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Law-Making and Doctrinal Differences Between Shi’ites and Sunnis

The article is sourced from Chapter Three of My book, Oil and God – Sustainable Energy Will Defeat Wahhabi Terror



The Development of Sunni Law-Making

In addition to the Qur’an and the Sunna, two sources of law evolved for Sunnis around the eighth and ninth centuries. These are known as Analogical Deduction (Qiyas), and Consensus of the Ulama (Ijma’). 


Formed in liberal Iraq and led by Abu Hanifa(d. 767), the founder of the Hanafite school of jurisprudence, Analogical Deduction (Qiyas) is derived from Jewish law.[1]Propounded by the conservative Medanese school and led by Malik bin Anas (d. 795), the founder of the Malakite school of jurisprudence, the Consensus of the Ulama(Ijma’) seems to have been modeled on Roman law.[2]Qiyas and Ijma’ enabled what later became Sunni Shari’alaw meant to cover human actions not addressed in the Qur’an and the Sunna. Together, the four sources address, for Sunnis, all likely doctrinal and juridical requirements. 


In addition to the Hanafite and Malikite rites, Sunnis adopted two further rites. The first is the Shafi’ite rite, named after its founder Muhammad bin Idris al-Shafi’i(d. 820), and the Hanbalite rite, named for its founder Ahmad bin Hanbal (d. 855), who wrote the most orthodox and austere among the four rites, and thus the least popular over the past millennia. 


Hitti points out that the establishment of these four schools crystallized traditional dogma in such a way that there could be no further development of doctrine or law, and the possibility of ijtihad (forming new opinions regarding the Qur’an or Sunna) was forever closed to the Sunnis.[3]Through the consensus of the ulama, decisions of great significance were taken. Hitti wrote, “The vulgate text of the Qur’anwas canonized, the six canonical books of the Hadiths were approved, the miracles of the Prophet were accepted, lithographic reproductions of the Qur’an were authorized, and the necessity of belonging to the Quraish was dispensed with, in favor of the Ottoman caliphs.”[4]


The conquests of Byzantine Syria and Egypt, along with Sassanid Persia, brought the early Arabian Desert people into the comparatively advanced commercial, cultural, and social conditions of the conquered societies. The laws of the Medinese society were inadequate, and because the conquered people were not yet Muslims, the laws of their new Islamic society were not applicable.[5]It is natural, therefore, that the early Muslims would be influenced by the cultures of Syriac Monophysite Christianityand the developed intellectual and cultural life of the Babylonian Jews.[6]For example, Islam’s scale of the five religious qualifications—obligatory, recommended, indifferent, reprehensible, and forbidden—derive from stoic philosophy.[7]Also, in penal law, it is apparent that stoning to death as a punishment for unlawful sexual intercourse, which does not occur in the Qur’an, was introduced from Mosaic law.[8]The popular and administrative practice of the late Umayyad period was transformed into the religious law of Islam.[9]


Shi’ite Doctrinal Split from Sunnism 

The Shi’ite/Sunni divide finds its roots in the controversy over the succession to the Prophet. The Prophet died in 632. He left no male children and devised no criteria to choose a successor, nor did He establish an outline of the successor’s authority and duties. The Qur’andoes not address these issues, either. 


The succession controversy plunged the Muslim community into conflict and bloodshed immediately after the Prophet’s death. It split the Muslim polity over various questions. Must the Prophet’s successor belong to the family of the Prophet? Must he belong to the Prophet’s Meccan tribe of Quraish? Must he be an Arab? Is his rule hereditary? Must he be obeyed regardless of his deeds? Can he be replaced? If yes, under what circumstances, and by whom? 


According to Shi’ite ulama,it is incontrovertible that the Prophet had “designated” his cousin, Ali bin Abi Talibas his immediate successor. For them, the successor to the Prophet can only be passed from one successor to the next from among the progeny of Ali and his wife Fatima, (the Prophet’s daughter) via their two sons, Hasan and Hussein, through a divinely inspired designation. Sunni ulama disagree.


