Intimate Enmity: Sectarianism in the Muslim world

One of the most pressing problems in the Muslim world is that of takfeer or the act of declaring someone a kafir. Some years ago in Cambridge (UK), I walked by a military hardware store located in an alley next to a Korean Church. It had a display of its best-selling products in the window. Surrounded by large Union Jacks, Swiss knives, army issue shirts with the American flag, and old style parade uniforms with gleaming brass buttons was a black t-shirt. Emblazoned on it was the word kafir in the Arabic script and beneath it the English translation: infidel. In the popular imagination the word kafir has come to mean infidel or unbeliever but as with most other Arabic words, both these translations do injustice not only to the word but also to those who are deemed to be kafir.

Amongst the multiple meanings of the root word is one that translates to that which is concealed. A kafir is not merely someone who disbelieves but someone who deliberately rejects truth, despite knowing its reality. In other words, kufr is a state of ingratitude borne out of conscious disbelief. Thus, the Quran says of the heart of the believer- importantly in Arabic the word used is mo’min not muslim– that it is calm and at peace (Q 13:28) whereas the heart of the kafir is as hard as a rock (Q 69:74) because they broke their covenant with God.

Although that T-Shirt in Cambridge, perhaps meant for the modern day crusader, spoke of a Muslim-Non-Muslim divide with its use of the word kafir, the fact is that the issue of takfeer is as much, if not more of a problem within Muslim communities across the world. Of course, it constantly crops up in the guise of the so-called Shia-Sunni divide but within both these communities there are also deep divisions with one sect labeling the other as kuffar (pl. of kafir). Indeed, the 1959 fatwa by the Sunni scholar Sheikh Mahmud Shaltut of Al-Azhar in Cairo deeming the Shia to be correct in their worship and therefore constituting a fifth legal school of thought seems to be a distant and faded memory.

Another such stark divide exists amongst certain Sunni groups in India that identify themselves as Barelvi and Deobandi. Both these appellations refer to 19th century religious reform movements that took root in colonial India. Their takfeer of each other is not just a theological device meant to draw up impermeable ideological boundaries but indeed it inevitably manifests itself in everyday practice. So mosques have signs forbidding members of other sects from entering, cemeteries are designated according to sect and indeed certain religious leaders have made people re-take their wedding vows if they have prayed behind an imam of the other sect. A brief search on the Deoband Darul Ifta website highlights how fatawa or religious edicts are routinely issued to queries from around the world about matters as simple as whether food can be eaten on the same table as people from other sects. Barelvi websites routinely publish articles and books highlighting which Muslim sects are considered deviant or indeed whether certain Muslims are kafirs. Similarly amongst Shias, there are certain scholars who denigrate and do takfeer of each other and inevitably this also involves personally maligning the other group. Thus, the mere mention of the name of a scholar from the pulpit, who is ideologically contentious, has often resulted in members of the audience booing and in some cases even attacking the offending speaker. Prominent Iranian scholars had deemed the late Ayatollah Mohammad Hussain Fadhlallah of Lebanon as someone who had strayed and was causing others to stray.

Within and beyond the sub-continent, takfeer manifests itself most often in the form of sectarian killings. From Pakistan to Iraq and from the Arabian Peninsula to the Levant, the murder of innocent Muslims is ideologically justified by their takfeer. Sadly news of Shia-Sunni strife has become an almost routine matter in the news cycle, particularly around certain important months of the year. The bombing of a Shia congregation in Khanpur in Pakistan on Eid al-Adha in 2016 was just one example of the bloody sectarianism that is infecting Muslim societies across the world. Despite the fact that the Islamic New Year ends with the symbolic sacrifice of Ismail, Abraham’s son, and begins with the sacrifice of Hussain ibn Ali, these sacred days have become marked by poisonous and vicious sectarianism. Incidentally, it is important to note that the martyrs of Karbala have also been mourned by Sunnis from across the world for centuries and the perception that it is only significant for the Shia is completely unfounded.

Until recently, in a place like Iraq, there were families and tribes that were half Shia and half Sunni but with the burgeoning conflict between the nation-states of Saudi Arabia and Iran, their enmity is increasingly seen as only sectarian and not also as fundamentally geo-political. In August 2016, Ayatollah Khamenei lambasted the Saudi government for its mismanagement of the annual Haj pilgrimage during the previous year. In reply, one of the most important clerics of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Aal al-Sheikh, a direct descendent of Mohammad ibn Abdul Wahhab- the ideological progenitor of Wahabism, deemed the Iranians, and by implication Shias, to be non-Muslim.

For many years now, a number of videos have been circulating on the Internet showing various cleric’s condemnation of Shia Muslims and indeed other Sunni Muslims. One such video shows a Sheikh who, while leading the prayers in Mecca, prayed for victory over the Godless rejecters (rawafidh) as well as the Jews and Christians. The pejorative term ‘rejecters’ goes back to the very essence of the intimate enmity between the Shia and Sunni as their differences are about the idea of authority in Islam and therefore in a sense contesting the very nature of Islam The Shia believe that Ali, son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet, should have been his true inheritor after him and they ‘reject’ the rule of three Caliphs revered by the Sunnis, Abu Bakr, Omar and Uthman, as invalid. Here it is important to state that the categories of Shia and Sunni should not be seen as homogenous as this completely overlooks internal diversity. Indeed, intra-Sunni polemics, as mentioned earlier, can be as sharp and divisive as those between Shias and Sunnis.

