CRUCIBLE: Sunni-Shi’a Schism (4)

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/18 August) – When we say we could suffer from frustration when we talk about Sunni-Shi’a schism, it is because what continuously transpires in the most penetrated and volatile region – the Middle East – is a continuing division and conflict where both Sunni and Shi’a camps are falling prey wittingly or unwittingly into both internal and external machinations. There are no signs of rapprochement among them despite, as we argue, their essentially unitive origin that simply diverged through time into different lines of historical claim, interest, and politics, and so on.

We already underscored the implications of their division. We said unlike in the past where Islamic dynasties and empires existed by themselves with no big powers manipulating them, today’s big powers are intricately part of global politics into which Sunni-Shi’a schism is being tossed around hardening and raising thus the tension between and among themselves.

Neo-kharijites and fanatical Shi’a

The problem is magnified with the rise of hardliners from both camps, which for lack of a better term we may refer to as neo-kharijites or modern khawarij and fanatical Shi’a respectively. They are groups not only present in our time but even in the early days of Islam. Their contest for leadership has created more problem than solution, chaos than order.

There are many scholars that had outlined the character of tension as far as past dispute about leadership after Prophet Muhammad (SAW) like the issue of khalifah and imamate and many others. They are almost no different from today. Let me quote Hodgson once more:

“All these disputes about the imamate among Kharijis and Shi’is and their rivals gave occasion to, or at least sharpened, further questions in the realm of ilm knowledge. For it must be a matter of “ilm,” to know how commander of the commander should be chosen; to recognize who it was could represent Islam, who it was had ilm. Indeed, not only in the case of the ruler, but more generally as concerned any Muslims, it was of first importance to know what it meant to be a true Muslim, a person faithful to the divine summons. And this meant speculation about the nature of the soul, of faith, of ilm itself. This speculation was in part enshrined in hadith reports, transmitted by men who convinced themselves that this or that must have been Muhammad’s attitude or that of his associates; in part it took the form of independent argument…the Piety-minded tended to be divided in each chief town into two or more local schools of thought, which often figured as political factionalism (sometimes answering partly to tribal faction), each of which developed distinctive religious teachings; none of these local schools achieved general recognition, though several found some adherents in several centers besides their main home (p. 262).”

Indeed, the issue of ilm or knowledge is central on the issue about leadership whether of khalifah or imam. As such, it eventually led into subsequent rise of varying groups and madhahib or schools of thought as they developed their varying doctrines and teachings in subsequent years. We can talk about this in our future khutbah.

My concern this time is to point out the fact that those varying concepts, principles and teachings legitimized the position of those power centers. Even as there are variations in their conception and interpretation, they provide powerful symbols to their domestic and foreign policies until these days.


Today – as it was in the not so distant past – it is quite expected that Sunni-Shi’a schism can become a major recipe of, and thus could intensify, the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran and their respective satellites and allies. Both of these two countries have rich histories.

Although both countries had vibrant relations when Iran was still under the Shah, the rise of Imam Khomenei in 1980s deteriorated their ties. It was sharpened even more when both countries began to attach Islamic symbols into their State identity like the claim of Saudi monarchy as the “khadimi l-haramayn sharifayn” or “Custodian of the two Holy Mosques” backed by highly influential hordes of Wahabbi ulama whose relationship with the monarchy is that of pragmatic mutuality.

This is in contradistinction with Iran, which after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and with Imam Khomenei at center stage with his religio-political doctrine “wilayatu l-faqih” or “Rule of the Jurisconsult,” the so-called Islamic Republic brought into preeminence the role of Shi’a ulama in politics and governance and other social facets of Iranian society.

In fairness, while both hierarchies of Saudi’s Wahabbism and Iran’s Shi’ism hardly engage in direct ideological spat against each other, it is extremists in both sides especially those who are less informed on the metaphysics and theological foundations of both schools and who are naïve and too callous with their politics and strategies, the ones that often brought into loggerheads the two giant strands of Islam.

On the level of political thought, the recipe of an intense theologico-ideological rivalry is becoming riper towards an even more polarized Sunni-Shi’a relation. On one side, there is the Unitarian and puritanical ideology with strong anti-modern thread of Islam that follows the generally literalist teachings of an 18th century Arab revivalist, Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahab. Since its inception, Wahabism legitimized the Saudi monarchy while consistently been made entrenched as a regional ally of the United States. On the other side, there is the wilayah-inspired doctrine that claims political legitimacy to no less than Prophet Muhammad (SAW) through Ali (AS) and the series of imams with Mahdism having Millenarian and end-time role in history. Since 1979, Iran has been under the grip of Shi’a politicized theology that bears strong antipathy against the “Great Satan.”

At bottom, even with such an intense ideological difference between the two camps, it would have been just a “normal thing” since Islamic history is generally punctuated with such polarization since the early days of schism. However, what makes today’s schism new and dangerous is that it has been deeply exploited and entangled with, while intrinsically made part of, big power politics and strategy enflaming thus the Sunni-Shi’a discord in the Middle East and elsewhere.

With petrodollars and neoliberal economy in the Middle East and with Saudi’s monarchy and Iran’s political theocracy being played around amid their changing and rotating-like relations with big powers like the United States pulling the strings at will, it is not far-fetched that Iran and Saudi Arabia together with other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries could be made to appear as at loggerheads against each other.

If recent reports were true that some Saudi officials have been meeting with Israeli officials which is considered taboo with respect to the position of Arab countries against Israel since its creation in 1947 but which is a new Saudi position intended to counter-balance the influence of Iran and the spread of so-called Shi’a arc in the Arab world in light of 5 plus 1 nuclear deal with Iran, then we could say that there is indeed a major reconfiguration of regional politics in the Middle East wherein old enemies become friends and friends become enemies and vice-versa. Again, while reversal of role is a norm in international politics, Sunni-Shi’a schism can easily play part in any game of geopolitical exigency depending on how it is used in the scheme of big power strategy in the region.

As polarization between Iran and Saudi Arabia widens where they recourse to strengthening their security requirement by availing more arms from big powers themselves, they would have to inevitably fortify their State identity with more symbols along Sunni (Wahhabi) and Shi’a ideologies. The ideology and teachings of both Sunni and Shi’a, in fact, become part of the global scheme, while overtly appearing that their conflict is religious and making it easy for fanatics on both sides to callously declare war against each other. Ironically, the more they claim for higher source of legitimacy, the wider their rift becomes; and thus the more they would be vulnerable to foreign interference.

In reality, both Saudi Arabia and Iran with their respective satellites, groups and movements could not emerge in control of their situation. Their position is akin to a seesaw where they sit naively on both ends whose balance changes from time to time due to big powers tiptoeing over a seesaw’s fulcrum. Both countries could not claim victory or advance major bargaining power over the other since, essentially, they are simply being tiptoed wherever the weight of the fulcrum goes. Their problem is therefore fundamental: how to distinguish real power from a façade masquerading as power.

There is a need for cooler heads to rise on both sides that fully understand the schism and call for a return to the universal frame of Islam as foundation of their spirituality and brotherhood. [MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. A khutbah (continuation with revision) delivered at the UP-Institute of Islamic Studies on 07 August 2015. Julkipli Wadi is Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines.]