Written by Dr. Abdul Alim: Since the execution of the Shia Cleric Al-Nimr over the weekend, and the subsequent tensions that have worsened the relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the international media has gone into a frenzy on the Shia-Sunni conflict among Muslims. Once again Islam’s image is being tarnished as a religion whose followers are blood thirsty and unable to live with each other and therefore, by extension of this logic, are also unable to live in peace with people of other faith.
A cursory look at media coverage of this rising tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran confirms a subtle undertone. The international media seems to continue to look for the “Other”, in partnership with dominant powers, for someone to blame for current global crisis, conflicts and sense of insecurity to perpetuate the unfair global policies they have come to rely upon to maintain a status quo. In this case, with these unfortunate chain of events, Islam seems to emerge again as a convenient bogey to provide easy explanation to common people on why they have to be wary of Muslims as they follow a Faith that is inherently sectarian and divisive in nature. Nothing is farther from truth than this misrepresentation of the facts and is indeed very saddening for any honest scholar of political and Islamic history.
It is often pointed out that the schism between Shia and Sunni Islam was born immediately in the aftermath of the death of the Holy Prophet of Islam in 632 AC. This is simply incorrect. Yes, differences had emerged on the method of selection of the successor of the Prophet but these were amicably settled. Ali, the Prophet’s cousin, one of the contenders for the successorship is known to have performed the rites of initiation at the hands of Abu Bakr, who was then elected with majority as the first of the Caliphs of the Prophet of Islam. During the reign of the first four Caliphs as the Muslim Empire expanded at an exponential pace, there were attempts to shore up up these differences but were successfully put down by the overwhelming peaceful nature of the ruling style of the Caliphs. Even the tragic martyrdom of Imam Hussain, the son of Ali, which is seen as a major event in the Islamic history, was a result of a major misunderstanding of the instructions of the ruling elite- who were Sunni- and they are on record to have expressed their shock and grief over this uncalled for murder by people who had their own agenda to grind.
As the Muslim Empire expanded, a delicate balance was achieved by succeeding rulers to keep the sectarian differences at bay, but it is here, perhaps, for the first time, we see that the use of sectarian identities was used as an instrument for gaining political legitimacy for the ruling elite. On the death of the Abbasid ruler Haroon Al-Rashid, one of his son, Mamoon Al-Rashid, forced the 8th Imam of Shia, to give a fatwa in his favour so he could gain more political legitimacy to become a Caliph, against his brother Ameen, who incidentally was born of an Iranian mother, the second wife of Haroon. Despite this Sunnis, Shias, Christians, Zoroastrians, Jews and other minorities lived peacefully within the Muslim Empire. The Sunni Ottomon empire lived, in most part, peaceably with the Shia Saffavids for centuries.
So history of conflict among Muslims has always been more about authoritarianism and gaining political legitimacy by using and abusing sectarian identity for this purpose and not about theology, religion or Islam. In the modern Middle East, successive Arab rulers have used the sectarian identity politics to manipulate civil society and to fill the vacuum of political power with the objective of quelling the thirst among Muslim population for real democracy. In this pursuit they have found many convenient partners among the western nations.
Precarious as the balance was, there was no obvious conflict among the Shia and Sunni populace of many Arab states until it was deliberately used by ruling elite to divert attention from the problems of governance that are inherent in a weak state. In the absence of a sense of full nationhood, the state having not been fully consolidated and a crises of political legitimacy, it was not the teachings of Islam or its theology but the political machinations that have laid the basis for sectarianism among Muslims.
In the backdrop of Iraq-Iran war of 1980s, where Saudi Arabia and other Arab states felt insecure with the rise of political power of Iran in the region especially with its nuclear ambitions, the Shia-vs-Sunni rivalry was played up as a part of deliberate mobilization of public opinion in favour of ruling Sunni elite of some Arab states. The US and Saudi Arabia played this game and supported Iraq throughout this war. It was to raise popular political support based on religious and doctrinal differences for their own selfish gains.
Instead of seeing this in a binary of Shia and Sunni conflict, it would help to see this as a struggle for political dominance in the Middle East between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Western powers, who had, until now allied quite closely with Saudi Arabia due to their energy compulsions and the Israel-Iran tensions, played the sectarian tensions strategically to gain their own political and commercial ends. It fed well into their profit making ventures especially the defence industry contracts and energy deals. These were critical to sustain the life style of the western elite. Equally corrupt and ambitious Muslim elite have been more than willing partners.
Let us, however, put this in context. The longest war fought between Iran and Iraq resulted in close to 1.5 million deaths. If we assume this to be a Shia Sunni conflict and apply the same concept to sectarian wars in medieval Europe, the number of 1.5 million dwarfs in comparison to estimates of between 50 to 150 million people killed in Europe in wars between Catholics and Protestants. Contrary to the media portrayal of Muslims being brutal, the honour of inventing appropriate instruments and carrying out public beheadings does not to go to ISIS, it goes to the French. Innovative methods of horrible torture were not developed by Muslims Empires but by the Catholic Church. Suicide bombings were not started by sectarian Muslims fighters but by Japanese Kamakazi pilots and Tamil Tigers (Hindus). Before western media goes on a hyped up crusade of painting Muslims as blood thirsty sectarian fighters they will do well to look into their own backyard.
While some of the current conflict may be due to political ambitions of incompetent Muslim rulers and narrow minded clergy, none of this has anything to do with Islam. In his landmark last sermon, the Prophet of Islam proclaimed unequivocally the equality of all men in terms of race, colour, creed or nationality. The only criteria the Holy Quran, the Muslim holy book lays out for being the best among men is the humility cultivated by fear and love of God and nothing else. The Quran clearly lays out a secular framework for governance stating that “there is no compulsion in religion”. State instruments are not to be used to either oppress, intervene in personal belief or impose religious rules under any circumstances. Islam considers the use of religion for political reasons completely abhorrent. When Muslims rulers did this in the past or do this today, it was and remains patently Un-Islamic. Islam is not to blame for personal ambition and political wrangling of the Muslim elite or the narrow minded justification of these ambitions by the half literate clergy.
It will be extremely unjust to paint the current political conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia as having theological Islamic origins. This is a more dangerous game of personal egos, of vested political interests, and of commercial gains-Period. It is everything but Islam. If you are interested in Islam, it is practiced in its pure and undefiled form, led by Khalifa of Islam. Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam presents a group of people who live in peace and harmony whether they come from Shia or Sunni background or from other religious backgrounds in more than two hundred countries of the world. The movement advocates for complete separation of religion from either politics or business. International media would do well to start pay attention to this Islam than reaping commercial benefits through playing on people’s ignorance and creating more hatred and disorder.