Last two days I have been reading about Shia-Sunni tension, the origin, the base, the rationale on the suggestion of a friend and there are tons of stories available online. It seems like every other person has a new and interesting story to tell.
The shia literature and stories are quite inspiring and this lead me into the world of noha, marsiya and lectures which I thoroughly like to listen and felt serene. However this new fondness was not much appreciated in my circle and they posed questions such as, ‘Are you shia?’ ‘You never told that before.’
And it left me totally dumbfounded. I could not come up with an answer but saying I am a Muslim.
But this question that continued to trouble me inside was, what does it mean to be a Shia or a Sunni, why should it matter?
Although I was born and raised into a Sunni family, but we never had any Shia-Sunni arguments in our family and this was the reason I did not know of many differences between the two sects.
My family has always respected Hazrat Ali, Imam Hassan and Imam Hussain and their families and have been participating in ceremonies marking the anniversary of martyrdom of Imam Hussain (the 10th of Muharram which is called Ashura) and have fasted on the ninth and tenth of Muharram.
The word ‘Shia’ means ‘followers; members of party’, more commonly known as “Shia-t-Ali,” or “the Party of Ali.”
The word “Sunni” in Arabic comes from a word meaning “one who follows the traditions of the Prophet.”
But the question remains what is it that makes you a Sunni Muslim or a Shia Muslim?
And why there are so many differences?
– Do they believe in different Creator? No, both believe in Allah – the One and Only God.
– Do they believe in different Prophets? No, both believe in Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) – as the last prophet and messenger of Allah.
– Do they believe in different holy books? No, both believe in the same Quran.
Both believe in the basic fundamentals of Islam – such as
– Tawhíd (The Oneness of Alláh)
– Risalat (The Prophethood)
– Aakhrat (The Day of Judgement)
Both sects are also similar in other branches of religion such as, Namaaz (Prayers), Saum (Fasting), Hajj (Pilgrimage), Zakat (Poor Rate), Jehad (Striving), Amr-Bil-Ma’roof (Enjoin what is good) and Nahi-Anil-Munkar (Forbid what is wrong).
Both Sunni and Shia Muslims, though share the most fundamental Islamic beliefs and articles of faith, and it seems that the differences between the two initially stemmed not from spiritual differences, but political ones which over the centuries, have spawned a number of varying practices and positions that have come to carry a spiritual significance.
Where does the difference lies?
The difference mainly lies in the manner of fulfillment of the religious duties.
On a practical daily level, Shias have a different call to prayer, they perform salat differently including placing the forehead onto a piece of hardened clay from Karbala, not directly onto the prayer mat when prostrating. They also tend to combine prayers, sometimes worshipping 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 (pbuh).
But does the disparity in the manner of adopting religious obligations really matter?
A passage from the speech of Sheikh Ahmad Deedat (March 3, 1982),
“An example is that the Shia brothers when they make salat, they have a piece of clay (turbah) that they do sajjdah on. And he( Sunni cleric) says, “see what they are doing here. This is shirk. They are worshipping a piece of clay.”
I said why don’t you ask them why they place their foreheads on a piece of clay and learn the logic behind this. I asked them. Why do you carry this clay tablet everywhere you go in your pocket? They said “we are supposed to do sujood on Allah’s earth with our foreheads touching the earth. We say “subhanna rabia Allah” three times with our foreheads touching the earth.” So the Shia want to actually touch the earth with their foreheads and not a manmade carpet. They want to be true to the expression of praying with the forehead actually touching Allah’s earth. You see they don’t worship the clay tablet as many wrongly think. And this is always something that we Sunnis are always making fun of and mock the Shia.”
Origin of the division – A Question of Leadership
The division between Shia and Sunni dates back to the death of the Prophet Muhammad(peace be upon him) 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, elected from among those capable of the job. This is what was done, and the Prophet Muhammad’s close friend and advisor, Abu Bakr, 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.
The Shia Muslims believe that following the Prophet Muhammad’s death, leadership should have passed directly to his cousin/son-in-law, Ali.
Difference on Religious Leadership
The Shia believe in the concept of Imamate and that the Imam is the spiritual leader of the ummah and the first Imam according to the school of Imamate is Hazrat Ali (RA). Then comes Imam Hassan who is the second Imam, Imam Hussein the third Imam all the way until the twelve Imam, Imam Mohammad who disappeared at the age of 5 and they are expecting his return.
Shia Muslims believe that the Imam is sinless by nature, and that his authority is infallible as it comes directly from God.
However Sunni Muslims counter that there is no basis in Islam for a hereditary privileged class of spiritual leaders. 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.
Some Common Misconceptions about Shi’ism by Shahid Athar M.D.
Misconception #1: Shias have a different Quran. They add another 10 chapters to the original Quran.
Response: Not true. I have checked many times Quran kept in Shia homes and mosques. I still find it the same as the original Quran. More recently, I took care of an Iranian lady patient hospitalized here. I saw a copy of the Quran by her side. I borrowed it from her and browsed through cover to cover. In Arabic it was the same as our Quran. It is a sin to even say that the Quran can be changed or added to by Shia when it is protected by God.
Misconception #2: Some Shia consider Ali as God.
Response: Not true. It is disbelief to even think of such a thing. During the time of Ali, some pagan groups called Gholat did consider Ali as Lord. When he found out, they were burned to death.
Misconception #3: Shias have different declarations of faith and they add to the call to prescribed prayer.
