Ali-Karamali: Of Documentaries and Dehumanization

Sumbul Ali-Karamali writes in a guest op-ed for IC:

A lazy way to dismiss conflicts as hopeless is to characterize (usually erroneously) the disputing parties as having been “at each other’s throats for centuries.” It happened in Bosnia when the Christian Serbs started expunging Bosnian Muslims from the area; it happened in Rwanda when the fighting between Hutus and Tutsis erupted; and it’s happening now with respect to the Israel-Palestine conflict. It’s also happening in Iraq. It is nearly impossible to listen to news about Iraq without hearing of “sectarian violence” and receiving the impression that the U.S. (the invader, remember?) is simply there as the intermediary between the Sunni and Shi’a, who have – of course – always been at each other’s throats.

And now National Geographic has aired a documentary, Inside the Koran,) which features depictions of the Shi’a as “sinners,” and promotes a fractured view of Islam. (It also contains all sorts of other problems, as it confuses culture with Islamic doctrine, doesn’t explain the context of the verses it quotes, characterizes the Qur’an as inconsistent and contradictory – as if the Qur’an is the only religious text that’s ever been interpreted differently by different people – and features no Qur’anic experts discussing the historical, intertextual, and linguistic features of the Qur’an that actually do render it consistent.) And it contains lots and lots of violence, because so many people erroneously think it is impossible to discuss Islam without explaining it in a violent context.

I find this constant conditioning, and in this particular case, the constant portrayal of Sunni and Shi’a Islam as adversarial, extremely damaging. It’s self-fulfilling, dehumanizing, and inaccurate.

When Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, died in 632, his community did not agree at once on who should succeed him, not as prophet – no one could succeed him as such – but as leader of the Muslim community. One group of Muslims asserted that the new leader should be determined by consensus of the community; another group opined that leadership should remain in the family of the Prophet, specifically the Prophet’s cousin, Ali. The former group prevailed and Abu Bakr, the Prophet’s best friend, became Caliph or Khalifat Rasul Allah, i.e. “successor to the Prophet of Allah.” Note that he was not considered a Prophet himself.

Eventually, the former group, who had advocated consensus, became called Sunni Muslims, derived from Sunnah, which means the custom and tradition of the Prophet. The latter group developed into the Shi’at Ali, or “party of Ali.” This was shortened over time to Shi’a. “Sunnite” and “Shiite” are Anglicized versions of these terms.

It is important to note that neither group can be considered “orthodox.” They developed together; neither was central or “original” Islam, and neither broke off from the other. Moreover, they didn’t separate because of any theological dispute, as in Christianity, but rather one of authority.

Eventually, religious authority for Sunni Muslims was invested in the religious scholars. Political authority was not. Historically, the Caliph was a political figure, not a religious one, and – contrary to popular wisdom – religious institutions and government institutions have always been separate in Islam. The Iranian model of wilayat al-faqih, or “governance by the religious scholar,” is a twentieth-century innovation and the first of its kind in Islamic history.

For the Shi’a, religious authority is a bit more complex. Given that religious authority, the Shi’a felt, had to remain in the family of the Prophet, the Shi’a designated a line of the Prophet’s male descendants as divinely inspired Imams. (Most Shi’a believe that the line died out after the twelfth Imam, so do not confuse this type of Imam with the person who memorizes enough verses of the Qur’an to lead the prayer – he or she is an imam with a lowercase “i.”) The majority of the Shi’a believe that the twelfth Imam, the Mahdi, disappeared and will return one day. These Shi’a are called Ithna Ashari, or Twelver, Shi’a. Note that divinely inspired does not mean divine, and they do not have the status of the Prophet Muhammad. In the absence of the Imams, the religious scholars hold religious authority on their behalf.

Therefore, practically speaking, Sunni and Shi’i Islam look very similar. Authority rests in the religious scholars. Sunni and Shi’a celebrate the same holidays, with a few exceptions, follow largely the same religious doctrine, and – here’s the important bit – recognize each other as valid.

The consensus of the great religious scholars today, as reflected in the Amman Message, is that both Sunnism and Shiism are valid branches of Islam, as are their schools of law (madhabs). The Sunni Sheikh al-Azhar signed off on this document, as did the Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Even the Wahhabi monarch, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, endorsed it. Although some theological extremists engage in the practice of “excommunicating” (takfir) other Muslims, they are now out of the mainstream of Islam.

Historically, though there was some tension and even persecution at times between the Sunni and Shi’a, it was seldom on the scale of the Catholic-Protestant conflict, either in duration or scope or brutality. Sunni and Shi’a attend the same mosques, intermarry, and identify themselves primarily as “Muslims.”

