So, there I was this morning, sitting in the car with my children, driving them to school. BBC Arabic radio was just finishing a section on a scathing report issued by a human rights organisation on Bahrain (I think it was Amnesty International).
Anyway, the words Sunni and Shia came up several times, and I thought this was a perfect opportunity to bring up the Sunni/Shia topic with my kids. With me in the car were Selma, 10 years, and Laith, 8 years.
I started the conversation by asking “do you guys know the difference between Sunnis and Shias?”
My daughter knew a little, but my son was clueless. Since I teach my kids kickboxing on the weekend, I used a martial arts analogy to explain the difference. Here’s what I said:
“You know what karate is right? Well, there are different types of karate like Shotokan, Kyokushin, and Wado-Ryu, but they are all called Karate. Well Islam has different types or branches too, and the main two are Sunni and Shia. And within these two branches, are several sub-branches.”
I then asked them if they knew what sect we were. My son did not know, but my daughter answered “Sunni!”
“That’s right” I responded. “And which sect is better?” I followed.
“Neither,” my daughter responded. I was relieved by this response, it seems my wife and I are doing a good job in making sure they are open minded and respectful. I reminded them that the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) said that there is no difference between an Arab and a foreigner except int heir devotion. I told them that we don’t know who’s right or wrong, and that we have to be respectful of all sects and faiths.
“But what’s the difference baba?” They asked. Here I kept the answer really basic, and avoided going into the intricacies that happened over 1,400 years ago.
“Well, Sunni’s pray like this” I put by hands in the prayer position, right hand over left, “and Shias like this.” I kept my hands by my side.
“Also,” I added, “Shias pray on a small stone” [I didn't know how else to translate turba]
“What was the Prophet baba, Sunni or Shia?” They asked. “Well,” I responded, “in those days they were only called Muslims. But both Sunnis and Shias today consider him on their side.”
That seems to have satisfied them for now. I’m sure there will be more questions as they grow up, and as they mature, I’ll explain more of the details, and go deeper into historical references.
Allow me to take a moment to talk about the way we raise the kids from a religious perspective. I consider my self quite religious, but I also consider myself liberal and open minded. I know some really liberal families tell their kids that “we are neither Sunni nor Shia, just Muslims.” Though I find this admirable, I do not subscribe to that way of raising children. There’s nothing wrong with raising them a certain way, and teaching them to pray in a certain way – as long as they are respectful of other sects – and religions for that matter.
We’re raising our kids as respectful, open minded Sunnis. But if I ever catch them saying anything negative about another sect or faith, they’ll get a slap on the face.
Back to the car ride…
As we’re driving and talking, the subject turned to protests. “Baba, why do the protesters protest on the street, why don’t they go somewhere far or talk on the radio?”
“Well, if they go far no one will seem them. The protestors want as many people to see them as possible, so they go on the streets. As for the radio, they’re not allowed to go on the radio here, but they use the internet a lot.”
“Why do they right things on people’s houses?” [Referring to the graffiti one can see all over Bahrain]
“I guess they want people to see. But it’s not nice to write things on peoples’ houses…”
” Yeah then the police has to come and clean it up.”
The conversation lasted almost the entire ride to school. We concluded the conversation talking about tear gas. They had heard about it – and they claim to have smelt it – but did not know where it came from. So I gave them a summary of what it was and how and why it was being used. I explained in a neutral and calm way. I told them that the Police in Bahrain and other countries shoot tear gas at protesters to break them up and send them home. I did not think any more details were necessary at this point.
I hope that in some small way, this conversation helped our beautiful country. If enough families teach their children respect and acceptance, we can counter the sectarianism and hatred that has engulfed this small yet wonderfully warm island kingdom.
Thanks for reading and talk to you soon.