Tag Archive for: Sunni


The recent demise of Osama Bin Laden (couldn’t help but think when listening to Obama that night, “Those that live by the sword shall die by the sword”) on the Pakistan and Afghani border has renewed interest in al-Qaeda and their kin, the Taliban.

We have our men and women giving their lives in that region on a daily basis and in many instances, fighting against Taliban insurgencies.  Some may not need to know more than the fact that they are radical Islamists who systematically violate human rights.  Yet to make any lasting progress and attending peace, we must begin to have at least a rudimentary grasp of the cultural and historic constructs by which their very existence was created.

So who are the Taliban?

In brief, the liberation of Afghanistan from Soviet occupation in 1979, left a vacuum of leadership in an already war-torn country.

Afghanistan, primarily a Sunni country, had previously enjoyed but a fragile unity, offset by the realities of its multiethnic tribal society (Pathans, Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Persian-speaking Shiites in the West).

The mujahideen (Muslim militia) who were lauded the world over (the US providing arms and aid)  for driving the Soviets out, pasted together a mujahideen government which quickly fell prey to a bloody power struggle. Mujahideen leaders (or perhaps more accurately, warlords) vied for supremacy, resulting in more deaths and devastation than its liberation cost.

An 18 year civil war ensued between the ancient tribal, ethnic, and religious rivalries.

And then, the seemingly endless state of carnage and chaos was abruptly reversed.  As if out of nowhere, a band of students (taliban) from the madrassas (schools whose primary purpose is the teaching of Islamic law and related religious subjects) appeared in 1994 and within two years swept the country.

Denouncing the warlords, they claimed the mantle of moral leadership as representatives of the Afghan majority who were victims of the internecine warfare.  Although initially portrayed as young students from the madrassas with no military background, they were in fact a force of mullahs and taliban, religious leaders and students.  The mullahs were primarily veterans of the Afghan-Soviet war, who returned to the madrassas (the religious schools) with harsh battle experience but little in the way of real religious education.

Because little was known about the Taliban and they were portrayed simply as young students from religious schools, inexperienced in warfare and poorly armed, they were initially not taken seriously.  In time they proved to be a formidable force, feared by warlords but embraced by ordinary citizens.  They were hailed as liberators who secured towns and made the streets safe.

However, soon, the Taliban’s strict form of Islam soon became an issue.

Like al-Qaeda with its puritanical notions of Islam (known as Wahhabism, springing from Saudi Arabia), the Taliban segregated the sexes outside the home, closed girls’ schools, required that women be fully covered in public, and banned women from the workplace.  Television, cinema, and music were also banned.

Most austerely, they re-instituted ancient (hudud)punishments, taking only literal translations of the Quran and hadiths, such as amputation for theft, un-tried death for murder, and stoning and/or death for adultery.

This is a convoluted interpretation of Islam.

The notion of the law in Islam is expressed by two different but semantically related terms: sharia (the “way” or method set out by God) and fiqh (the “understanding” of application of this method in specific cases). While speaking about Islamic law, informed Muslims use the term sharia to connote the sacred law as a global concept or ideal, while fiqh is used to connote the ongoing interpretation of the law through the schools (four Sunni and one Shiite) of judicial practice.

From the earliest days of Islamic history, knowledge of the law was regarded by Muslims as essential knowledge, the very epitome of “science” (ilm) itself.  But the science of the law, like any other science, does not stand still.  Ideal principles are useless unless they are put into practice, and the changing conditions of Islamic society demanded new interpretations and applications of the way.  For this reason, the interpretative science of fiqh was developed in the first Islamic century (about 1400 years ago) .

Yet in the past century, Islamic law has been weakened considerably.  With the resented substitution of Western notions for Islamic conceptions of justice under colonialism, attempts by authoritarian regimes to bypass the judicial process, and the lack of standard religious training (makeshift madrassas an enormous problem) have conspired to undermine the status of fiqh.

A common belief fostered by the Taliban and modern political Islamists in general is that only the sharia-but not fiqh- constitutes the true law of God.  They actually want the elimination of fiqh (interpretation).  They see it as a source of dissension that undermines Muslim unity.

This negative view of Islamic jurisprudence is advocated by the Taliban and al-Qaeda and denies Islamic law the ability to adapt to changing conditions.

To eventually stunt the proliferation of this kind of radical fundamentalism, the only real deterrent is economic and social justice, education and equality. In the countries where fundamentalism has the greatest hold…Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia (to name but a few), the work towards freedom and opportunities made available for a better life will eventually out the propensity for extremism.

A Brief Overview of the Shi’a Sects

Here is the final of three posts on a brief bird’s eye view of the sects within the Muslim faith.  For the Shi’a, it is important to recognize that they have always been somewhat of an underdog to the Sunnis.  That is why a Shi’a movement of considerable note was Isma’ilism, as it gave rise to the major dynasties of the medieval Islamic world , rivaling the Sunni kingdoms for a time.  When Ismai’ilism was overthrown by the famous Sunni leader Saladin, the sect was split into two groups.  Some became Musta’lian, following the caliph Mustansir (now called Bohra)  while others followed his brother Nizar. Today, most Ismail’ilis are Nizaris, whose Imam is known as the Aga Khan.   

