Having grown up abroad, we were often part of a tiny (Muslim) minority group, no matter where we were based. Thus, we celebrated all religious and cultural occasions together.
It happened over two decades ago, but I still recall it vividly. I must have been eight or nine-years-old when I was attending a majlis at another (Shia) Muslim household. When it came to the maatam (mourning), I was told not to participate. The child in me did as I was told, but I remember being left confused by the command.
So I came home and asked my parents to explain. They tried to explain (as much as they could to an eight-year-old) that we were Sunnis. They elaborated that, by faith, both Shias and Sunnis are Muslims: like two brothers from the same family, who unanimously love the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his family, and share grief over what happened to his grandson, Imam Hussain (RA).
At the age of eight, it really didn’t seem like a big deal. However, when I resettled in Pakistan, I came to realise that it was a big issue. Over time, this issue has caused countless bouts of violence; a very real consequence of sectarian and ethnic differences. Its literal translation is an inability to accept somebody as different; us versus them – this religion versus that – this sect versus that – this ethnicity versus that.
While religion preaches tolerance and acceptance, it is ironic how we allow society to condition us in such a way that we find it hard to accept differences – be it in thought, language, caste, creed, or religion. We do the exact opposite of what the Holy Quran tells us to do; overlook the differences and focus on the similarities.
I was blessed to have tolerant parents who, being Sunni, ensured that we maintained a front of solidarity with those who were Shia. Countless Ashuras were spent in viewing special Muharram transmissions, making sure that we knew (and appreciated) the significance of this sacred month. My father would tell me to avoid anything on that day that would hurt the sentiments of Shia neighbours or friends (loud music and showy clothes). He made sure that I understood that:
Their (differing) perspectives are a part of their beliefs. It’s okay for them to be different. Give them their fair space.”
His words have stayed with me.
Sadly, stereotyping others can be classified as a national pastime. Even in today’s day and age, I come across people who are scandalised if another group prays somewhat differently, or how they break their fast in Ramazan slightly earlier or later. Sharing the same deity, same Messenger (PBUH), same Holy Quran just isn’t enough, so we stereotype each other.
Looking from an entirely new perspective, when it comes to the lesser and greater pilgrimages, both sects peacefully pray in the same rows (in complete congruence), perform Tawaaf, do Sa’ee, and pray from the same Holy Quran. The interpretation may differ, but both groups should be okay with that, right? Why can’t we carry forth the same level of acceptance beyond pilgrimage and wish genuine peace from the heart unto one other?
I guess it’s easier said than done – and I don’t know why.
With Ashura knocking at our doors, I solemnly expect (just like previous years) that there will be unnecessary casualties, where innocent lives are lost. Differences amongst the sects will be highlighted and used against each other, hence killing what Karbala truly stood for; truth, courage, self-sacrifice, and honesty. Karbala taught us that real battles are always fought in the mind – not on the ground. And yet, hatred supersedes peace and anger overtakes sanity.
I’m not sure what or how much we can do, but maybe a little soul searching would be a good start towards understanding one of Islam’s basic teachings; that there is no compulsion in religion. As a Sunni by (peaceful) choice, I know others have just as much of a right as I do to follow whatever path they choose without any insecurities or fear of punishment for following their beliefs. Integrity, vision, humanity, peace and the true message of Islam is bigger than any of these denominations.
A qualified accountant with a business degree, I work for the banking sector, and am very interested in reading and writing.
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