Shiite seminaries, in particular the original centers in Najaf and Qom, play a dual role within the arena of the Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict in the Middle East. While the religious establishment tries to preserve Shiite group identity, which differs from that of the Sunni majority, it is also earnestly abstaining from classifying itself as being outside the united Islam structure. One can classify the role of activist groups associated with the Qom and Najaf seminaries based on their commitment to and emphasis on the unique identity of the Shiites as well as their shared Islamic identity with the Sunnis.
Geography and language play a significant role when it comes to the differences between the Qom and Najaf seminaries’ approach to sectarian conflict. While Qom lies in the heart of the Shiite community, ideologically and linguistically separated from the rest of the Islamic world, Najaf practices its religious and missionary work in the vicinity of Sunni communities and under the eyes of the Arab world. Furthermore, that the Qom seminary has ties to the Iranian political regime, while that of Najaf maintains its distance from politics, strongly differentiates their roles within the conflict. Najaf has refrained from supporting Shiite parties or groups in the political arena, considering itself to be a purely religious institution, unconcerned with struggles between centers of power. This position differed in particular from the standard approach of Qom in the decades following the Iranian Revolution.
These factors have historically led the Najaf seminary to minimize areas of conflict with the Sunnis and sustain as many similarities with them as possible. Najaf’s decision to maintain its distance from politics has spared it the negative effects of the current conflicts, the majority of which are closely linked to the political interests of rival countries in the region. Moreover, Najaf sensed the need to protect itself from the neighboring Sunni environment, something that has made it move away from hate speech and religious behaviors that demonize “the other.” Rarely does one come upon hostility in the writings, speeches or statements issued by the religious scholars in Najaf. There has even been an attempt to limit the publication of anything that will incite sectarian strife.
Speaking to Al-Monitor, the owner of the Al-Andalus Publishing House said that he was issued a warning by Ayatollah Ali Sistani, leader of the Hawza of Najaf, when he sought to publish the well-known Fasal al-Khutab, which deals with distortions in the Quran. Sunnis have often accused Shiites of believing in distorting the Quran, and there have been claims that they believe in a Quran that differs from that of the Sunnis. This is despite the majority of Shiite scholars confirming their commitment to the standard Quran and denying belief in any kind of distortion in it. In Najaf, attempts aimed at rapprochement with the Sunnis have a long history and have come from within the seminary itself.
In Qom in the not-so-distant past, hate speech and anti-Sunni behavior were practically widespread. This is evidenced by the juristic opinions directed against the Sunni “other” and by the rites and rituals that malign some figures holy to the Sunnis. There was never a significant movement in Qom to unify and bring together Islamic sects except for a short period during Seyyed Hossein Borujerdi’s time, 1945 to 1961. Such a movement did not emerge until after the spread of the Islamic revolution, through the support and political vision of the ruling Iranian regime.
In Qom, attempts at rapprochement with the Sunnis have, to this day, typically been met with negative reactions. A number of religious scholars in Qom believe that such efforts are incompatible with Shiite identity and have therefore written responses to them. Perhaps the most famous response is The Reality of Religious Unity (2003), by Ayatollah Yasubedin Rastegar Jooybari. Nearly 20,000 copies made it into circulation before the Iranian government banned it. In it, Jooybari includes passages disparaging sacred Sunni figures and asserts that unity with the Sunnis is not only unacceptable, but impossible. Jooybari was arrested, tried and imprisoned for insulting Islam and causing schism.
The Qom seminary has made extensive efforts to spread Shiism in Sunni areas in Iran and abroad, sparking the ire of Sunni religious institutions and political regimes. The Najaf seminary, however, has refrained from such activity in Sunni areas. In an interview in December 2010 with Al-Monitor, Sistani said, “Everyone has the right to choose the religion and sect that pleases them, while respecting others, accepting them and coexisting in brotherhood.” He warned of Iran’s problematic practices in this regard.
While Najaf is trying to protect Shiite identity in a manner removed from the sectarian conflict, global communication tools, in particular YouTube, have led to the spread of anti-Sunni and anti-Shiite hate messages. While the Iranian government has been trying to prevent anti-Sunni voices in Qom from spreading hate speech, Iran’s general political tendency has contributed to restrictions on Shiite entities in the Arab world.
Will the massive humanitarian losses sustained in the ongoing sectarian battle provide religious institutions with an opportunity to change their approach toward spreading peace and coexistence? This is a question that no one can answer, but perhaps the victims and sectarian massacres of the future will lead to a humanitarian awakening in the region.
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