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Religion Library: Shia Islam

Principles of Moral Thought and Action

Written by: Anna Akasoy

Shiite legal scholars also use the same set of methods as their Sunni colleagues. Both, for example, addressed the challenge of authenticating prophetic traditions by examining the reliability of the transmitters and whether they could have been in touch with each other. The 'science of men', as these biographical studies are referred to, led to the composition of bio-bibliographical compendia of scholars.

The methods of the Shiite legal tradition were inspired by Sunni developments in theology and law that took place in the vibrant intellectual climate of 9th-century Baghdad, some of which did not survive in Sunni Islam. One of these trends was speculative theology (kalam), practiced in its more rationalist form by the Mutazilites who often had Shiite leanings. While Mutazilism eventually died out, its principles and doctrines (such as free will or divine justice) had a great impact on Shiite theology and law. One of the methods of coming to a legal decision is that of making an independent effort (ijtihad) instead of simply endorsing an already existing view. In practice, Muslim legal scholars had to apply this principle whenever they were faced with a new situation. But while the 'door of ijtihad' was considered closed by Sunni scholars as early as the 11th century, the principle was endorsed by Shiites since the scholar the Allama al-Hilli.

Another crucial struggle concerning methods took place in the Safavid period between the Akhbaris, who accepted only the word of the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet and the Imams, and the Usulis, who promoted ijtihad. They also clashed over what the Akhbaris regarded was a too close relationship between the Usulis and the rulers. With the increasing power of the scholars the Safavid Shah turned more and more into a secular ruler with merely political authority.

Important examples for morality and commitment are the martyrs of Karbala. The prominence of the martyrdom theme in Shiite religious and political language—as exemplified not least during the Iran-Iraq war—has led some observers to suggest that suicide missions as we are seeing them in the modern world, are employed by Shiites rather than Sunnis. While martyrdom may have played an important role in Iranian political propaganda before the theme became popular elsewhere, suicide attacks can now be found invariably in Sunni and Shiite communities, but remain a strategy endorsed by small minorities.

Study Questions:
1.     How does the esoteric interpretation of sacred texts affect the development of the Shiite morality?
2.     What is antinomianism and how has it been expressed in Shiite communities?
3.     What example do the martyrs of Karbala give to Shiite ethics?


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