Ikram Ahmed, New Age Islam
28 June 2017
How on earth could a straightforward
message of Islam get entangled with culture, tradition and politics, and give
birth to Shiism as a separate sect with a new ideological structure?
According to the Shia scholars it’s the
other way round, meaning that it is Sunnis who have evolved a new ideological
construct. The argument started with the dispute pertaining to succession after
the demise of Prophet Mohammed (pbuh). The Shias believe that Prophet Mohammed
appointed his son-in-law and cousin Hazrat Ali (ra) as his successor, but the
Sunnis dispute this claim. The meaning of Shia is ‘Follower’, and the phrase
shīʻatuʻAlī means followers of Ali.
Before I get into the genesis of this
dispute it would like to begin with a brief review of the movie, “The Message,”
a 1976 Film directed by Syrian director Moustapha Akkad. I saw this movie a
long time ago. This movie is a brief introduction of the early period of Islam,
the inception of Islamic thought, and Islam in its early stage.
The first scene is rather captivating,
where three men on horseback are seen riding through the middle of the desert
in tandem. Then they breakaway from each other, each of them carrying a letter
with a simple message. One takes the eastern direction, the other takes the
west, and the third takes the north, to ensure that the message cascades in the
most efficient manner possible.
The message was simple and clear, but when
one of the men reaches the Persian emperor Khusrau , the emperor openly
lambasts the man carrying the message.
He doesn’t hide his revulsion, and tears into the ‘Farman," or message bearing
the royal seal. It’s quite ironic that only a few years later, when Muslim
forces invade Persia or modern day Iran, his empire adopts that very same
The next man approaches the Byzantine
emperor Hercules with much conviction. Hercules gives a patient hearing to the
messenger, but soon turns sceptical, and tries to make it palatable to his
The third man reaches Egypt after a journey
through the desert surrounded by pyramids, and hands over the Farman to
Al-Muqawqis Patriarch of Alexandria, who accepts it without too much drama.
But what was this message that inspired
such long and arduous journeys and such different reactions?
“In the Name of
God the most gracious and the most merciful from Mohammed the messenger of God.
I bid you to hear the divine call. I’m the messenger of God to the people. Accept Islam for your salvation.”
Let’s come out of the reveries of this
movie. The movie only shows three emissaries, but in reality, there were six
emissaries sent to different parts of the world.
The few men under the command of the new
Prophet embarked on a journey to spread the message. They never represented any
ethnic group, or culture. In crux: east, west, north and south were mere
geographical boundaries, but nothing cultural. The message was for all of
mankind, even though it did not receive a unanimous acceptance.
In Surah Anam [6:159] any kind of
sectarianism is discouraged.
who have divided their religion and become sects - you, [O Muhammad], are not
[associated] with them in anything. Their affair is only [left] to Allah; then
He will inform them about what they used to do.”
After the demise of Prophet Mohammed, there
were schisms, machinations, and assassinations. The temporary peace that had
been established when Prophet Mohammed brought the tribes together under the
banner of Islam disintegrated and tribal affiliation was back as disputes
pertaining to succession emerged.
The Shia narrative mostly focuses on the
atrocities committed towards the Prophet’s family members, especially his
daughter Fatima and her Husband Ali whom the Shia’s consider legitimate heir to
Prophet Mohammed. Their antagonism towards the political process was that the
Ahl-e–Bait was never consulted in appointing the new Khalifa.
But the counter narrative is also
intriguing and valid. The demise of Prophet Mohammed was an extraordinary
event. His death had led to the rise of internal strife and uprisings in
disputes over the succession, but Hazrat Abu-Bakr successfully mitigated this
explosive situation. Hazrat Abu-Bakr aggressively pursued allegiance to fend
off further internal feuds. At a time when Islamic society was at a vulnerable
early stage, he was the Caliph who rose to the threats of his time.
The rift began when Hazrat Uthman ibn
Affan, a close companion of Abu-Baker,
was elected the third caliph through the Shura Council after a close
contest between Ali and Uthman. Ali reluctantly took oath to serve under
Uthman. But this was the third time that Ali was denied caliphate, and it
eventually led to the parting between the followers of Ali (Shia) and the
followers of Uthman (Sunni).
