Three Principles to Understand the Shi'a-Sunni Divide

As those who have read it know, my book discusses sectarian divisions within Iraq at length, because they are quite serious and problematic and help to define the primary constitutional challenges facing the state as it moves forward.  Moreover, I've been on a few listservs where the broader issue of the Shi'a Sunni divide, well beyond Iraq, seems to have arisen almost in coordination across the different sites.  Those are private listservs so obviously I won't reveal the substance of any discussions there. However, it did inspire me to consider the matter and where it stood in this particular time of rising tensions. To which end, I have come up with three principles that help I think illuminate the issues.

The first is that the underlying theological divide is quite serious once one actually thinks through it.  The reason is simple enough--Shi'ism defines as core doctrine the principle of the Imamate.  God designated twelve successive people following the death of the Prophet Muhammad to act in a uniquely authoritative role in the community.  They are not merely political or even religious leaders. Rather, they are infallible. They understand hidden and esoteric meanings of the Qur'an. When they say something, it is foundational text, as the utterances of the Prophet himself are, as the Qur'an is.  They are not quite apostles, God does not speak to them through angels, but they are divinely blessed and divinely inspired.  Sunnism does not have that, and instead delegated executive authority to figures of much much less religious significance known as caliphs.  (Michelle Bachman will tell you that Iran wishes to restore a caliphate.  This is not true as Iran is Shi'i, which means they didn't much like the caliphate the first time around).

In any event, if you believe in the Imamate in this fashion, then you have to think that people who don't, and let's add Companions of the Prophet who didn't, are in some way deficient in the faith.  You can't both think the Imamate is so fundamental and clear, enunciated by the Prophet himself, and also think that when a group of Companions decides on the appointment of a political leader of minimal religious significance they call a caliph, even as the person God appointed Imam is washing the Prophet's body for burial, that they haven't strayed in some important way.  Similarly, you can't actually reject the Imamate doctrine and not find those who consider it core and fundamental to be in some way off in their beliefs.  It's one thing if they argue Ali should have been caliph and you think Abu Bakr.  That you can sort of consign to history. But when one says Ali has a title Imam, and that has strong religious significance, it's hard to ignore.  

That's the bad news but the good news that tempers it significantly is that more often than not, very few people actually think through the theology, and those who do are usually eggheads with little real world significance (i.e. me!).  You can quite literally sit for hours among Iraqi Shi'a and not hear a word about Abu Bakr as first caliph, while hearing quite a bit about Sunnis.  Most of the talk will be about how the Sunnis used to be privileged, how far too many (though not all, they will say) want to be privileged again, how they will not accept equality of citizenship but instead have to reinstitute apartheid and how that kind of attitude must be met with force. And talk to Sunnis and they'll mention how all too many Shi'a (again, not all, they will say) are really Iranians or at least obedient dogs ready to do Iran's will and they aren't real Iraqis willing to stand for the real Iraq.  Is this a problem?  Umm, yeah, a pretty big one.  Is it theological?  Clearly not.  Nobody is talking about caliphs or Imams, and even when they do get into religion, they mix up the genuinely problematic (the authority of the post prophetic leaders) with the tangential, such as whether Shi'a should prostrate on little rocks rather than directly on the prayer carpet.  That really is of no moment. When the foundational text being interpreted orders the believers to prostrate on the "earth", then whether or not "earth" means "dirt, rocks, etc." or whether it just means the damn floor, is truly trivial.  That's a standard interpretive dispute, classical Islamic law has many of those.  Even the favorite Shi'i doctrine whipping boy, the pleasure marriage, is not theologically significant.  It's merely interpretive difference, a point of fiqh, not of core tenet.

People in other words don't think through the theology, or care much about it in any real sense.  When times are bad, it might come up though in this jumble that more identifies distinctions than actually characterizes them in a recognizable theological pattern. When times are good, they sort of throw both sects together in some sort of hazy Islamic essence and leave it at that.  So this brings us to the third principle, which is that from a theological perspective, it usually works out better when the sides stop talking about theology. This can be done if any given person, Shi'i or Sunni, merely applies the principle that it is not a compromise of one's beliefs to fail to be an ass to people who disagree.  So if I'm a Shi'i, and I actually take seriously the Imamate, then as I said before I probably don't think terribly highly of the first three Rightly Guided Caliphs, who after all usurped the successorship properly belonging to Imam Ali.  But then as a Muslim, I have to think even less highly of the Prophet's avowed enemy, Abu Lahab, as the Qur'an itself explicitly curses that guy.  But then when was the last time I said "death be on the hands of Abu Lahad, death!  His wealth and his earnings shall not profit him, and he shall reach the fire with flames . . . ."  A few years at least never read those verses, just don't get around to it. And I'm not derelict in my religious obligation in failing to curse a guy God condemns who nobody likes, so why curse a guy who other people like when I know it bothers them?  It's not taqiyya, I'm not dissembling or misleading, stand me up and make me tell you what I think of Omar ibn al Khattab, I will.  but I try not to, because I'm just choosing not to be an annoying ass to people who like him.  Same way I don't run off and tell the guy who is so proud to be a descendant of Robert E. Lee that he should be ashamed to be of the stock of a racist traitor.  Leave the man and his delusions of the positions of his ancestors alone. If we don't talk about it, maybe we can get along. And so it goes with Ohio State fans and Michigan fans, Turks and Greeks, and yes, Sunni and Shi'a.



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  • 3/17/2014 4:00 PM farrokh namazi wrote:
    that in truth is exactly how it is; my dearest and closest friends are sunnis and when muharram comes and surfaces, many of them want to come not only to the majlises but to the alams to pray for wishes etc etc. they feel it comes true more infront of an alam in an imambara than on thier own janamazes! and so life has gone on without killings for the most part. The ones that kill each other, with a background of all the socio political economic injustices as part of thier lives, are the ones who lose it, go for the scapegoat that they can idenitfy for thier own angst and there you have; food for the media and off goes the word, they (sunnis and shias) hate each other and are killing each other! and that is all that it is
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