Religious differences are as old as religion. There is no religion whose history is not rife with bitter disputes between its denominations. Islam is no exception, with the dispute between its biggest branches, Sunnism and Shiism, being almost as old as Islam itself.
In its most extreme form, this dispute, like many other religious conflicts of concepts and beliefs, is presented by both sides as a conflict between truth and falsehood, right and wrong, good and evil, authenticity and distortion. Each party claims its version of Islam to be the real one and positions the other as a distortion and aberration. Fundamentalists on both sides often see the others as misled and misleading. At various places and times in history, this dispute turned bloody. Even today, deadly persecution of Sunni and Shia minorities in places like Iraq and Pakistan remains common.
There are two other important attributes that the Sunni-Shia dispute shares with other religious disputes. First, while there are genuine and significant differences between two sets of beliefs, both groups share much more beliefs than differ about. Second, the underlying cause of the intolerance that fundamentalists on both sides adopt is more mundane and reflective of human nature and its frailties than the disputants are willing to accept.
Shias and Sunnis have, unsurprisingly, different versions about how this fourteen-century old dispute started. Its starting point centers around the succession of Prophet Muhammad. According to historical sources, after the death of the Prophet, a group of his companions met in a place called the “Shed of Banū Sā‘ida” and agreed to appoint Abū Bakr as his successor. This group also included ‘Umar bin al-Khaṭṭāb, who succeeded Abū Bakr after the death of the latter two years later. One prominent absentee from this meeting was ‘Alī bin Abī Tālib, the Prophet’s cousin, his son-in-law, and the first man that Muhammad informed about the revelation of the Qur’an and embraced the new religion. At the time of that meeting, ‘Alī was busy preparing for the burial of the Prophet.
At the heart of the disagreement between Sunnis and Shias is the content and interpretation of a sermon that Prophet Muhammad delivered at a place called “Ghadīr Khumm” or “the Pond of Khumm” after his last pilgrimage, around two months before his death. In this sermon, which has come to be known as the “Ḥadīth al-Ghadīr (the ḥadīth of Ghadīr)” or “Ḥadīth Khumm (the ḥadīth of Khumm)” (see my article on the term “ḥadīth”). As is the case with many ḥadīths, this ḥadīth appears in various wordings, but the core that all versions share is this: “For whomever I am his master, ‘Alī is his master.” This ḥadīth is found in many Ḥadīth books, including Sunni authoritative compilations such as that of Tirmidhī (d. 279 H / 892 CE), so the authenticity of the ḥadīth is not disputed.
But the meaning of the Prophet’s words is the subject of disagreement. The Shia interpretation is that this is a declaration by the Prophet that ‘Alī is his successor. Accordingly, anybody who accepted the caliphate of Abū Bakr is considered to, at best, have misunderstood the Prophet’s words or, at worst, have deliberately disobeyed him. Shias have, therefore, rejected the caliphate of Abū Bakr and ‘Umar.
The Sunnis, however, argue that the Prophet meant by his words to only confirm the noble qualities of ‘Alī not to appoint him as his successor. They argue that Abū Bakr, who was among the first Muslims and who sacrificed a lot for Islam, was the best successor for the Prophet, and that no word of the Prophet was broken by his succession. They also maintain that they highly respect and honor ‘Alī.
These contradictory and irreconcilable interpretations of the Prophet’s words mean that the Sunnis accept the legitimacy of Abū Bakr’s caliphate whereas the Shias reject it. In describing the position of each other in derogatory terms, Sunnis have called Shias “Rāfiḍiyya” or “Rejectionists,” for rejecting the caliphate of Abū Bakr, while Shias have called Sunnis “Nawāṣib,” which is a name derived from an Arabic expression about harboring hostility toward ‘Alī and his family.
Sufis, who represents the mystic trend in Islam, have taken a view that reconciles the Shia and Sunni conflicting interpretations. They see the Prophet’s declaration as a confirmation of ‘Alī’s spiritual status not as an announcement of his appointment as the secular ruler of the Muslims after the Prophet. They consider ‘Alī to be the spiritual heir of the Prophet while also accepting the legitimacy of the caliphate of Abū Bakr. Accordingly, the chains of spiritual Shaikhs of most Sufi groups go back to ‘Alī. Interestingly, some have Abū Bakr in their chains.
