Re-examining the place of textuality in Islamic Studies

From the Sidelines: Confronting Sunni Privilege in the Student Experience

Yasmeen Atassi

December 1, 2021

The Islamic Holy book, the Quran, and the hadiths (reports about the Prophet Muhammad) serve as sources of guidance for Muslims, regardless of sect or school of thought. But though the origins of Islam in divine revelation are generally accepted among different Muslim groups, points of divergence exist because of human interaction with the text. The need for self-justification particularly impacts how we read texts and internalize them. It is these points of divergence which have come to define the differences in religious understanding that have, over time, snowballed into seemingly irreconcilable sectarian differences.  

As a Muslim who has grown up surrounded by Sunni discourse, particular interpretations of scripture went personally unchallenged for most of my life. It was only after my exposure to the religious discourse of friends from other sects and to bodies of academic literature like Islamic feminism that I realized the human interpretative influence in creating sectarian divides. This human interpretation is shaped by historical struggles that allow some ideas and practices to be prioritized over others.  

My interest in the topic of sectarianism comes out of a personal relationship cultivated during my time in undergrad. During my first year in the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA), I naturally met and interacted with many Muslims. Though I shared a similar religious identity with many of them, some belonged to different legal schools (madhhabs), sects, and cultures. Before coming to the University of Toronto, I considered myself an open person. But in all honesty, I wasn’t inclined to explore or question these religious differences till I was faced with them. 

My first year at the MSA pushed me to embrace an Islamic identity more publicly and intentionally. I was raised as Muslim but did the “Islam” stuff in private. Becoming more present in the Muslim community on campus meant that I was putting my practices on display. This is likely an ordinary coming of age story in the University. But in these times when a Muslim identity connotes more than mere religious identity, it didn’t feel so ordinary.  

It was during this year that I met someone, also in the MSA, who forced me to come to terms with my own sense of faith and identity. They were Shiʿa and, understandably, knew much more about Shiʿa Islam than I did. As we dug deep into each other’s ideas and beliefs, I learned two things. First, I did not know enough to openly discuss religious thought across sectarian divides. And second, I directly benefited from this ignorance while living in a majority Sunni country (Saudi Arabia) and a majority Sunni community here in Canada.  

As a Sunni Muslim in these two contexts, I could afford to be ignorant precisely because of what we might call “Sunni privilege”. “Sunni privilege” exists through the construction of “Muslim public spaces” where Sunni Islam stands in for Islam in its entirety. Yes, I understood that there was a rift caused by political differences after the Prophet’s death, and yes, I understood that religious identity can be expressed differently, but my knowledge was not enough to allow for an appreciation of the Islam that lay at the periphery of my existence and religious experience as a Sunni Arab. Much of what I learned about Shiʿa Islam was guided by this person who so much loved their own religious identity that it made it nearly impossible not to want to love it as well. And the more I learned about their faith, the more I saw how religious minorities are pushed to the periphery by the same ignorance that I subconsciously had for so long. 

It was during a meeting in June 2019 that I realized how our MSA conversations privileged Sunni beliefs and norms of practice over others, and how this imbalance benefited the Sunni majority. These realizations unfolded during a conversation about a statement that would be published online on the Day of ʿAshūra. The conversation that day went something like this: 

Most of the executive team supported crafting a message in commemoration of Prophet Musa (Moses) and the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. For these members of the MSA, ʿAshūra held importance as a day of fasting that the Prophet Muhammad reportedly practiced. But this message left out an essential part of ʿAshūra’s significance. ʿAshūra is also the day of the Battle of Karbala, when the grandson of the Prophet, Husayn, was slain by the Umayyad caliph, Yazīd I. Shiʿa Muslims worldwide commemorate this history through various public events that retell the story of Husayn and his family’s heroism and martyrdom. The MSA was supposed to be a non-denominational organization that spoke for all Muslims, but the importance of ʿAshūra to our Shiʿa student body was quite quickly overlooked. In fact, the executives would have left out any mention of this Shiʿa perspective in their online statement had there not been a Shiʿa executive member present to hold them accountable for their privileged Sunni take on the issue.  

Of course, the discussion that followed was uncomfortable. Questioning privilege often is. I watched as a debate about the inclusion of the tragedy of Karbala into the statement ensued. Certain members were against crafting a message that explicitly described anything besides the Prophet’s practice of fasting and the wisdom behind it. In particular, one Sunni executive clashed with the Shiʿa executive who felt it was an obligation to mention the Battle of Karbala. My pulse raced. I found myself angry. I watched the debate take place between the executives, where the dominance of a majority took precedence over consideration for the beliefs of a Muslim who belonged to a different sect. The rest of the team sat quietly and listened to the back and forth as it got more heated, and more personal. The anger I felt at that moment of debate grew not out of displeasure with the reasoning of the majority, but rather with the expectation that the marginalized needed to defend themselves to express and honor their beliefs. My conscience sat uncomfortably knowing that a lack of proper representation was enough to allow a team of students, representing Islam on a campus of tens of thousands of students, to continue a certain, one-sided, limited narrative of Muslim thought and identity. To this day, I am angry that this executive member had to fight for their religious identity in a space they were told was welcoming to all Muslims, with no exceptions.  

