Dear old and new friends,
Last week’s Haystack concluded with the Arabic phrase Insha’Allah, meaning “God willing.” While Arabs today are often maligned, I’m grateful for their gift of the Arabic numerical system of 0-9 that makes daily life so much easier. Thank God in the 10th century C.E. Europe began adopting the use of Arabic numbers from Islamic North Africa instead of continuing using the old Roman ones. Imagine the difficulties if we still used the Roman system for our dates, telephone numbers, zip codes, Social Security identification, credit cards and all the other numbers we use every day. More properly they are Hindu-Roman numbers that originated around 500 C.E in India. The Arabs adopted them as they brilliantly did any valuable creation. For example, the Chinese invention of paper that gave birth to Islamic books while Europe was still writing on parchment scrolls. Today’s news, however, isn’t of Islam creativity but sadly of ghastly car bombings and bloody violence among Muslims.
Today’s Haystack reflection is the result of my personal attempts to understand the Sunni and Shiite Muslims who are continuously mentioned in the news. I offer my simple and inadequate summary of the issue with the hope it will be of some value to you. Both Shiites and Sunnis revere Allah as the only god and Mohammed as his Prophet, and they follow the main pillars of Islam: praying five times a day, fasting during Ramadan, giving to charity and making a pilgrimage to Mecca.
The Prophet Mohammed’s death in 632 C.E. caused a conflict between his followers about should lead them—his father-in-law, Abu Bakr, or his son-in-law, Ali. Those who chose Ali his son-in-law became the Shiites, and those who simply followed the sayings of the Prophet became the Sunnis. The difference between them is similar to that of Protestants and Roman Catholics. The Shiites have a hierarchical clergy and are religiously obligated to follow the teachings of their clerics—the imams. The Sunnis, however, have no clerical hierarchy and believe Islam is accessible to anyone who faithfully studies the Koran. This Sunni belief allows from among them the rise of fringe religious groups of militant extremists like al Qaida. Shiites recently had created their own extremist militant group, Hezbollah.
Until the recent Arab spring, strong dictators maintained order among these two groups. Dictators of Islamic nations belong to one or the other of these two religious groups and their governments are of members of their religious faction, while the opposing religious group is kept subjected. This is the case in Syria which is ruled by Alawites, a sect of Shiites, though they are only 13% of the population (Saudi Arabia’s stability may be due to the Al Saud Dynasty making its religious expression Wahhabism, a very puritanical form of Sunni Islam). The present bloody religious war in Syria may be only a viciously blood-spattered overture to a religious war of Sunni and Shiite Muslims that could encompass the entire Middle East. It would be a modern repeat of the prolonged religious Thirty Years War (1618-48) between Protestants and Catholics that ravaged much of Europe.
This religious conflict within Islam calls each of us to examine our own religious prejudices and to remove them. Should we pray for peace in Islam or that God heal our religious biases? The answer to both may be in the words of the Prophet Mohammed: “God changes not what is in a people, until they change what is in themselves.” (Koran 13: 11)