What makes America so great for Sunni and Shiite Muslims

Sarah Syed is a Shia Muslim and Khurram Mehtabdin is a Sunni Muslim. (Photo courtesy of Khurram Mehtabdin)

In the beginning of Shakespeare’s tragic play “Romeo and Juliet,” a street brawl erupts between Montague and Capulet servants, sworn enemies who fight each other on behalf of their masters. Based on recent sectarian violence, it seems he could have been writing about Sunni and Shiite Muslims, two religious tribes currently engaged in a mutually destructive waltz stretching 1,400 years.

But that simplistic analysis betrays a rich legacy of mutual understanding, cooperation, inter-marriages and relative peace that has also defined their relationship since the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632.

My personal history is reflective of that statement.

I’m a Sunni Muslim whose best friends growing up in Fremont, Calif., were Kashif and his little brother Atif, who have described themselves as hailing from a “hardcore Shia” family. We are all shy sons of Pakistani immigrants, united by our utter dorkiness, lack of social skills and inherent love of lentils.
We spent countless hours playing Sega Genesis, not talking to girls, and making unwatchable but highly entertaining homemade movies. I was the overweight action hero, Kashif played the villain, and Atif was always the henchman or sidekick who died by Act 2. Our respective families have celebrated numerous births, mourned a few deaths, eaten at Fentons Creamery and shared biryani leftovers countless times.

To be fair, there are major disagreements between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. They mainly arise over the question of succession after the prophet’s death. Shiite Muslims contend that Muhammad bestowed religious and political leadership upon his cousin and son-in-law Ali. Sunnis, who make up about 85 percent of Muslims, say it first went to the prophet’s friend and father-in-law Abu Bakr. Ali is also recognized and praised by Sunnis as the fourth caliph, eventually acquiring leadership more than two decades after the prophet’s death.

Despite the numerous differences between Sunni and Shiite Islam, our families never engaged in heated polemics or shouting matches. Instead, we united over our love of the Ahl al-Bayt, the family of the prophet, which includes Fatima, his daughter; Ali, her husband; and their martyred children, Hassan and Hussein. Recently we all wept on Ashura, which coincided with Yom Kippur, and commemorates both the exodus and the martyrdom of the prophet’s grandson Hussein at the hands of the tyrant Yazid during the tragic Battle of Karbala in what is now Iraq.

Sadly, to differentiate from the Shiite branch, several Sunni religious authorities, imams and leaders have minimized or deliberately labeled the memory and mourning of Karbala as only as “Shia thing.” However, the story exists in my Sunni household in America. On this date, it remains an annual tradition to hear Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s ecstatic qawwali “Ya Hussein” and recite a poem in praise of Imam Ali written by 13th-century Sufi saint Moinuddin Chishti. (Both Khan and Chishti were Sunni, by the way.)

The self-appointed masters of Sunni and Shiite Islam, Saudi Arabia and Iran, ignore our shared histories to sustain a manufactured, bloody sectarianism for the sake of regional dominance. Apparently all’s fair in love and war when you seek to wear the crown and win the Muslim Game of Thrones. Their feud is erupting over dueling op-eds in influential American newspapers and violent brawls all over the Middle East and Central Asia, especially in Syria and Yemen, adding sectarian gasoline to a raging fire, killing thousands of innocents.

Gazing upon this chessboard of death, Romeo’s best friend, Mercutio, with his last breath, would sum up the sentiment of many Muslims: “A plague o’ both your houses! They have made worms’ meat of me.”

Never once has my interaction with Kashif’s family unleashed a sectarian, suburban Royal Rumble that bled over onto the mean streets of the Bay Area. This is an enduring testament to the messy but vital pluralism that defines the ongoing American experiment. The “Amreekan Dream,” enshrined by the Constitution, allows Muslim communities on this side of the Atlantic an opportunity to live out our faith and values comfortably with humble swagger enmeshed with Western pop culture, South Asian bling, hijab haute couture and halal hamburger stains on our GAP shirts.

America’s religious freedoms — when they aren’t besieged by presidential demagogues or anti-Muslim hatemongers — empower religious minorities, like Sunni and Shiite Muslims, without asking us to attack each other or jettison and camouflage the many aspects of our multi-hyphenated identity. The overwhelming majority of our communities dismiss, mock or pity the apocalyptic nightmare narratives of ISIS and tribal sectarianism haunting the Middle East and South Asia.

In America, we have a different story. Sunni and Shiite leaders have come together at the ISNA Convention, one of the largest annual gatherings of American Muslims, agreeing to foster mutual respect and unity and vowing not to let sectarianism divide their communities. In 2014, the Shia-Sunni Alliance of New Jersey issued a joint statement, signed by 28 Muslim organizations, condemning ISIS, the group also known as the Islamic State. Meanwhile, Sunni and Shiite Muslims continue working side by side in Western charities like Islamic Relief and Muslim Youth Helpline, inspired by shared religious values to help victims of trauma, violence and disasters. Sunnis and Shiites continue marrying one another, producing beloved “Sushis” — a term of endearment some Muslims use to describe half-Sunni, half-Shiite children.

It’s imperative that Muslims, especially in the West, don’t import the sectarian politics of the Middle East into their communities. We must remain vigilant and resilient against such foolish and reactionary impulses that will weaken us and serve only to help the malicious, counterproductive agendas of certain orange-haired, short-fingered and even shorter-tempered anti-Muslim bigots.

Let us remember the tragic ending of “Romeo and Juliet” and not end up as the “Poor sacrifices of our enmity!” Instead, let’s strive to create a new generation of empowered Muslim communities that welcomes, respects and even celebrates the inevitable “Sushis” who will nurture us toward a prosperous future.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Muslim World Today.

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