Sunni privilege results from the fact that, in many Islamic settings, Sunni beliefs are the default and are accepted with minimal challenges. This allows for any sectarian divergence to be seen as inherently working against Islam. In the context of the MSA, this sense of divergence made it possible to exclude Shiʿa student members out of ignorance. What I witnessed that day did not represent an isolated instance of disagreement. Rather, it was emblematic of the imbalance between the Muslim majority and its sectarian margins.  

The distinction that scholars of Islamic feminism like Amina Wadud make between the eternal word of God and the cultural, and often patriarchal, way this word is implemented offers a parallel to the dynamic of religious authority present in sectarianism. Minority sects are pushed to the margin because of the power that one narrative has over others. Amina Wadud argues that there should be no human-imposed finality for the word of the Qur’an. [1]Hidayatullah, Aysha A. “PART II: Three Methods of Feminist Qur’anic Interpretation: 6: The Tawhidic Paradigm.” In Feminist Edges of the Qur’an, 127. New York, NY: Oxford … Continue reading This can be applied both to Islamic feminism and sectarianism as it breaks up the assumed authority of one narrative over others. Wadud’s philosophy helps clarify that to understand the split in exegesis between sects we must look beyond mere claims of religious accuracy and towards historical relations of power. [2]Hidayatullah, Aysha A. “PART II: Three Methods of Feminist Qur’anic Interpretation: 6: The Tawhidic Paradigm.” In Feminist Edges of the Qur’an, 131. New York, NY: Oxford … Continue reading  

At a global level, “Sunni privilege” can have violent consequences for sectarian minorities. The example of the Shiʿa Hazara community in Pakistan and Afghanistan demonstrates the stakes of the sectarian hierarchies in the Muslim world. As a religious and ethnic minority, the Hazara have been marginalized in those nations.[3]https://minorityrights.org/minorities/hazaras  In the past 12 months alone, a maternity ward and a girls’ school were targeted in bomb attacks in Afghanistan. [4]“MSF Afghan maternity ward to close after deadly gun attack,” BBC, June 16, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-53059022. Jennifer Deaton and Sheena McKenzie, “Death toll rises to 85 in … Continue reading

 These attacks were followed by targeted van attacks in Dasht-e-Barchi, a prominently Hazara district of Kabul.[5]“Seven killed in twin van bomb blasts in Afghanistan’s Kabul,” Al Jazeera, June 12, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/6/12/seven-killed-twin-van-bomb-blasts-afghanistan-kabul. Today, the Hazaras face increased danger as the authoritarian Taliban take control following the US withdrawal. Sunni militant authority exerts its power by violently reinforcing intolerant interpretations of non-Sunni understandings of Islam. 

My own experience and exposure to Islam at university has drastically changed my perception of sectarianism. I saw how cross-sectarian relations are characterized by power relations that depend upon assumptions about a singular meaning of scripture. The singularity of Islam in its textual understanding, I realized, is a product of human influence and a perception of Islam that is informed by our human experiences and cultures.  

Notes / References

1 Hidayatullah, Aysha A. “PART II: Three Methods of Feminist Qur’anic Interpretation: 6: The Tawhidic Paradigm.” In Feminist Edges of the Qur’an, 127. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014. https://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cdocument%7C3156875.
2 Hidayatullah, Aysha A. “PART II: Three Methods of Feminist Qur’anic Interpretation: 6: The Tawhidic Paradigm.” In Feminist Edges of the Qur’an, 131. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014. https://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cdocument%7C3156875.
3 https://minorityrights.org/minorities/hazaras
4 “MSF Afghan maternity ward to close after deadly gun attack,” BBC, June 16, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-53059022. Jennifer Deaton and Sheena McKenzie, “Death toll rises to 85 in Afghanistan girls’ school bomb attack,” CNN, May 10, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/05/09/asia/afghanistan-girls-school-attack-intl-hnk/index.html.
5 “Seven killed in twin van bomb blasts in Afghanistan’s Kabul,” Al Jazeera, June 12, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/6/12/seven-killed-twin-van-bomb-blasts-afghanistan-kabul.

Yasmeen Atassi

Yasmeen Atassi is a recent graduate from the University of Toronto. She holds a Bachelor of Science with a double major in History and Human Biology. Through her undergraduate studies, she focused on post-colonial history, particularly in the Middle East and Arab world. She hopes to pursue further studies in literature and Arab intellectual history. Yasmeen is currently a copyeditor for Reading Muslims and is the editor-in-chief for the upcoming volume of Islam in the City.

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