The disagreement about the ḥadīth of Khumm is not confined to the interpretation of words that both sides agree that the Prophet said. It extends to what he is also supposed to have said. The Prophet is reported to have told the Muslims in that same sermon that he was going to leave for them “two weighty things” whom he identified as the Book of Allah and his family. This ḥadīth is found in no less than the most authoritative collection of Ḥadīth of Muslim (d. 261/875), as well other compilations that are highly regarded by the Sunnis, such as Tirmidhī’s. It is at times reported as separate from the ḥadīth of Khumm.
But this saying occurs in other versions with a significant difference in wording whereby the second of the “two weighty things” is identified as the “sunna” or “way of life” of the Prophet not his family (see my article on the term “sunna”). This, for instance, is the version of ḥadīth that Mālik (d. 179/796) reports in Muwaṭṭa’. This significant difference takes away the special status that the other version of the ḥadīth gives to the Prophet’s lineage and which supports the Shia belief that they are the Prophet’s representatives whom the Muslims must continue to follow to the end of time.
Another significant consequence of the difference between Sunnis and Shias about what the Prophet exactly said and what it meant is the concept of infallibility of ‘Alī and his descendant Imams. The Shias argue that the Prophet would not have commanded the Muslims to follow ‘Alī and his family if there were not inerrable. The Sunnis reject this view and maintain that only the Prophet was infallible.
‘Alī did ultimately become caliph after ‘Uthmān bin ‘Affān, although it is believed that he reluctantly accepted the position. But instead of this succession resolving the division among Muslims about the succession of the Prophet, it deepened it. In his attempt to eradicate the corruption that had spread during the caliphate of ‘Uthman, ‘Alī wanted to remove the local governors. Mu‘āwiya bin Abī Sufyān, who was the governor of Syria, did not want to lose the privileged job so he refused to obey ‘Alī’s instruction. This mutiny led to an inconclusive war. When ‘Alī was martyred, Mu‘āwiya managed to take over, becoming the first caliph of the Umayyad dynasty.
Mu‘āwiya is a highly controversial figure in the Sunni-Shia dispute. Shias see him as a dishonest and manipulative ruler who did not refrain from causing bloodshed to protect his interests. Sunnis consider him as a companion of the Prophet and one of the early writers of the Qur’anic revelation. The contrast between the two views could not have been more stark.
But the hostility to ‘Alī’s family reached its climax at the hand of Mu‘āwiya’s son and successor Yazīd. The latter committed in Karbala an infamous atrocity in which he killed ‘Alī’s son and the Prophet’s grandson, al-Husain, and many of his family. The Umayyad rulers saw ‘Alī’s descendants as a threat they could not tolerate. They were regularly persecuted, imprisoned, and killed. Historical sources paint a very ugly picture of Mu‘āwiya and his son. Claims about Mu‘āwiya being a man with noble qualities are completely irreconcilable with what he is known to have done, which is confirmed even in the Sunni version of history. Such claims were developed for political reasons during the role of his dynasty.
The timeline (Hijri / Comman Era) of the first Muslim caliphs
|Caliph||Taking over||Death||Years in office|
|‘Umar bin al-Khaṭṭāb||13/634||23/644||10|
|‘Uthmān bin ‘Affān||23/644||35/656||12|
|‘Alī bin Abī Tālib||35/656||40/661||5|
|Mu‘āwiya bin Abī Sufyān||40/661||60/680||20|
|Yazīd bin Mu‘āwiya||60/680||64/684||4|
This is very briefly the historical background to the Sunni-Shia schism as read from the available sources. It is clearly a story in which religion and politics are inextricably mixed. There is no question that those events affected the lives of many people then and in later times. But the question that we need to ask today is the relevance of these events to the Muslims some 14 centuries later. Do these events matter? If so, in what way? Do they justify the bitter animosity that many Sunnis and Shias still harbour toward each other?