Hazrat Uthman’s election led to the
emergence of the Umayyad dynasty. The Umayyads ironically came from the family
of the bitterest enemies of Prophet Mohammed during the Pre-Islamic Pagan days.
Their vengeance was unleashed in the battle of Karbala when most of the family
members of Prophet Mohammed were killed by the old adversary Umayyads. They
captured the Islamic world and established the first monarchical caliphate, the
The Islamic world under the new caliphate
spread through Spain and Indus in the next 100 years -- despite the internal
political upheaval. The death of Hussain in Karbala who was the Grandson of
Prophet Mohammed and the son of Ali and Fatima added zeal to the Shiism and
transformed it into a separate faith and dogma.
According to historian and philosopher
Oswald Spengler's theory, ‘civilizations blossom and decay like natural
In his classic book, The Decline of the
West, Spengler argues that history is cyclical and all cultures must pass
through the stages of birth-development-fulfilment-decay-death. Every high
culture eventually transitions into a "civilization" phase, which is
marked by imperialism and rule of money. This leads to a time of drastic social
upheaval, mass movements of people, continual wars, and constant crises. Thus,
the imaginative Greek Culture eventually was replaced by the Roman
Civilization, which then declined.
But one wonders what Spengler would make of
the Persian culture that continued to transfuse through the Arab world after
the conquest by the Arabs in 651 AD.
In many ways, emergence of Shiism in Iran
and Iraq can be attributed to dissidents amongst Persians who were formerly
Zoroastrians. Shiism developed from a new religion that was infused with an old
culture. The Zoroastrians who had been defeated by the Arabs were being
discriminated against. The Persian and the Iraqi coverts were often called
‘Mawalis," a condescending word which alienated the Persians from the
Thus, these former Zoroastrians became
sympathetic to this new sect that attracted political and spiritual dissidents.
The new sect had some eclectic ideas drawn from Greek Philosophy, Neo Platonic,
Gnosticism, Zoroastrian messianic tradition and Christianity. So it was able to
provide with an alternative that resembled their former belief system. For
example, the belief about the sanctity of the blood of house of David resembled
the concept of the sanctity of the Imam, a direct descendent from the blood
line of the progeny of Ali and Fatima.
This also bears a resemblance to the Christian idea that “the Messiah
has arisen from the sacred blood.”
From this, the central doctrine of Shiism,
which is unequivocal allegiance to an Imam, emerged. According to Shiism, Imams
are spiritual leaders bestowed with special knowledge. They are considered to be the representatives
This allegiance was further fostered by the
rise of Mukhtar in 686 AD. He played a pivotal role in ending the Arab
domination, defeating the Yazid’s Umayyad forces, to avenge the massacre of the
Prophet family in Karbala. His bravado is celebrated among the Shia community
world-wide to this day.
To this day, the violence continues between
the two groups. The scars are so deep-rooted that during the Iran-Iraq war
which started in 1980’s, the people of Iran gave it an Arab vs Iran spin and
said it was tantamount to the invasion of Persia some 1400 years ago by the
Arabs. The rise of Wahhabism and their anti-Shia slant has led to more
Prophet Mohammed never envisioned that his
message would be distorted and there would be sectarian violence. As the movie,
‘The Message’, illustrates.
These divisions will remain permanent,
unless the warring sects can find an amicable solution. There will be more
mayhem and killing. It still remains a pertinent question whether the solution
would come through liberalism, as Iran was once a westernized liberal society.
The Islamic Revolution of 1979 transformed the Iranian society. Although it
wasn't only the Shia-Sunni conflict that triggered the war. There were other
geopolitical factors. Nevertheless, Shia fundamentalism played a pivotal role
in starting a war under the masquerade of religious virtue. Perhaps, a solution
can be found within the scriptures.
Sectarianism in Islam: Salafi Ulema Should Not Only Condemn the Massacre at Lal
Shahbaz Qalandar Shrine but Also the Ideology behind It
Age Islam, Islam Online, Islamic
Muslim News, Arab
World News, South
Asia News, Indian
Muslim News, World
Muslim News, Women
in Islam, Islamic
In Arab, Islamophobia
in America, Muslim
Women in West, Islam
Women and Feminism
@Most commentators I agree with;
Please, if I may add a bit here that there is the charge
generally made that Muhammad plagiarized/stole statements of other Messengers!
