Meanwhile, back at the ranch

SunniShiaI tried to find a religious news angle for the Super Bowl halftime show so I could discuss how awesome Prince is, but I had to give up.

In completely opposite news, Neil MacFarquhar had a wonderfully intriguing article in the Sunday New York Times on how the Sunni-Shiite split is affecting communities in the United States. I’ve complained before that we don’t read enough about the doctrinal or other differences between the two groups.

McFarquhar gives myriad examples of the tension, from vandalism against Shiite mosques in Dearborn to Shiite students being barred from leading prayers at the Sunni-dominated Muslim Student Associations. He puts the problems in context:

Though the war in Iraq is one crucial cause, some students and experts on sectarianism also attribute the fissure to the significant growth in the Muslim American population over the past few decades.

Before, most major cities had only one mosque and everyone was forced to get along. Now, some Muslim communities are so large that the majority Sunnis and minority Shiites maintain their own mosques, schools and social clubs. Many Muslim students first meet someone from the other branch of their faith at college. The Shiites constitute some 15 percent of the world’s more than 1.3 billion Muslims, and are believed to be proportionally represented among America’s estimated six million Muslims.

Sometimes doctrinal differences are difficult to describe. Or it’s easier to show the obvious areas where two groups clash rather than delving into the nitty gritty. One thing I liked about the MacFarquhar article was the way he explained differences over Ashura, the day when Shiites commemorate the seventh-century death of Mohammad’s grandson Hussein:

The Shiites and the Sunnis part company over who has the right to rule and interpret scripture. Shiites hold that only descendants of Mohammad can be infallible and hence should rule. Sunnis allow a broader group, as long as there is consensus among religious scholars.

Many Shiites mark Ashura with mourning processions that include self-flagellation or rhythmic chest beating, echoing the suffering of the seventh-century Hussein. As several thousand Shiites marched up Park Avenue in Manhattan on Jan. 28 to mark Ashura, the march’s organizers handed out a flier describing his killing as “the first major terrorist act.” Sunnis often decry Ashura marches as a barbaric, infidel practice.

MacFarquhar hits from all angles. He shows how the Ashura problem is fought by both sides and the concerns Shiites have that speaking out against the problem will undermine unity among Muslims. Attempts to resolve conflicts have been mixed.

One of the differences that pose problems involve prayer. The University of Michigan at Dearborn’s Muslim association wrote rules that have the effect of banning Shiites from leading prayers, he said:

Apart from a greater veneration among Shiites for the Prophet’s descendants, there are slight variations in practice. Shiites, for example, pray with their hands at their sides, while Sunnis cross them over their chests.

“Most Sunni Muslims can’t pray behind a Shiite because if you are praying differently from the way the leader is, then it doesn’t work, it’s not valid,” said Ramy Shabana, the president of the association on the Dearborn campus.

I had never heard about this difference, or some of the others mentioned in the article. It provides some much needed information that helps shed light on Muslims here in America and abroad.

The only thing that concerned me in the article was that it seemed that all of the antagonism came from Sunnis and that Shiites were always the victims. I’m not aware of what the truth is, and the article did include a few Sunni sources, but it may be cause for concern.

Of course, the Shiite perspective taught me many things, such as that they believe the Council on American Islamic Relations and the Islamic Society of North America are biased toward Sunnis. Both organizations denied the charge.

The article is tightly written and jam-packed with information and perspective. Any reporting that explains the Sunni-Shiite divide is welcome. The interesting twists and illuminating anecdotes make this one all the better.

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  • David Buckna

    Mollie wrote: “I tried to find a religious news angle for the Superbowl Halftime show so I could discuss how awesome Prince is, but I had to give up.”

    I noticed Prince sang a few lines of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”:


    All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
    While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.

    Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl,
    Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.

    3.”All Along the Watchtower.” Some have hypothesized that Dylan’s couplet:”Outside in the distance a wild cat did growl/ Two riders were
    approaching,[and]the wind began to howl” may have come from Isaiah’s similarly apocalyptic:

    “And the lookout shouted, ‘Day after day, my lord, I stand on the watchtower; every night I stay at my post. Look, here comes a man in a
    chariot with a team of horses. And he gives back the answer:’Babylon has fallen, has fallen! All the images of its gods lie shattered on the
    ground!’” (Isaiah 21:8-9)

  • Jerry

    The theological differences between the two branches of Islam has some interesting twists and turns. For example, Shi’s Islam permits Mut’a or temporary marriage. Basically a man and woman get married for a fixed period of time and then the marriage ends. This sounds really strange to Judeo-Christian ears. But to leap to the obvious question, a woman can’t “marry” a man for 1/2 hour and then immediately “marry” another – there’s a two month waiting period between marriages.

  • Huw Raphael

    Just as a folow-up question, I’d like to know what this means:

    “…because if you are praying differently from the way the leader is, then it doesn’t work, it’s not valid…”

    In the context (of where the hands are in prayer) this sounds like “if we don’t all look identical God can’t hear us”. Is this a Sunni belief? A Shi’ite belief? A pan-Muslim belief? What the heck does it mean?

