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Sunni-Shi’ite relations vital for regional stability

we are brothers

Islam, unlike Christianity and other religions, is not splintered into sects that are at loggerheads with each other on even the fundamentals of their creed. All Muslims, whatever their school of jurisprudence, believe in the Oneness of God, the mission of Prophet Mohammad (SAWA) as the Last and Greatest of Divine Messengers, and the one single Qur’an, as opposed to the various versions of the Gospels amongst the Christians.
Moreover, all Muslims turn to the holy Ka’ba every day as the focal point of the five daily prayers, fast in the same month of Ramadhan, and perform the Hajj pilgrimage in the same days of the month of Zilhijja. Thus, whatever the differences amongst the Muslims, these are not fundamental but only superficial, which warrant further closing of ranks in order to be immune from the devilish plots of the enemies of Islam, who these days are trying to sow the seeds of discord amongst Muslims by using certain so-called Muslims who resort to violence, terrorism and hatred. This warrants both the Sunnis and Shi’ite Muslims to be cautious against the plots of Global Arrogance and their local agents. Today, we present you excerpts, interspersed with our own comments and editing (where necessary), from a thought-provoking feature written by Mustafa Ceric, Grand Mufti Emeritus of Bosnia-Herzegovina, who is a visiting professor at WISE University in Amman, Jordan. The article titled “Sunni-Shi’ite Relations are Vital for Regional Stability”, appeared in Lebanon’s English newspaper, The Daily Star.
Today, it’s undeniable that the West Asian-North African region is seeing a period of rising sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shi’ite Muslims, especially in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. The concerned authorities have warned of “the danger of manipulating religion for political purposes and sowing the seeds of hateful ethnic and intra-religious sectarian division.” Historically, the region has not suffered from the gross religious and widespread denominational intolerance seen in Europe between Catholics and Protestants, especially in the 1500s and 1600s. In Europe, the way out was the peace treaties that comprised the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, referred to by contemporaries as the “Peace of Exhaustion.” Perhaps the West Asia-North Africa region need not exhaust itself with war to realize that good Sunni-Shi’ite relations are the key to regional and global stability. Lessons of Westphalia could be applied today. Europe fought a decades long war to realize that the way forward is religious and political tolerance based on mutual respect for the shared right for different nations and religions to exist without interference. Maybe not with love, but Europe has finally learned how to respect unity in diversity of both religious beliefs and political opinions, beginning with Westphalia.
The West Asia-North Africa region, in fact, possesses historical precedent for mutual respect between Sunnis and Shi’ite Muslims, as well as adherents to other schools of religious thought. The fact that today’s main center of Sunni learning, al-Azhar University in Cairo, was founded – over a thousand years ago – in 970 by the ruler of the Shi’ite Muslim Fatemid dynasty tells us more than anything else that Sunni-Shi’ite cohabitation has been a matter of historical routine and a common way of Muslim life. Thus, it should not be a surprise that a prominent Sunni authority of al-Azhar, the late Sheikh Mahmoud Shaltut, issued a fatwa in 1958 declaring the Shi’ite Ja’fari School of Jurisprudence legitimate under Islam. That similarly helped in establishing the Council for the Rapprochement of Islamic Theological Schools at the time. Furthermore, a good personal and scholarly relationship between Shaltut and Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Qomi of Iran during the 1960s still serves as an exemplary point of meeting between the two schools of Islam. On the occasion of the launch of their initiative in Cairo to bring Sunnis and Shi’ite Muslims together, Shaltut said, “Here we are the Egyptians, Iranians, Lebanese, Iraqis, Pakistanis and others from the Muslim world; and here we are the Sunnis of Hanafi, Maliki, Shafei and Hanbali schools together with the Shi’ites of Imami and Zaydi schools sitting at one table where you hear echoes of sound knowledge of literal, spiritual and legal wit in the spirit of brotherhood.”
In response to Sheikh Shaltut’s wise statement, Ayatollah Qomi reciprocated by acknowledging that “Sunni and Shiite scholars are sitting at one table … in search of a recovery from a disease of sectarian division on the ground of the guidance of Islam and its principles, and thus by their knowledge they made this epoch one of many glorious Islamic epochs.”
A famous hadith of the Prophet Mohammad says, “God will send for the Muslim community, on the eve of each century, someone who will renew its genuine faith.” When we read this, we cannot but think that it’s time that the Muslim world, especially the West Asian-North African region, realize it needs to deeply reconsider its religious, moral and political thinking. What we need today are efforts such as Shaltut and Qomi’s for better communication between Sunnis and Shi’ite Muslims. We need efforts that go beyond the dirty game of struggling for political power, which inflames sectarian division. Indeed, we ought to commend the rekindling of this spirit through the formation of the World Assembly for Proximity among Islamic Schools in 1988 in Tehran. It is hoped that the others will follow suit. The assembly’s current secretary-general, Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Taskhiri, proudly says that this World Assembly was established with the blessings of the Leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, to be a continuation of Shaltut and Ghomi’s efforts in Cairo.
In view of these facts, it would be an unforgivable historical mistake if the current events in West Asia-North Africa led the region to “muluk at-tawaif”, or a breakdown into different states along sectarian lines, just as it did under the Omayyads in Spain with tragic and traumatic historical consequences for the whole Muslim Ummah. Hence, we hope that the spirit of Sunni-Shiite relations of Sheikh Shaltut and Ayatollah Qomi will be renewed in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and all over the Muslim world. And we hope that we will soon witness a Muslim peace that will last for centuries to come.

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