Connecting at a Junction

Featured Artwork: ‘Putting the pieces back together as one’, Acrylic on canvas by Uzma Rizvi

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Shias and Sunnis living together in peace

From time to time, we come across heartbreaking news about Sunni and Shia Muslims being intolerant and aggressive toward each other in various countries. Sometimes, there have been riots and even killings. It is not difficult to figure that those who fan hostilities cannot be friends to Muslims.

However, Muslims cannot give up on each other, and our mutual respect and understanding cannot disintegrate under negative manipulations. We have so much history together — surely, we can continue to coexist peacefully with our differences while focusing on our similarities.

Muslims face many issues like poverty, illiteracy, famine, war, and refugee crises, to name just a few. To tackle these problems around the globe, we need to be united, not divided. Unfortunately, many Muslims do not stand up for their siblings, as they are afraid of being ostracized by their own sect.

The cycle continues

I see the same patterns continuing in the United States. Those who stand for interfaith dialogue with other theological groups might shy away from showing support or cooperation for groups within Islam. They do not speak up in gatherings or on social media when rifts flare-up among Muslim sects. Misunderstandings about beliefs and practices also create mistrust.

A Sunni friend once remarked that they believed that Shias’ Quran is different. Others have gone silent or looked at me with reluctance when discussing Shia-Sunni similarities or the option of occasionally hearing each other’s religious sermons.

In explanation, someone said that they are afraid that they will be looked at with suspicion and not invited to social and religious gatherings within their sect. Their kids will be left out from their own religious circles. So, they choose the easy way out — to be quiet and keep themselves safe from the unknown. The general attitude is never to dip toes into untrusted waters. Tolerance and goodwill can go ply their own boats in storms, while those with oars run away.

Empathy goes a long way

Things can be improved, if people would realize that to empathize or mingle with someone, you don’t have to agree with them on everything. People don’t automatically change their belief system when they raise their voices in support of groups with dissimilar or opposing views.

Anyone can be accommodating around like-minded folks with shared or popular opinions. The litmus test is when you are inclusive and open-minded for those you have differences with. We can become tolerant when we meet and live with people from diverse cultural or religious groups.

 Rumi expresses it so well: “Love is the whole thing. We are only pieces.”

A shared home

My mother, a very self-assured, pragmatic, and no-nonsense kind of woman, was Shia when she got married to my Sunni father. Much later, after about 20 plus years of her marriage, she decided on her own to adopt Sunni practices. My parents had agreed very early on that they would raise their kids as Sunnis. Through this consensus, they wanted to give us clarity, and keep us away from lifelong debates within ourselves.

Such arrangements might not work out for everyone, but the reason I am providing this household as an example is to show that people can find common ground, despite sectarian variances, to be accommodating, loving, and understanding.

We were raised in the Sunni tradition by our mother and her sister (my aunt), who lived with us. This was a unique experience. My aunt, who was a teacher by profession, would buy books about Sunni prayers and asked my paternal grandmother, who resided nearby, to explain certain nuances to her. She would then teach us how to perform the prayer and other rituals like ablution and fasting, etc. And all this while they followed their Shia practices side by side, in the same house.

Iftar gatherings would be remarkable when our Sunni and Shia relatives enjoyed the meal together, breaking the fast and praying in their own manner and at their own particular times. We used to offer namaaz in the Sunni style when visiting imambargahs and never felt unwelcome or weird.

My aunt learned to read the Quran with proper pronunciation with our Sunni Quran teacher. My dad listened to Shia sermons live and on TV with respect and attention.

All relatives were invited to each other’s religious gatherings and participated in milads, dars, majalis, and funerals as much as each person felt comfortable, without any pressure. We grew up respecting everyone and all religions.

Direct experiences affect you in many ways

Sometimes, people have prejudices or suspicions against others when they have never had firsthand experiences with them. As we get familiar with diverse individuals and communities, we erase misconceptions and fallacies by understanding their customs and beliefs. Grounded in our convictions and principles in the most sensible, humble way, we honor other opinions and do not say or do anything to hurt religious sentiments.

We also learn that we cannot satisfy everyone, and are no longer afraid of labels, taunts, or what people think of us. We might not always be successful at it, but we keep trying.

The complicated problems facing Muslims can only be addressed through a united front, rather than one marred by infighting and contempt. We need to keep building bridges among Muslims and improve our destinies together.