One home tackles Iraq's Sunni-Shiite divide

Ibrahim Mohamed and his wife Khuthar happily dote on their baby. They are openly affectionate and laugh warmly at each other's jokes. But if they had to do it over, they wouldn't have married.

"If I could go back in time, I'd never marry a Shiite," Ibrahim says. "It's not about her as a person. The problem is the clerics she follows."

Since they married a few years ago, Ibrahim has become an increasingly devout follower of the strict Wahhabibranch of Sunni Islam, practiced in Saudi Arabia. His wife is Shiite.

Theirs is one of an unknown number of inter-sect marriages in Iraq. Optimists point to such unions as evidence Iraq can overcome the sectarian tensions that have pushed this fractured country to civil war. But even this last vestige of a united Iraq is on the decline today as the country's increasingly polarized society takes a toll on otherwise happily married couples.

Ibrahim and Khuthar offer a window into the schisms, big and small, that are rending the fabric of this society. During four hours of interviews conducted over three days, they bickered endlessly over theological minutiae. But it became clear that their heated debates over the proper height of a gravestone or the right way to hold one's hands in prayer mask far deeper divisions.

"Our relationship is good, praise God," says Khuthar. "But we have differences and argue about religion a lot. Today those arguments are much more heated than they used to be."

Disillusioned in the late 1990s with preachers that appeared to him to be regime-appointed stooges trumpeting Saddam Hussein's glories, Ibrahim sought a purer Islam. He found it in the writings of Mohammed ibn Abdel Wahab, an 18th-century thinker whose followers are often referred to as Wahhabis, though many consider the term pejorative.

Abdel Wahab allied with a local tribal chieftain, Ibn Saud. Inspired by Abdel Wahab's muscular and uncompromising approach to Islam, Ibn Saud went on to conquer the peninsula and found a Wahabbi state, the Saud dynasty, which rules Saudi Arabia to this day. Today, the number of mosques in Baghdad that promulgate Abdel Wahab's teachings are on the rise, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, has cited Abdel Wahab in public statements.

Ibrahim cites Abdel Wahab's signature work, "Kitab al Tawhid," or the "Book of Monotheism," as one of his primary influences. Expanding on the theology of some of early Islam's most rigid thinkers, it rails against religious practices that he believed violate the strictest interpretations of monotheism, including Shiite veneration of the prophet and his family - something he raises with Khuthar.

"Fatima [the prophet's Muhammad's daughter] visited her father's grave many times," she counters. "Yes," Ibrahim reasons, "But she visited secretly."

"See? The Wahhabis think all Shiites are infidels," says Khuthar, crossing her arms defiantly.

Ibrahim cradles their baby girl, named Teba after the ancient Egyptian city whose rulers united Upper and Lower Egypt over 4,000 years ago. He kisses his daughter's furrowed brow before responding.

"The limits of our relationship with God are different than their limits," he says. "We Sunnis ask God to help us and guide us. They ask Ali," referring to Muhammed's son-in-law, whom Shiites believe was the rightful heir to the caliphate after Muhammed's death. "This is idolatry because they are worshiping another human, in addition to God."

Marital concessions: a model for Iraq

Despite their differences, Ibrahim and Khuthar provide a glimmer of hope that Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites can learn to see past their differences. They've made the sort of marital concessions that Iraq's leaders must make if they hope to end the fighting here.

When praying, for example, Ibrahim has agreed to use the hexagonal brick made of clay from the Shiite holy city of Najaf. Shiites rest their forehead on the brick when they pray because they believe earth from Najaf is sanctified by the blood of the Shiite martyr Hussein.

"I will pray on it, but I won't consider it holy," Ibrahim says. Khuthar has made concessions of her own. Unlike the overwhelming majority of her fellow Shiites, she didn't vote for the United Iraqi Alliance in the last elections. Instead, she voted for the secular list of Iyad Allawi, though she herself is hardly secular.

"The Shiites are too close to Iran," she says, reaching for the hand of her husband, whose uncle was killed fighting against Iran in the 1980s.

But focusing on the theological underpinnings to this couple's disagreements belies the reality of this centuries-old schism. Since Islam's earliest days, just as in Iraq today, the Sunni-Shiite rivalry is about political aspirations.

The feud began 1,300 years ago over a disagreement as to who was the rightful successor to the prophet Muhammad. The rivalry has simmered ever since, flaring up from time to time. Today, Iraq's Sunni Arabs and Shiites are competing for control in Iraq.

Like so many Iraqis, Ibrahim and Khuthar's lives have been touched by this sectarian violence. As a result, even their minor compromises in faith are becoming more difficult.

At her husband's urging, Khuthar used to pray with hands clasped, as Sunnis do. But after Sunnis gunned down a second brother of hers last year - Sunni radicals killed the other in mid-2004 - she has returned to praying according to Shiite tradition, with her hands hung loosely at her side. "This is out of respect for my brothers," she says. "Because the people who killed my brothers pray that way."

Ibrahim points out that they were killed by common criminals. Khuthar snaps back at him: "They were killed because of the fatwas from Sunni sheikhs, and followers of Al Qaeda."

Ibrahim and Khuthar met and married the old-fashioned way. Their sisters worked together teaching math at a local primary school. The two exchanged photos and agreed to marry, having never met. It wasn't long ago that Sunni and Shiite families happily gave their sons and daughters to members of the other sect. Today that is changing.

"The Shiites concentrate on their sect more today, and the Sunnis focus on their sect more," says Ahmed al-Mussawi, who has worked as a Shiite wedding official for 15 years. "They are more concerned with what is permissible and forbidden by their religious leaders. This has made the cases of mixed marriages very rare." The few mixed marriages he does officiate are not the happy occasions they once were.

He said the tide began to turn about a year and a half ago, sometime in mid-2004 when the insurgency kicked into high gear.

Baby Teba represents the next generation of Iraqis, and if her parents are any indication, there is still hope. When asked about how they'll raise their daughter, Khuthar looks at her husband, smiling and waiting to see how he'll respond. He laughs awkwardly.

"It's a problem," Khuthar says finally. "I'll teach my daughter what I know. If she accepts what I say, then I'll work hard to show her the truth as I know it," Ibrahim says. "But God says we all have a choice."

"I can't interfere with her mind," Khuthar says. "But I sure can't take her to my family and have her praying with clasped hands." As if on cue, Teba lets out a stifled cry. Everybody laughs.

Ibrahim could just as well be speaking for all of Iraq when he speaks of his family. "We've become partners now. I try to melt the differences between us. Now I have a wife and a child. There is no easy way to leave them just because they're Shiite."

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