Muslim and non-Muslim intellectuals alike can be quick to blame war and instability in Muslim countries on religious and sectarian differences. This naïve and simplistic view disregards the fact that these differences are far more complex than ideological disagreements. Many Muslims, unfortunately, carry this problematic and ill-directed sectarian animus to the West. In a 2019 poll by ISPU, it was discovered that Muslims have the most friction between their own communities than any other religious or ethnic group. 40% of Muslims shared that they have experienced sectarianism; this makes Muslims the group most likely to have sectarian discrimination within their ranks as compared to their counterparts.
The continued divisive attitudes and behaviors in the West are very concerning and in opposition to Islam’s central call for pluralism amongst Muslims and tolerance towards other religious groups. What is even more regrettable is that most of these “differences” which perpetuate the sectarianism are based on misconceptions, false assumptions, and sometimes even lies. From politicians with special interests to pseudo-scholars who enjoy support based on hatred of others, there are many benefactors off sectarianism.
It is essential to highlight that this article does not suggest that Sunnis and Shias could or should ever merge into one indifferentiable group. In their current forms, the two have some significant theological differences. However, Muslims, especially Western Muslims, should engage in these sensitive subjects academically and make sure we are not falling for any misconceptions. Allah, Mighty and Sublime, says in the Qur’an: “O you who believe! if an evil-doer comes to you with a report, look carefully into it, lest you harm a people in ignorance, then be sorry for what you have done.” In this part of Bridging the Sunni-Shia Divide, we will be clearing up three misconceptions about Sunni Islam in the hopes of decreasing sectarianism between Muslims.
“Sunnis Don’t Love Ahlulbayt”
It is a common misconception amongst some communities that Sunnis do not pay attention to the special status of the members of Ahlulbayt. In fact, some think that all Sunni scholars have entirely ignored the status of Ahlulbayt. Although sectarian divisions make it more difficult for Sunni scholars and laymen to profess their love for Ahlulbayt, the Sunni tradition is full of works dedicated towards the honoring of the members of Ahlulbayt. An example of this is present in the works of Ahmad bin Hanbal. Ibn Abdelbarr, the great Maliki jurist, cites in his work Al-Isti’aab:
Ahmad bin Hanbal and Isma’il bin Ishaaq Al-Qadhi Al-Maliki said: ‘No amount of virtues have been narrated regarding any companion [of the Prophet] with proper chains of narrations [Asaneed] as there have been regarding Ali bin Abi Talib.’”
This is made abundantly clear in Musnad Ahmad bin Hanbal, where the chapter on the virtues of Ali bin Abi Talib is larger than any other companions’ virtues. The great Hadith scholar, Ahmad bin Shu’aib Al-Nasa’i, who authored Sunan Al-Nasa’i, one of the six major Hadith books for Sunnis, also shared the position that Ali had the most recorded virtues of any companion. He went on to author an entire book by the name of “Khasa’is Amirul Mu’mineen”, dedicated to the virtues and high status of Ali to combat the spread of hatred of Ahlulbayt across the Muslim world.
Imam Abu Hanifa, the founder of the Hanafi school of jurisprudence, was himself a supporter of two uprisings led by members of Ahlulbayt. The first was the uprising of Imam Zayd bin Ali, his teacher and the great-grandson of the Holy Prophet (prayers and peace be upon him). Al-Bazzazi mentions in Manaqib Abi Hanifa that Abu Hanifa said: “If I knew that people would not forsake him as they forsook his [grand]father, I would fight with him, for he is a rightful Imam. But I will support him with my money.” So, Abu Hanifa sent 10,000 dirhams to aid with the movement. The second uprising he supported was that of Imam Ibrahim bin Abdullah, another descendant of the Prophet through his grandson Al-Hasan bin Ali (Allah be pleased with him). His messages and advice to Imam Ibrahim Al-Hasani cost him being thrown in jail for life.
Moreover, Imam Muhammad bin Idris Al-Shafi’i was known to be a sympathizer with the struggles of Ahlulbayt in his time. Some of his detractors abused him and accused him of being a “Rafidhi,” or reviler of the Prophet’s companions, simply for his professed love of Ahlulbayt. The poetry collection [Diwan] of Imam Al-Shafi’i records his eloquent answer in poem form: “If the love of the Prophet’s family means ‘rafdh’, then let humankind know, that surely I am a ‘Rafidhi’”. He is also known to have authored many other poems in love of Imam Ali, Fatima the daughter of the Holy Prophet, and Ahlulbayt in general.
