CRUCIBLE: Sunni-Shia Schism (2)

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/25 April) – When in our previous khutbah (discourse) we tried to emphasize the unitive and cooperative character of so-called Sunni and Shi’a, our purpose is to highlight their rich and harmonious interaction in many phases of Islamic history. Moreover, we view their fundamentals and teachings from universal and dynamic perspective minimizing thus their difference and dissension.

Saying so however would not mean we are naïve about the serious source of schism or division between them. In fact, we are fully aware that their schism has plagued the Muslim world along sectarian lines – a problem that continuously wreaks havoc in the Middle East today and elsewhere.

When we insist to highlight the unitive character of the two camps it is because, I believe, their schism and polarization is more product of history than based on their deeply entrenched teachings. This means each camp should not easily sway us to lose touch with the universal frame of Islam. We could not allow to be ensconced in too limited and restrictive understanding of so-called Sunni-Shi’a schism.

History as critical force

As we’d noted previously, while the concept of sunnah and shi’a are present in the Holy Qur’an, Qur’anic worldview differs markedly from what has actually transpired in Muslim historical and social reality. The latter is actually a critical issue that shaped their historical development including the attendant hermeneutics or interpretation espoused by varying groups espousing either Sunni or Shi’a ideas. It suggests therefore that Islamic history as far as Sunni-Shi’a issue is concerned develops major distinction away from early conception of what the idea of shi’a and sunnah in the Qur’an is.

We had already highlighted the concept of sunnatu l-llah referring, from one perspective, as God’s pattern in creation and, on another, to foundation or, if you may, tradition that prophets adhered to in terms of their teachings. It is probably not incidental that with the advent of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) the word sunnah became prominent even as the word sunnatu l-rasulu l-llah or the tradition of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) was conceived to mean that the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) reflected that of previous prophets as they are reflective too of sunnatu l-llah.

Thus, it must not also be incidental that the term sunnah became part of the hierarchy of the fundamental or usul that is rated second to the Holy Qur’an. Later on, the hierarchy was added with what became secondary sources of Islamic law like ijma (consensus), and qiyas (analogy). Such hierarchy of usul became an accepted canon among the Ahlu l-sunnah wa l-jama’a or the people that supposedly follow the tradition of Prophet Muhammad (SAW).

However, there is also a concept in the Qur’an that mentions the term sunnah; but it is of different connotation like the term sunnatu l-awwaleen to mean old ways. Sometimes, it is also referred to as asaatiru l-awwaleen. It is a concept that refers to certain practices that that do not reflect the teachings or tradition of the prophets of sunnatu l-llah.

This is to suggest that the term sunnah as far as the Qur’an is concerned carries two meanings: one, sunnatu l-llah or that line of teachings with which prophets adhered to; and the other, sunnatu l-awwaleen, which are reflective of old practices that actually contravene the teachings of prophets including Prophet Muhammad’s (SAW).

To say the least, what became thus as Ahlu s-sunnah wa l-jama’a must be a historical development that happened after the time of Prophet Muhammad (SAW). It means a kind of grouping that follows the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) including the collectivity into which most Sunni Muslims are encouraged to be part of.

For instance, the Holy Qur’an reads:

“We did send apostles before thee amongst the religious sects of old (shiy’ai l-awwaleen); but never came an apostle to them but they mocked him. Even so we let it creep into the hearts of the sinners – that they should not believe in the (Messenger); but the ways of the ancients (sunnatu l-awwaleen) have passed away (Al-hajar: 10-13).”

Shia’s minoritization

To reinforce our previous point, the term shi’a as in shi’a al-awwaleen mentioned above is indeed identified as sect or grouping. And the notion of sunnatu l-awwaleen is also referred to as the ways of the ancient. As we said neither the concepts – shi’a nor sunnah – as understood and what became as Shi’atu l-ali (Party of Ali (AS) or Ahlu s-sunnah wa l-jama’a are the ones referred to in the Holy Qur’an.