Shi’ites cite many Prophetic traditions from Shi’ite as well as Sunni sources to prove that the Prophet had publicly and unambiguously designated Ali as his immediate successor. As an example, Ahmad bin Hanbal, the orthodox Sunni collector of some 30,000 Prophetic traditions and founder of the most extreme among the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence that survive today, related that while the Prophet was traveling back to Medinaafter his last pilgrimagein 632, he stopped at Ghadir Khum (near Mecca) and took Ali’s hand and said, “Of whomsoever I am Lord, then Ali is his Lord. O God! Be thou the supporter of whoever supports Ali and the enemy of whoever opposes him.”[10]To Shi’ites, this plus other evidence, prove without any doubt that Ali was to be the Prophet’s chief assistant and immediate successor. To Sunnis, however, the evidence is insufficient to conclude that the Prophet had designated Ali as his immediate successor.[11]  


Ali’s son Hasan, first grandson of the Prophet, had renounced his claim in 661 in favor of his father’s archenemy, Mu’awiyah, the fifth caliph (661-680) and founder of the Umayyad dynasty (661-750) in Damascus, Syria, in return for a generous subsidy for life. Ali’s other son Hussein, the second grandson of the Prophet, was killed in 680 in Karbala, Iraq, while attempting to claim the leadership of the Muslim world from Mu’awiyah’s successor, his son Yazid. The tenth of the Muslim month of Muharram (called Ashura) commemorates the martyrdom of Hussein. Annually, Shi’ites exhibit astonishing displays of emotion, passion, self-flagellation, and sorrow, especially in Karbala, where Imam Hussein is buried. 


Authority of the Imams

Twelver Shi’ites, the majority of Shi’ite Muslims today, aside from the Prophet’s authority, accept only the authority of the twelve infallible imams. These are all descendants of Ali and Fatima. The imams have become legendary. Shi’ite writers of every generation sought to prove their unique qualities. For example, Moojan Momen writes that the birth of the imams, “were miraculous, the baby imam being born already circumcised and with his umbilical cord already severed; that they spoke immediately on birth (and sometimes from within their mother’s womb) praising God ... that each performed miracles and was possessed of supernatural knowledge.”[12]


Twelver Shi’ites, believe that the Twelfth Imam, Muhammad al-Muntazar (the awaited one), the ninth descendent in Imam Hussein’s progeny, disappeared as a child around 874, and that he is in a state of occultation (absence, disappearance), a Hidden Imam, until his return to the Earth somedayto restore justice and bring prosperity. 


Sunni Muslims reject such notions categorically. To them, the Prophet Muhammad is God’s last and final Prophet: 


Qur’an 33:40:Muhammad is ... the Messenger of God, and the seal (last, final) of the Prophets.


The words seal,lastfinal, are translations of the Arabic word khatamin Verse 33:40. The Arabic word, Khatammeans also signet ring, band


No aspect of the history of Shi’ite Islam is as confused as the stories relating to the Twelfth Imam.Momen cites the following version of the story of the Twelfth Imam, his occultation, and return, as the one that is usually presented in books published for popular reading: 


The mother of the Twelfth Imam was a Byzantine slave-girl named Narjis Khatun (or Saqil or Sawsan or Rayhana). In the more fully elaborated versions of the story, she becomes the Byzantine emperor’s daughter who was informed in a vision that she would be the mother of the Mahdi. She was bought by the Tenth Imam, Ali al-Hadi, for his son the Eleventh Imam, Hasan al-Askari. The Twelfth Imam was born in 868 (some sources vary by as much as five years from this date) in Samarra. He was given the same name as the Prophet, Abul-Qasem Muhammad. The usual miraculous accounts of his talking from the womb, etc. may be passed over to the only occasion on which he is said to have made a public appearance. This was in 874 when the Eleventh Imam died. It appears that none of the Shi’ite notables knew of thebirth of Muhammad and so they went to the Eleventh Imam’s brother, Ja’far, assuming that he was now the Imam. Ja’far seemed prepared to take on this mantle and entered the house of the deceased Imam in order to lead the funeral prayers. At this juncture, a young boy came forward and said, ‘Uncle, stand back! For it is more fitting for me to lead the prayers for my father than for you.’ After the funeral, Ja’far was asked about the boy and said that he did not know who the boy was... The boy was seen no more, and Shi’ite tradition states that from that year, he went into occultation.[13]


While the Twelfth Imam is hidden, the Shi’ite ulama act as his representatives, or deputies, uncovering for the masses what the Hidden Imam would have ruled on all matters. To perform their duties, the Shi’ite clerics interpret the Qur’anand their version of the Hadithcollections according to their personal reasoning, though in the name of the Hidden Imam. 


