Friday, August 21, 2015

Sunni-Shia dialogue: What’s feasible

Muhamad Ali, California | Opinion | Fri, August 21 2015, 6:50 AM

One of the strategic issues raised at the recent 47th congress (muktamar)of the nation’s largest modernist Islamic organization, Muhammadiyah, was the enhancement of Sunni-Shia dialogue.

The Sunni-Shia crisis is almost as old as Islam itself, occurring right after the death of Prophet Muhammad. The conflict continues to resurface in parts of the Middle East and even in Sampang, Madura in East Java from 2011 onward, albeit on a much smaller and local scale. These tensions, both abroad and at home, have led Muhammadiyah leaders, scholars and activists to address the issue by advocating “internal” dialogues.

According to scholars on Islam such as Robin Bush and Budhy-Munawar Rachman, the official positions of Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama(NU) toward the Sunni-Shia tension are generally “conservative”. But the same findings also reveal diverse opinions within the leadership and membership of these two largest Islamic organizations toward religious minorities like Christians, Ahmadis and Shiites.

The congress in Makassar, South Sulawesi, revealed at least three positions among Muhammadiyah leaders and members concerning Sunni-Shia relations. The first position holds that Muhammadiyah is a Sunni movement, which many define as the People of the Sunnah, the Tradition of the Prophet, and the Community of Early Muslims.

The Shiites are meanwhile labeled the People of Heresy (ahl al-bid’ah). Hence Muhammadiyah is regarded also as a counter-ideology to the Shiites who do not recognize the three caliphs and accept the leadership of only Ali ibn Abi Thalib, the prophet’s son-in-law and cousin.

In Makassar, several leaders and members opposed any attempt at bridging the Sunni-Shiite theologies. Some firmly believe that Shi’ism is a dangerous belief that deserves no dialogue although the call to create an Islamic brotherhood (ukhuwwah) remains crucial. Others asked the congress to take an official position on whether Muhammadiyah regards the Shiites as “Islamic” or not, in order to end confusion among the grass roots. Yet there are hardly any positions that portray the Shiites as kafir (non-believers) although there are charges of heresy (bid’ah).

The second position maintains that Muhammadiyah is a Sunni movement, but recognizes that the Shia and the Sunni are both Muslim communities sharing commonalities and differences. Although they are aware of different sects within the Shia movement, they also identify extremist Shiites as well as extremist Sunnis that they consider should be “moderated”.

Many, including the elected secretary general Abdul Mu’ti, contended that the dialogue should not be about deciding who is religiously right or wrong, but about creating mutual recognition and understanding between the competing and conflicting sects.

The third position believes that Shiites and Sunnis are Muslims, but asserts that Muhammadiyah is neither, because the organization is a new, modern organization that emerged in the East Indies in 1912 very long after the Sunni-Shia split in seventh century Arabia.

Former chairman Ahmad Syafii Maarif maintained that the Muhammadiyah should firmly remain above the divisions of the sects of early Islam. For him, returning to the Koran as the main form of guidance would decrease one’s tendency to be sectarian and intolerant of religious and social differences.

The most recent former chairman M. Din Syamsuddin reiterated that both the Sunni and the Shia recognize the same God and the same prophet. He contends that a Sunni could learn about, and take lessons from, Shi’ism without being a Shiite in order to bridge the cognitive gap and increase cooperation.

The scholar Azyumardi Azra, who attended the congress, asserted that the Sunni-Shiite conflict was an old and regional Middle Eastern conflict that should not become a Muslim conflict in Indonesia. Muslims in Indonesia should lead the Muslim world in demonstrating moderation and modernization, he said.

There is broad awareness that tension and conflicts in the Middle East and in Indonesia are not basically theological or religious.

Addressing the tension, however, requires religious and non-religious measures. Muhammadiyah should improve its socio-religious and intellectual roles in cultivating tolerance, moderation and collaboration across faiths and nations.

The diverse positions regarding Sunni-Shiite relations can be taken into consideration as to what specific aspects demand special attention. These could include theological, ritual, social, political and cultural aspects, as well as international relations.

Muslims generally differentiate between belief and social interaction, claiming that they have to be firm or exclusive in the former and flexible and inclusive in the latter. But life is more complex.

There are often intersections between faith and social interaction, such as in the building of houses of worship, international financial support for propagation, mixed marriages of Sunni-Shiite couples, educational interaction and cooperation, and political tension and differences — such as among the Wahhabi Saudis, the Sunni Egyptians, the Yemenis, Shiite Iranians and Lebanese.

Therefore, Muhammadiyah, including the newly elected leaders, could commission the translation of books and publications that promote mutual understanding among Muslims, and between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Muhammadiyah should invite the national and local governments, national and local leaders, scholars and activists to take part in this dialogue. The Muhammadiyah preachers should conduct propagation or dakwah with knowledge and wisdom, providing good examples, and effective debates and dialogue, as explicitly stated in the Koran.

Dialogue, instead of the language of conflict, should be popularized internationally, nationally and locally. The classical tradition of face-to-face discussion including silatulfikr (reconnecting the minds) should be continued and promoted at other levels.

All activities and programs should be inclusive and benefit members and non-members from all walks of life regardless of faith and sectarian divisions. The 2015 congress is a historic moment in dealing with this old sectarian conflict by advancing dialogue in the broadest sense of the word.

If Muhammadiyah, the NU and other Islamic organizations in Indonesia emphasize the middle-path positions as inspired by the Koran, then ideally there should be no more obstacles to dialogue and cooperation among those who identify themselves as Muslims in Indonesia as well as among all the people and civilizations around the world.

The writer is associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of California, Riverside, and heads the special branch of Muhammadiyah in the US.
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