Sunni-Shia Dialogue

Rhodes Forum 2013
World Public Forum Dialogue of Civilizations – Rhodes, Greece
2-6 October 2013

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me first to thank Mr. Vladimir Yakunin, the Founding President of the World Public Forum (WPF); Mr. Walter Schwimmer, Head WPF Int. Coordinating Committee; Mr. Fred Dallmayr, Co-Chairman WPF; and Mr. Vladimir Kulikov, Acting Director WPF for inviting me to participate in the conference.

I am speaking today particularly in my capacity as a president of the International Union for Intercultural and Interfaith Dialogue and Peace Education (ADIC), which was launched in Paris in 1989. Created by Dr. Adel Amer, former director of the League of Arab States in Paris; and Father Lelong, a catholic White Father; ADIC was originally called, L’ Association du Dialogue Islamo-Chrétien (Association for Muslim-Christian Dialogue).

I became President of ADIC after Dr. Amer passed away in April 1990, the board of directors of ADIC proposed that Cardinal Franz Koenig, member of the Sacred College of Cardinals and responsible for the dialogue with non-Christians at the Vatican, be named honorary president. I was keen from the first day to expand the organization’s mandate to include dialogue with those of the Jewish faith to be (Association for Jewish, Islamic and Christian Dialogue).

Over the years, I realized the importance of dialogue between cultures, as it contributes to the success of interfaith dialogue. So, In order to represent the full range of ADIC’s activities over the years, the name was changed again in 2010 to its current one: International Union for Intercultural and Interfaith Dialogue and Peace Education, but the acronym ADIC remains the same. Building relationships among the three monotheistic religions through colloquia, public statements, and television programs, as well as cultural and educational activities, ADIC’s role in intercultural and interfaith dialogue, has spanned more than 20 years and three continents.

Our most recent conference, co-organized by ADIC and the Swedish Institute of Alexandria last November in Alexandria, was geared towards the mutual influences of intercultural and Interfaith dialogue, so we held a roundtable discussion called “Bridging Secularism and Religious Beliefs in Contemporary Societies”.

Now it is time to discuss Sunni-Shia Dialogue. We all talk about dialogue between Sunnis and Shiites, but the reality on the ground is that there is a clash. When we wonder why there is conflict, especially since there is full agreement on the level of faith in God, the holy Quran and Prophet Mohamed, I think the remaining points of disagreement are minor issues.

There are five main differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims:

1. Religious leadership (Imamate): Shiites believe that Imams are divinely guided and considered as legitimate interpreters of the Quran. But, Sunnis believe that their Imams are not divine but persons with strong faith and theological knowledge of the Holy Quran and Sunnah.

2. Infallibility: Shiites believe their Imams are infallible in every respect. They see a very little distinction between imams and prophets. On the other hand, Sunnis believe that even prophets’ infallibility is limited in conveying revelation.

3. The position of Shiites & Sunnis on the Prophet’s Companions (Sahaba): Sunnis have no hard feelings towards the Companions of the Prophet. They believe that the dignity of the Prophet’s Companions places them above all other people in honor. While Shiites insist on their opposition to the Prophet’s Companions to the extent that they believe that all except for three of them Abu Dharr, Salman al-Farisi, and al-Miqdad, abandoned Islam after the death of Prophet Mohamed, and according to them, whoever doubts that the Prophet’s Companions abandonment of Islam is a disbeliever.

4. Temporary (Muta’a) marriage: Both Sunnis and Shiites agree that temporary marriage was allowed in the early days of Islam. The Sunnis, however, believe that temporary marriage was later forbidden unlike the Shiites who continued to practice it.

5. Religious practices: I’ll take one example here on the “dissimulation” or (Taqiyyah); which is to deny faith. The Shiites regard dissimulation a permissible act, even without necessity. They went further making dissimulation a central feature of their doctrine. As for Sunnis, the original rule concerning lying is that it is a prohibited act and a sign of hypocrisy, except in rare circumstances like under a serious threat to their lives. Even in this case, it is better to preserve silently and refuse to renounce faith even in the face of death.

As you can see, both Sunni and Shia Muslims share the most fundamental Islamic beliefs and faith. The differences between these two main subgroups within Islam did not initially emerge from spiritual differences, but purely political ones. But, over centuries, however, these political differences have produced a number of varying practices carrying spiritual significance.

I would like to give an example of some efforts that were made to bring about convergence between Sunnis and Shiites. When the head of Shiite community of Lebanon visited Al-Azhar University in Cairo during the tenure of late Sheikh of al-Azhar Gad al-Haq Ali Gad al-Haq (1982-1996), he delivered a speech in which he said: “Why do we dispute if we worship the same God, our Quranic reference is the same, and believe in the same religion, the rest of the points of contention are of a secondary importance”.

The students of al-Azhar University were impressed by his words. In an interview with Ayatollah Khomeni in Al Ahram newspaper (23/2/79), Khomeni stated: “the dispute between Sunni and Shia is created by the West”.

I agreed with Khomeini when he expressed his rejection of maneuvers to discriminate between Sunnis and Shiites, and also his rejection of fanatical interpretations of Islam. Answering a question about his evaluation of the many attempts he made towards cooperation between Shiites and Sunnis, especially in his famous speech in Kom in 1964 in which he linked the importance of such cooperation to the independence of the will of Islamic countries. Khomeini replied: “I believe that the differences between Shiites and Sunnis were disagreements about the interpretation of some words and that these differences were amplified by foreigners to destroy the unity of Islamic countries… but they forgot that the unity of Muslims was ordered by God and worked for by the Prophet of Islam. We consider the Shah as one of those who contributed to the creation of these differences. When unity is achieved among the Islamic countries they will be a major power in the world.”

Personally, I believe that at one stage the dispute between Sunnis and Shiites became a rupture, even to the point of hostility, because of politics and the interests of the leaders, and of extremism on both sides. There is also an apparent ignorance by each party as to the position of the other party, as well as an ignorance of the essence of Islam. This essence is based on the unity of Muslims and division among them is prohibited, regardless of different beliefs and sects.

It is also my opinion that the dispute between Sunnis and Shiites is based on political disagreement between major countries like Iran, the capital of Shiism on the one hand, and between both of Egypt as the capital of Sunni Islam represented by al-Azhar, and Saudi Arabia as symbolized by the Two Holy Mosques on the other hand.

I think the role of the leaders of the Sunnis and the Shiites is to find common ground for dialogue between the two groups in order to avoid confrontation and violence. As we have seen in many Muslim countries, this always result in a large numbers of victims.

Unity among Muslims is a religious obligation and is clearly stated many times in the Holy Quran. God says in Surat ‘Āl-`Imrān: “And hold firmly to the rope of Allah all together and do not become divided. And remember the favor of Allah upon you – when you were enemies and He brought your hearts together and you became, by His favor, brothers.” Surat ‘Āl-`Imrān (3:103)

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