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Sunni vs. Shi’ah: transcending takfir and the great divide

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THIS is the second article aimed at two critical issues I broached the other day: the first was the 27 October false flag attack on Makkah, in which I proved how the Saudis had used a Houthi scud strike on Jeddah (65 kms from Makkah) to garner sympathy for their war against Yemen, and to dupe the world into believing that this was an Iranian-inspired assault.

The second question refers to the fear, the loathing and the paranoia that has been drip-fed into the veins of our community by a small, but vociferous Salafi group on the question of the Shi’ah. These people seem to think that an unequivocal, unqualified declaration of unbelief on another group is the Sunni way. This has not been helped by geo-political events in Iraq and Syria, where the toxic sludge of sectarian conflict has been deliberately stirred to muddy our own perspectives.

Sectarianism is indeed a huge threat to harmony amongst Muslim communities worldwide. It expresses itself in groupthink, ignorance, bigotry, racism, arrogance, discrimination, hate-speech and, ultimately, violence. It is an internal xenophobia that expresses our inability to understand and to cope with our own differences.

The blanket takfir of the Shi’ah – which is the core question here – was taken to its extremes in the late 18th century when Shi’ah blood was deemed halal by the ideologue, Ibn ‘Abd ul-Wahhab. The consequence was that the son-in-law of Ibn ‘Abd ul-Wahhab, Ibn ‘Abd ul-‘Aziz ibn al-Sa’ud, led 12,000 brigands to plunder the tomb of Sayyidina Hussein and to massacre over 3,000 Shi’ah at Karbala.

But if truth be told, the sectarian coin has been played both sides in our history – sometimes brutally. The first Safavid ruler, Shah Isma’il (d 1524 CE), purged Sunnism from Persia at the point of a sword, and then used the skull of an opponent as a drinking bowl. In modern-day Iraq, Sunnis have experienced Shi’ah recrimination for Saddam Hussein and Da’esh. And Syria – a quagmire – has suffered its own nasty narrative too.

But surely the point is that faith-based intolerance can never be justified. Takfir is something to be detested. The Prophet [saw] took the matter very seriously. He said (via Bukhari) that if we declared takfir on another believer, and were wrong, the verdict of kufr would fall upon us.

This was ignored by Islam’s first extremists, the 7th century Khawarij, who deemed you kafir for disagreeing with them. Even sin was kufr. They were unable to understand that bad deeds made us a bad person, but not necessarily an unbeliever.

The Prophet [saw] forbade the early Muslims from judgement on people if they uttered the testimony of faith. The illustrious Companion, Usama ibn Zayd, once killed an idolater in battle after the latter had uttered, “there is no god but Allah,” but when news reached the Prophet [saw] he had become angry and asked, ”how could you kill him after he has said ‘God is One?’”

Usama had replied that the idolater had proclaimed these words with the sword of death hanging over his head. To which the Prophet [saw] had repeated: “ But how can you kill him after he said ‘La ilaha illallah?’” And Usama had replied, “O, Messenger of Allah, he said it in dissimulation (taqiyyatan).”

To which the Prophet [saw] had retorted: “Did you split his heart open to see?” and the Prophet did not stop scolding him until Usama had wished he had not entered Islam until after he had killed that man, just so that he might have been forgiven his sins.[1]

Prophetic wisdom

The Prophetic wisdom behind this is husn ul-dhann, the preference of the harbouring of good thoughts about another person. This is the door to noble conduct. That is why the Prophet [saw] was so gentle with the Christians, the Jews and the Zoroastrians. And, as the Qur’an [8: 61] says, “And if they incline to peace, then incline to it [also].”

Sayyidina ‘Umar and Ibn Mas’ud, two historical giants of Islam, disagreed on over 100 juristic issues[2]. And yet when Ibn Mas’ud passed him one day, Sayyidina ‘Umar remarked, “There comes a citadel full of wisdom and knowledge.” Sayyidina ‘Umar’s example is a stark contrast to the 21st century, where the daggers of personal insult are unsheathed at every turn.

Given that of the Qur’an’s 6,000 plus verses only 500 (less than 8%) deal with ahkam, or legal rulings, it should be clear that we have been encouraged not only to think, but to deal intelligently with the challenges and differences of our time – on all levels.

As Layth ibn Sa’d[3], the eighth century faqih, said: “the people of knowledge are the people of flexibility. Those who give fatwas never cease to differ, and so this one permits something while that one forbids something, [but] without one finding fault with the other when he knows of his position.”

In our article, this is an important principle when examining the Shi’ah question, as there are a host of scholarly views on the matter. I am not here to apologise for the differences, but rather to reveal an emerging conciliatory discourse, which it seems, some people – including certain clerics – simply don’t want to embrace in the spirit of adab ul-ikhtilaf, the honourable handling of divergent opinion.

