Ironies of Shia-Sunni Ties


“The Muslim Brotherhood is quintessentially a Sunni entity, but in Yemen, its chairman and secretary general are Zaydis. Thus, all this shows that political contestations in Yemen have always been driven by personal ambitions and political ideology, and never by sectarianism.”

These lines are from the article “ Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen” written in The Hindu, May 4, 2015, by former Indian ambassador to Yemen, Ranjit Gupta. The above passage further confirms how absurd it is to call the conflict in Yemen a Shia-Sunni tussle. The whole propaganda of sectarianism is being whipped up by the West at the instance of the Saudi and Gulf monarchs.

There are other sides of the Shia-Sunni relationship too. Imams such as Abu Hanifa and Maalik were the students of fifth and sixth Imams of Shias: Baqir and Jaafar Sadiq respectively. Imam Muhammd al-Shaibani and Imam Abu Yusuf al-Ansari were the students of Imam Moosa Kadhim. Needless to suggest Abu Hanifa and Maalik have largest following in the Sunni world.

Those who love to whip up sectarian passion need to be reminded that the man credited of mooting the idea of Pan-Islamism in the Muslim world in 19th century was none else but a Shia. His name is Sayyid Jam?l ad-D?n al-Afgh?n?. Though ethnically a Persian, he adopted al-Afghani as title to be an Afghan in order to present himself as a Sunni Muslim and escape oppression by the Shia Iranian ruler N??er ud-D?n Sh?h. He got his early education in Iran and Iraq and travelled to India in young age. Though he died in Istanbul, he is a sort of a national hero of Afghanistan.

One may or may not entirely agree with his views but many western writers link the 20th century Islamic movements with his efforts. Similarly, the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, was a Khoja Muslim, who converted to Isna-Ashari (Twelver or those who follow 12 Imams) Shia in early years of 20th century. However, during the Pakistan movement years Jinnah would describe himself in public as neither a Shia nor a Sunni. His stock answer to a query about his sect was: was Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) a Shia or a Sunni?

But when he died, his last rites were performed as per the Shia rituals on the direction of his sister Fatima Jinnah. But he too became the leader of a large section of mainstream Muslims of the Indian sub-continent. Those gunning for Shias in that country are well aware of this fact.

Justice Ameer Ali, the author of ‘The Spirit of Islam, A Short History of Saracens and Other Writings’, was also a Shia so was poet Mirza Ghalib. After his retirement in 1904, Justice Ali, the only Muslim Privy Councillor in British India, established the first mosque in London in 1910 and along with a group of prominent British Muslims, set up the London Mosque Fund. He stood for Muslim welfare all over the world and played a key role in securing separate electorate for the Muslims in India and promoting the cause of the Khilafat Movement.

The ironies of history do not stop here. It is generally argued by historians that Emperor Aurangzeb was bitterly against Shias. But was he really so or was he depicted so as he had launched a prolonged campaign against Nizam of Hyderabad, obviously Shia. But is not it a fact that Aurangzeb’s mother is Mumtaz Mahal, herself a Shia? So very often in history, political clashes acquire a Shia-Sunni twist.

Several Sunni Muslim part-time scholars are quick to attribute Mir Jaafar’s treachery in the Battle of Plassey to his sect – that is Shia. What they do not know is that Mir Jaafar was the grand uncle of Siraj-ud-daullah, and the latter’s own maternal aunt (mother’s eldest sister), Mehar-un-Nisa Begum, was against him. It was actually a Betrayal of Plassey as Robert Clive bribed Siraj-ud-daullah’s close relatives and generals.

Today Iran is considered as the country with highest Shia population. Yet it needs to be reminded that Iran became a Shia country in 16th century during the time of Safvi dynasty, which is about 900 years after the advent of Islam in Arabia in early 7th century. Once again, political tussle has something to do with it. Some historians are of the view that Emperor Humayun, who fled to Persia, after being dethroned by Sher Shah, returned to India after 15 years with the influence of Shiaism.

Is not it a fact that Abbasids too came to power after Ummaiyids with the support of Shias? It is other thing that they too crushed the latter.

Much is being made out of Shia-Sunni factor in the civil war of Iraq and Syria. That may be there, but who can deny the fact that Arab Sunnis in Iraq are a small minority. About two-thirds of the population is Shia and about one-fourth Kurds, 90 % of them Sunnis and are in alliance with the present Iraqi government. The country’s president is a Kurd. So, in this badly divided country Sunni Kurds are taking on Islamic States, which claims to represent 15 % of Arab Sunni population of the country.

Similarly in Syria, where Sunnis form more than 80 % of population the Alawi, another Shia group to which Bashar-al-Assad belongs, comprise 10-12 % of the population. The Sunnis are divided between pro- and anti-government forces. Sunnis opposed to the Syrian regime are divided among themselves as many of them are opposed to Islamic State and support rival Sunni groups. No doubt Hezbollah of neighbouring Lebanon, with the backing of Iran, is taking the side of the Bashar regime yet there are some Alawi who still sympathize with his uncle Rifaat-al-Assad, former vice president, who was more popular in his sect than his elder brother and former president, Hafiz-al-Assad.

Needs to be reminded again, Rifaat lives in exile and one of his wives is sister of the wife of (now late) King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. So Alawi Rifaat is a good friend of Salafi House of Saud. Where has the Shia-Sunni dispute gone here? But there is another side of the story too. Recently in Pakistan, some religious parties led by Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan formed a Milli Yakjehti Council (MYC), which has decided to monitor Juma (Friday) sermons in mosques to limit Imams or clerics to deliver speeches on the subject of morality and humanity alone as explained in the religion of Islam and do not spread sectarianism.

“We have started this work under a mission to promote sectarian and religious harmony through giving purposeful messages to Friday prayers’ gatherings on morality, humanity, civilisation, family system, culture and public rights,” Liaqat Baloch, the leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, was quoted in Dawn.

Besides, protection of all minorities, Muslim and non-Muslim, and their religious/worship places in the country was sought.

(Soroor Ahmed is a Patna-based freelance journalist. He writes on political, social, national and international issues.)

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