Religious identity of Shiites
The murder of third caliph of Islam, Uthman, split Islam into two, at first, politically and then religiously. Shiaism was an outgrowth of this schism. Subsequently, several other events aided the further growth of Shiaism. They were (i) the events of the reign of Caliph Ali, (ii) Abdullah Bin Saba’s messianic preaching, (iii) the dynastic struggles between the Alides and the Sufyanids, culminating in the battle of Kerbala, which really ushered in Shiaism as we know it today, (iv) the disaffection of the Bedouin tribes, especially of Kufa, towards the Ummayad rule and aristocracy, (v) the discontent of the Persian Mawali, which manifested itself, first of all, under Al-Mukhtar, (vi) Ummayad oppression of the descendents of Fatima and Ali, resulting in alide revolts as that of Zayd Bin Ali and of Ibn-e- Muawiya at the end of Ummayad period and (vii) the national resistance of the Persian against the Arab domination which made them adopt, the Shia cause as their national cause of liberation from Arab rule (Nasr, 2002). As usual these factors and causes, political, religious, personal, dynastic and economic were confusedly intermingled and involuted.
Shiaism was the movement among those Muslims, who, at first, supported the claim of Ali, and after his death, his descendents, to the caliphate or the succession to the headship of Islam after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. This group came to be called the Party or Shia of Ali and his descendents, regarded as the rightful Imams or religious and secular leaders of the Muslim community. In course of time the Shia came to be divided into various sects, such as the Kaysaniyya or extreme followers of Al – Mukhtar, the Hashimiyya or the followers of Abu Hashim bin Muhammad bin Al-Hanafiyya, a son of Hazrat Ali and the Zaidiyya. According to these Shia sects, only a descendent of Ali and Fatima could be a caliph for he alone had the religious knowledge by inheritance, intuition or divine guidance, for the interpretation of Quran. And it was by the means of this knowledge that the many problems of the Muslim community could be solved. So, the Imam – cum – caliph was the prayer leader, the ruler and the law giver of the Muslim community. The extremist Shia exaggerated the superhuman powers of interpretation of the Imam into divine knowledge, equal to that of the prophet (Wansbrough, 2006).
Rise of Religious identity of Shiites
The Shia religious movement was basically, political and oppositional and was inspired by their belief in the charismatic leadership of their Imams (Walker, 2009, 11). Though, many Muslims under the Ummayad sympathized with the claims of the descendents of Fatima and Ali to the headship of Islamic State, but the majority of them did not accept their charismatic powers of unlimited interpretations of the Quran. On the contrary, they believed that a caliph had only limited powers of interpreting the Quran and that even in the light of the life of the Prophet Muhammad and of his leading companions.
In the beginning, Muslims had religious unity among them. But as time passed, religious identity of different sects like Shiaism had risen which proved to be fetal for the religious unity of Muslims.
The basic cause of rise of religious identity among different sects of Islam was the lack of a well-known and established religious leadership. It was due to the inability of the early Muslims to separate religion from politics. Matters religious and political were hopelessly confused by them. The institution of the caliphate, for instance, was at once religious and political. The caliph was both a pope and a king rolled into one. Thus, the purely political dispute regarding the election of a caliph inevitably became a fertile source of religious disputes, because the two were so inseparably linked together. Consequently, every political dispute in early and medieval Islam became a cause of religious quarrels and dissensions. Had there been a separate religious institution and leadership, it would have preserved religious unity and discipline amidst growing political disintegration and quarrels (Lapidus, 2002).
Lack of missionary zeal among Muslims was also one of the causes of rise of sectarian identity among the Shiites. Though, early Muslims were very good Muslims and were deeply religious in outlook and conduct, yet they did not realize the social implication of their faith, and its spirit of universality or message. They utterly neglected the supreme task of converting the millions of non-Muslims in the far-flung empire by means of missionary work and propaganda among them.
