Five hundred years ago, a German monk named Martin Luther started off a movement that would change the course of History, religiously and politically.
He began the Protestant Reformation.
Luther drew up 95 theses for debate about church practices. This led to him being excommunicated and he began his very own church, which was quickly accepted all over Northern Europe and England.
This was not just about religious reform but political reform as well.
In England, King Henry VIII was refused a divorce from the Pope to his first wife. This pushed Henry to declare that he alone was the religious authority in the country and would no longer adhere to the Pope.
He dissolved all monasteries, took away all Catholics’ lands, persecuted practicing Catholics and made Catholicism illegal for many years.
During the reformation, people who were considered a political threat as well as a religious threat were persecuted and many wars were waged. We must remember this is when religion and politics went hand in hand as religious leaders made the laws of the land.
When religious minorities became less of a political threat, there was a growing idea that people should not be persecuted for their religious beliefs as well as the fact that religion should not be the basis for political power.
The friction between Catholics and Protestants hasn’t stopped entirely. The most recent country to try to put aside their differences was Northern Ireland, but it is still quite fragile. However, in general, many Catholics and Protestants live peacefully, side by side.
How can the study of the reformation have any impact on the Sunni-Shi’a divide that we witness today in the Muslim world?
What can Muslims learn from what happened during the last five centuries since the reformation?
When Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) received revelation, there was only Islam. Sunni and Shi’a did not exist. So how did Islam become divided?
When Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) died, there was no successor after him and this is when problems began.
Sunnis believe that choosing leaders is political rather than religious, and that people should be able to elect the next leader after the Prophet. Shi’as on the other hand strongly believe that the leadership should have been passed down to his family.
Sunni and Shi’a Muslims share the same main articles of faith. However, the Shi’a have religious leaders whom they believe are infallible, same as the Catholics.
Sunnis and Protestants on the other hand believe that religious leaders are not infallible and therefore politics and religion must be separated.
The urgent question we need to ask today is how can we bridge the gap that is now widening in the Muslim world between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims?
How can the bloody battles and the political power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran be stopped?
They are echoes of the past, similar to the reformation, so what can we do to stop the drift before it gets more out of control?
We need to remember that both sides have much more in common than they have differences.
Number one is we are all Muslims, we all believe in Allah and we all believe that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is His last messenger.
The issue is that when we believe that our way is the only way, it can lead to radicalization. We believe every other way is wrong and we forget the similarities that we have between us and focus heavily on how different we are.
There are currently two big political power houses that dominate the Middle East and fight to get power from the other as much as they can.
One is Saudi Arabia and the other is Iran.
One is Sunni and the other is Shi’a.
Saudi Arabia has a minority of Shi’a living in the country and Iran also have a Sunni minority. Neither country treat these minorities with the rights they should get.
If we go back to the reformation, we can find a similar pattern.
Catholics were not given their full rights in Protestant majority countries and Protestants were not given their rights in Catholic majority countries.
Eventually this problem was solved when people started to realize that the political threat of these minorities in their countries were minor and that people have the right to believe in what they wish to believe in.
In the Quran, which both Sunni and Shi’a read and believe in, it states that:
There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion. (2:256)
If that is the case, then why do these minorities feel oppressed?
This needs education of the other side, not necessarily to believe in what they believe in, but to at least accept people are different with a different set of beliefs. We can see this is exactly what happened, slowly, over the years with Catholics and Protestants.
So, how do we educate? Can we give dawah? Is that possible to do in these countries, at least for a better understanding of the other side?
We have to admit that average people are not scholars and we might not be qualified to debate. The best way is to just be good to the opposite side. Show them what “real Islam” is. Actions speak louder than words.
Unfortunately, the people in control want us to hate each other, and the issue is we often follow blindly and hate them for no particular reason. We forget that Allah created different types of people and put them on Earth. He accepted this difference so why can’t we?
In our world it seems as if it MUST be a war. But why?
If we look right back to when the third caliph Uthman ibn Affan was murdered, this is when real problems started to emerge.
Many believed that Ali ibn Abi Talib was the rightful inheritor of the Caliphate, although Ali ibn Abi Talib did not believe this, he fought the people who killed Uthman, and this proves that this was not a religious battle but a political one and a fight for power.
The Quran tells us we have the right to believe in what we wish to believe in. We shouldn’t be forced into believing anything we don’t want to. The sooner we realize this is a political power struggle, the better we will be in understanding each other.
We need to learn to stand next to each other as Muslims and not as Shi’a or Sunni Muslims just as some countries have done.
The basic fundamentals of Islam are shared by both sides and as Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said:
A believer to another believer is like a building whose different parts reinforce each other. (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)
The question we need to answer now is can we implement this wise prophetic guideline before it’s too late?