Friday, September 30, 2016

Sunni Versus Shia Within Islam

We have all heard of the traditional Sunni/Shia difficulties within Islam. This feud has been on-going for over a millennium. It’s been the cause of strife and war within the Mideast for centuries. It is into the midst of this internal Islamic strife that we plunged during the Iraq war under the Bush Administration. It became a mess. The Obama Administration continued to flounder, as well, because of this internal Islamic rift.
My wife and I were away to visit India and the United Arab Emirates – especially the cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. It was quite a contrast between India and her 3,500 years of history and the UAE, barely 50 years old. But I finally was able to make sense of the Sunni/Shia difficulties. Since the Mideast conflict(s) is such an important aspect of our current political and security concerns, I want to share my new understanding with you in this message.
As we toured Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates and the wealthiest of the UAE, our Guide kept referring to the tolerance the Sunni Islamists offered to all Abu Dhabi residents. All religious beliefs are welcome as long as they, including Islam, do not try to proselytize other residents. That can get you removed from the country. I began asking questions of our Guide about the Sunni branch of Islam as opposed to the Shia Branch. He gave me little snippets of answers here and there, as were appropriate to what is was we were currently touring.
Finally, on the last day we visited the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. I had heard of this fabulous mosque, but I really didn’t know what to expect.  When we saw the mosque, I was blown away, as was everyone else in our tour group. I told a companion traveler, “I really didn’t know what to expect, but I surely didn’t expect this!” He felt the same way.
As an aside: Google “Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi” and click on the Wikipedia entry. Check out the details of the Mosque in Wikipedia – especially the sections entitled Design, Dimensions and Statistics, as well as Key Architectural Features. The information presented is very much in line with what we heard from our tour Guide, who functions as an Imam (which simply means prayer leader) in his local mosque.
Most of the world’s Muslims are Sunni (85-90%) by recent estimates while the remaining 10-15% are Shia or Shi’ites. The Sunnis are throughout most of the Arab world, Southeast Asia (including Indonesia) and Africa. Saudi Arabia has the largest Sunni population. Pakistan has the second-largest Sunni population. The Shi’ites are primarily in Iraq and Iran. Pakistan also has the second-largest Shia populations in the world.
Although the Sunni/Shia animosity is a very, very complicated issue, our Guide tried to explain it as succinctly as possible. After the Prophet Mohammad died circa 650AD some of the Islamic community thought his successor should come from his family – it should be an inherited line of succession. This successor would be the Caliph of the Islamic community. Additionally, there should be a hierarchy of imams (or mosque leaders), culminating in the highest, most potent, position – that of Ayatollah. Those favoring this approach were the Shia, or Shi’ites. Shias also believe special spiritual qualities have been granted not only to Muhammad but also to the other Imams, especially the Ayatollah, who can understand and interpret the hidden inner meaning of the teachings of Islam.
Others believed that the successors to Mohammed should be determined by the method of choosing or electing leaders, as endorsed by the Quran, by the consensus of the Muslim community. These are the Sunni. The foundation of Islam for them is the inherent equality of all believers before God.  Hence tolerance. In Sunni mosques the men stand hip-to-hip and foot-to-foot with their neighbors – regardless of social position. This equality before God and a sense of Oneness with all present is very dominant and critical for the Sunni. Women are separated from men in the mosques – not because they’re inferior – but because they are there to pray and sexual distractions can affect both a man or a woman if they are in close proximity to each other.
ISIS/ISIL is not Islamic but simply a terrorist group fulminating the Sunni/Shia tensions and trying to manipulate the seething anger and resentment between the two groups for their own political interests. Most of the people ISIS/ISIL kills are Muslims. Although ISIS/ISIL inflicts much of their terror on Shia populations in Iraq, they also target any group in Syria that will encourage the continuity of the civil war there. Any unrest is seen as a good thing to ISIS/ISIL – something that can be exploited for their political benefit.
The understanding of the Sunni Islamic view as one of tolerance was also pointed out as we passed the Presidential Palace in Abu Dhabi, where there is a marvelous sculpture of the word “Tolerance.” Equality and tolerance also explain the care taken by the government to protect the indigenous Emirati population, which is only about 20% of the residents of the UAE. Education, health care, housing, and employment are all considered a right of native Emirati citizens. The remaining 80% of the population consists of immigrant workers and employees of outside companies. These, too, are afforded a great many benefits because the UAE demands their contracts contain a living wage, adequate housing, health care coverage and a paid month-long leave (with round trip airfare) so the workers can go home each year. Violations of that contract with an employee can result in the cancellation of the company’s ability to continue to do business in the UAE.
Tolerance and equality before God are the hallmarks of the Sunni. Top-down Islamic dictates from the Ayatollah is the hallmark of the Shia. They can (and do) detest each other and play for political gain by keeping their differences inflamed.
This explanation helped me. I hope it is helpful to you as well.

#3 Sep 2016

Copyright 2016

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