liberty is the most important trait of a respectable society. How much liberty? A simple answer is: We must be ready to afford as much religious liberty to other faiths to practise their religion as we would like to have for ourselves. No solution of prevalent sectarian strife can be based on curtailing religious liberties. It would be counter productive and will generate more hatred and animosity in the long run. These religious liberties must be afforded to all sections of our society including persecuted non Muslim minorities.
8. Heroes and Villains. Muslim history is very cruel in the sense that some heroes of one sect are the villains of the other and vice versa. It is an unfortunate fact that has to be accepted as such. It entails both rights and responsibilities for the two sects – one’s right that one’s heroes are not publicly ridiculed, abused, criticised or condemned and the dual responsibility of lowering our sensitivity level and respecting other’s sensitivities. So NO HATE SPEECH.
9. Understanding Others’ Beliefs. Over a period of time some very wrong and sometimes disgusting beliefs have been maliciously attributed to both sects. We must learn the basis of others’ true beliefs. This is vital to understand each others’ culture and festivals, which will in turn enhance acceptability.
10. Quran – the Ultimate Source of Guidance. Muslims the world over generally and particularly in Pakistan have left the interpretation of religious injunctions to the Mullah of the Street. And unfortunately the Holy Quran, which provides divinely guidance to the Muslims for all spheres of our social life, has been neglected. Quran is the only book in Islam that is regarded as Allah’s word and is accepted to be free from any alteration or manipulation. It therefore, provides the common ground for our social interactions. Muslims must understand that any interpretation of religious injunctions by a scholar is bound to be under the influence of his personal prejudices and dispositions. And religion is too important an affair to be left to the Mullah. Therefore, in our personal and collective lives we need to draw much more guidance from the Holy Book than we are presently doing.
There can be no set piece or fool proof solution to our current problems but the commonsense logic given above can be instrumental in bringing us closer to rational thinking on sectarian issues and can help us to understand each other better. It can instill tolerance for other faiths, which is just the first step in achieving our goal to develop respect for others’ faith.