Why America's Great for Sunni and Shiite Muslims

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), November 6, 2016 | Go to article overview

Why America's Great for Sunni and Shiite Muslims


Byline: Wajahat Ali The Washington Post

In the beginning of Shakespeare's tragic play "Romeo and Juliet," a street brawl erupts between Montague and Capulet servants, sworn enemies who fight each other on behalf of their masters. Based on recent sectarian violence, it seems he could have been writing about Sunni and Shiite Muslims, two religious tribes currently engaged in a mutually destructive waltz stretching 1,400 years.

But that simplistic analysis betrays a rich legacy of mutual understanding, cooperation, inter-marriages and relative peace that has also defined their relationship since the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632.

My personal history is reflective of that statement.

I'm a Sunni Muslim whose best friends growing up in Fremont, Calif., were Kashif and his little brother Atif, who have described themselves as hailing from a "hardcore Shia" family. We are all shy sons of Pakistani immigrants, united by our utter dorkiness, lack of social skills and inherent love of lentils.

We spent countless hours playing Sega Genesis, not talking to girls, and making unwatchable but highly entertaining homemade movies. I was the overweight action hero, Kashif played the villain, and Atif was always the henchman or sidekick who died by Act 2. Our respective families have celebrated numerous births, mourned a few deaths, eaten at Fentons Creamery and shared biryani leftovers countless times.

To be fair, there are major disagreements between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. They mainly arise over the question of succession after the prophet's death. Shiite Muslims contend that Muhammad bestowed religious and political leadership upon his cousin and son-in-law Ali. Sunnis, who make up about 85 percent of Muslims, say it first went to the prophet's friend and father-in-law Abu Bakr. Ali is also recognized and praised by Sunnis as the fourth caliph, eventually acquiring leadership more than two decades after the prophet's death.

Despite the numerous differences between Sunni and Shiite Islam, our families never engaged in heated polemics or shouting matches. Instead, we united over our love of the Ahl al-Bayt, the family of the prophet, which includes Fatima, his daughter; Ali, her husband; and their martyred children, Hassan and Hussein. Recently we all wept on Ashura, which coincided with Yom Kippur, and commemorates both the exodus and the martyrdom of the prophet's grandson Hussein at the hands of the tyrant Yazid during the tragic Battle of Karbala in what is now Iraq.

Sadly, to differentiate from the Shiite branch, several Sunni religious authorities, imams and leaders have minimized or deliberately labeled the memory and mourning of Karbala as only as "Shia thing." However, the story exists in my Sunni household in America. On this date, it remains an annual tradition to hear Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's ecstatic qawwali "Ya Hussein" and recite a poem in praise of Imam Ali written by 13th-century Sufi saint Moinuddin Chishti. (Both Khan and Chishti were Sunni, by the way.)

The self-appointed masters of Sunni and Shiite Islam, Saudi Arabia and Iran, ignore our shared histories to sustain a manufactured, bloody sectarianism for the sake of regional dominance. …

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