Tidbits of Arabic News translated into English

Friday, January 3, 2014

Sunnis and Shias on Ashura

(November 15, 2013)

There's a Muslim holiday called Ashura, and it is a day on which there's some difference between how Sunni and Shia Muslims celebrate. Ashura is in part a commemoration of the murder of the Prophet's grandson, al-Hussayn, in the 700s, and this dark chapter still has people angered.

The BBC Arabic did a call-in show to canvass opinions and see where everyone stood.

First, they aired opinions of random people from the Yemeni street:

 This man says: "there's always been a difference between the Shia and Sunni, but now it's gotten all caught up in politics."

"A problem made worse by more and more extremism." 

"There's the Sunni and Shia, and then there's the meddling foreigners." 

"It's all the fault of Israel and the US."

Then, they went back to the studio and interviewed a Saudi sheikh:

The Saudi sheikh gave his take on the holiday of Ashura:
Both Sunnis and Shias revere al-Hussayn, and in fact we all believe him to be going to the very highest levels of Heaven. However, if I may be frank I'd like to say a word to the Shia. They always take this day to accuse the Sunni of having killed al-Hussayn. And the truth is that the people who killed al-Hussayn are completely rejected by the Sunni, and we consider Yazhid, the man who did the killing, to have committed a serious crime. So I ask the Shia not to turn this day into a day of shedding blood and moaning, because I don't believe that any reasonable person thinks this should be done. And I ask that they not hold the Sunnis to account for al-Hussayn's death. As long as we are all in agreement over this, and agree that we all like al-Hussayn, and we agree that al-Hussayn was against evil, then it will all be fine.

A man called in from Jordan:
In the olden days, the Shia held the Imam Ali as the first of the first. [The Imam Ali is connected to al-Hussayn.] Then this deepened into something else, and finally turned into "whoever does not believe like us and revere the Imam Ali like we do is an infidel." In the meantime, there are the Sunni Wahabis in Saudi who say the Shia are infidels. So how are we all supposed to get along and be in agreement when there's two sides calling each other infidels?

BBC moderator: okay, but the Imam Ali is important to all Muslims, so why should the Sunnis object to this reverence?

Man from Jordan: because as Muslims, we are supposed to abide by the Prophet Mohamed alone and the book sent down to him. We're not supposed to follow all the Imams that came after him. Those imams follow the religion of Islam, just like all of us follow the religion. We're supposed to follow it based on Mohamed alone. Neither the Shias nor the Wahabis do this like the rest of us, they are not following the book and the Prophet alone. So how are we supposed to be in agreement?

Next, they spoke by phone to a Yemeni man living in Iraq.

BBC moderator: as a Sunni Yemeni in Iraq, do you feel that the Shia around you are accusing you of having killed al-Hussayn?

Man from Yemen: I'd like to say that as an individual citizen, no one feels that there is any difference between the Sunni and Shia. I think the extremists are making the situation worse. At the end of the day, we are all Muslims and we all agree that there is no God but God and Mohamed is the Prophet of God. Yesterday here in Iraq, we had the celebrations for Ashura. It wasn't just the Sunni and Shia participating, there were Christians and all religions.

BBC moderator turns back to the Saudi sheikh: how do you respond?

Saudi sheikh: Excuse me, to the Jordanian who said the Wahabis are infidels: the Wahabis are part of the Sunni and we do not call anyone an infidel ... except for those who transgress the conditions for becoming an infidel, whether they be Sunni or Shia, but however, the Sunni happen to be those who are farthest away from being infidels.

BBC moderator: let's be realistic. We hear certain outrages and certain fatwas coming out of the mouths of some Wahabis, there are also infidel acts, and we hear that you refer to some Muslims as the "rejectors", and that's not nice.

Saudi sheikh: alright, sure. First, the "rejectors",  those people call themselves rejectors. Secondly, the Shia have certain strains amongst them that are blasphemous and violent, just like the Sunni also have extreme groups. But to say that the Saudis are responsible for those violent groups is completely illogical and wrong. So I'd like to tell my brothers, when you say something about a doctrine, be sure to know what you are talking about before you say anything!

A man from Egypt calls in:
The Wahabis blaspheme all the Shia and everyone who stands against America and Israel. Most people treat Ashura as the memory of the martyrdom of al-Hussayn. But then there's a group of Wahabis who want to get al-Hussayn out of history and prefer that he was killed. The beliefs of these people were built by Mohamd Abid Al-Wahab with the help of the Jews ...

The BBC moderator jumps in:
Okay, okay, let's not throw around accusations. In a general sense, does all this justify the distance between the Shia and the Sunni? and if in fact any of what you said was true, does this justify the social trend of more distance and more rivalries, on a day that is commemorating a person who is in fact revered and respected by all Muslims?

