Is Shiism Islam originally from Pakistan

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In Iraq, Pakistan or Bahrain there is often talk of violence and tension between Sunnis and Shiites. The conflicts are being fueled by fundamentalists from both Islamic directions, says Middle East expert Arnold Hottinger.

This content was published on March 30, 2011 - 5:45 pm
Eveline Kobler, swissinfo.ch

The longtime Middle East correspondent of Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) has published numerous books on Islam, the Arab world, and the Middle East. In an interview with swissinfo.ch, the Islam expert explains the differences between Shiism and Sunnism, and what role the two religious groups play in the countries of the region.

swissinfo.ch: How did it come about that a Sunni minority can rule over a Shiite majority, for example in Bahrain, where popular uprisings are currently taking place?

Arnold Hottinger: That is a question of power that arises from history. Bahrain has a Sunni government and a majority Shiite people, 70 percent of the population are Shiites. It can also be explained well using the example of Iraq - with a Shiite majority.

Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire and the Turks were Sunnis and installed Sunni governors in Baghdad. When the British later had power over Iraq, they too held down the Shiites and promoted the Sunnis.

But in North Africa, where the revolutions began, the distinction between Shiites and Sunnis does not matter. Sunnis live there.

Swissinfo.ch: how did the religious community split?

A.H .: Early in Islamic history there was a political discussion about who should lead the Muslim community.

The Muslims who are now called Shiites believed that the physical descendants of the Prophet should lead Islam. Those who are now known as Sunnis believed that the most suitable people should lead him

Swissinfo.ch: does that mean that all Shiite imams today are descendants of the Prophet?

Ah no. By the 9th century or so, there were no more physical descendants. The Shiites believe that the last Imam has entered eternity and will come again. This corresponds to a kind of Messiah concept, as in Christianity. He will come back at the Last Judgment. In the meantime, the clergy are his representatives. The clergy, however, has developed differently in the individual countries.

Iran is the only Shiite state. There the belief developed that every believer should choose a spiritual leader. If a clergyman has a lot of believers, he is called an ayatollah.

One has to be aware that the Iranian Shiites are very different from the Arabophone Shiites.

swissinfo.ch: To what extent?

A.H .: Persian Shiism has mixed strongly with the original religion, Zoroastrianism. The Persians, today's Iranians, have a different language, a different history and a different culture.

How did Sunni states develop?

A.H .: In the Sunnah, the state plays a much larger role because the Sunnis believed that whoever can best run the state is the righteous, the legitimate successor of the Prophet. He is called caliph in Sunnism. He does not descend from the prophet, but is the one whom God has designated as his successor through his political successes.

Swissinfo.ch: is it possible, for example, to distinguish between Shiite and Sunni developments in terms of secularization?

Ah no. One cannot say that the Shiites are more secular than the Sunnis or vice versa. With the Khomeini revolution of 1978, Iran took the step towards the direct state of God. That is, to the state under the rule of the scholars of God. That was something completely new, something that had never happened before in Shiism or Sunnism. Khomeini invented the idea of ​​the God state. The state of God now exists in terms of power, but it is no longer accepted by most of the people. You can see that in the demonstrations in Iran.

The leading scholar of God in Arab Shiism, Al-Sistani, is against the idea of ​​the God state.

swissinfo.ch: How is it that the Sunnis and the Shiites are fighting each other to the bone, as in Pakistan, for example?

A.H .: It has to do with fundamentalism. There are fundamentalist currents in both Islamic directions. They are worn by people who commit themselves to a literal interpretation of both the Koran and the Sharia. When the Sunnis in Pakistan exaggerate this interpretation and label the Shiites as heretics, there is also violence.

There are fundamentalists everywhere. If you think of the evangelical Protestants in the US who reject Darwinism, then in my opinion they are also fundamentalists. And there are numerous other fundamentalist groups in every religion. You can also find them in Catholicism.

Swissinfo.ch: are there any differences between Sunnis and Shiites with regard to the veil requirements for women?

A.H .: This point has nothing to do with the difference between Shiites and Sunnis, it is also about the question of how fundamentalist one understands religion. Khomeini, for example, was very fundamentalist and forcibly reintroduced veiling in Iran.

Swissinfo.ch: are the Muslims in Switzerland Sunni or Shiite?

A.H .: They are almost exclusively Sunnis. The Muslims from the Balkans are Sunni too, the Balkans belonged to the Ottoman Empire, and that was Sunni. Of course, it cannot be ruled out that a Shiite may come here as a tourist (laughs).

About Islam

Islam is a monotheistic religion that goes back to the prophet Mohammed. According to Islamic tradition, the archangel Gabriel appeared to him for the first time at the age of about 40, who dictated the verses of divine revelation, the Koran, to him over the years.

The five "pillars" of Islam are the basic duties that every Muslim has to fulfill: Shahada (Islamic creed), Salat (five prayer), Zakat (alms tax), Saum (fasting in Ramadan), Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca).

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To Zoroastrianism

Zoroastrianism or Zoroastrianism is one around 1800 BC. BC-700 BC A monotheistic or (at least in its early forms) dualistic religion, probably originating in Bactria, with around 120,000-150,000 followers, which was originally widespread in the Iranian region.

The founder of Zoroastrianism was Zoroaster (Greek: Zoroaster). At the center of the faith traced back to him is the creator god Ahura Mazda. He is accompanied by immortal saints (Amesha Spenta) as well as by his adversary, the evil demon Angra Mainyu (Ahriman).

Although the Zoroastrians know several deities (e.g. Anahita or Mithra), the religion is fundamentally shaped by the dualism between Ahura Mazda and Ahriman. In late antiquity, the Zurvanist variant of Zoroastrianism was widespread, in which the good and the bad spirit were considered the children of "infinite time" (Zurvan / Zervan).

Zoroastrianism is a scriptural religion and is based on the holy scripture Avesta. Images of God are alien to Zoroastrianism. However, he knows fire temples.

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Arnold Hottinger

Born in 1926, grew up in Düsseldorf and Basel.

Studies of oriental and romance languages ​​in Zurich, doctorate in 1952.

Further studies in Paris, Chicago, Cairo and Beirut.

Hottinger is fluent in Arabic and six other languages.

1961 to 1999 correspondent for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung in Beirut. Later correspondent in Madrid and Nicosia.

Work for radio stations (i.a. Swiss Radio International SRI), Publications in magazines. Hottinger has authored numerous books on the subjects of Islam, Arabia, and the Middle East, some of which are considered standard works.

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