Spurning it on the grounds of Shi’i taqiyyah, or dissemblance, is churlish. On the other hand, for any Shi’ah to push away the hand of the Sunni on the spurious grounds that we are nawasib, or haters of the Ahlul Bayt, is also contrary to the spirit of the Hadith of Usama ibn Zayd and the Holy Qur’an.


The point is that since the 2000s there has been a decisive convergence of thought by Sunni and Shi’ah clerics to retreat from the divisive extremes that have for so long blighted the narrative. Sulh, or reconciliation, is recommended by Qur’an and Hadith. It is a sensible way to peace.

Qur’an (5: 8) says: “And let not hatred of others incite you to act unjustly: act justly, that is nearer to piety…”

In (4: 94) we are instructed: “And do not say to anyone who offers you the greeting of peace: ‘You are not a believer…’”

And in (49 : 10) we are advised: “So make peace between your brothers, and fear Allah, so that Allah’s Mercy may rest on you.”

And Hadith encourages: “Anyone who goes to make peace between two persons, the angels of Allah send blessings upon him…”

In ‘western’ societies, such as ours, Muslim minorities reside in relative safety and peace. Facebook pages spewing character assassination and fitnah, and fanatical Salafi palpitations over who has more claims to be Muslim than the other, are trivialities compared to the global challenges we face.

Faith discourse in South Africa

In South Africa, faith discourse is understood on two levels. The first one is constitutional in which all faiths are considered equal in the sense that all citizens are equal[4]. There is no majoritarianism here; all faiths enjoy equal freedom of worship. However, there are checks and balances written into our rights.

Freedom of worship, based upon freedom of speech and freedom of association, are contingent upon mutual respect[5]. Summarily declaring unbelief on someone in South Africa violates their basic human rights; it is an act of structural violence indistinguishable from hate speech and incitement, which are unconstitutional and against the law[6].

The second level of faith discourse, the intra or internal one, is theological. Here questions of belief within a specific group are interrogated, but they do still have to reside in the cradle of constitutional principle.

To understand things further, we have to delve into Islamic history to try to explain what Sunnism and Shi’ism are. I am sure my limited definitions – admittedly from a Sunni viewpoint – will not satisfy everybody, but let’s use them as a starting point for our discussion.

Sunnis, 90% of all Muslims and alternatively known as the Ahlus Sunnah wa’l Jama’ah (the community of the Prophetic Way), are named ‘Sunni’ because they cling onto the Sunnah, or ways, of the Prophet [saw] and are named ‘al-Jama’ah’ because they are united behind, as the Islamic Dictionary[7] says, ‘the imams, or leaders, of the truth’.

Furthermore, according to Sunni scholars, the Qur’an (2: 143) describes the Ahlus Sunnah as the ‘middle nation’, a concept supported by the evidence of Sayyidah A’ishah – and so many other Companions – that the Prophet [saw] never chose extremes in any matter.

Shi’ism – followed by 9.5% of Muslims mostly in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Bahrain and Lebanon with significant minorities in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Syria, India and Pakistan[8] – regards Sayyidina ‘Ali, the fourth caliph and the son-in-law of Muhammad [saw], as his legitimate heir. It questions the succession of the three caliphs – Sayyidina Abu Bakr, ‘Umar and ‘Uthman – who preceded him.

The schools of Shi’ism

The word ‘Shi’ah’, which means ‘party’, literally means the ‘party of ‘Ali’. Whilst, superficially, the schism on Sayyidina ‘Ali’s caliphate appears to be political, the question has been elevated to a theological precept.

There are three schools of Shi’ism within the Islamic fold: Twelver Shi’ism, Isma’ili Shi’ism and Zaydi Shi’ism. Twelvers form the majority of the Shi’ah community. They cite twelve ‘infallible’ imams, or divinely inspired leaders, from Sayyidina ‘Ali through Ja’fr ibn Sadiq to the twelfth imam, the end-times Mahdi, who is waiting to appear. Twelvers follow the madh-hab, or legal school of thought, of Ja’fr ibn Sadiq.

The Isma’ilis, named after Muhammad ibn Isma’il (d.809 CE), believe that there are seven imams. This group ruled North Africa as the Fatimids from the 10-12th centuries. Groups that splintered from the Isma’ilis are the Assassins, the Druze, the Bohara, the Nizaris and the Nusayris. The Nusayris (called Alawites in Syria) and the Druze are no longer regarded by the Shi’ah as Muslim.

The Zaydis, named after Zayd ibn ‘Ali (d 740 CE) are found mostly in Yemen and believe in five imams. Interestingly, the Zaydis reject the notion of ‘infallible’ imams, taqiyyah[9] and the idea of a ghayba, or hidden, spiritual leader. The Zaydis also claim that the issue of Sayyidina ‘Ali’s caliphate was a political one – which is the Sunni viewpoint.

