Singapore’s Sunni and Shiite Muslims live in harmony: Imam

Muslims from the religion’s two major sects in Singapore have been living harmoniously with a sense of mutual respect for over a century, said Syed Hassan Al-Attas, a respected Sunni imam (Islamic leader).

The comments by the imam from Ba’alwie Mosque came amid tensions in the Middle East arising from the recent execution of Shiite cleric Nimr Baqr al-Nimr by Saudi Arabian authorities, which has highlighted a schism between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in the region.

“For Sunnis and Shiites in Singapore, the relationship is very deep, and has existed in Singapore for more than 100 years… we don’t identify ourselves as Sunnis or Shiites in Singapore, we identify ourselves as Muslims. We’ve never pointed fingers (at each other),” said Syed Hassan in a recent interview with Yahoo Singapore.

When asked about the perception of some Sunnis around the world that Shiites are not true believers, the imam disagreed.

“If they are not Muslims, how can the Saudi government approve their visas to enter Mecca? They are Muslims too,” he said.

He felt that the squabbles between Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and its allies, and Shiite-majority Iran are political in nature and have nothing to do with religion.

About 15 per cent of the Singapore population practice Islam, with the majority being Sunnis, according to the 2010 Census of Population statistics.

Of the 70 mosques in Singapore, only the Burhani Mosque at Hill Street belongs to the Shiites.

Photo: Ba’alwie Mosque on Lewis Street 

Historical background of Sunnis and Shiites

Sunni and Shiite Muslims believe in Prophet Muhammad and that he revealed the monotheistic religion to the people of Mecca. The key difference in the beliefs of the two sects is over the choice of the prophet’s immediate successor.

Sunnis believed that the successor should be Abu Bakar, who was the prophet’s father-in-law, while Shiites believe Ali ibn Abi Talib, who was the prophet’s son-in-law, should be chosen instead.

Both sects share similarities in terms of some of the obligations of Muslims, such as the performing of the Haj, fasting and reading of the Koran.

Sunnis and Shiites working to build the Muslim community

Syed Hassan said the believers from both sects in Singapore see each other as part of one religion and have joined together in building the Muslim community.

For instance, both Sunnis and Shiites in Singapore had worked together to establish the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS).  

“(During) the formation of MUIS in 1970, the legal adviser was the late (prominent Persian lawyer) Mohamed Javad Namazie, who is a Shiite.”

Other Shiites have also contributed to the Sunni-dominated Muslim community here, Syed Hassan pointed out.

“MKAC (Muslim Kidney Action Association) Ameerali (Abdeali), he’s a Shiite. Jumabhoy, the one from Scotts, Dr Kutubuddin, Mr Tayebali, and many others, are all Shiites who contributed to the betterment of Singapore, but nobody goes around saying ‘I’m Shiite, I’m Sunni’,” he said.

Ameerali Abdeali is the president of MKAC while the Jumabhoy family once owned property developer Scotts Holdings (now called The Ascott Limited) from 1975 to 1984.

J.M. Jumabhoy, who was the minister for commerce and industry between 1956 and 1959, was a Shiite too.  

A Shiite with deep roots in Singapore

Gholamreza Kashkooli, a 58-year-old Iranian Shiite who has lived in Singapore for 35 years, is happy to see Sunnis and Shiites in the country working together.

The relationship between the two sects is peaceful, contrary to how it is depicted in the media, Gholamreza told Yahoo Singapore.

“In Iran, the majority of them (citizens) are educated. They do not look into this matter and create problems between themselves,” said Gholamreza, the owner of an import and export company.

Gholamreza pointed out that there are many Sunni scholars in Iran, and there is no discord between the minority Sunnis and the majority Shiites in the country over the differences in their beliefs.

Sunnis and Shiites agree that there is “one God, Muhammad is a prophet, and the Koran”, he said.

Singapore’s strong legal framework protects religious harmony

Lawyer Noor Mohamed Marican, who is a Sunni Muslim, said the violence that was seen in the Middle East recently would never happen in Singapore.

He said the strong legal framework in Singapore is in place to prevent such a scenario. In any event, there is no reason for concern as the local Muslim community’s relations are cordial.

“You are given your space (to worship), so don’t abuse your space. If you are here to create disharmony, the law will come in,” said Marican in a recent interview with Yahoo Singapore.

“We are all Muslims living together; our fundamentals are the same,” he added.