Theological Differences between Sunnis and Shi’tes: Time for Reconciliation?
When it comes to theological differences between both the Sunnis and Shi’tes, there are five main issues which were enveloped with ambiguity along history and led to many calamities between the two parties; these calamities were political in nature nonetheless.
The five main theological differences between the two parties were badly misused by ill hearted men from both parties to ignite the flames of disunity and sew discord among them; this attitude is not acceptable to continue any longer in our contemporary world as a lot of initiatives were taken by both parties to bridge the theological gap and to find a common ground. These efforts were of great assistance and led to many successes but a lot has yet to be done to put an end to this unnecessary tension between the two parties.
The first theological issue has to do with the concept of badaa or non previous knowledge. In other words, this concept means that God changes His mind when He realizes things that He did not previously know of. The Shi’te had actually denied this allegation and explained their position on the concept of badaa in an explanatory remark which was very much similar to the Sunni explanation of dependent or potential destiny (al Qadaa al Mu’alaq). The Sunnis believe that there are two kinds of destinies, ordained destiny and potential one. The ordained destiny is the one that exists in God’s knowledge and is not subject for change or alteration and the potential destiny is the one that is decreed in the preserved tablet and which is subject to change by God with His previous knowledge and absolute will and power. This kind of destiny is the one about which the Prophet said “Nothing averts a destined decree except supplication and nothing but piety prolongs life”.
According to this explanation there is actually no substantial theological difference as the argument simply resulted from a mere misunderstanding and by placing false appellations to define certain terminologies. And if each party had read what the other party wrote, they both would have concurred with each other.
The second allegation is the issue of alterations in the Quran and the Shi’te deeply apologized for what might have insinuated this grave claim and explained that they meant the unpopular unchained transmissions of the Qruan. These unchained odd transmissions of the Quran are not accepted or reliable by the Sunnis themselves because it was not narrated with a sound chain of narration leading back to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). On the other hand, both the Sunnis and the Shi’tes utterly believe in the divine preservation of Quran and this belief was concurred with the consensus of Muslims along history. God says in the Quran “Indeed, it is We who sent down the Qur'an and indeed, We will be its guardian.” 15:9
The third issue in question is the issue of accusing the Prophet’s companions with disbelief and the truth of the matter is that we have not encountered in any of the writings of any of the infallible imams of the Shi’tes any of these claims. Also in the scholarly books of erudite Shi’te scholars in the 20th century, we often encounter phrases showing utter reverence for the companions of the Prophet like writing (may God be pleased with them) after mentioning their names and the like. Also the whole issue against the Prophet’s companions which was ignited by the early Shi’te was basically emotional and did not necessitate all this animosity which filled the heart of the general public from both sides.
For example when the Shi’ites attach to lady Fatimah, daughter of Prophet Muhammad, the appellation (peace be upon her), this appellation is not exclusive to the Shi’ites as Imam al Bukhari himself mentions her with the same appellation in his famous Sahih book. The whole issue is emotional for the Shi’tes as lady Fatimah had an argument with Abu Bakr al Siddiq and was mad at him over her inheritance of a piece of land in Khaybar and that Abu Bakr argued with her that he heard the Prophet saying “We- prophets- are not to be inherited”. So the whole matter boiled down to juristic differences yet took an emotional turn for the Shi’tes.
The fourth issue of difference is the issue of the caliphate and the debate over the rightful caliph. According to the Shi’tes the only eligible candidate for the caliphate is Ali ibn Abi Taleb as for the Sunnis they believe in deliberation of power starting from Abu Bakr then ‘Umar then ‘Uthman then ‘Ali. This issue might seem historical yet its fundamentality lies in its importance in determining the issue of the Imamate which according to Shi’tes necessitates the acknowledgement of the eligible authority of the caliph and requires total allegiance from the public. As for the Sunnis, the imamate is rather a political issue which is left to be determined by the Muslim community through free elections.
The fifth and the last issue has to do with the principle of (tuqyah) adopted by the Shi’tes. The sunni definition of (tuqyah) is for a person to speak in total opposition to what he or she believes in and it is considered a sort of hypocrisy or lying or weakness or deceit or other bad qualities. As for the Shi’te, they refuted back this definition by asserting that their understanding of (tuqyah) is closer to merely stating or narrating the opponent’s stance and narrating the opponent’s stance even if it was against one’s belief does not fit to be described as a bad quality. It is more of a situation which one might find him or herself forced into adopting due to some political necessity such as at times of injustice or limitations on freedom of expression so in these situations one might turn to (tuqyah) which does not equate lying.
These are the kind of differences which we ought to tolerate and not to freeze in time because of it or place it as a reason for shedding blood from both sides. Unity is rather a religious duty upon all the Muslim ummah and this is actually reiterated by all the erudite religious figures from both Sunni and Shi’i sides. I supplicate to God for the unity of the hearts of the Muslims all over the world and to lead us to what earns us His pleasure. Amin.