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Struggling against sectarianism: Shia-Sunni ecumenism

  by: : Yoginder Sikand

In an unprecedented move, last week thousands of Sunni and Shia Muslims gathered together in Lucknow to collectively offer prayers to mark the festival of Eid at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. Two men were behind this monumental effort, both Lucknow-based Islamic clerics—the noted Sunni scholar Maulana Khalid Rashid Firanghi Mahali and the well-known Shia scholar and social activist, Maulana Kalbe Sadiq.

I have had the honour of meeting and interviewing Maulana Kalbe Sadiq on several occasions. I have also visited the remarkable educational institutions that he runs in Lucknow and Aligarh. He strikes me as a firm champion of women's rights, inter-faith harmony and Muslim education, and he argues for all these from an Islamic perspective, insisting that this is precisely what Islam itself mandates. He is also a passionate advocate of Shia-Sunni dialogue and unity, in this being somewhat of an exception for the Indian ulema community.

Some years ago, Maulana Kalbe Sadiq penned a slim booklet in Urdu arguing the urgent need for Shia-Sunni understanding. Titled 'Shia Sunni Mufahamat ki Zarurat wa Ahmiyat' ('The Need for and Importance of Shia-Sunni Understanding'), it is a summary of the arguments presented in a booklet bearing the same title written by the noted Pakistani Sunni scholar Dr Israr Ahmad. At the outset, Maulana Kalbe Sadiq admits that he differs with Israr Ahmad on some points but then adds that, overall, his book is 'worthy of respect and is a sincere effort', a major contribution to the cause of Shia-Sunni unity which, he writes, numerous contemporary Shia leaders, not least Ayatollah Khomeini, have also passionately supported.

Drawing on Israr Ahmad's arguments, which he approvingly quotes, Maulana Kalbe Sadiq writes that since both Shias and Sunnis follow the same religion (deen), believe in the 'Sovereignty of God' and 'obedience to the Prophet', and also consider the Prophet Muhammad to be the 'seal of the prophets', they are fellow Muslims. Israr Ahmad, writes Maulana Kalbe Sadiq, admits that there are certain differences (ikhtilafat) in the ways Shias and Sunnis interpret Islam, but this does not mean, he says, that they are different communities. 'Differences and communalism are two different things', Israr Ahmad stresses. He adds that the Quran itself indicates that 'differences in things are a reflection of a divine principle of creation', for differences characterise various aspects of nature, including 'people's looks, languages and mentalities'. Such differences, including those between Shias and Sunnis, Israr Ahmad writes, must be accepted and tolerated, rather than being sought to be wiped out or destroyed by issuing fatwas of infidelity, for that, he says, leads to a form of communalism which is itself 'not less than infidelity and polytheism (shirk)'.

The zeal to condemn others as infidels, Maulana Kalbe Sadiq quotes Israr Ahmad as writing, 'stems from the urge to dominate others.' 'While differences in interpretation can arise out of noble motives, the former urge can never', he adds. In other words, Israr Ahmad argues, Shia and Sunni clerics who engage in fierce polemical battles, seeking to brand each other as out of the pale of Islam, are not motivated by genuine religious sensitivities. He laments the fact that 'Today, the situation is such that the mullahs of each Muslim sect do not agree to anything less than branding the followers of the other Muslim sects as kafirs'. Their actions, he says, can only prove detrimental to the greater interests of Muslims and the Faith, for 'when such sectarian communalism erupts between religious leaders then people begin even to doubt God's Book.' This, he claims, is what is happening among many Muslim youth today, for, as he writes, 'the youth say that the maulvis keep fighting among themselves and so they do not know whom to listen to'.

Differences characterise not just Shias and Sunnis but also the different Sunni groups, Israr Ahmad notes, although he admits that in the former case they may be, in some senses, greater. The Shias and Sunnis have different sources of Hadith, traditions attributed to the Prophet, and although this magnifies their differences further it does not mean that they can or should consider the other as infidels or out of the pale of Islam for both regard the Prophet's practice or Sunnah as worthy of emulation. Israr Ahmad, Maulana Kalbe Sadiq approvingly notes, also critiques the argument put forward by some Sunni extremists who claim that the Shias do not believe in the present Quran and so must be branded as heretics. He insists that the vast majority of the Shias do indeed regard the present Quran as authentic. Israr Ahmad does, however, critique certain Shia beliefs as erroneous, which he does not find in accordance with Sunni understandings, but at the same time he insists, Kalbe Sadiq quotes him as saying, that 'Error in matters of [these] beliefs cannot be used as an argument for declaring [Shias] as kafirs.'

Kalbe Sadiq believes that Shia-Sunni strife is actively fanned by half-baked 'mullahs' (whom he distinguishes from what he refers to as ulema or religious scholars) as well as politicians. He opines that ordinary Shias and Sunnis really have no fundamental problems with each other. Stoking sectarian strife is a means for mullahs to press their claim as representatives and leaders of their sects and, on that basis, to garner resources and prestige. In this regard, he quotes Israr Ahmad as referring to a Hadith report attributed to the Prophet, according to which a time would soon come when nothing of Islam would be left but its name, and nothing of the Quran but its letters. At this time, Muslims will have grand mosques but shall be bereft of guidance. Their ulema would be the worst of people under the skies, and they shall give birth to dangerous forms of strife (fitna) that shall, in turn, strike at them. Kalbe Sadiq approvingly quotes Israr Ahmad as announcing that this Hadith report is true, for, he writes, 'Today we find that this is indeed the case, with our ulema having made religion a source of livelihood. They are interested only in producing divisions and fanning sectarianism in the Muslim ummah so as to promote what they see as their own interests. They know well that by doing so their position will be strengthened because then people will flock to them in order to engage in heated polemical battles with other Muslim sects.'

Echoing Israr Ahmad, Maulana Kalbe Sadiq claims that Shia-Sunni conflicts only help anti-Islamic forces, including advocates of Zionism and Western Imperialism, and that, in many cases, they might actually be produced and promoted by these forces, whose major concern is to weaken and divide the Muslims. The Quran, both of them write, calls for Muslims to dialogue with People of the Book. That being the case, they ask, is it not also an Islamic duty for fellow Muslims, Shias and Sunnis, to dialogue with each other? For this purpose, Kalbe Sadiq suggests that Shias and Sunnis abstain from actions that are known to hurt each other's sensibilities. He also advises the ulema of both groups to 'rise above their sectarian differences' to work together to promote unity between the two groups 'for the sake of the Faith and the entire Muslim ummah'.

Presumably, the recent joint Eid prayers in Lucknow were one step in that direction. Judging by the fact that a fairly large number of Shias and Sunnis heeded that call and, for the first time, prayed together shoulder to shoulder, it appears that growing numbers of Muslims might finally be waking up to the urgent need for intra-Muslim ecumenism.