With the exception of the Quran, there are no religious or historical references that the Sunnis and Shias agree on

The Sunni-Shia divide is increasingly engulfing Muslim societies in many parts of the world in spasms of internecine violence. The latest developments in Iraq with the Islamic State of Iraq and [Greater] Syria (ISIS) making rapid advances towards Baghdad are an ominous reflection of the deepening of sectarian animosities within contemporary Islam. The potential impact of the current turbulence will be felt far beyond West Asia and North Africa. The developments also indicate — especially in light of the marginalisation of the Muslim Brotherhood and other mainstream Islamist outfits in Egypt, Syria and to a limited extent in Tunisia — that political Islam or Islamism will now be championed with much more lethal effect by groups that profess allegiance to radical Salafism, such as the ISIS.

Islamism, defined broadly, is an ideological construct based on a political reading of Islam in both its history and textuality. It argues that the primary duty of a Muslim is to strive for the establishment of an Islamic state, without which Islam will remain a ‘house half-built.’ Salafism (or Wahhabism) is a theologically puritanical approach that argues for a literal reading of the scriptures, shunning all accretions in matters of faith and life. What is common between the two, however, is that they both operate on a binary notion of the world.

The coming together of Salafism and Islamism is nothing new as al-Qaeda perfectly represented the merger of the otherwise irreconcilable worldviews of the two radical streams. In fact, Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri personified this coming together of radical Salafism and uncompromising Islamism. The former’s worldview can be traced to the atavistic theology of the 18th century Saudi theologian-activist Sheikh Mohamed bin Abdul Wahhab, while the latter inherited the nihilistic fanaticism of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood icon Syed Qutub. But it is with the outbreak of civil war in Syria that we saw the ‘coming out’ of this dangerous concoction from its hideouts in Afghanistan, Yemen and North Africa. The giant strides they are now making in Iraq are indicative of the changing contours of Islamism on the one hand and the new-found role that this brand of Islamism invented for itself against the portentous backdrop of the Sunni-Shia divide.

Origin of the divide

The origin of this divide — the principal fault line within Islam — goes back 14 centuries to the very beginning of Islam. Interestingly, there was nothing religious about it at the beginning as it was a purely political dispute over which an entire theological and jurisprudential edifice was superimposed later on in order to canonise and perpetuate it into a distinctive clerical order. At the core of the dispute was an impassioned argument over whether the principle of succession in the nascent Muslim state should be dynastic or meritorious. The majority of Muslims in the early years of the faith chose merit over dynasty and argued that the prophet’s temporal and spiritual successors should be selected on the basis of their competence, seniority, knowledge and experience. A minority disagreed and said the basis of succession should be familial rather than meritorious. They believed the temporal and spiritual leadership of Muslim society should remain confined to the descendants of the prophet forever.

They thought Ali — the younger cousin and son-in-law of the prophet — deserved the honour, as he was not only a staunch companion of the prophet but also his closest family member by virtue of birth and marriage. Shia is an abbreviation for Shia’t Ali, the party of Ali, and is built around the victimhood of the prophet’s family following his death. The Sunnis do not dispute the importance of Ali and do not disparage him in any way; they consider him one of the greatest companions of the prophet along with the others, including the three other caliphs who preceded Ali in the seat of power. In a way, the difference between Sunni and Shia approaches to Ali is comparable to the difference between Islamic and Christian approaches to Jesus Christ. While both the religions converge on the greatness of Jesus as a man of God, they diverge on questions of his divinity and deification. Just as no Muslim will ever disparage Jesus, no Sunni will ever speak ill of Ali. Like in the case of the two Semitic religions, it was the differences and not the commonalities that were given accent throughout history, resulting in an entrenched culture of de-sacralisation and demonisation of the other on both sides. The fact that the two sects chose to follow totally different references in their respective approaches to jurisprudence and theology widened the gulf further over the centuries. With the exception of the Quran, which in any case has been susceptible to multiple and often contradictory interpretations, there are no religious or historical references that the Sunnis and Shias agree on.

Point of agreement

What is most interesting in this context is that both the sects agree on the need for an Islamic political system on earth. While the Islamists on both sides argue for the primacy of an Islamic state, the others express minor disagreements on questions of prioritising an Islamic state over those of building an Islamic society. No known mainstream religious organisation among both the sects rejects the idea of an Islamic majoritarian state as a desired eventuality. There is total consensus among all that justice will flourish only in such a state where the Sharia would replace all other sources and methods of legislation. What about justice for those who belong to other faiths or no faiths is a minor detail glossed over by self-righteous rhetoric.

This brings us to one of the most exasperating paradoxes in Islamic history. While the only consensus that ever existed across the sects in Islam has been on the desirability of (an immediate or eventual) Islamic state governed according to the Sharia, the principal divide of all times in Muslim society happened because there was no clear concept of a state or political system in Islam. It goes without saying that the method of electing the ruler is the most basic part of any political system, the absence of clarity on which triggered the first and foremost split among the Muslims. The festering wounds of that split continue to bleed the community to this day.

The Quran and the Prophet’s rich traditions left the choice of political systems or the nature of the state to the wisdom of the people and their circumstances. The followers, however, persisted with their delusional search for a theocratic utopia, denuding a faith of its humane core in the process. The Quran stressed on persuasion in matters of faith while the Islamists saw coercion (with the state being its ultimate and most legitimate instrument) as the only method for preservation of the faith. Iran will do all it can to stop the ISIS warriors in their tracks. ISIS will be happy to eradicate the Islamic Republic of Iran. But both will marshal the same set of arguments for the establishment and perpetuation of an Islamic state as well as for the disempowerment of each other in their respective spheres of influence.

In Iraq, for instance, Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and his cohorts will be perfectly happy to replicate the Iranian Vilayat-e-Faqih model of state in Iraq and disenfranchise the Sunni minority. The ISIS will be delighted to establish their model of Islamic state and disenfranchise the Shia majority. Both parties will advance the same arguments to justify and Islamise their brutalities. Creation of a hell here in the name of the hereafter is the fundamental objective of all varieties of Islamism, despite their invocation of justice and divine will in every other sentence they write or speak.

(Shajahan Madampat is a cultural critic and commentator.)

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