Thursday, November 25, 2004

 

Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq - Basics


[There has been a lot of talk lately of potential Shiite-Sunni strife in Iraq. No doubt there will be more in the coming days. I thought an outline of the basics would be in order at this stage, to dispel some of confusion that exists in the minds of many in the West. This post may not make interesting reading but I feel it may serve as a useful reference or a simplified guide.

I am not a religious expert by any means. The following account is drawn from my own limited personal knowledge. I stand to be corrected by those more knowledgeable. In any case, my modest knowledge may be sufficient for the intended purpose.]


An Overview of Basics

Saunnah and Shi'a are two sects of Islam, very much like Catholicism and Protestantism.

Sunni – roughly refers to adherents to the precedence set by the Prophet Mohammed. They are more or less the "orthodox" Muslims. There are four major Sunni sub-sects. The overwhelming majority of Iraqi (and probably world) Sunnis follow the Hanafi doctrine. This is named after the revered scholar Abu Haneefa who is buried in the Adhameyyah district of Baghdad - hence the special significance of the attack by Marines and ING forces on the mosque where he is buried last Friday.

Shiite – roughly means "followers" or "cohorts" of Imam Ali, the Prophet's cousin, protégé and son-in-law. Shiites believe that Imam Ali (and his sons) should have succeeded the Prophet in running the affairs of the Muslim nation. Imam Ali, the fourth Caliph (successor) moved the Islamic capital from Medina near Mecca to Kufa in Iraq. He is buried in Najaf - hence the religious significance of Najaf. The desert city actually evolved around his shrine. Najaf has what is probably the largest cemetery in the world. Most Shiites (religious and not) prefer to be buried there.

The technicalities of theological differences may not be of much interest to most of the readers and will therefore not be mentioned – only differences relating to the present day topics will be briefly outlined.

One notable difference worth mentioning is that Shiites believe in the Resurrection of the "Absent 12th Imam", who disappeared in childhood and who, on his return, will fill the earth with Peace and Justice. He is called al Mehdi - hence the name "Mehdi Army" of Moqtada al Sadr. The site of his disappearance is in Samarra, in the heart of what is now known as the Sunni triangle!!

Sunnis generally go to mosques; Shiites go to Husseineyyahs. A Husseineyyah is, for all intents and purposes, a mosque where, in addition to the usual prayers and services, additional services are performed in mourning of the Imam Hussein [Imam Ali's son and Profit Muhammad's grandson who is buried in Kerbala and who is much revered by most Muslims but particularly by Shiites for his heroic stand for what he believed in, in the face of certain death. In an uneven battle, he and all 72 of his extended family were massacred].

Another notable difference is that the Shiites, being generally outside governance for the past 14 centuries, have developed strict and independent academic rules for the hierarchy of their clergy, and consequently hold them in higher reverence. Rise within the hierarchy is primarily on academic theological merit, determined by peers. The Sunnis, on the other hand, as a rule, have their clergy appointed by the powers of the day and are therefore generally, but not always, regarded as almost "government officials". Consequently, contemporary clergy are not held with the same regard.

For centuries, the "Hawza" in Najaf has been more or less the Supreme University for the Shiite clergy world-wide. Senior clergy had much sway over the religious Shiite population all over the world. During the past 30 years, two factors led to a significant shift in the role of the Najaf Hawza: one was the continuous pressure and harassment of the Saddam regime; the other was Khomeini's revolution in Iran. For decades, the Hawza in Qum, Iran played a more significant influence than Najaf, especially in Iran. The once-supreme influence of the Najaf Hawza on Iran's Shiite population is now much reduced.

Devout Shiites generally willingly pay the equivalent of 20% of their yearly profits to the clergy of their choosing. Similar donations used to come from all over the world. This of course means considerable liquidity at the disposal of senior clergy. There is nothing equivalent to this in the Sunni doctrine, apart from sporadic donations by philanthropists.

Sunnis are a majority in the Arab and the Muslim world. In Iraq, Shiites are a majority. The vast majority of Kurds are Sunnis. Turkmen are mostly Sunni.

Within the Arab population of Iraq, the Sunni and Shiite doctrines are not related in any way to any ethnic or racial differences.

As with other sects in Islam, there is no question regarding the ultimate source of all their belief: it's the Koran – the word of God. One source, one book, one code – differences are in the interpretation of things not specifically mentioned. All sects also agree on the precedence set by the practices established by the Prophet Mohammed (the Sunnah) except for some differences regarding the reliability of different source and references.

Differences stem from questions of details of practice or life, government, marriage, inheritance, minor differences in prayer time, determining when the moon is born, etc.

I will try to address some of the other Sunni-Shiite aspects of life in Iraq in future posts.


Comments:

"Within the Arab population of Iraq, the Sunni and Shiite doctrines are not related in any way to any ethnic or racial differences."
"Differences stem from questions of details of practice or life, government, marriage, inheritance, minor differences in prayer time, determining when the moon is born, etc."

Yippee! Question time!
To save a lazy man from labour, could you expand or clarify, Abu:
1) Protestant/Catholic intermarriage is nowadays not that uncommon in the Christian West. To what extent does or can Shiite/Sunni intermarriage occur in Iraq? Very rare, quite acceptable? Can Shiite/Sunni families become amicably related in this way? Can one change one’s sectarian allegiance, or are you stuck with what you are born into?
2) Secularity: in the last census in NZ, fully one third of the population identified themselves as having "no religion." And of the "Christian" two thirds, probably a majority would actually be only nominally so, their religiosity being restricted to Church attendance at birth, marriage, death and Christmas. In Iraq by contrast .......

your nemesis, Circular
 
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Yeah, and as usual a follow-up afterthought:
When you encounter someone in the West, generally you could spend some time (hours, days, weeks) in their company before the matter of their religious orientation (Catholic, atheist or Satanist)came up. You certainly can't tell just by appearance or stance. I've worked with some people for years without the question arising. In the Muslim world ...?
Circular
 
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Aha, a rich and informative posting! This is why I visit this site. Looking forward to the answers to Circular's questions. Oh, and circular, I happen to have family in NZ :)
 
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