07/04/09: Imam's Presentation at ISNA Convention in Washington DC

Imam Mohammad Ali Elahi presentation at ISNA convention in Washington DC 4th of July 2009 about Shia-Sunni Unity

In the Name Of Allah the Compassionate the Merciful 

Let me start with our universal Islamic salutation: As-salaam alaikum wa Rahmatollah! 

First, I would like to thank ISNA and IIIT for this wise and responsible initiative to dedicate a session of ISNA's annual convention in DC this year to discuss Shia-Sunni common grounds, challenges, and immunization of American Muslim community against sectarian divisions. 

The call for unity and brotherhood of the believers is a divine duty, a rational necessity, and a key condition for any great achievements for our Muslim community in this blessed and beautiful land.

The Quran is not merely making a suggestion when it commands: 

"Hold fast all together, by the Rope which Allah stretches out for you and be not divided among yourselves" (the Quran 3-103). 

We must work together to promote the good and prevent the evil. Here and now we can strive to create the Islamic khaira Ummah. It was a great honor that the prophet Mohammad (pbuh) with the grace of God united two fighting communities and saved them from the brink of the Pit of Fire. 

On Thursday, May 10, 2007, more than 20 prominent Shia and Sunni Detroit area Muslim leaders met at the Islamic House of Wisdom and signed a historic "Intra-Faith Code of Honor" as a demonstration of their commitment to avoid communal divisions and all forms of sectarianism and violence. The Detroit "Code of Honor" event was modeled after a similar event in Los Angeles and took place before the national event in Chicago organized by ISNA. 

After the tragic event of 9-11, all Muslims regardless of their school of thought experienced a backlash of hate crimes, assaults and serious Islamophobic prejudice; this required an urgent and responsible engagement by the highest Islamic leaders in US to unite the community against the threats through more awareness and education. In a recent report by the ACLU which focused on the post 9/11 lives of Muslim Americans, it emphasized how the previous administration created a climate of fear that both slowed and inhibited the ability freely and fully to practice the principles of the Islamic faith including charitable giving or zakat.  

Sectarian tensions were promoted since the 1980s in the US through some overseas sheiks and guest speakers, but September 11 made any Shia-Sunni tension in the US totally irrelevant. There are still some isolated cases of sectarian behaviors demonstrated in some universities, prisons, and even a few non-mainstream mosques which must be addressed by the religious leaders through the honor code in order to prevent any more inflammatory language and negative labeling.  

We should all pledge to avoid anything that could result in false alarms and more misunderstanding.   

Most of us have developed an interest in community meetings, interfaith gatherings and other ways of building bridges with non-Muslims to help remove negative perceptions about Islam. We should apply the same standards even more seriously within Intra-Faith interaction to fix our own family communication. Charity begins at home. The Sunni-Shia dialogues obviously deserve a similar degree of effort as Interfaith if not more!  

After centuries of miscommunication, ignorance, extremism, insults, condemnation, and divide-and-rule policies, which are still practiced by some groups and governments, we Muslim Americans have a unique opportunity to offer ourselves as a new example of understanding, cooperation, unity and brotherhood. Peace and justice and reconciliation should be the goal of both inter and intra faith constructive engagements and interaction. Good intentions, trusting the others' good intentions, increased communication, coordinated action, and clearer strategies for defending the integrity of Islam against misconceptions are some of our community's most important priorities and challenges. There is so much that we can learn from each other that could make our religious life in this country more convenient and practical.Obviously, the Quran, the Sunna, and the contributions of the prophet (pbuh), Ahlul-Bait, and his knowledgeable companions are the Muslims' most valuable assets; yet their interpretation based on requirements of time and place through wisdom and critical ijtehad remains a challenge for Islamic scholars. 
Asking from the people of knowledge, reading the authentic sources, and educating each other about the new research on the Tafseer, hadith, jurisprudence and Islamic laws relevant to our life in the US should be part of our sincere dawa work in this country, as well as our commitment to rejecting gossip, accusations and rumors about others.  
In the last century so many Shia and Sunni reformists like Assad Abadi, Al-Kawakeby, Shaltoot,Iqbal,  Sharafoddin, Kashefolqata, Borojerdi, Imam Khomeini, Rafsanjani, Khatami, Vaezzadeh, Taskhiri  and other reformists inspired hope, common sense, love, and friendship among the Muslims.They struggled, suffered and sacrificed to unite the Muslim Umma. We should follow their footsteps on the issues related to ourselves. 
When we backbite about others, create suspicion, and ridicule one another's practices, and sometimes even worse than that, we create an atmosphere of hypocrisy and hate that is equal rejecting the Quran and the Sunna. We must keep  calling for piety, wisdom, humbleness, honesty, respect, ethics, tolerance and justice. 
Shia-Sunni unity is not a call for conversion to Tashayyo or Tasannon; that is a personal decision based on personal belief. The unity is about understanding, fairness, and cooperation between our communities to protect our shared Islamic identity.  
The Quran commands three standards for outreach.  
"Invite all to the way of your Lord with wisdom, gentle words and the most gracious kind of argumentation" (12-125).  
The conditions of conversation in the Quran include kindness, meaningfulness, being accurate, beneficial, truthful, flexible, friendly, easy and eloquent. The culture of sabb or insulting, abusing, biting with tongue has no place in Islam.  
The Quran says "not a word does he utter but there is a sentinel by him ready to note it" (50-18).  
The Quran also tells us, "Pursue not that of which you have no knowledge, for every act of hearing, or of seeing or of feeling in the heart will be enquired into on the Day of Reckoning" (17-36). 
It is normal to have disagreements. Diversity in the Islamic laws is not only a Shia-Sunni issue but an issue inside all school of thoughts. We don't have to be identical but we can and should work together closely!  
Hadith that says everyone who makes a rational decision with pure intention based on the Quran and Sunna will get a reward, even if they are mistaken.  
It's the job of imams, Muslim intellectuals, community activists and Muslim families to work together with the new generation to attain enlightenment so that we stay strong in our faith identity while remaining sensitive to other people's passions and practices. We shouldn't be worried about openly discussing our historical disagreements on the issue of caliphate and imamate and even our interpretations of the Quran and the hadith at the right time and place with the right people. These conversations should enrich our knowledge and understanding and remove many misconceptions.

