Nationalism is a sickness. Racism is a plague. And sectarianism is a cancer. These are the three major illnesses that afflict the Muslims — from the time the first Islamic country came into existence in Arabia over 14 centuries ago up to this very day. Here, we shall try to make a diagnosis of sectarianism, setting aside much of its history.
The words Sunni and Shi‘i have made their way into the political parlance of current events. You may want to review the news items and news commentaries of the Islamic world before the Islamic Revolution in Iran to find out how scarcely the words Sunni and Shi‘i figured into political articles and ideological books then. Now, though, you will find these words tucked into geopolitical analyses and sociopolitical studies about Muslim countries — ranging from the political right to the political left. Even Muslim writers are towing this highbrow line of thought! This “Sunni-Shi‘i” characterization of diplomacy and wars appears to be the fad of the near future.
We neither have the time nor are we straightaway interested in butting intellectual heads with writers and thinkers whose ideas are molded by the high god of Zionism and imperialism. Our immediate concern is with those Muslim writers and journalists who have shacked themselves in the sectarian fleapit.
To begin with, any rational Muslim will tell you that the Muslims of the world, excluding the enlightened ones, will consider themselves either Sunnis or Shi‘is. Ask them: was the Prophet (pbuh) a Sunni or was he a Shi‘i? And you will get an assortment of answers. Not much success there…
Then ask: is your definition of a Sunni or a Shi‘i a definition that brings all Muslims together? Does your definition exclude the other (Sunni or Shi‘i) from being considered an “equal Muslim”? Here, you will have him/her begin to think (quite an accomplishment; as many of these Muslims have inherited their identities without thinking about who they are).
Then ask them: as we all agree that the Qur’an is our ultimate reference, can you produce for me one ayah that substantiates your (hereditary) definition of who a Sunni is? Or who a Shi‘i is? If your interlocutor remains calm and honest, he will confess that there is no ayah in the Qur’an that validates his conventional definition of his own Sunni or Shi‘i assumptions.
Then ask: are there fanatic Sunnis and fanatic Shi‘is around? Can you identify them for me? What makes them fanatics? Is thereany ayah in the Qur’an or is there any consensual hadith, which is compatible with the Qur’an, that explains such fanaticism? If your interlocutor is open, reasonable, and candid he will begin to rethink his inbred beliefs.
All of these questions and similar ones are not meant to demean any Muslim as much as they are meant to reject and rule out the bigotry and the bias that many Muslims have toward each other — precisely the components of today’s sectarianism.
Say good-bye to your friend and take a moment to spend with yourself. Look at the Muslim world and observe how sectarianism has been manipulated by those who have power and wealth; inside the house of Islam and outside of it to wreak havoc on hundreds of millions of poor Muslims who just two generations ago were faintly aware that they are Sunnis or Shi‘is!
It would be asking too much to expect a Sunni to pray like a Shi‘i, or to expect a Shi‘i to pray like a Sunni; in other words, there is not enough maturity in both the Sunni and the Shi‘i Muslims to come to the point where they both exchange recognition of the other in practical terms. Pray like each other. Fast like each other. And perform the rituals of Islam like each other. It is because of this inability that we have Muslims at psychological distances from each other. This is where sectarianism begins.
Okay. Let us move on. If the average Muslim considers the “other” Muslim incorrect in the way he performs his rituals we end up fostering a form of bias and in some cases intolerance and discrimination. Case in point: when was the last time you saw a Sunni scholar give the Friday khutbah in a Shi‘i masjid, and vice versa? Has there ever been a Shi‘i scholar who led the prayers in al-Masjid al-Haram in Makkah, or al-Masjid al-Nabawi in Madinah? Has there ever been a Sunni scholar who led the jama‘ah prayers in Mashhad, or al-Najaf or Karbala’? And even if this was ever to occur, it should not be for public consumption or a showcase event. It should be done with a mass public Muslim recognition of the equality of the Islamic madhhabs (schools of thought). These narrow-minded-cum-mean-minded fiqhi variances attributed to the respected Islamic faqihs, and not to the Prophet (pbuh) himself, is what has kept us from assuming and resuming our socio-political responsibilities.
Taking this to another level, both the Sunni and the Shi‘i historical developments metastasized into bigoted and sectarian drifts. In the Sunni sphere there are those Wahhabis and Salafis who go to the extent of labeling the Shi‘is as kafirs. In the Shi‘i sphere there are those Safawis (Safavis in Persian) and Hujjatis who consider Sunnis to be outside the pale of Islam. Both of these represent the deadly outcome that comes from our initial inability to identify ourselves as equal Muslims (regardless of madhhab) and more importantly to express that by unifying our masjids in a way that it really does not matter whether a particular prayer leader prays according to a madhab other than mine.
There are larger fish to fry than to be sinking into the pits of circular arguments pertaining to ritualistic performances. There is a hadith from the Prophet (pbuh) that says, “Allah does not take into consideration your outward show; rather He takes into consideration your internal reality.”
The fanaticism in the Sunni context has taken a major blow — a potential knockout by the high crimes and misdemeanors of the Saudi tribal regime and the financial clout it has, or should we say had, throughout the world. Many Muslims are waking up and looking at an ugly and disgusting Saudi regime that is beginning to disintegrate due to its role in the war on populations in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Libya, etc, not to mention its crimes against individuals who are its own citizens from Jamal Khashoggi to the hundreds of ‘ulema’ whao have been rounded up in a humiliating manner, thrown into prison, and either forgotten about or awaiting a kangaroo court to sentence them to long terms in prison or to put them on death row. Islamic activists, writers, scholars, and observers are speaking out against the tyranny and the lackey regime in Arabia that takes its orders from Zionist henchmen and imperialist bosses.
The fanaticism in the Shi‘i context is brewing beneath the surface. Our brothers and sisters in the Islamic Republic of Iran have been riding a crest of well-deserved successes as costly as they have been over 40 long years… But they have to begin to address the cancer of sectarianism in their midst; two scholars, among others, who did just that were the late Ayatullah Mutahhari and Dr. Ali Shariati. Their lessons, articles, and books on this subject, as far as this writer knows, do not circulate; this, in and of itself, proves that the sectarians do have sizeable clout within the Islamic Republic.
Our brothers in the Islamic Republic of Iran have shown the rest of the Muslims a very commendable character of civility and courtesy. Their efforts at bringing the Muslims together are admirable. Their bypassing of the ritualistic issues that divide the rest of the Muslims within the house of Islam is laudable. But we would be naive to make believe that Shi‘i sectarians are negligible and of no influence. Like all nations, Islamic Iran has its share of nationalists and even racists. But that does not concern us as much as the sectarians who can bring the Islamic Revolution to a halt, stifle the Islamic Republic, and reverse most if not all the progress of the past four decades. We dread a day in the future when the sectarian clout reverses Walayah al-Faqih and turns the clock back to the “negative/passive anticipation” of the Imam in occultation. Forewarned is forearmed.
O you who are faithfully committed to Allah [His power and authority]! Be on guard concerning Allah [His power presence and overriding authority] as is due to Him, and do not die except as Muslims [surrendering to His dominance] (3:102).