By Hisham Hellyer

Tomorrow, BBC World will air the Doha Debates filmed a few days ago, on the motion “The Sunni-Shia conflict is damaging Islam’s reputation as a religion of peace”. It’s a timely topic; and a very time-sensitive topic, because it is a question that can only be asked now. Not because the Sunni-Shia divide is a new phenomenon: it is an old, historical schism that emerged as a political division, which then became religious. But it is now that the political has really caused it to be so monumental.

I admit that, but I spoke against the motion in Doha, because the damage to Islam’s reputation is more about the sensationalism of the media, and focusing on Muslim violence in general, rather than Sunni-Shia violence. But the motion brought up another question for me. In the midst of the Sunni-Shia conflict that exists in some pockets of the Muslim world, what are we to make of what Islam is or what Islam is not?

Let us be clear. Muslims do not agree on everything. Sunnis have their four, recognised schools of law, and the Shia have their own tradition of establishing orthodoxy. Within both groupings, there is the concept of respect for differences of opinion, which are to be celebrated and cherished within each of the groups. In inter Sunni-Shia discussions, the concept takes a different tone. The differences are grudgingly tolerated, but with an important proviso: both groupings are Muslim.

The theologians of Sunni Islam long ago established that the “relied upon position” for Sunnis is that the Shia are in fact a Muslim community. That status of “relied upon” is a particular type of orthodox stance; one that is difficult to determine, owing to the diversity within Sunni Islam. But on this issue, it was established, and it has been part of the historical orthodoxy that so characterises Sunni Islam. On the Shia side, the same generally occurred: Sunnis might be mistaken, theologians said, and their views on Islam might be wrong, but they were still Muslims.

With the growth of the Wahhabi movement in the Najd of Saudi Arabia, tensions became more pronounced (not just for Shia, but other non-Wahhabi Muslims), but never to the point of extreme violence as we see now. Even the most puritanical of Wahhabi rulers did not ban Shia coming to Mecca and Madina on pilgrimage.

A few years ago, it became clear to the leaders of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan that the separation that Sunnis and Shia had mutually embraced was in danger of being abused by outside parties to justify violence, as had happened with Christians. Unlike Christendom, however, where truly religious wars took place, the Muslim world took an unprecedented step. Seeing al Qa’eda’s ideology as a threat to the co-existence of Sunnis and Shia in Iraq and elsewhere, Muslim scholars, Sunni and Shia, came together to thwart that ideology.

Those scholars created a platform where hundreds of the most renowned scholars of the Muslim world, Sunni and Shia, including Abu Dhabi’s al-Habib Ali al-Jifri of the Tabah Foundation, decided “enough is enough”. They declared that Sunnis and Shia were Muslim, and that violence should never occur between them. It was a united platform to defeat the murderous nihilism al Qa’eda was peddling. It was called the Amman Message, and was signed in July 2005. Ever since, hundreds more have signed the declaration online at

A couple of months later, al Qa’eda declared an all-out war on the Shia of Iraq: unprecedented in Muslim history. A couple of months after that, it targeted Amman in a spectacular massacre of innocents. But it failed to stop the momentum. Many around the world signed the original Amman Message, and developed their own local versions. Political leaders in the Sunni and Shia worlds spoke clearly, whether from nominally Wahhabi Saudi Arabia or staunchly Shia Iran: the two may differ from each other, but they will not allow anyone, whether al Qa’eda or anyone else, Muslim or non-Muslim, to pit Sunnis against Shia, or vice versa.

Personally, I am not particularly interested in whether Islam is defined as a religion of peace, or a religion of war, or anything else for that matter. What is important is that we get qualified and authoritative definitions. Many are trying to claim the authority to do that: American pundits; radical extremists; take your pick. But what we have to do is realise who already has that authority.

The definitions are elaborated by Islam’s own specialists: its scholars, theologians, jurists and spiritualists, who renewed their attitudes through the Amman Message and said to each other: “We may differ with each other, but those differences should never become the cause of violence.” Al Qa’eda in Iraq responded by trying to impose their own religious authority.

For all of us, the choice is simple. Do we admit that violent radicals can define Islam by their murderous rampages? Or will we send a message to them that no matter how much they try, in Amman, in the Muslim world, in New York, in London, in Madrid, and beyond, criminal extremists will never have the authority to define anything?

I know what I say to them: “You will lose. Civilisation will win.”

The first airing of the Doha Debates will be on BBC World on Saturday May 3 at 10.10am.

Dr H A Hellyer is a fellow of the University of Oxford, and founder-director of the Visionary Consultants Group (, a Muslim world-West relations consultancy.