Of course, these theological differences are used to exacerbate political, economic and even social relationships and therefore it has become politically expedient for certain clerics, both Sunnis and Shia, to use the fear of difference to create social cleavages. Some Sunni clerics pronounce that Shias, and indeed some other Sunnis, are not be trusted because they lie and dissimulate in order to appease. The theological concept of taqiyya, or dissimulation in order to protect one’s life, is misused to propagate the stereotype that Shias deploy taqiyya all the time and therefore can never be trusted. One popular offshoot of this is that in the sub-continent some Sunnis will not even drink water in a Shia’s house, as they believe that it might have been spat in.

On the other hand, some Shia leaders openly curse and denigrate the first three Caliphs and certain wives of the Prophet, with little care that their abuse of those venerated by the Sunnis causes hurt and anguish. This practice is popularly and indeed wrongly known as tabarra and while it is certainly not the equivalent of cursing, this is how lay Muslims understand it. What unites certain religious leaders on both sides is their cynical manipulation of people’s fear of difference in order to consolidate their own power and position. It is of note that in the popular imagination the meanings of both taqiyya and tabarra are completely misunderstood and these misunderstandings are perpetuated by those who wish to exacerbate sectarian divides. Of course, the easiest way to make people afraid of difference is to make them doubt the very intentions of the other group. This kind of propaganda is doubly dangerous because even if someone is speaking with sincerity about fraternity and unity, their intentions are forever in question.

Given the fractious nature of these differences, a small initiative started in India has provided a reprieve from the usual sectarianism and factionalism. The aptly named, Shoulder-to-Shoulder (S2S) organisation was created by a group of young people in order to bring people together people from all walks of life, including Shias and Sunnis. To this end, they organised a joint Eid congregational prayer where Shias and Sunnis come together in order to offer thanks for the symbolic sacrifice of Abraham. S2S state as their objective that they are “a volunteer-driven organisation set up to bring people of different faiths together and promote universal brotherhood” because “peace, unity and tolerance are essential for human existence.”

It was no small feat then, for this mixed group of people to bring together Shias and Sunnis and help them stand as one congregation. Previously under the aegis of S2S, a Sikh Gurudwara had organised an iftar for Muslims during Ramadan and some Muslims had got together to do seva or serve food to worshipers on the occasion of Gurpurab, the birth anniversary of the first Sikh Guru. , During Christmas in the first year of its inception, people from different faiths came together to provide food to the poor and homeless.

While all this is symbolically very important, the fact remains that matters do come to a head when discussing certain details. One such instance was when decisions are made as to who would lead the prayers. Last year and this year a Sunni imam led the congregation in Lucknow and it remains to be seen whether a Shia will lead the prayers in the future. The root of the problem lies in the fact that if you doubt the very intentions of the ‘other’ then there is absolutely no way that there can be dialogue beyond mere superficialities. In Delhi, a Shia imam led a joint Sunni-Shia congregation, so it seems that there is potential, albeit limited, for equitable reconciliation. However, distrust and the fear of difference is often instilled so deeply and at such a young age that it, in itself, becomes a formidable hurdle to overcome. The theological debates that inform these discussions about who is a kafir and what constitutes kufr have occurred for centuries. However, today the biggest danger to most young Muslims is posed by Sheikh Google who issues baseless edicts and unfounded and generalised opinions that not only entrench prejudices but also provoke hatred. One of the biggest challenges for religious scholars in the coming years will be about how to engage with and undo the more pernicious effects of the internet on the acquisition of religious knowledge.

The kind of socialisation that engenders hate, even at an unconscious level, is of course not restricted to the Shias and Sunnis. Indeed, wherever belief and faith are used to sow discontent and division, an atmosphere is created wherein the very intention of the ‘other’ is brought into question. After all, during Nazi rule, Jews were an inextricable part of the German cultural milieu but the propaganda against them was based on calling their intentions into question and therefore treating their ‘Germaness’ as merely eyewash. A similar dynamic existed in Ireland between the Catholics and the Protestants and today sections of the Hindu right-wing are perpetuating the stereotype that Indian Muslims are fundamentally disloyal, even anti-national, because their holy places lie beyond India.

To doubt someone’s intentions is to fundamentally question their ethical orientation. Indeed in the Quran, it is emphasised that actions will be judged according to intentions (Quran 2:225) and not just the action itself. There is also the famous hadith of the Prophet that states that intentions inform and therefore form the base of actions. Doubting the intentions of an individual or indeed a group of people is akin to a form of bigotry. S2S’ efforts are truly commendable in this regard as they seek to create bridges and generate dialogue. Theological differences, like political distinctions, will inevitably remain but it is not necessary for people to isolate themselves from one another. The real challenge therefore remains about how religious leaders from across the spectrum can inculcate trust and respect without fearing for their own loss of power. After all laying the seeds of hate is easy but uprooting it completely is extraordinarily difficult. Ultimately, intra-faith dialogue is much harder than inter-faith dialogue.

Ali Khan Mahmudabad – Asst. Professor of Political Science and History at Ashoka University (India). He is also a regular columnist in both English and in Urdu.