The Shia Issue in Perspective


An Article by Chandra Muzaffar, President of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST)
Malaysia, 10 August 2013
For more than three weeks now, the Bahasa Malaysia media has raised the spectre of a Shia threat to Islam and Muslims in the country. Day in and day out articles speak of Shia proselytization among Sunni Muslims; of widespread conversions which allegedly have increased the Shia population in Malaysia to almost 250,000.

Though empirical evidence of Shia proselytization is scant, it is true that any organised attempt to propagate Shia teachings in largely Sunni societies, and vice versa, will have repercussions. Malaysia, like the rest of the Malay world, has been Sunni for centuries. When an individual or family converts to a minority sect that has no deep roots in the region, uneasiness develops within the larger community and tensions rise.

Proselytization should be discouraged in an intelligent and mature manner. Sunni religious functionaries and scholars should engage with Shias allegedly involved in proselytization. The adverse consequences of their activity should be conveyed to them and their followers. At the same time, one should respect the beliefs of those few families in our midst who have been Shia for generations.

The overwhelmingly Sunni majority should also be educated on some of those Shia beliefs and practices that do not conform to their tradition. That the Sunni-Shia schism is essentially a product of politics and power revolving around the status of Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, is a point that should be emphasised clearly. The Shias have a different record of Hadiths and certain prayer rituals set them apart from the Sunnis. It is also true that the majority within the sect recognises the practice of Muta’ah (temporary marriage).

Acknowledging Shia-Sunni differences in an objective fashion is not the same as misinforming the public and distorting the truth in flagrant violation of ethics which is what some of the media have been doing in recent weeks. There is no need to regurgitate those distortions. Suffice to reiterate that all Shias subscribe to the same Quran as the Sunnis.  (Incidentally, the translator of the most widely read rendition of the Quran in the English language, the late Abdullah Yusuf Ali, was a Shia scholar). They are as loyal to the memory of the Prophet as the Sunnis are. They face the same Kiblah. They perform the Hajj. They observe the fast. And they pay the zakat — apart from recognising the centrality of prayer in their lives. Instead of balancing Sunni-Shia differences with these similarities, a huge segment of the Bahasa media has gone on a rampage, stigmatising and demonising Shias.

Demonization of this sort not only spawns distrust and suspicion. It also breeds hatred and antagonism. If left unchecked, it may even lead to tensions and the very violence we want to avoid.

Equally serious, when tension and hatred heighten within the Muslim Ummah, it would be so easy for those who want to control the community to exploit its internal antagonism in order to conquer and rule the community. This is what happened in Iraq in 2003. The US and British invaders exploited Shia sentiments in their bid to oust Saddam Hussein’s minority Sunni government. After Saddam was overthrown and the majority Shias came to power through the ballot-box, the US and Britain realised that the new government in Baghdad was more inclined towards the Shia government in Tehran. This was inimical to their interests and the agenda of their most intimate ally in the region, namely, Israel. They then began to manipulate the Sunnis against the Shia leadership in Baghdad. It is partly because of this manipulation and the concomitant power struggles that there is continuing sectarian violence in Iraq today.

Syria is another tragic example of a bloody conflict which the global media controlled by the centres of power in the West, and Western allies and client states in West Asia are trying hard to camouflage as a Sunni-Shia struggle when in reality it is a stark attempt by Western powers and Israel to crush resistance to their hegemonic control of the region. Turkey, on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia, on the other, have additional reasons for plugging this line. For Sunni Turkey, the rise of Iran and Shia influence in the region is a challenge to its ambition and power. For Saudi Arabia, its ideological attachment to Wahabism makes it an implacable foe of the Shia belief system.

The case of Iran also exposes the underlying political motive behind what is presented by the Saudi elite and other like-minded groups in West Asia as “the Shia threat to Islam.” Before the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Sunni elites in Riyadh and other Gulf capitals had a warm and cosy relationship with Iran under Shah Pahlavi in spite of its Shia orientation.  The Shah, needless to say, was a staunch ally of the US and Britain. When the Revolution brought to the fore a leadership opposed to US helmed hegemony, Saudi attitude towards Iran also changed. Iran and Shia teachings became a problem.

That hegemonic politics is strongly intertwined with animosity towards Shia states and movements is borne out by yet another example. Though the masses in West Asia shower accolades upon Hezbollah for its heroic role in protecting Lebanon’s territorial integrity in the face of Israeli aggression, some pro Washington Sunni elites continue to disparage the movement. They have now been joined by some well-known Sunni ulama who are incensed that the Hezbollah came to the aid of Bashar Al- Assad’s soldiers in freeing a Syrian-Lebanese border town from the control of Western sponsored, Saudi and Qatari financed rebels. It explains the massive, persistent attacks upon Hezbollah and its Shia character by the ulama in the Arab media.

It is the pronouncements of these ulama which are largely responsible for the upsurge of Shia bashing in Malaysia in the last few weeks. These ulama — especially someone like Sheikh Yusuf Al- Qaradawi ― have a huge following in the country and are highly revered by the Muslim populace. There is almost uncritical adulation of these ulama.

Instead of blind worship, Malaysian Muslims should try to understand the political dimension of the Shia issue and cease to demonise this minority sect within the Ummah. In fact, they should be looking for meeting-points between the Sunni majority and Shia minority. Apart from those fundamental aspects of faith that we have alluded to, there are other important links between the two groups that are worth highlighting. At the theological level, it is sometimes forgotten that Imam Abu Hanifah (died 768), the founder of the Hanafi mazhab, the largest doctrinal school within the Sunni community, was a student of Imam Jafar al-Sadiq (died 757), the sixth Imam of the Shias and the founder of the largest group within the Shia community, known as Ithna ashariyyah, or Twelve –Imam Shi’ism. Indeed, the links were so pervasive at various periods in history that the Sunni-Shia dichotomy was often blurred.  

It is also important to recall that some of the most enlightened Muslim personalities in the contemporary epoch, both Sunni and Shia, like Shah Wali Allah, Sayyid Jamaluddin Al-Afghani, Muhammed Abduh, and Mahmud Shaltut had sought to reconcile Sunni and Shia teachings. So did Imam Khomeini, contrary to what some Bahasa newspapers have suggested. It was Khomeini who prohibited Shias from denigrating some of the wives of the Prophet and the first three Caliphs. He also inaugurated Al-Quds Day as a way of building solidarity between Sunnis and Shias on behalf of the Palestinian struggle.

There was a time when even Qaradawi committed himself to amity between Sunnis and Shias. In a joint statement with the Iranian Shia leader, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in 2007, he “stressed the impermissibility of the fighting between the Sunnis and Shias” and the need to “be aware of the conspiracies of the forces of hegemony and Zionism which aim to weaken Islam and tear it apart in Iraq.”

10 August 2013