Shaikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi’s Approach to Shia-Sunni Dialogue

The Qatar-based Shaikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi is considered to be one of the world’s leading Islamic scholars. He is known for his willingness to address vital and contemporary issues in a spirit of genuine dialogue.  He disapproves extremist interpretations of the faith.  Instead, he pleads for dialogue among Muslims, as mandated by the Qur’an and the Prophetic traditions.


Relations between Shias and Sunnis have been strained for much of Muslim history. Many Shias and Sunnis see each other as apostates or even as ‘enemies’ of Islam. In some countries, such as in parts of Pakistan today, Shia-Sunni conflict has taken seriously violent forms. Although in many cases there are crucial political and economic factors that fuel this conflict, the sectarian dimension acts as a powerful factor in further exacerbating Shia-Sunni differences. Halting efforts have been made in the past, and continue to be made today, to promote Shia-Sunni dialogue. However, on the whole, it can be safely said, most conservative and ‘traditional’ Ulema have been reluctant, if not openly hostile, to any suggestion of genuine Shia-Sunni dialogue. Literature branding the sectarian ‘other’ as inveterate foes of Islam continues to be produced and distributed, mostly, although not entirely, penned by conservative Ulema. Although such literature has been in existence for centuries, in recent years it appears to have been given a major boost through active sponsoring by certain states in order to promote their own interests.

Given the vehement opposition to the Shias among many, if not most, Sunni ‘Ulema, Shaikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s attitude towards Shias is particularly remarkable. Two fatwaas recently issued by him relating to the Shias (accessible on the website suggest his serious willingness to engage in genuine dialogue with Shias and to tolerate differences, within broad limits, among Muslims. The first of these fatwas deals with the issue of intermarriage between Shias and Sunnis. The Shaikh responds to the question by explaining the conditions for an ideal marriage. ‘Matrimonial life’, he says, ‘should be based on mutual understanding between the spouses’. ‘[H]eated arguments and continuous debates’, he says, would threaten to ruin the marriage, leading to ‘battle between the spouses’. One possible cause of serious conflict between spouses could be, the Shaikh says, if one of the partners, being a Sunni (here the Shaikh does not identify the person as such) ‘supports Abu Bakr’ and the other (presumably a Shia) ‘defends Ali’. The Shaikh clearly says that he does not regard such a marriage as forbidden (haram) but, yet, he states, ‘I don’t prefer it’. This is because it would inevitably lead to conflict and eventual martial breakdown. He says that just as a Muslim man is allowed to marry a Christian woman, he could also marry a Shia woman. Yet, although he considers it legally permissible for a Sunni man to marry a Shia woman, he argues that such a marriage is ‘not the ideal one’. However, he further qualifies his statement by stressing that if the Shia woman is a ‘moderate Shi’ite’, prays in the mosque along with Sunnis and ‘does not support conflict with the Sunnis’, a Sunni man can marry her if he ‘really wants to’. Interestingly, he adds in conclusion, ‘It goes without saying that the above fatwa is also applicable in case the man is a Shi’ite and the woman is a Sunni’.

The Shaikh’s second fatwa deals in greater detail with Shia-Sunni relations, particularly addressing the question of dialogue between the two groups. The fatwa, issued in March 2004 in reply to a question put to the Shaikh by a certain Husain from Iraq, bears the revealing title, ‘Overlooking Differences Between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims’. In reply to the question, the Shaikh begins by highlighting the importance that Islam places on Muslim brotherhood. This, he suggests, points to the urgent need for Shia-Sunni dialogue. He then lays down certain broad rules for Sunnis to follow in dialoguing with Shias. The most important rule, he says, is to ‘concentrate on the points of agreement’, not on areas of difference. Of the former, the most salient are those that deal with ‘the fundamental issues of religion’. On the other hand, he suggests, most of the points of difference between Shias and Sunni have to do with ‘minor’ issues, and hence must not be allowed to become an obstacle in the process of dialogue.

The Shaikh then discusses in detail the areas of broad agreement between Shias and Sunnis, which he suggests must form the basis of meaningful dialogue and efforts to build unity between the two. He argues that both Shias as well as Sunnis share many fundamental beliefs, such as faith in one God, in Muhammad as the ‘Seal of the Prophets’, in all the heavenly scriptures and prophets, and in the Qur’an as God’s word. Shias as well as Sunnis agree in the matter of the ‘five pillars’ of Islam – the testimony to the oneness of God’s and to the Prophet Muhammad as being God’s messenger, the specified prayers, Zakat, Hajj and fasting in the month of Ramadan. The Shaikh admits that Shias and Sunnis differ with regard to some rulings related to these ‘pillars’, but then adds that such difference of opinion is ‘something that is quite normal’. In contrast to several other Sunni scholars, he refrains from magnifying real or imaginary differences between the Shias and Sunnis. Instead, he goes so far as to argue that the differences between Shias and Sunnis in the ways in which the ‘five pillars’ are understood are ‘like the scholarly difference in opinion among the Sunni schools themselves, such as the Hanbali, Hanafi and Maliki schools’.

In his effort to bring Shi-as and Sunnis closer the Shaikh approvingly refers to the well-known Sunni scholar Imam Ash-Shawakani, who, he writes, ‘referred to eminent scholars of jurisprudence among the Sunnis and Shi’ites on equal footing’. The Shaikh maintains that in matters of jurisprudence, on issues concerning both ‘worship’ and ‘transactions’, there is probably no ‘crucial difference’ between Shias and Sunnis. He admits that Shias do not recognize the Sunni books of Hadith or traditions attributed to the Prophet. Yet, he also claims that most of the ‘authentic’ traditions contained in these books are, in fact, considered as authentic by Shias, either as reports narrated by sources they consider trustworthy or else as points of view of their Imams, whom they regard as infallible. On the whole, then, he concludes, ‘there is a great deal of agreement’ between Shia and Sunni jurisprudence, and this he considers as ‘the most important point’ to be kept in mind when approaching the question of Shia-Sunni dialogue and unity. Both forms of jurisprudence, he says, depend on the same sources, the Qur’an and the practice (Sunnah) of the Prophet, and both are said to share the common aim of ‘establishing Allah’s justice and mercy among people’.

As the Shaikh sees it, intra-Muslim rivalry, particularly between Shias and Sunnis, only plays into the hands of forces that are inimical to Muslims as a whole. ‘All Muslims should be alert’, he warns, ‘against the schemes and plots planned by the enemies of Islam’. ‘They want us to disagree and fight each other in the name of belief’, he says, and appeals to Shias and Sunnis ‘not to give them this chance’.

  Given the nature of the institution of the fatwa, the Shaikh does not deal at length with the theological (as opposed to simply jurisprudential) differences between Shias and Sunnis, but instead, simply provides an opinion in response to specific questions put to him. Naturally, for a meaningful dialogue between Shias and Sunnis, issues of theology as well as history cannot be ignored. Yet, the Shaikh’s fatwas make clear; dialogue can only take off when both partners are willing to recognize what they share in common. As the Shaikh points out, there is much that Sunnis and most Shia share, and this must form the basis for developing a genuine Islamic ecumenism.