The War Within Islam

The bloodiest conflicts on planet Earth today are no longer imperialist wars waged for raw materials, territory, and markets. Instead, religious wars – mostly between Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims – are ravaging half a dozen countries across the world. The new militancy derives sustenance from religious extremism, which in turn derives from a massive return to the faith. A 2012 Pew Global Report discovered that many Sunni majority states (Egypt-53%|, Tunisia-41%, Jordan-43% etc.) have large fractions of their population who refuse to accept Shias as real Muslims.

In this sectarian war, Pakistan has become one of the most vicious battlegrounds. Its Shia minority, estimated at 20-30% of the population, has seen thousands killed in recent years. This year has been no less tragic than earlier ones: Shikarpur on Jan 30, Peshawar on Feb 13, Rawalpindi on Feb 18; in less than three weeks, suicide bombers successfully targeted three Shia mosques packed with worshippers. Hazara Shias are fleeing Balochistan, some making futile attempts to reach Australia’s distant shores. Barricades surround segregated Shia urban neighbourhoods. But even high security often fails: a suicide bomber made it through to residential Abbas Town in Karachi with a carload of explosives, leaving dozens of broken apartments with flesh and body parts hanging from balconies. Outside of Syria and Iraq, Pakistan is now the world’s deadliest country for Shias.

Unsurprisingly, Pakistan’s Shias see themselves as victims of religious persecution. Some speak dramatically of a Shia genocide. This is surely an exaggeration since the scale is only a thousand or so per year. But the irony should not be lost: Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding father, was a Gujrati Shia Muslim. He mobilized millions stating that Muslims and Hindus could never coexist but Muslims, irrespective of sect, could. This eventually turned out to be wrong, but in my childhood things were largely peaceful. Intermarriages were fairly common until the 1980’s, and orthodox Shias had joined orthodox Sunnis into enthusiastically supporting Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s 1974 decision to declare Ahmadis, a small persecuted community, as non-Muslim.

Now, in a curious flip of history, a 2012 Pew Global Survey shows that 41% of Pakistanis believe that Shias are non-Muslim. A popular explanation of this change blames the Islamization process started by military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980’s. His policies distinguished between different sects and indeed did promote discord. However the massive ongoing fratricide across the Middle East suggests that religious tensions would have anyway boiled over; the phenomenon is now globalized. Shias, being only 12-14 percent of all Muslims, have largely been on the receiving end. But Shia Iran has scarcely been kind to the “heretical” Bahais or Iran’s Sunnis.

At the core of today’s conflicts is the relatively recent insistence, equally by Shias and Sunnis, is that religion must fuse with political power. Sizeable fractions of both sects demand a system that has temporal authority based upon the Qu’ran, and where religion is not confined to an individual’s contemplation of God. However, apart from the Qu’ran, Shia and Sunni agree to nothing else.

What caused dormant differences to explode into war? I think that Islam’s new era owes to three catastrophic events. First, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 converted secular Iran into Islamic Iran and ignited a craving among the orthodox, both Shia and Sunni, for a religious state. Second, international jihad was created and supervised by the United States to counter the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan but eventually ran amok. Third, the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 destroyed Saddam Hussein but, in seeking to assure their legitimacy and control, the invaders found it expeditious to recognize and then unleash the sectarian monster.

Today, the world’s Shias find inspiration from Ayatollah Khomenei’s political philosophy. On the other hand, Sunni ideals of the caliphate derive from the militant preaching of Egypt’s Syed Qutb and Pakistan’s Syed Abul Ala Maudoodi. Both Sunni and Shia insist that true justice is possible only when religious law replaces secular law and religious practices are enforced in society. Both see the secular West as their mortal enemy. But thereafter the agreement grinds to a halt. There are irreconcilably different versions of early Islamic history, different choices of exemplars, and different religious rituals.

Had the Qur’an prescribed a kind of political system, Shia and Sunni would have argued their cases with that as the reference. But on matters of state and politics, the Holy Book is silent. In fact, as various scholars have pointed out, the Arabic language had no word for “state”. That which came closest was dawlah. But the word acquired its current meaning only after the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia which led to the emergence of geographically defined nation-states in Europe.

Crucially, the Qur’an is silent on how a state’s ruler is to be chosen and what might be legitimate grounds for his removal. It does not specify the limits of the ruler’s power or that of the shura’s (consultative body). Also unmentioned is the manner in which the shura, which could potentially appoint or remove a ruler, is to be chosen. Would there be an executive, judiciary, or government ministries and what should their functions be? Islam’s other source of definitive authority, Prophet Mohammed, did not outline the process for selecting future leaders of the faithful. Whether he actually specified his immediate successor remains deeply contentious and, in fact, lies at the base of centuries-long theological differences between Shia and Sunni. Nevertheless, from time to time, the idea of an Islamic state has been resurrected.

So what is to be done? With the rise of the Da’ish (the Islamic State group) and massive failures in Iraq and Libya, the West must somehow deal with the consequences of its former policies of subjugation, conquest, and extraction of resources. America’s ally, Saudi Arabia, fuels Sunni fundamentalism with petrodollars, and should be firmly dealt with. But it is Muslims, still saddled with ancient animosities and pre-modern ideas, who will have to chart out a new course. At present, the trends are not encouraging.

In Muslim countries around the world, religious faith continues to take a firmer grip over the lives of ordinary citizens. Therefore the question of what constitutes the truest form of faith becomes ever more important. Hence, sympathy for victims of mass killings, or individual assassinations, is limited. This, in turn, gives license to the killers who are implicitly encouraged by television media. Operating on laissez faire, with almost no state control, it panders to the high viewership ratings earned by ranting preachers. This is the flame which sets the abundant dead wood on fire.

There is only one way to end these mad killings. Muslim societies must realize that categorizing fellow citizens according to their religious belief is naught but a prescription for catastrophe. That realization had once existed in many Muslim societies and was articulated by countless Sufis, mystics, and bards.

Iran’s famous poet, Shams of Tabriz (1185-1248) had perhaps put it better than anyone else:

I am not a Muslim
None may call me Christian or Jew
I am not of the East, nor the West
I am neither of earth nor water
I am not of India or China
I am not of the kingdom of Iraq
I am not of this world nor the next,
not of heaven, nor of purgatory.
My place is the placeless,
My trace is the traceless.
It is not the body nor is it the soul,
for I belong to the soul of my love.
If I should win a moment with You,
I will put both worlds under my feet
and dance forever in joy.
O Shams of Tabriz, I am so drunk in the world
that except for revelry and intoxication
I have no tale to tell.


Pervez Hoodbhoy teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

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