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Friday, March 30, 2007

Ashura - The Day of Muslim Unity

Every day is the Ashura and every Land is Kerbala and
every mimbar and every mehrab is battleground of Imam
Hussein (AS).

The Majalises of Imam Hussein (AS) and the tears that
roll down our cheeks are for the oppressed and each
droplet being challenge to the tyrant. We are not the
“Nation of Weeper”, but these weeping and wailing have
protected the school of Sayyidush-Shuhada and these
recounting of the tragedy has kept his message alive.
Muharram is the month of epic heroism and
self-sacrifice- the month in which truth condemned
falsehood and branded the mark of disgrace upon the
forehead of all oppressors and oppressed government

The words Sunni and Shia appear regularly in news, but
few people know what they really mean. Understanding
Sunni and Shia beliefs is important in understanding
the conflict in Iraq. The centuries old Shia-Sunni
differences are the major obstacle to Muslim Unity.
There are scholars on both sides – Sunni-Shia, like
Imam Khomeini and Sheikh Shaltut of Al-Azhar who have
done their best to minimize differences and bring
unity, but it has not been successful due to the
misinformation prevailing in the common masses of
Sunnis about Shism. While great deal of money and
efforts is being spent to fan the fire of hatred
between Shia and Sunni in the Middle East with obvious
political and economical fruits for power to be.
Special interest groups have always fanned these
differences for their benefit.

This is what Imam Khomeini said some twenty years ago

“ The filthy hands which aggravates the differences
between Shiites and Sunni Muslims belong to neither to
the Shiites nor Sunnis. They are the hands of
colonialist, which plan to take Islamic countries out
of our hands. The colonial powers that want to plunder
our wealth through various schemes and conspiracies
are the ones who hatch plots for creating division
under the pretext of Shism or Sunnis. Muslim worldwide
should not fall in to trap set by those who seek
division and mutual hatred. Anyone who is responsible
for instigating sectarian division and violence is
either an enemy of Islam, or doing the work of the
enemies of Islam”

The majority of Shia Muslims share all the core belief
of Sunni Islam. Shia and Sunni have many things in
common. They both believe in One God (Allah), follow
the same Prophets Muhammad as the last Prophet, offer
five daily prayers, perform the fast in the month of
Ramadan, go to Mecca for pilgrimage (Hajj), recite the
same Quran (Holy scriptures) and give alms – Charity
(Zakat). There is no theological or spiritual dispute
between Shia and Sunni; the differences are really
ethnicity and political. While in the matter of
Islamic jurisprudence, differences are minor. Sunnis
and Shia’s are considered by most to be brethren in
faith. In fact, most Muslims, not distinguish
themselves by claiming relationship in any particular
group, but prefer to call themselves simply “Muslims”.
The belief that most distinguishes Shiites from Sunnis
is the belief in a special representative of God,
after the end of Prophet hood, called an Imam. The
Shia Muslims believe that following the Prophet
Muhammad’s death; leadership should have passed
directly to his cousin/son-in- law Imam Ali. The Imam
has both a spiritual role of guidance as well as a
politico-social role of rule over the Muslims in order
to enforce Islamic law. The Shias hold that there are
twelve Imams, with Ali being the first, Hussein the
third. The twelfth and final one, Imam Mahdi (after
whom Muqtadar al-Sadr named his military wing the
“Mahdi Army”) is in a supernatural state of
occultation awaiting his return to establish a just
order on earth. During his period of occultation, per
his instructions, the Ayatollahs are his
representatives and the obedience due unto him in both
a religious and political sense devolves unto them.
The difference between Ayatollah Sistani and Ayatollah
Khomeini —both Iranians educated in Najaf, Iraq—is of
degree and not of kind. To grasp the mind-set of any
Ayatollah, it is enough to quote Imam Al-Hussein. “The
conduct of affairs and the laws should be in the hands
of the learned and spiritual leaders of God who are
the trustees of what He has made prohibited and
lawful. The reign of affairs must be in their hands…”
Ayatollah Sistani and others in the Najaf seminary
belong to the older quietist school, while the some
Ayatollahs from Islamic seminary in Qom believe in
clerical activism and come from the school of thought
that religion and politic are inseparable.

The Shia are more hierarchical, with ayatollahs
(cleric) have more power. The Sunni are more
self-governing. Initially the difference between Sunni
and Shia was merely a difference concerning who should
lead the Muslim community (Ummah) after the death of
the Prophet Muhammad in early 7th century. The
Sunni-Shia divide is similar to Protestant-Catholic in
Christianity. Shiite are far more passionate and
attached to the love of the Prophet Muhammad and his
family (Ahlul-Bayt /Imams). Shism is more
catholic-like just as catholic recognized Saints, Shia
believe in Imam (saint) as an intermediary between man
and God. Shia pilgrims who go to the shrine of Imam
Ali in Najaf and Imam Hussein in Kerbala, Iraq could
be like Catholic pilgrims who go to the shrine of
Fatima in Portugal or to Vatican. Sunni are more
Protestant-like. The Sunni cleric is more like a
Protestant pastor, whereas a Shia Ayatollah is more
like a bishop or a cardinal, except Shism has no pope.
Just like Protestant and Catholicism, both follow the
same scriptures, both follow the same story of Jesus,
but have a different ethos of Christianity. The same
is true for Shism and Sunnis.

If there is no differences in Shism and Sunnis, then
why all this bloodshed in Iraq? Looking at histories
of religion we know there are dispute over
interpretation and version of narration (Hadith).
These dispute among communities over time can lead to
conflict. The dispute have become politicized, for
instance, many years of war in Northern Ireland and in
Europe was due to territory disputes or independence
from Vatican or British. So the Sunni-Shia issue has
the same flow. In Iraq today, why the Shias and Sunni
are so antagonistic is because, much like Northern
Ireland, the theological boundary marks the boundaries
of different communities and their identities.

From Washington to newspaper editorial we talk about
civil war and we talk of Shia militias and Sunni
insurgents in Iraq There is too much at stake to get
swept up by minor differences and divide the Muslim
community along Shia and Sunni lines. We are all
Muslims, and that is the most important thing to
remember. Just as God delivered Moses and his people
free on the day of Ashura from bondage, death and
despair, I pray God delivers the greater Middle East
from the bondage of hatred, death, and war. The best
way to commemorate the supreme sacrifice of the
martyrs of Kerbala on Ashura on Jan 29th is to shun
sectarian and other prejudice and follow the principle
of peaceful coexistence, tolerance and mutual respect
to create unity and cohesion in the community. The
martyrdom and the supreme sacrifice of Imam Hussein on
the plains of Kerbala should give Muslims the lesson
of tolerance, moderation, forgiveness, harmony and
tranquility between followers of all schools of
thought.

Mohammed Khaku

Allentown, PA USA

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