CRUCIBLE: Sunni-Shi’a Schism (3)

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QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/05 August) – It is not gainsaying that, today, we could suffer from pangs of frustration given the continuing contradictions happening around especially with worsening tumult in the Middle East and many parts of world. Apart from the fact that our purported hopes and dreams for peace are not bearing any plausible result let alone showing any sign of silver linings on the horizon, those contradictions could even be magnified when we view them through the prism of the Holy Qur’an.

Yet, we are told that it is in such a time of uncertainty that we have to be steadfast, as such contradictions are, in a sense, reflection or shadows of the signs or ayah of our time. As words of solace, perhaps, we can say that our frustration is mere product of our failure to unlock higher truth on why the ummah (Islamic community) has to experience travails and tragedies with their rather distinct ajal or term these days.

As readers of ayah, we have to be even more courageous to stand on our ground and understand things so that, if possible, we can transform such frustration into knowledge and wisdom. This is the context of our continuing khutbah (discourse) these past jum’ah (Friday) – the so-called Sunni-Shi’a schism.

Unity, amity, and enmity

Our approach on this subject is not, as I said previously, to take side or add flame into the fire; it is to re-examine fundamental assumptions of their supposed Islamic unity that has generated intense historical dialectic that makes the two camps develop amity at certain point and enmity in many phases of history.

Undeniably, to pursue the thesis of unity between so-called Sunni and Shi’a amid their heightening schism could be viewed by some people as folly or sheer naiveté. But our thesis is clear: the cause of Sunni-Shi’a divide is generally product of history and power struggle worsened with today’s global power structure rendering nation-states including many of them in the Muslim world pawns and proxies in big power politics.

What makes the schism question complicated is the difficulty in fleshing out “national interest” of Arab/Muslim countries from the conundrum of Sunni-Shi’a entanglement that is increasingly becoming more contentious and polarizing. It is not because both camps are distinct essentially; rather, they are made to appear different historically and politically as if these are their main identities and the totality of their relation. To say the least, the dictate of varied national interests makes more pronounced their schism and disunity instead of their “Islamic solidarity (tadāmun al-islāmiy).”

If we may add, while their identities and their attendant concepts that supposedly create legitimacy on the two camps are essentially framed along unitive worldview of the Qur’an as their main source of authority, yet, due to morass of politics that ensued between them, the Qur’anic vision of unity, its metaphysical truth and religious significance have been atomized and compartmentalized to form multiple meanings while intensifying their antagonism and differences that are generally expressed in their politics of identity and struggle for supremacy.

As such, varied schools of thought or madhahib and innumerable juristic interpretations in both camps were created embossing their differences than their unity. In this regard, propaganda is made to masquerade as fact of history and vice versa. Oftentimes, the line between the two is intentionally and ideologically blurred.

Recently, the bombing of mosques in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait – two Shi’a places of worship – is testament to how violence has crept into Gulf countries, amid the devastation of war in Syria, Kurdistan, Iraq, and Yemen and other Arab countries. Moreover, the 5 plus 1 nuclear deal with Iran, an arrangement that would supposedly reduce nuclear tension in the Middle East is received rather negatively in the region. Gulf states, in particular, are afraid that US-Iran rapprochement could usher new political configuration in the Arab world.

This is not to mention that there are power centers in the Middle East that are directly involved in heightening the tension. It involves not only those people that are part of, and connected to, those power players but other Muslims – near and far – from those centers of the Muslim world. Thus, what is essentially political or regional problem becomes a global one. If Muslims are not circumspect, discerning and critical enough, they could be unnecessarily entangled in the schism.


After underscoring the concepts sunnah and shi’a in our previous khutbah, let us move on and zero in this time on the concepts khalifah (vicegerency), imamah (imamate), and wilayah (sanctity). These three concepts are basic in the discourse of major schools of thought in Ahlu s-sunnah wa l-jama’ah, Shi’a, and ahlu t-tasawwuf or Sufism.

As much as possible for our presentation this time, we will stick to the Holy Qur’an as Islam’s fundamental source of teachings where both Sunni and Shi’a share equal reverence.

To begin with, it is quite clear that the Qur’an speaks of khalifah as a concept with varying connotations. It refers, for instance, to the first prophet, Adam (AS). In Suratu l-baqarah, the Qur’an reads:

“Behold thy Lord said to the Angels: I will create a vicegerent on earth (30).”

In another verse, the term khalifah refers to Prophet David (AS). The Qur’an reads in Suratu s-sad:

“O David we indeed make thee vicegerent on earth so judge them between men in truth (and justice) (26).”

Apart from specific reference to prophets, other meaning of said concept is quite fluid to mean that khalifah also means generation of mankind. It, too, has certain basis in the Qur’an. In Suratu n-naml, a verse reads:

“And makes you mankind inheritors of the earth (52).”

In another verse in Suratu z-zuhruf, it says:

“And if it were Our Will, We could have made angels from amongst you succeeding each other in the earth (60).”

The notion of khalifah in this regard is that of generation succeeding after another.

