Shia-Sunni violence has been on the rise in the last few years, particularly in Iraq and Pakistan. Every month, it seems, scores of Shias and Sunnis are killed in a vicious tit-for-tat between extremists on both sides. Many of the victims are killed as they pray within mosques.
These incidents belie the reality of Shia-Sunni coexistence and cooperation. In Iraq, it is estimated that up to 30 percent of marriages are between Shias and Sunnis; victims of violence between the two groups frequently attend each other's funeral prayers; one group often helps the other's victims after an incident.
This silent majority must come together through dialog to defeat the terrorists who have been responsible for these killings.
Seven reasons why a dialog between Shia and Sunni is needed:
Theological differences between Shia and Sunni are old and are better left for God to judge, as He knows best and has said in the Quran that He is the final judge of religious disagreements. The killing of Shias or Sunnis will not resolve these disputes.
The principle of "no compulsion in matters of faith" [Quran 2:256] is not just limited to Muslim-non-Muslim relations, but also applies to Muslim interpretations of Islam as well. This instruction of God serves as a guideline for the Muslim community to not impose one's interpretation on others. That is why throughout history, not only have Hanafis and Shafis worked with each other despite differences, but Shias and Sunnis have lived and worked side by side with each other as well.
When human beings sit down and talk to each other, they learn to respect each other.
Dialog allows parties to understand each other better by allowing participants to acquire direct knowledge about beliefs instead of relying on propaganda and stereotypical images. [Quran 49:6-12]
Dialog will isolate the extremist fringe. It is a major sin to kill a human being. Killing a human being is like killing the whole of humanity. By talking to each other, Shias and Sunnis will be able to save lives, which is like saving the whole of humanity. [Quran 5:32]
Revenge is not justice. Killing in revenge is unjust, inhuman, and un-Islamic. Retribution through the state, which the Quran sanctions via capital punishment does not amount to individuals taking the law in their hands or killing an innocent person in revenge. The call for, "an eye for an eye," does not mean an innocent eye for an innocent eye.
Even if some Shias and Sunnis consider each other enemies, the Quran asks us to be just even toward one's enemy "O you who believe! Stand out firmly for God, as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is next to Piety: and fear Allah. For Allah is well-acquainted with all that you do." [Quran 5:8]
Some considerations for dialog:
The Shia community like Sunnis is diverse. There are many differences between one Shia group and another. This is why it is important that dialog between Sunnis and Shias becomes a movement and a process throughout society instead of everyone waiting for one high powered dialog to yield some results at the leadership level. Here are some preliminary thoughts on how a dialog between Shias and Sunnis can be beneficial for each side.
Goals of dialog:
Although I consider dialog a process that is beneficial to all, it is necessary that everyone involved recognize some of its tangible benefits. The following are a set of achievable goals for Shia-Sunni dialog.
- Developing an agenda of common concerns
- Identifying issues of conflict
- Issuing joint Fatwas against the killings
- Isolating extremists on each side
- Preventing a potential conflict or mediating an existing conflict
- Education to clarify stereotypes about each other
- Setting up joint task forces to deal with outstanding issues
Who should participate in the dialog?:
- Imams and caretakers of Masjids
- Students of Madrassas
- University students
- National level religious leadership
- Shia and Sunni media persons
- Shia and Sunni businesspersons
Mechanism of dialog:
Dialog is a process that should occur at all levels of society. In the 1960s in Pakistan, when Shia-Sunni clashes were far less significant, city officers used to convene joint meetings of Shia and Sunni leaders to chalk out Muharram plans so no confusion would result in rioting. These government-arranged dialogs helped keep conflicts at a minimum. Considering the current level of mistrust, it will be beneficial if civil society takes initiatives for dialog at all levels of society.
Private Dialog: Host roundtable discussions initially at the top leadership level that should later expand to include:
- working on different committees.
Public Dialog: Shia and Sunni both use public forums and media to speak to each other's audiences.
- Visiting each other's Masjids to enhance confidence and to demonstrate that they are not supportive of the extremists who isolate each other.
Shia-Sunni Dinners: Masjids and social associations should invite Shia and Sunni friends to eat with each other publicly.
Publicity of dialog:
Publicity of the dialog will generate hope and confidence in it and will empower those in dialog vis-a-vis the extremists. Media should facilitate self-criticism and introspection by the religious leadership. Those leaders who participate in dialog should be recognized through interviews, reports, and documentaries. Investigative reports should be aired and published about the truth behind sectarian propaganda. It is important for society to honor those Shia and Sunni leaders who take initiative and demonstrate leadership in participating in dialog. Sunnis, being members of the majority community, have the higher level of responsibility towards initiating and participating in dialog.
Sponsors of Dialog:
Funding always facilitates the beginning of a process in civil society. Every task requires time and money. While participating organizations and individuals can take care of their own costs, it would be very rewarding if some individuals and businesses came forward with funds to sponsor and host these dialogs. American Muslims can start a dialog in North America where there is no conflict in the Shia-Sunni community and then inspire and sponsor dialogs where it is needed the most.
Considering that Shias and Sunnis live side by side in the Muslim world, they are not unknown to each other, and considering that most of them have nothing to do with the current extremism which is responsible for the killings and violence, it is important for the moderate majority to come up with a few initiatives which are beneficial for Shia-Sunni harmony. These could be communicated in the print form or in any other media. They should discuss the following themes and/or use the methods outlined here:
- Khutba points which can help harmony
- What type of political/religious rhetoric can hurt at personal level
- What is common between Shias and Sunnis
- Common Hadith between Shias and Sunnis
- What is hate speech
- Islamic teachings of tolerance
- A Shia-Sunni security force, jointly safeguarding each others houses of worship will be a significant blow to the extremist agenda
Shia-Sunni conflict and sectarian terrorism is tearing our community apart.
The Quran, Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, the Kaba and the five pillars of Islam are common to Shias and Sunnis. That is why no one in Islamic history has stopped Shias from performing Hajj, although the Kaba has always been in the control of Sunnis. Even today, when those currently in charge of the Kaba are part of a predominantly Salafi establishment, some of whom maintain extremely negative views of Shias, Shias like other Muslims are free to perform Hajj. Shias, by the same token, since the 1979 Iranian revolution, are ordered by Imam Khomeini to pray behind Sunni imams instead of praying separately.
This mutual recognition gives us hope that a dialog can bear fruit of peace and harmony between both the communities.