Building Sunni-Shi’a Unity, One Mosque Visit at a Time

Building Sunni-Shi’a Unity, One Mosque Visit at a Time July 21, 2015

Bait ul Ilm Masjid
Bait ul Ilm Masjid

By Mohiuddin Ahmed

“When do you want to go to Bait-ul-Ilm to pray,” my wife Nausheen asked.

“Bait ul Ilm?”

“Heena’s mosque,” she reminded me. Her friend had given her an open invitation to visit the masjid at some point, and given the spate of recent attacks on Shi’a masjids in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, this seemed like the right time to take her up on this offer.

Although our families had always emphasized to us our unity in Islam, rather than our differences by sects, we have grown up in an essentially Sunni tradition. In Chicago-land , although I have worshiped at a number of different masjids, my family’s primary home base, where we would go as a family to worship and for weekend school, was at the Islamic Foundation in Villa Park.

Our knowledge of the Shi’a tradition was essentially limited to what we read through second and third hand sources and to social interactions, during which, out of a sense of politeness, oftentimes our differences are not discussed. We have heard about, and had limited exposure to differences in details of worship such as the call to prayer, the prayer itself, the length of the fast and the like.

Truth be told, some of these differences are of the type that are also seen within Sunni Islam, among the major four schools of thought, which is why some Muslim scholars have simply looked for a characterization of a fifth school of thought, the Jafari school of thought, to accommodate Shi’a beliefs and practices into a bigger tent.

When others question Muslims about the differences between Sunni and Shi’a Islam, the most common answer I have heard is that the fundamental beliefs are the same, that we consider each other Muslims.  Those who deny the “Muslim-ness” of the other sects are generally regarded as extremists. At the same time, there are certain beliefs and historical figures that can elicit a raw, emotional response from one side or another.

My feeling today was that, if in fact I truly believed in the fundamental unity of Muslims, now was the time for me to show it. Moreover, I needed to learn more, to know more.

It was with this in mind that we asked Heena and her husband Aris to visit their masjid, Bait ul Ilm, the weekend after the attack in Kuwait. As we were driving over as a family, we wondered about how we might feel proceeding there. Were there circumstances that might make us feel awkward?” We discussed that, since by tradition the Imam we follow is responsible for our prayer, we would simply take our lead from the Imam leading the prayer.

Also, knowing that Shi’a traditionally break their fast a little later (it was Ramadan when we visited), we would intend to break our fast immediately at sunset, but would not request items to break the fast of our hosts out of deference for the fact that they were still fasting.

As we stood outside the masjid, Nausheen immediately started admiring the beauty of the structure itself. The entrance was laid out with beautiful blue ceramic decorative tile. It was a warm, welcoming feeling. As our hosts took us inside, we entered into the main hallway with detailed woodwork and from there, proceeded to our respective chambers.

Inside the mosque, a sermon was being delivered. The scholar was Sheikh Vinay Khetia, a Hindu convert to Shi’a Islam. He spoke eloquently on the idea of sincere repentance, Tawbatan Nusoohan, using the following verse as a reference point:

Surah At-Tahrim, Verse 8:

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا تُوبُوا إِلَى اللَّهِ تَوْبَةً نَّصُوحًا عَسَىٰ رَبُّكُمْ أَن يُكَفِّرَ عَنكُمْ سَيِّئَاتِكُمْ وَيُدْخِلَكُمْ جَنَّاتٍ تَجْرِي مِن تَحْتِهَا الْأَنْهَارُ يَوْمَ لَا يُخْزِي اللَّهُ النَّبِيَّ وَالَّذِينَ آمَنُوا مَعَهُ نُورُهُمْ يَسْعَىٰ بَيْنَ أَيْدِيهِمْ وَبِأَيْمَانِهِمْ يَقُولُونَ رَبَّنَا أَتْمِمْ لَنَا نُورَنَا وَاغْفِرْ لَنَا إِنَّكَ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ قَدِيرٌ

