Tuesday, Jun 19, 2018
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Sunni-Shia divide, conflict puts Islamic sects back in spotlight

Toledo-area Muslim figures downplay differences

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Sunni and Shia are back in the news because of the latest developments in Iraq. “Why don’t they get along today” is again the question. For the most part, they do — and Muslims in Toledo are together in denouncing the groups engaged in conflict in Iraq and Syria today.



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“I worry for all in the war, not just my country,” said Sheik Rahim Al-Saedy, who immigrated to the United States from Iraq and leads the Fatemah Islamic Center in Sylvania, a Shia mosque.



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“It’s my job,” Sheik Al-Saedy said. “I have to worry for all the people, not just Muslims. ... If they get hurt or have a problem, we pray for them and we’re upset, because we are human beings.”



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Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s efforts last year to crush protests by Sunnis complaining of discrimination under his Shiite-led government sparked a wave of violence by militants, who took over the city of Fallujah in the western, Sunni-dominated province of Anbar, and parts of the provincial capital, Ramadi.

During the last two weeks, militants have taken over the cities of Mosul and Tikrit as well as checkpoints on the Iraq-Syria border. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria militant group is trying to create an Islamic caliphate in a vast area of both countries.

The religious ways of Sunni and Shia are different in some practices, but most are not major; one difference, however, is that many Shia are called “Twelvers,” the largest Shia group, including members of Fatemah.

“There were 12 imams after the prophet, and the 12th one died without an heir,” said Ovamir Anjum, who holds the Imam Khattab endowed chair of Islamic Studies at the University of Toledo. The 12th is known as Mohammed al-Mahdi. “He disappeared without an heir, according to the Shiites, and he died according to the Sunni; he couldn’t have died [say the Shia] because he must have produced an heir, because the world could not continue without an infallible imam to guide — that would be unjust on behalf of God to leave the world unguided, so therefore he must have disappeared, and he is called an occultation, and he will come back toward the end of times to set all things that have gone wrong right, and to bring justice to the world, and so on.”

Some add that the Mahdi and Jesus will return. “They’re working together,” said Sheik Al-Saedy.

An early split

Sunni and Shia differences stem from a split early in Islam’s history, over who would succeed Mohammed as leader of the new faith and be caliph or supreme ruler. It started with Ali, Mohammed’s son-in-law and a close cousin. He was the fourth person to be caliph, but Shiites think he should have been the first because he had family lineage.

The determination that blood succession (Shia thought) might be better than following Mohammed’s companions (Sunni thought) came from the religion’s rapid growth, Mr. Anjum said. Security was not unheard of for the early caliphs, and “that cost two of them their lives.”

Islam took over the Persian Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire in 30 to 50 years, Mr. Anjum said, “so all of a sudden these people have to rule over such a large territory, and what is happening as a result is a different kind of government emerges.”

No more equality, consultation, and piety; it became “almost an imperial model that people are used to in the Near East.”

For the Muslims, “what happens is that two responses develop. There is a small radical minority, always, that says all is lost [the Shia in this case], wherein there is a majority that says, ‘‍But still, we have a lot’ [the Sunnis].”


In their religious practices, Sunnis and Shiites “do have disagreements about certain things,” said Imam Shamsuddin Waheed of Toledo Masjid of Al-Islam, a Sunni mosque, “but we have more in common than the Catholics and the Protestants have in common. We have the same book [the Qur’an]. The Protestants and the Catholics, they have different versions of the same book [the Bible]. The Catholic version has a few more books than the Protestant version. We have the same prophet [Mohammed]. We have the same rituals: the same five daily prayers, same Ramadan, same Hajj.”

Some Muslims today minimize the differences and prioritize their faith. Imam Farooq Abo Elzahab, whose service as clergy leader of the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo will end June 30, said, “There is nothing even called Sunni in Islam. This word came as the opposite of Shia. … We [all] take religion from the Qur’an and the Sunnah and the Hadith of the lifestyle of the prophet Mohammed.”

Historically and geographically, Sunni and Shia have intermingled. “In America, it’s an interesting example, some of the young people identify themselves as Sushis, not Sunni or Shia,” Mr. Anjum said.

Political issues

But political differences are not like religious ones.

“One thing that has recently unfortunately destroyed lots of these webs of networks and relationships in all of these societies is the Syrian conflict,” Mr. Anjum said, “where again it’s more modern politics than religious conflict. It’s a small minority of a particular type of Shia [the Alawites] ... not considered legitimate even by the Twelver Shias, but for politics it doesn’t matter. ... Some would not even consider them Muslim.”

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is “an offshoot of al-Qaeda, and the ‘‍Islamic state’ is obviously a misnomer,” Mr. Anjum said. “They’re not a state. ... They’re a vigilante sort of group, a terrorist group.”

“We don’t know what they have,” said Sheik Al-Saedy. “They don’t like Muslim people. They don’t like Christianity. They don’t like Jewish. Right now in Iraq, they destroyed all the churches for Christianity, they destroyed mosques, and they killed anyone outside. They raped a girl. We don’t know where they come from.”

“We‘‍re reading articles in the media, even the Muslim media, [that say] a lot of the people who are going there are actually from places where there are no Shia,” Imam Waheed said.

Members of ISIS are “drawing themes that a large number of Muslims would identify with,” Mr. Anjum said. “One of them is that Muslims should not have boundaries dividing them. There’s no reason for Muslims in Iraq and Syria to be separate. These modern nation states that were created, actually, by the British and the French map makers after the First World War, they’re unnatural and destructive, and all kinds of conflicts have existed between these states, so this is almost a romantic theme among Muslim intellectuals throughout the 20th century that ‘‍we should all get back together.’ But of course the actual narrow interests of the elite in any of these countries don’t go along with that very well.”

Mr. Anjum said there is a magic solution.

“Study things. ... Knowledge and education are extremely important. One of the things that happens in our contemporary society is people have a very uncomfortable relationship with facts. ... The solution, to me, is education and community. ... Healthy communities where you can have healthy relationships within that are intact, and with other communities in faith. Christian and Muslim communities, and Shia and Sunni communities within Islam.”

Contact TK Barger: tkbarger@theblade.com, 419-724-6278 or on Twitter @TK_Barger.

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