Cain and Abel … again and again
The recent carnage in Pakistan and Iraq during Ashoura (March 2004) killed hundreds of Shia Muslims in both Iraq and Pakistan. Hundreds more were wounded physically and thousand more emotionally.
Sunnis and Shias agree on the core fundamentals of Islam, the five Pillars. The question of unity between sunni and shia schools of thought has been debated for centuries. Slander, hate-crimes, wars, and many other extreme measures have often taken precedence over intelligent discussion and dialogue. Why is it that the schism between the Shia and Sunni Muslims has never been successfully bridged and how did it come about?
The root of this schism dates back to the days right after the Prophet’s death. The Prophet had not nominated anyone after himself to lead the Muslims. So a group of his followers congregated to decide that they should all vote to see who would be the best person to guide the Muslims. Sunnis call the leaders after the Prophet Caliph, the very first was Abu-Bakr. It is at this point, where the Shia and Sunni divide implicitly, though not yet explicitly. The reason was that that a group of people, which later on are referred to as the Shias or Shi'ites, didn’t agree on Abu-Bakr becoming the first Caliph. Nevertheless he was elected to assume the post. The Shias preferred Ali, the Prophet’s cousin, who was eventually elected to be the fourth of the rightful Caliphs. But how did the first explicit split occur?
Ali is the central figure at the origin of the Shia / Sunni split immediately following the death of the Prophet in 632. Sunnis regard Ali as the fourth and last of the "rightly guided caliphs", successors to the Prophet. (Abu Bakr 632-634, Omar 634-644 and Uthman 644-656. Shias feel that Ali should have been the first Caliph and that the Caliphate should have passed down only to direct descendants of the Prophet.
The third caliph, Uthman, came from one of the aristocratic clans of Mecca, the Umayyads. Many Muslims resented the choice, preferring the more humble Ali, the Prophet's cousin and husband of his daughter Fatima. Opposition to Uthman grew, aggravated by his nepotism and his favouritism toward the leading Meccan clans, as well as his determination to having only one authorized version of the Koran. Uthman's murder in 656 by Muslim dissidents, the first assassination of a Muslim Caliph by Muslims, was a turning point in Islamic history. It did not only gravely weaken the religious and moral prestige of the office, but ended the then still existing unity in Islam. The new caliph, Ali, was soon challenged by, among others, the Prophet's widow Aisha. In 656 Aisha herself led a battle against Ali, because she accused him of being too lax in bringing Uthman’s killers to justice. At the Battle of the Camel, Ali defeated her. This battle is the beginning of the covert rivalry, which divided the Muslims into two opposing camps, the first battle to take place against Koranic teachings, as well as the first battle to be between Muslims.
The story continues with even more wars and the beginning of the political fragmentation, which the Prophet had always feared. In 657, Mu’awiya, the late Caliph Uthman's cousin, a fellow Umayyad and then governor of Syria, challenged Ali's forces at Siffeen, another full-fledged civil war. The battle was inconclusive as Mu'awiya's soldiers raised the Koran on the ends of their spears and swords, with the result that Ali and his pious supporters refused to fight them. Ali tried to seek a compromise with Mu'awiya, but this angered some of his supporters, who regarded it as a betrayal, specially after the trick used by Mu’awiya. His supporters were so badly infuriated, that he was struck down by one of his own men in 661. Although Mu’awiya and his successors established the Umayyad dynasty and proved to be able rulers, expanding the empire from their new capital, Damascus, Ali's followers denounced the Umayyad Caliphate as illegitimate. And it is from that time that Ali’s followers became known as Shia, or Shiites. In 680, Ali's son Hussayn, the Prophet's grandson, led Shia forces against the Umayyads in yet another round of the civil war, this time at Karbala in Iraq, where he and almost his entire family were slaughtered. To this day, Shias mourn the "martyrdom" of the Prophet's grandson Hussayn in a day of atonement called Ashoura.
An opportunity for Muslim unity arose in 750, when almost the entire Ummayad aristocracy was wiped out, following a battle in Egypt, during a revolt led by Abu Al Abbass al-Saffah and aided by considerable Shia support. The Shia spiritual leader Jafar Al Siddiq, great-grandson of Hussayn, was to be installed as Caliph. But when Abbas died in 754, this arrangement had not yet been finalized and Abbas' son Al Mansur murdered Jafar, seized the Caliphate for himself and founded the Abbassid dynasty, which prevailed until the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols in 1258.
This division in Islam into Sunnis (those who stood with Mu’awiya and followed the Sunna), and Shias (the followers of Ali) would never heal. But what are the differences between them? Sunnis and Shias agree on the core fundamentals of Islam, the five pillars, and recognize each others as Muslims. In 1959 Sheikh Mahmood Shaltoot, Head of the School of Theology at Al Azhar university in Cairo, the most eminent seat of learning of Sunni Islam and the oldest university in the world, issued a fatwa (ruling) recognizing the legitimacy of the Jafari School of Law, to which most Shias belong. As a point of interest, the Jafari School is named after its founder Imam Jafar al Siddiq, a direct descendent, through two different lines, of the Sunni Caliph Abu Bakr. Another funny thing is that Al Azhar University, though now Sunni, was actually founded by the Shia Fatimid dynasty in Egypt in 969.
So the original founder of the Shia School is a Sunni descendant, while the supreme Sunni authority was originally established by Shias. So what makes them so different today that they cannot reconcile? There is no vital difference between the Shias and Sunnis concerning articles of faith. There is however a disagreement between the two in the shehadah (Islamic confession of faith), the practice of rituals as well as in two other areas.