To say the least, when the notion of shi’a or more particularly the group known as the Shiatu l-ali was institutionalized, in a sense, the sectarian conception was reduced and was subsequently legitimized and constituted as a distinct grouping different from the larger collective of Ahlu s-sunnah wa l-jama’ah. We had already elaborated the reason for this tracing back to the Battle of Siffin, the martyrdom of Husayn in Karbala and the institutionalization of Imamah including the Mahdi tradition in Shi’a teachings and worldview.

Thus, the legitimization of the Shiatu l-ali that now becomes what we refer to as Shi’a continued in succeeding decades and centuries after the Prophet (SAW) and the four Khulafau l-rashidun (rightly guided caliphs). So that doctrines like Imamah, occultation of the Seventh or Twelveth Imam and so on, also developed in subsequent periods.

This is, in our view, due to the fact that Shiatu l-ali and the various Shi’a groups that branched out from it became too protective of their view as they were continuously minoritized in many phases of history. As such, they developed types of Islamic thought different from Sunni’s particularly the four madhahib or Sunni schools of thought.

But their usul or fundamentals still converged primarily with the usul of the Ahlu s-sunnah except that instead of hadith (saying of Prophet Muhammad), Shi’a gave important credence to the sayings of the Imams referred to as the akhbari; whereas Sunni only treats them, at least, as qawlu l-ulama or words of religious scholars. And apart from ijma (consensus) and qiyas (analogy), there is a big space given to aql or reason in Shi’a’s thought. In short, there are certain confluences of Sunni-Shi’a fundamentals, as they have their divergences too.

To say the least, due to Shi’a’s claim for more Islamic identity, issues of divergence were emphasized serving as diametrical formulation in the position of so-called Sunni-Shi’a camps, creating what Marshall Hodgson referred to as “barrier” within the Muslim world. In many instances, their differences served as justification in pursuit of their ideology and politics that often led them to clash than to unite.

This is, in brief, the sad story of supposed fundamentals of Islam that have given way to history, ideology and politics of varying players opening thus a big room for big powers to manipulate the Sunni-Shi’a issue especially at present.

Ties that bind

There is probably no easy way with which we are able to simplify understanding the irony of Sunni-Shi’a schism. To reiterate, it is our view that historical forces other than the fundamentals of both Sunni and Shi’a define essentially the irony. We are aware that it is too big a claim. We expect that other people would say that the fundamentals of the two faiths are more critical than their history and politics in worsening Sunni-Shi’a schism.

Be that as it may, fact is both camps use the same Qur’an as they revere all the Prophets particularly Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and his teachings. We should not lose track of this frame. The rest of their differences could be considered secondary like the claim that the sayings of imams are equally important or that the role of the imam is necessary whether among Twelvers or Seveners, or Zaydis or Houtis.

What we are saying is there has to be critical understanding among Muslims in terms of their ability to identify the most fundamental of their religion from the lesser ones. They should not be swayed to quarrel on insular or peripheral issues. The ties that bind them are more important than the issues that divide them.

In the first place, Sunni-Shi’a rivalry is not new. It has shaped, as we said, many phases of Islamic history particularly the politics of empires and dynasties in those days. The only difference is, in the old days, those empires, dynasties or sub-dynasties existed on their own. There were no supra powers or global forces controlling them. As they could enter into relationship at one time, they could, at other time, also quarrel among themselves. To say the least, they were free to wage war or to wage peace among themselves. Such dynamic has been there since.

The Safavid

One particular case is the Safavid Dynasty. It rose few centuries during the Ottoman Empire and co-exited with the Timurid Dynasty, which was a Sunni Muslim power that time. The Safavid is a Shi’a dynasty. It reigned for around 300 years. It tried to rival the Ottoman Empire, a Sunni (particularly Hanafi) power entity. It was during the period of the Safavid that the torch of Islam was carried on after the Mongols’ invasion of Baghdad in 1258.

