by Loren Seibold
It's hardly a novel observation that it's easier to make negative judgments about people who we know little about. Early in my lifetime, we Americans made many negative assumptions about ordinary Russians based on the actions of a few leaders. Today, the same is true of Muslims. For example, Americans believe, based on events like the destruction of the World Trade Center, that Muslim animus is primarily directed toward them. (This despite the undeniable fact that the West has taken more conflict to them than they've brought to us.) Some assume that there is something flawed in the Muslim culture or character that makes them value living in peace less than we do.
The Pew Research Center is a wonderful resource for understanding faith around the world. One of their latest surveys has to do with attitudes of Middle-Eastern Muslims toward the sectarian strife in their own faith community. It shows that most Muslims are concerned about extremism, and recognize that there's as much or more animosity between Muslims as toward Christians or the West. 67% of Lebanese Muslims, and 52% of Iraqis are concerned about the sectarian tensions between Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims.
The Sunni-Shia divide is obscure to us, for the same reasons that we don't understand the Muslim world in general. Much like the Catholic-Protestant divide, there are historical tensions, everyday practical differences, and prejudices that are almost impossible to explain to someone outside the culture. Historically, the divide began with a conflict over who should have succeeded Muhammed as leader of the faith. The Sunnis hold that leadership passed to caliphs elected by the Islamic elders after his death, the Shias that Muhammed's cousin and son-in-law Ali was God's chosen successor. This led to them to giving authority to hadiths (extra-Quranic teachings and commentary of the prophet) recorded by different followers and companions. (Some historians say that none of the hadiths are as early or authentic as their followers think they are.) Both groups are further divided, just as are Christians, into smaller sects.
Springing from their belief in Divine selection of leaders, Shia gives much authority to contemporary Ayatollahs and Imams. It shouldn't be a surprise then that religiously-intolerant Iran and Iraq are the home of the majority of Shias. Most of the rest of the Islamic world, about 85%, is Sunni.
In every major teaching the two sides are in agreement: God and his prophet Muhammed, heaven, hell, angels and predestination. Both groups practice the five pillars including daily prayers and fasting for Ramadan. More interesting to me is what divides them: the Sunni reject the Shia practice of appealing to dead relatives for help or guidance, and are less likely to approve devotional exercises at the tombs of Muslim saints. Shia regard their human leaders, Imams and Ayatollahs, as centrally authoritative and in some cases sinless or infallible.
A particularly interesting finding of this study is that some Muslim attitudes vary less between sects than they do between countries, suggesting that nationalism has had a major effect on devotion. Both Sunni and Shia in Lebanon and Azerbaijan regard religion as of less importance than Muslims in the other countries studied, and fewer than half of Azerbaijanis of either sect keep strictly the Ramadan fast.
One thing is for sure: it is oversimplistic to assign the blame for Middle-Eastern conflict to a decifiency in the Muslim faith or character. There are multiple causes, including Western wars and policies. It's also useful to remember that we Christians have a parallel history: from the Crusades to the Thirty Years' War to the Inquisition, Christians shed a great deal of blood, both inside and outside our faith community, for the sake of defending what some regarded as orthodoxy.