Shia, Sunni or Muslim?

The love which once bound the Sacred Nation is gone,

Now tell your Muslim, what to do, where to go!

Uncover this mystery, O Blessed Soul of Muhammad!

Tell this bearer of God’s Signs where to go!!

(Zarb e Kaleem, 47)


I was in first grade when a classmates asked me one day, “Are you Shia or Sunni?” Completely baffled, I told her I’d have to ask my mother because I didn’t know what it meant to be Shia or Sunni. Such terminologies were not frequently used in our household, I had only been told that we were Muslim and Pakistani. I was not aware then that for most muslims in general, and for my compatriots in particular, being Shia or Sunni holds far more value and importance than being Muslim. Such is the division between the two main sects that it literally dissects the muslim nation into two.

We are so divided that even our names clearly depict which sect we belong to. Being Muslim was not enough to distinguish us, so we chose to retain the Hindu caste system, though slightly moulding it into a more Islamised version, which represents an altered face of the same bigotry and discrimination practised by Hindus before the advent of Islam in the subcontinent. I mean neither to offend the Syeds, Jaffris, Zaidis or Abbasis (to name a few), nor the Rajputs, Bhattis, Jutts or Mughals, etc, etc. but the fact is that the thick hide of these castes not only serves to mask the “muslim” hidden beneath, but also furnishes us with the wrong reasons to feel proud.

With the arrival of the month of Muharram, which marks the New Islamic Year, this cleavage, this division, this conflict between the two sects becomes so perceptible and so intense that you can nearly taste the friction, bordering almost on hatred. A tragic yet defining day in the history of Islam which should actually serve to unite us, which should encourage us to philosophise from history, to reflect critically and think about the lessons learnt from this fateful day, actually manages to divide us further.

What’s more is that it is deemed a matter of faith to harbour a secret – or sometimes not so secret – hatred and contempt for the other sect, to label them as heretics, and thus excluded from the pail of Islam. Plus, the abuse of sacred personalities which one sect holds dear, merely adds more fuel to the fire. By hurling insults at those who are in reality rather above and beyond these insults, we serve to create further disarray amongst our already misaligned ranks, at a crucial time when half the muslim world is in peril, and needs our attention and compassion.

Then there is the battle of Karbala and an endless debate regarding Imam Husain’s (RA) political motives. It appears that in a surge of animosity against Shia beliefs, Sunnis sometimes overlook the value and impact of Husain Ibn Ali’s (RAA) war against injustice, and the implications it had in shaping the later history of Islam. Fact is, that Hazrat Husain (RA)’s ultimate sacrifice established the illegitimacy of kingship in Islam, for all generations to come.

In his revolutionary work Asrar o Rumuz (Secrets and Mysteries), Iqbal described the battle of Karbala in the following words:
And when the Caliphate first snapped its thread
From the Koran, in Freedom’s throat was poured
A fatal poison, like a rain-charged cloud
The effulgence of the best of peoples rose
Out of the West, to spill on Kerbela,
And in that soil, that desert was before,
Sowed, as he died, a field of tulip-blood.
There, till the Resurrection, tyranny
Was evermore cut off; a garden fair
Immortalizes where his lifeblood surged.
For Truth alone, his blood dripped to the dust,
Wherefore he has become the edifice56
Of faith in God’s pure Unity. Indeed
Had his ambition been for earthly rule,
Not so provisioned would he have set forth
On his last journey, having enemies
Innumerable as the desert sands,

He drew the sword There is none other God
And shed the blood of them that served the lie;
Inscribing in the wilderness save God
He wrote for all to read the exordium (Rumuz e Bekhudi)

According to Iqbal, the Muslim Nation is a miracle of the Holy Prophet (SAW), bound together with his (SAW) love which illuminates the heart of each and every muslim, regardless of being Sunni or Shia. This love for Muhammad (SAW) is a point on which the religious sentiments of the entire muslim community converge, it is what unifies our hearts and minds, as Iqbal says:

“with a thousand eyes, to be one in vision.”

We may differ in our perceptions and ideas on how this day should be commemorated; whether we choose to find peace and catharsis in lamenting Imam Husain (RA), or deem it better to remember him by reflecting on his ultimate sacrifice and the lessons thus learnt. As long as everything is practiced within moderation in the ultimate spirit of reconnecting ourselves with the Prophet’s message of Solidarity, Equality and tolerance for all, we ought to refrain from unnecessary criticism and exert ourselves to practice mutual respect and tolerance towards each other’s beliefs.

As to whether I am Shia or Sunni. I’m neither. I’m just a plain old muslim who desires unity, not division, for her nation.


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