    In fairness, I know some in my own Eastern Orthodox tradition who might be construed as saying much the same thing. I’ve read – and given away – a “Jordanville” prayerbook that pretty much dictates exactly that. But given the general “mostly the same but with differences” one sees person-to-person in any Christian congregation I think that would be worthy of explaining.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Did anyone report on the fact that Prince is a Jehovah’s Witness, which probably made him a safer bet for the Super Bowl than when he worshipped sex?

  • David

    Prince comments notwithstanding, the information provided in the Shiite/Sunni article is definitely the kind of reporting needed to get religion. I’d love to see some sort of follow-up on the allegations of bias by the Council on American Islamic Relations and the Islamic Society of North America. My impression from the article is that Shiites might be described as “Fundamentalists,” while Sunnis would be considered “Moderates.”

    Since the former label is almost always applied in a perjorative manner (vs. a theological definition), it makes me wonder about Mollie’s comment: “The only thing that concerned me in the article was that it seemed that all of the antagonism came from Sunnis and that Shiites were always the victims.”

    The common perception toward media reporting is that Fundamentalists (theologically speaking) are portrayed negatively, while “Moderates/Liberals” are described more positively (or politically correct). Is that the case here (Sunnis as antagonists/Shiites as victims)? Would that not also fit the “allegations of bias” toward CAIR and ISNA?

    At least the article is a good start toward understanding the issues.

  • Hans

    perhaps the religious angle you could have taken was that Prince’s show was among the least racy in recent years. Prince. Not oversexed. Which, apparently, comes from becoming a Jehovah’s Witness a few years back. He no longer does his dirty songs. I saw him in Indy a few years ago, where he concluded with a 20 minute encore of Purple Rain. If I were a mystic, I would say that it was so good, it was a religious experience.

    Remember when Michael Jackson was a Jehovah’s Witness and Prince was wailing out “If I was your girlfriend” 20 years ago? Who would have ever thought that one day Michael Jackson would be weirder than Prince. A strange universe, indeed.

  • bob

    This reminds me of the situation on public transportation not so long ago. When my father was in the army in 1944 at Fort Patrick Henry, VA it was the law that a black (colored, that is) person could not sit next to or in front of a white person on the bus. That defined the “back” of the bus. As a bus filled (from the back for balck passengers), eventually a white person had to move forward to avoid this terrible possibility. Eventually, there was nowhere but next to a white person for the black passsneger. At that point, the law prescribed that the *white* passenger had to get off the bus! This to protect them from the intollerable possibility of sitting next to, let’s not even mention behind, a black skinned human. That’s a religious idea born of an otherwise devoutly christian part of the USA, and very recently. It’s even more recntly been outgrown I’m glad to say. At the time my father wrote letters to the local paper pointing out how silly this was. It got a response that was about as shrill as I imagine it would be if you suggested the Sunni/Shiite thing was unhelpful. I bet it takes them alot longer to get over it than it took the Americans. Maybe being in the US is good for them; they might see what tolerance looks like, if only on a bus.

  • Chuck

    Yes, Hans got there first — there was a “Rolling Stone” interview in 2003/2004 in which Prince discussed how having children and getting religion changed his life — and in particular had instilled a certain sense of “shame” at some of his earlier “dirty” lyrics. He also said in that interview he would no longer perform those songs. I was curious in watching the halftime show to see if that still held true (anyone who listened to Bob Dylan’s 1980 “born-again” Christian album “Shot of Love,” or knew that in 1910 Japan was 90% Christian is aware that sometimes it doesn’t stick).

  • Marc V

    The hands-at-prayer placement is another tragic example of faith by works. Compare this to Spong’s 10th thesis: “Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.” Either you pray perfectly or you don’t need to bother. Some future.

  • Jerry

    There’s a famous, in Sufi circles, story that answers those who think that there is only one right way to pray. In the story, Moses comes on a shepherd who is offering to, amongst other things, clean God’s room and pick the lice from Him. In response to Moses’ actions, God says:

    Hindus do Hindu things. the Dravidian Muslims in India do what they do. It’s all praise, and it’s all right. It’s not me that’s glorified in acts of worship. It’s the worshipers! I don’t hear the words they say. I look inside at the humility.

  • evagrius

    “in 1910 Japan was 90% Christian is aware that sometimes it doesn’t stick”

    Hate to be a stickler for something not germane to the topic at hand, but I’d sure like to know where this “fact” came from.
    Japan, at present, has around a million Christians, about 1% of the population.
    Nagasaki, the second city to be hit with an atomic bomb, had the largest Christian population at the time.

  • evagrius

    There’s some interesting developments in Sunni Islam.
    Imagine large groups of U.S. Christians going to Calvin’s Geneva and coming back to the U.S.

    Austere Islam’ finds a home in India

    * Migrants from Persian Gulf altering the melting pot in Kerala

    Daily Times Monitor

    LAHORE: Muslim men from India’s province of Kerala working in the Persian Gulf are bringing back home something more than money – a stricter version of Islam, according to a report in the Los Angeles (LA) Times on Monday.