Marshall Hodgson acknowledged what he referred to as “renaissance” in the Islamic world during the Safavid period. There was a re-flourishing of Islamic philosophy with such intellectual giants like Mir Damad, Shurawardi, Mullah Sadra after the birth of kalam (speculative thought) and fasafah (philosophy) in the 8th and 9th centuries with the rise of orthodoxy in the Arab world and mysticism in Al-Andalus or Spain. Art and Architecture bloomed, while Persian, Indian and Turkish poetry became popular. That period of Safavid therefore is not wholly defined by violence and schism. It was also a period of development and flourishing of culture.

Undeniably, as Hodgson noted, that period was also the peak of the establishment of Twelver’s Shi’ism “as dominant allegiance in major parts of Islamdom, which in the area, to new emphasis and forms in piety on the levels both of the high culture and of the folk culture; and it even erected a certain cultural barrier between the Shi’a and Jama’a Sunni areas.  This barrier showed itself politically in the chronic hostility that set the Safavid at odds with both the Ottomans and Ozbegs – though indeed, at most, Shi’ism only exacerbated conflicts such as had been taking before (“Venture of Islam,” Vol. 3, p. 33).”

What we are saying is that the Sunni-Shi’a conflict is not new. It was the same feature in the days of old. It has also certain geopolitical content. As the Safavids controlled Iran, Syria and Iraq and few other territories that time, she barred the dominance of Portuguese in the south particularly in Africa and other parts of the Middle East; and the Russians in the north. Thus, the Safavids played a critical role in terms of thwarting the influence of big and emerging powers that time. In short, the Sunni-Shi’a conflict could not be simply understood through the lens of theology, religious fundamentals and ideology. It has to be viewed too in light of certain historical antecedents and geopolitical tension like today.

Geopolitical dimension

When we emphasize the need to be familiar with historical, geo-strategic and geo-political dimension of Sunni-Shi’a rivalry, our end is to highlight how this problem has been maneuvered and utilized by big powers as source of divide and rule in the Muslim world.

In other words, we have to be fully aware how geo-political contest of big powers complicates the Sunni-Shi’a divide. This point is not to fan the flame, but to see the bigger picture so that we could not easily be swayed to carry myopic view. As observed, many people carry constricted or limited understanding of Sunni-Shi’a divide insulating in the equation the role of big powers’ interest in the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world.

Indeed, the Middle East today has entered a new phase. Political dissension therein has been magnified a thousand fold impressing that there is a deeper source of disunity in the ummah. Big powers’ policy of divide and rule in the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world is becoming more entrenched these days. We have yet to see the danger ahead. The trend or trajectory is alarming.

There was, of course, Sunni and Shi’a issue in the early 20th century and even earlier, but it is not magnified as today. It is because, as we said, unlike the old days when the Safavids, the Ottoman, and other dynasties were quarreling amongst themselves, they simply did it among themselves, as they existed on their own. They may have been driven with almost similar intensity with their ideology, which is sourced or hermeneutically molded from their essential worldviews – whether of Sunni or Shi’a fundamentals – but they have ways of resolving their conflicts.

In our time, the same tension is present, but each player is attached to multiple strings controlled and maneuvered from above by big powers. So that there can be no winners or losers in this regard. All players (whether Sunni or Shi’a) are subjects of control and domination from above.

Yemen and Neocon’s signature

There is no doubt that there is a new political configuration in the Middle East with the so-called Shi’a arc stretching from Syria to Lebanon, from Bahrain to Iraq, from Iran to Yemen. We say that arc has been there. It was not as agitated as today.

What led into the agitation of Sunni-Shi’a rivalry in the Middle East these days?