An offshoot of the Nizaris became the radical order called Assassins. They were never considered mainstream Muslims in any way.  Instead, this militant extremist group of Ismaili’s (Imams of the Nizari line) radically opposed the Sunni majority (since the 11th c.) and their purpose was to overthrow Sunni leadership.  They would target a single victim and set out alone with only a dagger.  They were called assassin from the word hashishiyya as they were thought to either be under the influence of hasish or simply acting like hasish addicts with bizarre behavior.    

The Druze sect is more or less a secret religious sect located in Lebanon, Syria, Israel, and Jordan.  No one is permitted either to leave or to join their community. 

The Alawis are an extremist sect located mostly in Turkey and Syria.  They are deviant to most other Shi’a sects and all Sunnis.  They are an important minority however as the Asad family, the Syrian presidential “monarchy”, are Alawis.

The most influential of the Shi’a sects currently are the Shi’a Twelvers.  This sect began in 765 CE.  After a succession of 12 generations of Imams after Ali, the 12th Imam disappeared circa 814, leaving no successor. This 12th Imam is known as the “hidden Imam”, a Messianic figure who will return in God’s good time.

Shi’a Twelvers played a significant historical  role in the change in the relationship between Sunni and Shi’a all over the Middle East that remains today.  In the 16th century, (the Safavid dynasty, who were Twelvers) seized power back from the Sunnis and reunified Persia (Iran).  They then reconstituted the ancient empire and resumed the ancient title of Shah, used by the emperors of the pre-Islamic era.  They proclaimed Twelver Shiism to be the state religion of the Iranian realm.   This marked them off from their Sunni neighbors in the Ottoman lands to the west, India in the east, and central Asia in the north resulting in a struggle for control of the border province of Iraq-long contested.      

Since the beginning of Islamic rule, Iran and Iraq are the only countries with Shi’a majorities. Their sense of competition for supremacy in the Middle East, has created a different mind set for authority.  Emerging from the centuries old experience of Sunni dominance and the resulting Shi’a subordination are seen all the social and psychological consequences of this reality. For instance, the Shi’a of Iran in the late 19th century created a new title, the Ayatollah, the supreme guide of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a kind of Pope lite, thereby creating ultimate and sovereign power.

Yet the continuing economic strife in most of the Muslim states, along with the influence of the secular world, and access to a constant stream of information, makes the longevity of enforced religious law and ultimate human authority tenuous at best.      

Quote of the day, from the wisdom of the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran in The Prophet:

“And if you would know God be not therefore a solver of riddles. / Rather look about you and you shall see Him playing with your children./And look into space; outstretching His arms in the lightning and descending in rain./You shall see Him smiling in flowers, then rising and waving His hands in trees.

A Brief Overview of the Sunni Sects

Following my last post on the difference between the Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, I have decided to delve a little deeper into the wide variation of belief (and practice) within the sects of these branches of Islam, starting with the Sunnis.  

There are four major schools of thought within the Sunni population. The  most widespread of these are the HanafiThere are considered the most moderate of Islam, preferring an abstract fairness over legal rigidity.  They have been around since late 700 CE. Their practices are used in the governments of Jordan and Egypt.   

Of the more conservative sects of the Sunni are the MalikiTheir beliefs are based on the literal word of the Quran, the Hadith (traditions and sayings of the Prophet), and legal precedents drawn from decisions in Medina only (the first settlement of a Muslim community), with emphasis on the decisions of the very first Companions of the Prophet.  (From the 80o’s CE). 

Somewhere between these two are the Shafi’i.  Al-Shafi’i (800’s ) was an extremely important jurist in Islam as well as a poet and a revered holy man.  His memory remains forever popular with the poor of Cairo, among whom he is buried.  People still stick supplications to his tombstone and his tomb is considered to have the power to cure sickness, although this is contrary to strict Islam.  He favored logic and only wanted the hadiths reduced to only those sayings of the Prophet with a provable origin.  Less liberal than Hanafi but less conservative than Maliki, many of the Shafi’i reside in Syria, Malaysia, and Indonesia.  This is the fastest and largest growing sect.

The last major sect originated in the 800’s, it was originally called Hanbali (from a scholar of the same name).  However, due to its extreme nature, it almost died from neglect until in the 1700’s when an Islamic scholar, Abd-al-Wahhab brought back this ultra conservative, authoritarian brand of Sunni Islam, now know as Wahhabi.  It does not resemble any of the above “denominations”.  They are extreme Puritans. It was Wahhabism that fueled the ferocious power on which ibn Saud built his kingdom.  It is the official religion of Saudi Arabia.  Ironically, they allow for complete freedom in commercial matters-something that Muhammad was utterly against.  Wahhabis are in exact juxtaposition to Hanafism, which emphasizes good works and exterior acts over interior convictions as the true manifestation of faith.  In addition, Wahhabis are opposed to all other approaches to Islam, especially Sufism.  Not surprisingly, Osama Bin Laden was raised in the Wahhabi tradition.