Instead they allowed all sorts of religions to exist in their empire without inviting them in an organized manner to accept the new faith. The result was that those non-Muslims were reduced to second or third class of citizens, instead of being enrolled as first class equal citizens from the very beginning of Islamic history. And when conversion came afterwards, they became a source of trouble of all kinds, because every new convert brought into the fold of Islam his former religious attitudes and inclinations, even his superstitions and aberrations. Had these converts been proselytized by a well-organized missionary system, working under a single and centralized leadership, they would have been purified of their earlier religious beliefs and would have imbibed the true spirit of Islam. But they, so to say, drifted into Islam, and adopted it with all their previous aberrations and predilections of dogma and practice. Thus, they introduced into it all sorts of religious doubts and disputes.
Moreover, as these conversions were made under the influence of national grievances of the Persians, the Berbers and other people and races, they also added racial and nationalistic rivalries and disputes into the religious and theological disputes and dissensions. These racial and nationalistic rivalries enabled the heterodox parties and groups to sow the seeds of religious disunity by winning the support of the new converts to Islam. This is the story of Shiites and the Persian heresiarchs.
The Caliphs, their governors and officials and the sultans and kings, who were also religious leaders, were more inclined to safeguard their political interests than to fulfill their religious duty to spread Islam among their non-Muslim subjects.
Thus, we witnessed number of internal disputes between Arabs and non Arabs, between Arab Muslims and non Arab Muslims etc. To this were added racial and national rivalries of the Arabs, the Persians, the Turks, the Berbers and other races and people who dwelt in the Muslim Empire or immigrated into it afterwards. Their racial and national or kinship rivalries assumed religious differences and opposition with each looking back to its past glories in the garb of the new Islamic sectarian jargon. No consciousness of religious unity knit them into a homogenous people. Thus, various sects of Islam reflected their political and social disunity and divergences. In other words, religion also contributed greatly to the chaos and fragmentation of Muslim society.
The case of Shiites in Pakistan
Pakistan is one of the prominent Muslim countries where a significant percentage of Shiite population resides. After Iran, Pakistan is the second country having the highest percentage of Shia population which has recently been estimated to be 30%. Relations between these two highly prominent Muslim sects were initially cordial which can be manifested from the fact that many Shia Muslims participated in the movement which ultimately led to the independence of the country, hence this garnered a cordial relationship between the two key sects of the country. However during the passage of time the relations between the two sects start to undergo deterioration primarily because of the widening religious and ideological differences between the two sects. Moreover the fundamental religious differences between the two sects also began to show subtle signs of intolerance and resentment for each other. (Graham and Rend, 1999)
The first clash of this extremely volatile nature first emerged on the surface during 1974 when the Ahmadiya sect was declared non-muslim on religious as well as constitutional grounds. At that time there was also an outcry from radical and fundamentalist religious groups that even Shia sects of the country must be declared non-Muslims, but such a verdict could not be passed. The resentment between the two sects reached new levels of instability and turmoil during the era of military dictator Zia-ul-Haq and the process of Islamization that he initiated to legitimize his undemocratic taking of the country. Even though the myopic viewpoints and reforms introduced by Zia were discouraged by both sects, however rift between the two communities came out in the open when Zia because of his affiliated loyalty with the Sunni chose their interpretation of the Quran because of its authenticity and greater credibility thus sidelining the interpretation offered by the Shia sect. furthermore the religious backed revolution in Iran proved to be another major event that mobilized the vicious and highly entangled nexus of politics, military and intelligence in the country to take all necessary steps in the name of national security to suppress every kind of movement by the Shia which could have aggravated and resulted in a similar kind of revolution in Pakistan.