Shi’ism originated from disputes over political succession

Shaykh Abd ul-Hakim Murad of Cambridge University[10] says that Shi’ism originated from disputes over political succession, with doctrinal differences only creeping in later. And whilst Sunnis believe in Qur’an and all the validated body of Ahadith, Shi’ism focuses on the traditions of the Ahlul Bayt – the Prophetic family – via Fatimah (the Prophet’s daughter) and Sayyidina ‘Ali’s descendants.

At the heart of Shi’ah conviction is the Hadith of Ghadir Kumm[11], a pond near Al-Juhfah between Makkah and Madinah, where a group of Muslims gathered after the noble Prophet’s final pilgrimage. The Hadith is also known as Hadith ul-Thaqalayn, the tradition of two weighty matters[12] and the event, ‘Eid ul-Ghadir, is celebrated by the Shi’ah. On this day the Prophet [saw] is reported to have said:

“It seems as if the time is approaching when I shall be called away and I shall answer that call. I am leaving you two precious things and if you adhere to both of them, you will never go astray. They are the Book of Allah and my progeny, the Ahlul-Bayt. The two shall never separate from each other until they come to me by the Pool of Paradise.”

‘Then the Prophet [saw] continued: “Do I not have more right over the believers than what they have over themselves?”’

‘The people cried, “Yes, O Messenger of God.” Then the Prophet [saw] held up the hand of Sayyidina ‘Ali and said, “Whoever I am his leader (mawla), then ‘Ali is his leader (mawla). O, Allah, love those who love him, and be hostile to those who are hostile to him.”’

The Shi’ah declare that this indicates the Prophet’s [saw] choice of Sayyidina ‘Ali as the first caliph. Sunni scholars argue against the idea, as Hadith ul-Thaqalayn was narrated in front of a small gathering of people at Ghadir Khumm, which was a half-way point to Madinah. It was directed only towards those living in Madinah, because the Prophet’s family lived there, and thus, the task of taking care of them would have fallen upon their shoulders.

Sunni scholars maintain that if the Hadith ul-Thaqalayn had meant what the Shi’ah imply then the Prophet [saw] would have said it in front of all the Muslims during his Farewell Sermon. The Sunni scholars refer the mention of Sayyidina ‘Ali to a group of soldiers harshly criticising him. It was in response to this abuse and disrespect that the Prophet [saw] found it necessary to defend his family[13].

Shi’ah cosmos

Nonetheless, the Shi’ah cosmos emanates from this Hadith via the notion that Sayyidina ‘Ali should have been the first caliph, and not the fourth one. The Battle of the Camel also informs the narrative. A confusing and tragic event – originating from dissatisfaction surrounding Sayyidina ‘Ali’s response to the third Caliph Sayyidina ‘Uthman’s assassination – the battle was fought in Basra between the forces of Sayyidah A’ishah and Sayyidina ‘Ali in 656 CE.

Indeed, it is from the above that the most noteworthy schism between Sunni and Shi’ah emerges. From a political sense of victimisation of Sayyidina ‘Ali being taken to doctrinal extremes, there emerged an unfortunate thesis of marginalisation involving the cursing of Sayyidah A’ishah, the three previous Caliphs and those Companions seen as being outside of the Ahlul Bayt.

The fanatical Salafi sect has used this to declare unqualified takfir on all Shi’ah, despite the fact that the Shi’ah have been performing the Hajj with Sunnis for over 1,400 years[14]. Had there been a blanket declaration of takfir by early Sunni scholars (something they were always cautious about) this would not have been the case.

Imam Malik and Imam Shafi’i have specifically stated that those who cursed the wives of the Prophet [saw], the three imams and the Companions were rawafid – or rejecters – and they forbid their followers from praying behind them. The Sunni imams always specified whom they were addressing, and the idea they ever made unqualified takfir on all Shi’ah in this case is absurd.

Imam Shafi’i’s reading was that praying behind a rafid, whilst a bida’h mufassiqah (and not a bid’ah mukaffirah leading to unbelief) was makruh, ‘disliked, but not haram’. This is not an unqualified declaration of kufr by Imam Shafi’i, as so many like to claim[15]. Imam Shafi’i’s argument was that the rawafid were chiefly mubtadis, or undesirable innovators. Again, only the fanatical Salafis via Al-Qaeda and Da’esh declare takfir on those grounds.

What has to be taken into account too are Shi’ah ghulat, extremists whom the Shafi’i commentator, Shaykh Ahmad Naqib al-Masri[16], dismisses as the purveyors of ‘gibberish’. In fact, for extolling the virtues of the Ahlul Bayt, Imam Shafi’i was severely criticised for being a Shi’ah sympathiser. He responded in verse:
O, Pilgrims! On your way to the House of Allah, pause shortly

In the sands of Muzdalifah.

At dawn, when the caravans of pilgrims move toward Mina,

Like a roaring river, call upon them and say:

“If love of the Prophet’s family means ‘rafd’,

Then let mankind know, that surely I am a ‘Rafidi.’”

