Shia Sunni Dialogue in Pakistan: Why and How

By Abdul Malik Mujahid

When in a Karachi Shia masjid a suicide bomber killed worshipers on a recent Friday, the first people who rushed to the rescue were worshipers from the nearby Sunni mosque in the Sindh Madrasah. They tried to save lives and comfort the injured before the police and others could arrive. I came to know about this because a Shia writer wrote about it in the Pakistani daily newspaper Dawn. Shias have similarly come forward to help their Sunni neighbors in crises. It has been reported that Shia and Sunni both regularly participate in each other’s funeral prayers.

May Allah bless those hearts moved by the needs of others. People like these are the true faithful whose actions reflect their character. These are the silent majority of Pakistanis who need to work with each other to isolate the terrorists amongst them and the extremists who support them.

This silent majority must come together through dialog to defeat the terrorists who have been responsible for killing as many as 4,000 Pakistanis in the past 15 years through their sectarian violence.

Seven reasons why a dialog between Shia and Sunni is needed:

* Theological differences between Shia and Sunni are old and are better left for Allah to judge, as He knows best and has said that He is the final judge of religious disagreements (Quran 16:12). The killing of Shias or Sunnis will not resolve these disputes.
* The principle of “no compulsion in matters of faith” (Quran 2:256) is not just limited to Muslim-non-Muslim relations. It applies to Muslim interpretations of Islam as well. This instruction of God serves as a guideline for the Muslim community to not impose one’s interpretation on others. That is why throughout history, not only have Hanafis and Shafis worked with each other despite differences, but Shias and Sunnis have lived and worked side by side with each other as well.
* When human beings sit down and talk to each other, they learn to respect each other.
* Dialog allows parties to understand each other better by allowing participants to acquire direct knowledge about beliefs instead of relying on propaganda and stereotypical images. (Quran 49:6-12)
* It is Haram to kill a human being. Killing a human being is like killing the whole of humanity. By talking to each other, Shias and Sunnis will be able to save lives, which is like saving the whole of humanity. (Quran 5:32)
* Revenge is not justice. Killing in revenge is unjust, inhuman, and un-Islamic. Retribution through the state, which the Quran sanctions via capital punishment does not amount to individuals taking the law in their hands or killing an innocent person in revenge. The call for, “an eye for an eye,” does not mean an innocent eye for an innocent eye; it means the eye of the perpetrator for the eye of the victim.
* Even if some Shias and Sunnis consider each other enemies, the Quran asks us to be just even toward one’s enemy “O you who believe! Stand out firmly for Allah, as witnesses to fair de, and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is next to Piety: and fear Allah. For Allah is well-acquainted with all that you do.” [Quran 5:8]

Some considerations for dialog:

The Shia community is a large community in Pakistan and that there are many differences between one Shia group and another. This is why it is important that dialog between Sunnis and Shias becomes a movement and a process throughout society instead of everyone waiting for one high powered dialog to yield some results at the leadership level. Here are some preliminary thoughts on how a dialog between Shias and Sunnis can be beneficial for each party.

Goals of dialog

Although I consider dialog a process that is beneficial to society, it is necessary that everyone involved recognize some of its tangible benefits. The following are a set of achievable goals for Shia-Sunni dialog.

* Developing an agenda of common concerns
* Identifying issues of conflict
* Issuing joint Fatwas against the killings
* Isolating extremists on each side
* Preventing a potential conflict or mediating an existing conflict
* Clearing up stereotypes about each other
* Setting up joint task forces to deal with outstanding issues

Who should participate in the dialog

* Imams and caretakers of Masjids
* Students of Madrassas
* University students
* National level religious leadership
* Shia and Sunni media persons
* Shia and Sunni businesspersons

Mechanism of dialog

Dialog is a process that should occur at all levels of society. In the 1960s in Pakistan, when Shia- Sunni fights were far less significant, city officers used to convene joint meetings of Shia and Sunni leaders to chalk out Muharram plans so no confusion would result in rioting. These government-arranged dialogs helped keep conflicts at a minimum. Considering the current level of mistrust, it will be beneficial if civil society takes initiatives for dialog at all levels of society.

* Private Dialog: Host roundtable discussions initially at the top leadership level that should later expand to include
* thers working on different committees.
* Public Dialog: Shia and Sunni both use public forums and media to speak to each other’s audiences
* Visiting each other’s Masjids to enhance confidence and to demonstrate that they are not supportive of the extremists who isolate each other.
* Shia-Sunni Dinners: Masjids and social associations should invite Shia and Sunni friends to eat with each other publicly.

Publicity of dialog

Publicity of the dialog will generate hope and confidence in it and will empower those in dialog vis-a-vis the extremists.

* Media should facilitate self-criticism and introspection by the religious leadership
* Those leaders who participate in dialog should be recognized through interviews, reports, and documentaries
* Investigative reports should be aired and published about the truth behind sectarian propaganda
* It is important for society to honor those Shia and Sunni leaders who take initiative and demonstrate leadership in participating in dialog. Sunnis, being members of the majority community, have the higher level of responsibility towards initiating and participating in dialog

Sponsors of Dialog

Funding always facilitates the beginning of a process in civil society. Every task requires time and money. While participating organizations and individuals can take care of their own costs, it would be very rewarding if some individuals and businesses came forward with funds to sponsor and host these dialogs. Pak-Americans can start a dialog in North America where there is no conflict in the Shia-Sunni community and take it to Pakistan by sponsoring the first meeting of such a nature.

Beyond Dialog

Considering that Shias and Sunnis live side by side throughout Pakistan, they are not un-known to each other, and considering that most of them have nothing to do with the current extremism which is responsible for the killings and violence, it is important for the moderate majority to come up with a few initiatives which are beneficial for Shia- Sunni harmony. These could be communicated in the print form or in any other media. They should discuss the following themes and/or use the methods outlined here:

* Khutba points which can help harmony
* What type of talk can hurt at personal level
* What is common between Shias and Sunnis
* Common Hadith between Shias and Sunnis
* What is hate speech
* Islamic teachings of tolerance
* A Shia-Sunni security force, jointly safeguarding each other’s houses of worship will be a significant blow to the extremist agenda.


Shia-Sunni sectarian terrorism is part of the undeclared civil war Pakistan is going through. The sect violence declined after the establishment of a religious opposition group (MMA) that included Shias along with Sunnis, but the violence has recently restarted after the terrible incidents in Quetta. If a dialog was in place, that terrorism would have failed to restart sectarian violence.

The Quran, the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, the Kaba and the five pillars of Islam are common to Shias and Sunnis. That is why no one in Islamic history has stopped Shias from performing Hajj, although the Kaba has always been in the control of Sunnis. Even today, when those currently in charge of the Kaba are part of a predominantly Salafi establishment, which maintains extremely negative views of Shias, Shias like other Muslims are free to perform Hajj. Shias on the other hand, since the 1979 Iranian revolution, are ordered by Imam Khumaini to pray behind these same Salafi imams instead of praying separately.

This mutual recognition gives us hope that a dialog can bear fruit of peace and harmony between both the communities.