In August, Penang Institute hosted a private dialogue on “A Religion Divided: Between Myth and Reality” to encourage greater understanding of the divisions in the Muslim world. Just before the forum, Penang Monthly caught up with Prof Mohsen Kadivar, an Iranian Muslim scholar and a visiting professor of Islamic studies at Duke University, to get his views on the conflict between Shiites and Sunnis. As a political dissident, Kadivar has been a vocal critic of the doctrine of clerical rule and a strong advocate of democratic and liberal reforms in Iran. Kadivar has served time in prison in his country for his political activism and beliefs. He has been living in exile since 2008.
What is the historical background of the Sunni-Shiite conflict?
There are two major schools among Muslims: the As-Sahabah school (the companions, disciples, scribes and family of Prophet Muhammad) and the Ahl al-Bayt school (the household, or family, of the Prophet). Sunni Muslims follow the teachings of the companions of the Prophet while Shiite Muslims follow the household1.
The conflict arose from a succession issue among the Prophet’s associates. Sunnis believed that Prophet Muhammad did not say anything about succession. However, Shiites believed that he did. During the Hajjatul-Wida, the last pilgrimage that the Prophet undertook before his demise, he had said, “The people to whom I am their mullah, Ali will be their mullah”.
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