Abu Hanifah and Imam Malik both condemned the rawafid, but a close examination of their statements and refutations – and the context of their condemnatory utterances – reveals that they were chiefly targeting the ghulat element.

Some Shi’ah textbooks do not shy away from ghuluw, or extremism. Ghulam Hasan Muharrami writes in the History of Shi’ism[17] that one of the dangers threatening Shi’ism throughout its history has been extremism and the attribution of extremist views to the Shi’ah. Muharrami adds that a common strain of these people is their fanaticism with regards to the imams by ‘blasphemously elevating their station to the station of divinity.’


Of course, academically, there are certain contradictions perceived in the Shi’ah discourse by Sunni scholars that do need exegesis. Allamah Baqir Majlisi[18], the 17th century mujtahid and Safavid – an anti-Sufi and supra-rationalist who became the father of the Iranian mourning ceremonies – profanes the ashab, in spite of a warm relationship with the Mughal ruler, Aurangzeb, who was a Sunni.

Then there is Abu Ja’fr al-Kulayni, the 9th century scholar celebrated for his Hadith collection Al-Kafi, regarded as something of a Shi’ah primer. Some 60% of his collected Ahadith are regarded as da’if, or weak, in their chains of transmission. Nonetheless, Al-Kulayni has been quoted as saying: “Compare them [my collected Ahadith] to the book of Allah. Take whichever of them concurs with the book of Allah—Almighty is He and Sublime—and reject whichever of them contradicts the Book of Allah.”[19]

This practice is not scholastically extraordinary. Sunni scholars also justify the use of weak Ahadith, as long as they are not used for legal application. This was the practice of Imam al-Ghazali in his Ihya, and he was a refuter of the Shi’ah.

Rawafid refutations by the Sunni imams mostly refer to those who curse Sayyidah A’ishah and the Companions – something now publically condemned by prominent Shi’ah scholars. Some of the Sunni commentary focuses on matters of ‘aqidah, or basic belief, and Abu Hanifah has a treatise on the imamat. There is little of fiqh, or application of Shari’ah. However, Imam Hanbal does argue that Ja’fr ibn Sadiq[20] (the Shi’ah mujtahid) did not support mut’ah, or temporary marriage[21].

But back to the issue of takfir. It is somewhat ironic that the Sunni ethos of response to unbelief has been directly inspired by the noble conduct of Sayyidina ‘Ali towards the Khawarij, who not only declared him kafir, but eventually assassinated him.

The background is that after the murder of Sayyidina ‘Uthman, Sayyidina ‘Ali – facing many political challenges – had moved cautiously on the killers. This had not pleased the aggrieved Umayyads, who wanted immediate reparation. Amongst them were Mu’awiyah ibn Sufyan, the governor of Damascus, who’d refused to pledge allegiance to Sayyidina ‘Ali because of this.

It had resulted in the Battle of Siffin (near modern-day Raqqa) between Sayyidina Mu’awiyah and Sayyidina ‘Ali in 657 CE. It had seen 70,000 Muslim casualties with Mu’awiyah’s forces ceasing hostilities by sticking Qur’ans on their spears. The upshot was that Sayyidina ‘Ali, on the verge of victory but wanting to prevent further bloodshed, agreed to arbitration – something which incensed a faction of his troops who felt that Allah alone should be the arbitrator.

The Khawarij reject ‘Ali

These men, known as the Qurra – or Qur’anic reciters – then seceded (kharaja) from ‘Ali to become the Khawarij or Kharijites[22]. Avid in their recitals, but extremist in every other fashion as predicted in Hadith[23], they then deemed Sayyidina ‘Ali kafir and also refused to recognise his caliphate.

In spite of their hostility to him – and entreaties by his lieutenants to declare them kafir – Sayyidina ‘Ali acted with the utmost liberality, saying that the Khawarij had uttered the kalimah shahadah, the testimony of faith, and if they did not break any bounds, the Sunnis could marry them and worship with them[24].

However, the Kharijites did break the bounds in 659 CE when they butchered the governor of Nahrawan, ‘Abdullah ibn Khabbab ibn al-Aratt, and gutted his pregnant maidservant. After Sayyidina ‘Ali’s envoy was murdered too, he was forced to react and the Kharijite rebellion was put to the sword, only nine of them surviving. Two years later Sayyidina ‘Ali was killed in a Kufa mosque by Ibn Muljam, a Kharijite, with a poisoned sword.

The Kharijites are a key factor in the narrative. Dhul Khuwaysara, who had so rudely challenged the Prophet [saw] on the spoils of war, became a Kharijite leader. Sayyidina ‘Ali had predicted after Nahrawan that the Kharijites would not be eradicated. If one considers that the Najdi Salafi-Wahhabis are their descendants, contemporary history comes into focus via the Karbala massacre of 1802, Al-Qaeda in the 1990s and Da’esh in the 2000s.