    The change came several years ago for Maryam Arrakal. Her husband brought a black, all-covering abaya back to this steamy, subtropical town from the desert sands of Saudi Arabia. It contrasted starkly with the pastel saris she normally wore. But in the 12 years that her husband, Kunchava, had been running a Saudi fabric shop, he had become detached from this melting pot of Muslims, Hindus and Christians, and more drawn to the Saudis’ strict version of Islam.

    The migration to oil-rich Persian Gulf monarchies of as many as one in five men from India’s Kerala province has brought an influx of money that pays for food, shelter and education. It also funds dowries for their daughters and gifts for their wives. But like many of the world’s millions of economic migrants, the men bring back more than money. In this case, they brim with provocative ideas about the proper way to worship. And they pay for plain green mosques with minarets and Arabic writing that are far different than the ornate and bulbous temples where Muslims have long worshiped here.

    In Kerala, where Muslims are traditionally the poorest residents, those returning from the Persian Gulf say they are building pride in their community and connecting its members to the broader Islamic world. But others see the growth of sectarian politics and scattered religious violence as warning signs.

    “Kerala was a place in India known for communal harmony,” said Hameed Chennamangloor, a writer and former professor of English at the Government Arts and Science College in Calicut, the main city in the province’s heavily Muslim north. Now, Chennamangloor said, “There has been a rise in fundamentalist tendencies among a certain segment of Muslims.” The weak economy forced many men to leave to find work.

    From the moment they arrive in Persian Gulf, migrants from Kerala are introduced to attitudes unknown at home. In study groups and at prayer gatherings throughout the Persian Gulf region, men such as Abdul Rahman Mohammed Peetee hammer away at Kerala’s traditions. For them, paying homage to local saints or anyone other than God is sacrilege: The Quran and the sayings of the prophet Muhammad (PBUH) contain all that any Muslim needs.

    When it started out 28 years ago, the Markaz Sunni Cultural Centre just east of Calicut was a tiny orphanage supporting 21 children. It has grown into an empire, with a complex of religious schools and colleges educating 10,000 students. Its orphanage is home to 1,700 children.

    Indian law requires that the white-clad students take classes in math, science and religion. But after school, they fan out across Calicut proselytising in favour of an austere version of Islam. Increasingly, new mosques are led by clerics who trained in the Persian Gulf, though most are graduates of Indian seminaries. Impressed by the power of education, many returnees urge their daughters and sons to attend high school and college. But to placate their parents, women raised in conservative families often must abide by strict Islamic dress codes. By the 1990s, Kerala clothiers began mass-producing cheap Persian Gulf-style religious coverings for women. Now they are worn even at universities.

    Men also are being told by religious groups what to wear. One Islamic organisation recently demanded that Muslim youths stop watching soccer and wearing T-shirts with team logos.

    Muslim Indian scholars of the Deobandi school have preached similar ideas. But critics say the latest wave, fuelled by Persian Gulf money, represents an Arab colonisation of Kerala. “I am scared,” said one moderate Muslim newspaper editor, who asked that his name not be published because it could harm his community standing. “The liberal Muslims, the moderate Muslims, are scared.”

    The original L.A. Times story;,1,693583.story?coll=la-headlines-frontpage&track=crosspromo

  • Kevin P. Edgecomb

    David, though this is a stretch too, a better analogy than Shi’i as “Fundamentalist” and Sunni as “Moderate” might rather be Shi’i as Roman Catholic and Sunni as Eastern Orthodox. The differences in their theologies and juridical decisions lie in their differing placement of authority: the Shi’i in the living example of a particular leaders (somewhat similar to the role of the Pope), the Sunni in the body of tradition related to the prophet Muhammad (“Sunnah” relates to the collected lore about his behavior; somewhat similar to the role of Tradition among the Eastern Orthodox). This is, however, an analogy that would likely be lost on the public without further explanation.

  • Don Neuendorf

    Personally, I think it would be helpful to hear a bit about how Shia and Sunni families talk about one another – or how their children taunt children of the other branch of their faith.

    That sounds weird. What I mean is this. I know all the differences between Lutherans and Roman Catholics, but many pew-sitting Lutherans and Catholics do not know much about the theological issues at all. Yet there was a period of time when Lutheran and Catholic kids fought in their neighborhoods because of the impressions they had of one another. THOSE impressions were really where the doctrinal “rubber” hit the road.

    Today I know most of the theological differences between Shia and Sunni. But how does that work out in practice? Obviously, it doesn’t remain just a philosophical discussion – a doctrinal debate over coffee. In the neighborhood, what is it (what is the preceived difference between them) that animates such violence?

    Can anyone tell me, what do Shia children call Sunni kids? What do Sunni kids say to make fun of Shia kids? That simple question might reveal quite a lot.

  • evagrius

    One anecdote I’ve heard concerning this;

    County social workers had to intervene regarding a Moslem family. It was a Shiite husband and Sunni wife. The children had to be temporarily removed. The social worker involved during the investigation asked the chiuldren about their faith- they responded ” Oh, we’re Sunni. Our father is the sh#$*# kind.”

    True story.