I have been part of the minority in every community I belong to. Not only in Europe where I currently live, but also within the Muslim community that is settled here. I was, however, never really aware of the fact that being a Shia means being part of a minority. A minority that receives hateful comments from the people who consider Shia to be kafir – deniers of the existence of God. I only found out about some tensions that exist when I read hate comments from a few Sunni Muslims on Facebook, who advised a girl to not marry “a dog from Jahannam” – “a dog from Hell”. I wanted to understand why.
I wanted to understand what kind of a kafir I am because, just like Sunni Muslims, I pray my five obligatory prayers. I believe in one God, Allah, who, through the Holy Quran, the same book read by all Muslims, has gifted mankind principles, norms and values to live in tranquility and peace, with themselves and within their communities. I believe in the prophet Muhammad as the last prophet ordered by God to spread the word of His Unity, of the existence of the Creator of Mankind. I firmly acknowledge and believe in the customs of Islam. I am a proud Muslim, because I find Allah the One Creator who is worthy of being worshiped and the One Creator who wishes for me to better myself in all aspects in life. I wanted to understand what made me and my thoughts different, what made me wrong.
I came to learn that after the death of the prophet Muhammad, it was decided that Abu Bakr, the advisor and friend of the prophet Muhammad, when he was alive, would become the first Caliph – deputy of the prophet – of the Islamic nation. However, part of the people believed that leadership and religious guidance of the Islamic community should have stayed in the family of the prophet himself, the ones he appointed to be the closest to him according to narrations of that time like Ali ibn Abi Talib, who is considered the first Imam by Shia Muslims. Shia therefore means “supportive party of people”, and this term was used to distinguish those who supported Ali ibn Abi Talib (“Shia-t-Ali”) and the Ahlulbayt (Shia-t-Ahlulbayt), the progeny of the prophet Muhammad from those who considered the lineage of leadership starting from Abu Bakr to be the most suitable one for the Islamic community.
This, and other historical events that occurred after the caliphate of Abu Bakr, have in short led to Sunni and Shia Muslims considering different people to be reliable inheritors of leadership for theological guidance after the death of the prophet Muhammad. That is why Sunni and Shia practice several customs differently and consult different sources to obtain reliable sayings of the prophet Muhammad called Hadith. However, one must not think that the Sunni and Shia schools of thought are completely separated and have no similarities with each other at all, for example, the two famous founders of the Hanafi and Maliki Sunni schools, Abu Hanifah and Malik ibn Anas, were pupils of Imam Jafar as-Sadiq, the sixth Imam of the Twelver Shia school. The Zaydi Shia school of thought, is also quite similar to Sunni Islam and in Yemen, these groups often pray in the same mosques and practice many of the same customs. Sunni or Shia all chose the schools of thought, practice and jurisprudence that they consider to be the closest to the ideals which came from God that the prophet Muhammad wanted to teach his people. Our communities consist of people of colour, of a wide variety of opinions and practices. To paint any community black-and-white would do injustice to its identity and beliefs.
We are not witnessing a Sunni-Shia religious war…it might turn into a unresolvable, intractable sectarian conflict though, if we keep treating it as if it is one.
Therefore it is not the theological discussions or disagreements that have led to the violence in Middle Eastern countries. It is not these things that have led to tensions and hatred among some in our communities. It is the media coverage that treats the conflicts in the Middle East like they are some kind of sectarian Sunni-Shia conflicts. Like journalist Mehdi Hassan has pointed out: “a lot of this Sunni-Shia conflict-narrative is just a product of lazy, simplistic, cliched journalism” and “the Middle East, a complicated place, and yes, violence there has much more to do with power grabs, identity politics, tribal splits, economic grievances and foreign military interventions than theological differences. We are not witnessing a Sunni-Shia religious war…it might turn into a unresolvable, intractable sectarian conflict though, if we keep treating it as if it is one.” The conflicts that we see in the media today are more related to geopolitics, while the media treat these new tensions as a sectarian conflict.
Not only the narrative of these conflicts is plainly wrong, but also the description of the beliefs of Shia Muslims is not correct: Shia apparently are people who curse at Sahabah’s – Companions of the Prophet –, and wives of the Prophet Muhammad, hit themselves with sharp swords over the killings of the family of the prophet and have multiple other Gods they worship. This and other narratives online are the ones that spread huge misconceptions about Shia Muslims, while in reality, we consider Allah to be the only God and his prophet to be the last of the lineage of prophets. You will also not see mainstream Shia conduct the mentioned acts above since they are condemned and prohibited by the majority of the prominent Shia scholars like Ayatollah Sistani, Ayatollah Khoei, Ayatollah Muhsin al-Amuli and Ayatollah Khamenei. For example, Ayatollah Khamenei said that “insulting figures and symbols celebrated by Sunni brethren, including the wife of the Prophet of Islam [Aisha] is prohibited”. Shia absolutely love the Ahlulbayt, the progeny of the prophet Muhammad, who have taught them about principles of justice, balance in all aspects of life and served as examples of strong, spiritual guides for all of mankind.
Fortunately, there are also many who are aware of this and therefore, show us the important attitude that we must adapt in a time when we need to be an example to other communities more than ever. We need to be a community where we approach each other with an open attitude and questions out of curiosity. Where we talk with multiple scholars and people for a complete overview of what we all believe in. Where we visit each other’s religious gatherings and mosques and take a stance against prejudice and media reports that divide us. I believe that especially now, in a time where all Muslims face the same challenges as a minority, we should avoid the challenges of discrimination and division among ourselves and create an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding of our views.