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Branches of the Same Tree: Overcoming Sectarian Divides Among Muslims

"Hold fast to the hope of God, all together, and be not divided." --Quran 3:103

"Islam is simple," the taxi driver explained to me as he drove me to the Center for Shariah Studies in Muscat, the capital of Oman in the southeastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula. "Basically, Islam is like a tree, and all of the various denominations are branches on the tree, they make up the entirety of the religion," he said. The driver's insightful comment introduced me to the beliefs of the Ibadi denomination in Islam, which represents a majority of Omani citizens and a small minority of Muslims worldwide.

My recent journey to Oman brought new insights, offered both by erudite scholars of Islamic law as well as ordinary Omanis. Home to Ibadis, as well as Sunnis, small groups of several branches of Shiism and foreigners from various faith traditions, Oman represents a unique situation of relative interreligous harmony. In a time where intra- and inter-religious conflicts seem to dominate the headlines, Oman is a stable nation ruled by an absolute monarch, Sultan Qaboos. Perhaps partly due to the strict rule of the Sultan, Oman has seen little turmoil in recent years. Omanis are proud of their country's tolerant attitude toward religious minorities and although they like to differentiate themselves through their distinct Ibadi background, they consider any Muslim who prays toward the direction of Mecca to be a Muslim, no matter what their specific theological beliefs may be.

Oman represents a calm oasis in the midst of a cyclone of intra-Muslim ignorance and brutality. My time there stirred me to reflect on the disheartening situation of Muslims in the modern world and their futile struggle to create impenetrable boundaries based on superficial religious differences. While around the Muslim-majority world, Sunnis, Shiites, Ibadis and others have lived in relative calm and harmony for hundreds of years, recent political factors have kindled the flames of sectarian violence.

Most Americans are aware of the sectarian violence in Iraq, where there have been countless cases of sectarian violence from both sides. In some areas of Iraq, it is dangerous to have an overtly Sunni or Shiite name in the wrong neighborhood and people must navigate parts Baghdad according to their sectarian identity. Shiite pilgrims walking on foot to the city of Karbala have been killed on a regular basis by suicide bombers and car bombs: the question is usually not if the attacks will happen, but when. Terrorists also have killed worshipers during Friday prayers at Sunni mosques, and there seems to be no end to these merciless assaults despite efforts at reconciliation by activists and clerics.

In Afghanistan, Shiites mourning the death of Husayn were massacred by a man who allegedly belonged to a militant Sunni Pakistani terrorist organization. Saudi Arabia continues to treat its Shiite minority population as second class citizens, depriving them of the rights granted to the rest of its Muslim citizens and swiftly suppresses any protests against the government. The Sunni ruling family of nearby Bahrain continues to oppress the Shiite majority with the help of the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, and the situation in Syria has devolved into a full-blown civil war with sectarian undertones. Even in Indonesia, far removed from the Middle East, Shiites have suffered verbal abuse and physical attacks by radical Sunni Muslims. Egypt, a country known more for its tolerant and welcoming environment has witnessed an increasing fear of Shiism, especially in reaction to the growing population of Iraqi refugees, many of whom are Shiites, as well as Egyptian converts to Shiism.

Muslims in the West are not immune to the problem of intra-Muslim hostility and Sunnis and Shiites more often than not worship in separate communities. Conflict starts with the tongue and sometimes can end up with bloodshed: last March, the largest Shiite mosque in Belgium was firebombed and the Imam of the mosque killed in the fire, the alleged perpetrator is said to have been a radical Sunni Muslim. While Muslims often come together to respond to rampant Islamophobia, most Americans are unaware that Muslims have internal disputes and lack unity on many other issues. Many Muslims are involved in interfaith dialogue, yet some of these same people might be reluctant to involve themselves in intra-Muslim dialogue, unable to accept other Muslims who hold differing beliefs. It would appear that interfaith engagement is -- at times -- less threatening than intrafaith engagement.

In the U.S., it is not uncommon to find mosques with constitutions that stipulate potential members be Sunni and follow one of the four Sunni schools of law to join the mosque as a member. While they most probably would not turn away a Shiite worshiper, the anti-Shiite attitude that is prevalent in the majority of mosques often makes non-Sunnis feel unwelcome. Moreover, mosques often demarcate their communities by ethnicity, spiritual inclinations, political affiliations and other identity markers, causing further unnecessary separation between Muslims of varying backgrounds.

