Sunnis and Shias: Between Engagement & Disconnection



Muhammad ibn Al Mokhtar Al Shinqiti



The following is a translation of an Arabic article written by Muhammad ibn Al Mokhtar Al Shinqiti and published in April 1, 2014 on Al Jazeera’s website. Originally from Mauritania, Al Shinqiti is currently a professor of political science, history of religion, and Islamic ethics at Qatar Foundation.

From among the worst fruits of sectarian fanaticism is its turning from a struggle between the oppressed against the oppressor into a struggle between two oppressors.

Presentation1Sectarianism is a symptom among the symptoms of straying away from the religion of the Fitra, and a fruit from the fruits of hanging onto the historical inheritances that came into being on the shores of Revelation. It deprives people from their natural virtues, and in return grants them argumentation, negative assumptions, anathematization, and alienation.

In sectarians is a wickedness the Quran has cursed because of it “those who disbelieved from the Children of Israel”, which is that they “did not prohibit each other from an evil act they carried out”. The essence of sectarianism is to triumph for the sake of the sect, and have a fanatic attachment to it in truth and falsehood in accordance with a Jahili (ignorant) logic that was expressed by one of the poets who said:

They don’t ask their brother for proofs when calls for their help

For what has taken place is enough evidence for what he claims happened

Despite having differences in the details of theology and apparent ritual practices between Sunnis and Shias, the most enticing of matters for differences between them and provocative for emotions are not theological or worship matters. Rather, they are political issues and the historical memory. The source of legitimacy for political rulership and the contradicting conceptualization of early Islamic history are the most sensitive issues in this affair. Whoever follows the daily battles over the centuries will realize that these two matters in question have always been at the heart of it all.

The Syrian writer Ibrahim Mahmoud had noted that the Sunni-Shia struggle raised a type of “adversarial disposition” and “historical fever” in Arab culture, and turned Islamic history into a father of many children from sister wives. The highest concern for each son has been to establish his blood relation to the father, while at the same time putting into question that of his half brothers from his father’s other wives. In this way, history became the one that “gathers everyone while at the same time separates all of them”. [Ibrahim Mahmoud, Al Fitna Al Muqaddasa (The Holy Strife), PP. 10-11]

The most important characteristic of mutual engagement: the feeling of a shared religion, history, identity, belonging, destiny, and standing as a single unit against a common enemy.

Fighting over the past is a type of crowding over the doors to the future, but in a chaotic mob and riffraff way, because religious sects turn into a political and social fanaticism, devoid of any ethical goal or humanitarian message. The one who studies the history of Sunni-Shia relationships from the rise of Islam until today will find that they were not dominated by enmity throughout most stages of history. Rather, the social, political, and intellectual relationships continued despite differences between the two schools that were deepening with the passing of time. The most important characteristic of mutual engagement: the feeling of a shared religion, history, identity, belonging, destiny, and standing as a single unit against a common enemy. I have shown in my book “Athar Al Huroob Al Saleebiya Ala Al Alaqat Al Sunniyah Al Shi’iya (Effect of the Crusades on Sunni-Shia Relations)” how the francophone attacks in the Sham region (modern day Syria/Jordan/Lebanon/Palestine) united Sunnis and Shias.

Disconnection is a rejection of all commonalities, and an erection of high fences between the two sects, combined with negative assumptions and charges of betrayal. It leads to the spreading of negative stereotypes and loss of trust that makes the far enemy appear closer and more merciful than the close neighbour.

There was a political difference, not a theological one, between Sunnis and Shias during the Umayyad era. Then the Abbasid State was born in its beginning with a mixture of Shia politics and Sunni theology, and both schools intermixed politically and intellectually heavily during the first Abbasid era. Some of the Abbasid caliphs had clear Shi’ite inclinations despite being Sunnis from a theoretical standpoint. Furthermore, among the Abbasid ministers were many Shias, including, Abu Salma Al Khallal the minister of Al Saffah; Muhammad ibn Al Ash’ath and Ali ibn Yaqteen the two ministers of Al Rasheed; Yaqoub ibn Dawood the minister of Al Mahdi; Jafar ibn Mahmoud Al Iskafi the minister of Al Moutaz and Al Muhtadi; the most famous calligrapher Muhammad ibn Muqla the minister of Al Muqtadir; and Al Fadl ibn Al Furat the minister of Al Radhi. Moreover, the caliphs Al Ma’moon, Al Moutassim, and Al Wathiq displayed Shi’ite inclinations in their politics, to the point that Al Ma’moon considered appointing Imam Ali Al Ridha (who is the second* Imam for the Shias) the position of Crown Prince so that he can become his successor as a caliph.