Later Sunni Imams also viewed Ahlulbayt very favorably. Amongst those who authored books and chapters on the status of Ahlulbayt are Jalaluddin Al-Suyuti, Ibn Hajar Al-Asqalani, Ibn Kathir and many others. “The Perfect Family – Virtues of the Ahl Al-Bayt” is a beautiful book compiling these Sunni works and pushing back on the sensitivity some Muslims have about mentioning the honorable family of the Holy Prophet, prayers and peace be upon him.
“Sunnis Are Sympathetic or Silent About the Crimes of Yazid”
Many Shia Muslims assume that Sunnis are sympathetic to Yazid. This may be due to the lack of centrality of Ahlulbayt in some Sunni circles, and the refusal to condemn Yazid by a minority of loud Sunnis. However, that is a misconception far from the truth. Orthodox Sunni scholars have taken a strong stance on the crimes of Yazid bin Muawiyah, including, but not limited to, the tragedy of Karbala.
Imam Ibn Al-Jawzi, the revered 6th-century Hanbali jurist and historian, wrote a book called “Al-Rad ‘ala Al-Muta’assib Al-‘Aneed Al-Mani’ min Thammi Yazid,” which translates to “The Reply to the Stubborn Extremist Who Rejects The Disparagement of Yazid.” As the title suggests, the work is dedicated to clarifying the crimes and evil behaviors committed by the second Ummayad Caliph in his few years of ruling. In this book, after much research through Sunni traditional sources, Ibn Al-Jawzi concludes that Yazid is not only a Fasiq [evil-doer] but a Kafir and that it is permissible to curse him. This ruling is coming from a Hanbali scholar, and Hanbalis don’t have a reputation of Ahlulbayt-orientedness, generally.
Other Sunni scholars also condemned the tyrant Yazid. Ibn Hajar Al-‘Asqalani in Imtaa’ Al-Arba’in says about Yazid:
Loving and glorifying [Yazid] is not done except by a heretic who has void belief because he had such characteristics that his lover deserves to be faithless.”
The same author mentions in his book Lisan Ul-Mizan that Ahmad bin Hanbal said about him: “[One] ought not to take narrations from him.” The Shafi’i Hadith scholar, Al-Dhahabi, noted in his famous work Siyar A’lam Al-Nubalaa’ that he was “a Nasibi [reviler of Ahlulbayt], who was rude in speech and hard in the heart. He consumed intoxicants and committed forbidden actions.”
Many Sunni scholars continue this legacy of criticizing those who slaughtered the beloved family of the Holy Prophet (prayers and peace be upon him) and destroyed the sanctities of the Ummah. At the forefront of such scholars are the three Moroccan prodigies and Hadith scholars of the 20th century: Ahmad, Abdelaziz, and Abdullah Al-Ghumari. Moreover, there are big contemporary Sunni scholars who are vocal about the oppression of the Prophet’s family such as Shaykh Hasan Al-Saqqaf in Jordan, the Azhari Egyptian scholar Shaykh Mahmoud Mamdouh, and Syrian-American Azhari scholar, Dr. Shaykh Muhammad bin Yahya Al-Ninowy. Shaykh Hasan Al-Saqqaf highlights that throughout the first several centuries of Islam, all vocal Sunni scholars either called Yazid an evil-doer [Fasiq] or a Kafir for his murder of Imam Hussain, his attack on Medina, and his siege of Mecca.
“All Sunnis Believe That Abu Bakr Is Most Virtuous of the Companions”
Interestingly enough, this is a misconception that even laymen Sunnis have of Sunnism. But the concept of virtuousness is largely nondefinitive within the Sunni paradigm. The uniformity in opinion regarding the best of companions was a late occurrence. The Shafi’i scholar Ibn Hajar Al-Haythami in “Al-Sawa’iq Al-Muhriqah” states: “what supports that [the question of which companion is superior] is speculative is that those who favored certain companions never claimed that this companion is definitively superior, rather they relied on mere speculation [Thann]. This is what is understood from the statements and suggestions of Imams because this is an ijtihadi issue.”