As I explained earlier, what reported events of history are accepted as historical and how they are interpreted can have a significant effect on one’s faith and understanding and practice of Islam. The differences between Sunnis and Shias may be grouped in two different categories: belief-related and political. Let’s discuss differences that relate to beliefs first. The Shias believe, for instance, in the concept of “Infallible Imams,” that Muslims should follow the Imams by following their representatives on earth, that each Imam has spiritual powers that survived his death, and that the last of these Imams disappeared, did not die, and will return at the end of times. But, as expected, Shiism is not represented by one group. For instance, while the biggest branch of Shiism believes in 12 infallible Imams, other groups do not include some of the latter Imams.
All of these differences are “faith-related.” Choosing one’s beliefs is a basic human right that every individual must have full control of. A Shia may think that the Sunni who does not accept the infallibility of Imam Husain as adhering to a wrong belief, and a Sunni may consider the Shia who embraces the belief that Imam Husain was inerrant to be wrong. By considering one of two contradictory views to be “correct,” one is implying that the other is wrong. There is no escaping this simple logic. But considering someone’s faith to be wrong does not take away from that person their full right to choose it. People may try to “convert” each other to what they think is the right faith, but this must never be mistaken for a false right to “force” whom we consider to be “wrong” to change their faith. Giving ourselves the right to “force” others to change their faiths to match ours is what leads to bitterness, hostility, and even bloodshed. We may not like what someone else believes in, but we have to respect their right to choose their faith. The Qur’an is full of verses that command the Muslims to tolerate other faiths and not to force any faith on anybody. One beautiful verse that is often quoted is this: “There is no compulsion in religion” (2.256). The Prophet is repeatedly told that he has no control over other people:
Had Allah willed, they (the disbelievers) would not have associated gods with Allah. We have not appointed you [O Muhammad!] as a keeper over them and you have not been put in charge of them. (6.107)
We know best what they say [about Our revelation to you, O Muhammad!], and you are not to be a dictator over them. Therefore, remind by the Qur’an him who fears My threat. (50.45)
Therefore, do [O Muhammad!] remind [with the message] for you are only a reminder. (88.21) You are not a controller over them. (88.22)
Voltaire has powerfully reconciled the right of every person to choose what to believe in and what to reject with these famous words: “I detest what you say; I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Any hatred or animosity a person may have for another because of their faith is at its core an attempt to “control” and “force” that person. It is a game of power and control that has nothing to do with faith and God. It is a mundane, base need of the flawed human psyche.
The second category of differences is mainly political. For instance, the view that ‘Alī or Abū Bakr should have succeeded the Prophet in leading the Muslim state is political. Yet the political need of any state changes with time. A political system that might have been right for one period is likely to become unsuitable later. The issue of whether ‘Alī or Abū Bakr should have succeeded the Prophet is completely historical and absolutely irrelevant to our world today. Any attempt to use it to take a view on today’s world is an attempt to manipulate history to serve present interests and/or to take the world 14 centuries back in time. In both cases, it is ultimately about exercising power and control. There is nothing godly or religious about playing out this difference of the past in today’s world. Religion is used in this case to hide the fact that it is the troubling human flaw to seek control and power that underlines this behavior.
So to sum up, while Sunnis and Shias share a lot of beliefs, there are also some significant differences between them. But none of these should lead to any intolerance or hostility. Ill feelings and behaviors underline an inner motive to control and exercise force and power that has nothing to do with religion or God. Indeed, God sent the Prophets and religion to help the individual learn how to control their own shortcomings and defects not to exercise control over other people. However, religion itself was turned into yet another domain in which the flaws of the human nature are proudly paraded.
I have used the Sunni-Shia conflict as an example for a general discussion of what underlines many religious and non-religious human conflicts. It is instructive that what the English philosopher John Locke wrote in 1689 at the beginning of A Letter Concerning Toleration remains equally valid today:
For whatsoever some people boast of the antiquity of places and names, or of the pomp of their outward worship; others, of the reformation of their discipline; all of the orthodoxy of their faith, for every one is orthodox to himself: these things, and all others of this nature, are much rather marks of men’s striving for power and empire over one another.