Sunni or Shia? Why We Shouldn’t Answer this Question

Why the very real issue of sectarianism in the Arab world needs to be a non issue

Illustration: Shutterstock

by Maan Jalal

Culture 15 February 2018

In 2013, I was visiting family in New Zealand when, for reasons I can’t recall, a window in our house cracked. The window had a cat door attached to it that was also damaged. Since I was there on holiday and everyone else was working, I took on the responsibility of getting it fixed.

The handy man arrived before lunch and I realized less than a minute after showing him the window that this wasn’t going to be a simple operation. The handy man was a talker.

While working, he complained about the weather, his wife’s thoughts on Oprah Winfrey, his daughter’s upcoming wedding and his childhood living in the South Island on a farm. The man didn’t even take a breath between subjects and contrary to modern belief, he was a great multi-tasker. I couldn’t have been more grateful when the house phone rang. I spoke to my mother no more than a few minutes and when I hung up, the handy man was quick to ask,

‘What language was that?’

‘Arabic,’ I said.

‘Oh yeah, where are you from?’

‘Iraq,’ I said.

‘Yeah? So, what are you? Sunni or Shia?’

I was shocked. Here I was in New Zealand, one of the least political countries in the world, having a conversation with a man who, according to him, didn’t complete his high school education, had never left the country and preferred to watch ‘Top Gear’ instead of ‘all that rubbish’ on the news. And yet, he assumed because I was Arab, speaking Arabic that I was Muslim and then asked me one of the most polarizing, politically divisive and awkwardly inappropriate questions.

Deceptively simple as it may be, the question is anything but simple. It would have been easy to say to the handy man from my perspective, that the issue of sectarianism in Islam and generally the Arab world, is redundant. I consider myself a well-educated Arab, but I’d never been aware of the issues pertaining to sectarianism in Islam or the Arab world until my early twenties. Where I grew up and how I was raised, different sects and religions intermingled and intermarried. I can accept though, that my worldview might be a privileged one.

The issue of sect or religion never affected me personally until the last ten years. And by ‘affect’ I mean that the topic has been in the forefront of trying to label and frame the Middle East in the media, causing me to look at sectarianism in Islam and the Arab world from a universal perspective. Unfortunately for many living in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and other countries in the Middle East the issue isn’t an intellectual one, but one that determines how and if they live.

I decided not to look so much at the question itself but the intention behind the question.

What bothered me the most about the question was that it wasn’t a question at all. It was an assumption. All Arabs are assumed to be Muslims and if you’re Muslim you’re either this or that. We must associate with this set of beliefs or their direct opposite. The question alludes that Arabs and Muslims are not united, but divided and at war with each other and the rest of the world. Which sadly, for the moment, is true.

One of the thoughts that quickly came to me as the handy man waited for me to respond, was why do I have to answer this? Think about it. When you’re asked if you’re Sunni or Shia, especially by a non-Muslim, you are being asked to inadvertently pick a side. Your answer forces you to identify yourself not so much to a religious history but to a modern reinterpretation of that history within the context of better or worse, right or wrong, war or peace, history or politics. Like most matters that concern religion, the issue of sectarianism in Islam and the Arab world is grey but exists in a system that only understands black and white.

I’m sure the handy man’s intentions weren’t meant to be intrusive, accusatory or divisive, but the question from such an unexpected source felt like all those things. He was looking at me now while he put together the cat door with a quizzical expression on his face.

‘You probably don’t know this,’ I said, ‘but that’s not a very polite question to ask.’

‘Isn’t it? Why not?’

Again, I was stumped. I was standing in my home, being asked another simple question whose complicated answer is 1,400 years long. How could I begin to explain the nuances of this issue to a man who is so far removed from all parts of my religion and culture? It’s the same issue many Arabs and Muslims living in the West face daily when we see a post we don’t agree with, watch a news item that has it all wrong, are asked something ridiculous by a colleague or non-Muslim friend or are told about our own religion, culture and history by people who don’t share it.

I needed to make this simpler for myself. I decided not to look so much at the question itself but the intention behind the question. Is there a difference when a Muslim or Arab asks you what sect you are compared to a non-Muslim? Of course, there’s a difference.

The truth is, for some Muslims and Arabs, sect is an issue. Whether it’s about marriage, friendship, business, neighborhoods, civil unrest, rights, history or war, we’ve seen an increase in violence in the Middle East whose root cause is this ancient religious civil war. This divide has caused upheaval and unrest in the Middle East and has made its way to Arabs and Muslims in the West. I’ve seen how these growing sectarian clashes have affected many Arabs who don’t live in the East. It’s caused them to learn more about history and to re-identify themselves in an attempt to connect to their roots. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But it can be dangerous when in the process of gaining some perspective on religious history we choose to question each other, to make divides where none are necessary.

