It is also true that differences between the four Sunni schools of law are also irreconcilable; most Muslims have little understanding of the theological differences which separate these legal schools. But the violence amongst the four Sunni schools has never been anything close to what it is between the Sunnis and Shias.

By Dr. Muzaffar Iqbal

Many years ago, we stopped in a picturesque valley on our way to Gilgit to pray on a huge flat rock someone had put by the roadside. It was an experience unlike any other I have had: the chirping birds, the sound of river water gushing far below, and the majesty of the mountains around the spot all seemed to have joined in the glorification of the One who created that marvelous valley. Far away, neatly tucked beneath the surrounding mountain tops, several houses were visible where hardy and innocent people have lived for centuries.

Two strangers joined us in our prayer, but they were both disappointed to see that I combined the noon prayer with the afternoon prayer and muttered a few angry words before leaving. They were true Hanafis, who shorten but do not combine prayers while travelling. I was struck by the strength of their belief as well as their ignorance of the position of the various legal Sunni schools on the issue.

While the four Sunni schools of Islamic law have been able to live in relative peace with each other over the centuries, the Sunni-Shia divide is more volatile and has experienced many violent periods in history, but none has been as wide-spread as the current time. There are reasons for this.

The greatest factor contributing to a worldwide resurgence of sectarian violence in the Muslim world is the invasion of Iraq and what it has begotten: a sharply divided polity where Shia Muslims, who had been the subject of state oppression during the Saddam era, and the Sunni population are settling scores. But there is more to it than mere religion.

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Following the invasion of Iraq and disappearance of that terrible man called Saddam Hussain, Sunni-Shia sectarian hatred has flared up all over the Arab world. Fanned by fears of Shia uprisings in other countries and supported by petro-dollars by the self-styled shaykhs and kings, the Shia-Sunni divide has cut across all previous thresholds. The greatest factor in the flare up of this hatred is, however, politics, not religion. This is so because Sunnis and Shias have lived with their theological differences for centuries and while it is true that these differences are irreconcilable, it is also true that differences between the four Sunni schools of law are also irreconcilable; most Muslims have little understanding of the theological differences which separate these legal schools. But the violence amongst the four Sunni schools has never been anything close to what it is between the Sunnis and Shias.

One additional factor which distinguishes the Sunni-Shia divide from intra-Sunni divides of various kinds is the pronounced and emotionally charged attitudes of the two groups towards certain Companions of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace.

These attitudes are an instantaneous cocktail of fire and petrol: once ignited, it immediately closes all doors to any sound and reasonable discussion on the historic differences between the two groups. Flames rage and violence takes over. The newspaper reports of men hauling other men from buses and shooting them in cold blood by the wayside on Karakoram Highway are a self-explanatory proof of that inane force which takes over when the light of reason and sound faith is extinguished by the flame of hatred.

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What is really disconcerting in this regard is the role of religious leaders both in the Arab world as well as in Pakistan and Afghanistan where sectarian killing has become routine. Instead of understanding the new realities, which have been unleashed through the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, the religious leadership in the Muslim world is playing in the hands of those who have opened up this centuries-old floodgate of hatred with new force.

For centuries, Muslims have not been able to find satisfactory answers to the theological differences amongst themselves, but that alone is not a matter of concern, because these differences are the basis of diversity in matters of practice of Islam, which is the intended purpose of the Law and which is supported by sound practices of the Noble Messenger, upon him blessings and peace.

There is absolutely no reason to kill another person merely because he or she combines the prayers while travelling or breaks fast a little sooner or later. There is absolutely no religious reason to harbor hatred toward any of the Companions of the blessed Messenger, all of whom were from the best of his community, as he himself declared more than once. Yet, anyone holding strong resentment or hatred toward them is not automatically liable to death sentence by the roadside. This is a point that the religious leadership needs to understand and convey to the brute murderers who haul men out of buses and shoot them on the mountain side.

While it is true that anyone filled with the love of the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) and his Companions, may Allah be pleased with them all, will be saddened to hear anything being uttered against them, it is also true that the Book in which they believe and the practice of the Noble Messenger, which they uphold, absolutely denies them the liberty of taking another life. Anyone who kills another human being without a justification enshrined in the Book is simply creating his or her own place in the eternal fire; this is the Divine threat and promise and this must be repeated over and over until everyone understands it. This is one of the greatest needs of the Muslim world today: to understand the limits of personal responsibility in the face of rising sectarian strife.

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That serenity and peace of Gilgit-Baltistan now seems a thing of the past, as is the case for Baghdad, Kufa, Karbala, and Najaf, all centers of constant strife and bloodshed. The villains who unleashed sectarian hatred in Iraq may be smiling; they rightly found the nerve center for the internal collapse and destruction of the Muslim world, but is the Muslim religious leadership so blind that it cannot see this plot? Is it willingly playing the devil’s tunes or has it lost the light of the Book to such an extent that it is now blinded by ignorance of the pre-Islamic era? Where are the sane voices?