The Sunni shehada says: "There is no God but Allah, and Mohamed is His messenger" , while the Shia shehada says :"There is no god but Allah, Mohamed is His messenger and Ali is the friend of Allah, the successor of the messenger of Allah and his first Caliph." The two areas of disagreement are :
1. The Caliphate (succession of leadership)
2. The Islamic rule when there is no clear Koranic statement, nor a Hadith.
The second issue has its root in the first one. The Shia bound themselves to refer to only the Prophet’s family (ahl al bayt) for deriving the Sunna of Prophet. The disagreement about the Caliphate should not be a source of division between the two. Muslims agree that the Caliphate of Abu Bakr came through election by a number of people, but came as a surprise for some of the companions. On the other hand, election implies choice and freedom, and that every Muslim has the right to elect the nominee. Whoever refuses to elect him does not oppose Allah nor the Prophet, because neither appointed the nominated person. Election, by its nature, does not compel any Muslim to elect a specific candidate or it would be coercion.
It is reported that Ali had refused to give his allegiance to Abu Bakr for six months and only gave it when he found that the only way to save Islam’s unity was to leave the isolation which occurred due to his refusal of giving the oath of allegiance. If refusal to give allegiance to an elected nominee was prohibited in Islam, Ali would not have allowed himself any delay in giving his allegiance. It was also reported that Ali claimed he had some rights to the Caliphate, which were not honoured, and he complained why Abu Bakr did not consult him in deciding upon becoming ruler.
On a daily level, Shias have a different call to prayer, they perform the washing for prayers as well as the prayers differently. Shias place their forehead onto a piece of hardened clay from Karbala or a stone, not directly onto the prayer mat when prostrating. They also tend to combine prayers and pray three times per day instead of five. The Shias also have some different Hadith and prefer those narrated by Ali and Fatima to those related by other companions of the Prophet. Due to her opposition to Ali, those Hadith narrated by Aisha count among the least favoured. Shia permit muttah marriages (fixed-term temporary marriage), which are banned by the Sunnis for opposing the purpose of marriage as such. A significant practice of Shia Islam is that of visiting the shrines of Imams or martyrs. These include the tomb of Imam Ali in Najaf and that of his son Imam Husayn in Karbala, since both are considered major Shia martyrs, while Sunnis do not erect shrines. The Sunnis believe in Caliphate whereas the Shias believe in Imamate. The Sunnis say that a Caliph can be either elected, or nominated by the preceding Caliph, or selected by a committee, or may attempt to gain the power through a coup if it was for the benefit of the Muslims. The Shia say that an Imam must be appointed by God, that this appointment may be known through the declaration of the Prophet or the preceding Imam. The line of the Prophet (through Ali) became extinct in 873, when the last Shia Imam, Al-Askari, who had no brothers, disappeared within days of inheriting the title at the age of four. The Shias however refused to accept that he had died, preferring to believe that he was merely "hidden" and would return eventually. When after several centuries this failed to happen, spiritual power passed to the Ulema, a council of twelve scholars, who elected a supreme Imam. The best known modern example of the Shia supreme Imam is the late Ayyatollah Khomeni. The Shia Imam is attributed with Pope-like infallibility and the Shia religious hierarchy is not dissimilar in structure and religious power to that of the Catholic Church within Christianity. Sunni Islam, in contrast, more closely resembles the independent churches of Protestantism. Sunnis do not have a formal clergy, just scholars and jurists, who may offer non-binding opinions. Shias believe that their supreme Imam is a fully spiritual guide who is believed to be an inerrant interpreter of law and tradition. Shia theology is distinguished by its glorification of Ali. In Shia Islam there is a strong theme of martyrdom and suffering, focusing on deaths of Ali and particularly Hussayn, his son.
Just like the rest of the Muslims, Shias too believe that the sources of Islamic law are mainly Koran and the Sunna. And as mentioned above, al Azhar's official position, vis a vis the propriety of following any of the Madhahib (schools of law), including the Shia Imami school, is permissible and has remained unchanged since Sheikh Shaltoot's declaration in 1959. It is interesting to note that a few decades ago, a group of Sunni and Shia scholars together formed a center at al Azhar by the name of "Dar Taqreeb al Madhahib al Islamiyyah" which translates into "Center for bringing together the various Islamic schools of thought". The aim, as the name of the center indicates, was to bridge the gap between the various schools of thought, and bring about mutual respect, understanding and appreciation of each school's contributions to the development of Islamic Jurisprudence, among the scholars of the different schools. In turn these scholars should guide their followers toward the ultimate goal of unity, as the Koran asks: [3:103] "And hold fast by the covenant of Allah all together and be not disunited, and remember the favor of Allah on you when you were enemies, then He united your hearts so by His favor you became brethren; and you were on the brink of a pit of fire, then He saved you from it, thus does Allah make clear to you His communications that you may follow the right way."
However, the two groups still continue to try and prove one another wrong and maintain that their way is the only right way, despite the Koran saying : [31:23] "And whoever disbelieves, let not his disbelief grieve you; to Us is their return, then will We inform them of what they did surely Allah is the Knower of what is in the breasts." And still despite the Koran’s teachings they continue to kill each other not fearing hell or eternal damnation just for the sake of power on earth: [4:93] "And whoever kills a believer intentionally, his punishment is hell; he shall abide in it, and Allah will send His wrath on him and curse him and prepare for him a painful chastisement." Sadly it looks like the killing will continue and it will always be Cain and Able all over again.