Slowness in getting results shouldn't discourage us from communication.

If an issue as urgent as the Ramadan moon sighting and the day of Eid has not been solved yet, no surprise the hard issues like khelafa have not been solved either. 
[The Shia and Sunni disputes originated before any of us were born. They do not involve us personally and directly. We know about these events through scholars that wrote them down and especially through our family. We tend to believe whatever we were told when we were growing up. So we cannot take these things personally. Those Sunnis and Shias who are interested in expanding their knowledge should work on joint projects which may unifying our community.  

There are many conflicts between Muslims that are neither religious nor sectarian -- they are political. The painful problem between Hamas and the Palestinian authority is not a Shia-Sunni issue; both parties are Sunni.  Likewise with the recent Iranian election dispute: both parties were Shia!  We know often outside parties' influences inflame disputes. 

Even the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is not a fight between Judaism and Islam but a political issue between justice and injustice. Most human problems have roots in human greed, impatience, and weaknesses and sometime also excessive attachment to cultural or ethnic background.

Mosque leaders in the US should guide their congregations with the same courage and honesty of the founders of the five schools of thought. Imam Jafaar Al-Sadeq used to tell the Shia community to pray with their Sunni brothers and sisters, visit their sick, participate in their funerals and show them the beauty of the teachings of the Ahlul Bayt with action rather than just words. 

At the same time Imam Mohammad Al- Shafi used to say, "If they open my heart they will see two lines, one about unity of God and the other about the love of Ahlul Bayt. He said if the love of Ahlul Bayt makes someone rafethi (a rejecter of faith) I would like the whole world to know that I am a rafethi." 

Imam Malek ibn Anas said, "I swear by God I never saw someone more knowledgeable and pious and pure than Imam Jafaar al-Sadegh." 

Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal said, "No one can be compared with the personality of Imam Ali ibn Abu Taleb."  

When the Imam of Hanbali school of thought was asked by his son about who were the best companions of the prophet (pbuh) he mentioned some names including Abu Bakr, Omar and Othman. Abdallah asked his father, "How come you didn't mention Imam Ali?" And his father said, "You asked me about the prophet's companions and I answered, but Imam Ali was more than a companion, he was the nafs (the soul) of the messenger of Allah."
God bless Sheikh Kaftarloo's soul, who said, "We are all Sunni if that means we try to follow the Sunna (tradition) of our holy prophet. We all are Shia if it means to love Imam Ali and the prophet's family." 

All Muslims regardless of their different interpretations of the khelafa (successorship of the prophet) share a belief in the unity of God, the prophethood of Mohammad (pbuh), the authenticity of the Quran and the certainty of the Day of Resurrection. There is no disagreement over the principles of prayer, Ramadan fast, charity and pilgrimage to Mecca.

Condemning each other with "Takfeer and Bedaa" [infidelity and heresy] for some details of differing customs and traditions should have no place among the faithful. 

The Muslim community in the US enjoys freedom of expression, technology and access to fast internet, we are blessed with human and intellectual resources. We have a better chance than any other Muslim community overseas to set an example of Muslim unity. This would enable us to take advantage of this new era of civic engagement and play a more effective role in civil rights and justice advocacy both domestically and internationally. 

We have to be aware that there are people in this country who are conspiring to prevent Muslims from enjoying equal protection under Constitutional law. They  are a real  danger to all  American values. We have to coordinate our efforts with our fellow citizens to help steer our country away from racism, exploitation and violence. 

Although we should focus on domestic challenges, it is impossible to ignore developments in the Islamic world. Congressman Tip O'Neill used to say: "All politics is local." In an era of globalization "All global politics is local, and all local politics is global."

As we condemned the terrorist attacks in London and Madrid, we should keep condemning the terrorist crimes in Iraq, Pakistan, and elsewhere that innocent people are slaughtered in the mosques, market places, funerals, weddings and public places because of political or sectarian fanaticism. 
The prophet said, "A Muslim is the one with whom Muslims feel safe from his harm by mouth or hand." Explosion, intimidation, harassment, and terrorism are not jihad but crimes against Islam and humanity. They hijack the Islamic piety and integrity in the name of jihad. We heard about cases in  Somali where they opened the Muslim graves and left the bodies in open in the name of bedaa (heresy)  They should have no place in the Muslim leadership and  must be stopped from committing crimes.   

This type of violence gives more ammunition to the self-styled terrorism experts like Steven Emerson and Daniel Pipes to continue their crusade against Islam and provides more material for more evil films like Obsession and "The 3rd Jihad." We can defeat their racism and bigotry by uniting our communities and coordinating efforts for the common goal of justice and integrity.  

" Verily, this Brotherhood of yours is a single brotherhood, and I am your Lord and Cherisher; therefore be mindful of Me" (23-52) 

Wish you a successful convention!
  Sheikh Mohammad Ali Elahi-    www.IslamicHouseofWisdom.com