Leaders should not fan sectarion tensions

Among the ideas that intensify sectarian friction within the Muslim community (ummah) is that of “Shia is not Islam”. This concept was recently loudly proclaimed by certain groups of the dominant Sunni school of Islam in Indonesia. Shia is considered heretical and its followers are even considered infidels. Even more alarming, some of the statements ignore the diversity among Shiites themselves. 

Last week’s declaration by a group called the Anti-Shia National Alliance in Bandung could be a precondition for violence. The persecution of Shiites in Indonesia has escalated over the past few years; several homes belonging to Shiites in Sampang, Madura in East Java were burned and they have been forced to take refuge until today.

The statement that “Shia is not Islam” is not merely a claim. It is dangerous as it could evoke a mission of “jihad” and the taking of life. If the propagandists also campaign for conservative Islamic jurisprudence, where Shiites are considered as having left Islam and therefore guilty of apostasy, their blood is permitted to be shed. The declaration could then be taken as a declaration of war — and Indonesia would be threatened by civil strife, as has happened in Iraq, Pakistan and recently Syria.

Muslims seem to be easier in tolerating other religions than the sect born of upheaval within the body of the Muslim community itself. For centuries the Sunni-Shia hostility has never been settled — though in Indonesia Shiites have for long lived in peace. 

Many statements have been made to discredit Shiites — claims that have not been confirmed by reliable scholars from either side.

Since the 1950s a project of convergence developed between schools of thought in Islam. Initiators of this, the Taqrib Project, were scholars of Al-Azhar University, led by Sheikh Mahmud Shaltout (see for instance the taghrib.org website). 

The project aimed to minimize tension between sects within Islam and to begin Sunni-Shia reconciliation, while recognizing eight legitimate schools as part of Islam. The eight schools are: the four schools of Sunni (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanbali), the two schools of Shia (Zaidiyah and Ja’fariyah-Imamiyah), the school of Zhahiriyah and the school of Ibadhiyah (Khawarij). 

The eight schools were recognized also by Sheikh Wahbah az-Zuhaily, an authoritative Sunni scholar of the era, in his encyclopedic work of fiqh or Islamic jurisprudence. Of the Shia-Imamiyah fiqh he wrote that its differences with the Sunni were only in about 17 issues, the most important regarding contract-based (mut’ah) marriage, or short-term marriages under particular circumstances, which are not generally recognized by the mainstream Sunni. 

“Substantively, differences between the Shia-Imamiyah and Ahlus-Sunnah do not refer to the matter of creed [‘aqidah], but only in matters of the Imamah [political leadership of the Ummah],” Sheikh Wahbah wrote.

In the 1950s, the scholar Sheikh Mahmud had already issued a fatwa on the permissibility of worship based on the Shia-Imamiyah sect. It was once reported that the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar Ahmad Tayeb conducted prayers with a Shiite cleric. 

In 2005, the Taqrib Project was confirmed in the Amman Declaration. This declaration included country representatives throughout the Islamic world, including from Iraq and Iran. Indonesian representatives included Hasyim Muzadi, a former chairman of the country’s largest Islamic organization Nahdlatul Ulama. The declaration explicitly recognized Shia as a legitimate school in Islam, a statement reasserted to address sectarian conflicts in Iraq in the Mecca Declaration in 2006, and the Bogor Declaration in 2007 in Indonesia. 

Therefore Islamic organizations in Indonesia should continue the Taqrib Project instead of exacerbating sectarianism with the potential to increase hostility, if Islam is truly a religion of peace. 

The meaning of “Shia” in the Koran refers to a group which causes division in religion and spreads hostility among believers; so “Shia” itself was actually a pejorative term. Today there are Muslims who seek to prevent unity and reconciliation efforts between Sunni and Shia, based on the assumption that the Shiites are not Muslims; hence such Muslims could also be considered Shiite in the terms referred to in the Koran. 

However, unity and brotherhood is better than division. The Koran has many verses about peace and reconciliation. 

We must end this long dispute after a millennium. In one Taqrib congress the leading Sheikh Wahbah quoted a verse, “That was a nation who has passed away; they shall receive the reward of what they earned and you for what you earn.” We should leave our dark history behind, and look to the future with more tolerance of differences. 

~published in the Jakarta Post, April 25, 2014

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