The Sunni/Shia Conversation With My Children.

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there will be more questions as they grow up, and as they mature, I’ll explain more of the details, and go deeper into historical references.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.

12 Responses to The Sunni/Shia Conversation With My Children.

  1. Anonymous 16 April 2012 at 10:42 pm #

    This has brought a smile on my face early in the morning.. =) Thank you for the amazing article.

  2. Ahmed 16 April 2012 at 11:17 pm #

    Discussions like this happen and are happening with parents and their kids. Some end in this way, some take a nasty extremist conclusion. We need to be very careful on how our children are fed information (whether in school, friends, cousins etc..). Extremist views within children is out there and we need to be very watchful of it, especially in the environment Bahrain is in at the moment.

    In fact, we as parents today probably have a much more challenging situation in explaining the situation compared to our parents. God help us when we face extremism, especially if we hear with our own children. But believe me, I certainly am hopeful there are more of you out there than those extremist parents and surely hope rational thought takes over eventually.

  3. Ahmed 17 April 2012 at 3:46 am #

    I’m wondering why did you bring up the Sunni / Shia issue if they didnt ask about the difference? I was raised by parents of both sects – they waited for me to ask before explaining the differences. Just curious what need you thought you were addressing?

  4. Ahmed 17 April 2012 at 3:50 am #

    I like what you said, apart from the fact that you asked them which way is “better” – you know that children always think their families way is “better” if you ask that question, right?

  5. MS 17 April 2012 at 4:00 am #

    If only there were a few more people like you in today’s world…we’d be living in a better place. Gandhi would’ve given you a 10 thumbs up! (I’m a big fan of Gandhi)

    Selma and Laith are lucky to have parents like you mashallah.

    Keep it up!

  6. Suhail 17 April 2012 at 8:25 am #

    Ahmed Y, like I said, I was listening to the radio and it came up. I was sure they heard all kind of things from their friends, so I wanted to bring it up. I disagree with your point about the “better” bit. I think children will believe what you instill in them, and how you lead by example.

    Thanks all for your comments and kind words, God bless and pray for Bahrain 🙂

  7. Muna Al Gurg 17 April 2012 at 10:02 am #

    Finally some sense – well done Suhail on explaining a sensitive topic in an open-minded, well balanced way. I would do the same.

  8. MRB 17 April 2012 at 12:52 pm #

    It was so very refreshing and commendable to see a Bahraini man and father being so gentle and tolerant in teaching his children about Islam. However, I was taken aback by your assertion of “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.” Perhaps I’ve been away from Bahrain for too long but I don’t agree with corporal punishment, there are many other teachable ways to discipline children without instilling fear nor inflicting physicial violence on them. So I’m wondering if such actions may ultimately negate your tolerant gentle demeanor towards your children and undo your teachings? Actions do after all speak louder than words. Please don’t respond harshly or defensively to my feedback, I meant it only as a positive self-improvement/growth criticism if you choose to acknowledge it a such or perhaps just agree to disagree a la cultural differences. All the very best!

  9. Shayesteh 17 April 2012 at 9:58 pm #

    Thank you for the article. It is very sad how divided Sunni and She’a
    have become. In Bahrain, where I used to live, I had an English friend who was Christian and was married to a Bahraini who was a Sunni.
    Their daughter fell in love with a Sunni boy and they got married. The father of the daughter put the boy in jail for 6 months and his own daughter for 3 days. He ordered them to divorce. The young couple with broken hearts were both killed a few years later. In Pakistan attacks on She’a mosques and revenge on Sunni mosques is very common, So many people get killed there. Why such a division for Muslims. Why can we not just accept Shea and Sunni as Muslims.

  10. Ahmed 18 April 2012 at 6:46 am #

    Maybe best to keep your kids away from Mohamed Khalid!

  11. Suhail 23 April 2012 at 5:30 am #

    I have a rather sad follow up story that I want to share, which is related to the sectarian divide we are suffering from nowadays.

    This happened in the cemetery this morning, right after we buried my aunt Lulwa, God rest her soul.

    My (Sunni) friend and his son were sitting in the car, and he asked his 8 year old “who’s you least favourite villain?” (The question was in a Wimpy Kid book if I’m not mistaken).

    His son answered quickly and without hesitation “the Shias baba!” My friend was shocked! “Why do you say this habibi?” he asked.

    “Because they burn tires and block the roads!” he replied. It took my friend a long time to try to explain that Shias were not villains. He also told his son that there was going to be a follow up conversation to this.

    This is a very dangerous phenomenon, and I hope my son can undo the damage that was done in his son’s private school. But just imagine the hundreds (if not thousands) of similar situations that are happening all over our island.

    It also shows that, in my opinion, the road blocking and tyre burning tactic is extremely damaging to the country and counter productive.

  12. Ali Hatam 25 June 2012 at 5:58 am #


    This is exactly how I was brought up by my parents. However as I got older and had a lot more exposure to the beliefs of the Shia, as a more learned muslim, I was unable to conclude that I could just tell my child that Shia and Sunni are just like different styles of karate. There are too many things in popular Shia belief that are considered apostasy.

    When it comes to our religion I strongly believe that it must be protected and not diluted to sound nice. We should put our trust in Allah and not follow our desires or intentions no matter how positive we think they may be. Teaching a child that the Shia are similar is wrong, and can actually be very dangerous.

    How can we call ourself muslim and we don’t condemn the Shia in front of our children? Making du’a to other then Allah is considered shirk. Insulting the sahaaba (may Allah be pleased with them) is considered apostasy by all the recognised classical and modern scholars in Islam. I understand that not all Shia’s believe or do this however it is part of the “Shia” fundamental belief. I am also not naive to the fact that many shia’s in Bahrain are purely shia by name/ background and when it comes to Aqeedah they are muslim. However these are a minority.



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