We’d already identified some reasons in our previous khutbah. But for purposes of simplifying the new development particularly the crisis in Yemen recently, there is a need to go beyond understanding the politics of Sunni and Shi’a in that area. Nafeez Ahmed, in his recent paper, “The Pentagon Plan to divide and rule the Muslim World,” writes:

“The escalation of the crisis in Yemen threatens to spiral into full scale Sunni-Shi’a regional war by proxy. Since 9/11 every country in the region touched by major US interference has collapsed into civil war as their social fabric has been irreversibly shattered: Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya.”

By the way, these countries or, at least, three of the countries mentioned by Ahmed were included as part of “Axis of Evil” declared by the Bush Administration few years ago. Now all of them have collapsed except Iran. Cuba is now trying to mend relations with the United States. In short, the tension in the Middle East particularly in the so-called Shi’a arc has long been programmed for many years.

Ahmed continues:

“The ensuing arc of sectarian warfare bears uncanny resemblance to… “Unfolding the Future of the Long War,” a 2008 RAND Corporation report which sets out US government policy options for prosecuting what it described as the “long war” against adversaries in the Muslim world who are bent in forming a unified Islamic world to supplant Western dominance.”

The report suggests that the “US Army sees all Muslim political groups in the region (whether Sunni or Shi’a) that challenge the prevailing political order as adversaries to be countered and weakened.”

We say therefore that countries at war in the Arab world today including those groups acting as proxies could slug it out continuously, but that would only lead into their own self-destruction. Who would profit from their instability would be the big powers. According to Ahmed, the crisis in Yemen and other Arab areas has the signature of US neo-conservative maneuvering at work.

Arms race

As an update to the statistics we previously noted, among 10 Top Defense Importers in 2014, Saudi Arabia is number one with US$ 6.4 Billion arms procurement spending. According to the Jane’s report, one out of seven dollars is actually used for arms spending in Saudi Arabia. Of top 10 countries mentioned, five in the list are Muslim countries: United Arab Emirates follows Saudi Arabia, then Indonesia, Turkey, and Pakistan.

The beneficiaries of arms race in the Middle East and elsewhere are obviously big powers. At the top of the list of 10 Top Defense Exporters in 2014 are: United States, Russia, France, United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Israel, China, Spain and Canada.

Indeed, the Sunni-Shi’a schism or tension has been present in many phases of Islamic history. But not at all times was their relationship defined by war and violence. There were many instances where their relation is defined by harmony and amity.

To reiterate, the difference is that, those empires, dynasties and sultanates, existed on their own. As such, when they quarreled, they won or they lost. After that, the new social and political order in the Muslim world would usually emerge.

In our time, Sunni and Shi’a groups particularly countries embroiled in such sectarian tension are made to function – directly or indirectly – according to geopolitical frame created or imposed upon them. Therefore, there will be no victor or loser amongst them. There will be continuing tension in the region as countries and groups therein remain unwitting objects of divide and rule. As they are not major players in world politics, who decide over their fates are big powers that are mostly members of the Security Council with their most potent weapons: their veto powers.

Hence, there can never emerge a new social and political order in the Middle East and other regions in the Muslim world in both short and long terms. Never in history where we witness the politicization of supposed fundamentals of Islam magnified to form as mirage of geopolitics among big powers and their proxies. The schism is made to appear as religious war among Sunni and Shi’a so it can easily be used as pretext of global maneuvering and manipulation.

We have to be creative in understanding this crisis. We have to sharpen our reading and analysis. Let us not easily fall into the trap of myopic understanding of usul (fundamentals) and aqeedah (belief) divorced from broader social and political issues and without fully understanding the whole gamut of geo-political and geo-strategic context of the Muslim world. This way we could have comprehensive understanding of Sunni-Shi’a schism. As forces from without try to manipulate the internal tension in the Muslim world, there has to develop new understanding within the ummah highlighting unity, harmony and amity. (MindaViews is opinion section of MindaNews. A Friday khutbah (with revision) delivered at the UP-Institute of Islamic Studies on 17 April 2015. Julkipli Wadi is Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines.)