Man from Egypt:
Sir, we Sunni in Egypt do in fact commemorate Ashura and the martyrdom of al-Hussayn, and we revere the Imam Ali, and I don't at all approve of the Wahabis because they are blasphemous.

BBC Moderator:
Okay, that's clear, okay!

Saudi cleric:
All I hear from your viewers is that they complain and say that the Wahabis call everyone infidels; then they turn around and call the Wahabis infidels.

BBC Moderator:
That's right, this is part of the problem, the extremists are from both sides.

Then they both agreed that part of the problem is the politicians taking advantage of the situation and using everyone's viewpoints to pit people against each other even more, so that they can win votes.

Saudi cleric:
See, they say that we don't revere al-Hussayn and that we want to 'take al-Hussayn away from justice'. This isn't true! We love al-Hussayn! These distortions are all political machinations. And without any doubt there's lots of political machinations coming from the Shia extremist politicians so that they can maintain the enmity between the Sunni and Shia, and so that the Shia will continue to be far away from the true religion of the Sunnis, and for the sake of Iran getting to still take advantage of everything they're doing wrong.

Then it was time to read some comments on the online message boards:

Comment: al-Hussayn is not just for the Shia but for all of humanity, because there were even Christians who were killed beside him, and he represents peace and the plight of the oppressed against the oppressor.

Comment: It's not just a story for religion but a story of a hero and even Mahatma Gandhi studied this story for his efforts against the British occupation of India. And it's a wonderful thing, if only we can get away from calling everyone an infidel.

There were also people who wrote in to say that they completely reject the other side and they don't want any sort of collaboration with them. Others wrote that they had no problem living side by side with those of different religious persuasions, and one person wrote that the problem in the Muslim world is the idea of calling everyone who doesn't believe exactly as you do an infidel, and getting so worked up that you resort to violence. Another person wrote: sure there are differences, but does this have to lead to suicide bombings when God has outlawed suicide?

Then they aired footage from Baghdad, where they asked random people on the streets: "do your politicians take advantage of Shia-Sunni splits to win votes?"

Not sure what she's saying, I just wanted to show a female. There's a second lady in the background. WHOA. 

"Sure, the politicians take advantage. But, in a strong country, they can't get much of a foothold in that direction. They can only take advantage in weak countries, where the law cannot withstand them."

"A society cannot move forward if there's no sort of tolerance or steps at trying to get closer to one another." 

"Religion is a matter for the worshipper and his Creator. It has nothing to do with politics. We really need to put some thought into separating religion from politics. In fact, politics is all wrong. It is an expression based on lies, on points that people make for personal gain. It shows your internal diseases. And that's what they're using on us."

That's a pretty bold statement! And I give her double props for her swanky sunglasses.

After listening to those people, the show returned to the studio and spoke this this religious man:

I'm pretty sure this man is a Shia. He said: I agree that there is political interference in religion. In the 900s, when Egypt was under the rule of the Fatimids and known as "Egypt the Fatimiya", the Al-Azhar religious institute taught dozens of Islamic theories. But then, when Salah ad-Din (Saladin) took over, everything was banned except for four Sunni strains. And this is only one example. In general, Muslims have grown used to, over the centuries, being imposed upon by their rulers in matters of religion.

And finally, they had one more guest via video link. This is a Sunni analyst from Egypt. Allow me to introduce: the Arab man and the Finger:

He said:
When Terri Jones, the American, tries to burn copies of the Quran, Muslims don't really know what to do as a counter-insult. (Actually, we do, we go and kill ambassadors.) But from a religious standpoint, we can't counter-insult. For example, we can't start insulting symbols of Christianity, like Mary, because Mary is very holy in Islam as well!

He gave this example as a parallel for the Sunnis and Shias. When the Shia start insulting the Sunnis, the Sunnis don't know how to respond because everything that is particularly holy for Shias (whether the Imam Ali or Fatima) is in fact holy for Sunnis as well. 

Then the moderator interrupted and said, well, and not all Shias insult all the Sunnis. And the analyst said, yes, yes, of course. 

BBC Moderator:
Why, if the historical difference between the Shias and Sunnis is so small, then why do the attempts at unification and reconciliation fail? Why are there not more attempts?

Sunni analyst from Egypt: because the politicians take advantage of conflicts to win votes. If they all really revered al-Hussayn, as they say they do, they would have reached across the aisle and reconciled just as al-Hussayn preached, but they won't do that, not from either side. 

Whew! If you made it all the way here, congratulations. I hope I did not lose you with mentions of al-Hussayn, Fatima, and the Imam Ali, but I'd better not explain any of it. I'll probably give you a version riddled with mistakes, and then I'll have the Muslim police breathing down my back!

You can watch the show on YouTube by clicking here.

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