CRUCIBLE: Sunni-Shi’a Schism (1)

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QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 20 Nov) – Humanity’s quest or vision of unity has endured since the beginning of time. Yet, the same quest appears like a chimera or shadow given the diverse, at times, conflicting expression into which mankind appropriate their unity so that the dialectic of unity and diversity appears to be a constant feature in history. Religions have been persistent in articulating such unity; yet, in most cases, too, religions have become source of division and schism between and among and within their respective followers. Indeed, the dialectic between ideal of, and struggle towards, unity has been a major feature of history since then until our time.

Great schism

The foregoing views would provide context into which we could, at least, scratch the surface about a serious ill of the ummah that has plagued the Muslim world since then and recently. I refer particularly to what is referred to as fitnatu l-kubra or “great schism” or “dissension” particularly between the so-called Sunni and Shi’a.

Before we proceed, it is important to provide a background why, for quite a long time, we didn’t touch this topic. Given the intense sectarian debate between the two camps, we don’t want to be identified as another parties fueling the tension. We thought there is a need to see the breadth and depth of the issue and assess them as part of our way to address it in a more enlightened manner. Some friends have long prodded us to talk about it; we said in due time we’ll discuss it.

Quite fortuitously, two Fridays ago, I was at the Saudi Arabia Embassy and met the Imam of Masjidi l-haram of Makkah. The Saudi Ambassador and the Imam of the Haram welcomed us together with other guests. Although there was not much discussion among us, just the same, we could only extend our thanks and gratitude to Saudi Arabia Embassy for the invitation. Three days after, an Iranian scholar and a Hujjatu l-Islam visited us here at the Institute. They inquired many issues even as we shared varying perspectives on a number of topics in Islamic thought and dynamics in the Muslim world. These varied engagements would show our fair and objective position relative to countries embroiled in Sunni-Shia schism particularly Saudi Arabia and Iran. Many times, too, I was invited by the Saudi government to visit the Holy Sites in Makkah and Madinah. We could only, as we said, extend our gratitude with such extension of graciousness. And the same manner, Iran’s representatives in the Philippines had extended to us invitations even giving us opportunities to lecture in their programs and forums in many occasions.

We are fully aware of the tension especially in the Middle East given the too entrenched ideas that are deeply rooted in history, politics, theology resulting in claims and counter-claims between the Sunni and the Shia. On the contrary, we could not continuously evade the issue of Sunni-Shia schism given that it had defined practically many phases of sectarian tensions and conflicts in the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world. While Sunni-Shia schism has become a permanent feature since then, in our time, it has been magnified beyond proportion while entangled in big power politics intensifying the problem in the Middle East making it difficult of being resolved.


To begin with, we are not in a position to articulate the whole gamut of this problem since, as we said, we could only scratch the surface. In fact, we practically don’t know where to start given the multi-dimensional character of the issue. As a background, the most crucial issue is the question of succession after the death of the Prophet creating vociferations dating back to early 6th and 7th century especially when the early Muslim community would have yet to consolidate its political and religious foundation, while experiencing rapid expansion in many parts of the Arab world and elsewhere.

The issue of succession polarized the core circle of early Muslim community so much so that the four Caliphs except for Abu Bakr died by assassination. Although the three earlier Caliphs were recognized as successors on Prophet Muhammad (SAW), the claim of the followers of the “Party of Ali” or the Shiatu l-Ali a term has left a mark in Islamic history owing to additional requirement, at least, in Shi’a thought to Ali’s position of wilayah or sanctity – that esoteric tradition or privilege vested on Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and was accordingly inherited by his progeny through Ali, being the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, and later, the Prophet’s grandson Husayn, and so on and so forth.

To say the least, this claim and counter-claim became the source of conflict especially culminating in the Battle of Siffin in 657 AD which then polarized the so-called followers of Ali versus Mu’awiyah and other groups of then nascent Muslim community which in the beginning were actually precipitation of forces from different major groupings that later became the Khawarij, the Murji’a, the Qadiriyyah, the Mu’tazillah, the Asharaiyyah and many others. Later on, these varied groups, while having their theologico-philosophical distinctions, are easily siphoned off and were invariably consolidated under the rubric referred to as ahlu s-sunnah; and much later, an additional term was added known as jama’a so it becomes ahlu s-sunnah wa l-jama’a or the People of Sunnah and the Collectives. Certainly, holding on or returning to the “sunnah” of the Prophet could easily unite varied groups while sharpening their individual, nuanced thought, except that they could easily be tied altogether with agenda bordering on literalism and puritanism with strong “fundamentalist” tendency, oftentimes crippling creative, adventurous, and scientific mind.