A few brief words about Sufism.  There are Sufis in both the Sunni and Shi’a communities.  They are the Islamic mystics and their history has been a rich tapestry of people and literature and ideas which have played a considerable role in the development of the religion of Islam.  The word Sufi comes from the name of the rough woolen clothing worn by the mystics (an ascetic practice).   Like the Christian mystics, Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, or Thomas Merton, they too aspire to a complete union with God (tawhid).  As well, they belong to orders (as the Catholics have the Franciscans, Carmelites, and Jesuits).  These are called tariqa or dervishes.  Each has practices or clothing particular to their order. You may recall the whirling dervishes; they are the Mevliv tariqa.  The famous poet and mystic Rumi was a whirling dervish.    The Wahhabis have outlawed Sufism, killing many of them and desecrating their cemetaries, especially those that contain walis, the saints of the Sufis.     

The next post will deal with the Shi’a sects and the importance of this knowledge in understanding the history of the diverse Muslim nations.

Book of the Day: The Sufi Path of Life, the Works of Rumi by William Chittick

Quote of the Day by the poet Rumi:  “Load the ship and set out.  No one knows for certain whether the vessel will sink or reach the harbor.  Cautious people say ‘I’ll do nothing until I can be sure.’  Merchants know better.  If you do nothing, you lose.  Don’t be one of those merchants who won’t risk the ocean.”


Differences between the two main branches of the Muslim faith go back to the very beginnings of Islam.  The origins of Sunni and Shi’a  began as a political dispute over who the rightful successor should be to follow the Prophet Muhammad as the head of the Muslim state and community he founded.  Muhammad’s senior followers were called the Caliphate.  There are various definitions of what a Caliph is, but essentially it means a deputy or successor, and sometimes is synonomous with “commander”.  For instance, during medieval times, the Caliph was the supreme sovereign of the Islamic empire.  This pervasive kind of  power has waned significantly in most modern Muslim states.

The first Caliph after Muhammad was Abu Bakr, his closest friend and one of the very first converts to Islam.  While  Bakr was known as Abu Bakr “al-Siddiq”, meaning the “upright and truthful”, and many writings indicate this to be accurate, he was not a blood  relative of the Prophet.  For the Sunnis, (whose name comes from the word  sunna meaning the well worn path, the practices of the Prophet) his lineage was irrelevant.  They believed that the leaders of the community were to choose a successor, on the basis of worthiness. However, the Shi’a thought this method of choosing illegitimate, that the Sunnis were usurping power by making this decision.  The Shi’a believed that succession belonged by right to the Prophet’s family.  Muhammad had no son, but a daughter Fatima, who married his cousin Ali.  Shi’a literally means “Party of Ali”.

This tension led to a series of armed insurrections in the years following the Prophet’s death.  There was coups overthrowing those in power.  Of the first four caliphs who succeeded the Prophet, three were murdered, and their reigns ended in civil war.  Ali’s sons, Hasan and Husayn were both martyred.  Then there followed a series of claimants to the caliphate, known as Imams (this word is more broadly defined today to include religious teachers) who all  claimed to be descendents of Ali and Fatima.

As an aside, by all accounts, Abu Bakr was a thoughtful and strong leader. It was Abu Bakr who ordered the scattered portions of the Quran to be collected shortly after Muhammad’s death, thereby allowing for an authorized version to be completed within 25 years of the Prophet’s death.  (The immediate occasion of this command was the death in battle of a large number of men who knew much or all of it by heart and the concern that parts of it could be lost forever).  Many of the surahs (chapters) of the Quran are said to have been written down on palm leaves, white stones, the breastbones of humans, animal leather, bits of papyrus (essentially any material until paper was known around the 8th century), but much of the Quran was communicated through oral transmission.  

In addition, Abu Bakr’s daughter Aisha was and is (aside from Khadijah, Muhammad’s first wife) the most beloved by Muslims, a gifted leader of the faith in her own right and an example of virtuous living. These early founders continue to be beacons for both Sunni and Shi’a as they practice Islam in their own ways.

The majority of the world’s Muslims are Sunni.  The majority of the world’s Muslims, including the Shi’a, practice a moderate and life affirming faith.  Tomorrow I will look at the different sects within these two “denominations” and provide an overview of some of the extremist offshoots as well.

Book of the Day, Muhammad, A Prophet For Our Time by Karen Armstrong, “Those who kept the faith were not simply “believers”.  Their faith must be expressed in practical actions: they must pray, share their wealth, and in matters that concerned the community, “consult among themselves” to preserve the unity of the ummah.  If attacked, they could defend themselves, but instead of lashing out in an uncontrolled way, they must always be prepared to forgive an injury…”Hence, whoever pardons his foe and makes peace, his reward rests with God”, the Quran insists tirelessly.”