Remarks on the Sunni-Shia division in Islam

Nasir Khan,  March 8, 2013

The division of Islam into Shia and Sunni branches from the mid-seventh century was more due to political factors than with the fundamentals of the faith because they were the same for all people and power elites. Obviously, two rivals engaged in a struggle to gain upper-hand in political race cannot win unless they strike some compromise and avoid the conflict. This was possible but did not happen in the early phase of the growing polarisation that was taking place in the Muslim community (the Ummah).

One puritan group, the Kharajites, saw the developments with apprehension for the new faith and the Muslim community, which by now was large and was rapidly spreading in many regions. The Kharajite solution to stem the tide of power-politics that was damaging the new nation was a drastic one: liquidate the rival claimants to the Caliphate and save the faith and the Caliphate! Despite what they did, the problem did not vanish. One party had won and the other lost. Thus under the new political order, the hereditary principle to rule replaced the right to choose the ruler. Now the faith was not moulding political power but rather the political power that had much to do with the shape of society that was taking shape. During this period the Sunni-Shia division became more marked and the divide assumed the shape that is still with us.

Now the Sunni and Shia forms of divergent political thought about the office of the Caliph and Imam emerged. Afterwards theological differences also started to grow. Inevitably, the Sunni and Shia doctrinal differences became more pronounced and the differing schools of jurisprudence put their stamp on the growing disparity between the two groups. Therefore what started as a political struggle to succession to the highest office in the State eventually developed into two rival sects within Islam. Islam had split into two major branches. This split was permanent. It had far reaching effects on the development of Islamic power and civilisation.

What sort of relationship existed between the two branches when Islam became a world religion and Islamic Empire grew in size and power can be briefly put this way: The Sunni Islam became dominant but Shias were not isolated or victimised. The relations were mostly cordial and there was mutual accommodation and tolerance.

The intolerance towards the Shias and their victimisation in countries like Pakistan in these times is a tragic story of a tolerant faith that has been hijacked by some fanatic ignorant people in the name of their brand of a theology. This Takfiri theology is simple: Shias are not Muslims; therefore we have to convert them to Islam. If they do not convert to Islam, we have a duty to kill them! So these misguided hoodlums have a big task: to eradicate Shias in Pakistan who are about one-fourth of the population, almost 40-million.

However, we should keep in mind that these right-wing criminals and callous murderers are only a fringe element within Pakistan who are causing havoc. The vast majority of Sunni Muslims have nothing against the Shia Muslims and vice versa. Both of them look upon each other as brothers and accept each other’s right to follow Islam according to their own traditions and customs.

But in Iraq under President Bush American invaders and occupiers of the land fanned the sectarian divide and what we see now is not hidden from anyone. Thus the Takfiri assassins within Pakistan with links to other Islamic countries and American imperialism from outside contribute to the same goal by use of violence and terror: divide, crush and win! But these goals are ignoble and inhuman goals that all people of good-will across all sorts of political and religious identities and affiliations need to stand against. Religions, politics and ideologies should contribute to human welfare, happiness and peaceful existence, not vice versa.

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