Even though there are innumerable evidences that support the fact that during the time of the Iranian Revolution and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan Iranian and Saudi lobbies took advantage of the situation in funding the formation of radical groups of either sect and these were further cemented by the functioning of the intelligence agencies during that time who funneled all these petrodollars for creating and pioneering extremist wings such as Sipah-e-Sahaba for the Sunnis or the Tehrik-e-Jafria for the Shia thus entrenching and expanding the ground through which this highly volatile and dangerous religious battle proliferated itself into every nook of the country. With the dawn of the 21st century and especially after the dramatic incident of 9/11 the strategic importance of Pakistan from a global perspective enhanced significantly primarily because of its geographical proximity with Afghanistan. With the expulsion of Taliban from Afghanistan, the hard line Sunni clerics in order to manifest their hegemony over the religious mainstream of the country initiated vast scale killings of innocent Shiites in different places of the country. Even though apparently the two sects and their respective religious scholars talk about religious cognizance and tolerance, but once provoked from either side, the violence moves into a highly dangerous phase. (Montero, 2007)
The case of Gilgit
During the course of this discussion we can limit our scope with the region of Gilgit which is situated in Northern areas of Pakistan and has a total population of over 50,000 people. Irrespective of the harmony that exists between these two sects it is also an on ground reality and a substantiated fact that the followers of these sects do not intermingle with each other as far as marital affairs or nuptial agreements are concerned as the difference between the two pose an effective barrier towards the formation of such a contract. Furthermore the religious conflicts that have taken pace in recent years all over the country have further deteriorated the condition as far as the interfaith marriages between the two sects are concerned. Condition in this region have reached to such an extent that some orthodox Sunni Muslims have reached to the level of refraining purchasing meat from Shia butchers as they claim that only animals slaughtered by Muslims is permitted to them by Islam and as Shia are classified as infidels or Kaffir, purchasing meat from them is illegitimate. Such kinds of non-religious judgments by many Muslims have further catalyzed in increasing the barrier between the members of these two sects.
On the flip side there have also been incidents and religious issues where both these sects have worked on a single platform with similar agendas and consensus. For instance an incident that has also been quoted in the Gilgit case study that has been presented also manifests that in order to minimize the religious and sectarian differences that prevail between the sects. The sensitive and gravitating situation existing in the country can only be eliminated if the prominent and reputable religious clerics gather on a single platform and devise a comprehensive strategy through which the turmoil that has erupted in the country can be alleviated. It is also important for these people to realize the fact that by sidelining themselves from such discussions they are actually transforming a religious issue into a national issue. Religion is something that is completely personalized in nature for any individual. Any person no matter how pious or unholy he is accountable for his deeds on his very own expense. Therefore such problems must not be extended to encompass nationality based issues and complications that have a massive impact upon people from all walks of life. Furthermore by refraining and shunning such discussions they have equated and interpreted the religious identity of being a Shia with a person who is a kaffir or infidel.
The educated masses of the country have also provoked a number of questions regarding the religious validity of sects. When people and especially religious clerics claim that religion is something divine which has been bestowed upon Man by God through His beloved messengers in the form of sacred scriptures, then going against the fundamental injunctions by forming sects and thus segregating Muslims into different factions is a sheer violation of religious principles and the theological doctrine that has been bestowed by God. Another key question that also seems to be making rounds among the different groups that if a person opens his or her eyes in a Shia family, does that mean that at that very precise moment God has registered him as an infidel and destined that irrespective of the fact whether how pious he is and the good deeds that he performs will he still be thrown into the bottomless pit or will he still be burned into the fire of hell. It is high time that a forward movement is taken to eliminate all these differences as it is the very root of sectarianism that has led to the crumbling and collapse of Muslim glory and eternity.
The case of Syria
The case and sectarian composition of Syria is quite different from that encountered by Pakistan. Syria has never had a large Shia population, but with the passage of time a rise in the Shia population within Syria is being noticed. This is mainly being contributed by the geographical proximity of Iran with Syria. Furthermore the encouragement and positive feedback obtained from the Syrian government to the Iranian missionaries working in the country have also cultivated strong grounds upon which the pillars of Shiiaism can gain ground in the country.
