The Sunnah and the Shi’te: Two Pole...

Egypt's Dar Al-Ifta

The Sunnah and the Shi’te: Two Poles Apart?

The Sunnah and the Shi’te: Two Poles Apart?

A lot of people pose questions regarding the differences between the Sunnah and the Shi’tes and whether they recognize each other or not. Also are they considered two separate religions like some people claim in the West? The Azhar has recognized the eight schools of jurisprudence which Muslims use and turn to in their modern lives.

Four of these legal schools are Sunnis (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’I, Hanbali) and two are Shi’tes (Ja’fariya and Zaidiyah) and the final two are (Ibadiyah and Zahiriyah). These eight schools form the components of the juristic encyclopedia which took effect in 1960 with the consent of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs. This juristic encyclopedia was compiled by Muhammad Faraj al Sanhuri along with other renowned jurists in Egypt. This conciliatory step was preceded with a decision taken by Shiekh Mahmoud Shaltout to approve using the Ja’fari legal school of jurisprudence in solving juristic issues of Sunnis.

We can clearly see in the juristic books of both the Sunnis and the Shi’tes how they cite each other’s juristic opinions on different issues and how they sometimes concur with each other or remain different or declare certain preferences. This intellectual exchange clearly proves that they both believe in the same religion and have the same direction of prayer which is the Ka’bah and refer to the same sacred revelatory source which is the Quran and the Prophetic traditions. They both fast the month of Ramadan and pray five times along with performing pilgrimage to the sacred house. Where is the difference then?

1-The Sunnis believe that the reliable transmission of prophetic traditions encompass all the companions and the number of companions who saw the Prophet was 114,000 companions, 20,000 of them were in Medinah at the time of the Prophet’s death and prayed the funeral prayer over his noble body. The total number of the companions who transmitted prophetic traditions is only 1800 companions which means that their number is less than 1% of all the companions who saw the Prophet. The transmitters and the narrators of prophetic traditions in the book of Musnad Ahmad- which is an all encompassing voluminous book that includes about 30,000 hadiths - are no more than 990 companions and a lot of them did not narrate more than one hadith. In the book of Sahih al Bukhari there are around 2000 unrepeated hadiths and no more than 254 companions were mentioned as narrators. The total number of hadiths that were narrated by Sunnis did not exceed 50,000 hadiths and were transmitted through 1 million chains of narration; some of the chains are sound, others are weak or accepted or rejected.

2-The Shi’tes believe that the only reliable source of transmission of prophetic traditions comes from Ali ibn Abi Talib and his noble lineage who the Shi’tes believe are infallible. The line includes al Hassan, al Hussayn, Ali Zayn al ‘Abdeen, Muhammad al Baqer, Ja’far al Sadeq (to whom belongs the Ja’fari school), Mussa al Kazem, Ali ibn Mussa al Reda, Muhammad ibn Ali al Jawad, Ali ibn Muhammad al Hadi, al Hassan ibn Ali al ‘Askari, and finally Muhammad ibn al Hassan al ‘Askari who the Shi’tes believe that he is the Mahdi and for this reason they were called the Twelvers. The Shi’te narrations of prophetic traditions were compiled by the renowned scholar al Majlesi in his voluminous book which was first printed in 25 volumes and then republished in 110 volumes and encompasses 10, 000 hadiths some of them are sound and others range between weak, approved and rejected.

3-This huge amount of narrations by both parties have a lot of shared narrations and only a small part of the narrations differ between the two parties. A lot of attempts were made to study these shared narrations as a starting point to bridge the gap between the two parties and to notify the people of both parties that the shared heritage of narrations is way more than the minor differences. The first attempt of bridging the gap was done by the Ibadi scholar Yusuf Atfeesh who authored a book in the end of the 19th century titled (Jame’ al Shaml) in which he compiled all the shared narrations of approved prophetic traditions in all different juristic schools. Another attempt was made by Muhammad al Husseiny al Jalali who authored a book on the common and shared narrations between the Sunnis and the Shi’tes and was published in Chicago and reprinted in Iran in five volumes. This book is the result of rigorous scholarly efforts which clarify the solid juristic base shared by both parties.

4-When we are subjected to these facts, one can’t help but wondering; what is the source of difference? If the differences lie in the basis of accepting and rejecting hadith, this will inevitably lead to differences in jurisprudence. Differences in Jurisprudence are simple by nature because jurisprudence is built on speculation and what is speculative is subject to independent legal reasoning (ijtiahd) and in this case each party should accept the outcomes of the other party’s personal ijtiahd.

For example the Shi’tes permit mut’ah marriage which is based on a bilateral consent between the spouses to have a definite deadline for ending the marriage and they permit for the man to marry more than four wives by this type of marriage. They also permit marrying both a woman and her paternal or maternal aunt at the same time. The Sunnis do not permit all of the above. One can say that this topic is one of the most controversial issues between the two parties in jurisprudence and this difference should not beg the deep sadness instilled in the hearts of both parties based on this juristic difference.

5-When it comes to theological differences between both the Sunnis and the Shi’tes, this needs some elaboration in our next article inshAllah.

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