Different in Jurisprudence but not Values: A Snapshot of Sunni-Shia Marriages in Singapore

Most Muslims today belong to the Sunni sect, with a significant minority of Muslims comprising Shias. Intra-faith relations within Islam is a topic that has sparked polemical debates within Muslim communities. In some Muslim-majority countries, anti-Shia sentiment is prevalent and propagated by hardline politicians and religious Sunni conservatives. Raids against gathering Shias during Ashura, a day when Shia Muslims mourn the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), are not unheard of. Fortunately, such overt hostility against Shias in Singapore has not been reported or do not happen, at least to my knowledge. Yet, this does not mean that anti-Shia sentiments in Singapore do not exist. Marriage, an intimate domain of social life, allows us to see how Sunnis and Shias think about their faith amidst these sentiments. In this piece, I elucidate on three factors, based on interviews with Sunni-Shia couples, that help explain why and how Sunni-Shia marriages take place in Singapore. I also provide some personal reflections based on a discussion I was invited to by the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA) in January 2022 to speak on the same topic.

Finding Sunni-Shia couples was not easy to do for two reasons. Most Muslims in Singapore are Sunni. This demographic fact alone makes Sunni-Shia marriages small in number. Secondly, the presence of anti-Shia sentiment in Singapore, as attested to by Johari[1], suggests that declaring oneself as Shia may be precarious. Moreover, informing a Sunni majority community that you are in an intra-faith marriage would be anathema to an exclusivist Sunni paradigm that Sunnis should only marry each other. However, I was eventually able to reach out to a few couples; a member of the Muslim community involved in intra- faith work suggested some couples to me through his own contacts. In the end, I spoke with four couples.

Shias in Singapore grew up with or currently live in a Sunni-majority Muslim society in Singapore. They are used to interacting with Sunnis. Shia Islam, on the other hand, is not as familiar to some Sunnis. The prime difference between Sunnis and Shias is their belief in who should have succeeded the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as leader of the Muslim community. Yet, differences such as these can only be given meaning by Muslims themselves, in this case the intra-faith couples. One of the couples I interviewed were Hussein (Shia) and Fatimah (Sunni). They felt strongly about individuals being honest before they committed themselves to a Sunni-Shia marital union. Hussein opined that:

“You must first be very frank with each other. Where do you want to bring the family to? Definitely, there will be opposition. Either from family or friends. But I would say that through these marriages, you build trust. I think now, I’m closer to her parents. Very open. Even [for] my friends who are going through an intra-faith marriage. Maybe at the start, their family opposed it but now, they’re close to their in-laws. I don’t think intra-faith marriage is impossible. It’s just a stereotype you have before marriage. Even now, between me and the uncles and all, they don’t talk about it anymore. So, the stereotype is there but when they actually [get to] know the people and understand each other, they just say, “Eh, these people are nothing. They’re just our fellow Muslims.” So my advice is always get to know the person first.”

Fatimah and Hussein knew that jurisprudential differences between Sunnis and Shias could become a thorny issue if they marry since they had different interpretations of their religion. Moreover, their prospective in-laws may not have been comfortable with being close to a family that interprets Islam differently. Hussein’s simple yet powerful statement assuaged this concern: “Islam is for all the Mazhabs (schools of jurisprudence).”

A child of a Sunni-Shia couple may humorously be referred to as a ‘Sushi’, a combination of ‘Sunni’ and ‘Shia’. A Sunni-Shia marriage inevitably brings to the fore the question of how they would inculcate religious practice in their children. In other words, would their child be raised according to the Sunni tradition, Shia tradition, or both? In discussions with my interlocutors, the topic of children was not such a divisive issue as I initially thought. Khairul (Sunni) and Maryam (Shia) initially broke off their engagement because Khairul’s mother did not agree with Maryam’s beliefs. Although Khairul eventually convinced his mother that Maryam was no different from other Muslims in terms of the five pillars of Islam, his mother is still pleased today when she sees her granddaughters praying the Sunni way. Maryam and Khairul’s two girls, aged 12 and 15, are inquisitive children who display a curiosity over the differences in Sunni and Shia beliefs. Maryam shared with me an example of their inquisitiveness:

“My elder one is just questioning certain things now. I’m just providing her with information and when the time comes, she can choose. I think she’s more upset with the matam[2]. It’s the same thing as how I feel. They (Shias) cry [about] things weren’t provided for at Karbala but at the end of the majlis (ceremony) we’re served with all kinds of food. There are certain things where my girls were questioning and saying that the Shias in Singapore are being so-called pretentious. She says we can cry but at the end of the majlis we shouldn’t celebrate. There shouldn’t be a feast.”

Maryam and Khairul taught their daughters how to pray in both the Sunni and Shia ways. The girls could decide for themselves which sect to follow once they reached a certain age, although both parents admitted that they hoped their daughters would eventually follow their own traditions. Maryam and Khairul did not impose their individual belief systems on their children. They were more concerned about making sure their children are aware of both the Sunni and Shia traditions.

From the respondents’ point of view, the negative, or at best, wary reaction to a Sunni-Shia pairing reflected a lack of education on the diversity of the Islamic tradition. Marriage could constitute a form of informal education for Sunni members of a family not familiar with Shi’ism. At the formal level, more needed to be taught at religious classes when teaching about Shi’ism. Fatimah recounted how the portrayal of Shi’ism at religious classes was superficial. In some classes, the teachers would just portray Shias doing the matam. Education is needed to move beyond the popular imagery of Shias. Muslims have to be familiar with their beliefs, their jurisprudence, and their practices.

