A seminar I was attending with my daughter at our local mosque this past Ramadan was rudely interrupted when a sister entered shrieking, "What's that woman doing here?! Why is she here?? Who invited her???"
I started looking around for "that woman" before realizing she was talking about me!
Apparently, the sister blew her lid because I showed up once again to a kids' program at the mosque (umm, I have three children) but don't attend congregational prayers. She was suspicious I was trying to convert the other kids to the minority Shia sect of Islam (Lady, I can barely get it together to teach myself and my kids about Islam, let alone preach to all of your kids! No, thank you!!)
At first, I was upset at her for keeping tabs on my comings and goings. But upon further reflection, I realized she might have a point.
Indeed, I did stop attending congregational prayers at the mosque about 18 months ago when, at the height of the Syrian conflict, the resident imam gave a speech "explaining" Shi'ism that was chock full of lies, distortions and propaganda. After confronting the imam, I decided not to pray behind him again.
Was that a wise decision?
Calling him out was. Boycotting congregational prayers was not.
Despite differences amongst Muslims, praying together is highly recommended because it mitigates rancor, suspicions and resentments while fostering love, respect and unity. Perhaps the sister at my mosque might not have jumped to conclusions if we had stood shoulder to shoulder in prayer more often.
"Satan first creates discord in congregations, then divides and destroys," warned Imam Ali, husband of Fatima, one of the four perfect women of all times.
God urges us to pray together so that we can commit to doing social justice, a task that requires harmony and togetherness and cannot be handled by individuals regardless of how "pious" they are, together. Ultimately, we are supposed to work with each other (as well as justice-oriented people of other faiths) to free the world of oppression and tyranny and replace it with truth, peace and social justice. We can only do this if we are able to rise above our differences even as the oppressors plot to keep us divided and conquered so they can continue their corruption on earth.
"Obey Allah and His Messenger and do not dispute with one another, otherwise you will fail and lose your strength. Have patience - Allah is with those who are patient." (Quran, 8:46)
Earlier this year ex-CIA agent Michael Scheuer let slip in an interview with UK's Channel 4: "The thing was ideal when IS [Islamic State] was advancing on Baghdad because Sunnis were killing Shias. That's exactly what we need.... our best hope right now is to get the Sunnis and Shias fighting each other and let them bleed each other white."
But, thankfully, Muslims are realizing that unity is the only way to emerge triumphant and are using the shared congregational prayer as a vehicle to attain that unity. After all, God demands unity before He commands worship.
"Indeed this ummah (community) of yours is one community, and I am your Lord. So worship Me." (or "So conform to me") (21:92)
"It is a matter of regret that the issue of unity is spoken of as something that is merely advisable—a noble matter that ought to exist among Muslims and that they must exhort one another to adopt," according to scholar Ustadh Muhammad Khurasani. "In reality, however, the Quran highlights unity with the same emphasis as it highlights tawhid (Oneness of God). It is an obligatory duty, therefore, on Muslims to strive for a single ummah (community with a common goal), in the same way that they are obligated on the basis of tawhid to worship one God."
- Sunni and Shia Muslims in Lucknow, India, prayed Eid ul Adha prayers together for the first time last month. A Sunni imam led the prayer at a Shia site. "Lucknow's Muslims want a better environment to prevail in the city," according to local resident Mujtaba Khan. "This event [will help] bridge differences and free people of age-old prejudices."
- In July, Shias and Sunnis prayed for unity at Kuwait's grand mosque after a suicide bombing killed 27 and injured more than 200 at a Shia masjid. "This prayer is a prayer of unity," Parliament member Adnan Abdulsamad said. " This heinous crime only brings us further strength and tolerance. Thank God it made our enemies fools."
- A Sunni family visited a Shia masjid in Chicago this past summer to break fast and pray together and wrote about it on the religion website Patheos. "As we started, we stood shoulder to shoulder, united in prayer," wrote Mohiuddin Ahmed, who attended the Bait ul Ilm mosque with his wife and three children.
Muslim leaders amongst both Sunnis and Shias have increasingly urged unity.
Earlier this year the Grand Imam of Al Azhar University Shaikh Ahmad Al Tayeb appealed for harmony and reconciliation across different sects within Islam.
“We need to forget about our differences, which have brought us nothing but weakness and humiliation,”Al Tayeb exhorted. He said Islamic nations faced a “neocolonialist” threat posed by international powers trying to divide and rule by instigating sectarian tensions.
While unity does not mean uniformity and Muslims are urged to follow the schools of thought that make most logical sense to them, scholars have issued edicts that make it logistically possible and convenient to pray together. The Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran Imam Khamanei, for example, allows his followers to pray according to the Sunni timetable and prostrate on carpet (instead of natural materials) while praying in congregation with Sunnis for the sake of unity.
Ironically, the figure in Islamic history who strived most vigorously to prevent divisions amongst the nascent Islamic community became the source of contention later. Indeed, the sacrifices Imam Ali made for the unity and success of the ummah are present in both traditions. Shias who believe Imam Ali thought he was supposed to be the successor to the Prophet (S) need to emulate the way he prayed, worked and ruled alongside Sunnis to keep the Islamic system flourishing. Sunnis, on the other hand, who believe Imam Ali did not consider himself entitled to succeed the Prophet (S) should realize he prayed, worked and ruled with Companions who did believe in his successorship, known as the Shia Ali, and must do the same.
"You should not consider the Commander of the Faithful [Imam Ali] as a cause for disagreement among Sunni and Shia Muslims - or among the different Islamic sects," Imam Khamanei said. " The Commander of the Faithful is the axis of unity among all Muslims."
So, in the spirit of unity, I plan on once again praying in congregation at my mosque--though, I must admit, I'm not quite ready to rub shoulders with THAT sister during prayers. Not yet.