Islam versus Sunni and Shi’a
My attempt here is not to discredit any side, Sunni or Shi’a rather I am trying to shed some light upon the historical origins of differences between Sunnis and Shi’as. It would only be fair to look at an important fact that is to have closer look at the relationship between the main characters of this dispute which I think both parties recognize. Certainly there are a lot of materials written about this dispute. Unfortunately it has exhausted a great amount of mental energies on both sides and in many cases has caused thousands of lives through out history.
Shi’a and Sunni dispute is not spiritually fundamental rather it is culturally fundamental. Both parties share the same fundamental principals of Islam which make them fundamentally united, spiritually. Their disagreement is mainly over their visions of leading the Muslim affairs. One vision is very much influenced by their cultural values and adherence to certain leaders based on tribalism. This vision has played a major role in the nomination process of the first Caliphate Abu Bakr, which had forced Imam Ali to submit to the harsh reality of Muslim’s choice, of their leader, instead of opposing such cultural movement.
Majority of Muslims were still tribal people on the outset and were infant in their Islam. Where as the second vision that is the vision of Ali, is the vision of the ideal principles which is the true representation of the prophetic vision. I believe all major Muslim leaders, Ali, Umar, Abu Bakr and others have recognized this crucial factor and its danger to the future of Islam. All parties have acted responsibly with the issue of leadership. Ali has decided to postpone his vision for a later time when conditions are suitable to be implemented. I am not suggesting here that the vision of the companions, Abu Bakr, Umar, and others is a deviation from the true path of Islam rather I believe it represents the vision of the majority of Muslims and it was some how imposed upon them. So the companions had to accommodate for this vision to lead the Muslim affaires and to preserve the integrity of Islam, for Islam were faced with serious challenge immediately upon the death of the prophet; most Arab tribes have reverted to polytheism. Hence, Ali had realized the situation which made him come to terms with the issue of leadership. So Ali has decided to rise above these circumstances and joined the companions in leading the Muslims.
These leaders have adopted different visions, but they have never tried to depart away from each other despite their differences. They have remained under the same roof of unity for the greater purpose of Islam. Those two visions were in co-operation to serve the Muslim interests. Unlike today Sunni and Shi’a; their visions are not for the general Muslim interests rather it is geared towards ripping the Muslim unity apart.
It is clear from many statements made by Imam Ali in Nahjulbalagha that he was indeed the rightful successor of the Prophet Muhammad, but he made great efforts to make this matter belong to him alone and he handled it at the time according to his role as a maintainer of Islam. Shi’as seems to have taken the responsibility of restoring Ali’s rights for the leadership without his permission.
Frankly speaking, in the light of what is happening today among Muslims, their deep divisions and internal fighting, I do not see any possibility of Muslim unity regarding issues of beliefs, not now and not until the Day of Judgment. But I do believe that it is possible for those factions to unite themselves over the same principle which had united our great early Muslim leaders that is to serve the general Muslim interests. It is fine to have different visions. It is fine to have different approaches to life, if all are to initiate their mission from the same starting point; the same fountain of wisdom “the Quran” and carrying the same light of Muhammad within them. I believe those two principles of mission are the only way out of our Muslim misery and divisions. It had worked in the early stage of Islam on the hand of Ali, Umar, and others despite their differences of leadership; and it should work now, should both sides adopt a similar approach towards life and towards each other.
So I do not expect myself to bring a magical solution to this problem nor would I expect anyone to do so. My intention here is to begin an intellectual debate to discuss the various elements of this dispute and try to identify its relevance to the ultimate goals of Islam.
Early history of Islam shows that these two great personalities of Islam, Ali, and Umar have enjoyed fairly good relationship. Umar and Abu bakr through out their reign sought advises in various matters. However there are some recorded accounts, which suggest that relations between Ali and Umar went sour over the issue of Abu Bakir nomination to succeed the prophet. Without going into details of this alleged bitterness between them, if we examine the overall relationship between them and try to look beyond those limited moments of disputes, we shall find lots of evidences to suggest that these leaders were in very good terms and enjoyed a great level of co-operation to look after the Muslim affairs.
Obviously during that time there was no mention of the idea of Sunni or Shi’a, but there was only the mention of Islam. Those great leaders seemed very busy administrating the Muslim affairs. This principle seemed to be the top priority which occupied their minds.
There was no evidence that these leaders have wasted a single moment over the difference of visions both have. Unlike their followers who not only wasted their intellectual energies and lives over this dispute but they did not spare a single moment to look after the welfare of Muslims.
Here I must be realistic, and not play dumb, to pretend that there was no dispute over the two visions. In all fairness, there were indications to such dispute and confusion among Muslims and leaders at this early stage of Islam. Such dispute was very prominent and publicly discussed. But whatever dispute was there it remained within the framework of Islam. Both parties remained under the tent of unity, because their ultimate goal was the welfare of the Muslim people, where as today, the ultimate goal of Shi’a and Sunni is the “welfare” of their schools of thoughts. Both parties make sure to keep injecting new materials and publications of hate against each other or to prove each other’s falsehood.
This dispute was not exploited to cause, the disunity among Muslims and the creation of different factions.
This dispute started immediately after the death of the prophet and precisely during Abu Bakr’s nomination. During this time the sentiments of sectarian symptoms made some attempts to present itself among Muslims of Arabia. According to Muslim history when the news of Abu Bakr’s nomination spread in Arabia, the uncle of the prophet Al-Abass bin Abdul-Mutalib and Abu Sufyan Bin Harb, went to Imam Ali and offered their allegiance and military support if he were to revolt against Abu Bakr’s nomination (1).
This proposal of Abu Sufyan, to Ali regarding leadership, represents the first symptoms of the vicious sectarian divisions which Muslims suffer today.
Now let’s pause for a moment, and try to make sense of what is happing here. We must really focus on these crucial moments of history between these rivals; as Sunni and shi’a suggest. We must make sincere efforts to truly analyze the depth and dimensions of these moments which followed the prophet’s death. We should have close look at how these disputing persons dealt with the dilemma of leadership of Muslims after the prophet, which is considered to be the fundamental issue of dispute among Muslims, Sunni, and Shi’a.
Let’s ponder now, on what Ali would do to such enticing offer from this prominent Arab tribesman, Abu-Sufyan. These moments should provide great lessons and wisdom to the followers of Ali and Umar.
One might say that, for Ali this is the golden opportunity to gain power; yes whether he desired such power or not or whether he deserved it or not; we shall see what he did with this offer.
Such offer seemingly would guaranty the out come to his favor in achieving the leadership, for two reasons; first reason is, considering the prestige, prominence and high position of Abu Sufyan among the Arabs, who will deliver when he promises. And the second reason is Ali’s spiritual status in Arabia and among Muslims and his close relationship to the Prophet.
To be continued