Sunni-Shiite conflict: fact or fuss? by Ramazan Gözen*

Shiite Muslims supplicate at the Al-Mahdi Foundation in New York (Photo: AP)

February 12, 2012, Sunday/ 18:54:00

One of the topics mooted about the Middle East in recent months is the Sunni-Shiite conflict.

The Western world or certain circles viewing the developments from a Western perspective perceive the confrontations in Iraq and other Islamic countries as a Sunni-Shiite conflict. It is necessary to carefully analyze the veracity of this issue, sometimes referred to as a sectarian problem, and, if it is real, its cause and whether it may turn into a war. Assessing incorrectly such a delicate issue has the potential of creating catastrophes, such as taking the concerned communities to war.

We have been reading reports of Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, Pakistan, Lebanon and Yemen attacking one another. Although we should take all that information with a pinch of salt, as we cannot ascertain its veracity, we are not in a position to say that they are all fabricated. That there is even today a Sunni-Shiite split harking back to old times is something we all know.

Sunni and Shiite Islam is a historical fact and there are unfortunately historical, social and political grounds instigating the sides to be embroiled in conflicts such as we have been hearing and reading about. I say “unfortunately” because the split is not in keeping with the teachings and tenets of Islam and its Prophet Muhammad.

That split was a historical development that took place around 30 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad over a disagreement as to who should be the caliph. Following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Abu Bakr, Omar, Uthman and Ali served as the caliphs of the Muslim community. However, during the caliphate of Uthman and in the period following his murder, disagreement between the Umayyad tribe led by Muawiyah, who were Uthman's relatives, and Ali, who was Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, deepened to the extent that opposition grew immensely to the caliphate of Uthman.

The real justification for objections to Ali's caliphate was that Uthman's killers had not as yet been apprehended. The rivalry between Muawiyah in the capital Damascus and Caliph Ali, who was in Basra within the borders of today's Iraq, culminated in two wars. One of them was a small scale conflict known as the Battle of the Camel in 656 between the supporters of Muhammad's wife Aisha and those of her son-in-law Ali. Aisha wanted the perpetrators of Uthman's killers to be brought to justice and asked Ali to do so. The second war was the Battle of Siffin in May-July 657 between Caliph Ali and Muawiyah, in which some 60,000 to 70,000 people were killed.

More tragic events following the wars

Two more tragic events followed those wars. The first was the assassination of Caliph Ali by a radical group calling itself the Kharajites, and the second was the martyrdom of Ali's son Husain ibn Ali in Karbala by Yazid, the son of Muawiyah. Those two incidents further deepened the chasm between Muslims. The 10th day of Muharram in the Islamic calendar is the Day of Ashura, the Remembrance Day of Muharram and a day of mourning for the martyrdom of Husain. It is still observed today.

All these developments we have tried to explain summarily have led to the split creating Sunni Islam and Shiite Islam. Those standing by Ali and regarding him and his descendants the legitimate successors of the Prophet Muhammad are called Shiites and those regarding the first four caliphs as the rightful successors of the Prophet are Sunnis. What we see at the core of this split is the approach to how the caliph can be appointed. Is the caliph somebody from Ahl al-Bayt, meaning the Prophet Muhammad's family and descendants, or can anyone from among the Muslims be the caliph? The struggle for power is what underlies the split in the Islamic divide. What needs to be underlined here is that all Muslims, including Sunnis, are opposed to the assassination of Ali, Hasan and Husain. No Muslim approves of those killings.

That is why even Sunnis today name their sons Hasan and Husain, and in certain countries, such as Turkey, make Ashura (Noah's Pudding) on Muharram 10 and give it to friends and neighbors.

Despite this split, which is both historical and theological, neither Sunnis nor Shiites want the tragic incidents of the past repeated today. As Islam demands the fraternity of believers, a sectarian conflict of that kind cannot be endorsed. There is no difference between Sunnis and Shiites anyhow regarding the basic tenets of Islam, such as the unity of God, Muhammad being His prophet and the Quran being the book of Islam revealed by God. Even if there are some extreme segments expressing opposing views, they do not receive recognition by Muslim scholars, known as the ulema, and are considered heretical.

Having said all that does not mean we can ignore over 1,300 years of Sunni-Shiite difference. We also know the rivalry between the Ottomans and the Safavids, but what we want to underline here is that all these are not religious or faith-related issues but political and ideological disagreements.

We also believe in the unfounded nature of the allegation of a Sunni-Shiite rivalry between Turkey and Iran. Today's Turkey is not Ottoman nor is Iran a descendant of the Safavid Empire. Plus, the two have not gone to war since the 17th century. Given the picture from the last couple of years alone, we can say that Turkey and Iran have been in close dialogue and enjoy good relations, with their leaders having sympathy for one another on a humanitarian line.

A visit to the tomb of Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi in Konya as early as last month by the speaker of the Iranian Majlis (parliament) accompanied by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu shows that there is no friction between the two over this issue. All these contacts indicate and have somewhat declared to the world that the leaders of the two countries are not in a power struggle.

There are undoubtedly certain problems and a rivalry between Turkey and Iran, but aren't Turkey and Iran rivals with other countries, too? Does that lead us to think that the Turkey-France discord we are seeing today or the US-Iran dispute can be explained in terms of sectarian problems? Of course not. These problems are inherent in the nature of international conflicts. We are of the conviction that ongoing confrontations in Iraq and other Muslim countries are ostensibly because of Sunni-Shiite conflicts, though the real underlying causes are ideological and political.

*Professor Ramazan Gözen is an instructor at Abant İzzet Baysal University.

Op-Ed
Other Titles