This highlights the dialectic of the two forces (Sunni and Shia) with the Ahlu s-sunnah becoming the majority as its claim is based on a general principle of succession not by Divine designation as the Shi’atu l-Ali or the Party of Ali became the minority. Shia’s minoritization could rather be explained with the fact that its claim is based on position with elitist tendency; whereas Sunni’s claim could easily be accepted as Islam spread in many parts of the Arab world and elsewhere even if the new communities of Muslims do not need to have “link” reflective that of the Shi’a’s; so that, Sunni tradition became widespread and became the dominant school in the Muslim world which are divided generally into four madhahib or schools of thought, namely: Shafi’i, Maliki, Hanafi, and Hanbali.

While Sunni groups had their theologico-philosophical nuances, as mentioned, the popularity of the notion of ahlu s-sunnah wa l-jama’a minimized their varying claims even as many of them could easily rally along orthodox and literalist interpretation even more. Centuries later, the differences in Sunni schools were even sharpened with the popularity of the Wahhabi and, much later, the Salafi that traced their origin to Ibn Hanbal, Ibn Taymiyyah, and Muhammad Ibn Wahhab, and few others. This is, more or less, our historical premise of Sunni-Shi’a schism.


What is important to note where this point is hardly mentioned in many traditional discourses is the claim and counter-claim of the two schools as they are deeply rooted in Qur’anic text. For obvious reason, the concept of shi’atu l-Ali is not mentioned in the Qur’an; and the same manner, the term ahlu s-sunnah wa l-jama’a is also not mentioned in the Qur’an, although there are terminologies reflective of these two concepts – shi’a and sunnah – in the Qur’an.

We thought it is important to go back to original contemplation of the Qur’an about these concepts and their related or attendant terminologies that become part of the claim and counter-claim by the two camps as they need to be delineated vis-à-vis the praxis that actually evolved during the period of contestation of the two groups as defined by the issue of succession and the claim of wilayah or the notion of sanctity, and later the claim for imamiyyah (the imam tradition) in Shi’a belief. This is a way, we thought, where we are able to distinguish the original vision of the Qur’an about the two terminologies and the accretion of interpretations along varying historical trajectories that developed resulting from their claims and counter-claims which oftentimes led to creating more tensions and clashes making them divorced or detached from original contemplation of the Holy Qur’an.

There are around nine times where the word shi’a is mentioned in the Qur’an and defined in their original Qur’anic vision vis-à-vis around 14 concepts identified in the Qur’an known as sunnah. To say the least, in the notion or concept of sunnah, it has certain grades or categories when the Qur’an speaks of varying terms that mentioned the term sunnah. Let me read few verses in this regard.

But their professing the faith when they actually saw Our punishment was not going to profit them such has been God’s Way (sunnatu l-llah) when dealing with His servants from the most ancient time and even then that the rejecters of God perished utterly (Ghafir: 85).

By the way, this verse comes just after three verses that make it imperative by the Qur’an for everyone to observe fluxes of history. In a verse we used to frequently quote, it reads:

“Do they not travel though the earth and see what was the end of those before them. They were numerous then they are superior in strength and in traces they have left in the land. Yet, all that they accomplished was of no profit to them (82).”

It is a reiteration of the Qur’an for the ummah of the Islamic community to reflect on the dynamics of society, the rise and fall of communities and see the underlying truth and wisdom behind them. To say the least, apart from the concept of sunnatu l-Allah or the Pattern or Way of Allah (SWT), there is also verse like sunnatu man arsalna qablika (Hajar: 10) or “the way of the Apostles.” Thus some categories of these terms could be put forward in the following order such as sunnatu l-allah, sunnatu n-nabiyyen; then in the case of Prophet Muhammad what becomes popular sunnatu l-rasulullah or the “way” or “tradition” of Prophet Muhammad (SAW).

