In the Name of God, the Most Merciful, the Compassionate
One of the most beautiful things about being an American Muslim is the fact that I can live true Islam here in the United States – true Islam, without the cultural, historical, and other baggage of “old country” Islam. Here, we can live the Islam that God and His Prophet (pbuh) had intended for us. And for the most part, this has proven true. Sunni and Shii live and work together. Finally, we have elected a woman as our president (of ISNA, that is). We can worship God here relatively unmolested, unlike many parts of the Muslim world.
Here in America, for example, I can swim in a public pool or waterpark with my shirt on citing my religious belief, and my request is not only honored by pool staff, but even respected. In Egypt, from where my ancestors hail, I was expressly forbidden from doing so in one of its Northern Shore resorts when I visited last summer. In fact, I was looked upon by fellow Muslims as strange for wanting to swim with my shirt on (out of feelings of modesty). Go figure.
Of course, we are still far from an ideal Muslim community, and we must work on improving ourselves, especially the rift between the indigenous and immigrant Muslim communities. In addition, ever since 9/11, the Muslim community has been placed on intense (and sometimes unfair) scrutiny, and some of the most essential aspects of Islamic belief, such as giving to charity, have almost been criminalized. Still, I am blessed to be a Muslim in America living as an American Muslim.
That being said, there are some worrying signs of a potential Sunni-Shi’i rift in America. According to a recent article in USA Today , “there are small signs of tension emerging in America’s Muslim community that are raising concerns among many of its leaders. They worry that the bitter divisions that have caused so much bloodshed abroad are beginning to have an impact here.” Some examples cited in the article include:
- Shiite mosques and businesses in the Detroit area being vandalized in January of this year. Shiites told local news media that they believed Sunnis were behind the vandalism.
- Several Muslim websites have reported both Sunnis and Shiites being rebuffed from worshipping at each other’s mosques. Altmuslim reported of an incident in the Haram at Mecca .
- MSAs in Rutgers University and the University of Michigan at Dearborn have disagreed vehemently over which sect could lead prayers.
Now, to be sure, if these are the only incidents among an American Muslim community 7-10 million strong, then it seems the article has made a huge mountain out of a tiny molehill. Yet, even these small incidents should serve as a wake-up call for Muslims in America to be vigilant and stamp out any budding sectarianism that may try to rear its ugly head here in America. Why such sectarianism should even emerge here is perplexing, and many possible reasons have been cited by Muslim scholars and activists.
Imam Hamza Yusuf of the Zaytuna Institute, told the paper, “You have people who recently arrived from other places where things may have gotten out of hand. It takes just one deranged person with a cousin back home who died in a suicide bombing to create trouble here.” Other Muslim scholars and activists, such as sociologist Eboo Patel, suggested that it may be a result of the growing numbers and diversity of Muslims in America. “If you have nine Muslims in one MSA,” said Patel, “they have to get along. If you have 90, there’s enough to break into splinter groups.”
And, of course, it may be simply because there are extremists who wish to fan the flames of sectarianism: “‘The sad reality is that there are extremists’ who selectively misuse Islamic teachings to justify their violence,” the paper quoted Dr. Ingrid Mattson as saying. That said, there have not been any incidents of violence between Sunni and Shi’i here in America, thanks be to the Precious Lord.
And there never should be.
I mean, do most Muslims even understand the origins of the “split” between Sunni and Shi’i in Islamic history? Is the difference between Sunni and Shi’i even worth shouting over, let alone becoming violent? Do not both Sunnis and Shi’is testify to the oneness of God and the Messengership of Muhammad (pbuh)? Does not that make them brothers and sisters in faith, as the Qur’an states? What is the essence of the difference between Sunni and Shi’i?
As many of you know (or, perhaps do not know), at the time of the death of our beloved Messenger (pbuh), there was a dispute among the Companions as to who should lead the Muslim community. The Ansar felt it should be one of them; the Muhajirun felt it should be one of them. The discussion went back and forth, and it was finally decided that Abu Bakr (r) be the successor of the Prophet (pbuh). At first, Imam Ali (r) did not accept this, but he eventually accepted the decision and pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr (r). Did Shi’ism as we know it today begin there? Absolutely not.
In fact, there was no such thing as “Shia” or “Sunni” throughout the period of the four Caliphs. The first time the term “Shia,” was even used was during the civil war between Ali (r) and Mu’awiyah (r). Those who supported the claim of Ali (r) to the Caliphate were termed Shiat Ali, or the “Party of Ali.” Yet, it was not a “sect,” as we understand it today. In fact, it took decades, if not centuries, for the “doctrines” (for lack of a better term) of Shi’ism and Sunnism to fully develop.
Nevertheless, at its essence, the difference between Sunni and Shi’i is jurisprudential: Sunnis believe that political (and by extension religious) leadership can reside with anyone in the larger community, as long as the community accepts said person’s qualifications. For Shi’is, however, political (and religious) leadership must be within the House of the Prophet (pbuh). Another important distinction between Sunnis and Shi’is is the issue of the probity, or upright character, of all of the Companions. It is a fundamental part of Sunni doctrine, whereas some Shi’is do not necessarily ascribe to this. That is it.
Now, over time, these two “philosophical” differences developed into distinct schools of thought, especially with respect to matters of Islamic law. But, again, that took centuries to develop. Furthermore, many people associate with Shi’is an intense love for the House of the Prophet (pbuh). Yet, is this not an essential aspect of Sunni belief as well? Could one be Muslim and not love the family of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)? Both Imam Malik (r) and Imam Abu Hanifah (r), two stalwarts of the Sunni community, were ardent supporters of the House of the Prophet (pbuh). In fact, they could be called “Political Shi’is” because of this support.
Throughout Islamic history, it is true that many Shi’is were oppressed and mistreated by the Sunni majority. Indeed, there were members of both communities that maligned the other, that fanned the flames of sectarianism. Yes, some Sunnis deem all Shi’is as “heretics” and “infidels”; some Shi’is are so extreme that they even malign some of the Prophet’s (pubh) closest companions. These are deviants of both traditions. The majority of Sunnis and Shi’is have been living together in peace and harmony for centuries. In fact, in Saudi Arabia, one of the major fiqh councils include and give serious consideration to Shi’i fiqh positions. To awaken sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shi’i today – with all the problems facing the Muslim world – is nothing but succumbing to the forces of Satan.
The Qur’an tells us straight away to avoid such sectarianism:
And so, set thy fact steadfastly towards the [one ever-true] faith, turning away from all that is false, in accordance with the natural disposition which God has instilled in man…and be not among those who ascribe divinity to aught beside Him, [or] among those who have broken the unity of their faith and have become sects, each group delighting in but what they themselves hold [by way of tenets]. (30:30-32)
In fact, the text seems to equate such sectarianism with idolatry. Let us always remember to remain one community of Muslims; one family of brothers and sisters, especially in this month of fasting and reflection, wherein we hunger together, thirst together, and pray together. I echo the sentiments of Salam Al Marayati, who told USA Today: “We don’t want to be defined by the classifications of history and the Middle East. The Qur’an is our authority.” He calls himself a “Sushi,” combination Sunni and Shi’i, and I found this term to be wonderful.
Now, technically, I am a Sunni, of Maliki/Hanafi (or “Malifi”) leanings. But, I have a deep and profound love of the House of the Prophet (pbuh). Even though I will not be pounding my chest on Ashura, like many Shi’is do, the murder of Imam Hussein was extremely painful for me. He is my Imam, too. All of the Imams of the House of the Prophet (pbuh), in fact, are my Imams. So, I am proud to call myself a “Sushi,” as well. And I don’t even like fish.