Twelver Shi’ite ulamarely on their Intellectual Reasoning(Aql, meaning “brain” in Arabic) in making those judgments. To the Shi’ite ulama, Intellectual Reasoning is what the consensus of the Sunni ulama (Ijma’) plus analogical deduction (Qiyas)are to the Sunni ulama.  


The concept of the occultation is strikingly similar to the biblical messianic concept of the return of Christ to Earth. It is curious that in the more elaborate story, the mother of the Hidden Imam saw a vision informing her that she would be the mother of the Mahdi, a story similar to that of the mother of Jesus, Mary, who was informed by the Angel Gabriel that she would be the mother of Jesus.[14]


Syria’s Alawites believe in a divine triad, akin to Christianity’s holy trinity, composed ofthe ProphetMuhammad as Ali’s visible veil and the Prophet’s companion, Salman al-Farisi, as Ali’s proselytizer (see Chapter Nine:The Alawites).[15]


The Development of Shi’ite Law-Making

By inventing the concept of the all-encompassing, all-knowing, all-powerful Hidden Imam, and by appointing themselves as the Hidden Imam’s representatives on the Earth, the Shi’ite ulama went beyond the demand of blind obedience to Muslim authority in Verse 4:59, which their Sunni co-religionists invoke. By expropriating the infallible Hidden Imam’s unlimited powers, the Shi’ite clerics rendered their pronouncements infallible. In so doing, they rendered themselves the lawgivers.


The Shi’ite masses hold the senior Shi’ite clerics as exemplars. They are the reference for imitation, or marja’ taqlid. A grand ayatollah (the greatest sign of God) is a marja’ taqlid. Worldwide, a small number, perhaps around ten at any one time, are grand ayatollahs. The grand ayatollahs do not report to one another. They are equal. Should opposing opinions arise between two ayatollahs on interpreting what the Hidden Imam might have thought, the Hidden Imam must manifest himself and give a decision. If he does not, the truth must lie with both parties.[16]The distinguishing element among the ayatollahs is the size of their following, which determines the level of their income, educational institutions, and charitable work. 


Moreover, as the Hidden Imamis thought to be among the body of the Shi’ites incognito, and since the Hidden Imamis considered the most learned and all-truth-knowing, there is always the possibility that one of the Shi’ite ulama might indeed be the Hidden Imam.[17]Such a belief creates a unique aura of respectability and authority around Shi’ite clerics, especially those regarded as the marja’ for emulation. This aura is further enhanced by stories in popular culture of the Hidden Imammanifesting himself to prominent Shi’ite ulama. 


Shi’ites can follow the teaching of the marja’of their choice. Because a marja’ interprets Shi’ite law according to his personal reasoning and, because the teachings of a dead marja’ are invalid, then, Shi’ite law, unlike Sunni law, can, theoretically at least, evolve with life’s changing circumstances. In reality though, caution as well as self-interest has limited the initiatives that differ from traditional thought and precedents.


A survey by the Pew Research Center conducted between February 24, 2012 and May 3, 2012 as Iranians prepared to elect a new president on June 14, found that 83% of Iranians say they favor the use of sharia law,40% think religious figures should play a large role in politics, and an additional 26% of Iranians say religious figures should have some influence in political matters.[18]


Summary and Implications 

While Sunni Shari’ais composed of four sources: Qur’an, Sunna, Analogical Deduction,and Consensus of the Ulama, Shi’ite Shari’a is composed of three sources: Qur’an, Sunna (Shi’ite version), and Intellectual Reasoning. Serious religious and political implications flow this difference.  


A Shi’ite individual is free to follow and obey the grand ayatollah of his choice. Shi’ites have a clear, recognized, and assertive central Islamic authority, vested in the few grand ayatollahs that exist in the world at any one time. Ayatollahs pull their worldwide congregations together. They provide uniformity in religious opinions (fatwas).


