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Peter Heine {*}

No Rapprochement in View

Differences between Shiites and Sunnis


From: Herder-Korrespondenz, 10/2006, P. 505-510


    Apart from the majority of the Sunnis there are since the early period of Islam the Shiites as minority that at present gives rise to much comment in the Middle East. The two Muslim "denominations" traditionally differ in their rituals and in the respective position of the lawyers. Political alliances between Sunnis and Shiites are to be counted out also in the future.


The kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by Palestine forces, behind which one assumes the Sunni Hammas movement, and the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by the Shiite Hezbollah movement was seen by some observers as a concerted action. In the media Hamas and Hezbollah were described in the same way as part of the Islamist terrorism, and were presented as opponents of the west in its fight against the international terrorism. The enthusiasm with which the successes of the Hezbollah militia during the Israeli invasion into Lebanon were accompanied in the Arab world led even to the fact that one spoke of an rapprochement between Sunnis and Shiites.

These expectations were accompanied with conceptions expressed by the Jordanian Sunni King Abdallah II: a Shiite belt was growing from eastern Afghanistan over Iran and Iraq to Lebanon. He could have inserted also parts of North India into this pattern, and Shiites live also in the Caucasus. Many experts prognosticate with legitimate apprehension rather a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites. But as so often, as observer one has - in the evaluation of a phenomenon in the Islamic world - to deal with a very complex situation.



Martyrdom as Key-note of Shiite Faith

The split-up of Islam into a Sunni majority of more than 80 per cent and a Shiite minority that again is divided into differently large sub-groups, goes back to the early period of Islam. After the death of the Prophet Muhammad in the year 632, the young but already successful Muslim community was faced with the problem of the absence of a regulation for the religious as well as the political and military guidance of the faithful. Two camps emerged, from which the one wanted to see as caliph (deputy) Ali ibn Abi Talib, the son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet, while the other one pleaded for Abu Bakr, an old companion and Muhammad's father-in-law. After violent arguments Abu Bakr finally won through.

One interpreted this controversy as an argument about a dynastic or democratic principle for the destination of the caliph. The question may remain unanswered. Anyhow also Abu Bakr's successors Umar (634-644) and Othman (644-656) were old combat companions of the Prophet, but not his relatives. Only in 656 Ali came to power. But this power was not undisputed. There were several military conflicts in which finally the Muslim governor of Damascus prevailed. He founded the first hereditary dynasty of Islamic history: the Omayyads of Damascus (661-750). Ali was murdered in 661 by one of his former followers.

Ali's party (Arab: Schiat Ali) never agreed to the fact that no member of the Prophet's family could achieve political power over the Muslim community. From the outset they regarded any rule in the Islamic world as illegal that was not exercised by Muhammad's family, even when there were later dynasties that had been founded by Shiites. The Shiites substantiate the claim to the rule of a person from the house of the Prophet by some passages from the Koran, by various sayings of the Prophet and by historical reports that are however differently interpreted by the Sunni majority.

The split-up of Islam into Sunnis and Shiites, which is regarded also of the majority as a heavy affliction (al-fitna al-kubra), would probably not have been so permanent, if a tragedy had not occurred in the year 680. In the city Kufa, which lies in today's South Iraq, a rebellion against the Omayyad rule happened. The rebels had called Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet, from Medina for assistance. He set out with a small company for Kufa, and was intercepted by Omayyad's troops in the proximity of today's city Kerbela. During this fight Hussein and his male company was killed. The women were captured and brought to Damascus.

This under military viewpoint rather unimportant event got - up to this day - for the Islamic religious, intellectual and political history a tremendous importance. The development of an own Shiite theology as well as of the impressive Shiite rituals began actually only with the events of Kerbala. In the following time the death of the Prophet's grandson Hussein was stylized to a (self) sacrifice.

According to Shiite conviction Hussein took the martyrdom upon himself, in order to atone for the sins of mankind. After the Shiite tradition he had - before and during his march to Karbela - been warned several times against the fate expecting him. To those who warned him also a Byzantine officer belonged, who was so impressed by Hussein's spirit of sacrifice that he joined the group, and was also killed in Kerbela. Martyrdom becomes a key-note for the Shiite faith. Not only Hussein, but all further leaders of the Shiite community, i.e. the Imams met a violent death and are admired as martyrs.

Beside the martyrdom motive developed then within the Schia also a Messianic conviction. It is connected with a further characteristic of the Shiite ideas. According to it the Imams, whose line begins usually with the Prophet Muhammad, are of outstanding importance for the Shiite faithful. These Imams, who all belong to the family of the Prophet, have the special ability to know not only the outer meaning of the Koran but also its internal meaning. Therefore they are able to show the faithful the right way. According to Shiite conviction you cannot attain blessedness / salvation without that guidance by an Imam. Therefore the Muslim creed "There is no God beside God, and Muhammad is God's envoy" is supplemented by the article of faith "and Ali is God's friend". The Imam Ali stands for the line of Imams altogether.