According to the figures that have been obtained from the International Religious Freedom Report for 2006, published by the U.S. State Department it has been notified that out of a population of 18 million of the country nearly 2.2 million of Syria belongs to the Shia sect. apart from the role of Iranian missionaries and other forces that have played a pivotal role in increasing the number of Shia followers in the country it is almost impossible to neglect the role of Hezbollah when discussing the influence of Shia followers in Syria. (Sindawi, 2009)
The Lebanese Shiite organization which has always had close ties with Iran has also been supported on political and military grounds by Syria for the expansion of its operations that it has conducted against Israel. The thirty day war between Lebanon and Israel and the subsequent role that Hezbollah played in it brought Shiiaism in positive light all over the country. According to Mustafa al-Sada, a young Shiite cleric who came into contact with numerous Sunnis who showed an interest in adopting the Shiite creed, “George Bush did us a service and unified the Arabs.” The fame, trust and reliability that Hezbollah, its leader Hassan Nasarullah and the president of Syria Bashar al Asad have gained in these recent times can be manifested by the fact that in almost every street of Damascus one can easily observe the pictures of Ayatollah Khomeni, Nasrullah and Al Asad with each other. Local intellectuals have further expressed that such kind of feeling actually demonstrate the unity that different countries of the Gulf have for each other and the way that they intend to crush the power of anyone that intends to destroy them. With the increasing proliferation of such efforts that have been witnessed by people from different areas of Syria it has become high probable or in fact imminent that the conversion of people towards Shiaism in these countries is on the rise. It is also worth mentioning here that many people such as Munir al Syed have also joined the militia of Hezbollah despite of the fact that they are Sunni. Many of these people say that they find the political ideology of Nasrullah highly appropriate in contemporary times and hence they are related to him politically not religiously. (Knickmayer, 2006, 92)
Shiites identity in Lebanon
Lebanon is facing a deep identity crisis due to many factors which include the demographic balance, colonial rule over Lebanon, fragile political system etc. (Harik 2003). The identity crisis further deepens in Lebanon because of the presence of different religious groups among which Christians and Muslims are the two coexisting and competing groups (Castells 2004). The Muslims are further divided into communities like Sunnis and Shias. Shia, is the largest Muslim community in Lebanon and that is why the resistance of Lebanon against Israel is often considered as Shia resistance and Shia identity and culture is considered as the history and culture of Muslims of Lebanon (Shaery-Eisenlohr, 2008, 44).
In the beginning, Sunni Muslims of Lebanon considered themselves superior to Shia Muslims both politically and militarily. However, Shia’s identity and nationalism had emerged when the Palestinian and the Israel had invaded Lebanon which received further boost during the Gulf war of 1990 -91. Shia population in Lebanon was less privileged as compared to the Sunni population. This economic difference has compelled the Shiites to move towards the urban centers of Lebanon. The economic differences between the two communities also made it obvious for Shiites of Lebanon that their religious identity is the basic cause of their economic and social disadvantages. This sense of deprivation among Shia community had sowed the seeds of political dissent into them which ultimately led the community towards radical Islam.
Due to the settlement of Shia’s in urban centers of Lebanon, the community became much more powerful both politically and socially and they gradually attained a position to influence the intellectual and political course of Islam. In most of the Islamic world, except Iran, Shiites are in minority, a minority which is merely tolerated by the Sunni Muslims. To change their status and to uplift their position, Shiites, all over the Muslim world, have employed different strategies. Thus, Lebanon faces a peculiar position where both communities Shias and Sunnis as well as the Christians require a Lebanon for them. Islamic Identity is linked with Arab culture but the crux of Lebanese identity crisis is the Shia community because, in the beginning, they were not given any place in the government.
Presently Shiites are the largest community of Lebanon and as they are not given their due right by the Arab world they turned towards their religious brothers, the Shiites of Iran. Thus, presently Lebanon is divided between Lebanon with an Arab face and Lebanon without an Arab face
Shiites in Saudi Arabia
A little Background
It is difficult to determine the exact number of Shiites living in Saudi Arabia, however rough estimates show that the community represents around 10% to 15% of the entire population. Majority of the country’s population espouses Sunni Islam, comprising 80-90% of the population. Vast majority of the Saudi Shiites lives in the eastern province – mainly in the oases of Qatif and al-Hasa. Whereas the province has also grabbed the world’s attention due to its rich oil resources. The importance of the eastern province (for the community) can also be attributed to one its well-known scholars such as Ibrahim al-Qatifi.
