Internal debates within student religious groups are not always public at Columbia, but as part of last week’s Islam Awareness Week, the Muslim Student Association openly reflected upon the relationship between Islam’s Sunni and Shiite sects.
The MSA hosted religious scholar Imam Ammar Nakshawani, a British lecturer of Islamic studies who presented on the importance of uniting Sunni and Shiite Muslims to a packed crowd on Thursday, Feb. 18.
The event touched upon some of the larger issues of Muslim identity that MSA students sometimes contend with.
Islam is divided into two main sects, Sunni and Shiite. Sunnis believe that Muslim communities should choose their leaders, while Shiites believe that religious clerics should descend from the prophet Muhammad. There are also slight variations in some of the prayer services and rituals. Around 85 percent of the world’s Muslims are Sunni and 15 percent are Shiite.
Though the religious differences are minor to some, the Sunni-Shiite divide has been a major source of tension in contemporary Middle Eastern politics.
Haroon Moghul, Ph.D. candidate in the Middle East and Asian languages and cultures department and former director of public relations at the Islamic Center at NYU, described the modern conflicts in a recent interview.
The religious and political tensions, he said, have erupted into a violent “Sunni and Shiite tug-of-war between Saudi Arabia [a Sunni state] and modern Arab states, and Iran [a Shiite state] and its allies.” He added, “A lot of the [Sunni-Shiite] conflicts are between states vying for Islamic authority.”
On campus, students say the issue is often an unspoken one that does not affect groups. For some, though, the divide is still a religious question that must be confronted.
Seeing through the eyes of someone else
“There needs to be dialogue in order to bridge the gap,” Nakshawani said in his lecture on Thursday. The word “dialogue,” he added, stems from the Greek word “dia,” which means “to see through the lens of another person.” “For so many years, when Shiites and Sunnis tried to bridge the gap, the Shiite would look through his lens. The Sunni would look through his.”
In his address, Nakshawani asked the audience to put aside political and theological differences between Sunnis and Shiites and focus on the group’s shared fundamental beliefs, such as the oneness of Allah, Muhammad’s role as the prophet of Allah, and the five pillars of Islam.
“Take off your lenses and see through the eyes of someone else,” Nakshawani said.
He criticized the speeches of Sunni and Shiite clerics who use negative phrases, such as “atheist sinners” and “infidels,” to incite hatred of the other sects.
Moghul, who spoke briefly before Nakshawani at the lecture, praised Nakshawani in an interview after the event for “drawing attention to the absence of discourse in the Muslim world on this topic and the extreme voices who contribute to mistrust and excommunication.”
The unspoken conversation
Despite Nakshawani’s gusto about the need to bridge the divide between Sunnis and Shiites, several active MSA members said they perceive the Sunni-Shiite question as a non-issue in the group and among their peers.
“The Sunni-Shiite question does not come up because it’s not the first thing we think about,” said Noor Al-Husayni, BC ’11, religious life chair of the MSA board, organizer of Thursday’s event, and a Shiite Muslim. “Muslims are drawn to each other because we share a lot in common. Our habits and lifestyles are mostly the same anyway, so the differences don’t come up in everyday living.”
“It’s considered divisive for people to ask if you are Sunni or Shiite, so it’s not something people ask,” Al-Husayni said.
Imam Syed Zafaruddin Sayeed, TC ’72, is the religious life advisor to MSA and has served the group since 1998. Sayeed said that he has never had to directly confront the Sunni-Shiite issue at Columbia.
Muzna Ansari, BC ’10, MSA president, and a Sunni Muslim, said that the topic infrequently surfaces in the larger MSA context or its events. “We focus on positive, as opposed to divisive, dialogue.”
Ansari, who lives with Al-Husayni, said that their different sects do not influence their relationship. “We never had a conversation in our room about that.” She added, “We are all Muslims, and that’s what binds us together.”
United on campus
Professors and Islamic scholars offer different perspectives as to why there is little contention within Islamic groups on Columbia’s campus.
Souleymane Bachir Diagne, a professor of Islamic philosophy, said that he supports the inclusivity of the MSA, despite the potential for sectarian divide.
But, he added, this inclusivity is in line with the religious history of this division. “There were particular circumstances of clashes between Shiites and Sunnis, but if you look at the history, the two groups lived together peacefully. … Political and theological differences didn’t mean that you belonged to radically different communities,” he said.
Despite current problems abroad, he added that it is important “not to believe that this is an eternal, cosmic clash.”
According to Moghul, the Sunni-Shiite question does not emerge because “the Muslim community here is small and has not become institutionally established.”
The question is more emergent on campuses with larger Muslim populations, he said, where groups must clearly define their identities and determine, “Who does the chaplain represent? Who is a Muslim, who is not? Should they ... have separate chaplains for different sects, or have a single figure capable of representing the group as a whole?”
He added, “When communities get so big, people align themselves based on preferences which create questions based on practice and priority.”
But Taimur Malik, CC ’11 and social chair of the MSA board, said that the divide is not a source of conflict at many universities.
Malik, who met different Muslim student organizations at the recent 2010 Ivy Muslim Conference, said that the students that he met are not divided along Sunni and Shiite lines and credits the work of university chaplains who “are able to create greater community and a sense of belonging.”
Challenging the norm
While some students insist that the Sunni-Shiite debate is irrelevant on campus, they maintain that it is still important to be educated about the issues.
“Its important to reassess what one’s been taught one’s whole life,” Ansari said. “It’s easy to conflate something that you’re not used to as wrong, especially if you’re used to growing up in a large Sunni or Shiite community.”
Others emphasized that education, regardless of beliefs, is important on campus.
“The politics of Iraq brought this issue to the limelight,” Malik said. “Many Muslims don’t realize the reasons for the divide, and ... the violence magnifies it.”
Ultimately, Al-Husayni said, basic education is necessary. “I feel like a lot of people don’t know what the differences between Sunni and Shiites are.”