The following are simple, but useful, suggestions for making a contribution to the prospect of improving Sunni-Shi’ah relations.
To begin with, do not generalize any group of people. Neither Sunnis nor Shi’is are angels -- including yourself. But neither are they devils. Almighty Allah is the only Judge.
Learn about true Islam based on its most authentic sources: the Qur’an and authentic Sunnah. Everything else is either understanding, internalization, explanation, commentary, or the implementation of those heavenly sources. For example, neither Muslim politics, nor jurisprudence (fiqh), nor Islamic culture, nor civilization, is Islam. Islam and Muslims are to be kept apart most of the time -- unfortunately. Correspondingly, neither Sunnism nor Shi’ism is Islam’s perfect epitome.
The designations of Sunnism and Shi’ism, though in some contexts meaningful, are artificial. A person will never enter Allah’s Paradise (Jannah) on the strength of his being a Sunni, Shi’i, Sufi, Salafi, Ibadi, Wahhabi, Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki, Hanbali, etc. Only those whom Allah has categorized for the purpose will enter Jannah, such as believers, the righteous, the virtuous, the God-fearing, doers of good, martyrs, etc. Never compromise the essential for the unessential, and the fundamental for the secondary.
Learn about Muslim history, but only from as authentic and reliable sources as possible, for there is no man-created historical source that is completely sound and foolproof. Always view particularly dramatic and consequential historical episodes against the backdrop of the message and spirit of the Qur’an and Sunnah.
Let the revealed knowledge and your sound reason and logic lead you throughout, rather than fluctuating emotions and passions. This is so because emotions in certain critical situations could be dangerous and could lead astray. Vital civilizational constituents are not thus built. People might be willing, ready and excited, but mere willingness, readiness, and excitement are never enough. They follow their emotional impulses, but what is definitely needed most are the internalization and rationalization of those emotions. Many people simply think with their hearts, not their heads. Whereas civilizations are constructed mainly with, and of, inclusive ideas, knowledge and value systems, coupled with strategized programs and plans. Sentiments and emotions will bring a person, or a nation, only as far as they can go.
Moreover, make sure you do not fall prey to the temptation of precast ideas, speculations and assumptions, nor to the menace of bias, fanaticism, and intolerance. Promise yourself and Almighty Allah that you will be as committed and honest in your pursuits as possible.
Remember that Islam does not entertain myths, legends, fictions and any unfounded and irrational tales. So genuine, actual, and sensible is Islam to do so.
When reading, discussing, writing about, or dealing directly or indirectly with any of the Sunni-Shi’ah problems and issues, remember that you cannot stop the waves, but can learn to surf and swim. Keep in mind that most Sunni-Shi’ah questions are not of a black-and-white nature because they do not deal with the pillars, or fundamentals, of religion. Therefore, you will barely come across two persons who think the same, no matter how much they have in common. That applies to Sunnis, too, and indeed to any other religious or political group.
Rise somewhat to an extreme vantage point and wonder if it is possible to stop seeing Sunni-Shi’ah disagreements and disputes as a threat, seeing them instead, as an opportunity for mutual understanding, enrichment, and cooperation in certain neutral life segments. Everyone needs friends and allies, and in today’s exceptionally turbulent times for Islam and Muslims, the best allies for any Muslim group will be the other fellow Muslims.
Aren’t believing in One Allah, following the same Prophet (pbuh), reading the same Qur’an and facing the same qiblah, sufficient for creating a common ground for any sort of dialogue and any degree of partnership against the avowed enemies of everything that both Sunnis and Shi’is live for? In so doing, all parties can gradually come closer to each other in other more sensitive and difficult areas as well. Besides, it is an irony that some Sunnis can easily find a common ground with the same self-confessed enemies of the truth against some Shi’is, and as such wage wars against the latter, and vice versa.
Furthermore, when dealing or conversing with someone who you disagree with, prioritize issues and your responses to them. Do not make a mountain out of a molehill; that is, do not have recourse to over-reactive and histrionic behaviors, making too much of minor issues. Every disagreement need not morph into an issue or a hindrance. Exercise patience in the process, lower your expectations, and call to mind that both Sunnis and Shi’is need each other. They are closer to one another than it seems, certainly much closer than to any of their actual and potential enemies who, having mastered the art of deceit, tend to hypocritically present themselves as allies.