These categories impress certain hierarchy or line of tradition among Prophets that went on until Prophet Muhammad (SAW). As fiqh or Islamic jurisprudence grew, Sunni ulama (religious scholars) categorized Prophet Muhammad’s sunnah into Prophet’s saying (hadith), his action (fi’il), and his silence (taqrir). From there, the followers of the Prophet (SAW) who are obviously Muslims by virtue of their adherence to Islam are even more categorized to those who fervently follow the “sunnah” of Prophet Muhammad; hence, the popularity of the term ahlu s-sunnah wa l-jama’a. This term or grouping did not really develop in the time of the Prophet more so even in the early days of the Khulafau l-rashidun or “four guided caliphs.” It became popular in succeeding years.

Obviously, we said the term shi’atu l-ali did not appear in the Qur’an but the term shi’a also appears a number of times to refer invariably to group or party in strife and to communities with varying denominations during different periods of prophets. It suggests that before Prophet Muhammad (SAW) communities in those times were already divided into sects and denominations. This was given new meaning and new interpretation especially as a group of Muslims had their varying claim different from the majority Sunni group making them popularly known as Shi’a.

Not all negative

The dialectic between the two camps has been intense, although there were also instances where they lived harmoniously even enriching each other. One prominent dynasty identified as Shi’a like the Fatimid was instrumental in the building of the oldest mosque cum university in the Sunni world known today as the Al-Azhar University. Built in 950, Al-Azhar was only rivaled by Al-Qarawiyyun University in Morocco, which was built much earlier in 859. These Islamic universities were thus in existence when prominent schools in Europe were yet to be contemplated many centuries later.

To say the least, the relation of Sunni and Shi’a contrary to conventional impression is not always mutually exclusive or in perpetual tension or conflict. You might be surprised that many of the great scholars of Islam came from areas under the Abbasid, Ottoman, Safavid, the Qajar dynasty or what was known then as Khurasan now mostly part of Iran. They were generally Persians and Turkish and were not generally Arabs. And their contribution to Islamic thought has been fully recognized in the Sunni world. This is to show that the relationship between the Sunni and Shi’a today has a chance of being transformed into something mutually beneficial given their rich relation in the past.

Perhaps, the most critical in the relation is the continuing contestation since the early days until our time prominent probably in certain middle period was the rivalry between the Safavid and Ottoman and is carried on also until the Qajar dynasty, then the birth of the Pahlavi regime, the rise of the Shahand the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. Shi’a’s situation as minority was made as a source of strength and vigor so much so that Shi’a were able to develop doctrines that were elevated to their aqeedah or belief. These fortify their esoteric theology and their politics. It is shown generally in their fundamental beliefs on tauhid (unity), prophethood, resurrection, on the imam and its succession, on adl or justice.

To say the least, these fundamentals are not wholly or mutually exclusive with those in the Sunni’s. In the hierarchy of knowledge or gnosis (ilm/ma’rifah/irfan), there is actually strong affinity, if not convergence between the two. What generally differentiates them is on the level of their social and political construction. While this latter level is critical, it could not be taken as sole differentiating element as it is quite insular relative to their rich tradition of spirituality and history of relation and harmony. This means to have a comprehensive understanding of Sunni-Shi’a schism, it necessitates to have a clear and broader frame or Islamic thought (embracing both Sunni’s and Shia’s) and ability to see the position of each camp and how much of their belief and doctrines reflect or deflect from major fundamentals of Islam. Indeed, there is a need to take a wide gaze on the broader vision of Sunni-Shi’a unity while aware on the chimera of their differences and division.

To emphasize their peripheral or insular differences in lieu of their common and shared belief on tauhidprophethood, and few others would mean building walls than bridges with their fanatical followers barking the wrong tree by forcedly emphasizing their differences than commonalities. If both camps would not slow down with their respective apologia and politicized claims, they both would be at the losing end. Their differences could be exploited by outside forces to continuously make the Sunni-Shi’a camps like despondent chickens in a cockpit and make them fight against each other pointlessly.

[MindaViews is opinion section of Mindanews. A khutbah (with some revisions) delivered at the Institute of Islamic Studies on 14 November 2014. Julkipli Wadi is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines.]

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