Sunni and Shi’a: coexistence and conflict

Hazem Saghieh
16 April 2007

In so many parts of the Islamic world today, worsening tensions between Sunni and Shi'a have shown us graphically just how atomised those societies have become. As communities have grown ever more alienated from one another, so the meaning of the "other" in Arab and Islamic culture has expanded, as the Tunisian writer and Saleh Bechir put it.

To get a sense of just how serious this development is, we have only to look back to the recent past, when for years the very existence of a divide between Islam's two great sects - in reality two distinct religions - was taboo. Arabs are prone to denial when it comes to our problems, and this tendency is much to blame for the fact that things have reached their present state. "We're all brothers", we insisted, preferring to resort to comforting platitudes rather than admitting that we had a problem (as we would have to do in order to address it). But if only we had looked beyond the rhetoric a little more critically, we would have seen that the seeds of violent confrontation were there all along.

True, the Sunni-Shi'a schism is not essentially a matter of religion, but one in which religious differences reflect wider social and political disparities. But in all cases we cannot avoid looking carefully at all of the factors involved. It is no exaggeration to say that the origins of the divide are to be found in the rivalry between the Hashemite and Umayyad clans during the pre-Islamic period, when neither Sunni nor Shi'a even existed. This competition took numerous forms, and kept reproducing itself, always adapting to changing circumstances. While Sunni and Shi'a share a common reverence for the Qur'an, they were only briefly united as a one political-religious entity, during the reigns of the first caliphs Abu Bakr and ‘Umar.

The Sunni dealt historically with the "book" as a guide for action; the Shi'a went too far in glorifying it, so its sacredness for them outgrew its practicality. Both communities look to the life of the Prophet Mohammed (sira) and his sayings (hadith) as vital sources of inspiration, yet in doing so they each draw on different accounts from different authorities. Moreover, their approaches to crucial historical figures in the prophet's life - especially his wife A'isha - differ fundamentally.

Moreover, just as Christianity was founded on the myth regarding Christ's crucifixion, so Shi'ism arose from the murder of the prophet's son-in-law Ali and his son Hussein at the hands of those who later became the Sunni. The rituals of Ashura, when Shi'a mourn Hussein's death, are a form of popular theatre which dramatise Shi'a persecution by Sunni authorities down through the ages. In commemorating this persecution every year, Shi'a rekindle ancient hatreds and reinforce their sense of difference from the Sunni.

Also in openDemocracy on the Islamic history:

Navid Kermani, "Roots of terror: suicide, martyrdom, self-redemption and Islam"
(21 February 2002)

Patricia Crone, "What do we actually know about Mohammed?"
(31 August 2006)

Mai Yamani, "Mecca: Islam's cosmopolitan heart"
(6 September 2006)

Fred Halliday, "Sunni, Shi'a and the 'Trotskyists of Islam'"
(9 February 2007)

Power and dissidence

Sunni have traditionally held the reins of political power in most Islamic countries, while Shi'as have often taken the role of the opposition. The same is true in the modern era, when in the 1960s and 1970s young Shi'a activists swelled the ranks of communist and radical parties from Iraq to Lebanon and Bahrain. The only minor historical exceptions to this rule were the Buyid dynasty, which ruled Iraq and western Iran in the 10th and 11th centuries CE, and the Fatimid dynasty, which governed Egypt and other parts of north Africa from the 10th to the 12th centuries. And even then, historians still debate just how Shi'a these two ruling dynasties were.

In most cities of the Islamic world the majority of the inhabitants are Sunni, and have been since at least the days of the Ottoman empire. They in turn, alongside the Christian and Jewish minorities, produced a layer of merchants, bureaucrats and writers. Sunni have also always made up the majority of poor urban artisans, with their guilds, arts, music and other customs. By contrast, the Shi'a have traditionally lived mainly in rural areas, far from the scrutiny of the Sunni central authorities, and as a result their lives have been bound up with agricultural labour. Their culture, too, has been characterised by the oral, almost mechanical, transmission of customs and beliefs.

It is significant that when the Safavid rulers of 16th-century Iran wished to distinguish themselves from the Arabs, they chose to embrace Shi'ism: as if by so doing they were expressing their imperial identity in terms of religious difference from their Sunni neighbours.

Sunni scholars of Islamic law have historically been preoccupied with power and the means of exercising and maintaining it. Of the many sayings ascribed to the great Sunni authority Ibn Taymiyah, one of the best known states that a despotic ruler is preferable to chaos and discord. Meanwhile the ideas developed by the early Shi'a thinkers revolved around the quest for justice, the vision of an ideal society and the perfection of the so-called "hidden imam", the last of the Shi'a revered leaders who vanished from the earth, and whose messiah-like return they still await today. Yet the infallibility of the imam (a quality which Ayatollah Khomeini extended to the supreme leader of his Islamic Republic) is a concept completely unknown in Sunni tradition.