In 10-37 it declares that Quran is a confirmation/verification
of previous Divine inspirations and in 37-37 too that he, Muhammad has brought
the Truth and verifies the Messengers—named and unnamed. Thus he universalized the
unity of mankind under one roof; and that clearly eliminates all divisions of religions.
Did Gautama Buddha and Jesus advocate establishment of separate Churches and Clergy
as a class of separate holy elite?
Dear Ikram Ahmed,
You hit at the head of the nail in blaming religious supremacism as the root of
all problems. The reason I get attracted to the Qur'an is not so much blind
faith as the logic of its pronouncements. Thus, it dismisses the notion of religious
supremacism by espousing belief in all the prophets and previously revealed
scriptures, and asking humanity to make no distinction between any of the
Prophets (2:177, 2:285, 4:152, 57:19), and affirming that all the
messengers are not mentioned in the Qur’an (4:164, 40:78). Its assertion that
God’s name is pronounced in all places of worsip (24:35) including mosques, churches,
synagogues, monasteries (22:40) puts all palces of worship on equal footing.
Besides its repeatedly pronounced criteria for earning Gos’s pleasure on
the Day of reckoning (2:62, 4:124, 5:69, 64:9, 22:17, 65:11)
is religion nutral. The problem with the Muslims is their restrictive
interpretation of the generic term islam in the Qur’an as the religion preached
by the Prophet Muhammad. You may read my following article for further elucidation
of this theme.
The broader notion of din
al-Islam is inclusive of all monotheistic faiths.
Now the question arises, what about the atheists?
I have addressed this in my following article and will welcome an
objective comment from you or any other commentator – but no sweeping remark
that a chaild can make to create confusion and drown any fruitful conversation
Human beings are equal, have the same Rights, the human race is one,
and we are all brothers – global call for improving inter-faith relations and
combatting religious supremacism and bigotry.
On Imamate theology on which Shi’ism is based
Peace be upon all the
prophets. The Jews hold the belief that only the descendants of Abraham could
be prophets and that too only from his son Isaac and from among the sons of
Isaac only the progeny of Jacob. As per the Quran Abraham prayed to Allah to make Imams from his progeny
which was granted conditionally. In the Quran the relevant verse is:
(2:124) And remember that Abraham was tried by his Lord with
certain commands, which he fulfilled: He said: "I will make thee an Imam
to the Nations." He pleaded: "And also (Imams) from my offspring!"
He answered: "But My Promise is not within the reach of evil-doers."
verse while promising Imams among the progeny of Abraham is not exclusive to
his progeny. However, the Jews believed otherwise and therefore do not
recognize several of the prophets mentioned in the Quran, for example, Hud and
Saleh. The only exception is Ayub or Job who could not be ignored but they do a
good job of hiding the fact that Job does not descend from Jacob.
about Muhammad? He does not descend from Jacob but does he descend from Ismail
the first son of Abraham? That is what the Muslims believe and while doing so, indirectly
subscribe to the theory that God had promised that all Imams will come from the
progeny of Abraham exclusively. What is the proof that Muhammad descended from
Ismail? There is no proof at all
although there are sources that connect Muhammad to Ismail (61 generations) and
to Adam (81 generations)! Clear fabrications when we know that very little of
ancient history was recorded or is reliable. The other tell-tale sign of fabrication is that
a hundred generations would roughly mean 2500 years separating the first man Adam
and Muhammad which we know is false. Even the 1500 years separating Ismail and
Muhammad if we take it as 61 generations, is false. The very same sources are
not known to provide any historical information apart from the genealogy of the
Prophets. The Quran itself does not support the belief that Muhammad descends
from Abraham through his son Ismail, but on the other hand gives us a strong
reason to believe that he may have been from among the local Arabs and not a
descendent of Ismail.
(2:126) And remember
Abraham said: "My Lord, make this a City of Peace, and feed its people
with fruits,-such of them as believe in Allah and the Last Day." He said:
"(Yea), and such as reject Faith,-for a while will I grant them their
pleasure, but will soon drive them to the torment of Fire,- an evil destination
(127) And remember
Abraham and Isma´il raised the foundations of the House (With this prayer):
"Our Lord! Accept (this service) from us: For Thou art the All-Hearing,
(2:128) "Our Lord!
make of us Muslims, bowing to Thy (Will), and of our progeny a people Muslim,
bowing to Thy (will); and show us our place for the celebration of (due) rites;
and turn unto us (in Mercy); for Thou art the Oft-Returning, Most Merciful.