Many other Sunni scholars regarded the question of superiority amongst the companions to be a speculative issue as well, such as the Qur’an exegete Al-Qurtubi, the Imam of the Haramain Al-Juwaini, and the Hanafi jurist Al-Taftazani. This is recorded in the Azhari scholar Shaykh Mamdouh’s book on the question of superiority amongst companions.
Furthermore, Sunni scholars like Al-Baqillani, the Maliki jurist, stated in his work “Manaqib Al-A’immah Al-Arba’ah” (“The Virtues of the Four Imams”) that:
Ibn Abbas, Al-Hasan bin Ali, Zayd bin Al-Arqam, Ammar bin Yasser, Salman Al-Farisi, Jabir bin Abdullah, Abu Haytham Al-Ansari, Huthaifah bin Al-Yaman, Amr bin Al-Hamiq, Abu Sa’id Al-Khudri, and others amongst the Sahabah believed that Ali (may Allah ennoble his face) was the best of human beings and the most knowledgeable after the Holy Messenger, prayers and peace be upon him, as well as the most beloved to him.”
Ibn Abdelbarr, in his Al-Isti’ab, also affirms the previous quote. Based on what was mentioned, many Sunni scholars held the opinion that members of Ahlulbayt, in fact, were the most virtuous. For example, according to reports from Jaluluddin Al-Suyuti in his collection of legal rulings Al-Hawi, Malik bin Anas, the founder of the Maliki school of jurisprudence, said: “I do not favor over the piece of the Prophet [Fatima], prayers and blessings upon him and his household, anyone.” So, the founder of one of the largest schools of jurisprudence in the Sunni world believed that Fatimah (peace be upon her), the daughter of the Holy Prophet, was the most virtuous of the companions.
As for other Sunni scholars who asserted that Ali was the most righteous, there are plenty. The prodigious Yemeni Shafi’i Ba’ Alawi scholar, Muhammad bin Aqeel Ba ‘Alawi in his work “Taqwiyat Al-Iman,” asserts that preferring Ali over the rest of the companions is a legitimate Sunni position that was followed by the majority of the Ba ‘Alawi scholars, including Al-Habib Abdullah bin Alawi Al-Haddad. More Sunni scholars who take this position include Shaykh Abdelaziz bin Sideeq Al-Ghumari, and his brothers Shaykh Ahmad and Shaykh Abdullah Al-Ghumari. Also, a bulk of the Yemeni Shafi’i scholars like Ali bin Al-Hasan Al-Attas, Sayyed Zaynul Abideen Aidrus, and Abu Bakr bin Abdelrahman bin Shihab took this position, as well as some contemporary scholars like Shaykh Hasan Al-Saqqaf, Shaykh Mahmoud Sa’id Mamdouh, Shaykh Hasan Farhan Al-Maliki, and other less famous ones as well.
This article cannot cite all those who favored Ali within the Sunni tradition, but Shaykh Mahmoud Mamdouh authored an excellent research book called Ghayat Al-Tabjeel which I would encourage everyone to read on the topic of Ali and his superiority as it is seen within the Sunni paradigm. Finally, it is beneficial to add that the founder of the most popular school of creed in Islam, Abul Hasan Al-Ash’ari, mentions the preference of Ali over the rest of the companions as a legitimate Sunni position in his book “Maqaalat Al-Islamiyyin.”
Allah, Mighty and Sublime, says in the Qur’an: “And hold firmly to the rope of Allah all together and do not become divided. And remember the favor of Allah upon you – when you were enemies, and He brought your hearts together, and you became, by His favor, brothers…”. The division of the Ummah is amongst the saddest tragedies we face and stops us from being able to stand against oppressive powers that marginalize us. As mentioned before, this article does not disregard theological differences, but hopes to open our eyes to widespread misconceptions and present the fact that we’re much more alike than many would like to imagine. Perhaps dispelling these false assumptions will help bring Muslims’ hearts together and maintain the ethics of disagreement, just as the Allah commands.
This is part of a series of articles on the Sunni-Shia divide, with the next part dedicated towards three misconceptions regarding Shi’ism.