Before establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, the eastern areas had always enjoyed full autonomy and freedom, as the community was allowed to build mosques and seminaries, propagating Shiite Islam. However after the country emerged as the “Kingdom” on the globe, Saudi Shiites began to feel a little left out due to heavy-handed tactics of the Kingdom, resulting in a large number of Shiite scholars moving to neighbouring Iraq – the country heavily inhabited by Shiites.
Since establishment of the Saudi Kingdom, the Shiite community has been at odds with the country’s rulers, complaining about discriminatory and unfair treatment Saudi kings stifled Shiite religious activities and propagation. Restrictions placed by the state on the community were quite strict. For instance “calls to prayer,” printing and disseminating religious material were banned.
From Saudi Arabia's establishment in 1932, its minority Shiite population has been subject to discrimination and sectarian incitement. Beginning in the early 1990s, with the then Crown Prince Abdullah's active support, the government took steps to improve inter-sectarian relations. But the measures were modest, and tensions are rising. (Louėr, 2008, 132 )
Role of Shiites Today
Saudi society has a fertile ground for sectarianism, with anti- Shiite behavior witnessed in a number of ways. The Kingdom historically has had immense responsibility to foster friendly environment due to its close alliance with another but a much stricter brand of Islam, “Wahhabi movement,” which is virulently opposed to the Shiite minority. The Kingdom, instead of fostering a peaceful, friendly environment, has done everything to marginalised Shiites.
Although the two sects – Sunni and Shiite, have had many historical differences that on several occasions resulted in sparking bloody conflicts in the past. Despite having such bitter differences, the Kingdom, however, has remained peaceful from the outset mainly due to its strong control on all the departments and institutions of the state – from politics to social life and economy. Unlike other countries such as Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, which have seen some of the worst, deadliest Shiite-Sunni conflicts – despite the fact that the Shiite community has had considerable support in these countries, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia comparatively proved less deadly for Shiites.
Demonstration of unfair treatment against the Shiite minority can be seen in several areas. For instance Shiites representation in prominent official positions and job market is quite miserable. The community has never been given opportunities to install its ministers – though the only representative of the Shiite community for the government, Jamil al-Jishi, once had an opportunity to work as Ambassador to Iran in the recent past.
Let alone equal rights, Shiites are treated as second class citizens in Saudi Arabia. They are not permitted to build mosques and religious community centers. They are prohibited from visiting religious shrines in Iraq---a matter of concern for Shiite minority as their religious schools are based in those countries. (Graham and Wilson, 1994, 67 )
The treatment of Shiite minority in the kingdom reflects its fractured relationship with Iran and has much to do with the stability of the country. After the outbreak of riots in Mecca in 1987 the situation got even worse as two explosions in Jubail petrochemical complex could not be averted. On the other hand, Saudi government links Shiite uprising in the country to Bahrain ---a country with Shiite majority.
Though Shiites in the kingdom have always accused the government of curbing their religious identity and practices but the National dialogue initiated by King Abdullah was deemed satisfactory. Shiites claim for more rights in the kingdom and have long demanded it in peaceful way. According to the Crisis Group, sectarian tensions are arguably higher than at any time since 1979 there appears little risk today of violent sectarian confrontation but that is no reason for complacency. (AL Rodhan and Cordesman, 2007,86)
Daryl Champion believes that Saudi government cannot simply allow for liberal expression of its population because it is most likely to result in the emergence of political forces which may threaten the status quo and vested interest of the ruling regime. (Champion, 2003, 254)
Shiite identity in Bahrain
As a matter of fact, only three countries in the world are known to have accommodated Shiites as majority: Iran, Iraq and Bahrain. However, Bahrain remains the only country which has a Shiite majority led by a Sunni minority.
Such an inequity of political structure has over a long period of time caused immense unrest within the country.
The unrest is naturally a cause for concern to the ruling Sunni elite in Bahrain, the Al Khalifa family, which has ruled the roost since 1783, though not always autonomously.
