Sunni! Shia! War looms

By Alhaji Mohamed Wusha Conteh 27th August, 2012

Personally, I never thought of myself as anything but a Muslim practicing purely what the Qur’an says and the hadith of the holy prophet Mohammed (SAW). Though I definitely realized that I am a Sunni Muslim I was never taught to hate or harbor ill will towards the Shia or any sect. Despite we as Muslims recognizes the various sect in the country like the Ahmaddiyya, Shia, Sufism, Quranist. We really tried to live together with other religious beliefs like Christianity and other faiths.

In this mix society, one of the most striking things I discovered here is the degree to which religious tolerance is a deeply held value. Christians and Muslims live side by side; they celebrate and work together; they intermarry; they elect political leaders of both faith traditions. In a world too often divided by religious differences, Christians and Muslims in Sierra Leone have joined together and speak with one voice on critical public issues through an Interreligious Council. Every conversation I heard cites tolerance as a living reality. Christians and Muslims get along without the misunderstandings fear and suspicion so common in many parts of the world.

With the advent of new issues in international relations Arab Spring which is seen as either Democracy or Sunni/Shia war, this Arab Spring is now trying to be circulated in my peaceful country. With the advent of some scholars from both sides of the Sunni and Shia group they really want to ignite Sectarian war in the country.

The division between Sunnis and Shi'as is the largest and oldest in the history of Islam. We both agree on the fundamentals of Islam and share the same Holy Book (The Holy Qur'an), but there are differences mostly derived from their different historical experiences, political and social developments, as well as ethnic composition.

These differences originate from the question of who would succeed the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) as leader of the emerging Muslim community after his death. To understand them, we need to know a bit about the Prophet's life and political and spiritual legacy.

When the Prophet died in the early 7th century he left not only the religion of Islam but also a community of about one hundred thousand Muslims organized as an Islamic state on the Arabian Peninsula. It was the question of who should succeed the Prophet that created the divide.

The larger group of Muslims chose Abu Bakr, a close Companion of the Prophet, as the Caliph (politico-social leader) and he was accepted as such by much of the community which saw the succession in political and not spiritual terms. However another smaller group, which also included some of the Companions, believed that the Prophet's son-in-law and cousin, Ali, should be Caliph. They understood that the Prophet had appointed him as the sole interpreter of his legacy, in both political and spiritual terms. In the end Abu Bakr was appointed First Caliph.

Both Shi'as and Sunnis rely on their evidence to support their understanding of the succession. Sunnis argue that the Prophet chose Abu Bakr to lead the congregational prayers as he lay on his deathbed, thus suggesting that the Prophet was naming Abu Bakr as the next leader. The Shi'as' evidence is that the Prophet stood up in front of his Companions on the way back from his last Hajj, and proclaimed Ali the spiritual guide and master of all believers. Shi'a reports say he took Ali's hand and said that anyone who followed Muhammad should follow Ali.

Muslims who believe that Abu Bakr should have been the Prophet's successor have come to be known as Sunni Muslims. Those who believe Ali should have been the Prophet's successor are now known as Shi'a Muslims. It was only later that these terms came into use. Sunni means 'one who follows the Sunnah' (what the Prophet said, did, agreed to or condemned). Shi'a is a contraction of the phrase 'Shiat Ali', meaning 'partisans of Ali'.

The use of the word "successor" should not be confused to mean that those leaders that came after the Prophet Muhammad were also prophets - both Shi'a and Sunni agree that Muhammad was the final prophet. Despite there are groups in Shi’a who believe otherwise.

While Shias and Sunnis differ on the nature of the Mahdi, many members of both groups, especially Sufis believe that the Mahdi will appear at end times to bring about a perfect and just Islamic society.

In Shia Islam "the Mahdi symbol has developed into a powerful and central religious idea. In contrast, mainstream Sunnis believe the Mahdi will be a descendant of Muhammad, and will revive the faith, but will not necessarily be connected with the end of the world.

The Shias accept some of the same hadiths used by Sunnis as part of the sunnah to argue their case. In addition, they consider the sayings of Ahl al-Bayt that are not attributed directly to Muhammad as hadiths. Shias do not accept many Sunni hadiths unless they are also recorded in Shia sources or the methodology can be proven of how they were recorded. Also, some Sunni-accepted hadith are less favored by Shias; one example is that because of Aisha's opposition to Ali, hadith narrated by Aishah are not given the same authority as those by other companions. Another example is hadith narrated by Abu Hurairah, who is considered by Shias as the enemy of Ali. The Shia argument is that Abu Hurairah was only a Muslim four years of his life before Muhammad's death. Although he accompanied Muhammad for four years only, he managed to record ten times as many hadiths as Abu Bakr and Ali each.