Response: The declaration to become a Muslim, as administered to non-Muslims, is the same. Some Shia add to themselves, “Ali is a friend of God (PBUH) or Ali is a spiritual leader of God,” after the call to prescribed prayer, but not as part of the call to prescribed prayer.
Misconception #4: Shias do not perform sunnah prayers. Sunnah prayers are non obligatory prayers performed by Prophet Muhammad.
Response: Shias do perform non-obligatory prayers, 36 cycles per day in total, but call it nawafil and not sunnah.
Misconception #5: Some Shia believe the Angel Gabriel made a mistake and prophethood was meant for Ali and not Muhammad (PBUH).
Response: Not true. No Shia thinks of such false claims. “Only demented minds think of such questions.”
Misconception #6: Shias slander and ridicule the first three caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman) and Prophet Muhammad’s wife, Aysha.
Response: Shia consider the first three caliphs as great companions and good Muslim administrators, but not spiritual leaders (imams). Imam Jafar Sadiq, whose mother and grand mother came from the line of Abu Bakr, said of Abu Bakr, “He gave me birth twice.” Aysha is respected by Shias as the”Mother of Believers,” as Ali respected her when he sent her back from Basra to Madinah after the Battle of the Camel. If some Shia do slander the three caliphs and Aysha, they do it out of ignorance and should ask God’s forgiveness.
Misconception # 7: Shias combine all five prayers into one prayer in the evening.
Response: Not true. In Shia mosques, whether in Iran or the USA, all five daily prayers are performed. Some working Shia do combine noon and afternoon and evening and night, but Shia scholars recommend performing them separately. Such combinations may not be ideal, but better than not praying at all. How can a Sunni who does not pray at all be better than a Shia who combines prayers?
Misconception # 8: Shias do not pay zakat (poor-due).
Response: Not true. They not only pay 2.5% left over from savings as zakat, but also an additional 20% as khums or general charity. However, they prefer to pay directly to the needy rather than corrupt Sunni government.
Misconception #9: Shias practice temporary marriages (mutah).
Response: Mutah (temporary marriages) was allowed during the time of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and he himself practiced it. Ibn Zubayr was born out of the temporary marriage. Later on Caliph Umar prohibited it due to social reasons as the Islamic world was rapidly expanding. Shias discourage mutah but do not consider it prohibited. Some do abuse this. As a temporary privilege during travel, it is better than adultery.
Misconception #10: They consider Imams infallible and above the prophets.
Response: Not true. All prophets are born Prophet but as mentioned in Quran about Abraham that after passing the test, a prophet becomes a leader (Imam). Imams are carriers of the message of Islam. Shias consider Ali only as an Imam, but Muhammad is the Prophet, Messenger (rasul) and leader (imam).
With the little knowledge I have, I have tried to do my best as a Sunni in defending my Shia brothers in Islam with the hope and prayer to God Almighty that He will “instill love in the heart of the believers” and bring us closer to each other so that we jointly can fight our common enemy, Satan and his followers.
Bridging the differences – ‘Shia-Sunni unity’
It is important to remember that despite these differences in opinion and practice, Shia 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.”
While searching over the internet I was surprised that there was a whole lot material available on Shia-Sunni conflict but so little information available on the subject of ‘Shia-Sunni unity’ or anything which brings out the similarities and reduces the differences between the two sects.
Why? The simplest answer would be – divide and rule – which is one of the oldest way of controlling the masses by dividing them into certain class or sect.
One thing that we need to remember is there is no shia, there is no sunni, there is only one things that is, Muslim. Islam calls for unity and solidarity. Both Sunnis and Shias are required to work together and try to overcome their points of difference or forget about them, simply because the Ummah is facing a plight and both parties are targeted by one enemy.
Excerpt from the lecture given in Iran on March 3, 1982 by Sheikh Ahmad Deedat on the subject of Shia/Sunni.
“And I found types and types and types of sick people, a mental sickness that is. I came across an aalim who thought that there was something wrong with our Shia brothers. You see in Iran when the name Khomeini is mentioned people stop and everyone says durood on the Prophet(S.A.W.) three times. But when the name Mohammad is mentioned they send durood once. And this aalim says, “look at these people just look at them. What kind of Muslims are these people. When the name Mohammad is mentioned they send durood on the Prophet once but when the name Khomeini is mentioned they send Durood on Khomeini three times.” I said “What do they say in this so called ‘durood on Khomeini.’ “He said: Peace be upon Mohammad and the family of Mohammad. I said, “Their durood is on Prophet Mohammad(s) and you say it is on Khomeini.” You know it’s a sickness. There are many learned men but their minds are so prejudiced. They are just looking for faults.”
“ When it comes to the Shafei, Hanbali, Hanafi and Maliki we are tolerant but when it comes to the Shia you see he is not in the formula that we are taught as a child, so whatever little idiosyncrasies there exists between us and them we can’t tolerate and reject we say that he is out because we are programmed to believe in only the four. But we accept the idiosyncrasies between the four. I say why can’t you accept the Shia brothers as a fifth mazhab. And the astonishing thing is that he is telling you that he wants to be one with you. He is not talking about being Shia. He is shouting “there is no Sunni nor Shia there is one thing, Islam.” But we say to them “no you are different you are Shia.” This attitude is a sickness of the devil. He wants to divide us. Can you imagine we Sunnis are 90% of the Muslim world and the ten percent who are Shias want to be partners and brothers with you in faith and the 90% are terrified? I can’t understand why should you the 90% be so terrified.”
O ye who believe! Be careful of your duty to Allah, and be with the truthful.
(Qur’an: Chapter 9, Verse 119)