Bahrain was once part of a Persian province until 1603. This is the reason why Iran still has a peculiar connection to it. In the wake of Iranian revolution, demonstrations were held in Bahrain to show solidarity with Iran with a clue that Bahrain too could be proclaimed as an Islamic Republic much like Iran itself.
As the New York Times’ Youssef Ibrahim reported on Dec. 1, 1979, in the midst of Bahrain’s Ashura celebration, banners proclaiming “Death is Happiness,” “Oppression is humiliation,” and “Death is a habit with us” were draped over the main road to Bahrain’s bazaar. “‘Freedom,’ ‘Justice’ and ‘Equality’ were scribbled on almost every poster carried by the marchers,” Ibrahim wrote.(Tristam, 2010, 23)
The aggressive and seething demonstrations reflecting long- drawn resentments of Shiite majority distressed the Bahraini regime and the neighboring Saudi regime which has always categorically stated it to Bahrain that it would not put up with religious turmoil as Bahrain’s oil and banking economy largely hinges on Saudi Arabia.
Repression and rumor of Coups
There was a growing discontent among Shiite population in the country in 1974 after the promises to bring about democracy with independence were flatly betrayed resulting in a state of emergency and dissolution of parliament.
The regime cracked down further in 1979, arresting some 900 people and inviting the United States to visibly increase its military presence on the Island. Bahrain has been a Pentagon staging ground ever since. In 1981 and 1984, rumors of uprisings and coups coursed through the islands, and in 1984 arms caches found. The mid-1990s were marked by further instability and chaos.
Shiites in Bahrain have complained of prejudice for decades. They contend that only Sunnis are allowed to secure key government posts and housing as they cannot take high positions in military and security forces. Consequently, they suffer from relatively higher rates of poverty. Shiites say the situation is only getting worse.
The percentage of high-level government posts held by Shiites has fallen to 13 percent in 2008 from between 25 and 30 percent in 1999, according to the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. Wefaq, the only Shiite group in parliament, has 17 of the elected lower house's 40 seats — a low proportion that Shiites blame on gerrymandering of districts to favor Sunnis.( SANTANA, 2010)
As opposed to the modern glass and state-of-the-art office buildings of downtown Manama, Shiite villages can easily be discerned by dingy apartment buildings, now blackened with char marks from tires burned in recent protests.
The religious identity of Shiites in Bahrain is further endangered with the government attempting to change the sectarian composition of society by awarding citizenship to Sunnis from Yemen, Pakistan, Syria and Jordan. Bahrain’s government has always debunked this accusation.
On the other hand, Sunnis accuse Shiites of furtive allegiance to Iran. Shiites argue that they do not get orders from Iran. They turn to spiritual leadership to Iraq's most prominent Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani leadership for spiritual guidance instead of Iran’s supreme leader.
On Feb. 14, 2002, Bahrain held a referendum on a new, reformist constitution. With the political parties still banned, the political process was to some extent open again, and a 40-seat parliament, or “Council of Representatives,” was established.
But ironically 40-member upper chamber or Shura council had equally the same power as the lower chamber had. On these grounds, most Shiite opposition groups boycotted the parliamentary elections held in October same year.
The turnout was a bare 52 percent as the Council of Representatives turned out to be a Sunni-dominated political enterprise denying Shiites power and authority on democratic principles.
Later, the November 2006 election brought with it a sigh of relief for Shiites nonetheless. Opposition candidates won 16 of the 17 contested seats, but still they could not constitute majority in the parliament and ended with only 40 percent of their share. Once again, the chamber’s veto powers remained intact and could not be challenged.
The government policies have allegedly not been favorable to the Shiite majority as the marginalization of Shiite continues to exist unabated. The uprising of Shiite community in Bahrain was a political expression of its identity and existence and hinted at the political dimensions of the country.
Shiites in the country have successfully demonstrated their distinct political, social and cultural significance. They have appeared to be a solid, organized and integrated segment of the society and their genuine mass movement is a proof for that matter.
It is high time that they must be acknowledged as the ground reality in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain no matter how disagreeable it may sound. The fact remains that the Shiite identity is intact in both the countries and cannot be ignored or sidelined.
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