Shi’ah distaste for the fanatical Salafis, whose ideologues have deemed their blood halal, is deeply rooted. Tragically, the influx of foreign fanatical Salafi mujahidin into places such as Iraq and Syria – at the behest of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and other international seditionists – has created a sectarian cesspool, with Hezbollah and the Iranian Republican Guard becoming equally shady players in the Middle East’s most destructive conflict since the Mongol hordes.

Contemporary rapprochement between Sunni and Shi’ah was initiated by Shaykh Mahmud Shaltut of the Al-Azhar University in 1959 – and whilst we acknowledge certain parties are never going to accept what we say – the matter is worth pursuing because of its noble intent. The antagonist’s view that Shaykh Shaltut’s fatwa on the Shi’ah is either ‘errant’ or ‘old’, and hence inapplicable, is preposterous and would mean that all our fiqh books would have to be re-written.

Shaykh Shaltut is remembered for encouraging harmonious relationships between Sunni and Shi’ah. He maintained cordial relations with prominent figures, such as Ayatollah Sayyid Hossein Borujerdi [25], and zealously campaigned for open discussion and co-operation.

Shaykh Shaltut’s fatwa about the Shi’ah madh-hab (or school of thought) is still seen today as a symbol of hope for reconciliation. Shaykh Shaltut strove to portray Islam to the world as a religion of unity and moderation. In this process, he sent a letter to Shi’ah scholar, Allamah Muhammad Taqi al-Qumi, in response to a question of whether Sunni Islam prohibited the Shi’ah school of thought.

Significantly, Shaykh Shaltut addressed the scholar as ‘Dear Muslim’, indicating that takfir did not apply. The second clause in Shaltut’s letter states: “The Ja’fari school of thought, which is also known as Al-Shi’ah al-Imamiyyah Ithna ‘Ashariyyah, is a school of thought which is religiously correct to follow as other Sunni Schools of thought.”[26]

Shaykh Shaltut also had a dialogue with Shi’ah scholars on five major questions. The reader can make up his mind on the answers. The first was on the issue of the Qur’an being incomplete, some verses allegedly being omitted. The scholars replied that this was based on weak evidence, and so the Qur’an as it is read today, is the correct version.


This is supported by the testimonies of over 20 Shi’ah scholars from Shaykh Saduq and Sayyid Murtada in the early centuries to Ayatollah al-Khu’i in the 20th century, who all refute the idea that the Qur’an was corrupted[27].

The Shi’ah scholars were closely questioned by the Azhari shuyukh on the concept of bada’a, the idea that Allah could change his immutable decree. The Azhari scholars were told that this was merely the notion of nasikh and mansukh, the concept of abrogating and abrogated verses as reflected in the Qur’an.

On taqiyyah – something allowed by Imam Shafi’i only if a Muslim’s life is under threat – the scholars said they were merely repeating the madh-hab, or school of thought, of an oppressive ruler or hostile country for the purpose of protecting themselves.

On the highly emotive topic of demeaning Prophetic Companions, the scholars replied it was misunderstood. One could make three typical responses. Firstly, one could say the person was kafir. Secondly, one could insult that person. And thirdly, one could criticise that person. The scholars said that the third category was the one that applied, and that they reserved the right to ‘criticise’ the historical narrative.

To this effect, top Iranian scholar, Grand Ayatollah Makarim Shirazi, has said: “We cannot close our eyes to history [and historical differences]; insulting is one thing while research is something else—these two should never be confused with one another.”[28]

The fifth matter referred to the reported ‘ismah, or ‘infallibility’, of the imams. The Shi’ah scholars argued that the imams – who had to possess the best of characters before ‘recognition’ – were faultless sources of law due to their chain of authority going back to the truly infallible source of law, the Prophet [saw]. The Azhari scholars had allegedly asked why statements then had to be appropriated to the imams, as opposed to the Prophet [saw].[29]

Serious rapprochement between Shi’ah and Sunni began in 1979, just after the revolution in Iran, when Ayatollah Khomeini forbid the Shi’ah from making disparaging remarks about Sunnis. In 1982, an annual Week of Unity was introduced to promote dialogue. In 1991 Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah ‘Ali Khamenei, founded the World Forum for Proximity of Islamic Schools of Thought, today headed by Ayatollah Mohsen Araki, a cleric born in the Iraqi town of Najaf.[30]

‘War on Terror’

Since 9/11 and the ‘War on Terror’, sectarianism has become a major headache in the Muslim world — Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Syria reeling from the consequences of irresponsible and ill-considered foreign interventions. To this effect, the ayatollahs in Iraq have taken a strong stand against sectarianism, particularly when the Shi’ah dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq appeared to condone sectarian violence.