The engagement and intermixing between the two schools facilitated the theological and jurisprudential conciliation between the Sunnis and Shias. However, the theological and political relationship was bad between the Sunnis and Ismailia Shias during the Abbasid era, especially during the first Fatimid era in Africa (Tunisia). Nevertheless, the Egyptian period of the Fatimid State witnessed a great political intermixing, and relative religious tolerance, despite the competition between the Abbasids and Fatimids to have power over Sham, Iraq, and Egypt, which continued to cast its shadow against sectarian relations. The Fatimids used two Sunni ministers at the very least (Ridhwan bin Wallakhshi and Al Aadil bin Al Sallar), as well as two Shia ministers also at the very least (Tala’ii bin Razeek and Abu Ali Al Bata’ihi), and one Christian minister at least (Bahram Al Armani).

We also find intermixing and engagement between the Sunnis and Shias in intellectual and jurisprudential life. Among the scholars and rulers of Sunnis are ones whose biographies appeared in Shia collections where they were considered Shias. Likewise, among the scholars and rulers of Shias are ones whose biographies appeared in Sunni collections where they were considered Sunnis. The one who reads the encyclopedia of Sayyed Mohsin Al Ameen on the notables of the Shias will find tens of examples like this. Furthermore, both sides have transmitted Hadiths of the Prophet from narrators of the other side without discomfort.

Early Sunni scholars of Hadith did not find one being a Shia preventative from having trust in the narrator or to relate Hadith from them. Indeed, Bukhari, Muslim and others among Sunni scholars who collected Hadith have all related Hadiths from hundreds of Shia narrators. Even when early collectors focused on sectarian classifications, they often issued relative, not absolute, judgments. For example, the statement of Al Thahabi on the narrator Abban ibn Taghlib: “A staunch Shia, but truthful, so we will take his truthfulness and his innovation is upon him.” [Al Thahabi, Miezan Al I’tidal (The Measure of Righteousness), 1/5]. Dr. Faruq Hamada has collected many examples such as this in his study Al Tawasul Bayn Al Mathahib Al Islamiyyah: Ta’seeluhu Wa Tatbeequhu Bayn Ind Al Muhaditheen (The Engagement between Islamic Schools: Its Principles and Application Among Hadith Scholars).

As for the social connection, it manifested as living together in the same cities and neighbourhoods, as well as in intermarriages between men and women from both sects. The societal difference between the two sects in Iraq, for example, did not manifest until after the civil war that ensued with the American invasion in 2003, when some Iraqi cities and areas began to empty out from one sect for the other, and intermarriages between the two sects regressed to an unprecedented extent in the history of Iraq, as was shown in two field studies by the Committee on International Conflicts and the Brookings Institute in 2006. [Translator’s note: Related article The Myth and Reality of Sectarianism in Iraq]

I have found from a general historical reading that the intellectual, social, and political intermixing between Sunnis and Shias was predominant throughout most of Islamic history. The only time these relations were cut off were in four limited contexts:

  • The conflicts between the Malikis and the Ismailis during the Fatimid ruling over Tunisia, which lasted a few decades
  • The Hanbali-Shia skirmishes in Baghdad under the Bouayhi ruling (1045-1055)
  • The struggle for power between the Ottomans and the Safavids, starting from the Battle of Jalidran in 1514
  • The struggle over the two banks of the Gulf since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, and this is what we are living today

Sectarian turmoil does not dominate except when the voice of reason becomes muted, the desire of wisdom is weakened, and the desires for dominance, dissolution, and destruction are empowered.

General reading points to the reasons behind the disconnection between the Sunnis and Shias being mostly political, even if it was mostly expressed in a religious and sectarian language. Sectarian turmoil does not dominate except when the voice of reason becomes muted, the desire of wisdom is weakened, and the desires for dominance, dissolution, and destruction are empowered.