Per history of Islam, khalifah or khilafah (Caliphate) was used as Islam’s first political institution. In varying degrees, it existed for many centuries in different places. Through time however clans and families amongst Arabs, Persian, and Turkish and many others subverted and monopolized the Caliphate transforming it into the world’s longest political dynasty, albeit with broken family authorities and genealogies.

While they reigned long yet transient or impermanent, the main feature of Caliphate’s governance including that of other major and petty dynasties is political absolutism and power monopoly while flagrantly oblivious, in many instances, of Islam’s core principles of progressive, democratic principle “wa amruhum shura baynahum” (who conduct their affairs by mutual Consultation) (Suratu s-shura: 48).

To cut the story short, the Caliphate as a political institution had to be abolished by Kemal Ataturk of Turkey in 1920s after losing relevance prodding many Muslims then to adopt the nation-states and Western system of governance like democracy and so on.

The point we’d like to make is that, if we take history as sole basis into which we idealize khalifah, then essentially it would lead into serious question how the supposed Islamic institution that is anchored on the Qur’an could suffer abolition. Yet, until today, like in the past, the issue of Caliphate continues to create problems while doggedly being pushed even weirdly to fill the vacuum of leadership in the Muslim world as vividly shown with today’s rampage of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).


Going to the concept of imam, a cardinal teaching in Shi’a doctrine, by looking at verses of the Qur’an versus the historical experience of communities amongst Shi’a with their attempt to operationalize the notion of imam, it is clear that there is a big gap between the two. Invariably, the notion of imam in the Qur’an refers specifically to Nabi Ibrahim (AS) and, to some extent, the kitab or book revealed to Nabi Allah Musa (AS).

A verse in Suratu l-baqarah reads:

“And remember that Abraham was tried by his Lord with certain commands, which he fulfilled: He said: I will make thee an Imam to the Nations. He pleaded: And also (Imams) from my offspring!” He answered: “But My Promise is not within the reach of evil-doers (124).”

For the latter, Suratu l-hud reads:

“And did the Book of Moses before it – a guide and a mercy (17).”

The word imam in another sense of the Qur’an means virtue. For instance, in Suratu l-furqan, a verse reads:

“And give us (the grace) to lead the righteous (74).”

It also means guide and mercy. In Suratu l-ahqaf, another verse reads:

“And before this was the Book of Moses as a guide and a mercy (12).”

In another connotation is that imam refers to leader of human aggregation like groups, tribes, nations, and communities, and so on. In Suratu l-isra, a verse reads:

“One day We shall call together all human beings with their respective Imams)…(71).”

Yet, with these rather varied connotations on the concept imam in the Qur’an, there developed specific nuance in Shi’a’s thought about an Imam legitimized with the notion of wilayah or what Hossein Nasr refers to as sanctity. Imam in Shi’a’s thought is meant as a revered person with high spiritual and leadership position next in line to Prophet Muhammad (SAW) through Ali (AS).

Such position is framed in hierarchical fashion with succession of imams, the last of whom has undergone ghaibiyyah or occultation. In his absence, Shi’a groups are obliged to form community while preparing for his advent as the Mahdi (Redeemer). In this conception, a Shi’a community cannot exist without an imam serving in transitory manner until the advent of the Mahdi.


The notion of wilayah in Qur’anic terms has some unique conceptions attendant with other derivative terms like wali (protector) or auliyah (friends of God). For the latter, Suratu l-yunus reads:

“Behold! Verily on the friends of God there is no fear, nor shall they grieve…”

In Shi’a’s thought, to say the least, the term wilayah is connected to the notion of imam as vested by no less than Prophet Muhammad (SAW) through Ali (AS) to such lineage of imams as exclusively secured by the Ahlu l-bayt (People of the Household). Whereas those in other schools like in Ahlu t-tasawwuf have different appreciation of the notion wilayah as form of Divine bestowal that is extended to anyone with lofty spiritual state.

We could say thus, at least preliminarily, that at the apex of Shi’a’s thought are concepts, principles and teachings that share common wellspring with tasawwuf except for primary doctrines like imamate and secondary ones related to issues on muammalah or social relation and the like, while at the base of which is large corpus of Islamic epistemology of history and methodology that served as foundation of Shi’a’s political ideology.

This point provides distinction to Shi’a community as different from those of the Sunnis, in which the latter remains remiss of institutions that give them Islamic legitimacy but which a return to the Caliphate of old is not an option except as, we said, with the route taken by radicals like the ISIS. Among the Ahlu t-tasawwuf, their notion of wilayah remains spiritual void of political ideology.

What we are saying is that these are just few concepts that have become part of the teachings of major thoughts in Islam. If we use the prism of the Qur’an, they indeed have varied connotations quite distinct from what actually happened amid varying historical experiences among Sunni and Shi’a groups while creating more chasm and divisions among them these days.

Failure to appreciate the original contemplation of the Qur’an could easily sway people to become stringent and parochial with their position, at times, even providing justification for ensuing animosity and violence instead of unity, solidarity, and cooperation. (MindaViews is opinion section of MindaNews. A khutbah (with revision) delivered at the Institute of Islamic Studies on 31 July 2015. Julkipli Wadi is Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines.)

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