Shi’ite Sunni Fraternity: Briefs a la Albert Hourani


A friend happened to snap this brilliant picture. It reads: O Believer! If death strikes you as you are shaking hands with a Shi’ite, what will your fate be?

It’s a rhetorical question.

The Shi’ite / Sunni split in Islam is not simply a doctrinal division but a deep schism that runs throughout the course of Islamic history and back to its inception in 7th century Arabia. The Sunni orthodoxy, quick to identify Shi’ites as being “innovators” and “infidels”, easily forgets that the lack of doctrinal clarity compounded by ethnic divisions (Iranian / Arab / Berber) and dynastic rivalry gave form to both Shi’ite and Sunni ideologies; and that neither one can completely justify its claims to being the form practiced by the Prophet.

Following the death of the Prophet there was a heated controversy surrounding the succession of his temporal office. Though Abu Bakr eventually gained control of the community, being one of the Prophet’s earliest companions, his Caliphate faced dispprobation from other members of the community, in particular those who maintained that the Prophet’s successor should be from his family, namely Ali. This rift began to widen with the expanding borders of the nascent Islamic empire. Uthman’s controversial Caliphate, during which he appointed members of his own clan and his kin angered many factions leading to his assassination. As Albert Hourani points out in A History Of The Arab Peoples, “the honour due to early conversion to Islam was at stake,” (25) since succession of power was calibrated towards lineage by Uthman. In the midst of this crises Ali assumed power and despite his astucious administration, he was unable to forge a singular Islamic unit and was subsequently assassinated. In describing the situation at the time Hourani writes, “in spite of its ultimate cohesion (i.e. through Islam), the group was split by personal and factional differences. The early Companions of the Prophet looked askance at later converts who had obtained power; claims of early conversion and close links with Muhammad might clash with claims to the nobility of ancient and honourable ancestory. The people of Medina saw power being drawn northwards towards the richer and more populous lands of Syria and Iraq, where governors tried to make their power more independent.” (24) As if clan and tribal affiliations did not complicate the picture enough, the rapidly growing borders of the empire which brought in ethnic groups such as the Iranians, Turks and Berbers posed a serious problem to the ruling Umayyads who had replaced Ali. Ironically, however, the growing diversity of peoples both strengthened tribal affiliations and deepened inter-tribal conflicts; “at moments some common interest could give substance to the idea of an origin shared by all tribes claiming to come from central Arabia or from the south.” (30)

Shi’ite sentiment was hosted by myriad groups steadfast in their opposition to Umayyad rule; the most prominent of them were the Arab settlers to the east, such as those in Khurasan, and their Iranian ‘clients’. These groups had supported the Abbasid campaign, united under the “black” banner of instituting the Prophet’s kin (by way of his uncle Abbas) to the Caliphate. The notion that the Abbasids were a Shi’ite dynasty is not entirely correct for the Shi’ites, in theory, wanted Ali’s successors to become leaders of the Muslim community, whereas the Abbasid dynasty was founded under the name of Abu’l Abbas, “a descendant not of Ali but of Abbas.” (32) Relationship between the Abbasids and early Shi’is, hence, was one simultaneously of rivalry and cooperation in fighting the Umayyads: “in putting forth their claim to be legitimte rulers, the early Abbasids had to meet the claim of another branch of the Prophet’s family, the descendants of Ali, and their supporters, the Shi’s…[though] not all the Shi’is were hostile to Abbasid rule.” (36)

Sunnism proper essentially came about as a result of a theological disagreement between Ma’mumalRashid and Ahmad ibn Hanbal over the former’s incorporation of some rationalist principles, leading Hanbal to counter that “the Qur’an and the habitual behaviour of the Prophet, literally interpreted, offered sufficient guidance…the importance of the Qur’an and the practice (sunna) of the Prophet as the bases of it, gradually created a mode of thought which came to be known generally as Sunnism, as distinct from Shi’ism.” (37)

Over the centuries the two groups have evolved into very distinct entities, with individual theological, philosophical and eschatological assumptions that often clash, often violently so. Since I was raised in the Sunni tradition and witnessed firsthand the rampant bias against Shi’ites (rarely based upon valid intellectual disagreements) I can attest to the distortion of history at the hands of ultra-orthodox Sunni mullahs (a common myth is that Shi’ites are the descendants of Yazid, the Umayyad leader responsible for the martyrdom of Hasan and Husayn and that their demonstration of self-mutilation is borne out of compunction, like a curse). Goes to show how dialogue is as much needed within the greater Muslim community as it is between it and its external counterparts.

(Consult Albert Hourani: A History Of The Arab Peoples)

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