What is a Sunni? What is a Shia? These two labels–which many still struggle to clearly define–have been used to explain some of the most violent confrontations in recent years. Now it seems that discussions on the conflict in Iraq, for example, require framing the discourse with the colorings of sectarianism. In the mainstream media, it seems that the explanation for all intra-religious fighting is solely the result of longstanding discord between these two main divisions of Islam.
Personally, I never thought of myself as anything but Muslim. I suspect many other Muslims also share that sentiment. It was only in high school that I even became aware of the division. I would give talks with my friends about Islam and the question “Are you Sunni or Shia?” started to come up. Of course, your family and community play a big role in what you come to know and how you know it. Since my family was of Sunni background, I was raised in that tradition. However, I was never taught to hate or harbor ill will towards the Shia. They were Muslims who shared much with Sunnis but had certain religious doctrines that we just agreed to disagree about.
Many people do not realize that the divide between Sunni and Shia (the two largest branches of Islam with several other groups resulting from this initial divide) was sparked initially by a political disagreement over who would succeed the Prophet Muhammad as the leader of the new Muslim community. It was not a fundamental rift in religious ideology. Those who were later to be called the Sunnis believed that he did not designate a successor and left it to the community to decide; while those who would later be called the Shia believed that Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, was chosen by the Prophet to succeed him. Early on, though, there weren’t any doctrinal differences. Over time, this split developed and eventually there arose some points of religious disagreement.
Sunnis and Shia share the core beliefs of Islam: the belief in the absolute oneness of God, the Prophet Muhammad, the pillars of Islam, and the Qur’an. The main source of doctrinal differences stems from the question of legitimate succession. For the Shia, authority should have remained within the Prophet’s household, Ahl al-Bayt. Their understanding of the household is narrower than the Sunnis and comprises only Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, her husband Ali, and their sons Hasan and Husayn. The family connection is central to the Shia notion of who can claim knowledge and guidance: first, the direct family of the Prophet and then a series of Imams from the same lineage. The Sunnis, on the other hand, love and respect the family of the Prophet; however, what constitutes Ahl al-Bayt includes the wives of the Prophet as well (meaning not just blood connection). There is also an emphasis on egalitarianism so that anyone who is able to lead because of a virtuous character and knowledge can become the leader and can be a source of knowledge. Thus, Sunnis consider Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali all to be the Rightly Guided Caliphs and believe that anyone who has achieved a certain level of scholarship can interpret the Qur’an. In other words, the Shia will look to the Imams, descendants of the Prophet, for guidance while Sunnis look to the scholars, the Ulama, without regard to lineage. This difference in emphasis has resulted in much of the doctrinal variation between the two groups.
The question for me, though, is: do the historical rift and and subsequent religious differences now explain what is going on in Iraq, for example, or define Islam as a whole? I would venture to say no. The historical trend has often been to simplify anything having to do with Islam to a few basic elements, which more often than not involves discord and violence. It is very problematic to assign a few factors to explain complex problems. If, for example, the fighting in Iraq can be attributed mainly to the conflict between the Sunnis and the Shia, then how can one explain the fact that before the 2003 war, the two divisions mixed freely and inter-group marriages were quite common? In fact, as noted in a recent MSNBC article, Sunni-Shia marriages are now being encouraged financially in an effort to heal the divide caused by the war. Being Sunni or Shia is an identity, a label. As such it fluctuates and can be a reason for conflict but can also be a point to find commonalities.
One example of an attempt towards unity is the Amman Message, in which scholars from both groups came together in 2004 to write a resolution that stated that followers of the four Sunni schools of thought and the two Shia schools are all Muslims. I don’t pretend that there has been conflict between the divisions; however, I don’t think it defines Islam’s history. More often than not, I would argue, a Muslim just wants to be called a Muslim and to leave politics aside.
What do you know about the difference (and commonalities) between Sunni and Shia? Do doctrinal differences always lead to violence? Can one find similarities or differences in other faiths? Please leave your comments.