O ye who believe! Turn to Allah with sincere repentance: In the hope that your Lord will remove from you your ills and admit you to Gardens beneath which Rivers flow, – the Day that Allah will not permit to be humiliated the Prophet and those who believe with him. Their Light will run forward before them and by their right hands, while they say, “Our Lord! Perfect our Light for us, and grant us Forgiveness: for Thou hast power over all things.” (English translation by Yusuf Ali)

A few details of tone that I remember from this sermon: The obvious one being the use of exposition by Ali (May Allah be pleased with him), and the Imams of the Ahlul Bayt, and in particular the idea of trial and suffering being a part of a true sincere repentance. Furthermore, whereas among Sunni Muslims you might hear the proclamation Allahu Akbar (God is Great) in lieu of exclamation or applause, here the norm was to call for peace and blessings upon the Prophet Muhammad and his family.

The phrase Allahumma salle ‘ala Muhammad, Wa ‘ala aale Muhammad is routinely recited in daily prayer by Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. All Muslims are routinely recommended to recite this supplication at different times. The incorporation of this into an aspect of daily living perhaps reflects a desire among the Shi’a community to be closer to the Prophet’s family than any other community

As the sermon finished, they were the usual community announcements including about an effort ongoing with the community to work with Feed My Starving Children.

Finally, it was time for prayer, and the call to prayer, the adhan, was recited. In addition to what I am usually used to hearing, it did include a few extra lines, which I have underlined:

ALLAHU AKBAR (4 times)

God is Great
I bear witness that there is no God but Allah
I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah
I bear witness that Ali is the representative of Allah
Hasten towards prayer
Hasten towards prosperity
Hasten towards the best of action
ALLAHU AKBAR (2 times)
Allah is Great
There is no God except Allah

My internal reaction is to be taken aback a little bit by these additions, which sounded a little foreign to me. But perhaps only slightly different from the first time when in Saudi Arabia, I heard iterations of different lines dropped from the second call to prayer, the Iqamah. In the end, the means and methods of prayer are passed down to us from the prophetic tradition by scholars, and the fundamental content is the same.

Recognizing Sunni tradition, Heena offers Nausheen some dates to break her fast with at sunset. It would be a few minutes before Heena would break her fast (Shi’a Muslims wait for some time after sunset to break their fast). As prayer is about to begin, Aris’ brother gives me a heads up about some of the differences in the prayer itself, which will include a qunoot, an extra supplication, in the middle of prayer.

As we started, we stood shoulder to shoulder, united in prayer. The Fatiha was recited, followed by other verses of the Quran. Three iterations were completed, as is universal among Muslims for the Maghrib (sunset) prayer. There were some differences, people stood with their arms by their side instead of folded. Whereas parts of the prayer that are not from the Quran are traditionally recited quietly by Sunnis, all supplications were recited aloud by the Imam.

My daughter later asked about the stone they laid out for themselves to make sajdah (prostration) on, which was explained to her as making sajdah on a piece of something from the earth in accordance with Prophetic tradition. Our hosts did their best to make sure that we did not feel obliged to fall in line with their traditions, and everyone I met did their most to make me feel welcome

As we finished prayer together, and the fast broken with dates, the whole community gathered together in the basement hall to have dinner together. I was very impressed with the communal set up where everybody came together, shared in a common meal, the set up and clean up. Aris had been on dish duty yesterday; they had given up paper and plastic in an effort to make their gatherings greener.

My son stayed with his friends for dinner, my daughter got to participate in a “little faster’s” table. She probably felt more welcome to this masjid than she had to any other masjid in Ramadan. I took a few mental notes.

We had to leave before Isha, to pick up our other daughter from a previous commitment. As we left, we were escorted out by Heena, Aris and their family truly feeling blessed for having had the opportunity to spend the evening together.

Later that night, I read again about the history that divides the communities. And then, I thought to myself, “If tribal instincts can tear the greatest generation apart, then who are we?”

May He guide us all to love the Prophet, his family and his companions, and treat them all with the honor and respect that they deserve. May He unite all of our hearts.


Mohiuddin Ahmed is a teacher for the Muslim Leadership Academy at the Islamic Foundation in Villa Park, in Suburban Chicago. He is an oncologist by profession, and the father of three children.

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