January 10th, 2013 marked one of the worst episode of Shia genocide in Pakistan when two bomb blasts targeting the Hazara Shia community, killed almost 200 people in a busy marketplace in Quetta. The Hazara Shias, who have been systematically and ruthlessly killed for almost a decade, refused to bury their dead and sat alongside with their bodies on the streets for three days and nights, through torrential rain and cold weather. This was a heart-wrenching protest, which drew an overwhelming nationwide response of sympathy from not just from Shia communities, but from Pakistanis of all religious affiliations. Protestors sought to highlight the injustices faced by the Shia community and the lack of state response, which can be judged from the fact that none of the perpetrators have ever been arrested or prosecuted in the last decade. One reason for the apparent inaction against the Sunni extremists seems to be a general confusion and a lack of consensus among the mainstream Sunnis themselves, regarding ways in which to respond to such incendiary vitriol spewed by such militant groups.
In the light of the imploding violence against the Shias and the atrocities taking place in the name of religion, it seems worthwhile to delve deeper into history to analyze the dynamics of Sunni militancy. Prevalent analysis on Pakistan continues to insist that the hatred Sunni militant groups bear towards Shia Muslims is fundamentally theological. In reality it has little to do with theology and everything to do with the politics of the times. Much is consequently being said about the need to accept and overcome religious ‘differences’ among both sects in Pakistan presently, but the exact nature or scale of these differences is hardly ever a point of reference in any meaningful discussion. In this sense, the very premise of such arguments seems intrinsically flawed, as it portrays the Shia as the ‘other’ with many commentators inadvertently aggregating them with non-Muslims as a ‘minority.’
In the present times, when the divisive, binary, ‘us vs. them,’ narratives seem to hold widespread currency, an alienating Shia or Sunni history is definitively projected backwards in time by the religious elite, with a rigid certainty that clearly overlooks and distorts the flexibility and diversity Islam originally offered its followers. Needless to say, the religious elite from such orthodoxies, of both the Shia and Sunni variety, have made a major contribution to the current chasm of perceived hostility between the two factions. This is unfortunate because not very many people realize how similar Shi’ism and Sunnism are in theological terms. The few visible and apparent differences between the two sects are mostly superficial in nature and have clearly more to do with politics and culture than theology. In this regard, a brief lesson in history–which could educate and perhaps liberate one from ignorant misconceptions about a collective Islamic past, seems to be the need of the time.
An overview of the historical records of sacred spaces and practices in the early period of Islam shows a wholesome acceptance of religious diversity. It provides ample evidence of what seemed to be a porous demarcations of sectarian boundaries and identities during the formative era of Islam. Important work by scholars like Hamid Dabashi, Wael Hallaq, Hamid Enayat as well as other research has even shown that the conception of Sunnism and Shi’ism, as we know it today, took centuries to develop distinct theological, legal, and spiritual characteristics. Traditions from as early as the 7th and 8th century show that inspite of the political controversy over the issue of succession between Ali and Abu Bakr after the Prophet’s death, there was not much correlation between sectarian association and ritual practices, and that people from a range of sectarian identities frequented the same venues and performed prayers and religious rituals in their own distinctive ways. Various tribes had loose sectarian inclinations but a tribe, which for example supported Ali politically, did not necessarily come to be designated as Shia and such sectarian tribal affiliations did not lead to the classification of religious identity as being exclusively Shia or Sunni. Subtle sectarian identities, it must be emphasized therefore, existed primarily as a consequence of political loyalties rather than any manifest theological differences. The fact that some Muslims sided with Ali, can therefore be explained only in the terms of socio-political reasons, not on the basis of theological teachings. Such sociopolitical influences did lead to later differences and a theological bifurcation on the interpretation and implementation of the tenets of the faith.
However, widely accepted histories which reflect diversity were deliberately suppressed and ignored by the religious elite in the following centuries, and in doing soa divisive narrative of hostility was nurtured. For example, in the 7th century at Kufa, , which was the seat of the Caliphate of Ali, historical records show that people prayed freely with both their hands crossed or unfolded at major public places like the Masjid-i-Kufa. Such precedents are significant to note given the fact that today Muslims are throwing others out of their mosques and killing each other over such trivialities. The leaders of the Hanafi and Maliki schools of jurisprudence, Abu Hanifa and Imam Malik, were in fact students of the Prophet’s great grandson Jafar Sadiq, who the Shia consider to be their sixth Imam, and were greatly influenced by his teachings. Such information is, however, clearly lost on the Hanafi Deobandis who are today vehemently targeting Shias.