Let’s be honest. Not all Arabs or Muslims know their history as much as they should or would like to. For those of you who do, I applaud you. There are some people who choose to express sectarian pride, history and issues by starting debates online. Some are not interested and are happy to lead relatively secular lives while still identifying themselves as Arabs or Muslims. There is nothing wrong with either. However, there is something wrong when we as Arabs or Muslims start making clear distinctions among each other, when we choose to create divides within our greater community by believing and promoting stereotypes. Blatantly negative online commentary, uninformed assumptions and inappropriate jokes aren’t doing Arabs or Muslims in the west any favors right now. In fact, this is the time when we need to put aside any perceived divides.

Yes, our divides need to be discussed as an attempt at solving them. The biggest obstacle to this has been the media. How else did the handy man make the instant connection from Iraq to sectarianism?

As Arabs, our own knowledge of our history and of the customs of different sects is not as informed as it should be. All of us have heard offensive and absurd things about different sects and most of us are satisfied in believing hearsay as fact as opposed to making conclusions based on our own research into history and, as equally important, discussing these issues with each other.

I envied the handy man for a second. He was making sure the flap of the cat door was working, completely oblivious to the fact that his question was literally like tapping on Pandora’s box. That question, I thought, really is one of the worst things that you could ask an Arab or Muslim.

I shouldn’t have to and I don’t want to perpetuate the idea that the whole Arab or Muslim world is split into distinct groups who are at war.

Over the last twelve years, I’ve found that the issue of Arab and Islamic sectarianism and divide in the Middle East has occupied Western thought. I’ve been asked on more than one occasion what sect I belonged to before and since the handy man came to fix our window. The question is a way for Westerners to forge out a very basic and flat understanding of the situation in the Middle East. It’s become the norm these days to ask an Arab or Muslim you meet in any social setting with a nonchalant sense of entitlement, ‘What are you? Why don’t you want to tell me?’ Well, because it’s my right not to tell you. It’s my right not to let you define me based on a false system of belief that has been narrated in the media. That’s not me. In fact, why are you asking me? I’m just trying to pay off my student loans here. Please don’t ask me that question. I’m just trying to find a job during a recession. Please don’t ask me that question. I’m trying to find a nice girl to marry. I’m trying to save up for a house. Please don’t ask me that question. I promised my mum I would get that cracked window fixed. Please don’t ask me that question.

Though I would have loved to, that’s not what I told the handy man. Instead I said this,

‘It’s not polite to ask that question because religion is personal to some people. Just because you’re white, I don’t assume you’re a Christian. I’m not going to ask you if you believe Jesus died for your sins.’

‘Yeah, right, true,’ the handy man said nodding, ‘but what are you mate? Sunni or Shia?’

On the surface sectarianism reflects religious differences. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that sectarianism is actually about power. And there’s nothing that can make you feel more powerless than being forced to define yourself. Why didn’t I want to answer him? I didn’t want to deal with it to be honest. Do any of us want to deal with any of this? No. With so many other stereotypes Arabs and Muslims are facing these days, the issue of sect is not one I want to deal with for the rest of my life. Tough shit, I suppose.

As Arabs and Muslims living under the microscope of the media, we can’t choose which issues to face and which to avoid when they are bombarded at us on every platform imaginable. But we can choose how to answer them or if we should answer them at all. And I shouldn’t have to answer this question. I shouldn’t have to and I don’t want to perpetuate the idea that the whole Arab or Muslim world is split into distinct groups who are at war. We are more than that. By no means do I advocate silence or brushing important issues under the rug, but we have to stop making this personal. This isn’t about me and what I am, this is about us and what we want to be. I realized that my Arab or Islamic responsibility when faced with this question is not to just keep my mouth shut but to speak up about why I’m choosing to keep my mouth shut.

‘It doesn’t matter what I am,’ I told him, ‘we are all the same at the end of the day.’

‘Are you though? Why are you all fighting all the time? Whose side are you on then?’

Even if we try, we can’t ignore the issues of division within the Arab and Muslim world. They are both incredibly diverse and varied. This should – in theory – be a good thing. It means our history is rich, our scholars have delved into and investigated, discussed different ways ancient texts should be translated. It means that the Arab and Muslim world isn’t static, it’s a living, breathing thing – a culture that continues to grow. Embracing those divides within our community is an incredibly important step for Arabs and Muslims living in the West in order to preserve and maintain a healthy and positive community that we are proud of. Being Arab combines us all, no matter sect, country or creed. Islam shouldn’t be dividing us either. We all follow the Five Pillars of Islam and although they might vary slightly none of those pillars ask you to choose a sect.

I wish I had a simple solution for how to approach the question that I’ve been asked, the question I’m sure I’ll be asked again. For now, I simply choose not to answer it or let it define the type of person I am.

‘Why do you want to know whether I’m Sunni or Shia?’ I asked the handy man.

‘I’m just trying to understand what the fuck is going on mate.’

‘Yeah, we all are,’ I said, ‘how long till the window is done?’


This article first appeared on

Maán Jalal is a writer, writing stuff while reading other stuff other writers wrote. Novelist. Journalist. Bibliophile. Gryffindor. His patronus is a hawk. Leete Latobarita Uruth Ariaroth Bal Netoreel.

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