There is need for 'ecumenism' in Islam

As you read the latest headlines, you might draw this historical parallel: suppose Pope Leo X in the 16th century had executed Martin Luther for nailing his 95 Theses to that church door in Wittenberg, Germany -- after Luther had become a well-known figure in Europe. The "Wars of Religion" in the 16th and 17th century might have ignited at a much earlier date.

Well, something like that has just happened in the world of Islam. Saudi Arabia, whose population is largely Sunni Muslim and is ruled by a Sunni government, executed a leading Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr. During protests in 2011–2012, Nimr called for protesters to resist security forces using "the roar of the word" rather than violence. He frequently protested (non-violently) the Saudi treatment of Shia Muslims.

As a result of this execution, new protests have erupted in countries where Shia Muslims are dominant, especially Iran. It is not clear if new "wars of religion" are about to erupt, but the attack on the Saudi Embassy in Iran is not a positive sign.

Both Christianity and Islam have fundamental divisions, be it Catholic/Orthodox/Protestant or Sunni/Shia. Ecumenism over the years has moved Christianity to a peaceful place, but the same has not been true of Islam.

Most NCR readers have some knowledge of the historical splits in Christianity. But the splits in Islam are not as well understood in the West, and they came very early in the history of that religious tradition. And they are deep. And today, it is almost impossible to understand the violence in the Middle East without understanding the Sunni/Shia divide. So I offer the following:

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Historical background

The Sunni/Shia split goes back almost to the beginning of Islam. It occurred over differences in opinion about the way the successor to the Prophet Mohammed should be chosen. "Shia believed that leadership should stay within the family of the prophet," notes Gregory Gause, professor of Middle East politics at the University of Vermont, as reported by National Public Radio. "And thus they were the partisans of Ali, his cousin and son-in-law. Sunnis believed that leadership should fall to the person who was deemed by the elite of the community to be best able to lead the community. And it was fundamentally that political division that began the Sunni-Shia split."

That split continues to this day, although Sunnis are dominant worldwide. Of the world's Muslims, 85 to 90 percent are Sunni, and 10 to 15 percent are Shia.

Predominantly Sunni countries are Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkey and most of the Arab world. Predominantly Shia countries include Iran, Iraq and Bahrain.

This divide helps fuel the war in Syria, although political and military dominance are the real driving forces; religion is "used" in the struggle by both sides to bolster their cause. Bashar Hafez al-Assad, the president of Syria, is an Alawite Muslim, a sub-sect within Shia Islam. Thus, he has Shia Iran as an ally, as well as Shia Muslims in Iraq. So it is not surprising that he is opposed by Sunni regimes in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and most of the Sunni Middle East. By the same token, the Houthi rebels in Yemen are Shia, opposed by Sunni Saudi Arabia.   

The Islamic State group (known commonly as ISIS) is Sunni, but it promotes a very fundamentalist, brutal, primitive form of Islam -- one most Muslims would say is not authentic Islam at all. For a parallel, think about those "Christians" who carried out the Inquisition: burnt people at the stake, tortured people on racks -- supposedly in the name of Christianity.   

But in spite of these divisions, unity and coming together are among the basic principles of Islam, and there are many aspects of unity in Islam, such as one God, one book, one prophet, one religion.

Sound familiar? Christianity in Western Europe also claimed unity in its (Catholic) theology in the 15th and 16th centuries, until Martin Luther, John Calvin and King Henry VIII of Britain launched the Protestant Reformation and challenged the religious unity of Catholic Europe. The "religious" wars that followed (with political goals, to be sure) are legendary.

But centuries later, we Christians benefited enormously from the ecumenical movement that really took off after Vatican II (1962-65). But that was a long time after the Reformation began, and there was a lot of blood spilled in between. Today, it is not uncommon for Christian leaders to meet, embrace, and join in efforts for justice and peace.  

Today, Islam could benefit from its own equivalent of the ecumenical movement. And there certainly are Muslim voices calling for such. One is Abdul Malik Mujahid, an American Imam, born in Pakistan, an author and non-profit entrepreneur. Another is my friend, Dr. Akbar Ahmed, chair of Islamic studies at American University.

And there have been sporadic attempts at Islamic dialogue in the 20th century. But more "ecumenical" Islamic voices are needed, maybe a Muslim equivalent to Pope John XXIII. But, whoever leads the movement, "ecumenism," Christian and Muslim, is essential for peace in our world. 


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