(CNSNews.com) - Sunni Muslims around the world are being pressed to take sides in a dispute among scholars over whether a united Islamic front against Israel should take precedence over historical differences with Shi'ites.
The debate is raging in newspaper columns and on Internet sites, with proponents of both positions citing religious edicts (fatwas), scholars' appeals, and Koranic injunctions to bolster their arguments.
Rancor between Sunnis and Shi'ites, whose schism stems from differences over the rightful successor to Mohammed, has existed for centuries and continues to cause bloodshed in Iraq.
Most Arab countries have Sunni majorities - exceptions include Iraq and Bahrain -- but among Lebanon's collection of minorities, Shi'ites are thought to be the biggest. The Hizballah terrorist organization now at war with Israel is a Shi'ite organization, sponsored by predominantly Shi'ite Iran, as well as by Syria, whose ruling elite are Allawites, an offshoot of Shi'a Islam.
In Saudi Arabia, some top Islamist clerics have ruled that Sunnis should not back Hizballah. Most prominent of these in recent days has been Sheikh Safar al-Hawali, who posted a fatwa online saying that Hizballah (the name means Party of Allah) is in fact the party of "the devil" and imploring Sunnis: "Don?t pray for Hizballah."
Hawali, a scholar formerly at Umm Al-Qura University, was a signatory of a Nov. 2004 communique by 26 Saudi clerics calling for jihad against U.S. forces in Iraq.
Another fatwa circulating on the Internet rejects support for Hizballah. Issued several years ago by another Saudi Islamist cleric, Abdullah bin Jibreen, it declares that Sunnis should not support Hizballah or pray for its victory.
(Bin Jibreen used the derogatory term "rafidi," a word based on the Arabic root for "to reject" or "to abandon," and used by Sunnis who regard Shi'a Islam as heresy.)
Jibreen, who at the time was a member of the Saudi government-appointed Council of Senior Scholars, also issued a decree in 1991 ruling that Shi'ites are "idolaters deserving to be killed."
These calls for Muslims not to support Hizballah have upset many other Sunni religious figures, who believe the jihad against Israel is more important than splits among Muslims.
Sheikh Rashid al-Ghanoushi, the exiled leader of a banned Islamist movement in Tunisia, said those issuing the anti-Hizballah fatwas should be ashamed of themselves for doing so "while the nation is under attack and both Palestinian and Lebanese people are facing genocide."
Influential Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi urged all Muslims to support Hizballah against "the enemy," telling the al-Jazeera television network that sectarianism "hurt[s] the resistance."
The publishers of Islam Online, a website affiliated with Qaradawi, said this was a time for solidarity and unity among Muslims.
"Unfortunately, some Muslims do not share this spirit. 'Why should we help Hizballah when they are not Sunni Muslims?' they wonder. Some prohibit any form of cooperation or support to the Lebanese resistance; they even prohibit du'aa [prayer].
"This is a serious issue indeed. The last things we need in this critical situation are disruption and disunity," said Islam Online.
"True, differences do exist between Sunnis and Shi'ites, but these differences do not exclude the Shi'ites from the fold of Islam, nor do they excuse forsaking them in their struggle against the Israeli aggression."
The biggest response to the anti-Hizballah fatwas came from a group of 169 Sunni scholars from Muslim nations stretching from Bosnia to Indonesia, including 28 Saudis, who issued a statement at the weekend trying to undo what they saw as damage to Islamic unity.
Published by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood on Monday and punctuated with verses from the Koran, the statement called on all Arabs and Muslims to "offer all material and moral support" to the Lebanese and Palestinians, "giving this duty the top priority over all religious duties."
In a clear reference to the Sunni-Shi'ite division, the signatories urged "all of the [Islamic] nation's sects to close ranks in confrontation of its enemy who seeks to eliminate us."
It should not allow the sectarian violence in Iraq to spill over into other places, they said.
"When the nation is at war, we must be fully aware that sectarian feuds can exhaust our strength which opens the door wide for the enemy to impose its hegemony on us."
The scholars also called on Arab and Muslim governments to abandon delusions of peace with Israel.
"We must abide by the fatwa issued by the Muslim scholars who prohibit the recognition of the Zionist state, normalization of relations with it or giving up any inch of the Palestinian land. We should believe in the fact that this criminal enemy does not recognize the rights of others except under the pressures of jihad and resistance."
The scholars also said all Arab and Muslim government should base their relations with other nations, especially the United States, on those countries' stances towards "our issues, topped by Palestine."
In the early days of the latest Israeli-Hizballah conflict, the governments of Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia cautiously criticized the Lebanese group for its "adventurism" which triggered the fighting.
The comments were widely reported, and have frequently been cited as significant by the U.S. State Department and allied governments.
Many Mideast analysts argued that the stance taken by the Sunni trio was driven largely by their concerns about Iran and the emergence of a "Shi'ite crescent" from Iran to Lebanon. Since those early days, the three governments' public criticism of Hizballah has largely been dropped.
The Saudis' weekly cabinet meeting Monday agreed to stand with the Lebanese and Palestinian people and called for a strong and united Arab stance against "Israeli aggression."
In Egypt, the government-appointed mufti, Ali Gomaa, has voiced strong backing for Hizballah.
"Hizballah is defending its country and what it is doing is not terrorism," the state news agency MENA quoted him as saying on Friday.
Asked in a Time magazine interview for his opinion of Hizballah, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said "nobody should be allowed to establish a state within a state" but softened his criticism by saying the organization was "part and parcel of the Lebanese people's fabric." He also did not censure Hizballah for triggering the crisis, but condemned Israel for a "disproportionate response."
Iraq has seen the worst violence between Sunnis and Shi'ites. The minority Sunni Ba'athists dominated and oppressed the Shi'ite majority until U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The sectarian carnage there has been largely attributed to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq who was killed last June.
Zarqawi labeled Iraqi Shi'ites "rafidi" and described them in one published letter as "a sect of treachery and betrayal throughout history and throughout the ages."
The targeting of Shi'ites prompted al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri to send a letter to Zarqawi last October questioning the strategy.
Although "anyone with a knowledge of history" knew that Shi'ites were heretics and had a background of "cooperating with the enemies of Islam," al-Swahili said, many ordinary Muslims may not understand.
"Is the opening of another front now in addition to the front against the Americans and the government a wise decision?" he asked.
Last week, al-Zawahiri issued a videotape message urging all Muslims everywhere to join the jihad against Israel in Lebanon and Gaza.
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