By 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 message.
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 faith, Christianity.
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.
“Indeed, those 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 ‘Umayyad Dynasty’.
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 organisms."
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 Arabs.
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 of Allah.
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 animosity.
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.
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