Long before the Madinah affair, I’ve thought about writing a post on the difference between Shia and Sunnis and then I thought why put myself in a minefield of misunderstandings. After reconsideration, I reasoned that nothing ever gets resolved by keeping quiet so I might as well write. When the Madinah affair happened this week, I tried to get informed but that is not possible with our “on a strict need to know” basis news organizations and biased websites. Youtube is even worse, all I could find on there was a bunch of chaotic crowds that could be either Sunni or Shia. So this is not a post on that particular incident, it’s a general post from someone who was raised Sunni, visited Qatif (where Saudi Shias are concentrated) and taught hundreds of students of both sects.
Before the international spread of the internet and Iraqi war, not much was heard or written about sectarian differences in Islam. The majority of Arabs are Sunnis with Arab Shias concentrated in Bahrain, Lebanon and Iraq. In Saudi Arabia they are a minority with most originating from the eastern region. The break in Islam into the two sects reminds me of the break between Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, with Shias resembling the Catholics with all these saints and rituals and Sunnis resembling Orthodoxies with an emphasis on puritanical practices. I have seen paintings of Ali bin Talib (RAA) that could just as well have been paintings of Jesus in a church with the beard and long hair. Saudi Sunnis interpretation of Islam could be considered as parallel to the Amish and Mormon interpretations of Christianity. If you squint and glaze over the details, the history looks quite similar, with Islam currently being in its own version of the Dark Age.
At a more personal level my experience has been mostly neutral with phases of mystification with what I hear about Shias. However my sources were questionable as they were other Sunnis like myself. I have attempted a few times to ask Shias I know about their interpretation but it was awkward and uncomfortable. Online it’s even worse when you are looking for answers from a Sunni to Shia perspective and vice versa because those forums are just a bunch of narrow minded idiots exchanging vulgar insults.
Growing up, I would hear about Shias, mostly students studying at the colleges here in the capital. Within Saudi Sunni circles controversy surrounding the Shias centers around four claims:
1- Warnings that Shias gain religious points by harming Sunnis
2- Watch Shias the day after Ashoora (Islamic day) because they always wear long sleeves and turtle-necks to hide their injuries
3- They reject and insult some of the prophet’s closest companions.
4- And of course Mutaa’ marriages (pleasure based marriages that are temporary and require no witnesses or legal papers). And I would like to note here that I was shocked to learn that this was also ok in Sunni Islam until very late in the Prophet Muhamed’s lifetime (PBUH).
When my family lived in the US we became good friends with another Saudi family who happened to be Shias from Qatif. Once back in Saudi Arabia, we visited them at their home in Qatif. It was quite fun. The family was liberal and we all sat together men and women. They also introduced us to the man’s brother and we got invited to the brother’s house as well. It was generally a pleasant experience. Qatif itself is similar to Qaseem; lots of old building and a whole bunch of areas that are called villages but to me might as well be one great big city because the distance between them doesn’t qualify them to be separate villages. They returned the visit when they came to Riyadh and the wife did something that my whole family thought was strange. They were over for dinner but she would not eat or drink anything. This could be something idiosyncratic especially considering that her husband was natural and dug in with the rest of us. But my family could not help but think that it was rude and that she might have done something to our food when we were over at their house. Again this might have nothing to do with religion or she might have thought that we meant to harm her as part of our Sunni practices. The friendship originated with the men and was strong between my father and her husband. The ladies, my mother and the wife were just playing nice and her not even drinking a cup of tea put a damper on things. Later on I got to know a lot more Saudi Shias as colleagues and students. What makes them stand out is their Arabic accent which reminds me of the Bahraini Arabic accent and the fact that they are generally more serious and hard-working than my Najdi and Hijazi students. They rarely have the spoiled materialistic air about them that the others do.
I predict that sectarian differences will remain for awhile and some warfare will be based on it, as is the case in Iraq. But eventually Arab Muslims will see the pointlessness of their squabbles and inequities. They’ll learn to be more religiously introspective rather than the current state of self-righteousness and fixation on correcting everybody else’s beliefs.
This post was not meant to offend anyone and I welcome comments here.