Shias consider Ali ibn Abi Talib as Prophet Muhammad’s only rightful heir while Sunnis revere him as a close relative of the Prophet as well as one of the four rightly-guided caliphs
In March 2023, Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to restore diplomatic relations and reopen embassies as part of a deal signed in Beijing seven years after the two countries ended their ties following the execution of a Saudi Shia cleric.
Much of the analysis in the West of the breakthrough was reduced to the simplistic Sunni-Shia binary. In a theconversation.com piece, Lancaster University international relations professor Simon Mabon referred to this lazy analysis that has often reduced the Iran-Saudi rivalry to a sectarian conflict and a consequence of ‘ancient hatreds.’
Mabon called such a reading of events ‘xenophobic and orientalist’ and wrote ‘it ignores the context and contingencies’ shaping relations between predominantly Shia Iran and Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia.
He wrote the rivalry between the two countries ‘has fractious roots shaped by the interplay of security concerns, claims to leadership over the Muslim world, ethno-sectarian rivalries, and differing relationships with Washington.’
Theological differences between and among various Muslim sects and sub-sects have existed for centuries. But, as the lazy analysis on the restoration of Iran-Saudi ties again underlined, the Shia-Sunni rivalry is grossly exaggerated in the Western discourse.
The rivalry is not cast in stone as it is often assumed in the West, ignoring the recent roots of sectarianism as well as its racial and geopolitical elements.
The Shia-Sunni dispute essentially centres around Muslim leadership. The supporters of Ali ibn Abi Talib argued he alone should have been the Prophet’s successor. They came to be known as the Shia or Shiat Ali (the party of Ali) while those insisting that bloodline should not be the sole criterion for selecting leaders as Sunnis.
Ali ibn Abi Talib, however, is also a unifier as devotion to the Prophet and his family unites Muslims across sectarian lines. The Sunnis revere him as one of the Prophet’s close companions, son-in-law as well one of the four rightly-guided caliphs.
Ali ibn Abi Talib is also a widely-quoted Muslim hero known for his compassion. In his speech marking the beginning of the 50th anniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December 1997, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan famously quoted Ali ibn Abi Talibi’s instructions to the governor of Egypt, reflecting his emphasis on mercy and tolerance:
… Let the dearest of your treasuries be the treasury of righteous action… Infuse your heart with mercy, love, and kindness for your subjects… for they are of two kinds: either they are your brothers in religion or your equals in creation
The spirit of Ali’s words is echoed in the declaration that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
Sufi saints, a majority of whom were Sunnis, mostly traced their lineage to Ali ibn Abi Talib, who is seen as the Prophet’s spiritual inheritor. They drew a bulk of converts to Islam in places such as the Indian Subcontinent (home to the world’s 25% Muslims). A majority of Muslims in South Asia venerate Ali ibn Abi Talib and the Prophet’s family.
Sufis see him as the foremost basis of spiritual knowledge. Ali ibn Abi Talib was the first Sufi disciple and the source of the esoteric wisdom that Sufism is based on. Barring the Naqshbandi, every Sufi order traces lineage to Ali ibn Abi Talib. The Naqshbandi trace their lineage to the first Caliph Abu Bakr.
Ali ibn Abi Talib is celebrated for his chivalry, bravery, generosity, justice, and grandeur of the soul, values that are seen as the true essence of Islamic piety.
Academic Vali Nasr writes in his book The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future that Syria ‘provides a modern example of cooperation between Shiism and Sufism.’ Alawis, an offshoot of Shiism whose beliefs include elements of other religions, have dominated the Syrian government, which has since the 1980s relied on the Naqshbandi Sufi order for legitimacy.
In the subcontinent, Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s shrine in Pakistan’s southern port city of Karachi is symbolic of the diversity of Shia and Sunni views of each other. Ghazi is believed to be a relative of the sixth Shia Imam Jafar al-Sadiq, who came to what is now Karachi from Baghdad.
Shias consider imams as the only rightful heirs to the Prophet, which makes Ghazi a revered figure as a relative of al-Sadiq. Ghazi’s shrine has been a salad bowl and has brought people together for centuries irrespective of their sectarian identities.
Shrines such as those of Ghazi mark the blurring of the sectarian lines that are erroneously presumed to be deeper than they are. A stream of Sufi mystics settled in the Indian subcontinent from the 10th century onwards. Their shrines attracted a following through inclusive mysticism that was based on egalitarianism and equality before God.
Sufism is the dominant spiritual stream among Muslims in the subcontinent. It is an esoteric expression of Islam that resembles, writes Nasr, ‘aspects of Shia piety.’ Nasr writes Sufis like the Shia believe that there are outer and inner meanings to the Quran and the prophetic traditions and revere those whom they believe can grasp the more inward meaning.
Shia imams and the Sufi saints are revered as intermediaries between humans and God. They are seen as capable of interceding with God for divine healing blessing, and forgiveness.
Imam Abu Hanifa and Imam Malik, the founders of the Hanafi and the Maliki Sunni schools of thought, were Shia Imam Jafar al-Sadiq’s students in Baghdad. Sadiq, who established the main Shia school of law (Jafari), connects the two Sunni theological streams. He is considered an important authority in the Hanafi and the Maliki of jurisprudence.
The schools evolved when Sunnis and Shias frequented each other’s learning circles. The practice became more pronounced later. Sadiq was both Ali and Abu Bakr’s great-great-grandson. He was a direct descendant of Ali while his mother was the great-granddaughter of Abu Bakr.
Sadiq is a highly respected figure within the Sunni jurisprudential tradition, who is believed to have never tolerated Abu Bakr and Caliph Umar’s criticism, which has been a bone of contention between Shias and Sunnis.
The Shias and Sunnis influenced each other’s norms and theology as they were in constant dialogue with each other. Academic Hassan Abbas writes in The Prophet’s Heir: The Life of Ali Ibn Abi Talib that they exchanged ideas and borrowed traditions.
Abbas writes Sunni and Shia scholars would routinely argue over theological issues – at times heatedly leading to hostility. He cites modern research into their relations and writes it shows that scholars from both sects in Baghdad taught students across sectarian affiliations:
Abbas writes Shia jurists participated in the mainstream of Islamic jurisprudence. They were influenced by Sunni legal doctrines. Abbas argues sectarianism was not encouraged in scholarly circles at the least.
He writes Shaykh al-Mufid, one of the leading Shia authorities of the 10th century, for one, actively sought to downplay sectarianism, at times even by rejecting Shia positions, including the claim that the eleven deceased Shia imams (in the Twelver tradition) were all assassinated.
Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide