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What separates the Sunni from the Shiite Muslims?

Pat Coyle’s Interview with Fr. Martin McDermott SJ Martin McDermott has spent over 35 years in the Middle East. In this interview with Pat Coyle, he provides valuable insights into the theological and political differences within Islam.


Fr. Martin McDermott from the US has been in Beirut for the last 35 years, before that he lived in Baghdad, and he did his doctorate in Islamic Studies. It proved to be quite a renowned doctorate, was translated first into Persian and then into Arabic in the 90s. He provides counselling services and assistance to migrant workers on behalf of JRS in Lebanon.

Pat: You have been living in the middle-east for over 35 years working with and living with the Lebanese and Iraqi people. What are they like?Fr. Martin: Like any people you have good and bad. There are a lot of good people, and they’re a very likeable people, they’re a very intelligent people and so on. I am not here to criticise or bash them to. Every nation has its faults and everyone has its virtues too. However, I think it is the most interesting place in the world. And least the most interesting place I have ever been. And obviously I enjoy it; I have been there for over 35 years.

Pat: Why was your doctorate so interesting to the Islamic Community?

Fr. Martin: Well, I wrote about a certain sheik who lived in the 10th and 11th centuries. He lived a generation and a half after the disappearance of the last Imam. An Imam was the infallible head of the Shiite community. They could ask him anything and he would have the answer. Now, after the last Imam disappeared, the community had to have a substructure for their theological thought. I tried to point out that this sheik took a theological tenet which had been rejected by the Sunni, the orthodox Muslims. This perspective was that God is just and man is free. And therefore it makes for a more interesting world. And the Shiites still hold this and this is the difference in theology between Sunnism and Shiism.

Pat: Why, what do the Sunni Muslims believe?

Fr. Martin: Well, what God says is so. But actually the real important difference is the way the community should be run; whether it should be a descendant of Mohammed or it should be the elected Caliph. But it’s rather academic question now because with the abrogation of the Caliph in the Ottoman Empire there is no longer a Caliph, and there is no longer an Imam. But they still differ between themselves as to what should have happened.

Pat: So basically what you are saying the difference between the Sunni and the Shiite Muslims is a view of God at one level, is that right?

Fr. Martin: Actually the real difference starting out was who should run things. Who would succeed Mohammed who died without a male heir. And this is probably a reason for many of his marriages; he is trying to have a male heir. His followers, most of them got together and elected Caliph, which means successor, and this went on. However another party, the party of the family, thought that succession should go to his son in law and nephew whose name was Ali, and they are the minority. Sunnis are 90% of all Islam and Shiites are 10%. However all Iran is Shiite and the south of Iraq is Shiite. They are also the majority in Iraq, and the south of Lebanon and parts of the North of Maccab.

Pat: Just make that clear…

Fr. Martin: The Shiites believe that the leadership of the community should go to a family. Now in the absence of the last Imam, it’s really the jurists and the theologians who are preaching wait for the Imam to return. And this is why, for example, Khomeini and his revolution in Iraq says the jurist should run things until the Imam comes. Now the Imam has not come; it’s provisional.

Pat: And the Sunnis believe that it should be the elected person?

Fr. Martin: That there should be a Caliph. The Turks claim to have the Caliphate from the Sultan. However most Muslims did not take this seriously because he was not of the Arab tribe of which Mohammed was. Anyway he claimed it and he had political power. So it was a Muslim regime, which was abolished by Ataturk after the First World War.

Pat: So what we have then is a spilt between the Muslims into the Sunni and Shia which originated in who should be the successor of Muhammad. And in your doctoral Thesis there was also a theological difference, you would say, between the Sunni and the Shia. Would you explain that?

Fr. Martin: Well this came in the 10th Century that the structure of theology taken by the Shiites was from another school called the Martezullah. And they held that God is just and man is free, which the Shiites hold to this day. That is the difference.

Pat: And the Sunnis would hold exactly what then?

Fr. Martin: Well the Sunnites historically would hold that God can control everything. And you can get verses from the Koran to support either side. However their side prevailed politically. But really you cannot live thinking that God controls everything, when our feet are on the ground we say “I make the decisions” and everything like that. So, even the Sunni hold in practice that man is free. They have to. In theory they don’t.

Pat: So why are they so often set against each other as for example in Iraq where there is potential civil war against the Sunni and the Shia?

Fr. Martin: Well it is the sad history of the battles over the leadership of the community which have taken place since the death of Mohammed. A pious Shiite will curse the first few Caliphs, this is part of their piety and it’s very hard to undo this sort of thing.

Pat: So this question of succession is central to the difference between the Sunni and the Shiite Muslims. But why? Muhammad founded them, they know what Muhammad believed, why is it so significant?

Fr. Martin: Well it is a question of power. In Islam religion and politics famously are not separated. Therefore the leader will have the power. Is the leader somebody descended by the family or is the leader somebody elected by the community. Whoever it is, he is the important man. Now whoever it is, it is rather academic today because the Caliphate no longer exists and the Imam has been hidden for a thousand years. Still it’s the basic question in Islam.

Pat: If there is a leader, that leader then has some power over saying what Islam is. Is that right?

Fr. Martin: He applies the law. He will say Islam is this. The law is known as the Sharia, it is God’s will that men should be living according the Sharia and it should be applied all over the world. And you can find in the Koran that they should fight until this happens.

Pat: Thank you very much for speaking to us today, Fr. Martin.