This led to Iraqi Grand Ayatollah ‘Ali al-Sistani saying in 2013 at a conference in Najaf that the spilling of Iraqi blood, especially Sunnis, was forbidden. There was no difference between Sunnis, Shi’ites, Kurds or Christians; the rights of Sunnis must be protected at all costs by the Shi’ah majority, he said.[31]

Sistani had previously ruled [32] that a Shi’ah woman could marry a Sunni if there was agreement and that funeral prayers could be said over a Sunni and that Sunni and Shi’ah could inherit from each other. He ruled that while Sunnis rejected the imamate, it did not make them unbelievers.

The Al-Azhar Shaykh, Muhammad Abu Zahra, reciprocates in his work Tarikh al-Madha-hib al-Islamiyyah: “There is no doubt that Shi’ism is an Islamic sect. If we exclude examples like the Saba’ah who considered ‘Ali as being God, and others like them (knowing that the Saba’ah are considered infidels in the opinion of the Shi’ites) there is no doubt that everything this sect says is related to Qur’anic verses or sayings related to the Prophet [saw].”[33]

He adds: “They are friendly towards those Sunnis who become their neighbours and they do not repel them.”[34]

This is corroborated by Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Saeed al-Hakimi of Najaf who said: “The Sunnis are not the enemies of the Ahlul Bayt even if they did not follow them or believe in their imamate. They – in general – love the Ahlul Bayt. Our imams ordered us to associate with them in kindness and to communicate with them regularly.”


With regards to cursing, Iran’s Grand Ayatollah ‘Ali Khamenei ruled in September 2010: “Insulting the symbols of the Sunni brothers, including the Prophet Muhammad’s wife (Sayyidah A’ishah) is haram. This includes the women of all prophets and especially the holy Prophet Muhammad [saw], the leader of all Prophets.”[35]

The Fatwa was issued in response to a query by a group of Shi’ah scholars and intelligentsia in Al-Ahsa, Saudi Arabia. The query was made after one extremist Shi’ah cleric, Shaykh’ Yasser al-Habib, had publicly insulted Sayyidah A’ishah.[36]

Grand Ayatollah Makarim Shirazi responded to the issue thus: “Recently a pseudo scholar, an ignorant person…has shockingly abused the wives of the Noble Prophet [saw], and has insulted some holy entities of other sects and has accused wives of the Prophet [saw] of inappropriate things.

“Either this person is paid [by the enemies], or is foolish and a lunatic…this is in spite of the fact that hundreds of Shi‘ah scholars have condemned this act…our condemnation was publicised in the global Velayat Channel, and we have condemned every kind of insult of the wives of the Prophet [saw].” [37]

Though cautious, this ethos – of recognition rather than resentment – has started to emerge internationally. A shining example, writes Professor Syed Farid Alatas of the National University of Singapore, is that of the Sultanate of Oman.

He says that although the Ibadis[38] of Oman, neither Sunnis nor Shi’ites, make up about 75% of the population, Oman is probably the one country that allows for the greatest harmony between the Sunni and the Shi’ah. Omani basic law prohibits discrimination based on religion. It protects the rights of different religious communities to practice their religions on the condition that there is no disruption of the public order.[39]

Washington Declaration

In September 2013 the Islamic Society of North America ISNA) signed an agreement of mutual respect, the Washington Declaration, between Sunni and Shi’ah. Clause One of the eight point declaration states: “All Muslims are one nation, even if the schools of thought are diverse. Such diversity is a source of intellectual enrichment and should not be the cause of accusations of disbelief, murder, and the desecration of sanctities.”[40]

In Lucknow, India, a city where Sunni-Shi’ah relations have been decidedly strained, a local campaign called ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ has initiated joint ‘Eid prayers for the second year running.[41]

Finally, we proceed to a document called The Amman Message, a visionary and progressive initiative, which was sparked by King ‘Abdullah of Jordan to tackle the question of sectarianism plaguing 21st century Islam. It started as a detailed statement released on the eve of the 27th of Ramadan 1425 AH / 9th November 2004 CE in Amman, Jordan’s capital.
It sought to declare what Islam was and what it was not, and what actions represented it and what actions did not. Its goal was to clarify to the modern world the true nature of Islam and the nature of true Islam.

In order to give this statement religious authority, King Abdullah sent the following three questions to 24 of the most senior scholars in the world. The questions were: (1) “Who is a Muslim?” (2) “Is it permissible to declare someone an apostate?” And (3) “Who has the right to issue fatwas?”

Based on the rulings provided by these scholars, King ‘Abdullah convened an international Islamic conference of 200 of the world’s leading Islamic thinkers from 50 countries. In Amman, they unanimously issued a ruling on three fundamental issues, which became known as the ‘Three Points of the Amman Message’:

Validity of all eight madha-hib

They recognised the validity of all eight madha-hib (legal schools) of Sunni, Shi’ah and Ibadi Islam; of traditional Islamic theology (Ash’arism); of Islamic mysticism (Sufism), and of true Salafi thought, and came to a precise definition of who is a Muslim.

