One of the leading Islamic clerics in the world called for a dialogue between the two main currents of the faith to settle the Sunni-Shi’ah differences in an address to religious leaders like Pope Francis today. Sheikh Ahmed al Tayeb, the grand imam of Cairo’s iconic al Azhar Mosque, a centre of Sunni learning, made the rare appeal at the Bahrain Dialogue Forum aimed at promoting religious harmony.
In view of the major division and frequent incidents of violence in Islam between Sunni and Shi’ah sects, al Tayeb’s call came as sectarian divisions in West Asia have exacerbated regional conflicts including in Yemen and Syria. “I… call on my brothers, Muslim scholars, across the world of every doctrine, sect and school of thought to hold an Islamic dialogue,” al Tayeb said. “Let us together chase away any talk of hate, provocation and excommunication and set aside ancient and modern conflict in all its forms,” he said.
Al Tayeb told the forum, organised by the United Arab Emirates-based Muslim Council of Elders, that his words were a “special call to our Shia Muslim brothers”. He said the senior scholars at Al-Azhar and the Muslim Council of Elders were ready to host a meeting “so we can sit down together on one roundtable to put aside our differences and strengthen our Islamic unity”.
The differences have been compounded by a years-long spat between Shi’ah-dominated Iran and the Sunni Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which have held talks in an attempt to improve ties.
Al Tayeb’s appeal has come a day after Pope Francis, leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholic Christians, arrived in the Gulf kingdom of Bahrain on an inter-faith dialogue mission. In 2019, the pontiff had signed a Muslim-Christian manifesto for peace in the United Arab Emirates during the first papal visit to the Gulf region, where Islam was born.
Past and present of Shi’ah-Sunni conflict across Islamic world
The origin of Shi’ah-Sunni relations can be traced back to a dispute over the succession to the Islamic prophet Mohammed as a caliph of the Islamic community. After the death of Mohammed in AD 632, a group of Muslims, who would come to be known as the Sunnis, believed that his successor should be Abu Bakr, whereas the second group of Muslims, who would come to be known as the Shi’ahs, believed that his successor should have been Ali.
This dispute spread across various parts of the Muslim world, which eventually led to the Battle of Jamal and the Battle of Siffin. Sectarianism based on this historic dispute intensified greatly after the Battle of Karbala, in which Husayn ibn Ali and some of his close partisans, including members of his household, were killed by the ruling Umayyad Caliph Yazid I, and the outcry for revenge divided the early Islamic community, albeit disproportionately, into two groups, the Sunni and the Shi’ah. This is known today as the Islamic schism.
The present demographic breakdown between the two denominations is difficult to assess and varies by source, with most approximations stating that 90% of the world’s Muslims are Sunni and 10% are Shi’ah, with most Shi’ahs belonging to the Twelver tradition and the rest divided between many other groups. Sunnis are a majority in almost all Muslim communities around the world. The Shi’ah constitute the majority of the population in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Azerbaijan but a minority in Pakistan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Chad and Kuwait.
Today, there are differences in religious practice, traditions, and customs, often related to jurisprudence. Although all Muslim groups consider the Qur’an to be divine, Sunni and Shi’ah have different opinions on the hadiths.
In recent years, Sunni-Shi’ah relations have been increasingly marked by conflict, particularly the Iran-Saudi Arabia proxy conflict. Sectarian violence persists to this day from Pakistan to Yemen and is a major element of friction throughout the Middle East and South Asia.
Tensions between communities have intensified during power struggles, such as the Bahraini uprising, the Iraqi Civil War, the Syrian Civil War, the War in Iraq (2013-2017), and the formation of the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or Isis that has launched a genocide against Shi’ahs.