For Sunnis it is not acceptable that the Imams continue in the authority of the Prophet Muhammad. Particularly for fundamentalist philosophers like the founder of the Wahhabi Islam, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), the Imamate is equivalent to what is called "associating" (schirk) by the Islamic law. According to this radical Sunni view the Imams are venerated beside God. This was understood as a form of polytheism. While less sharp critics held that the exceptional position of the Prophet Muhammad is doubted by the Imam doctrine. There is a violent theological disagreement between Sunnis and Shiites in this question.


The Lawyers and the Hierarchy

After Shiite teachings there will always be an Imam who rightly guides the faithful. But the chain of Imams is interrupted at one point. Different Shiite groups let this interruption occur at different points. For the majority it took place with the twelfth Imam. Hence they are called Twelver Shiites. This twelfth Imam disappeared in the year 874 in Samarra, a residential town north of Bagdad.

For the Shiites he did not die, but is "hidden" (ghaiba). First it was a "small" hide-out, because persons emerged who asserted to be in contact with the hidden Imam. But after some years the chain of these mediators between the faithful and the Imam broke off too. Since then the Imam is in the "great hide-out".

The Shiites are firmly convinced of it that he will some day return as Mahdi to the world, in order to establish a kingdom of justice and peace. Only when the thousand years of this kingdom are over the Last Judgement will happen. Such Mahdi conceptions are found also in the Sunni Islam, but they are less detailed and not that much embodied in the religious consciousness as with the Shiites. As with other movements living in expectation for the imminent Second Coming of the Saviour there were numerous attempts also with the Shiites to forecast the arrival of the Mahdi.

Thereby often negative political or social developments are taken as criteria. When tyrants prevail, when the religion scholars falsify the religion, when climatic or other disasters occur, then the Mahdi is forthcoming. Such Messianic travails led in the Shiite history often to a long lasting form of quietism that can abruptly change then into a revolutionary action. That happened whenever somebody emerged who claimed to be the Mahdi.

After the twelfth Imam had disappeared in the "great hide-out", there arose for the faithful the problem of the missing right guidance. During a longer, complicated religion-historical process the Shiite lawyers developed to the instance which - vicarious for the hidden Imam - took over the spiritual care for the Shiites. They got almost the same authority as the Imams.

After the present Shiite teachings each faithful must have a lawyer, according to whose directions he moulds his religious and everyday life. He can freely select this scholar but in the future he depends on his demands in every respect. This authority relationship ends only with the disciple's or the lawyer's death. If he can afford it, he gives to this scholar a special tribute - the height of which depends on his income.

The important scholars used these often not inconsiderable means for their own maintenance, but above all for the maintenance of their study establishments, for scholarships for their students and for various charitable purposes. At least up to the beginning of the twentieth century these great scholars had also their own militias that served to protect them and their followers. The Shiite militias operating today in Iraq, and also the Lebanese Hesbollah must be traced back to such models.

Since also lawyers sometime had been in a subordinate relation to an important teacher, among the Shiite scholars - in contrast to the Sunni ones - developed something like a hierarchy, where one first can make a downright academic career, and achieve various scientific degrees, as from "Huyyat al-Islam" (Proof of Islam) up to "Ayatollah" (Miracle of God). The religious connotation of these at bottom academic titles is obvious. There is a silent competition between the highest scholars for the highest rank in scholarship: "marja' at-taqlîd" (Source of Imitation).


Quietists and Activists

There cannot be several Ayatollahs of this rank at the same time. But up to this day there is no specific election procedure. This highest position in the Shiite scholars' hierarchy develops rather informally according to a tacit majority principle. That means, if in a foreseeable time a predominant majority of the Shiite lawyers and of their followers should be of the opinion that the Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is living in Iraq, is the new marja' at-taqlîd, then the normative force of the factual situation would work, and the crisis of the missing authority of the marja' at-taqlîd, in which the Shiite world is since 1992, would come to an end.



The majority of the great Shiite scholars was and is very aware of the problem of their absolute authority toward their followers. Hence their instructions to the faithful are usually formulated very carefully, and are usually rather general references and suggestions. As a rule they interfered into the daily politics only when they had serious doubts about the political or economic developments. Since they regard any rule - except that of the Imams - as illegitimate, they usually held a large distance from the rulers. But they warned the faithful often against disobedience to the government.

Also today still numerous important Shiite scholars follow this quietist tradition. Opposite to them stand the activist scholars, who - as followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran - are convinced that lawyers should have determining functions also in daily politics. The present political-religious elite in Iran follow this ideology of the "Rule of the Lawyers".

But there can be noticed time and again also oppositional positions. These fear that - in view of the decisions in the everyday policy - the authority of the lawyers could take damage. Political errors, which are regarded as inevitable, would then not be attributed to individual politically acting scholars, but to the Shiite Islam in its entirety. One fears above all that the younger generation will turn away from religion altogether. This could also not be prevented by an aggravation of repressive measures. The consequences from this development are for the Iranian society altogether alarming. The probable new marja' at-taqlîd, Ali al-Sistani, is reckoned to the group of the quietist scholars.