On the other hand, issuance of Sunni fatwas is fragmented. It lacks centrality, coordination, or uniformity, even on the same subject. Today, under the banner of Consensus of the Ulama, Sunni fatwa issuance is vested in government appointed committees or councils of senior scholars in each Sunni country independently of one other. Council members do the political bidding of their benefactors. Aside from the official bodies, a huge number of Sunni fatwas have

 also been issued outside the councils by self appointed minor and unqualified clerics, leading to confusion, contradictions, and disagreements.    


Conflict Between Shi’ites and Sunnis Over the Hadith and Other Differences

On the Prophetic Hadith,Shi’ite scholars reject the Sunni Hadith collections. The Shi’ites emphasize the Prophet’s alleged naming of Ali as His immediate successor and stress the Prophet’s affection for Ali’s children. Twelver Shi’ites assembled four of their own canonical Hadithcollections by three authors: Abu Ja’far al-Kulayni(d. 939), Abu Ja’far Muhammad bin Babouya(d. 991), and Abu Ja’far al-Tusi(d. 1067), who wrote two collections. Additionally, three other authors during the 1600s produced highly regarded Shi’ite Hadith collections—bin Murtada (d. 1680), bin Hasan (d. 1692), and Majlisi (d. 1699). 


It should be noted that while the first three collectors lived approximately a century after the six Sunni canonical collectors, the three collections of the 1600s were produced five hundred years later, during the life of the anti-Sunni Safavid Dynasty (1501-1736). Shah Ismail (1487-1524) converted Persia’s Islam from Sunnism to Twelver Shi’ism. He made Shi’ism the state religion in order to introduce fervor into Persia’s long running confrontations with the Sunni Ottoman Sultans. Safavid politics, wars, and rivalries with Istanbul could have colored the anti-Sunni Hadith collections of bin Murtada, bin Hasan, and Majlisi.


There are two major differences between the Hadithcollections of the Shi’itesand the Sunnis. The first is that, while Hadith traditions to Sunnis record the sayings and actions of the Prophet, to Twelver Shi’ites, the Hadith records the sayings and actions of the Prophet as well as those of the twelve infallible imams. The second difference is that for a Prophetic tradition to be credible to Shi’ite Muslims,it must be transmitted through one of the imams. Shi’ite Muslims reject the first three caliphs, Abu Bakr (632-634), Omar (634-644), and Uthman (644-656) as usurpers of the caliphate from Ali (656-661). Shi’ites do not consider Abu Bakr, Omar, or Uthman, or the Prophet’s Companions who supported these caliphs, as reliable transmitters of traditions. Sunnis, on the other hand, revere the first three caliphs and their supporters, as well as Ali. These four caliphs are collectively described by Sunnis as the four rightly guided caliphs. 


In addition, Shi’ites venerate the imams’ tombs and other religious figures and family members, while Wahhabi Sunnis bury their dead in unmarked tombs (but not the Hanafites, Malikites, and Shafi’ites). Shi’ites respect historical monuments and works of art, while Wahhabis do not (for fear of falling into polytheism).Indeed, the Wahhabi Taliban dynamited theBuddhasof Bamiyan on March 2001and the Wahhabi so-called Islamic State destroyed parts of Syria’s Palmyra in 2016, as well as the Mosul museum and the Ninevah ruins in Iraq.[19]Like the Taliban and the so-called Islamic State, Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia destroyed 98% of the country’s historical and religious sites since 1985, according to estimates by the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation in London.[20]Shi’ites display pictures of the imams and the Prophet, while Sunnis do notShi’ites permit Mut’a marriage (the woman gets paid for her companionship for a specified period of time) while Sunnis do not. Wahhabis, permit Misyar marriage (the couple live apart, with the man visiting the woman at her home without obligation) while Shi’ites do not. 


Shi’ism may be described as a Persianized version of Arabian Islam. Shi’ism incorporates the ethnic and age-old cultural differences and rivalries between Arabs and Persians, and the memories of their wars over the long sweep of history.


