Do you remember the furor caused this last Easter when the State of New York shut down all but the most basic worship services at St. Paul’s Cathedral in downtown NYC from Good Friday through Easter Sunday? The cathedral was ringed by a cordon of city and state police officers over fears prompted by threats of armed violence and bombings planned by fundamentalist Baptists and Presbyterians.
You don’t recall this?
That’s good, because it didn’t happen.
On the other hand, last week from Wednesday through Friday (September 19-21), the Egyptian government shut down the Imam Hussein mosque in Cairo from all but the most basic prayer services. Why?
The Imam Hussein mosque is the largest Shiite mosque in Egypt, and so is a magnet drawing crowds of the minority sect to prayers. September 20-21 this year marked the holiest uniquely Shiite day on the Muslim calendar, known as Ashura. The day commemorates the martyrdom of Hussein, son of Ali and grandson of Muhammad, who was killed in battle by opposing Muslim armies at Karbala (in modern-day Iraq) in 680 AD. This watershed moment is generally regarded as the genesis of the Shiite-Sunni divide in Islam, where the army and followers of Hussein viewed with unquenchable enmity the army and followers of Yazid who would subsequently become Caliph over the quickly growing Muslim world, cementing in history the Umayyad dynasty. The followers of Hussein (known as the party of Ali, his father) began to commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein annually with self-flagellation and beatings as a way to show their allegiance and dedication to Hussein and opposition to the rule of those who had killed their leader.
Ashura, 2017. ritual, where Shi’ite men lash themselves with sharp whips to embrace Hussein’s martyrdom pains.
These followers became known as Shiites (from that Arabic word for party/movement, “shi’a”). The majority rulers, whom they opposed, became known as Sunnis (from “sunnah”, meaning “traditional customs” — which, with regard to the succession of caliphs, the Shi’ites rejected).
Much like the Jews and Samaritans of the ancient world, or the Hatfields and McCoys of late 19th C. America, there is typically little love lost between the Sunnis and Shi’ites. Often, members from each side consider the other side to be disbelievers, atheists, heretics, apostates or some combination of all these labels. Among influential Sunni medieval scholars, Ibn Taymiyya lumped Shi’ites among the worst of heretics to be opposed by true Islam. Ibn Khaldun wrote that they were the “astray people,” and “the source of all deviant groups in Islamic history.” In contemporary times, Abdul Aziz Ibn Baz, who served as the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, penned numerous fatwas denouncing Shi’ites as apostates and atheists. So foul were they that he legally proscribed marriage between Sunnis and Shi’ites. One of the foremost Sunni theologians alive today, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, has also issued multiple fatwas condemning Shi’ites as heretics. Fundamentalist Muslims are fond of using “rafidi” (refusers, rejecters) as a derogatory term for Shi’ites, highlighting their rejection of the three caliphs prior to ‘Ali and the customs of Islam arising from that period of Islamic history.
Shi’ites, for their part, have their own derogatory term for Sunnis: Nasibi. It means literally “those who have hatred,” specifically toward ‘Ali. In other words, those who will not accept that ‘Ali and his lineage were meant to rule over all the house of Islam are “haters of ‘Ali, and so are excluded from the family of true Muslims. Shi’ite tradition reports that the sixth Imam, Abu Abdullah, said, “The Nasibi is worse than the Jew.” (For Muslims of any persuasion, this is about as defamatory as one can get, although Shi’ite tradition also speaks of the Nasibi as lower than a dog.) Likewise, in some Shi’a eschatologies, when the Imam Mahdi (final Muslim conqueror of the whole world) comes, he will first turn to the slaughter of the Sunnis and their scholars before he turn his attention to the slaughter of all infidels.
As I said, there is no love lost between Sunnis and Shi’ites.
The vignette of Ashura at Iman Hussein mosque in Cairo and the action of the Egyptian (Sunni) government to preemptively suppress any violence by fundamentalist Salafi or Muslim Brotherhood operatives against minority Shi’ites points to the explosive friction manifested between Sunnis and Shi’ites around the world. Bombings are commonplace at rival mosques in cities where spatial constraints force these opposing groups to rub shoulders. Militants from both sides employ hit and run attacks, spraying bullets or running vehicles at crowds to spread mayhem and death.
Christians today, who have our own share of sectarianism, can’t understand how denominational differences can lead to repeated violence and murder. Certainly in the history of the Church such things have happened, and Christian blood has dripped from the hands of fellow Christians at low times in our history. But when the Church comes back to its senses and returns to the teachings of her Lord, she repents of the evil she had committed, seeks reconciliation, and resolves to never treat fellow Christians as enemies. Certainly Jesus’ teachings prohibit hatred of others (even enemies) and the use of violence against them.
