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Are You A Shia? Or A Sunni?

It started quite early. Maybe I was 6. Or 7. That’s when I first realized that there was something called a “Shia”, and people thought I was one. Because in Pakistan, certain surnames are associated with being a Shia – Turaabi, Rizvi, Jaafri, Zaidi. And because Zaidi sounds notoriously similar to the uncommon surname “Zahidi”, I was asked this question very early on. So I came home and asked my father, to which abba replied very matter-of-factly that by faith, Shias and Sunnis are both Muslims. And that it’s like two brothers from the same family. And that we all love Rasool Ullah (saw) and his family, and are still very sad about what happened to Rasool Ullah’s (saw) grandson Imam Hussain (ra). And to my question “am I a Shia?”, abba explained best as he could to a 6 year old that no, we are from the group called Sunnis, but that is not such a big issue.

But as I grew, I realized that it WAS indeed a big issue. And the issue was the same that has caused sectarian and ethnic differences and cleansings and violence over the centuries. The same issue that has stained many a hands with innocent blood. And the issue is that we cannot accept someone different. The issue of “The Others”. ‘Arab vs ‘Ajam. Gentile vs Jew. US vs THEM.

This is an overly simplistic analysis maybe. Or may be not. We can go into the historical causes. And history will always be partial. Will lack objectivity. Will be, literally, to each his own. So we have no sure way of knowing why Sunnis and Shias have remained daggers drawn.

What I do know is that society conditions us in such a way that whoever differs from you, may it be regarding the thought process or language or ethnicity or race or caste or creed, or religion most importantly, is a threat to you. And the basic animal instinct then takes over. We don’t overlook the differences and don’t concentrate on the similarities – we do just the opposite. We completely discount what was said in Al-Qur’an: “O People of the Book! come to common terms as between us and you…” (3:64). Where even people from a different faith were invited to concentrate on the commonalities rather than focus on the differences.

I was blessed that I grew up as daughter of a father who, being a Sunni by belief, made sure that solidarity with Shias was order of the day. Me and abba spent countless tenths of Muharram talking about the history of Islam, and of the Karbala massacre, with him telling me both sides of the story. He would tell me to not listen to the music loudly or not do anything on that day that would hurt the sentiments of Shia neighbours or friends. And he made sure that I understand that differences in perspectives are “natural, because Allah has Created each one of us differently, and our circumstances shape us. Therefore, give each other margin.” His words have stayed with me.

In general, though, we Sunnis, are very sensitive to how Shias wear more black, and we stereo-typically feed certain ideas about them in our heads. As it is, it is very easy to start thinking of a minority as an adversary. And then, the minority WILL react, albeit in different way. And they do. And they have. And they also tend to stereo-type the Sunnis. Both groups talk in hushed whispers about the others. We are scandalized when the other group’s namaz is somewhat different, seemingly, or they break their fast in Ramadan slightly earlier or later. Again, we concentrate on the differences, not the common factors – same Allah, same messenger (saw), same Qur’an……but it just doesn’t seem enough!!

Polarization between Shias and Sunnis has had weird effects, besides the violence. It always amazes me how we have conveniently decided to divide, amongst us, the companions of Rasool Ullah (saw). It’s like “ok, so I am going with Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman (radiAllahu anhum ajma’een) and you go with ‘Ali, Imam Hasan, Imam Hussain (radiAllahu anhum ajma’een) and Rasool Ullah’s (saw) family. In my religious literature and talks, I will talk about Ayesha (ra) and you can talk about Fatima (ra). For guidance, I can look at the rulings of Abdullah bin Mas’ood (ra) and you can choose Abdullah bin Abbas (ra).” And the worst form of reactionary psychology is then to hit where it hurts the most! Which is that one group starts using derogatory words about those whom the other group holds sacred. And those who were the closest to him (saw) who was the closest to Allah get dragged in our tug of war – a tug of war which makes no sense.

What’s interesting is that the same Sunnis and Shias, when it comes to Hajj or Umrah, are peacefully praying in the same rows, embracing the differences and celebrating the commonalities. Doing tawaaf of the same Kaabah, doing sa’ee together between Safa and Marwa. Praying from the same Holy book, though they may differ at times in how they interpret it, which is ok. So what happens once they step out of the Masjid Al-Haraam? Why not carry the same acceptance with them outside the haram too, and say to each other from the heart “Assalamu’Aalaikum” – Peace be upon you.

