Middle East — 21 May 2005

“To speak of the Shi’a of the Arab world is to raise a sensitive issue that most Muslims would rather not discuss,” is the opening gambit of the authors of “The Arab Shi’a: The Forgotten Muslims”. Graham Fuller, resident senior political consultant at the RAND Corporation, and Rend Rahim Francke, executive director of the Iraq Foundation and later the Iraqi Governing Council’s US representative, go on to say, “Sunnis by and large prefer to avoid the subject, and even many Shi’a are uncomfortable with it.” If western commentators are to be believed however, the story of the Shi’a and Sunni is not simply one of an awkward relationship. They represent ‘Islam’s great schism’, one that renders the idea of a homogenous Muslim collective – the Ummah – a myth: “The Shi’a…present a sensitive problem that assails to the core of Muslim unity and undermines the traditional histiography of the Muslim state…” or so Fuller and Francke believe. The concept of a universal Islamic political system, one capable of ruling over both Shi’a and Sunni, is considered a similar figment of Islamist utopia. The Library Journal’s review of Olivier Roy’s mid-nineties book, ‘The Failure of Political Islam’ declares, “…the attempt to create a universal Islamist state is doomed to failure because of the conflicts between Sunni and Shi’a forms and other ethnic differences in the Islamic world…”1

The belief that the existence of the Shi’a and Sunni represents an unresolved schism and a source of continuous conflict and tension in the Islamic world is widely touted in discussion of numerous conflicts. The issue featured prominently in the recent Iraqi elections for a Transitional Government, as observers commented on ‘Shi’a’ coalitions and coined abstention from voting as ‘Sunni disgruntlement’. The demographics of Bahrain and Iraq previously are presented as minority ‘Sunni’ rule over a ‘Shi’a’ majority. The considerable Shi’a minority in Saudi Arabia feature in studies investigating the treatment of religious minorities at the hands of the Kingdom’s Sunni Wahabi scholars. But it is the explosive images of violent feuds in Pakistan, as Sunnis and Shi’a cyclically target each other’s religious centres and leaders, which are ultimately cited as evidence of a very serious sectarian problem in the Muslim world that stems from the existence of the Shi’a and Sunni body.

Secularism often emerges in talk of possible conflict remediation2, proposed as a more coherent approach to deal with religious sectarianism, Islamic or otherwise. The European continent, ravaged by religious wars for centuries, eventually became the relatively peaceful landscape it is now after it separated religion from state, its advocates argue. This article will ask whether an Islamic political system is indeed the divisive force its critics label it as and will explore whether secularism has any relevance to the Sunni-Shi’a issue, or appeal beyond its European origins.

Doctrine versus history

The doctrinal differences between the Shi’a and Sunni stem from a disagreement regarding leadership of the Islamic community after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Sunnis hold that the Prophet Muhammad did not appoint a successor to rule the Islamic polity he had established during his lifetime, and left the question of leadership to popular will; that is to say, it was (and still is) for the citizens of the Islamic state to choose their ruler. The Shi’a on the other hand believe that the Prophet Muhammad did appoint a successor: Ali ibn Abi Talib, his cousin and son-in-law, a member of the noble Ahl-ul-Bait (family of the Prophet). They further believe that all subsequent rulers should be from Ali’s bloodline, being both free from committing error (ma’soom) and divinely appointed to their roles. The ithna ashariyya (lit. twelvers)3 , the mainstream Shi’a grouping, believe that these rulers number twelve, the twelfth of which, Mohammed ibn Hasan al-Askari, disappeared in 260 AH and will reappear at some unspecified time in the future; the period of his absence is described as the ghaybah (occultation). Literally meaning ‘party’, the term ‘Shi’a’ is cited in the ahadith (Prophet’s traditions) describing the allies of Ali,4 and historically became associated with those who held that the bloodline of Ali were the rightful successors of the Prophet Muhammad in leading the Islamic community.

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