Based upon this definition they forbade takfir (declarations of apostasy) between Muslims. Based upon the madha-hib they set forth the subjective and objective preconditions for the issuing of fatwas by qualified scholars, thereby exposing ignorant and illegitimate edicts in the name of Islam.

These Three Points were then unanimously adopted by the Islamic world’s leadership at the Organization of the Islamic Conference summit at Makkah in December 2005.

And over a period of one year, the Three Points were unanimously adopted by six more international Islamic scholarly assemblies, culminating with the International Islamic Fiqh Academy of Jeddah, in July 2006. In total, over 500 leading Muslim scholars worldwide endorsed the Amman Message and its Three Points[42].

In his foreword to the Amman Message, King Abdullah had stressed that the consensus from it did not represent ‘the opinion of one man, one ethnic group, one country, or even a group of countries’. Nor did it represent one school of thought in Islam. It represented a unanimous agreement of all Muslims by their religious authorities, and even political leaders.

When discussing the Amman Message we cannot ignore the protestations of the Pakistani Deobandi scholar, Mufti Taqi Uthmani, that he did not sign the Three Points, despite the official Amman Message indicating he endorsed the first version and signed off on the second. Much is made of this by Sunni takfiris to say that the Amman Message has lost all its credibility.

What we do know is that the Mufti was asked by King ‘Abdullah to submit a fatwa, which he did. A reading of it indicates that the venerable Mufti does not deviate from the mainstream Ahlus Sunnah position of the Sunni imams, and does not allow unqualified takfir of other groups.
Unrestricted takfir is not established

A website* featuring his fatwa summarises it thus: “Unrestricted takfir of the Shi’ah is not established according to the majority of the ‘ulama. However, this does not mean that Shi’ah misguidance is in any doubt. Those Shi’ah have not been labelled kafir but are, without doubt, misguided and astray.”[43]

Mufti Uthmani, whose view has been wrongly conflated with the naked takfir of other Deobandi ‘ulama, is prefaced by him warning against Muslims indulging in the extremes of excess and negligence. He explains that as long as a person abides by the primaries of the faith, it is not permissible to declare unbelief based on secondary differences.

But let’s go back to the Amman Message allegedly losing its integrity due to Mufti Taqi Uthmani’s disavowals of having endorsed it, and in spite of his fatwa not deviating much from its final version.

Scholars such as Shaykh ‘Abdallah bin Bayah (Mauritania), Shaykh Mustafa Ceric (Bosnia), Shaykh Hassan al-Saqqaf (Jordan), Habib al-Saqqaf (Hijaz), Prof. Tariq Ramadan (Switzerland), Shaykh Nuh Keller (Jordan), Sayyid Hossein Nasser (USA), Shaykh Hamza Yusuf (USA), Shaykh ‘Abd al-Hakim Murad (Great Britain) and Habib ‘Umar ibn Hafidh (Yemen) are amongst the hundreds who have stood firm on the Three Points.

The doyenne of the ikhwan and the temperate wing of Salafist movement, Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, has also broken away from the tenets of the Three Points, the takfiris claiming that his personal view has nullified the Amman Message and the opinions of hundreds of other qualified scholars. Exasperated and incensed by geo-political events in Syria – as most of us are – he has apparently used it as the basis for declaring that he has wasted his life on fostering Sunni-Shi’a unity.

Formerly a supporter of Hezbollah’s 2006 war against Israel, he sees its Syrian intervention at the behest of Iran as outright treachery. This has led to him to say that in unity only the Shi’ah benefit; and that it is a pretext for them to propagate Shi’ism in Sunni countries.[44]

South African response

The Amman Message was also endorsed by a representative of the United ‘Ulama Council of South Africa, who in turn, represented all the country’s major ‘ulama bodies such as the Jami’at ul-‘Ulama, the Sunni ‘Ulama Council and the Muslim Judicial Council.

The representative endorsed the Three Points at the Forum of Muslim ‘Ulama and Thinkers in Makkah in 2005. This meant that South African Muslims would not regard the Shi’ah as apostates under the conditions of the Message.

However, to hear the surprising apologia (from other sources) that the endorsement was merely a signature of an ‘attendance register’ is a startling bon voyage to reality. The truth is that our major ‘ulama bodies agreed with the three principles of The Amman Message, and if they have departed from them, it is an utterly despicable betrayal of trust.

In conclusion, these are not the esoteric utterances of a ‘devious Sufi’, a ‘Wahhabi hater’ or a ‘sympathiser’ – as some antagonists have so loudly proclaimed – but an appeal to the conscience of my brothers and sisters to stop indulging in hate speech and to cease declaring wholesale unbelief on those with a different world-view to theirs. We do not expect Shi’ah and Sunni to agree on all questions, obviously, but we do hope for the precept of ‘you to yours’, and ‘me to mine’ without the baggage of recrimination.
Rather, we need to embrace the adab ul-ikhtilaf, the honour of difference, where to listen means to hear, where to respect means to receive respect – and where to love means to attract love. The point is if someone says the same kalimah shahadah as me, fasts the same fast as me, prays five times a day like me, pays the same Zakah as me and performs Hajj with me, I have no right to deny him the Prophetic embrace of being a Muslim.

