Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Sunni and Shi’a Conflict

Before I go any further, let me share some information about the two biggest Muslim sub-groups namely the Sunni Muslim and Shi’a Muslim. The readers must understand and recognise that both Sunni and Shi’a Muslims share the most fundamental Islamic beliefs and articles of faith. The differences between these two main sub-groups within Islam initially stemmed not from spiritual differences, but political ones. Over the centuries, however, these political differences have spawned a number of varying practices and positions which have come to carry a spiritual significance.

If any of the information I produce in this article are inaccurate or out of context, kindly let me know and I am very much obliged to ammend or effect changes to improve the quality of information in this blog.

Sunni Muslims or Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jamaah

The word "Sunni" in Arabic comes from a word meaning "one who follows well-trodden path and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h).”

The term Sunni Muslim refers to the great majority of the world's Muslims (approximately 85% - 90%), distinguishing them as the Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jamaah ("the people of the sunnah and the community") from the Shia Muslims. Sunni Muslims are, by this definition, Muslims who strictly follow the Al-Quran and Sunnah (practices) of the Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h) and preserve the unity and integrity of the community. Anyone who stands within the mainstream of the Islamic tradition and acts in accordance with generally accepted practices of the community is, therefore, a Sunni. Most Muslims see the Sunnah as complementary to the Koran insofar as it explains certain points and elaborates some Quranic principles by offering details necessary for the practice of Islamic law.

Sunni Muslims view the caliph (khalifah) as a temporal leader only and consider an imam to be a prayer leader.

Shi’a Muslims

The word "Shi’a" in Arabic means a group or supportive party of people. The commonly-known term is shortened from the historical "Shia-t-Ali," or "the Party of Ali." They are also known as followers of "Ahl-al-Bayt" or "People of the Household" (of the Prophet)

Shi’a Muslim adheres to the teachings of Islamic Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h) and the religious guidance of his family (who are referred to as the Ahl al-Bayt) or his descendants known as Shi'a Imams, whom they consider to be infallible. The Shi’a Muslims believe that following the demise of Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h), leadership should have passed directly to his cousin/son-in-law, Saidina ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (r.a), rejecting the legitimacy of the first three caliphs (khalifah) of Islamic history. The first three Caliphs (khalifah) are Saidina Abu Bakr Siddiq (r.a), Saidina Umar Ibn al-Khattab (r.a) and Saidina Uthman ibn Affan (r.a).

Shi’a Muslims view the other caliphs (khalifah) were merely de facto rulers while the rightful and true leadership continued to be passed along through a sort of succession of Prophet Muhammad's (p.b.u.h) descendants.

Shi’a Muslims make up about 10% - 15% of Muslims all over the world. Significant populations of Shi’a Muslims can be found in Iran and Iraq, and large minority communities in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, and Lebanon.

The Divide

The division between Shi’a and Sunni dates back to the time of the demise of the Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h), and the question of who was to take over the leadership of the Muslim nation. Sunni Muslims agree with the position taken by many of the Prophet's companions, that the new leader should be elected from among those capable of the job. This is what was done, and the Prophet Muhammad's (p.b.u.h) close friend and advisor, Saidina Abu Bakr Siddiq (r.a), became the first Caliph of the Islamic nation.

On the other hand, some Muslims share the belief that leadership should have stayed within the Prophet's own family, among those specifically appointed by him, or among Imams appointed by God Himself.

From this initial question of political leadership, some aspects of spiritual life have been affected and now differ between the two groups of Muslims.

Shi’a Muslims believe that the Imam is sinless by nature, and that his authority is infallible as it comes directly from God. Therefore, Shi’a Muslims often venerate the Imams as saints and perform pilgrimages to their tombs and shrines in the hopes of divine intercession. Sunni Muslims counter that there is no basis in Islam for a hereditary privileged class of spiritual leaders, and certainly no basis for the veneration or intercession of saints. Sunni Muslims contend that leadership of the community is not a birthright, but a trust that is earned and which may be given or taken away by the people themselves.

Shi’a Muslims also feel animosity towards some of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h), based on their positions and actions during the early years of discord about leadership in the community. Many of these companions (Saidina Abu Bakr, Saidina Umar, Saidatina Aisha, etc.) have narrated traditions about the Prophet's life and spiritual practice. Shi’a Muslims reject these traditions and do not base any of their religious practices on the testimony of these individuals. This naturally gives rise to some differences in religious practice between the two groups.

