Friday, February 2

City Circle: People of the Qibla: Creating a Sunni-Shia Platform Click for more info

This week's City Circle aimed to discuss some of the issues surrounding the apparent Sunni-Shia divide, including the current sectarian violence occurring in Iraq. To do this, two prominent members of each were invited to talk about the differences, causes and possible steps to a more united way of living.

Dr Musharraf Hussein al-Azhari presented the Sunni viewpoint. He spoke about the human tendency to treat "the other" as bad, and how instead, in his opinion, pluralism was actually divinely ordained. His theological proof was based on how The Quran speaks about the acceptable differences people might have ("if God had willed otherwise, then he would have made us all the same"), and how even in the time of The Prophet Muslims were of a range of differing natures, and so had a range of laws.

Dr Musharraf ended with some recommendations. We all needed to increase our levels of mutual understandings, equality, cooperation and friendship, and realise that diversity was the essence of human existence and so shouldn't be fought. Practically, he also suggested the formation of a Sunni-Shia forum.

Hujjat-ul-Islam Dr Mohammad Saeed Bahmanpour was the resident Shia on the panel. He mainly reiterated the sentiment of Dr Musharraf on how unity was both possible and required. Having said that, I did think that his stance was slightly defensive: he explained that, theologically, the Shia followed the Sunnah as much as the Sunni; that they also considered themselves a part of the ummah alongside the the majority Sunni; that they accepted the opinion of Sunni as valid (and so would, for example, pray behind them in jamaat) and so forth. Disputes were not over basis of rulings, but over their respective authenticities.

He also made some other various points about how differences were mainly over methodology rather than theology and how history should be left in the past. Regarding Iraq, he used the fact that Sunni and Shia have been living together for centuries as proof that the current violence wasn't fuelled by theological difference but mismanagement (possibly intentionally) by the USA. He was especially critical of current propaganda aimed at highlighting non-existent sectarian differences.

The question and answer session afterwards was fairly unexciting, although we did hear how unity was more about accepting each the differences we each have rather than making anyone align themselves with a local or global majority. Recent steps to doing this was to include the Jafari and other Shia schools of jurisprudence alongside the traditional four Sunni ones. There was no suggestion of deprecating them all altogether though.

It was a pretty educational and eye-opening session, although a lot of was either very rhetorical ("we are all taught to accept the other!"), very obvious ("we need to stop fighting!") or very vacuous ("we need to stop disagreeing to agree!"). This was probably due to only having those with a pluralist vibe on the panel, but on the other hand sometimes the obvious needs to be stated for people to take initiatives.

Personally I find it pretty ironic that the intra-faith divisions we face seem to be causing Muslims more problems than our inter-faith ones... Although perhaps that just tells us how important it is to move forward in this respect.