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the Message Continues ... 12/125


Newsletter for January 2012


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Let's Bring Shias and Sunnis Closer!

In his recent Fatwa, Shaikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi points out, there is much that Sunnis and most Shias share, and this must form the basis for developing a genuine Islamic ecumenism.

By Yoginder Sikand

The Qatar-based Shaikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi is considered to be one of the world's leading Islamic scholars. Author of numerous books, he is known for his open-minded attitude One issue on which the Shaikh has written extensively relates to relations between different Islamic groups, sects and movements. He decries extremist interpretations of the faith that readily brand all other Muslims as infidels and outside the pale of Islam.

Instead, he pleads for moderation and dialogue among Muslims, seeing this as mandated by the Quran and the Prophetic example.

Relations between Shias and Sunnis have been strained for much of Muslim history. Many Shias and Sunnis see each other as apostates or even as 'enemies' of Islam. Given the vehement opposition to the Shias among many, if not most, Sunni 'ulema, Shaikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi's attitude towards Shias is particularly remarkable. Two fatwas recently issued by him relating to the Shias (accessible on the website ) suggest his serious willingness to engage in genuine dialogue with Shias and to tolerate differences, within broad limits, among Muslims. The first of these fatwas deals with the issue of inter-marriage between Shias and Sunnis. The Shaikh responds to the question by explaining the conditions for an ideal marriage. 'Matrimonial life', he says, 'should be based on mutual understanding between the spouses'. 'Heated arguments and continuous debates', he says, would threaten to ruin the marriage, leading to 'battle between the spouses'. One possible cause of serious conflict between spouses could be, the Shaikh says, if one of the partners, being a Sunni (here the Shaikh does not identify the person as such) supports 'Abu Bakr' and the other (presumably a Shia) 'defends Ali'. The Shaikh clearly says that he does not regard such a marriage as forbidden (haram) but, yet, he states, 'I don't prefer it'. This is because it would inevitably lead to conflict and eventual marital breakdown. He says that just as a Muslim man is allowed to marry a Christian woman, he could also marry a Shia woman. Yet, although he considers it legally permissible for a Sunni man to marry a Shia woman, he argues that such a marriage is 'not the ideal one'. However, he further qualifies his statement by stressing that if the Shia woman is a 'moderate Shi'ite', prays in the mosque along with Sunnis and 'does not support conflict with the Sunnis', a Sunni man can marry her if he 'really wants to'.

Interestingly, he adds in conclusion, 'It goes without saying that the above fatwa is also applicable in case the man is a Shi'ite and the woman is a Sunni'.

The Shaikh's second fatwa deals in greater detail with Shia-Sunni relations, particularly addressing the question of dialogue between the two groups. The fatwa, issued in March 2004 in reply to a question put to the Shaikh by a certain Husain from Iraq, bears the revealing title, 'Overlooking Differences Between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims'. In reply to the question, the Shaikh begins by highlighting the importance that Islam places on Muslim brotherhood. This, he suggests, points to the urgent need for Shia-Sunni dialogue. He then lays down certain broad rules for Sunnis to follow in dialoguing with Shias. The most important rule, he says, is to 'concentrate on the points of agreement', not on areas of difference. Of the former, the most salient are those that deal with 'the fundamental issues of religion'. On the other hand, he suggests, most of the points of difference between Shias and Sunni have to do with 'minor' issues, and hence must not be allowed to become an obstacle in the process of dialogue.

He argues that both Shias as well as Sunnis share many fundamental beliefs, such as faith in one God, in Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh) as the 'Seal of the Prophets', in all the heavenly scriptures and prophets, and in the Quran as God's word. Shias as well as Sunnis agree in the matter of the 'five pillars' of Islam-the testimony to the oneness of God and to Prophet Muhammad as being God's messenger, the specified prayers, zakat, haj and fasting in the month of Ramadan. He goes so far as to argue that the differences between Shias and Sunnis in the ways in which the 'five pillars' are understood are 'like the scholarly difference in opinion among the Sunni schools themselves, such as the Hanbali, Hanafi and Maliki schools'.

In his effort to bring Shias and Sunnis closer, the Shaikh approvingly refers to the well-known Sunni scholar Imam Ash-Shawakani, who, he writes, 'referred to eminent scholars of jurisprudence among the Sunnis and Shi'ites on equal footing'. The Shaikh maintains that in matters of jurisprudence, on issues concerning both 'worship' and 'transactions', there is probably no 'crucial difference' between Shias and Sunnis. The Shaikh is not unmindful of the differences, on certain issues, between the Sunnis and most Shias, although he considers them relatively insignificant, at least compared to what they share in common. In highlighting the commonalities between the two, he also argues against a widely held view in some Sunni circles, of all Shias as believing in certain doctrines that are not accepted by the Sunnis.

Overall, then, the Shaikh's relatively open-minded approach to the vexed issue of Shia-Sunni relations is in sharp contrast to that of many conservative Sunni 'ulama, particularly the so-called 'Wahhabi' scholars, who insist that the Shias are heretics and are outside the fold of Islam. As the Shaikh sees it , intra-Muslim rivalry, particularly between Shias and Sunnis, only plays into the hands of forces that are inimical to Muslims as a whole. 'All Muslims should be alert', he warns, 'against the schemes and plots planned by the enemies of Islam'. 'They...want us to disagree and fight each the name of belief', he says, and appeals to Shias and Sunnis 'not to give them this chance'. The Shaikh's fatwas make it clear that dialogue can only take off when both partners are willing to recognise what they share in common. As the Shaikh points out, there is much that Sunnis and most Shias share, and this must form the basis for developing a genuine Islamic ecumenism.

(The writer can be reached at






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