Among the special qualities of the sectarian mind: extremism in responding to extremism and erring in responding to error, because the logic of crowds dominates during times of strife to the exclusion of the logic of scholars and the wise. Moreover, common extremist preachers do not stop at sowing discord with their tongues, but will at times move in gangs that transgress against authority, and impose their closed-minded religious visions by the power of muscle and weapons. This often occurs concurrently with a weakened authority that cannot establish balance in society. When the cyclonic logic of crowds predominates, the balance of justice is disturbed, and the humanity of the human being is squandered in a reactionary social slaughterhouse that is not restricted by neither law nor intellect.

The siding of political rulership with one theological interpretation over others is also one of the most important causes for sectarian strife. Political wisdom dictates that rulership should not be on any side in an intellectual struggle, and that it should guarantee for everyone the right to express what they believe without fear. Sectarian strife is not necessarily predetermined. It is the result of our intellectual and political inability to build an open space for religious freedom and pluralism, which Islam has planted the foundations for, and most societies have managed to create.

The first thing we need to do in this course is to stop the foolish exhaustion of the self, accept the legitimacy of both Sunni and Shia identities, and the right for each to exist without prejudice or constraint in accordance with the Quranic principle “There is no compulsion in religion.” [Quran 2:256]

In this vain, it might be wise for Sunnis to critique the negative aspects of the Sunni tradition, and the Shias to critique the negative aspects of the Shia tradition, in order to avoid falling into sterile arguments and sectarian quarrels that are raised when each side critiques the other. We are not in need for one to prove the truth of one school or the annulment of the other through fanaticism, roughness, and harshness. Truth is not in need of extremism and fanaticism. What we are in need of today is for one to demolish the very basis of sectarian logic, and expose its fakeness and incoherence, as well as its remoteness from the objectives of Sharia and humanist spirit. We are in need for one who comprehends the meaning of the Prophetic Hadith “Leaving the Prophetic Path (Sunnah) is to leave the group.” [Narrated by Ahmad and authenticated by Al Hakim, Al Thahabi, and Shakir]

We are not in a need for one to prove the truth of one school or the annulment of the other through fanaticism, roughness, and harshness. Truth is not in need of extremism and fanaticism. 

The Azhari Shaykh Dr. Muhammad Abdullah Darraz used to say, “If the oppressors are supporters of each other, then why can’t the oppressed be supporters of each other?” This is a statement we need to reflect on once again under the shadow of the Arab Spring that divided our world into two parts: the oppressed with their living conscience against the oppressors who have decrepit and corrupt hearts. Religious difference does not turn into political strife and military confrontation unless it is mixed up with oppression. From among the worst fruits of sectarian fanaticism is its turning from a struggle between the oppressed against the oppressor into a struggle between two oppressors.

The history of all revolutions reveals that they are established upon the philosophy of delay and preference: delaying minor demands for the sake of greater objectives, and preferring the collective good to personal gain. To prevent the people from reaching the critical mass that guarantees the success of revolutions, the tyrant always seeks to spread fear between the constituents of society by siding with one and convincing it that its benefit – or even its survival – is tied to the tyrant’s survival. This is what we see today in some Arab countries that are witnessing revolutions.

The worst thing about the current sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shias is that it led to severing the kinship ties of religion, nation, and humanity, as well as the loss of a feeling of a common belonging and common destiny between the children of one nation. Getting over the current sectarian distress will not happen by ignoring the theoretical differences between the two sects, or by attempting to jump over these differences through superficial complements, or by theoretical calls to bring the schools within proximity of each other. Rather, it will be effectively marginalizing the differences and restricting them to academic discussions and theoretical debates, without involving the rest of society in it or ripping its flesh for it. This is to be done while keeping the right of each sect to believe in what it thinks to be the truth without compulsion or prejudice, and respecting the rights of people to uphold their creeds and freedom to worship regardless of their background of sect or school.

It is not an answer to respond to sectarianism with sectarianism. The culture of eternal revenge may help in retribution or changing the temporal balance of powers, but it will not build societies of freedom and justice. Sectarianism can only be defeated by demolishing sectarian logic from its foundation, and triumph of the free individual over the closed-minded group, not by victory of one sect over another. As for the one medicinal cure that no other can substitute for it to get rid of sectarianism: it is to have justice and freedom for everyone, without double standards or exceptions.


* The author mistakenly wrote that Imam Ali Al Ridha was the second Imam for the Shia. He is actually the eighth.