Much of the intra-Muslim discrimination that takes place in the Muslim community is not obvious to outsiders and few people are wiling to discuss this issue in public out of fear of reproach from within the community. Some young people are warned by their parents to only consider spouses from the same denominations. Young Sunnis and Shiites do fall in love and get married, navigating the challenges to raise their children between their different understandings of Islam. Some Sunnis refuse to pray behind a Shiite prayer leader (imam) as they consider Shiite prayer and ablution methods to be invalid; and some Shiites will not pray behind Sunnis for the same reasons.

Of course, there are many exceptions, and Muslims who are aware of the nuances of Islamic law and those who are more concerned with unity than sectarian strife consistently make an effort to reach out to their fellow Muslims from different backgrounds. There are a handful of mosques and Islamic centers that explicitly cater to Muslims from all backgrounds, regardless of their ethnic, political or sectarian affiliation, such as the Islamic Center of Southern California, whose ideology specifically states: "Sect, school of thought, are a matter of personal preference, not a community policy." One can only pray that other mosques develop similar attitudes toward the creation of a pluralistic community and the ability to accept difference. Most Muslim Student Associations (MSA) at university campuses around the country cater primarily to Sunni students, but a few of the more inclusive MSAs have made laudable efforts to fully engage with students and community members from diverse backgrounds.

The first step to combating this problem -- at least in America -- is through education and by spreading awareness about the dangers of disunity, as it states in the Quran:

Surely, those who have made divisions in their religion and turned into factions, you have nothing to do with them. Their case rests with God; then He will inform them of what they used to do (Quran, 6:159).

While Muslims from diverse backgrounds might want to participate in certain rituals within their specific community, there is no reason why they cannot also come together to pray and socialize at the same mosques and Islamic centers, and perhaps even join in certain rituals and celebrations together.

While Sunnis and Shiites may never be able to agree on the fine points of theology, they should be able to learn how to coexist with each other and to join forces to create a unified, stronger community. Many initiatives have been undertaken by Muslims, specifically scholars, to encourage intra-Muslim dialogue and tolerance, such as the 2004 Amman Message -- signed by the most prominent contemporary Muslim scholars from around the world -- which explicitly states that eight branches of Islam are legitimate denominations in Islam. Most importantly, the statement emphasizes the impermissibility of accusing other Muslims of being heretics, an act that is often encouraged and practiced by hate-mongering clerics and Internet "scholars" who train under the "renowned" Shaykh Google.

Other initiatives that could kindle friendships between Muslims of various backgrounds would be to coordinate intra-Muslim service projects similar to interfaith initiatives, such as Interfaith Youth Core. These initiatives could bring together Muslims from various mosques in a community to work together on issues that matter, where they could focus on building relationships and helping others. Building friendships and working together could help Muslims of different backgrounds to humanize their fellow Muslims and to overcome the stereotypes and misinformation they have been given.

Although the situation is incredibly complex, many journalists oversimplify the growing tensions between Sunnis and Shiites as an eternal battle between sworn enemies. Each instance of sectarian clashes we witness around the world is unique and in many cases, religion is not usually the primary motivating factor. What is clear is that now is not the time for Muslims to be fighting one another. It is high time that we become more accepting of those we disagree with and acknowledge that all those who identify themselves as Muslim are already included in the vast and merciful embrace of Islam. Most importantly, we have no right to judge them. I pray for a time when Muslims can grow together as branches on one tree to ensure that the core message of Islam -- that of unity, pluralism and compassion -- is embodied by Muslims in their dealings with both Muslims and non-Muslims.

This article was first published in the Huffington Post

Rose Aslan is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a focus on Islamic studies. Her academic interests include Sunni-Shi`i relations, sacred space, pilgrimage, and ritual, and she is also involved in interfaith and intra-Muslim engagement. She has lived and studied in Egypt, Canada, Armenia, Iran, and Iraq, and has traveled extensively around the Middle East. She received her MA in Arab studied from the American University in Cairo and her BA in religious and Near Eastern studies from the University of British Columbia.