(2:129) "Our Lord!
send amongst them a Messenger of their own, who shall rehearse Thy Signs to
them and instruct them in scripture and wisdom, and sanctify them: For Thou art
the Exalted in Might, the Wise."
“send amongst them a Messenger of their own” means raise a messenger from
amongst their own people. To pray for sending a messenger from the progeny of
Ismail does not even make sense since Ismail himself was a messenger who lived
among the Arabs.
the Quran nor the genealogy of several earlier prophets supports the theory of
exclusive imamate of the progeny of Abraham. From the perspective of the Quran, whether
Muhammad is a descendant of Ismail or not is of little consequence. The fact
that none of the sons born to the Prophet survived is another clear indication
that Imamate theology is defective and unsupported by Allah who did not provide
direct descendants of the Prophet. The theology of imamate goes against the
message of the Quran. The preoccupation of Muslims with genealogy and giving it
undue importance is also against the spirit of Islam. The Sunna of the prophet is also that his
inheritance belongs to all the people and none of it is exclusively for his
for a group of people to believe in Imamate theology and to accuse the Caliphs
who preceded Ali the son-in-law of the Prophet of having been usurpers, was
bound to be problematic, especially when the predecessors were men of
exceptional integrity and from among the people described in the Quran as “the
best of creatures”.
the reasons for the schism are now history, can the two groups reconcile? Yes,
they can if they decide to ignore the differences in their respective outlooks
and work on what is common. The Shias should give up “tabarra” of the
predecessors of Ali and the Sunnis should develop tolerance for the Imamate
theology without subscribing to it. Both groups should follow the example of
Ali, Usman, Umar and Abu Bakr. Even if Ali had a different opinion on the
succession, he did not withhold his support to any of the three who preceded
him. What is important to remember is that Ali is equally revered by the
and beliefs based on narratives and counter narratives of history will always
be problematic. It is surprising that such narratives prevail over the message
of the Quran. Traditional Islamic theology (irrespective of the sect), based as
it is on the narratives and not on the clear message of the Quran, is powerless
to tame even the ISIS ideology let alone sink sectarian differences. It is only
when we throw all the narratives into the dustbin, and start reading the Quran
without having been conditioned by the various narratives, will we be able to
follow “the straight path” and find solutions to our problems.
An insightful opinion on the subject by Muhammad Asad born
Leopold Weiss excerpted From the Book “The Road to Makkah”
When, in the middle of the seventh century, the armies of
Caliph Umar conquered the ancient Sasanian Empire, bringing Islam with them,
Iran's Zoroastrian cult had already long been reduced to rigid formalism and
was thus unable to oppose effectively the dynamic new idea that had come from
Arabia. But at the time when the Arab conquest burst upon it, Iran was passing
through a period of social and intellectual ferment which seemed to promise a
This hope of an inner, organic revival was shattered by
the Arab invasion; and the Iranians, abandoning their own historic line of
development, henceforth accommodated themselves to the cultural and ethical
concepts that had been brought in from outside.
The advent of Islam represented in Iran, as in so many other
countries, a tremendous social advance; it destroyed the old Iranian caste
system and brought into being a new community of free, equal people; it opened
new channels for cultural energies that had long lain dormant and inarticulate: but with all this,
the proud descendants of Darius and Xerxes could never forget that the
historical continuity of their national life, the organic connection between
their Yesterday and Today, had suddenly been broken. A people whose innermost
character had found its expression in the baroque dualism of the Zand religion
and its almost pantheistic worship of the four elements - air, water, fire and
earth - was now faced with Islam's austere, uncompromising monotheism and its
passion for the Absolute. The .transition was too sharp and painful to allow
the Iranians to subordinate their deeply rooted national consciousness to the
supranational concept of Islam. In spite of their speedy and apparently
voluntary acceptance of the new religion, they subconsciously equated the
victory of the Islamic idea with Iran's national defeat; and the feeling of
having been defeated and irrevocably torn
out of the context of their ancient cultural heritage - a feeling desperately
intense for all its vagueness - was destined to corrode their national
self-confidence for centuries to come. Unlike so many other nations to whom the
acceptance of Islam gave almost immediately a most positive impulse to further
cultural development, the Iranians first - and, in a way, most durable -
reaction to it was one of deep humiliation and repressed resentment.
