The job of a columnist, week after week, is to opine on the issue of the hour. In Pakistan, this is frequently a curse; because most weeks this entails penning a chronicle of blood, screams and sorrows. Over time, in line with human conditioning, one becomes desensitized to the wailing of bereaved mothers. The death toll simply becomes a number. Sirens become background music. Protesting coffins, a worthless inconvenience. And calls for action are reduced to meaningless words.

This week, and today’s column, is no different.

At approximately 1:45 p.m. on Friday, a suicide bomber detonated himself amidst 400 Juma prayer attendees in an Imam Bargah in Shikarpur, Sindh. Over 60 souls, believers all, were extinguished as a result, including five young boys, all under the age of 13, from the same family.

Neither do I have the words to describe the ensuing scenes of tragedy, nor you have the heart to listen to it all. Except to say that our teetering fabric of nationalism and religion was once again dragged through a pile of blood, all in the name of a perverted religious philosophy that is neither Islamic, nor excusable. And an extremist group, Jundullah, whose tacit supporters exist all across Pakistan, among individuals like Maulana Abdul Aziz, claimed responsibility for this act of ‘jihad’.

The tragedy, as horrific as it is, will probably be no more than a 3-day story in our news cycle. This was not the first time that Shias have been killed, for just existing, in Pakistan. And, in all reasonable expectation (God forbid), this is probably not the last time either. As a country and a people, we seem to have accepted the idea that killing someone who disagrees with us on the color of our turban, or the position of ours hands during Namaz, or the meaning of historical events that occurred some 1300 years ago, is the ‘norm’. Subliminally, if pushed into a corner, the majority of us try to defend our religious sect with statements such as, “While the killings are wrong, the Shias must also realize that…”

So let us pause here, for a moment, and analyze what justification, if at all, rests at the heart of these persistent Shia-Sunni killings.

It is pertinent to start with certain basic realizations: Shias and Sunnis both believe that there is one God, Allah, and He alone is worthy of worship. Both sects believe that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is the final Messenger of Allah. They both believe, identically, as commanded by the Quran, in the Angels, the previous Prophets (AS), their Books, and in the final Day of Judgment. They believe in five prayers, one Hajj, and the giving of alms. And this, from a theological perspective, represents the complete faith of Muslims, as delineated in the opening verses of Surah Baqarah.

The dispute between them, away from these basic tenets, is partly theological, and party historical in nature. From the theological perspective, Shias believe in the concept of Imamat, and the infallibility of the Imams. And the same contention translates into a historical dispute over who should have been the leader of the Muslim community, after the Prophet (PBUH).

As a natural consequence, depending on which sect one follows, the manner of practicing our Religion of Peace differs ever so slightly between those who follow the example of Maula Ali (AS), and those who follow the conduct of the other three Khulifa-e-Rashideen (RA). Resultantly, one sect prays with arms open, and the other with arms folded. One opens the fast at five minutes too early, and the other five minutes too late. One wears black in the month of Muharram, and the other wears white. One believes that salvation lies with the progeny of the Prophet (PBUH), and the other seeks redemption from the Prophet (PBUH) directly. One mourns the tragedy of Karbala vociferously, the other celebrates Eid Milad-un-Nabi just as vigorously.

But somewhere along this indiscernible divide, the shades of the same faith have been colored in the crimson of blood. Religion has been turned into an instrument of violence, only to protect and promote our individual sectarian fiefdoms.

Those who had gone to offer their Juma prayers in the Shikarpur Imambargah, were going to bow their forehead, in the dust, before that same Merciful Allah, in whose name the suicide bomber killed them. Their coffins will be lifted and buried with the same incantations of Tauheed, which were the last words of their murderer.

For now, and perhaps for all the rest of our days, there will be no way of telling which sect, which belief, which practice, what color, which form of prayer is dearer to our Creator. There will be no way of telling which version of history, in this Shia-Sunni saga, is correct. Who is the Haq, and who is Batil. No voice is likely to thunder from the heavens, and intervene, to finally settle our virtues. Picking a side, or no side at all, shall remain a personal choice of faith for each one of us.

But away from a theological judgment, let us not forget a lesson that history has taught over and over again: that persecution is the only definitive seal of truth. That faith, if it not tested by adversity, is no faith at all. That propagating violence is the surest mark of the devil. And the gates of Heaven have no choice but to roll out a red carpet for those who were martyred in prayer.

May that most merciful Allah grant us the wisdom to navigate ourselves, through these violent times, and onto peaceful shores. Ameen.