In fact, my own extended family contains Sunni, Shi’a, and Ismaili (a branch of Shi’ism whose head is the Aga Khan) members. We don’t even think about the differences. We have many friends whose families also have both Sunni and Shi’a relatives. In fact, Sunni and Shi’a have been intermarrying for years in Iraq, and it is only in the post-U.S.-invasion years that the violence has caused hardships for those families.

Therefore, the characterization of Sunni and Shi’i Muslims as just waiting for opportunities to fling themselves at each other’s throats and even as requiring the U.S. to stand between them holding each of them at arm’s length while they paw the ground, is just not accurate. But more than that, it is self-fulfilling.

It reminds me of India: when the British went to India, they saw a divided country. They ignored the fact that Hindus and Muslims had been living for centuries in a multicultural state in, if not perfect harmony (and when has anyone had that?), a pluralistic equilibrium very different from the homogeneity of Victorian England. The British began to divide and conquer, pitting Muslims against Hindus and Hindus against Muslims. Soon, Muslims and Hindus began themselves to see India as a divided country. And in 1947, they became a divided country in a Partition fueled by fear. India and Pakistan have not yet recovered.

We are doing the same thing in Iraq as the British did in India. From the very beginning of the attack, we focused on the so-called animosity between Sunni and Shi’a. We have continued to reiterate this divisiveness in the news. We carelessly promulge prejudice in documentaries such as National Geographic’s, which not only give a general impression of divisiveness and violence, but which contain specific inaccuracies.

Moreover, whenever a documentary exaggeratedly portrays the Shi’a as somehow unorthodox or unacceptable, it plays into the hands of the small minority of Muslim extremists, such as the Salafi Jihadis or many of the Taliban. It helps these extremists in their agenda of discrimination and hatred toward anyone unlike themselves. It legitimizes discrimination, spreads it via television, and consequently other Muslims receive the same conditioning: Shi’a are outside tradition, they are different, they are not like us.

I don’t quarrel with the effectiveness of the Divide and Conquer Stratagem, but with the ethics and long-term repercussions of it, not only for Islam, but the world. Iraq is not like India in that we can divide it and conquer it and forget about it. Sunni and Shi’a are worldwide. And their status affects the world economy because it is dependent upon the stability of the oil-producing countries.

Muslims in the United States are working for pluralism and tolerance and interfaith dialogue. But it is hard to do when we are continually required to defend our religion against those who attack it. It is hard to find time for dialogue when we spend much time trying to rebut and stem, drop by drop, the tide of misconception that is continually promulgating a violent, fractured Islam.

It is time, then, to start making documentaries that feature recognized scholars of Islam and that understand the difference between Islamic doctrine and the Muslim culture of developing countries (which are hounded by the same problems as the rest of the developing world). And isn’t there always a difference between religious doctrine and what people do? Even the PBS documentary Islam: Empire of Faith, although well done, was inaccurately titled, because it portrayed Islamic civilization of the first thousand years, not Islam the religion. It was the equivalent of making a documentary about The Holy Roman Empire and calling it “Christianity.”

Moreover, it is time to stop thinking of “The Islamic World” as one monolithic thing. Promulgating the concept of a Sunni-Shi’a hatred also stymies the perception of Muslims as human beings who follow – just like Americans do – their own individual spiritual, political, and social paths, depending upon their culture, geography, education, and hundreds of other factors.

And finally, it is time to stop focusing only on divisiveness and violence that’s committed in the name of religion (and which religion hasn’t had violent followers at some time?) to the exclusion of the majority moderate views. It is not a clash of civilizations that is inevitable; it is the misunderstanding of civilizations that causes clashes. That’s what we have, on both sides. And as long as the media persists in publicizing the misunderstandings and showing us the worst of each other, we may indeed find that we’ve turned that clash of misunderstandings into something far worse.


Sumbul Ali-Karamali grew up in Southern California. She earned her undergraduate degree in English, with Distinction, from Stanford University. After working as an editor in a small publishing company, she attended law school and graduated with her J.D. from the University of California at Davis. She practiced corporate law in San Francisco for several years.

 Although always a practicing Muslim, Sumbul began the formal study of Islam when she attended the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). She graduated from SOAS with her L.L.M. in Islamic Law, with Distinction. She taught Islamic Law as a teaching assistant at the University of London, worked as a research associate at the Centre of Islamic and Middle Eastern Law in London, and has lectured occasionally on Islam and Islamic law. She is the author of The Muslim Next Door: the Qur’an, the Media, and that Veil Thing (White Cloud Press).

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