That resentment had to
be repressed and smothered in the dark folds of the subconscious, for in the
meantime Islam had become Iran's own faith. But in their hatred of the Arabian
conquest, the Iranians instinctively resorted to what psychoanalysis describes
as 'overcompensation': they began to regard the faith brought to them by their
Arabian conquerors as something that was exclusively their own. They did it by
subtly transforming the rational, unmystical God-consciousness of the Arabs into
its very opposite: mystical fanaticism and sombre emotion. A faith which to the
Arab was presence and reality and a source of composure and freedom, evolved,
in the Iranian mind, into a dark longing for the supernatural and symbolic. The Islamic
principle of God's ungraspable transcendence was transfigured into the mystical
doctrine (for which there were many precedents in pre-Islamic Iran) of God's
physical manifestation in especially chosen mortals who would transmit this divine
essence to their descendants. To such a tendency, an espousal of the Shia doctrine
offered a most welcome channel: for there could be no doubt that the Shiite
veneration, almost deification, of Ali and his descendants concealed the germ
of the idea of God's incarnation and continual reincarnation - an idea entirely
alien to Islam but very close to the Iranian heart.
It had been no accident that
the Prophet Muhammad died without having nominated a successor and, indeed,
refused to nominate one when a suggestion to that effect was made shortly
before his death. By his attitude he intended to convey, firstly, that the
spiritual quality of Prophethood was not something that could be 'inherited*,
and, secondly, that the future leadership of the community should be the
outcome of free election.by the people themselves and not of an 'ordination* by
the Prophet and thus he deliberately
ruled out the idea that the community's leadership could ever be anything but
secular or could be in the nature of an 'apostolic succession. But this was
precisely what the Shia doctrine aimed at. It not only insisted -in clear
contradiction to the spirit of Islam - on the principle of apostolic
succession, but reserved that succession exclusively to 'the Prophet's seed,
that is, to his cousin and son-in-law Ali and his lineal descendants.
This was entirely in tune with
the mystical inclinations of the Iranians. But when they enthusiastically
joined the camp of those who claimed that Muhammad's spiritual essence lived on
in Ali and the latter's descendants, the Iranians did not merely satisfy a
mystical desire: there was yet another, subconscious motivation for their
choice. If Ali was the rightful heir and successor of the Prophet, the three
Caliphs who preceded him must obviously have been usurpers - and among them had
been Umar, that same Umar who had conquered Iran! The national hatred of the
conqueror of the Sasanian Empire could now be rationalized in terms of
religion-the religion that had become Iran's own: Umar had 'deprived' Ali and
his sons Hasan and Husayn of their divinely ordained right of succession to the
Caliphate of Islam and, thus, had opposed the will of God; consequently, in
obedience to the will of God, Ali's party was to be supported. Out of a
national antagonism, a religious doctrine was born.
In the Iranian enthronement of
the Shia doctrine I discerned a mute protest against the Arabian conquest of
Iran. Now I understood why the Iranians cursed Umar with a hatred far more
bitter than that reserved for the other two 'usurpers', Abu Bakr and Uthman:
from the doctrinal point of view, the first Caliph, Abu Bakr, should have been
regarded as the principal transgressor - but it was Umar who had conquered Iran
This, then, was the reason for
the strange intensity with which the House of Ali was venerated in Iran. Its
cult represented a symbolic act of Iranian revenge on Arabian Islam (which
stood so uncompromisingly against the deification of any human personality
including that of Muhammad). True, the Shia doctrine had not originated in
Iran; there were Shiite groups in other Muslim lands as well: but nowhere else
had it achieved so complete a hold over the people's emotions and imagination.
When the Iranians gave passionate vent to their mourning over the deaths of
Ali, Hasan and Husayn, they wept not merely over the destruction of the House
of Ali but also over themselves and the loss of their ancient glory...
