Tearing down Shiahs

Speaking of SunniPath, we happened to have dinner with a Shiah friend and his wife last night and I was shown some  statements posted on there concerning the Shiah tradition that really saddened me.

While I don’t always agree with SP, I’ve always been impressed by the profundity and knowledge of its contributors, and can only pray that I one day attain a fraction of their erudition and insight.  So I was quite surprised when I saw a posting that included the following comments:

  1. "…the Shi`a are considered Muslims who are people of innovation (ahl al-bid`a)…"
  2. "The sunna with the people of innovation [i.e., Shiahs] is to avoid keeping their company"
  3. "Their transmissions [that support differences in how Shiah Muslims pray] from Ahl al-Bayt are fabricated. [...] Shi`ite methodology in hadith is laughably weak and self-contradictory.".

Now, I concede that I’m not a scholar who’s able to evaluate the substance of these disputes and therefore accept the guidance of those who are.   I also believe in honestly acknowledging differences of opinion rather than papering them over for the sake of some nebulous sense of unity (in practice, that kind of "unity" often succeeds in denying others a voice rather than bringing people together), so I’m not at all against Sunnis and Shiahs debating the issues that divide them.   

But it seems to me that one can pick a side while acknowledging that there is another side–that there are competing conceptions of Islam–and without needlessly denigrating that other side.   After all, the Muslims are instructed in the Quran to refrain from even mocking the gods of idolators:

Revile not ye those whom they call upon besides Allah, lest they out of spite revile Allah in their ignorance. Thus have We made alluring to each people its own doings. In the end will they return to their Lord, and We shall then tell them the truth of all that they did. (6:108)

Even if the evidence is overwhelmingly for the Sunni view, I am surprised by how some Sunni Muslim scholars feel justified in speaking so dismissively of Shiah tradition and practice.  I don’t understand it from a factual perspective.  If one accepts, as I do, the Sunni stand, does it follow that Shiah scholars’ evidence is "laughably weak and self-contradictory"?  (The subtext to such a sweeping declaration is that the whole Shiah scholarly establishment is intellectually, if not morally, bankrupt.  That’s pretty problematic, as it seems to validate the worst prejudices and paranoid suspicions about Shiahs being "deviant".)  Can’t Shiahs and Sunnis honestly disagree over the historical evidence?  Don’t Shiahs have serious counterarguments (e.g., as this article notes, among other things, there is an ayat in the Quran that could be interpreted to support the practice of maatam) that need to be acknowledged and reviewed before coming to such a drastic conclusion?

Were we living in the Abbasid era–when Sunnis and Shiahs were vieing for control of the Ummah–perhaps there’d be a pragmatic argument for taking the low road, trashing your opponents to win the debate on the "street", where scholarly arguments hold less sway than appeals to pride and passion.  But do we live in such a time today?   

I mean no disrespect to Shiahs when I say this, but I don’t think there’s any danger of Al-Azhar being eclipsed by Qom anytime soon, at least not in terms of power and influence within the Muslim world.  Sunni scholars’ hold on the reins
of Islamic orthodoxy in the eyes of most of the world is assured by the
much larger number of Sunnis than Shiahs. 

Also, so far as I know there isn’t a significant trend of Sunnis "converting" [sic] to Shiah Islam.     Sunnis aren’t struggling to hold their own against Shiah missionaries (as was the case in Muslim India a century ago, when Christian and Hindu missionaries were converting Muslims) . 

The borders of these communities are more or less fixed by geography, demographics, and family history, so they’re generally not truly competing.

Given those realities, one would expect the analysis from the Sunni side to be temperate and dignified–in a certain sense, it is coming from a position of strength–but the opposite too often seems to be the case (and, it should be noted, is sometimes seen on the Shiah side, as well).

And you’d think we’d have bigger fish to fry than warning Sunnis to avoid hanging out with Shiahs.  Given all the social problems we have in Muslim communities, I’m not sure a typical Sunni’s top priority needs to be avoiding the company of a Shiah.  There’s no shortage of fellow Sunnis whose company one probably ought to avoid, to say nothing of how elastic this simple category of "Sunni" is for these purposes in an era of rampant secularism and religious experimentation.  One wishes that such statements were contextualized more (e.g., are they referring to hardline Shiahs who vilify highly regarded Sahaba, or all Shiahs regardless of their actions or piety).

Then there’s the eerily familiar ring this kind of talk has.  There’s a certain irony to Sufi scholars making categorical declarations that deny any intellectual legitimacy or dignity to Shiah beliefs, given how they were until quite recently on the receiving end of this phenonmenon at the hands of Wahhabis in many places.   The confidence with which these declarations about the self-evident illegitimacy of maatam reminds me of the way all these vowel-heavy websites (i.e., those that assault native English speakers’ aesthetic sense by insisting on using unsightly transliterations such as "Islaam", "Qur’aan", …) discuss tawassul (e.g., this rant on the appropriately voweled http://www.allaahuakbar.net).  For decades, Wahhabis (and the Wahhabized) defined Sufis and just about everybody else as outside the Ahl Sunnah wa Jama’at, and now that the tide is turning and Sufis are regaining their rightful voice within the community, some are taking a page from the Wahhabis and labeling Shiahs as being Ahl Bida etc.  It seems like some us nodded off during  class and missed the most important lesson of all.

Again, for me the point isn’t that we should become relativists who shy away from open debate, but that we should engage in such discussions with a sense of mutual respect and an awareness that there are competing paradigms (even when we think the evidence is clearly on our side).  Also, nuances in the other side’s beliefs and practices need to be acknowledged (e.g., Sunni polemicists tend talk as if all Shiahs  maim themselves, when the truth is that maatam takes many different forms with varying degrees of intensity and physicality).

I make these comments not to attack anybody–not that a critique from a lay person like me is terribly important in the grand scheme of things, anyway–but because I think that public statements denigrating a whole Muslim community need to be publicly challenged within the larger Muslim community because of the harm they do to us all.  There are real world consequences to such offhand statements–including loss of life–in some parts of the Muslim world (e.g., Pakistan, Iraq) where Sunnis and Sunnis clash needlessly.

Finally, as a Muslim and a Sunni, I want these issues to be discussed seriously and in a way that results in increased clarity and understanding for Sunni and Shiah alike.   I think a respectful and objective analysis would be far more effective towards this end.  It would ultimately be more convincing, as well, I believe.

Allahu a`lam.

Update (2005-12-09): 
SunniPath has since updated the webpage in question and rephrased the response I commented on in what I think is a balanced and respectful manner.  I’m relieved to see that they also take these concerns seriously and are receptive to constructive criticism.

Update (2005-12-11): 
Sh. Faraz has been kind enough to refer visitors to this posting from his blog, SeekersDigest.org

As he succinctly noted, "The comments are fascinating… "  I agree, and have learned a lot from these exchanges.

Boy, did my hits jump!  SeekersDigest clearly has a lot of readers, which makes a dialogue like this all the more important.  SunniPath obviously has a lot of influence.  Insha’Allah, this discussion will contribute to improved understanding and mutual respect.


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