Islam Shia-Sunni Strife

Shia-Sunni Strife: How Many More Karbalas and Quettas?
Yoginder Sikand

The massacre of hundreds of Shia mourners at Karbala (Iraq), and the blasts at an Imambara in Quetta (Pakistan), resulting in the death of dozens of Shias on the day of Ashura, are gruesome reminders of the simmering sectarian conflict that has raged for centuries among Muslims, making a complete mockery of the rhetoric of Muslim unity. The much bandied-about slogan of Islamic brotherhood based on the notion of the pan-Islamic Ummah falls flat in the face of continued Muslim sectarian rivalry.

Contrary to what Islamists, Muslim apologists as well as detractors of Islam would have us believe, the Muslims of the world are just about as fiercely divided as any other religious community. The Shia-Sunni dispute is only one, albeit the most prominent, division that has run through almost the entire history of Islam. In addition to the Shia-Sunni divide are the innumerable divisions that characterise the broadly defined Shia and Sunni communities. Among the Shias, the main sectarian groups are the Ithna Asharis and the Ismailis. The latter have two main divisions, the Nizaris and the Mustailians. The Mustalians, in turn, are divided into the Daudis, the Sulaimanis, the Alavis and the Atba-i Malak. Likewise, among the Sunnis, who form the majority of the Muslim population, there are several factions.

In South Asia, the Sunnis are divided into what are popularly known as the Deobandis, the Barelwis, the Ahl-i Hadith and the followers of the cults of local Sufis who are not affiliated to any formal organisation. In addition to these are various Islamist groups. Each of these many different Muslim groups claims to represent the single ‘authentic’ Islamic tradition, branding all others as having gone astray. Most of them insist that all other groups that claim to be Muslim are actually heretics, firmly outside the pale of Islam.

When faced with the reality of fierce intra-Muslim divisions, many Muslims are quick to explain this away as a hidden ‘conspiracy’ by the ‘enemies of Islam’ to destroy Islam and Muslim unity. While there can be no doubt of the fact that groups opposed to Islam have indeed taken advantage of intra-Muslim divisions, the argument of an externally-inspired ‘conspiracy’ cannot explain the origins of these divisions, and nor can it account for the continuing appeal of sectarianism among vast numbers of Muslims, particularly the 'ulama.

Even a cursory glance at early Muslim history reveals the existence and powerful influence of intra-Muslim sectarianism, starting soon after the death of the Prophet. No sooner had the Prophet left this world than Muslims began fighting among themselves. Lust for power and wealth was a determining factor behind most of these conflicts, which were then provided with suitable theological support. Indeed, one could argue, sectarian divisions among the Muslims have had little to do with religion per se, and at root represent conflicting claims for power and pelf. This is, however, not to deny the importance of sectarian doctrinal developments in themselves, and the role that they have played in further instigating intra-Muslim conflict.

According to a hadith (saying attributed to the Prophet), Muhammad had predicted that after his death the Muslim ummah would be divided into 73 mutually bickering sects. Of these only one would be destined to enter heaven, and all the rest would be punished with damnation in hell. When asked by his companions which this one saved sect (firqa al-najiyya) would be, the Prophet is said to have identified it as that group that abided by the Qur’an and his own practice (sunnah).

Now, each of the 73 or more sects that exist today asserts that it alone represents the ‘authentic’ Islamic tradition, and that it alone abides by the Qur’an and the Prophetic practice. Every Muslim group claims to be the one saved sect, and implicitly or directly argues that the other groups are, by definition, aberrant, not really Muslim, and hence destined to doom in hell. This firm conviction of having a monopoly over religious truth inculcates an unshakable self-righteousness that dismisses all other truth claims, whether of non-Muslim religious communities or of other Muslim groups.

I am not in a position to pronounce on the legitimacy of the hadith that predicts the splintering of the ummah into 73 factions. Like many other hadith reports, it might well have been concocted after the Prophet’s death and then attributed to him in order to legitimize the reality of intra-Muslim sectarianism. However, this report is not of merely academic value, for it continues to be frequently quoted in the writings of Muslim polemicists of different sects in order to stress their claims to representing the ‘authentic’ Islamic tradition. It is also continuously used to justify the preaching of hatred against other Muslim sects.

To illustrate the point, let me cite a recent instance. Some months ago I attended a massive Barelvi gathering in Bombay, where I listened to the impassioned speeches of numerous Barelwi ‘ulama thundering against various other Muslim groups. Later, I asked a Barelwi scholar who was present on the occasion to tell me what he thought about the fiery diatribes of the ‘ulama against other Muslim sects. Especially at a time when Muslims in India are being hounded by Hindutva fanatics, was it right, I asked him, for the ‘ulama to promote intra-Muslim strife? Was it not important for the ‘ulama to help promote Muslim unity instead?

