Vali Nasr —
The Sunni-Shia Divide and the Future of Islam

We seek fresh insight into the history and the human and religious dynamics of Islam's Sunni-Shia divide. Our guest says that it is not so different from dynamics in periods of Western Christian history. But he says that by bringing the majority Shia to power in Iraq, the U.S. has changed the religions dynamics of the Middle East.

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is professor of international politics in the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam will Shape the Future.

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Krista interviewed Nasr in early August with the intention of broadcasting it quickly. But sometimes it takes the perspective of a person inside a tradition to help us see things differently.

August 14, 2008

About the Image

Al-Askari, a major Shia mosque in Iraq, was bombed in 2006. Iraqis are rebuilding its signature golden dome, which has become a symbol of Iraqi reconciliation.

(photo: Ali Yussef/AFP/Getty)

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Krista,
I am a fan of Speaking of Faith and recently had the opportunity to attend your conversation with Joshua DuBois in St. Paul. My husband was part of the community discussion the following day.

I recently listened to your feature story, "The Sunni-Shia Divide and the Future of Islam." I always get a bit uncomfortable with this topic because it seems to be focused primarily on Sunni-Shia issues in Iraq, which I don't think represents the general divide between Sunnis and Shias.

My family is Shia and are descendents of the Prophet Muhammad, a matter of great pride in my family. I was raised Shia and my husband was raised Sunni. His best friends in high school were Shia. My best friends in college were Sunni. My mosque in Iowa (the only mosque in the city) was founded together by a Sunni and a Shia. My husband and I pray together and study Islam together.

So I don't see or experience this "Sunni-Shia divide" in my life. I think the reason is that the Sunni-Shia situation in America is much different than in Iraq and other countries where Muslims are the majority. The sectarian violence in Iraq isn't rooted in Sunni-Shia, but rather the political atmosphere. This is evidenced in how Sunnis and Shias lived peacefully, for the most part, prior to the invasion.

I would like to see a story focusing on American Shias and Sunnis and how their experience with each other is differerent from what is happening on the international level.

-Lori

VALI NASR REVEALS THE AMERICAN PART OF HIS IRANIAN-AMERICAN IDENTITY AND MISAPPREHENDS EUROPEAN HISTORY WHEN HE EXTRAPOLATES TO EUROPE THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN NINETEENTH-CENTURY BOSTON BRAHMANS AND IRISH CATHOLICS.

IT IS NOT TRUE THAT IN EUROPE PROTESTANTISM IS OR WAS THE RELIGION OF THE ESTABLISHMENT WHILE CATHOLICISM IS OR WAS THE RELIGION OF THE THIRD ESTATE. THE SETTLEMENT OF THE THIRTY YEARS’ WAR PROVIDED ESSENTIALLY THAT LOCAL SOVEREIGNS WERE FREE TO IMPOSE THEIR OWN BELIEFS — PROTESTANTISM OR CATHOLICISM — AS THE STATE RELIGION IN THEIR OWN REALM. SUBJECTS WHO ADHERED TO THE OTHER RELIGION WERE FREE TO EITHER CONVERT TO THE LOCAL STATE RELIGION OR MOVE TO ANOTHER PLACE WHERE THE OFFICIAL RELIGION CORRESPONDED TO THEIR OWN CREED.

THUS FRANCE, AND SOUTHERN GERMANY BECAME CATHOLIC WHILE ENGLAND AND NORTHERN GERMANY PROTESTANT. EVEN TODAY THE QUEEN OF ENGLAND AND THE KING OF SWEDEN ARE BOTH PROTESTANT WHILE THE KING OF SPAIN AND PRINCE OF MONACO ARE BOTH CATHOLIC.

Coming from a Christian background I found it interesting Mr. Nasr's statement about how Islam was a religion of proper practice rather than a religion of proper belief. I am sorry to say that I am more unfamiliar with the Quran than I would care admit so was interested if there would be others out there who could help me understand this point. It would also be interesting for me to understand whether this works in a dialectical manner, that is between belief and practice, or if these two points work in a more hierarchical manner? It seems that by clarifying this, the split could then be understood as either more in parallel with what Mr. Nasr noticed in Christian denominations or perhaps something altogether different.

Shia and Sunni debate has been going on for many years, but in the last four to six years it has increased in the Middle East. Shia’s have been opperessed since their start after Prophet Mohammads death. The Shia followers were killed and opperesed during the Ummayad and Abasiad dynasties. Many decades after they were gone, they became opperessed in Iraq, in Bahrian, Saudi Arabia and many other countries. Even though In Iraq the majority of Muslims are Shia’s for many years during Saddam’s regime, they were opperesed and killed. They were not allowed in the government and were not allowed to practice their rituals. In the rest of the countries, it is the same story for the Shia’s, no freedom and no rights. But now after many years of being opperesed the Iraqi government is being ran by the majority, Shias. The Shias are running the Iraqi governement side by side with Sunnis. Maybe this would be just the first step for the Shias and that other countries such as Bahrian, and Saudi Arabia, would then give their Shia’s the freedom to praticipate in their countries affairs.

apples