When it comes to the Islamic Brotherhood (Ummah) – Iran, since the 1979 Islamic Revolutionhas, has lead the way to bridge the 13-centuries-old religious-political gulf between Sunni majority (85%) and Shia minority (15%). The unity process was started by late Leader of Islamic Revolution, Imam Khomeini, by declaring: “Those who attempt to cause discord among our Sunni and Shi’ite brothers are people who conspire for the enemies of Islam and want the enemies of Islam to triumph over Muslims”.
The current Spiritual Leader of Islamic Revolution and the Supreme Commander of Iranian Armed Forces, Ayatullah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, former President of Islamic Republic of Iran (1981-89) bcame the second Muslim world leader who called for the unity between Shias and Sunni schools of thoughts.
Early last month, Imam Seyyed Ali Khamenei, Rahbar (Leader) of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, issued a fatwa of far-reaching importance for the unity and solidarity of the Ummah. It was immediately welcomed by leading scholars in the Muslim world, including the Rector of Al-Azhar University in Egypt. In his fatwa, the Rahbar said disrespect or insult to the Sahabah (Companions), or wives of the noble Messenger (pbuh) is haram (forbidden).
To understand the significance of the fatwa, a brief detour into history is necessary. Based on differences of opinion over leadership after the Prophet (pbuh), Muslims have been divided into two camps — Sunnis and Shi‘is. The Sunnis believe that the process of succession was agreed by the consensus of the community while the Shi‘is are of the view that the Prophet (pbuh) had designated his cousin and son-in-law, Imam ‘Ali as his successor. Based on these differences, followers of the two opinions became so rigidly entrenched that they started to denounce each other. During Mu‘awiyah’s reign (when the system of khilafah was subverted into hereditary monarchy), it was official policy to denounce Imam ‘Ali during the Jumu‘ah khutbah. Umar ibn ‘Abdul ‘Aziz ended this un-Islamic practice during his rule. He was a man committed to the character and practice of the Prophet (pbuh) but his rule did not last long. His own family members poisoned him. They were unhappy with his restoration of Islamic principles to the practice of governance.
In reaction to such un-Islamic practices by the Umayyads (family of Mu‘awiyah), the Shi‘is resorted to their own denunciations. They condemned not only Mu‘awiyah and his drunkard son Yazid — whose army martyred Imam Husayn at Karbala, perpetrating the most heinous crime in Islamic history — but all the Sahabah that had not supported Imam Ali’s position for leadership. These Shi‘is went further; they cursed ‘A’ishah, the wife of the noble Messenger (pbuh), as well. In turn, some Sunnis started to hurl allegations of takfir against the Shi‘is.
Naturally such mutual denunciations have poisoned the atmosphere among Muslims and prevented genuine unity from taking root. Not only ordinary Muslims unaware of the details of Islamic history but also those knowledgeable about it have used such differences to stoke conflict and discord. It must be said that while there are sholarly positions on both sides that want to end such differences because they understand that history cannot be reversed and mutual recriminations do not serve the larger interests of the Ummah, there are others that want to stick to their entrenched positions. Imam Khamenei’s fatwa bridges this gap considerably. While it provides guidance to the Shi‘is to show more respect to the Companions and the wives of the Prophat (pbuh), it also reassures the Sunnis that their sensitivities are being respected. At the same time, it deprives those that want to stoke sectarian differences of a major argument.
The quality of true Islamic leadership is that it is able to lead all the Muslims regardless of their schools of thought (madhhabs). Imam Khamenei’s fatwa does just that. The Ummah must thank him for his sincerity and taqwa.