So, many Westerners look on the Muslim world with bemusement, wondering how Muslims can shed the blood of fellow Muslims with regularity and zeal, and why there are few if any signs of repentance by the perpetrators of such internecine strife. Is this merely a stage of history that the Muslim community will outgrow, as the Church endured and emerged from its own bloody Middle Ages, or will hate-inspired, Muslim-on-Muslim bloodshed and carnage continue to haunt much of the Islamic world indefinitely?
Unfortunately, the answer is, most likely the latter. Unlike the Church after it has engaged willingly in evil and finally repents, returning to the peace-making teachings of Jesus, when the Muslim umma (community) engages in willful destruction of fellow Muslims or infidels, it finds nothing to repent of. On the contrary, it congratulate itself for following carefully the teachings of Muhammad and Allah as found in the Qur’an and traditions:
“Fighting is prescribed for you, and ye dislike it. But it is possible that ye dislike a thing which is good for you, and that ye love a thing which is bad for you. But Allah knoweth, and ye know not” (Qur’an 2:216)
“Slay the unbeliever wherever you find him” (9:5);
“O ye who believe! what is the matter with you, that, when ye are asked to go forth in the cause of Allah, ye cling heavily to the earth? Do ye prefer the life of this world to the Hereafter? But little is the comfort of this life, as compared with the Hereafter. Unless ye go forth, He will punish you with a grievous penalty, and put others in your place” (9:38-39)
“O Prophet, fight against the disbelievers and the hypocrites and be harsh upon them. And their refuge is Hell, and wretched is the destination” (9:73)
“Surely Allah loves those who fight in His way” (61:4)
“I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them” (8:12)
“If the hypocrites, and those in whose hearts is a disease, and the alarmists in the city do not cease, We verily shall urge thee on against them, then they will be your neighbors in it but a little while. Accursed, they will be seized wherever found and slain with a (fierce) slaughter” (33:60-62)
“What is [the matter] with you [that you are] two groups concerning the hypocrites, while Allah has made them fall back [into error and disbelief] for what they earned. Do you wish to guide those whom Allah has sent astray? And he whom Allah sends astray – never will you find for him a way [of guidance]. They wish you would disbelieve as they disbelieved so you would be alike. So do not take from among them allies until they emigrate for the cause of Allah. But if they turn away, then seize them and kill them wherever you find them and take not from among them any ally or helper” (4:88-89)
“They [the hypocrites] are the enemy, so beware of them. May Allah destroy them; how are they deluded! (63:4 — Sura 63 is itself entitled “The Hypocrites”).
There are literally hundreds of verses in the Qur’an identifying the enemies of Allah and enshrining violence as a way to deal with them. Idolaters, unbelievers, hypocrites (Muslims in name only) and apostates are all enemies, and they are to be dealt with harshly by the “true” Muslim community.
With regard to Sunnis and Shi’ites who anathematize each other and look for Qur’anic justification to kill their opponents in the name of Allah, perhaps 9:73 is the linchpin verse: O Prophet, fight against the disbelievers and the hypocrites and be harsh upon them. And their refuge is Hell, and wretched is the destination. “Fight against” is a translation of the verbal form of “jihad”, and so may rightly be translated “Wage jihad against…” Disbelievers and hypocrites are lumped together equally as targets of jihad. If therefore, it is right to kill disbelievers (any who reject the call to become Muslim), it is equally right to kill hypocrites, that is, those who go by the name of Muslim but who don’t really believe the “truth”; those “in the right” are to show no mercy to the objects of Allah’s wrath, for indeed Allah will show them no mercy in the roasting fires of hell.
Thus, as long as the Sunni-Shi’a divide continues (and there are no signs it will ever be healed as each newly-inflicted wound merely deepens hatred and a desire for revenge), each side will wrap itself in the cloak of righteous jihad against the other, and feel justified on the grounds of their holy book in their massacre of each other.
What about the vast numbers of laissez-faire Muslims who don’t really care about the Qur’an or the Sunni-Shi’a divide but just want to be left alone in peace? They carry no weight with the “true disciples”, whether Sunni or Shi’ite. For the Hatfields and the McCoys, there are no neutral parties. The committed say to lukewarm, “Either you are with us in anathematizing these enemies, or you are part of them, and will become our targets as well.” So, the “moderates” keep their mouths shut, whether in Sunni-majority or Shi’ite majority lands so as to avoid the vengeful wrath of the religious zealots in their midst.
Governments may restrain outbreaks of this 1400 year-long religious and political enmity by threat of force, but they cannot quench the burning fires of hatred that take shelter in Allah’s eternal commands. Those who hope that one day the Muslim world will “come to its senses” and reject violence against other Muslims as well as against the rest of the world need to leave their opium dens with their attendant pipe dreams and breathe the fresh, if harsh, air of reality.
A good future for the world lies not in the impossible reform of Islam but in its swift obsolescence.