Wilayat Al-Faqih, or Rulership of the Senior-Most Shi’ite Jurist

Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeiniasserted the right of the senior-most Shi’ite cleric, as the deputy of the Hidden Imam, to oversee all religious, social, and political affairs of the Shi’ite community.[21]Khomeini’s conception means that the senior-most Shi’ite cleric has the same authority and can perform the same functions as the Hidden Imam, without being equal to the Hidden Imam in status.[22]


The new concept is revolutionary, and an inflection point in the history of Middle Eastern politics. It heightened the Shi’ite/Sunni divide, pitting Shi’ite ayatollahs against Saudi ulama. Fears that Ayatollah Khomeini would embark upon a crusade to destabilize Iraq and Saudi Arabia and the rest of GCC states following the 1979 revolution in Iran fueled the twentieth century’s longest war between Iraq and Iran (September 22, 1980–August 20, 1988). Since that time, proxy wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia have destroyed much of Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, and magnified the discontent among the Shi’ite communities in Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia.  


Wilayat al-faqih yields absolute theocratic dictatorship. Control by the Shi’ite religious establishment over the political and spiritual lives of Iranians is vested in two religious institutions enshrined in Iran’s constitution. The first is the Office of the Supreme Faqih.The second is the Council of Guardians.The Supreme Faqih possesses power over the majlis (parliament), the judiciary, and the executive branch. He appoints members of the Council of Guardians, which approves candidates for parliament and the presidency. It has veto power to reject parliamentary laws that do not conform to Shi’ite religious principles.[23]If Khomeini had not superimposed an unelected body, the Council of Guardians, on top of the elected Iranian parliament, then the parliament would have enacted laws without reference to the Iranian ulama altogether. If Khomeini had not superimposed the Council of Guardians on top of the majlis, the Iranian majlis would have become similar to a Western style parliament.


Controversy Over the Concept of Wilayat Al-Faqih

The issue of a supreme worldwide Iranian faqih is controversial. Not all Shi’ite clerics subscribe to Khomeini’s construction. His opponents regard the new theocracy as illegitimate, both ideologically and theologically. 


There have been clerics who preferred not to interfere in politics. This group included many high-ranking Shi’ite ulama, particularly Ayatollah Burujirdiand his successors, Ayatollahs Shari’atmadari (stripped of his rank as grand ayatollahafter the discovery of his involvement in a 1982 plot against Grand Ayatollah Khomeini), Gulpaygani, and Mar’ashi-Najafi.[24]Ayatollah Mohammed Kazemeini Burujirdi, an advocate of the separation of religion from politics, was arrested in October 2006 in Tehran amid clashes between his supporters and police.[25]He and seventeen of his followers were tried by a special court with jurisdiction over Shi’ite clerics and sentenced to death on charges, including “enmity against God”. After an appeal, the death sentence was reduced to eleven years in prison. He was banned from practicing his clerical duties. His home and belongings were confiscated. He has suffered physical and mental abuse while in prison.[26]


The Unsustainability of Wilayat Al-Faqih Concept

Currently, there is only one supreme faqih in the world; namely, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Iran, who is the first successor to the founder of wilayat al-faqih construction, the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The wilayat al-faqih raises serious questions regarding the scope and long-term viability of the concept. At the heart of the controversy is a dispute over authority. Is the religious and political authority of the supreme faqih in Iran intended to extend beyond Iran? If yes, is the supreme faqih’s religious authority over world Shi’ites envisioned to be akin to that of the Pope’s authority over world Catholics? Must the ayatollahs outside Iran subordinate their authority to Iran’s supreme faqih? 


Hezbollah is the only body of Shi’ites outside Iran that pledges allegiance to the Iranian faqih. Hezbollah was established by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in 1982. It has been funded and armed ever since that time by the Iranian government, ostensibly to confront Israel, but in reality, to enhance Iran’s regional reach. Hezbollah’s deputy secretary general Sheikh Naim Qassem was quoted as saying in August 2011, “wilayat al-faqih is the reason for Hezbollah’s establishment.”[27]


Typically, ayatollahs have followings among Shi’ites in different countries. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, for example, the senior-most ayatollah at the Najaf Hawza (center of Shi’ite learning and issuance of binding religious opinions) in the holy city of Najaf in Iraq is the spiritual guide (in 2006) to “around 80% of world’s Shi’ites”, according to a Rand Corporation study.[28]Does the Supreme Faqih in Iran envisage Sistani handing him all or a part of the estimated $700 million[29]he receives annually from his followers in the form of the khums tax (fifth, or 20%) of their saving? The answer is no.


