By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam
28 May 2020
Recently in London, a Muslim woman, Aya Hachem, was killed in a drive-by shooting. Some Muslims got together to raise funds for the family of the deceased but as soon as they found out that the woman in question was a Shia, they cancelled the fundraising. Muslims who were behind the fundraising tweeted that they were helping the woman without knowing that she was a Shia and that they now feared for their fate on the Day of Judgment. Imagine this: till the time they were not aware of the identity of this girl, they were helping her family as fellow Muslims. Once they became aware of her identity, they even forgot their humanity. What is it about Shias that make Sunnis so full of hate that they will not hesitate to condemn a person even after her death? While it is true that most terror incidents end up killing Muslims, we should not forget that they are at the same time sectarian killings within Muslims. The recent killing of Hazaras in Afghanistan and many such similar attacks in Pakistan and Iraq on the Shias are testaments to the regime of hate that we have internalized within the Muslim community.
A particular image of the Shia has been constructed through various means amongst the Sunnis. An earlier generation cautioned their children not to eat or drink in Shia homes. Reasons were many but the most ridiculous was that they spit in your food and drink before serving you. Sunni children were also told to avoid going near the Karbala during the month of Muharram. The reason given to them was that during this month, Shias kidnap and kill one Sunni child and that this practice was essential to their religion. The initial image of the ‘brutal Shia’ thus gets constructed within the Sunni household. This misrepresentation of the Shia is so widespread that it nearly borders as being the common sense of Sunnis. A very well-meaning gentleman once told me in Srinagar to be on guard against the Shias. This extremely mild manner man cautioned me to be on guard against the Shias since they were like termites, making the Muslim community hollow from inside. Every time I hear the words Tthook jihad’ or ‘termite’ from within the right-wing Hindu eco-system, I am painfully reminded that such hateful discourses exist within Muslims also. While there is rightful indignation amongst Muslims against attempts by right wing Hindus to vilify them, sadly there is no effort to stem the slanderous sectarian divide within the community.
While it is true that such anti-Shia feeling is learnt within Muslim families, it is the Ulama and their institutions on whom ultimately the blame must lie. It is their orotundity, carried through print and visual media which ultimately spread this poison. In the Indian context, it is important to recall that Deoband gave a fatwa in 2018 which ‘advised’ Sunnis not to participate in any social gathering (such as iftar or marriage) organized by Shias. Although Deoband was quick to deny the fatwa but it must be remembered that one of the first fatwas given by Deoband after its establishment in 1865 delineated the conditions under which a Shia can become a Kafir. The fatwa lists a number of conditions and does give a number of caveats before pronouncing Shias as Kafir, but these caveats are useless. The main use of such Fatawa is that they become registers of legitimation for anyone wanting to kill a Shia.
Not to be left behind, the Barelwis have emerged as the most virulent anti-Shia pedagogues. Partly owing perhaps to the similarity of their doctrines of venerating religious icons, the Barelwis tried hard to distance themselves from the Shias. Indeed, Ahmed Riza Khan, the ideologue of the Barelwis believed that most Shias of his day were apostates because they repudiated the necessities of Islam. As we all know, the dominant narrative within Islam is that apostates are to be killed by any believing Muslim.
There was a time when Shia Sunni marriages were common in the subcontinent. But today we have a situation where people in Pakistan are hell bent on proving that Jinnah was not a Shia. How did we get here? The reasons for this are both religious and political. In Islamic theology, the Shias have been the ‘other’ which has arisen out of hair-splitting debates regarding the succession of the Prophet. Indeed the ‘election’ of caliphs within Islam has been largely been political affairs. The Shia Sunni divide is more of a political issue for which theological justifications were invented later on.
Currently, it is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, through its various ministries at home and abroad, who is the fountainhead of anti-Shia rhetoric. In contest with Iran for the leadership of the Muslim world, Saudi government tries to discredit the belief system of the Shias through various means. One such way is to call them Rawafidh/rejectionists (a usage becoming worryingly common in India) in order to stigmatize their beliefs and practices. Saudi Arabia’s former grand mufti, Abdullah bin Baz, condemned the Shias in his various religious rulings. His Fatawa and other writings on the Shia are publicly available. They remain influential and are often relied upon in Saudi courts. Since the reach of Saudi Islam is widespread (and not just in Muslim countries), it is worrying that its anti-Shia polemic is not being called out even in countries which have significant number of Shias.
What should be done to prevent such negative stereotypes about Shias amongst Sunnis? The possible answer comes from the Muslim world itself. In 2016, the venerated seat of learning, al Azhar, issued a fatwa making Shia theology part of Islam. The fatwa called Shiism as the fifth school within Islam. I wonder if a similar fatwa can come in the Indian context and can initiate a healthy debate within the Muslim community.
Arshad Alam is a columnist with NewAgeIslam.com