Another couple I interviewed were Azman (Sunni) and Zainab (Shia). They were not too concerned about the fact that they were each dating an adherent of a different sect. Azman was aware of the misinformation about the Shia community. He also knew there was a lot of diversity within that same community. He was keen on understanding how Zainab practised Shi’ism. Based on what she explained to him about Shi’ism, he felt confident about his relationship with her. Zainab grew up around Sunnis her whole life in Singapore. Before she met Azman, she dated Sunnis since majority of Muslim men in Singapore are Sunnis. She knew early on that dating a Sunni, in an environment where there was a lack of awareness of Shi’ism, was going to be difficult. She went through a phase in her life where she “just wanted to meet Shia men”. However, while she did realise Sunnis and Shias were different, what was more important to her was one’s religious views, ethics, philosophy and orientation towards Islam. Azman and Zainab had a shared ethical and philosophical orientation towards Islam. One of Zainab’s formative impressions of Sunnis in Singapore was that they did not know much about Shias or Shi’ism:

“I went to a Sunni madrasah in primary school, [and] in secondary school – obviously my Malay/Muslim friends are Sunnis, right? For me, my impression of Sunni in my early 20s [was] I found that Sunnis were generally quite ignorant about – I mean, in Singapore – sectarianism. They don’t know that there are Shias, or that within the Sunni schools, there are different mazhabs.”

Zainab felt that there was an arbitrary link between being a Malay and being a Sunni Shafi’i in the Malay world. Never mind the ignorance about Shias; some Sunnis did not realise that there were non-Shafi’i schools of jurisprudence within Sunni Islam. She also lamented the perception Sunnis had that to convert to Shi’ism was wrong. This misperception was rooted in a lack of awareness of the history of Islam in Southeast Asia. For example, Shias were said to be present among the Malay community in modern Southeast Asia. An example would be the Cham people, an ethnic Malay minority in what is now Cambodia and Vietnam[3].

While I elaborated on the above points during my talk with RIMA, the broader theme of the talk was to emphasise the importance of talking about the lived experiences of Sunni-Shia couples as their narratives have not been paid much heed to. Hence, I positioned my study within the scholarship on Sunni-Shia relations that tends to focus more on the history and geopolitics of Sunni-Shia relations.

The discussion began with some challenges that the couples faced during courtship. I said that the acceptance of the Sunni’s parents towards the Shia partner and Shi’ism in general was more of an obstacle than the jurisprudential difference between the Sunni-Shia couple. The latter issue was mitigated by the fact that the couples shared certain traits and beliefs that made their marriage work. In response to a question about whether the couples faced institutional barriers, such as from the Registry of Muslim Marriages, I shared an anecdote of a couple whose parents insisted on having their own qadi (solemniser) preside over the nikah (marriage). In the end, both qadis were present at the nikah. I highlighted that this wasn’t so much an institutional barrier as an issue of which Islamic authority should be consulted. All in all, I wanted to emphasise that being Sunni or Shia only mattered as much as the couple attached meaning to these identities.

I also discussed the topic of children and how Sunni-Shia couples approach parenting. There wasn’t a particular model for how the couples raised their children. For the couples that do have children, I mentioned that they taught the children the basic tenets of Islam, the Sunni tradition, and the Shia tradition. They didn’t raise them to be either a Sunni or Shia, even if the parents privately hoped that they would adhere to the same tradition as theirs. I also shared that parents were concerned about the world their children would grow up in, especially with the propagation of online anti-Shia discourses.

Next, there was a discussion on how the government could play a role in managing Sunni-Shia relations. While I am not aware of current regulations or regulations that the Muslim community in Singapore thinks should be put in place, I explained that what was more important was rhetoric rather than regulations. It is more important that intrafaith groups such as the Muslim Collective Singapore continue doing the work they do so as to foster mutual understanding between Sunnis and Shias. An audience member wondered how such an understanding could be created when the Shia population in Singapore is so small to begin with. I responded that the number of Shias was not a factor, but rather how we approached and interacted with Shias. Treating them as we would other Muslims is more important. The state of relations between the two groups will and should always be a concern regardless of both populations.

I also brought up how couples shared broader concerns about the state of Islamic education in Singapore. For example, I mentioned that two of the couples in my study felt that more could be done in the madrasahs to educate students on the Shia tradition. This included not just imparting knowledge about Shia rituals but about their beliefs, their socio-political life, and their history in Singapore. As a way forward, I suggested that the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) look into the syllabi of the madrasahs and introduce reading materials that focus on these aspects of Shi’ism.

At the end of the discussion, I suggested that future studies on Sunni-Shia relations be conducted. One was a study on ‘Sushi’ children and how they feel about their religious identity as compared to their parents and grandparents. Another suggestion was a content analysis of the curricula in the madrasahs to understand what is being taught about Shias and Shi’ism in Singapore. ⬛

1 Johari, N. F. Fearing the Enemy Within: A Study of Intra-Muslim Prejudice Among Singaporean Muslims. National University of Singapore, Master’s Thesis. 2016
2 Matam is an Arabic term referring to the act of mourning. In Shia Islam, the term denotes acts of mourning and grieving for the martyrs of Karbala, a city in Iraq where the Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) grandson was brutally  murdered by the Umayyad ruler Yazid I
3 Marcinkowski, C. Historical Dimensions of the Shi’a in Southeast Asia. Middle East Institute. 2013, July 17. Available at: https://education.mei.edu/content/historical-dimensions-shia-southeast-asia


Syed Imad Alatas is currently pursuing his PhD in Sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His main research interests are in gender and religion, topics on which he has written for Singaporean and Malaysian publications.

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