The ‘alim turned to me, and answered without batting an eyelid, ‘The Prophet had predicted more than 1400 years ago that the Muslims would be divided into 73 sects, all but one of which would go to hell. Now, if we try and promote unity between the sects that would be going against the saying of the Prophet himself. And that would be a very grave crime indeed!’

I was, of course, aghast at the reply, but I chose to let the ‘alim go on with his ranting.

Let me cite another instance. Last year I met an ‘alim who teaches at a madrasa affiliated to the Ahl-i Hadith, a sect known for its strict literalism and hostility towards all other Muslim groups. This ‘alim is considered to be a great champion of the cause of the Ahl-i Hadith, his principal achievement being having penned numerous tracts to prove that the Deobandis, the Barelwis and the Jama‘at-i Islami, all fellow Sunni groups, have allegedly strayed from the path of ‘true’ Islam, and hence, for all practical purposes, are not Muslim at all. I put the same question to him, asking him why, particularly at a time when Muslims in India are faced with such odds, he was making matters even more difficult for them by fanning intra-Muslim conflict.

He handed me a bunch of his pamphlets and said, ‘Read them and you will know why I am doing this’. ‘Islam says that our sole purpose must pronounce the truth (haq baat), no matter what the cost’, he argued. ‘And the truth is what I have written in these books about the other groups that call themselves Muslims. They have actually willfully or otherwise distorted Islam and are far from the path of the Prophet.’ ‘We have to speak out against them, no matter what the consequences. The truth must be clearly distinguished from error’, he firmly announced.

As I see it, much of the responsibility for fanning intra-Muslim sectarian strife rests with the traditional ‘ulama of the madrasas. Unlike Christianity, Islam has no place for an official priesthood that can lay down the official doctrine. In principle, in Islam there are no intermediaries between man and God, the relation being direct and unmediated. While this makes religious leadership in Islam more democratic in theory, it also means that the ‘ulama of different Muslim groups are free to stake their own competing claims to represent ‘true’ Islam, branding other Muslim groups as deviant.

This fuels intra-Muslim disputes that can often take a violent turn. It also means that the ‘ulama of the different sects can easily use the absence of a central religious authority that lays down the official doctrine in order to promote sectarian rivalry to advance their own vested interests. By dismissing other Muslim sects as aberrant they put forward their own claims of being the authorities of the sole ‘authentic’ Islam tradition.

As centers for the training of would-be ‘ulama, the traditional madrasas have emerged as the major bastions of narrow sectarianism. Each madrasas is affiliated to a particular sect or school of thought. One of the principal aims of the madrasas is to promote the version of Islam of the particular sect it is associated with, and to dismiss other, competing versions as aberrant. Hence, most madrasas include in their syllabus what they call ikhtilafiyat or the dismissal of other Muslim groups as deviant. Much of the focus of the fatwas and the literature that the ‘ulama of the different sects produce is also geared to branding other Muslim groups as virtually ‘un-Islamic’.

In this way, the ‘enemy’ within comes to be seen as even more menacing than the ‘enemy’ without. The internal ‘enemy’ appears as constantly on the prowl to lead the followers of the sole ‘true’ sect astray. Some years ago, I met at a student at a madrasa in Uttar Pradesh. He engaged me in a heated debate, seeking to prove that the beliefs of his own sect were true, angrily dismissing other Muslim groups as infidels. He insisted that his mission in life was to ‘serve the cause of Islam, by warning Muslims against the enemies of the faith’. I asked him who he thought the ‘enemies of Islam’ were. I presumed he would identify them as Hindutva fanatics or Zionists or American imperialists, but I was mistaken.


Hello Aman Bhai, I am replying to this article as per your request.

I feel that wahabism is the best tool to use to keep muslims restrained. Look and its origins and you will see what I mean. The Islamic revolution was not just a Shia revolution or Irani revolution, it truly was an Islamic revolution. Khomeini asked the rest of the Islamic countries to become self-dependant. This is quite a revolutionary thought. The US will lose the oil business in Middle East and all the Arab Kings and Princes will be dethroned since there is no king/queen in Islam. Actually, Khomeini was only revitilizing Islam, which believes in democracy and election and not family hereditary power. So wahabiism was created and Islam was dethroned instead of the unjustly appointed kings and princes. I would say wahabism will continue doing its fine work until all of Islam is detroyed.