The Shia Ashura rituals, which are seen as alienating or foreign practices by many Sunni Muslims and are a focal point of contention, also need to be understood within a certain context, which is informed by cultural history. The Battle of Karbala in 680 AD led to the formalization of loose sectarian identities, when after Imam Hussein’s martyrdom certain rituals came to be distinctively Shia traditions. These rituals, which began immediately after the Karbala tragedy, became a novel and powerful public affirmation of the Shia personality and a central ‘vehicle of expression’ for this identity. The rituals played a defining role in the creation of a distinct Shia socio-political sensibility by providing a unique medium to articulate the devotion of the Prophet’s family. In this regard, it is important to point out that the rituals do not signify a divergence on Islamic precepts.
Shias and Sunnis share the basic notion that the Quran and the Sunnah constitute the fundamental source of divine revelation. The Shi’ite emphasis on ismah, wilayah, and Imamah is secondary to the former provisions. However this difference in emphasis distinguishes Shi’ism from Sunnism because it has led to the emergence of a unique ethos, which is a historically developed attitude about Islamic history, society, and dogma created under the influence of certain socio-politico-cultural factors and grounded in remembrance of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein. Therefore the actual distinction between Sunnis and Shias have not been the actual details of theology and legal practice but this underlying ethos which S.H.M Jafri describes as the predominant ‘spirit’ working behind these ‘rather minor divergences’. A few theological embellishments on matters regarding inheritance, religious taxes, commerce, and personal status thus distinguish Shia jurisprudence from Sunni law. The various differences that do exist are minor and superficial, but are however upheld assiduously by the religious elite on both sides with an urgency that has more to do with the identity politics of these religious elite and less with any ideological or theosophical constructs. In this sense the Shia ‘other’ is more a symbolic than a practical reality.
It was in the post-Karbala milieu when ‘some mosques were renovated to celebrate the death of Imam Hussein that some religious spaces became safe havens for the Shia while others became openly hostile to them. However such hostility was more a matter of political affiliation with or against the Ummayad Caliphate and not related to theological differences. In the consequent centuries, various regional ethnic and tribal loyalties often sparked political rebellions and proto-Shia sentiments were one of the most effective way of challenging the ruling caliphate. The descendants of the Prophet, whom the Shia also revere as their Imams and who commanded popular devotion of the Muslim masses for their ‘nobility’ and ‘integrity’, were incessantly projected as the rivals of the Sunni Caliphs and in this way for much of the Islamic history Sunnism came to be associated with the state and the ruling elite, while Shi’ism symbolically assumed the role of the opposition. In this context Shi’i claims against the ‘injustices’ of the Ummayyads against the Prophets family and the ‘moral corruption’ and ‘political repression’ of their political elites, came to be framed largely as being against Sunnism at large. Infact the universal message of Karbala as the revolt of the oppressed against oppressors, staged against tyranny, injustice, and repression came to be centered largely around the persecution of the Shia by the Sunni elite. The fact that the demonization of the Shias by the political elite of both the Ummayads and the Abbasids regimes and their successors, was readily sanctioned by the religious elite of the time, further cemented this sense of persecution. The Sunni religious elite associated with the political rulers made their contribution to this schism on their part by publicly denouncing the Prophet’s family from their pulpits, a practice that continues to this date by the puritan, Wahabi and Salafi ideologues. Such politicized viewpoints have encouraged extremist outlooks in both Sunnism and Shi’ism, which are unwilling to accept any flexibility or diversity of opinion.
Consequently, the religious elite on both sides have played a major role in creating Shia and Sunni identities with an excessive emphasis on distinct rituals and symbols to bolster their legitimacy. The Shia political elite generated an obdurate narrative of Shi’ism using didactic language and obstreperous titles that seem to present the Prophets family as something exotic and thus made them seem somewhat inaccessible for others outside such discourse. For the Shia, the primacy of the Ahlebayt(members of the family of the Prophet Muhammad), who were seen as the upholders of the Prophetic charisma, was utmost and the Battle of Karbala symbolized the highest form of injustice meted out to them. Consequently, Shi’ism unwittingly appropriated the claims to affection of the Ahle Bayt by giving utmost importance to their reverence through rituals and formulating an identity around them. To show devotion for the prophets family is thus associated with Shia practice, even though showing devotion for the Ahlebayt does not contradict Sunni practice.
