A few months ago my husband came home from Friday congregational prayers with a bizarre fatwa (religious edict) from the imam of a local mosque.
"Sheikh said we can't bring stoves to the mosque anymore," he announced.
"Stoves?" I asked perplexed. "Who brings stoves to the mosque?
After further interrogation, I figured out the imam (who has a thick accent) had banned "stones" from being used during prostration in the prayer hall. Apparently, a Shia Muslim had joined the congregation.
"This is a Sunni masjid," the imam had declared. Shias are welcomed but cannot "force their ideology" on us by praying on a "stone." Plus, it is "confusing the kids."
It's no wonder sectarianism is tearing the Muslim world apart. While the enemies of Islam are undoubtedly exploiting historic differences amongst Muslims to keep us divided and conquered (For example, Tel Aviv University hosted a conference last year titled "Shia-Sunni Division."), it is our scholars and leaders who provide the fodder by spreading ignorance of and prejudice against the other.
"Why are we fighting? Why is there hatred? Why is there prejudice? I believe the reason why is ignorance," says Abdullah Al-Andaluci, co-founder of the Muslim Debate Initiative.
Our imam, who has a doctorate in comparative religions, obviously has very little understanding of sects within his own religion. If he did, he would have realized that the Shia worshipper was using a turbah, or clay tablet, not to "force his ideology" on others but because it is a sunnah (tradition) of Prophet Muhammad (S). Furthermore, Shia jurisprudence requires prostration on earth or something that grows on it (with some exceptions).
"I saw Allah’s Apostle (S) prostrating in mud and water and saw the mark of mud on his forehead," according to a tradition narrated by the Prophet's (S) companion Abu Said al-Khudri.
Ironically, that same month our imam helped host an elaborate interfaith event, titled "God's Books: Reading Scripture in Judaism, Christianity and Islam" at our new mosque, which opened last year after fierce local opposition. While engaging in interfaith dialogue is commendable, what about INTRAfaith dialogue and understanding? How come our mosques, imams, Islamic schools and halaqas (Islam study circles) don't try to learn about the other schools of thought in Islam, especially as mutual understanding is the foundation for our unity and salvation.
God: “And hold fast, all of you together, to the rope of God, and be not divided among yourselves.” (Quran 3:103)
And: "O Mankind, We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is he who is the most righteous of you." (49:13).
We can learn how from an exchange between Imam Jafar Sadiq, great grandson of Fatima (one of the four perfect women), and his student Imam Abu Hanifa. The caliph of the time asked Imam Abu Hanifa to come up with forty religious questions to be asked of Imam Jafar Sadiq. When Imam Jafar Sadiq was queried, he replied by first sharing the judgments of the scholars in Iraq and in Medina before offering his own opinions.
To this Imam Abu Hanifa commented: "The most knowledgable of scholars is he who is the most knowledgable about differences of opinion."
To counter the growing Sunni/Shia divide globally, local Muslim leaders and institutions should encourage INTRAfaith dialogue, understanding and cooperation, especially among religious scholars and students of Islam.
As leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran Imam Syed Ali Khamanei recently said, “Unity and companionship among Muslims is an urgent obligation.”
Otherwise, the "Not Welcome" grafitti sprayed on our mosque sign two years ago will turn out to be true. Well, at least for certain Muslims.