Thanks Ikram Ahmed for this timely article that provoked me to add some points from my side. Here are my comments.
short account of the purely historical events leading to the emergence of Shiism
is fairly accurate. Actually, the doctrine of Imama emrged soon after the
assassination of Hazrat Ali (661 AD)- his followers argued that it was the
divine scheme to put Hazrat Ali to test throughout the three decades after the
Prophet’s death (632) by denying him succession and then ending his life at the
crown of his hard earned and highly belated succession. But the hard fact is
there is no reference to the doctrine of Imamah in the Qur’an, and no Shia
scholar can point to a verse that could be interpreted to support this notion,
except in a speculative manner. They also claim that Allah has purified the entire
household of the Prophet’s family and his direct progeny on the strength,
primarily of a Qur’anic verse that is addressed to the wives of the Prophet (33:33)
as part of his household that they quote by disregarding the explicit reference
to the wives of the Prophet in the lead verse 33:32, both rendered below as a passage:
Wives of the Prophet, you are not as other women. If you are Godfearing, be not
casual in your speech, lest one in whose heart is sickness may entertain desires;
but speak judiciously (33:32), and stay in your homes (soberly), and do not make any dazzling display of your
charms as in the former times of Ignorance. And establish the Prayer, engage in
zakah and obey God and His Messenger. God only wishes to remove from you, O
members of the (Prophet’s) household (ahl al bayt), all that may be loathsome,
and to purify you (yutahhirkum) to
the utmost of purity (tahtira).”
the various claims that the Shia and the Sunni make to support their respective
doctrines of Imamah and Sunnah is the farewell sermon of the Prophet – the Sunnis
claim that the Prophet said he left the Qur’an and is Sunnah and the Shias
claim that he said, he left the Qur’an and the example of ahle bayt.
as Muslim with conviction of faith do not find any direct evidence in the Qur’an
to support either of these claims - the expression Sunnat al Rasul allah or
Sunnat al ahle bayt do not appear in the Qur’an and such notion purports to
dismiss the Qur’an’s claim to be a complete book of guidance and parallels the word
of God with the alleged sayings or Sunnah of His Prophet or the Prophet’s
I believe in the third version of the Prophet’s sermon: he left the Qur’an for
guidance. This is the only version that is consistent with the Qur’an’s claim to
be a fount of guidance to humanity on its own right.
the Muslims will do better by regarding the Qur’an which is preserved verbatim
and carries divine immunity against any corruption and is not influenced by any
historical event post revelation as their common and only source of guidance,
though on spiritual matters they can follow the example of the Prophet or ahle
other words, the true ahistorical, eternal, infallible Islam is preserved in
the Qur’an which is the only Sharia of Islam and all post revelation theological
developments were specific to their era and if we must cling to them until eternity and split
Islam into sects and sub-sects, we will see the consequences of
the following warnings of the Qur’an.
“Say, He has the power to send torment upon you, from above you
and beneath your feet, and to confuse you with sects (shi‘aon) to make you
taste each other’s oppressions. See how do we illustrate our messages that you
may understand (yafqahun)” (6:65).
“As for those who split their religion into sects (shi‘aon)
- you have nothing to do with them (O Muhammad!). Their affair is up to God,
and He will tell them of what they had been doing” (6:159).
“(Believers! Do not be) among those who have split their religion
and become sects (shi‘aon) – each faction pleased what they have (by way of tenets)”
“God has enjoined on you the religion (din) that God had ordained
for Noah, and that We have revealed to you (O Muhammad), and that We ordained
for Abraham and Moses and Jesus. So holdfast to the din and make no division in it…”
Thanks Ikram. You have
beautifully explained a complex problem. However there are multitude of
questions that assail me. In the first place why didn’t our Holy Prophet choose
a successor in His life time; just as the second great prophet of Islam who
chose Peter as the head of the church at an interview with 12 apostles. Peter
answered the question first and correctly. (Mathew 16:13-20) He is considered as the first Pope.
How many times Koran says “Allah
is merciful”? Do the Muslims have faith in Allah who is merciful? If so where is their acts or works of mercy? “FAITH
BY ITSELF, IF DOES NOT HAVE WORKS, IS DEAD” (James 2:17)
You are correct Ikram, the
sunni-shia divided just as Catholic-Protestant divide is an artificial
construct. If Muslims are merciful just as their Allah is merciful this problem
would have been solved long ago. I suspect the political Islam is the culprit.
There is no mercy in politics. Therefore let us promote spiritual Islam.
"YOU SHALL KNOW THE TRUTH, IT WILL SET YOU FREE'