The Sunni Islam does not know this pronounced hierarchy and centralization of jurisprudence. Also among the Sunnis are lawyers with different authority. But this is in principle not comparable with that of the Shiite scholars. If a Shiite faithful acknowledges the authority of a scholar, he has in the future to obey all his religious, social, economic and political legal opinions (Fatwa). A Sunni faithful has likewise the free choice of the lawyer whom he wants to ask for advice. But he does not have to adhere to his opinion in any case. With another question he can contact another scholar, whose opinions are just as (little) obligatory as those of the first one.


Spectacular Rituals of the Memorial of the Dead

Apart from these theological and legal-pastoral differences there are above all the various rituals in which Sunnis and Shiites differ. Apart from the common rituals of prayer, pilgrimage, fasting and the two great Islamic feasts: the Breaking of Fasting and the Feast of Sacrifice, the Sunni Islam in its orthodox form knows only the feast of the Prophet's birthday (maulid al-Nabi). While the Shiites have a series of special feasts, of which "Aschura" is the most important, a ten days commemoration ceremony of Hussein's death in Kerbela with various and partly spectacular rituals.

The Memorial of the Dead is celebrated with the recitation of the Passion, there are processions of flagellants, and the events of Kerbala are enacted by processions and Passion plays. These Passion plays are, by the way, the only form of dramatic literature in the Islamic world, if one leaves out of account the popular shadow-plays. The ceremonies are accompanied particularly by the ordinary population with fervent sympathy. Modern Shiite scholars and intellectuals spoke in the past years time and again critically about these things, but they did not succeed with their criticism. Sunnis always rejected this way of mourning as eccentric.

As so often with confessional differences the conflicts between the two Muslim denominations particularly affect the everyday life. Curse rituals have a long tradition of mutual insults. Sunnis use thereby the formula: "God condemn Ali", to which the Shiites answer with an identical formula for the curse of the three first "rightly guided caliphs" Abu Bakr, Omar and Osman. Still in the thirties there was an Iraqi politician who regularly asked a newspaper salesman, from whom he knew that he was a Schiit, "Are you a Schiit or a Muslim?"

Sunnis furthermore accuse the Shiites that they permit lying and prostitution. In the first case they interpret the so-called "Taqiya" (simulation) in such a way. Shiites may deny their religion, if they come into danger otherwise to be killed. By this regulation shall be avoided that Shiites dedicate themselves all too readily to martyrdom, and weaken so the Shiite minority in terms of figures.

The alleged permission to prostitution refers to a characteristic of the Shiite law. According to it not only marriages can be contracted which are of long duration, but also such ones the duration of which is fixed from the start for a limited time by the marriage contracts. When the period agreed upon - which can last between a few hours or days up to 99 years - has run out, an automatic separation takes place. There is no longer needed a special divorce.


Rapprochement Efforts so far Without Success

In the time of the Cold War Shiites were also gladly accused by Sunnis that they were inclined to communism. "Schii - Shuyui" (Schiit - communist) was an often heard slogan in the inter-denominational arguments. Although one of the prominent Ayatollahs had ordered in the first half of the fifties that a Schiit is to keep himself away from communism, there were indeed some members of the communist parties, who originated from a Shiite parents' house. In the years before it had happened time and again that even young Shiite lawyers had moved into the Soviet Union. These tendencies may be connected with the fact that in many countries the Shiites belonged rather to the poorer and marginal parts of society.

Also in Iran, where since 1501 the Schia was state religion, large layers of impoverished farmers, day-labourers and workers had found hope in the social, but above all in the Messianic aspects of the Shiite dogmatic and ethics. Hence the shift to a secular Messianic idea, as represented by communism, was not so large. Not without reason the communist Tudeh party was always a strong political force in Iran. While in Sunni coined states the prevailing secular ideology was always the one or other variety of nationalism.

Since the 19th century there were now and then attempts to reconcile the two large denominations of Islam. This happened above all in order to strengthen the Islam in its argument with the modern European colonialism. But these efforts had no considerable success.



In any case, there is to mention that one agreed to end the mutual blasphemies of the caliphs of the early Islamic time. The reasons for the small successes lay partly in the political circumstances, under which these attempts took place. Many states with Sunni population inclined during the period of the Cold War to the non-aligned states, while the Shiite Iran stood firmly on the side of the Western powers.

After the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, Iran strove to export its revolutionary ideas, to which also the abolishment of monarchies like those in the Gulf region and of secular regimes in the Islamic world elsewhere belonged. These attempts were not favourable for the policy of rapprochement between the Muslim denominations.

Strictly speaking, this political-strategic situation did not change since 1979; on the contrary, the noticeable conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq will paralyze the rapprochement attempts in the foreseeable future. A political or military co-operation between Sunni and Shiite states is just as unlikely as between the militias and war organizations of Sunnis and Shiites in the Near East.


    {*} Peter Heine (born in 1944), Dr. phil., 1978 habilitation for the subject Islam science; since 1994 professor for Islam science of the non-Arab area at the Berlin Humboldt University; numerous publications, last "Schauplatz Irak. Hintergründe eines Weltkonflikts", Freiburg 2002; "Islam zur Einführung", Hamburg 2003


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