Friday, June 10, 2005

which islam?

The Qur'an does not mince its words when it comes to muslims killing muslims.

"One believer must not kill another believer, unless it be by error... Premeditated murder of one believer by another will have eternal hell as retribution. Allah will be incited against him, He will curse him and level against him a terrible punishment." (sura 4, 92-3)

Yet the daily headlines from Iraq and frequent stories out of places like Pakistan, Indonesia and Afghanistan tell us that the victims of radical Islamic terrorism are, overwhelmingly, Islamic.

The bodies discovered in the mass graves along the Syrian border this week belonged to muslim civilians. The recurring bomb blasts at shi'ite mosques are the handiwork of sunni insurgents. The unspeakable atrocities of the janjaweed militia, financed and encouraged by the Islamic Sudanese government are directed against their own people, native African animists some, Islamic others, in much the same way Saddam Hussein's sunni ba'athist regime waged a genocidal campaign against the sunni kurds in the north of Iraq years ago.

If the Qur'an is taken seriously and literally by shi'ites, sunnis, kharijites and the other factions of the muslim world, whence the wiggle room that allows for the unbridled slaughter supposedly reserved only for infidels? If the fundamental justification for activities like armed jihad and intifada is arguably taken from the Qur'an, how to explain the blatant disregard to the holy text when it comes to eliminating brother believers?

The bare truth is that Islam, far from the imposing monolith it often appears to western eyes, is a violently fragmented world where dialogue and tolerance are seldom popular choices when its different factions cross paths.

Historically, Islam split first into three groups shortly after the death of the Prophet Muhammad on June 8, 632. Four leaders followed in succession, all relatives of the Prophet. With the death of the fourth caliph, 'Ali, the Syrian muslims declared that future leaders of the islamic community need not be blood relatives of the Prophet, they should be elected and serve as directors of religious worship. Thus began the sunni version of Islam which states that the authority to rule the people of Islam lies in the sunna: the traditional interpretation of the Qur'an and the shari'a, or law gleaned from the holy book.

The shi'ites differ essentially from the sunni in that they affirm that true authority over the community resides in the person of the imam or ayatollah, who must be a descendent of Muhammad and shares in the Prophet's same gift of spiritual illumination. The shi'ites name twelve holy and true caliphs who reigned in succession until the ninth century. The twelfth caliph, Muhammad al-Mahdi, disappeared. His return will mark the end of time and the beginning of peaced and justice on earth.

The shi'ites traditionally blame the sunni for the disappearance of al-Mahdi and, as is well known, historical grudges die hard in the muslim world.

A third group, far inferior in number, broke away at about the same time. The kharijites or, 'those who abandon', wanted nothing to do with either the sunni or the shiites. They are historically the most egalitarian faction of the Islamic world.

Today, sunni account for about 85% of all muslims, shi'ites about 14% and kharijites the remainder. Iran is 95% shi'ite and the ayatollahs are the uncontested religious, political and social authority. Both Iraq and Bahrain also have shi'ite majorities. Most other muslim countries are strong sunni majorities. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Turkey and Algeria are nearly 100% sunni. But the three historical divisions provide only the most basic level of differentiation in Islam.

The shi'ite universe is a patchwork quilt of conflicting sects. Since authority and prophecy are identified with the person of the imam, a community of followers forms around each one, often in conflict or competition with the others.

The sunni population is known for its intolerance based on an ever more extreme quest for purity in the following of the Qur'an and the sunna. The world cringes at displays of shari'a driven justice: rape victims found guilty of adultery and then stoned, beheadings and torture (not necessarily in that order) for minor infractions of the law... The wahhabis ('puritans') of Saudi Arabia are the descendents of a sunni movement bent on ultimate perfection. Their society is one of the most intolerant and rigid on earth.

What is already a confusing scenario becomes damn near indecipherable when ethnic, tribal and national differences are thrown into the mix. The kurds are technically sunnis, but they are despised and discriminated against as infidels by both Turkish and Iraqui sunnis. Al Quaeda is of sunni inspiration, but its thugs will off anyone - muslim, christian or jew - regardless.

Oman is 75% obadi muslim. Azerbaijan is 61% shi'aithna muslim. The druze have taken refuge in the mountains of Syria and Lebanon, where they await the end of the world. The Baha'i consider themselves the perfect evolution of Islam and parade for world peace from their headquarters in Haifa (!). The sufi are the mystics of Islam, venerated by some, outlawed by others.

Among all the infinite divisions of Islam, you would be hard pressed to find one single group that did not consider itself impeccably obedient and faithful to the Qur'an.

A parting reflection: last week a sunni suicide bomber went into a shi'ite mosque in Karachi and detonated himself at the height of the evening prayer session. The surviving shi'ite worshippers, enraged, took immediate action. They charged into the street and torched a KFC.

Get it?