by Sukaynah A
The topic of sectarian differences is no stranger to me. I was born into a Shia Malay-Muslim Singaporean family. My parents were Sunnis prior to their marriage, but along the way transitioned into the Jaafari Mazhab (within the Shii’ sect). Even as Shiites, my parents had sent me to a Sunni madrasah for my kindergarten education on top of the weekly Shia religious classes. From the perspective of a young girl, sectarian differences were limited to simply diet restrictions, such as avoiding seafood with shells, squids and crab. I forged an alliance, a close friend, who would defend me when I get incredulous questions on why I could not eat these things. At the age of 10, I remembered sharing with a Chinese schoolmate that there are two sects within Islam. Another Muslim schoolmate told me that I was wrong and that there was no such thing. That marked the beginning of my realising the lack of awareness on sectarian differences amongst the majority of Muslims in Singapore. It was also through looks thrown to my Shia friends praying in a mosque, that I sensed animosity from the other side. Simply put, being a minority Muslim has given me that edge in developing an earlier awareness of sectarian differences.
When I was in Junior College, the issue of sectarian differences tended to surface when we discussed the political events unfurling at the time. My General Paper teacher had posed this question – “How many sects are there in Islam?” It was a question I was proud to have an answer to, although my Shia faith at that age was pretty much concealed from the public’s eye. I also started to be confronted with the major stereotype attached to Shiism – that the Shias are sesat (deviants) and have taken the off-beaten path from Islam. Interestingly, while I was sad to hear this, it was not shocking for me. Even Shias themselves have internalised such negative sentiments, as if bearing such stereotypes and negative presumptions were part of the package of the Shia faith.
As I got older, the stereotypes became more pronounced. In NUS, a prominent Shia speaker, Hajj Hassanain Rajabali, was invited to deliver a lecture on a topic, which I believe was universal and sect-free. However, there was fear mongering amongst the students and unbeknownst to them of my Shia identity, I too was warned not to attend his lecture as I may be “brainwashed”. As I mingled more with the Muslims in campus, the initial stages of assimilation could be anxiety-inducing. Perhaps I have not always assimilated that much in my teenage years, but in NUS, I joined congregational prayers, iftar sessions and lectures organised by the Muslim Society. It was through these events that I became more self-conscious about my own identity. While I prayed with my hands by my side, unfolded beneath my telekong and made excuses to break my fast at a later time, I often wondered with anxiety, if I stood out like a sore thumb in a sea of Sunni Muslims.
While it was anxiety-inducing at first, co-existence, and in turn, assimilation, becomes a natural part of my life pretty quickly. For one, nothing about me strikingly reflects my Shia identity. I certainly do not don the chador like the Iranian women nor do I carry my turbah in my hands everywhere I go. I am essentially a Malay-Muslim Singaporean, who more or less, resembles and dresses like my other female Malay-Muslim counterparts. I must have been assimilating rather well since I find myself from time to time, at the receiving end of Shia-slamming speech by people who assumed I was Sunni. Such assumed homogeneity in the Malay-Muslim landscape in Singapore certainly made me feel like a Shia spy.
At the age of 23, after experiencing some kind of existential crisis, I decided to come out as a Shia Muslim to some of my close friends. During this process, it was interesting that I was asked in return, what sect they belong to, further reiterating my earlier point about the assumed “homogeneous Islam” within Singapore. This act of coming out even to a mild degree was liberating and served as a major turning point in my life. Faith, identity, and spirituality are the most integral and fundamental aspects of my being. I decided that the more I restricted myself from talking about my faith to my closest circles, the more it would compromise my authenticity.
So I embarked on a journey of discovering, seeking and unraveling my self, my religion, and my identity. I was laden with existential questions concerning my faith; as a Muslim first, and then as a Shia Muslim. My mind was turbulent with questions ranging from the historical events in Islam before and after the death of the Prophet (peace be upon him), to historical personalities – the Prophet’s family and his companions – to the process of untangling religion from politics and culture. I delved into Shia and Sunni books and dived into controversial discourses. I posed questions to my parents and the learned people around me. I read again about the tragedy of Karbala and the event of Ghadeer Khum and attempted to understand the significance of certain rituals. It was a period of confusion, but it is only through this re-examination of my own traditions vis-a-vis the Sunni traditions, un-learning and re-learning, that I was given a broader perspective which further solidified my faith. What looked like confusion at first, came out to be a deep love and acceptance for diversity within the religion of Islam.
Henceforth, while it may be confusing and trying, I truly do see the benefits of being a minority Muslim. Perhaps the notions of being a minority may not necessarily be pleasant — marginalisation, discrimination, prejudice and being unheard comes along with the experience. However, the position of a minority pushes one to be equipped with some level of knowledge, especially when a minority is misunderstood and is constantly faced with questions, rumours, accusations and labels. Depending on how one responds to them, one of the benefits that can emerge from this process is a person who develops a deeper understanding of differences and diversity.
Being transparent and open about my Shia faith also opens doors towards forging new friendships and engaging with like-minded individuals who are curious to know more about Shii’sm and the diversity within Islam. Through my sharing and engagement, I am also helping to create awareness to those who are not quite aware about sectarianism. I realised that by remaining in my own cocoon, I am doing injustice to the spirit of diversity which has all along, been deeply interwoven into the fabric of the Muslim community. The perpetuation of stereotypes are the result of both parties — the ones who spread them, and the ones who do not challenge or correct them when necessary. Exclusivity and insularity within communities are also the major suspects, for ideas would remain static and unchanging, which hinders progress and deepens existing rifts.
Hence, this journey of meeting kindred souls in dialogue instils hope in me that we can respond better to diversity and sectarianism within Islam (which also transcends Sunni vs. Shia discourses). Beauty is finding what binds us together in spite of differences and holding on to them to build inclusive communities. This journey of building bridges brings me to a place of compassion and warmth as I witness Muslims from various backgrounds, shades, and sizes, reaching out to each other with sincere enthusiasm to learn more about one another. It is only through mutual respect and openness that deeper understanding can be achieved.
Beyond our differences, which are indispensable in giving each of us uniqueness, may we not forget that we are firstly human beings who have aspirations and goals, and want the same things — the freedom to exist and the freedom to be. One of my favourite quotes by Imam Ali (a.s.) truly echoes this beautifully – “People are of two kinds. They are either your brothers in faith, or your equals in humanity”. This has guided me this far, in holding firmly that regardless of who the other may be, they are on the same plane as me. I hope to spread this message in light of today’s climate that is motivated by absolutist and extremist thinking. There are colourful spectrums which exist within the religion of Islam and we should move hand-in-hand with diversity, and learn to embrace and even benefit from it.
Illustration by Wan Xiang Lee.