Always separate between a person’s opinions, perceptions and interpretations, and his or her self, personality, and character. The latter deserves perennial respect. Remember that what you think about and how you comprehend and explain a person’s words, ideas and actions, is not always what that person exactly means by them. Learn to listen more, and more meticulously and wisely. Stay positive and always have good and positive thoughts about basically everything. “Attack” only disagreements, not persons. Knowledge, good communication skills, appropriate methods and channels, and humble attitudes signify the key to any success.
Learn to accept the truth and wisdom whenever and wherever they might come from. Constantly remind yourself that your aim is to become an asset rather than a liability in the whole scheme of things. Your objective is to help, be useful and perhaps contribute to solving a problem. Do not exacerbate the situation by trying only to defeat and triumph over others, impressing your own views and wisdom on them. Do not become part of the problem. Your intention should never be to win debates and arguments, for many of them are exceptionally complex and so, unwinnable. It follows that some of the most sensitive and convoluted subjects should be declared undebatable, and should be accepted as such by all.
Rather, learn how to be shrewd enough and circumnavigate around such conundrums for the sake of realizing a higher and more consequential order of things and meanings. In doing so, always be guided by heavenly directives to call to the path of Allah “…with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious…” (al-Nahl, 125); to “…speak to people only good (words)…” (al-Baqarah, 83); and to “…repel the evil deed with one which is better, thereupon the one between whom and you was enmity, will become like a close friend” (Fussilat, 34).
That said, for Sunnis and Shi’is to try to proselytize one another will bring them nowhere. It will only consume further their dwindling resources, time, and energy. To a great many observers, rigorous proselytization efforts, both at individual and institutional levels, and with myriads of unfair and partisan tenets, procedures, and methods in the process, denote one of the main obstacles to building bridges between the Sunni and Shi’i divides, and to forging inclusive and genuine dialogue. It is a worry that of late, this proselytization war has taken on some unprecedented proportions and has assumed a global character.
Sunni-Shi’ah Dialogues Are A Must
Thus, a series of unconditional, earnest, and sincere Sunni-Shi’ah dialogues is a must. Yet, such could be regarded as a collective religious obligation. The sooner the matter kicks off, the better. Obviously, such is the current Muslim situation that both mainstream Sunnis and Shi’is are set to lose nothing thereby, gaining almost everything.
It is startling that many Muslims proudly call for and actively participate in dialogues with Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, etc., establishing numerous bodies and institutions, and spending a fortune worldwide for the purpose – which is downright appropriate and praiseworthy – but spurn the prospect of doing the same with their coreligionists.
Sunnis and Shi’is have more in common than what appears to casual observers. What can genuinely unite or bring them closer to one another greatly outweighs that which at present painfully alienates and separates them. The latter must be meticulously reviewed and re-evaluated against the backdrop of the former.
Sunnis and Shi’is, by and large, agree on most fundamental Islamic doctrinal (faith or ‘aqidah-oriented) and practical devotional aspects, which are underlined by both the Holy Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) Sunnah as common denominators of one’s belonging to Islam and his or her being a Muslim.
What Sunnis and Shi’is generally disagree about, though often and in certain religious, historical, and cultural contexts very important, is yet categorized as secondary, less significant and, at times, even utterly trivial subjects and problems.
It all boils down to two major and broad components: politics and jurisprudence (fiqh), where differences of opinion, disagreements, and even disputes of diverse kinds will always be the rule of the day. Achieving homogeneity, standardization, and perfect harmony will always be impossible therein. Attempting to do so would go against the very nature of some elementary laws of existence and the evolution of human societies.
What is thus needed is a thorough ethics of disagreement and conflict resolution in Islam. At the core of such an ethical system should stand the fundamental values of the general Islamic ethics, beliefs and morals. Its guiding principle should be the notion of separation between the fallible and changeable, and the infallible and immutable, and between the human and mundane, and the religious and divine, never allowing the former to encroach on and influence the latter. It should always be the other way around.
((This article is based on the author’s book titled “The Origins of the Concepts of Shi’ism and Sunnism.” The book was published in 2016 by Amana Publications, USA.