Can the Shi’ite world have more than one supreme faqih? If the answer is no, in what country should the one faqih be located? Should it be in Iran by virtue of Iran’s size and power? In such a case, would he consider that he has the religious right to claim political authority over the Shi’ite majority of Bahrain, which is ruled by the Sunni minority of the al-Khalifa clan? What about the Shi’ite minorities in Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, or in non-Muslim countries like India? Or, should the one and only supreme faqih be located in Iraq by virtue of Iraq’s religious significance as the sanctuary for seven Shi’ite imams—especially, in the holy city of Najaf (the site of Ali’s burial shrine), or the holy city of Karbala (the site of Ali’s son Hussein’s burial shrine)? 


Many Islamic sects and doctrines came into existence and disappeared. Today, around 85% of the estimated 1.5 billion Muslims in the world are Sunnis. Shi’ite Muslimsnumber around 250 million, living mainly in Iran (majority of around 70 million), Pakistan (minority of around 25 million), Iraq(majority of around 20 million) and Azerbaijan (majority of around 8 million). There are Shi’ites in Yemen (minority of Zaidis of around 10 million), Saudi Arabia (minority of Shi’ites and Isma’ilis of around 4 million), the rest of the Arabian Peninsula (around 1.5 million), Syria (minority of Alawites and Isma’ilis of around 3 million), and Lebanon (minority of around 2 million). In addition, there are minorities of Shi’ites in Afghanistan, India, Russia, and Turkey.


Shi’ite Rebellions 
Many rebellions, though certainly not all in early Islam, find their roots in the controversy over the succession to the Prophet. The Shi’ite partisans of Ali and his direct descendants proved to be prolific producers of heterodoxies. Momen lists 51 sects that arose during the first two and a half centuries after the death of the Prophet.[30]The majority of these sects disappeared. Many of the doctrines and concepts behind these groups, however, were incorporated into the development of Twelver Shi’ism in the Tenth Century. What follows is a description of two surviving Shi’ite sects. A third, the Alawites of Syria, will be discussed in Chapter Nine.


Zayd died in 740 in a rebellion against the Umayyad caliphate in Damascus. Zaydis are the partisans of Zayd, grandson of the third imam, Hussein bin Ali, which makesZayd the fifth imam since Ali. Thus, the Zaydis’ alternative name is the Fivers. They are found today in Yemen. The Houthi rebels fighting Saudi Arabia today are Zaidis. They represent around 40% of Yemen’s 27 million people. Zaydis are concentrated in the rugged Northern Yemeni Mountains bordering Saudi Arabia. 


Zaydis advocate that any member of the Prophet’s family claiming to be imam must assert the title publicly and back up his claim with force.[31]Unlike other Shi’ites, Zaydis do not accept that the imamate must be “designated,” and they reject that the imamate should follow any strict hereditary principle, except that the imam must be a descendant of Hasan or Hussein. Additionally, in variance with other Shi’ites, Zaydis accept Islam’s first three caliphs as legitimate, reject the messianic concept behind the belief in occultation and with it the infallibility of the Hidden Imam.[32]As such, Zaidism is the closest Shi’ite doctrine to Sunnism.


The Isma’ilis, or Seveners, believe in the doctrine of the Hidden seventh imam, Ismail (d. 760), the third grandson of the third Shi’ite imam, Hussein. Isma’ilis were once the most significant among Shi’ite sects. They dominated the Islamic stage between the 900s and the 1200s. They believe in the allegorical, esoteric meaning of the Qur’an. As in the Pythagorean system, the number seven held sacred importance. The Seveners serialized cosmic and historical happenings by the number seven.[33]


The Isma’ilis succeeded in establishing areas of influence and ruling dynasties that survived many decades, sometimes a few centuries, in defiance of the central Abbasid authority in Baghdad. While Sunnis today represent some 85% of Muslims, with the remaining 15% being Shi’ite, the opposite was true around the twelfth century. Around a thousand years ago, most Muslims were under the control of one Shi’ite sect or another: the Qarmatians, the Fatimids, the Hamdanids, the Assassins, and the Buyids. Today, numbering around 15 million worldwide, Ismai’ilis are found in Syria and Saudi Arabia, as well as in Central and South Asia, Africa, Europe, North America, and Australia.