It is important to remember that despite all of these differences in opinion and practice, Shi’a and Sunni Muslims share the main articles of Islamic belief and are considered by most to be brethren in faith. In fact, most Muslims do not distinguish themselves by claiming membership in any particular group, but prefer to call themselves simply, "Muslims".

The Conflicts

As I have mentioned in Part 2 of this article, political, economic and ethnic factors have also driven people of the same faith to fight each other. The already fragile balance of power between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims in Iraq was further aggravated by the US-led invasion of Iraq in March, 2003.

Sunni and Shi’a Muslims have not always been openly hostile. In many parts of the world they live together peacefully. During Saddam’s regime, the Sunni and Shi’a Muslims in Iraq were able to live together and get along well. The political scenario changed drastically after the invasion and its continuous occupation till to this day where sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shi’a Muslims are common sight in Iraq.

Under Saddam regime, the Sunnis ruled Iraq, even though they were the minority. But throughout the world, Sunni Muslims vastly outnumber Shi’a Muslims. There are approximately 1.3 billion Muslims, and only about 15 percent are Shi’a. But Shi’a Muslims are the majority in Iraq and the overwhelming majority in Iran.

What caused the deep division between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims in Iraq? Why can’t they unite for once to achieve a common goal i.e. to liberate Iraq from the illegal occupation of the US-lead forces? After all both of them are Muslims. Or is it the U.S. military and political strategy to let the sectarian violence continue and later escalate the conflict to a civil war in Iraq? In my opinion, the Divide and Rule strategy has been well implemented by the U.S. in Iraq. Successful? Not too sure!

On the other hand, is it true that the sectarian violence in Iraq is a sign of the Shi’a revival as mentioned by Vali Nasr in his book entitled THE SHIA REVIVAL: HOW CONFLICTS WITHIN ISLAM WILL SHAPE THE FUTURE. I have the opportunity to browse the excerpt of the book as well as several articles and interviews by Vali Nasr that helped me to better understand the political landscape of Sunni and Shi’a Muslims in Iraq and Lebanon in particular and Iran in general. But don't be mistaken, this is not the only reference I sought to write this article in the most balanced and unbiased manner.

For a Malaysian laymen like me and may be some of the readers too, it is very difficult for us to really understand and appreciate the Shi’a – Sunni conflicts in its true sense simply because of the distance factor and the other notable reason is that I would say 100% of Muslims of the Far East (Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Southern Philippines, Southern Thailand and Singapore) are Ahlu Sunnah Waljamaah. But thanks to the ICT, internet and multimedia technology that enabled Malaysian to access vast information and free flow of video and audio streaming delivered direct to our homes via broadband technology.

On a personal note, my first encounter with the Shi'a Muslims was in England way back in my student's days in 1978. I have both Sunni and Shi'a Muslim friends from the Middle Eastern countries notably from Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. At first, I was slightly taken a back by the way my Shi'a friends performing their prayers. Being Malaysian, Ahlu Sunnah Waljamaah and adopting the practices of Mazhab As-Shafiee, I began to realise only then, that the Shi'a Muslims are "different" in many aspects from Muslims in Malaysia. Over the period of 3 years I began to learn more about the Shi'a Muslims as well as Sunni Muslims from other Mazhabs namely Hanafi, Maliki and Hambali.

Malaysia is very fortunate to have good government under the able leadership of the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi who embraces the concept of power sharing. To achieve a politically stable government in a multi religious, multi racial and multi ethnic society of Malaysian fabric is extremely difficult task. But, Alhamdullilah, Malaysia has been so far very successful in managing major crisis and tragedies.

The Malaysian success stories in overcoming major political, racial and economic crisis and tragedies is not by chance but are the results of cohesiveness between the Malaysian people and the government. The dynamics behind the cohesiveness is none other than our extraordinaire high level of TOLERANCE which is the essence of our value system. Our very own approaches through Islam Hadhari, which is the brain-child of our Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has further enhanced the Malaysian Value System to the next level.

In Part 5 of the article ISLAM UMMAH AND GLOBAL CHALLENGES, I will try my level best to analyse the Shi’a – Sunni Conflict in more detail in the context of Iraq and Lebanon.

To be continued…….

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