There could be another sect in Islam if the Sunni and Shiite communities ever set aside their longstanding differences: Sushi. Get it?
That was the running joke during an intrafaith dialogue held between the two factions Monday night before an audience of about 300 Muslims at the Islamic Educational Center of Orange County in Costa Mesa.
Sheikh Yassir Fazaga, a Sunni, and Imam Sayed Moustafa Al-Qazwini, a Shiite, led the conversation, which was tense at times, but filled with humor and mutual respect. Al-Qazwini acknowledged that the differences have led to more than theological schisms, with blood spilled around the world by warring Muslims who believe their way is right.
"But here in America, we should live differently, we should live Islamcally," Al-Qazwini said.
He compared some Muslims to former President George W. Bush in their intolerance for differing opinions, and paraphrased a famous Bush expression when he said many Muslims believe their brothers in the faith are either for them or against them.
The main schism between the two sects, with the Sunnis making up roughly 85 percent of all Muslims, was highlighted early in the talk, and continued to permeate the discussion, that is, whether Muhammad's successors as caliph -- the spiritual and temporal leaders after his death in 632 -- descended through Ali, his son-in-law.
Most Muslims wanted the community to choose the prophet's successor, while a small minority believed the successor should come from Muhammad's family. The Sunnis won and picked a successor to become the first caliph. Ali was the fourth caliph, and was assassinated. His son, al-Hussein, died in 661 in a massacre along with his fighters in Karbala, which is now Iraq. Shiites believe that later caliphs were usurpers, while Sunnis don't have a caliph.
Neither Fazaga nor Al-Qazwini backed down from their positions, but they stated their cases in a spirit of brotherhood. Fazaga said the point of the conversation was not to convince those who disagree, but to clarify why each side believes as they do, and hopefully bring understanding.
"Ignorance breeds fear," he said. "Shia know very little about Sunnis, Sunnis know very little about Shia, and as a result we become very afraid and fearful of the unknown."
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Still, he was often peppered with hard questions about his teaching, with a handful of attendees raising their voices at him, or shouting at each other.
Fazaga reminded the audience that a 1,400-year-old fight wouldn't be settled in a Costa Mesa meeting of Muslims on Memorial Day, and asked how the two groups could move forward.
"Practically speaking, if we were to all agree right now that Ali was to supposed be the calipha, what difference does it make at this point?" he said.