Conflicts That Loom Large Behind the Sunni/Shi’ite Divide

According to the August 2012 Pew Research Center survey, 53% of Egyptians, 50% of Moroccans, and 43% of Jordanians consider the Shi’ites to be non-Muslims.[34]The reason is due in part to historical events that are still remembered today. Two cataclysmic events occurred in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries during which the Shi’ites sided against their Sunni coreligionists.


The first event was the Mongols’ obliteration of Baghdadand the Abbasid caliphate in 1258. Sunni historians have accused Shi’ites of being responsible for the fall of Baghdad and the murder of the caliph.[35]As evidence, they argue, that while Baghdad was destroyed, Hilla, the Shi’ite center, was spared.[36]


The second event was Shi’ite complicity with the Christian Crusadersagainst the Sunnis in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. During this period, Shi’ites, especially the Isma’ilisand the Nusayris(Alawites) often fought on the side of the Crusaders against the Sunni forces.[37]


Opening the Gates of Hell in Shi’ite/Sunni Wars
During their first failed rebellion against Istanbul, the al-Saud/Abdulwahhab hatred of Shi’ites reached the unprecedented level of invading Karbala and destroying the holiest of Shi’ites’ holies, the venerated tomb of the Imam Hussein in 1801. With the formation of the Saudi state in 1932, hatred-of-the-other teaching in schools, mosques, and the media became a part of the cultural fabric of Saudi society. Wahhabism radicalized Islam and polarized Muslims. In 1979, the Khomeini revolution exacerbated the Shi’ite/Sunni divide. The long brutal Iran/ Iraq war (September 1980-August 1988) intensified the hatred between Shi’ites and Sunnis.  


Then, came the American occupation of Iraq. It flung open the gates of sectarian hell in the Muslim Middle East like never before. The G.W. Bush project in Iraq and Obama’s inaction in Syria empowered Iran further. They ignited nasty proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran that have already destroyed most of Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, thus far. It also heightened hostility between the Shi’ites and Sunnis in Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia.


An Attempt to Unite Shi’ism and Sunnism
In a Pan-Islamism step, on July 6, 1959, during the presidency of Gamal Abdulnaser,[38]Sheikh Mahmoud Shaltout, the Rector of al-Azhar University in Cairo, issued a religious opinion (fatwa) recognizing Twelver Shi’ism as a “legitimate Islamic school of law.” The text of the fatwa reads:


Islam does not require a Muslim to follow a particular Madh’hab (school of thought). Rather, we say, every Muslim has the right to follow one of the schools of thought which has been correctly narrated and its verdicts have been compiled in its books. And, everyone who is following such Madhahib [schools of thought] can transfer to another school, and there shall be no crime on him for doing so.


The Ja’fari school of thought, which is also known as “al-Shia al-Imamiyyah al-Ithna Ashariyyah” (i.e., The Twelver Imami Shi’ites) is a school of thought that is religiously correct to follow in worship as are other Sunni schools of thought.


Muslims must know this, and ought to refrain from unjust prejudice to any particular school of thought, since the religion of Allah and His Divine Law (Shari’ah) was never restricted to a particular school of thought. 

Shaykh al-Azhar, 1959[39]

Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, father of Iraqi leader Muqtada al-Sadr, preached national unity in Iraq to bridge the Shi’ite/Sunni divide.[40]He called on his followers to pray in Sunni mosques, a call that brought throngs of his followers to do so (see Chapter Seven: Apprehensionover Iran - Muqtada Al-Sadr).[41]


On the level of the Shi’ite/Sunni individual, it should be noted that Shi’ites and Sunnis in the once tolerant Iraq were members of a harmonious community. Marriages among Shi’ites and Sunnis in Iraq were common until the 2003 American occupation, which empowered Iraq’s Shi’ites, and turned Shi’ites and Sunnis of the same family against one another.



