Pakistan has found itself involved in more issues than its policymakers would perhaps like, and certainly at this point they would find themselves stretched very thin. As the centre of attention would be the problem of keeping the Indo-Pak peace initiative on track despite the militant attack on the Pathankot air base. However, there is the related issue of the Afghan peace talks, in which the militants, Pakistan and India all take interest, even though they are to be between the Afghan government and the Taliban. There is also the friction between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which not only shows the sectarian fault line in the Middle East, but also threatens Pakistan deeply. While all this is happening, there is the sight of the solid bread-and-butter issue of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor being converted into a political football by provincial governments trying to get a larger share of the $46 billion the CPEC is to bring into Pakistan.

Perhaps the most dangerous problem is that of the Iran-Saudi dispute. At the root of the dispute is a sectarian tension that flows because the two countries have placed themselves at the head of their respective ‘sides’, though those ‘sides’ probably exist more in the orientalist view of the Muslim world. American and European commentators on Islam probably find it convenient to divide the Muslim world into Shia and Sunni, corresponding to the Catholic-Protestant divide in Christianity itself, which they would be familiar with. At one level, the identification of Shias with Iran and Sunnis with Saudi Arabia goes back to the original conquest of Persia by the Muslims. However, it is worth noting that the Ayatullahs took over from the Shah in a struggle that was seen then, in 1979, as a struggle of Islam with disbelief, not of Shia ayatullahs versus a Sunni Shah. It could not, because Reza Shah was as Shia as the rest of the vast majority of his countrymen.

While post-revolutionary Iran has been decidedly Shia, it should not be ignored that the rule of the Ayatullahs has meant that Sharia has been made the supreme law. It has been at the same time that Saudi Arabia has emerged as the leader of Sunni Islam. This seems something of a paradox, because the Saudi dynasty is Ahle Hadith. The Ahle Hadith claim freedom from the four Sunni schools of thought.

However, they have gained much currency because Saudi money has gone towards likeminded madressas.

It should be noted that within the Sunnis, there are also currents of reformism, which involve going back to the basics, of removing accretions from the pristine faith of the first converts. The Ahle Hadith of Saudi Arabia, the Muwahidoon, as they like calling themselves, represent one of these attempts at reform. The Saudis may claim to be beyond the four schools, but they generally tend to follow the Hanbali school, which is actually the smallest of the four Sunni schools. The Arab world tends to being overwhelmingly Shafii, as are Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, while the Maliki school prevails in Africa, both Subsaharan and Saharan. In the Turkic world and the Subcontinent, Muslims are generally Hanafi.

However, in the Subcontinent, now divided into Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, there is a significant Persian influence, and significant Shia minorities. It is here then, that any Saudi- Iranian conflict will be most deeply felt. While there are significant reform movements among Sunnis, in the shape of either Ahle Hadith conversions or at least of influence. (Ahele Hadith madressas lay a great emphasis on Hadith naturally, and thus their graduates are valued by madressas of other schools of thought as Hadith teachers. Once on the faculty, they naturally have an influence on the entire training regimen.) One of the results of the Indian Mutiny and the fall of the Mughal dynasty was the division of the Hanafi school in India into the Deobandi and Brelvi sub-schools. There were two madressas established, one at Bareilly and the other at Deoband, which gave their names to their graduates (who then founded their own madressas), and then to the believers who followed those graduates. Both sub-schools are Hanafi, but while Deobandis are more inclined to be legalistic, Brelvis are more inclined to follow Sufistic practices. This is neither to say that Deobandis deny Sufism (some well-known Pirs are counted as Deobandis), or that Brelvis ignore the importance of Sharia (Mufti Muneebur Rehman, the Ruet-i-Hilal committee chief, is both a Mufti and a Brelvi), but it does indicate why Ahle Hadith are more inclined to support Deobandis.

The Ahle Hadith and the Deobandis are lumped together as ‘Wahhabis’ by some Brelvis, in reference to Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, the founder of the Ahle Hadith movement. This is a recognition that, even though the Ahle Hadith and the Deobandis follow different schools of jurisprudence, they have the same attitude, which are based on an obedience to the Sharia.

The Brelvis use the term ‘Sunni’ for themselves in opposition to this, and thus would be bemused by the use of the term to describe the Saudis, and especially the ascribing of the leadership of the Sunnis to them. There seems to be some disagreement over the ownership of the term, with its being appropriated by the Sipah Sahaba after it was banned. This fits in with the anti-Shia bias of the Deobandi school, which would also mean that the anti-Shia bias of the Islamic State resonates with these groups here. The anti-Shia bias in the Arab world has two strands: the Ottoman inheritance (which owed much to the Ottoman-Safavi rivalry) and the rivalry with the various Ismaili offshoots, like the Drouze and the Alawis. Thus the targeting in Karachi of Ismailis was a peculiarly good way of announcing the arrival of the Islamic State.

It should be noted that Saudi Arabia puts much store by having Pakistan join it. It is worth noting that Pakistan has been visited by the Saudi Foreign and Defence Ministers, the latter being the Deputy Crown Prince, and thus not just a leading light of the Saudi dynasty but a future king. Having Pakistan join would mean some redress of the Saudi grievance caused by Pakistan’s failure to put up troops to allow its Yemen project. Saudi Arabia has also included Pakistan in the projected coalition against terror. Iran has not even tried to gain Pakistan’s support at that level, even though it is a more immediate neighbor and has an important gasline project that needs the lifting of nuclear sanctions to go ahead.

Perhaps the hidden issue that is not being addressed is how the absence of a caliphate is affecting the Muslim world. The schools of thought to which the Saudi and Iranian governments belong are divergent, but the basic bone of contention is the caliphate. The Shia-Sunni divide is about the Caliphate. Before Karabala was the Battle of Siffeen, after all.

The present crisis has seen all states proclaiming the need to follow ‘national interests.’ However, that will not lead to a resolution. The paradigm must change, thinking must go out of the box. The regimes involved seem to be ignoring the great reality that while Shias and Sunnis disagree on many things, they both belong to the same faith.