Shias and Sunnis: Convergence and Divergence

Despite efforts of individual scholars from both Sunni and Shia schools for better relations between the two across the Muslim world, the fact remains that Muslims are divided and this is making them vulnerable. And more importantly, the divide is discrediting their theological leadership in the eye of the world and among its new and educated generations.

Shia-Sunni dialogue has not been happening at the ground level. And the dialogue between intellectual and theological elite has not been very successful and so far, hardly any breakthrough on elementary methodological plane has been achieved.

The self perception of both communities is constructed on certain imagined points that have been questioned by more objective history. And a deeper meaning of theological systems is not clear to both.

Sufism or Irfan is missing in both. Brilliant studies of such scholars on symbolism, esoteric and metaphysical aspects of Shiism as Henry Corbin and Nasr and others, the sophisticated philosophical approach of likes of Mulla Sadra and exploration of the political content in the theological formulations that we find in the likes of Shraiti and Dabashi and encyclopedic scholarship of likes of Allama Tabatabai and Allama Mutaharri are there but ordinary Shias and those who control the pulpit keep on repeating certain points that fuel sectarian images. Deeper meaning of self flagellation escapes its most ardent practitioners and shallow critics, who fail to understand the connection between violence and sacred and the relevant anthropological insights.

I wonder, if we could compare sermonizing local imams and practitioners of both Shia and Sunni schools on the only basis that the Quran recognizes – Taqwa/ilm and both imply each other (The Quran states that only those who are better in knowledge fear God). This requires moral discipline. As anyone gets formally and legally admitted into the fold of Islam by declaration of Shahadah and all agree on the criterion of aml-e-soliha (good deeds) and all agree on what constitutes aml-e-soliha and we know that both imams and companions vied with one another on deeds (some would give half of wealth and some whole of wealth for God’s cause and some die to save other’s lives and some remain hungry but feed those who ask for food) how come we disagree so violently? How come we primarily privilege political and historical over ethical questions. It hardly needs to be argued who was on the right track and maintained high moral ground in early battles within Islamic groups because this is quite evident and only needs common sense and elementary knowledge of history.

When in history did a moment arise when one had to either accept Shia or Sunni creed?

Genealogical criticism blunts the sharp edges of the question. We can move forward to consider insights from mystics and philosophers according to whom to be a strict Muslim one is required to abandon all attachments to all belief systems as ordinarily understood and submit to Truth. And also understand that this truth is the truth of mystery (al-Gayyib) that we are required to affirm in the very opening pages of the Quran (2:3). To put it simply it requires one to deny absolute character of all identities, systems, ideologies, sects, schools, philosophies and be open to Truth. This truth has infinite dimensions as infinite are treasures of God. To be absolutely or unconditionally open to the Other, to Love, to Truth, to experience, to unknown is to be a Muslim. So please let me know how can one accept the trap of a particular sectarian identity (don’t we say that Islam is The Religion rather than a religion? and it is ad-Deen rather than Sha’ria that can ground this notion of The Religion or Universal Religion because Sharias have been changing with many prophets, not so the Deen), not to speak of sectarian identity to which Shia-Sunni question has been reduced today.

The Shiism is in glory only when it is not in power but identified with an element of resistance, as Hamid Dabashi argued in a compelling work, ‘Resisting the Empire’, which evokes significance of Karbala in the wake of postmodern world where Capital and its contradictions reign supreme. Let us learn to see how we respond to Imam Hussain’s (R.A) call for resisting oppression. Daily Karbalas are enacted in our midst and we don’t pay heed to the struggling Hussaini forces. Children die in thousands every day for want of safe drinking water and food. Countless labourers suffer killing, alienation and slow death at the hands of Capitalism. In fact even souls are destroyed in this inhuman world, not to speak of bodies only that were targeted in Karabala. We are called to the battleground and deep down we resist the call to martyrdom. Let us salute those who can truly claim to heed the call.