THE rift between the followers of the Sunni and Syiah groups in the Islamic world stemmed from a disagreement over who should govern the then fledgling Muslim state following the death of Prophet Muhammad, whom Muslims believe was the last Prophet.
Explaining the differences between the two groups, the Institute of Islamic Understanding’s (IKIM) Centre for Economics and Social Studies Senior Fellow Dr Mohd Farid Mohd Shahran said the original dispute was merely political in nature but it later widened into a schism.
Following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, some supporters of Saidina Ali bin Abu Talib — the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law — questioned the appointment of Abu Bakar as-Siddiq, a Companion of the Prophet, as the Islamic empire’s first Caliph.
“They felt betrayed because they believed Ali was more deserving, but at that time the dispute was political in nature and could possibly have been reconciled,” said Farid.
The term Syiah literally means the group or sect sympathetic to and supportive of Ali.
Sunni or Sunnah Wal Jamaah, meanwhile, means “followers of the Prophet’s teachings who are the righteous majority in the Muslim community”.
Ali would later become the fourth Caliph. For Sunnis, the first four Caliphs — Abu Bakar, Umar bin al-Khattab, Uthman bin Affan and Ali — are commonly referred to as “The Rightly Guided Caliphs”.
The discontentment of Ali’s followers, however, widened over the centuries and the movement later developed its own doctrines and rituals, some of which many Sunnis, including those in Malaysia, find objectionable.
Farid says these include the Syiah practice of striking their heads with swords, beating their chests or flagellating themselves to express their grief and devotion on the anniversary of the martyrdom of Saidina Hussein bin Ali.
Hussein was the grandson of the Prophet and the son of Saidina Ali. He was murdered in Karbala, Iraq, following an uprising against the Caliph Yazid bin Muawiyah.
There are competing versions of certain events in the killing of Hussein.
The episode consolidated the Syiah opposition towards the established Islamic state leadership and marked a divisive split between the Syiah and Sunni.
There is also the Syiah practice of placing a small clay tablet on the prayer mat when performing prayers, with the tablet made of soil from Karbala.
“Another Syiah practice is the shortening of some of the five daily prayers.
“The facility is known as jamak, which to Sunnis are only allowed for travellers who meet certain strict criteria,” said Farid.
Another dispute is over the Syiah practice of mutaah or fixed-term marriage whereby a couple agrees in advance on the duration of their marriage, which could last only a month, for example.
Sunni critics say the practice can lead to an abuse of the institution of marriage.
A deeper source of Sunni-Syiah division, according to Farid, is the Syiah rejection of many of the Prophet’s Companions due to their sense of betrayal.
The Syiah unwillingness to accept these Companions is a contentious point for the Sunnis.
“For us, the religion is also based in part on the Hadith or Sayings of the Prophet which are sourced from the Prophet’s Companions, so how can one reject them?” asked Farid.
In Malaysia, the propagation of Syiah teachings is banned.
A 1996 fatwa or decree by the Fatwa Committee of the National Council of Islamic Religious Affairs stated that Muslims in Malaysia must only follow the teachings of Islam “based on the doctrine of the Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jama’ah on creed, religious laws and ethics”.
In addition, the publication, broadcasting and distribution of any books, leaflets, films, videos, and others relating to the teachings of Islam that contradict the doctrine of the Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jama’ah is prohibited and deemed unlawful.
Farid said that while there are some Sunnis who hold extreme views against the Syiah, the majority of Sunni scholars do not regard them as outright kafir or unbelievers, but as a group that has deviated from the true teachings of Islam.
Both Sunnis and Syiah followers profess their faith in the same God and Prophet, but the problem is unity, an especially important consideration in Malaysia.
It was Sunni teachings on Islam that first arrived in Malaysia as well as the whole Malay Archipelago. The region today remains predominantly Sunni as a result.
For many in Malaysia, Syiah only became well known following the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
Critics often ask why Syiah is a big issue in Malaysia when there are many other countries in the Middle East that have large numbers of people following Syiah teachings.
According to Farid, the reason is that while Syiah teachings have been in those countries for centuries, it is relatively new here and is seen by many as a potentially divisive force.
“Muslims make up about 60% of the population in Malaysia and yet there are already divisions among them today, so our policy of not allowing the teachings of the Syiah to be propagated in our country is also based on the need to try and protect unity,” said Farid.