Where Sunni and Shia Divide | The American Word

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Where Sunni and Shia Divide

Ammarah Rehman | 10/28/16 3:28pm
| Updated 10/28/16 3:28pm

Screenshot from “Who is Hussain?” YouTube video

On Monday, October 17, American University’s Islam Awareness Coalition hosted “Muharram,” an open dialogue about the Sunni-Shia divide with Alvena Jeffery, an advocate for the Shia perspective. Muharram is the first month in the Islamic calendar, during which both Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims employ different practices. Sunni Muslims believe that Prophet Mohammed asked Muslims to fast on the 10th day of Muharram, called the Ashura. Shia Muslims observe Muharram as a month to respect the death Imam Hussain ibn Ali, grandson of Prophet Mohammed.

Jeffery began the dialogue by showing the video “Who is Hussain?.” The video is about Imam Hussain, a man who sacrificed his life for humanity during the Battle of Karbala in 680 against the Umayyad dynasty. Imam Hussain and his companions were killed for rejecting the Umayyad rule. “During Matam, we weep Hussain not because he was Shia but because he was a human,” Jeffery said. Matam refers to the act of mourning and chest beating for the martyrs during the Battle of Karbala.

The historic Sunni-Shia divide originated when the followers of Islam could not decide who was meant to lead the community following the death of Prophet Mohammad. One side believed this role should be given to the most qualified individuals, while the other side thought the succeeding rulers should come from Mohammad’s bloodline. Some Muslims, now representative of the Shia part of the divide, believe that Ali ibn Abi, is part of the divine order and should rule because he is Mohammad’s cousin and son-in-law. The other sect of Muslims at the time, now Sunnis, are opposed to secession based on Mohammad’s bloodline. The dispute intensified greatly after Imam Hussain and his household were killed by the ruling Umayyad Caliph Yazid I. Shia Muslims have a long history of marginalization by Sunni Muslims and victimhood over the killing of Imam Hussain.

Today, differences are seen through religious practice, traditions, and customs. Although all Muslim groups consider the Quran to be divine, Sunni and Shia have different opinions on hadith, an account of Prophet Muhammad’s sayings that Muslims use for guidance. Many countries and societies view the Sunni-Shia divide differently, as well.

Bakhtawar Mirjat, president of the American University Islam Awareness Coalition, mentioned that in her hometown of Chicago, Sunni and Shia Muslims have different mosques. While people do not pray together, Sunni and Shia still coexist. However, one student pointed out that the mosques in Boston allow both Sunni and Shia Muslims to pray together. This was shocking to a lot of Shia Muslims in the room because they have often prayed in Shia-only mosques. It was eye opening that Sunni and Shia do not just have to tolerate each other but could pray, eat and celebrate in the same community.

So how can a divide dating back to the 630s be resolved? During the open dialogue students concluded that changing strongly held perspectives is not something that can occur overnight. Having open spaces for discussion and debate is a way to bring about change and hear different voices on the topic. Allowing both sects of Islam to pray together and have the same mosque is a step in the right direction. Imams can also advocate for acceptance and for Muslims to pray together. The true value of Islam is the practice of non-discriminating against anyone, regardless of their views.