But that does not seem to work, and I don’t know why.

What I do know is that for the longest time, every year on the tenth of Muharram, we pray that the day passes without any casualties. What I do know is that year after year, innocent lives are lost. In retaliation. In reaction. Hatred takes over peace. Anger takes over sanity. Flashbacks of just a few incidences are enough to make the heart bleed. Exactly 8 years ago in March 2004, the Shia Hazara community in Quetta suffers an attack on the 10th of Muharram, and 36 are martyred. 2005 sees 10 Sunnis killed in Gilgit to retaliate the murder of Shia cleric Agha Ziauddin. The madness continues. It is 2012. A Parachinar bombing happens. Then,a Kohistan massacre happens. Merciless AK-47s gun down 16 innocent people. In one day, 16 lives are lost…..16 families are devastated…….children are orphaned, women are widowed, humanity is slaughtered at the alter of sectarianism.

Agreed, it is not just dogmatic differences that are causing this. There is more at play. It is not just historical disputes that are causing this mayhem. Yes, the masses are pre-dominantly apathetic and unaware of who did what, and why. But is apathy ok? Yes, there are insidious plans and invisible hands at work that make sure this schism never heals. There are political gains for many in this game.

But that is something I cannot do much about. What I can and will do is that I will look inward, and see where I have gone wrong….where I have just accepted Shias as the others. Where I have let society condition me into thinking in a certain way. Where I have let myself feel more powerful because I belong to the majority sect. Where I have ignored the pleas of the underdog with deafening silence. Where I have let myself believe that in any way, the life of one human being is more precious than another’s on the basis of caste or creed. Where I have not given enough importance to the atrocities around me when a person….even a single person….is harmed because of no crime, but simply because of who he was or what he believed.

I am a Sunni, and I peacefully shall remain one by choice. But another human has an equal right to remain a Sunni, a Shia, a Salafi, a Wahabbi, a Barelvi, a Deobandi. Or, for that matter, a follower of any faith. And the followers for all faiths must feel secure and not be punished for what they believe in. Humanity, peace and the true message of Islam is bigger than these denominations.

And so, for my brothers killed in Kohistan, my heart bleeds.Condemning it is too weak a word. Any word is too weak. So I can just grieve over this death of sanity.


About FarahnazZahidi

Journalist, writer, Communications practitioner, teacher, media trainer | Literature | Gender Parity | Peace | Islam | Very Desi | Chaai, not coffee.

7 responses »

  1. Hello Farhanaz
    Very interesting article and very articulate. I am from India. Since I am not a muslim, not sure whether it is appropriate for me to comment – however, i think the stereotyping and schism between the shiahs and sunnis does not appear to be as sharp here. It cannot be because the numbers are low – various estimates of Muslims in India will be from 140 – 180 Million. It could be because Muslims are a minority here and hence when you are a minority – internecine rivalries and differences fade. Not sure of the answer. If you have thoughts – please share. Nayan

  2. interesting read , I have got friends from all sects of Islam and we are all normal and common people, but yes our generation does love to criticise on how some ones wearing black, how some one prays differently, how some one is a barelwi, and one thing I have observed is that people love to debate amongst each other without even having proper knowledge of their own religious sect. And the conclusion at the end then does not prove to be productive. But I believe that this depends on an individuals nature on how to react with these differences either positively or negatively.

  3. Need to open up their hearts and mind. We live in history too much. Believe in Qur’an and the Prophet. Hope someday we can truly understand the message and the differences will not matter anymore

  4. very well written.

  5. I completely agree with your point of view on the subject. We have to teach ourselves tolerance and respect for the beliefs of others.

  6. That was an interesting read. I wasn’t much aware about internal differences of moslems. I am, well, by choice humanity is my religion but born to a hindu family. Just as you mentioned about apathy of people, I was one of them and that’s why the lack of knowledge. I thought it’s just hindu-moslems. But there are internal wars as well. Just like there’s in hindus. That gives more faith in humanity as a religion than name any. I am not an atheist. But believe that there’s only one God. And we can never ever hold God in temples or churches or mosques. And it feels terrible to know a life can be taken without a thought, based on what type of faith you hold. Pardon me to say this but I have seen that through the means of religion, it’s doing more harm to humanity than any good it can ever do.
    Thank you for the article.


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