Hazem Saghieh is senior commentator for the London-based Arabic paper Al-Hayat

Also by Hazem Saghieh on openDemocracy:

"Al-Jazeera: the world through Arab eyes" (June 2004)

"Rafiq Hariri's murder: why do Lebanese blame Syria?"
(February 2005)

"How to make Israel secure" (August 2005)

(with Saleh Bechir) "The 'Muslim community': a European invention" (October 2005)

"Syria and Lebanon: keeping it in the family" (December 2005)

"The cartoon jihad" (March 2006)

"Iran's politics: constants and variables" (May 2006)

"How the European left supports Lebanon" (August 2006)

"Suez: Arab victory or Arab tragedy?"
(20 October 2006)

"Lebanon’s internal struggle: two logics in combat"
(19 December 2006)

A sectarian geopolitics

In European history the wars of religion between Protestants and Catholics were bound up with religious reform, a process which in turn led to the emergence of the nation-state in that continent. Yet the almost total divergence of Sunni and Shi'a Islam make it extremely difficult to apply such a model to the Islamic world, and highly improbable that a similar development could take place there. It is hard to see how the differences between the sects, combined with the weakness of the nation-state and political traditions and the lack of social cohesion typical of the middle east, could lead to anything other than destruction and civil conflict in those countries where the communities live - and feud - together.

Attempts to "unite" the sects have been pathetically superficial and usually motivated by the same fleeting political and ideological considerations that have characterised every radical scheme the region has ever known. In 1959, for example, there was a brief rapprochement between Sunni Egypt and the supreme Shi'a religious authority in Iraq, Sayyid Muhsin al-Hakim, when President Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Iraqi Shi'a clerical establishment joined forces against the communists and the regime of Abd al-Karim Qasim in Baghdad. Later on, after Khomeini's Islamic revolution of 1979, there were renewed calls for a cross-sectarian, anti-imperialist "Islamic unity".

Between the first world war and the end of the cold war, the traditional Arab instinct to obliterate Sunni-Shi'a differences was married to a certain infatuation with all things modern (which led us to regard sectarianism as something "shameful"). Some people sought to express sectarian differences in a political form, such as the Shi'a opponents of Arab dictatorships who aligned themselves with leftwing parties or demanded democratic reforms. On a purely cultural level, such rebellion was reflected in the rejection of literary traditions, such as the use of metre in poetry.

However, the decisive moment came with the Islamic revolution in Iran, a bold and emphatically Shi'a political experiment at a time when the left was weakening and the Soviet Union beginning to ossify. Radical Shi'ism soon became identified with hostility to the United States as Iran adopted a vehemently anti-American stance, while conservative Arab powers (themselves oppressors of the Shi'a to varying degrees) took to supporting the Afghan jihad against communism.

In time of ignorance

True, we should avoid generalisations and beware of taking an essentialist view of history. But how can we help it, with our history of stagnation and being itself essentialist? Isn't Iraq, which is undergoing a present-day bloodbath, the same country where the split began in the days of Ali and where it continued later in conflict between the Shi'a Safavid and Qajar dynasties and the Sunni Ottoman empire? All this in Iraq, where for thirty-five years a Ba'athist Sunni regime managed, with its oil wealth and a highly centralised system of government, to hold on to power while suppressing all mention of the sectarian divisions in Iraqi society.

The response to our real problems has been silence. Much the same thing happened in Lebanon, where Sayyid Musa al-Sadr established the Supreme Shi'a Islamic Council as a rejection of representation by the country's Sunni Mufti. At the time of the Islamic revolution and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the Shi'a fought many fierce battles with the Palestinian (Sunni) resistance in the south. Indeed, the Shi'a forces came to break the Palestinian-Sunni monopoly of resistance to Israel and excluded pro-Palestinian leftwing parties from it. This coincided with the so-called "war of the refugee camps" between the Shi'a and their Palestinian "brothers", which was one of the most vicious phases of the Lebanese civil war.

Lebanon's late prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri - a Sunni, a neo-liberal and a Saudi passport-holder - rebuilt the city of Beirut in the expectation of peace between Israel and the Arabs. His approach and Hizbollah's Shi'a agenda were polar opposites, two agendas which were able to coexist for a time because of Syria's military presence in Lebanon. Yet military force is not the answer and this coexistence cannot last, either in Lebanon or elsewhere, in a climate of ignorance and denial.

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