Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The impact of the Shiites on Sunni fundamentalists | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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In the mid-1990s, cassette tapes of a Shiite singer performing recitals that had nothing to do with the Sunni doctrine were circulated among a radical Salafi group in Riyadh. The group took immense pleasure from these tapes, regardless of the fact that their content contradicted the longstanding Salafi stance on singing and music. Yet the real question to be raised here is: How exactly did a collection of Shiite recitals reach this hardline Sunni category?

Part of the answer lies in recalling the profound relationship and the magnitude of exchanged influence and impact between the Shiite and Sunni fundamentalists. In this article, I will attempt to examine the influence of fundamentalist Shiite Islam on its Sunni counterpart.

It is certain that fundamentalist Shiite Islam has had an impact on its Sunni counterpart. Historically speaking, religious opposition groups with political ambitions all began as secret movements, with the Shiites making up a considerable portion, and they drew on multiple inspirations. For example, the establishment of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood group was heavily influenced by Western nationalist movements and parties, especially the communist ones, and here similarities can be seen in terms of the ideological, dynamic and organizational structure. The concepts of “commitment” and “apostasy” commonly used by the Brotherhood are drawn from communism, even if attempts were later made to “Islamize” them. This also applies to the group’s pyramidal organizational structure, its clandestine operations, its policy of absolute obedience and its military wings, all of which are based on the model of Western communist parties.

Such movements have also drawn heavily upon Shiite history, particularly at times of political repression and opposition. Here I will examine four main themes: “financial independence”, “religious theatre”, “Karbala ceremonies” and “religious chants and recitals”.

With regards to financial independence, Shiite movements traditionally had their own fixed source of income. Marjas would collect one-fifth of the earnings of prominent businessmen, and then distribute this among the public. For the businessmen, no Shiite capital could be considered pure unless one-fifth was allocated to the religious marja, and this ensured a sizeable financial income for Shiite movements. As a result, the Sunnis – who do not allocate one-fifth of their earnings to religious authorities – have paid attention to the importance of such financial independence, and have sought to achieve it in a variety of ways. These include taking advantage of charities and donations in all countries where they operate, whether overtly or covertly, as well as through so-called Islamic banks, which in fact are the same traditional banks but with a few tweaks. These fundraising measures are all outside the state’s control, and this is the crux of the matter. François Thual remarked that during the 19th century, Shiite donations and legacies would go to scholars, without having to pass through the state.

As for religious theatre, Vali Nasr argues in “The Shiite Revival” that if the Sunni current’s frame of reference is the Sharia, which focusses mainly on what is permissible in Islam and what is not, then a central pillar of the Shiite doctrine is rituals, sentiment and drama. François Thual also says that Shiite scholars encouraged so-called religious theatre through their “condolence councils”, hence consolidating their authority over the people away from the state.

Certainly the Sunni doctrine is more hardline in this particular sphere than the Shiite one. This is because the Shia Islam has been the doctrine of songs, chants and drama from time immemorial, whereas the political theatre was the product of modern Sunni political Islam groups. Thus, perhaps, the Sunnis took the idea from the Shiite experience.

As for Karbala ceremonies, these are commonly known among the Shiite sect to be a means of inducing sentiments and emotions towards the Shiites’ historical grievances, and to reflect how they represent an oppressed opposition that has suffered great punishment and torture throughout its history. Fundamentalist Sunni movements have been greatly influenced by this trend, as reflected by the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempts to express the abuse they suffered during the Nasserite era. In this endeavor, they have transformed the stories of the tortures they suffered into something akin to the Shiite Karbala ceremonies. The Brotherhood have produced an abundance of tales, poems and other forms of literature that draws heavily of the Shiite tradition of exaggerating their plight for emotional impact.

As for religious chants and recitals in their contemporary form, this stems back to the Sufi current, rather than the Shiites. The Sufis were largely responsible for the development of religious singing and chanting, and they gradually came into contact with political Islam groups. Generally speaking, chants and recitals in their different guises among the Shiites and the Sunnis have been used as a means of political escalation, rather than mere ceremonial practices to praise God Almighty or invoke His deeds.

Hence we can see the sizeable influence of Shiite Islam upon fundamentalist Sunni movements over many years. The Islamic Republic of Iran has been particularly successful in bringing together Sunni fundamentalist movements under its banner, whether political groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood or violent entities such as al-Qaeda. Key figures in these movements have flocked to the Shiite fundamentalist hub [Iran] to display their political loyalty or to be subject to its support and influence.

Finally, by recalling this long history that I have tried to summarize here, we can understand the interrelationships between the two extremes of political Islam; the Sunnis and the Shiites. The channels of contact and cohesion, as well as the causes of disagreement and hostility, are now clearer.

The two sides of political Islam sometimes agree because they share the same history, and at other times they disagree and even antagonize one another. Yet such hostility is ultimately borne out of their close proximity.