In South Asia, popular practice had continued to be at variance with the exclusionary views of the religious elite. At the grassroots, popular sentiment for the Prophet’s family had not been restricted to the Shias only, and Sunnis were enthusiastic participants in Muharram observances and Shia rituals. It was only in the twentieth century, with the domination of political Islam in the public sphere, that this practice has significantly receded. A recent survey noted that while sectarian identities seem to be ‘unimportant’ to many Muslims around the world, such identities appear to be particularly relevant in South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa, where majorities identify themselves as Sunnis or Shias. Among other common factorsis various state-sanctioned domination of a particular form of intolerant, orthodox political Islam that focuses greatly on the vilification of the diverse expressions of Islam as the alien ‘other’. Hostile Sunni and Shia identities appeared as a corollary to the phenomenon of radical political Islam, which takes complex religious traditions imbued with competing beliefs and perspectives and reduces them to ideology. In this context, it is particularly disturbing to note in the same survey that only 50%of Pakistanis consider the Shias to be Muslims and nearly 41% consider them to be non-Muslims.
One of the most important developments that modernity encouraged was the conflation of religion with ideology, due to which a definitive certainty and rigidity was ascribed to religion which does not acknowledge it’s inherent diversity. A recent survey noted that while sectarian identities seem to be ‘unimportant’ to many Muslims around the world such identities appear to be particularly relevant in South Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, where majorities identify themselves as Sunnis or Shias. Among the other common factors that can be pointed out in these two regions, a significant one is the state sanctioned domination of a particular form of intolerant, orthodox political Islam that focuses greatly on the vilification of the diverse expressions of Islam as the alien ‘other’. Hostile Sunni and Shia identities appeared as a corollary to the phenomenon of radical political Islam which take complex religious traditions imbued with competing beliefs and perspectives, and reduces it to a vituperative ideology. In this context it is particularly disturbing to note in the same survey that only 50%of Pakistanis consider the Shias to be Muslims and nearly 41% consider them to be non-Muslims. Such statistics if true suggest that almost one in every two Sunni Muslims in Pakistan considers Shias to be Muslims. However such information can be challenged for its various limitations and it is further undermined by significant number of ethnographies based on diverse areas in Pakistan by scholars like Magnus Marsden, Martin Sokefeld, Katherine Ewing and Naveeda Khan among others. In their work these scholars highlight how the Shia and Sunnis have been living peacefully alongside each other in their respective communities.
In Pakistan, where ‘Islam’ is now seen as being officially synonymous with Sunni political Islam,the totalizing narrative of extremist sectarian groups runs counter to the importance of ethno-cultural identity. For example, during the recent protests against the Quetta tragedy, Sunnis and Shias both widely renounced the agenda of the extremist groups and demanded action against them. As recent events have shown, hostility exists largely between the extremist and orthodox elements on both sectarian sides, but not among mainstream society. Perhaps this is because the agendas of religious elite and extremist groups do not resonate with people’s religiosity, and groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (ASWJ) or Sipah Sahaba are clearly not representative of the aspirations of the ordinary Pakistani people. They are fringe elements who only exist because of their parasitic connections with mainstream political parties like the PML-N, Saudi-Arabian financing financing, and the military. They have no popular social or even electoral support, but are increasingly visible in public spaces due to their disruptive violence. Ultimately, even though their power-hungry agenda is articulated in theological terms, it is more reflective of political attitudes than religious ones. Consequently, this violence should not be seen as a Shia-Sunni sectarian conflict, framed in theological terms, but as a socio-political struggle between intolerant political Islam versus a tolerant and inclusive popular Islam.
Bizaa Zeynab Ali is an academic and journalist, currently based in New York. She has done her M.A in Islamic Studies at Columbia University and an M.Sc in International Affairs from Quaid-e-Azam University (Islamabad). Her academic research interests are Islamic theosophy, the sociology of Islam and popular Islamic culture, with an emphasis on issues of religious identity and social transitions, particularly in South Asia.