THE ISSUE OF sectarianism in Iraq has diverse implications. First, the issue has lent itself to the debate over American policy in the country. Politicians argue over the role of the US amidst a “civil war.” For the nonMuslim world, sectarianism in Iraq has shattered myths of a monolithic, single-minded, Muslim world community. With the assistance of a pro- war media this new appreciation for diversity amongst Muslims, however, has been coupled with suggestions that Muslims somehow cannot “get along” with one another. Last, but certainly not least, Muslims have been caught off guard by an issue that most were not familiar with in their respective communities. Sectarianism has never been as severe a problem in the Muslim world as it is currently being portrayed. The question then arises: why now? For centuries Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, amongst others, have interacted, intermarried, traded and corresponded. When we examine the current crises in Iraq, some issues need to be raised as to the Muslim response.

First and foremost, I do not feel it is necessary to address the issue of whether the occupying forces provoked sectarianism in Iraq. Of course they did. As someone who was born in Iraq of a Sunni father and Shi’a mother and has countless family members who are Sunni, Shi’a and even Kurdish, the current climate of violence in Iraq is incomprehensible without acknowledging the role played by the US in engendering it. Upon invasion and occupation, the provisional authority in Iraq, headed by Paul Bremer, systematically marginalized non-sectarian technocrats in favor of sectarian ideologues. Many of these individuals had not been in Iraq for decades and had little more than a sectarian platform to stand on. Yet American involvement in this regard is somehow still up for debate. Debate is usually healthy but debating the obvious is not. This protracted discussion stems from preponderance over the image of America in the world. Is America truly innocent or is America evil? The problem with this sort of questioning is two- fold: first, by continuing to debate the factuality of American “innocence” in Iraq, we unwittingly perpetuate the status quo by holding the door open to American involvement in Iraqi affairs. So long as the “jury remains out” – so to speak – on the value of American policy, we delay the withdrawal of American troops by maintaining the very possibility that the occupation can yield positive results. Illegal and immoral occupations should not be extended indefinite deadlines before they are forthrightly condemed; this is simply not rational, yet this is the continued case in Iraq. I am not suggesting that an end to the occupation will end the crisis in Iraq, but it is a necessary condition for doing so.

What we are more concerned with, rather, is the second more serious problem implicit in this debate. An exclusive concern with American involvement in Iraq results in an American-centric discourse. It sidelines what is a more essential issue, namely, the role played by Muslim institutions. Asserting that the presence of the Americans (or the British, or the French, or the Israelis) in Muslim lands is a source of sectarianism in the Muslim world is a redundant and, ultimately, useless claim. Of course foreign occupation is a source of division as the standard dictum of “divide and conquer” applies in all occupations. But to continue to blame occupations (or any other type of foreign involvement, covert or otherwise) is like blaming the wind for carrying our sails while we refuse to bring the sails down. The wind does not stop blowing, regardless of how desperately we wish that it might.

Sectarianism has taken on a momentum of its own and has manifested itself in the discourse of Muslim institutions. Sheikhs from Saudi Arabia denounce Shi’a as “non-believers” while sheikhs in Iran do the same in regards to Sunnis. This cycle of excommunication is first un-Islamic, but secondly it also seems to be moving along unhindered by more knowledgeable voices. In other places, during times of political and social uncertainty many have taken recourse in the only security available – identity. This trend is not limited to Iraq; however, Iraq is only the most extreme case. Iraqis feel they have little choice but to seek forms of association for the sake of mutual security in the absence of a strong national identity, politicized and made concrete in the form of a state. This trend is seething just beneath the surface of many Muslim countries; we now see evidence of it in Lebanon, as the weakness of the state was exposed in the face of Israeli brutality this past summer. Sectarianism is also beginning to rear its ugly head in the Gulf, as Iran has been able to shrewdly challenge and consequently undermine the authority of Gulf state regimes. As the vulnerability of many Muslim states becomes increasingly known, is the larger Muslim world going to become subject to the same sort of sectarian instability seen in Iraq? Perhaps, but this does not have to be the case.
As I said before, sectarianism has never been a major problem in the Muslim world; so it may seem strange to suggest that Muslim institutions have presided over its development. Yet they have, precisely because of their relative silence over the issue. Muslim have been permitted to practice their faith in an Islamic vacuum – usually becoming thoroughly acquainted with Jewish and Christian belief, at least more so than Jews or Christians are familiar with Muslim belief, but somehow not being exposed to different currents within the rich and diverse heritage that is Islam. This was not always the case.

