This dialogue is composed of two strands: tradition and history. Tradition accepts history on its own terms, dictates to it at the theological/creedal level, and insists that certain events happened just as the tradition says they did. History, on the other hand, is full of differing accounts. Thus Muslims historians have always struggled with the authenticity of the narrative being told. They try to carry out this difficult task not by hiding what happened, but by presenting all of the differing accounts of the event being analyzed.
Unfortunately for the tradition, history does not bear out the asserted reality of a “unified” Muslim community. Such a reality has never existed, not even exist during the Prophet’s own lifetime, for both Makkan and Madinan societies were based on tribal, familial, and other affiliations. These did not just disappear when Muhammad began his mission. In fact, one of his major tasks was to transform this traditional culture into the moral/spiritual culture outlined in the Qur’an and manifested in his own behavior and lifestyle.
But since tradition is closely linked with one’s authentic/reliable position in the community, Muslims teach it (not history) to their children tradition. And, Sachedina further contended, this oversight is one of the main reasons for the current sectarianism. But even when Muslims do read such a text, they often do not know when it was composed or compiled. It is up to historians to provide such information.
Using anecdotal information based on his extensive travels in the Muslim world, he proclaimed that an “artificial division of knowledge” exists between the Sunnis and Shi’as due to a lack of contact with each school’s texts and traditions. All of the Sunni books can be found in Iranian seminaries and libraries, for the minority Shi’a school has to understand the Sunnis in order to respond. However, this is not the case in the Muslim-majority Sunni (Arab) world. How, he wondered out loud, can there be any serious intra-faith dialogue if all participants are not equally knowledgeable? This fits in very well with his definition of dialogue: “an attempt to defeat ignorance.”
One outcome of the lack of knowledge on both sides is that its members focus on the “sore spots”: (1) the Shi’a don’t follow the Companions’ sunnah, curse them and Aisha, and lie (i.e., taqiyyah) and (2) the Sunnis consider Mu’awiya as equal to Ali; are sympathetic to Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis, and the Wahhabis; and regard the Shi’a as non-Muslims. For any attempted intra-faith dialogue to succeed, both parties have to get beyond these ideological attitudes by dealing with each other in “the language of respect” so they can deal with the “real issues in the field.”
He suggested several ways forward: one has to understand the “psychology of victimhood” to appreciate why the “other” holds certain views, realize that no one alive today is in any way responsible for any historical injustice or wrong, and accept that it is time to pursue “restorative justice” and forget about “retributive justice.” He opined that the first step has to come from the majority community and that both sides have to compromise.
Audience members made many points, among them the following: