Understanding the Sunni-Shia issue

Of late, arrests have been made in raids against Shia Muslims in a few states. The non-Muslims in the country may not be well-informed as to why there is a vendetta between Sunnis and Shias when both claim to be Muslim.

The name Sunni comes from “Ahl Sunnah”, meaning the “people of tradition”, denoting the traditional approach to appointing a successor in Islamic leadership.

Shia on the other hand is derived from “Shiat Ali”, meaning “the party of Ali”.

Sunni Muslims appoint a caliph as leader; Shia Muslims appoint an imam.

According to a study in 2015, Islam has 1.8 billion adherents, making up about 24.1% of the world population. Most Muslims are from either of the two denominations though within both there are many more sects.

Sunnis comprise 80–90%, roughly 1.5 billion people, and Shias 10–20%, roughly 170–340 million people.

Shia, with a substantial following in Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Lebanon and many parts of Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Pakistan, is the second largest branch of Islam. The Ismaili and the Twelvers are the major groups in the Shia denominations.

All Muslims are generally guided by the Sunnah, but Sunnis stress its primacy. The Quran (the holy book of Islam) and the Sunnah make up the two main sources of Islamic theology and law.

The Sunnah is also defined as a way or manner of life relating to the traditions and practices of Prophet Muhammad that have become models to be followed by Muslims.

Shias are also guided by the wisdom of the Prophet’s descendants, through his son-in-law and cousin, Ali.

Malaysia for its part is a multi-confessional country whose most professed religion is Islam. Islam in the country became decisively established in the 15th century.

As of 2013, there were approximately 19.5 million Muslim adherents, or 61.3% of the population. Understandably, Islam in Malaysia is represented by the Shafi’i version of Sunni theology and jurisprudence.

In the post-independence constitution, Islam is recognised as the official religion to symbolise its prime standing in Malaysian society. However, the constitution clearly stipulates that other religions or faiths can be freely practised.

Suppressing the Shia Muslims locally, for whatever reason, may not bode well as far as our relations with countries that have a substantial number of those following this denomination are concerned.

Despite the possible odds against our trade and business interests with Shia-populated countries, Malaysian religious agencies have over the years been enforcing a decree declaring Shia teachings as “deviant”, with raiding parties mostly targeting local Shias.

Looking into the history of these two denominations, the Sunnis have traditionally prevailed and had chosen a successor to the Prophet to be the first caliph.

After Muhammad’s death in 632 CE, Abu Bakr was named caliph and ruler of the Muslim community. Sunni Muslims believe that Abu Bakr was the proper successor, while Shia Muslims believe that Ali should have succeeded Muhammad as caliph.

Eventually, Ali was chosen as the fourth caliph, but not before violent conflicts broke out. Two of the earliest caliphs were murdered. And this, in essence, attributed to that political division that culminated into the Sunni-Shia split.

Shia Muslims believe that just as a prophet is appointed by God alone, only God has the prerogative to appoint the successor to His prophet and this is infallible.

They believe God chose Ali to be Muhammad’s successor, and to become the first caliph or head of state of Islam. The feud between the two sects started from this point onwards.

It is common to see violence between adherents of these two denominations in some regions, each labelling the other as “deviant”.

Nonetheless, Sunni and Shia Muslims in some countries have lived peacefully together for centuries. In these countries, it has become common for members of the two sects to intermarry and pray at the same mosques.

In the main, the theological sources of Muslim law in Shiism are somewhat similar to those in Sunni Islam, namely the Quran, Muhammad’s practices, consensus, and analogy.

However, for the Shias, the determination of consensus is related to the views of the imams, and more freedom is given to analogy than in Sunni Islam.

The Shia view of the Quran varies from the Sunni view, although the majority of both groups believe that the script is indistinguishable. Some Shias dispute the canonical cogency of the Uthmanic codex – the Quran as it exists today. The Shia imams have always precluded the idea of “amendment” to the Quran’s script.

Sunnis also have a less intricate religious hierarchy than Shias, and the two denominations’ interpretation of Islam’s schools of law is different.

Shias give human beings the exalted status that is given only to prophets in the Quran, often venerating clerics as saints, whereas Sunnis do not.

The anti-Shia propaganda has reached such an extent that the mainstream media all over the predominantly Sunni countries continually present Iran, and the Shias in general, in bad light while sightlessly exalting Saudi Arabia.

Some countries have strict policies against other Islamic sects for their political expediency by endorsing only the Sunni faith, including a complete ban on Shia Islam, purportedly to avoid the bursting forth of vehemence and violence between the two beliefs.

Due to decades of the Saudi support, Shia Islam is vehemently despised and Shia Muslims are oppressed in many countries; their prayers, congregations and activities are prohibited, to the extent that some states engage in the disappearances of Shia preachers and disciples.

Nevertheless, the sore inflicted about 1,400 years ago that split Muslims into these two major denominations has remained till today and has become almost impossible to heal.

The only conceivable way to resolve and bring calm to the centuries-old quagmire is not through suppression and violence but to adopt dialogues, with understanding and tolerance for each other.

Moaz Nair is an FMT reader.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.