Sectarianism and Islamic History

Obviously questions surrounding succession to the Prophet Muhammad were the first to implicate tensions in the nascent Muslim community. It is important to point out, however, that there were really no doctrinal disputes during this period (notwithstanding certain developments surrounding Muhammad b. al-Hanifiyaa and the practices of al-Mukhtar al-Thaqafi in Basra). Doctrinal issues did not emerge within the Muslim polity until well into its imperial enterprise. It is crucial to point out the imperial component of Muslim politics. The special status accorded to the first four Caliphs in the Sunni Muslim tradition does not suggest a whimsical nostalgia for the Companions of the Prophet, but reveals a deeper appreciation for the authority of Muslim leaders before they eventually became rulers of empires. The reverence that Shi’a Muslims have for the Imams mirrors this affection by esteeming moral leadership over the imperial leadership of the state.

During the reign of the Umayyad dynasty (661-750 CE), doctrinal issues began to emerge in the Hijaz and southern Iraq. The most vivid of these was the issue of free will versus pre-determination in Islamic belief. The question was whether we as human beings possessed free will or were our actions determined by God. Obviously this deeply philosophical and theological question raised even greater questions about the nature of God’s omnipotence and judgment. Yet, what is more important for our purposes is that it raised questions about the Muslim state and its rulers as well. If all things were predetermined, were not the rulers in place a reflection of God’s plans for the community? In other words, should we as Muslims oppose rulers that God has apparently put in place for us? The Umayyads informally endorsed this position by marginalizing Muslim scholars and preachers who opposed it. Hasan al-Basra (d. 728), the famed Muslim personality, continued to openly oppose the doctrine and wrote a letter to the Umayyad Caliph Abdul-Malik, citing the Sunnah of the Prophet in support of free-will. The issue, of course, was not resolved but it is important for us to reflect on the debate’s significant political roots. When we question our ability to act freely, we are questioning our ability to change the world – a deeply political question. When we question who should rule the Muslim polity, as did the Shi’a and Kharijites, we are also questioning who should not.

Such concerns were at the forefront of the Abbasid revolution (c. 750). The Abbasids opposed the Umayyads as imperial kings and “superficial” followers of the Prophet. There were many who supported the Abbasid revolution: Arabs, non-Arabs, Shi’a and others. Ja’far al-Sadiq, the prestigious and influential sixth Imam in the line of twelve, is reported to have attended meetings in regards to the Abbasid campaign. The Abbasid regime quickly assumed imperial characteristics themselves, however, and sidelined movements that opposed the imperial enterprise.

Between the eight and eleventh centuries Muslim life could be classified as socially stable and politically transformative. They led the world in philosophy, literature and medicine and ruled much of it by the sheer nature and ingenious of the Imperial infrastructure. Avenues of economic development and cultural exchange under the Arab-Islamic empires were expanded to unprecedented degrees. Yet, in spite of this socio-economic strength, this period also saw the rise and fall of the Umayyad, Abbasid, and Fatimad dynasties as well as the appearance and disappearance of the Buyids and Seljuks (amongst others). It was during this period of political transformation that the issue of legitimacy was most pressing – and since Muslims were responsible for these transformations they had to account for the substance of it all, dialogue and debate was in high gear.

Early catalogues on Islamic “sects” such as al-Shahrastani’s Book of Creeds and Sects, are largely ignored and difficult to find these days. In this work the author attempts, and largely succeeds, in writing an objective treatise on religious belief. Today, rather, many mosques are armed with small evangelical-style pamphlets, that offer simple religion for people on the go. Thoughtful and systematic works are largely marginalized. A reasonable question to ask is, “why are such works missing today?”

Points of Consideration

Two interconnected phenomena are currently exacerbating sectarian problems in the Muslim world. First, since the advent of the nation-states formed during the colonial period, Muslim scholars have been cut off from one another unlike ever before. Advances made in travel have been undermined by borders, visas, passports and other modern constraints that are themselves often subject to greater political rivalries. When was the last time scholars from the Arabian Peninsula spent considerable time in Qum or scholars from Qum in Cairo? The second problem is that so many Muslim scholars are so closely tied to corrupt or repressive regimes that we have lost faith in the rare attempts made to bridge the divide.

In order for us to begin a process of reconciliation we must seek it in the sphere of the political, as this is the point of tension, but it seems only non-aligned Muslim scholars can bring about sincere and objective discussion in this regard.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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