As one of my Shaykhs has said: there is absolutely no positive outcome in creating divisions between Shi’ah and Sunni. To take reactionary stands, and to embrace acrimonious attitudes, invariably finds Muslim pitted against Muslim while Islam’s enemies look gleefully on.

Academic sources:

[1] Narrated by Bukhari, Muslim, Ahmad, Tayalisi, Abu Dawud, Nasa’i, al-`Adni, Abu `Awana, al-Tahawi, al-Hakim, and Bayhaqi.
[2] Shaikh Taha Jabir al-Alwani, The Ethics of Disagreement in Islam, The International Institute of Islamic Thought, Herndon, USA, 1996, p. 46.
[3] Dr G. Fouad Haddad, Ikhtilaf (differences) among the Madhhabs in Islam,
[4] South African Constitution Section 9, Equality.
[5] South African Constitution Section 15, Freedom of Religion.
[6] South African Constitution Section 16 (2), clause (c), Freedom of Expression.
[8] and
[9] Taqiyyah is described as concealing one’s faith to protect one’s life, and is allowed by Imam Shafi’i’s school of legal thought under those circumstances. Shi’i taqiyyah comes about, say Sunni sources, as a result of their experiences as a minority, hence its juridical elevation to a hinge of faith. Some Shi’ah scholars, as we will discuss later, say it is merely following the madh-hab of the ruler to deflect persecution.
[11] Sahih Bukhari, Book 89, Hadith #324
[12] Sahih Tirmidhi, vol 2, p. 298, vol 5, p. 63 and Sunan Ibn Maja, vol 1, pp. 12, 43 and many others.
[14] These declarations can be found all over the internet and on YouTube.
[15] The Four Imams and their Schools, p. 242, Gibril Fuad Haddad, Muslim Academy Trust.
[16] Reliance of the Traveller, Shaykh Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Masri, p. 1006, The Excellence of the Prophetic Companions, Sunna Books, Evanston, 1994.
[17] History of Shi’ism, Ghulam Hasan Muharrami, p. 214, Ahl ul-Bayt World Assembly, 2007.
[18] and and Moojan Momen, Introduction to Shi’i Islam, p 116, Yale University Press, 1985.
[19] and and’far_Muhammad_b_Ya’qub_al-Kulayni
[20] According to Ibn Salah, Imam Ja’fr al-Sadiq rejected the Rafidi. See: The Four Imams and their Schools, p. 98, Gibril Fuad Haddad, Muslim Academy Trust.
[21] The Four Imams and their Schools, p. 81, Gibril Fuad Haddad, Muslim Academy Trust.
[22] Space precludes further elaboration, but a close look at Kharijite history shows clearly the accuracy of Ahadith, and even the rise of Al-Qaeda and Da’esh, whose behaviour has shown remarkable similarities.
[23] The meaning of Islam would not penetrate beyond their collarbones.
[24] Bukhari: Ibn ‘Umar used to consider them to be the worst of Allah’s creation. He said, “They took verses which were revealed about the unbelievers and then applied them to the believers.”
[26] An English signed copy of the fatwa can be found at the following address:
[27] Where is the Shi’ah Qur’an (a refutation of Mufti Afzal Hoosen Elias), Islamic Educational Foundation, 1990.
[29] Azzawia lecture by Shaykh Ahmad Hendricks, Cape Town, 31/10/16.

[33] Tarikh al-Madha-hib al-Islamiyyah, p. 30, sourced at Sunni vs. Shi’ah, a Pitiful Outcry, p, 27, by Dr Ezzodin Ebrahim, Islamic Propagation Organisation, Tehran, 1984.
[34] Tarikh al-Madha-hib al-Islamiyyah, p. 52, sourced at Sunni vs. Shi’ah, a Pitiful Outcry, p, 27, by Dr Ezzodin Ebrahim, Islamic Propagation Organisation, Tehran, 1984.
[35] The ayatollah also issued a fatwa against tatbir, or self-flagellation, in 1994.
[38] The Ibadi movement, Ibadism or Ibadiyya, also known as the Ibadis (al-Ibadiyyah), is a school of Islam dominant in Oman and Zanzibar. It is also found in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and East Africa. Some historians believe that the denomination is a reformed sect of the Khawarij movement. Ibadis, however, deny anything more than a passing relation to the Khawarij, and point out that they merely developed out of the same precursor group called Muhakkima. Although their strict adherence to the Shari’ah in public and private matters has been described as ‘puritanical’, the character of their denomination is considered to be one of both moderation and tolerance toward other faiths.
[41] and
[43] and and *

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