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Religion Library: Shia Islam

Principles of Moral Thought and Action

Written by: Anna Akasoy

In all normative matters, the Shiite perspective is characterized by the role of Muhammad's family and the Imams as sources of guidance—either in connection with interpretations of the Quran and the model of Muhammad or independently. Moral principles are presented in different ways, sometimes reflected in binding legal prescriptions, sometimes personified in the protagonists of sacred narratives.

A prominent principle in Islamic thought that combines legal and moral aspects is referred to as 'commanding the right and forbidding the wrong'. It stipulates that Muslims should not only follow the principles of Islamic law and morality themselves, but should also make sure that others pay heed to them. Among Shiites, there are different views as to the practical implications of this principle, since they were usually not in a position of power and since the restoration of justice is only expected from the Mahdi.

The interpretation of principles of moral thought and action also depends on the significance Shiites attribute to secret knowledge. There have been notorious cases of antinomianism among extreme Shiites and medieval Ismailis that suggest that for them, the apparent meaning of the law is overruled and can be reversed by insights into its inner dimension. Within such a framework, duties such as prayer, tax, and jihad are regarded with a pragmatic attitude as measures to discipline the deficient human nature. Ismailis sometimes distinguish between rational rules, such as the prohibition of homicide, which are going to remain once the Mahdi arrives, and those that will be abolished.

Sunni polemicists criticize Shiites for their esoteric interpretation of Islamic law. In reality, the practice of Islamic law according to its inner principles remained limited to extreme Shiites. Quietist Imami scholars had found an acceptable arrangement with unjust rule, and even in Fatimid Egypt there was no space for antinomianism. As was often the case with such movements, the political success required a reinterpretation of the initial doctrines.

Twelver Shiite law does not differ more from Sunni law than one of the Sunni legal schools from another one. Shiite law uses the same two textual sources—the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet (even though they are handed down by different chains of transmitters). Parallel to the Sunni schools, which are named after scholars, the Imami Shiite legal school is referred to as Jafari after the sixth Imam, Jafar al-Sadiq (d. 765). Many decisions and principles are attributed to the sixth Imam, who probably enjoys the highest authority as a scholar among the Imams, although the authenticity is questionable. Shiite law under the Ismaili Fatimids followed a different course. A very influential text here was the legal compendium The Pillars of Islam written by Qadi al-Numan.


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