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[1] Joseph SchachtAn Introduction to Islamic Law (Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 1982), P. 21.

[2]Ibid. P. 20.

[3] Philip Hitti, History of the Arabs, 10thedition (MacMillan Press Ltd., London, 1970),PP. 399-400.

[4] Ibid. P.398.

[5] Philip Hitti, Syria: A Short History(MacMillan & Co. Ltd., London, 1959), P.  113.

[6] Hugh Kennedy.The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates: The Islamic Near East from the Sixth to the Eleventh Century,(Longman, London and New York: 1996),P. 119. 

[7] SchachtAn Introduction to Islamic Law.  

[8] Ibid. P. 15.

[9] Ibid. P. 27.

[10] Moojan MomenAn Introduction to Shi’i Islam, (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1985), P. 199.

[11] Sunnis and the Shi’ites disagree on many issues, including the number of children the Prophet had.Shi’ites believe that Fatima was the Prophet’s only biological daughter. Sunnis believe that the Prophet fathered three other daughters in addition to Fatima—Umm Kulthum, Ruqayah, and Zainab. Sunnis believe that these three girls were the biological daughters of the Prophet and his first wife Khadija. Shi’ite scholars, however, dispute the claim. They argue that Fatima was the Prophet’s only biological daughter. They contend that Khadija was too old to have given birth to so many children after her marriage to the Prophet, supposedly at the age of forty. Shi’ite scholars argue that the girls were more likely the daughters of Khadija’s second husband, or even the daughters of Khadija’s deceased sister, Hala, whom Khadija brought up after Hala’s death, possibly before Khadija married the Prophet. 

[12] MomenAn Introduction to Shi’i Islam, P. 23.

[13] Ibid.PP. 161-162.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Martin Kramer;Editor,Shi’ism, Resistance, and Revolution,(Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, 1987), PP. 237-254.

[16] MomenAn Introduction to Shi’i Islam,  P. 186.

[17] Ibid. P. 199.

[18] Pew Research Center, “Iranians’ Views Mixed”. 

[19] Andrew Curry, “Here Are the Ancient Sites ISIS Has Damaged and Destroyed,” National Geographic,(September 1, 2015).


[20] Carla Power, “Saudi Arabia Bulldozes Over Its Heritage,” Time magazine,(November 14, 2014).


[21] MomenAn Introduction to Shi’i Islam, P. 196.

[22] Ibid.

[23] US Library of Congress, “Iran Country Report”.


[24] MomenAn Introduction to Shi’i Islam,P. 19.

[25] Sadeq Saba, “Iran Arrests Controversial Cleric,” BBC,(October 8, 2006). 


[26] Tom Lantos, “Ayatollah Mohammad Kazemeini Boroujerdi,” United States Congress Human Rights Commission. 


[27] Hezbollah MP credits Wilayat al Fakih for saving Lebanon,” YALIBNAN,(November 2, 2014).


[28] Alireza Nader, “Iran’s Role in Iraq,” Rand Corporation, (2015), P. 4.


[29] Ibid.

[30] MomenAn Introduction to Shi’i Islam, PP. 45-60.

[31] W. Montgomery Watt, Islamic Political Thought, (Edinburgh University Press,Edinburgh, 1999), P. 114.

[32] MomenAn Introduction to Shi’i Islam, PP.49-50.

[33] Hitti, History of the Arabs,P. 442.

[34] Pew Research Center, “The World’s Muslims.”

[35] Momen,An Introduction to Shi’i Islam,P. 92.

[36] Ibid. PP. 91-92.

[37] Ibid.P. 93.

[38] The fatwa might have been requested by Nasser.

[39] The fatwa was promulgated at the theological center at al-Azhar, Dar Taqreeb al-Madhaahib al-Islamiyyah (center for bringing closer together the various Islamic schools of thought).


[40] “Iraq’s Muqtada Al-Sadr: Spoiler or Stabilizer? Middle East Report N°55,” International Crisis Group,(July 11, 2006).