Monday, August 07, 2006

An Insight into Shia Islam - Part 1/3

Fanatical flagellants. Bearded scholars. Revolutionary tendencies. Messianic beliefs. Leo Africanus uncovers the reality of Shia Islam.

With over one hundred million adherents, Shia Islam at a conservative estimate constitutes ten percent of the global Muslim populous. Shias make up to sixty percent of the population in countries situated in the ancient areas of the Levant and the Fertile Crescent including Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. The Iranian revolution triggered a crucial albeit brief encounter with the Shia world. A world regarded by many as shrouded in impenetrable mystery and by many Muslims as their own fifth column, a tolerated cultish minority. The political upheaval in Iraq and nuclear-jockeying by Iran has once more brought Shiism into the limelight.

Thud, thud, thud. As you approach a Shia community centre or imambara during the first ten days of the first month of the Islamic calendar, you would be excused for thinking you could hear the distant, mottled sound of drumming. Thud, thud, thud. The heavy, rhythmic sound becomes clearer and an accompanying sonorous yet sombre voice becomes audible. Thud, thud, thud. It becomes clear that the drumming is in fact the reverberation of palms striking chests as men stand, shoulder to shoulder, in concentric circles and parallel lines. This is not some Opus Dei reunion but one of the most visible and specific practices adopted by Shias: the mourning ritual commemorating the martyrdom of their 3rd Imam, Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad. The ceremonies have developed over a millennium and highlight some of the core features of Shia belief and practice: a deep veneration for the family of the prophet and communal spirit forged through hardship.

Edward William Lane, 19th century scholar and author of the prestigious (and prodigious) Lane's Lexicon – a dictionary of the Arabic language, offers the following definition of the word Shia: A separate, or distinct, party, or sect, of men.

He goes on to make mention of the specific application of the term to “a particular party [or sect] being predominantly applied to all who took as their friends, or lords, ‘Alee [sic] and the people of his house: those who followed ‘Alee, saying that he was the [rightful] Imam after the Apostle of God, and believing that the office of Imam should not depart from him and his descendants: they are an innumerable people, who are innovators; the extravagant zealots among them are the Imameeyeh [sic].”

This latter group is the very same group that form the majority of today’s Shia community. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s inflammatory pronunciations regarding the Shia are thus by no means novel.

Readers will be aware of the existence of distinctive Sunni and Shia traditions in Islam but their respective origins are steeped in a smokescreen of polemical diatribe and academic excursion with the Shias emerging as the underdogs, commonly portrayed as the religious manifestation of political partisanship. There is consensus that the trigger-factor for the schism was the issue of the immediate succession of the prophet Muhammad after his death in 632, an event to rival New Labour’s handover of power. The Sunnis favoured Abu Bakr, a companion of the prophet and elder statesman, whereas the preference of the Shias was Ali, war veteran and the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law and in their eyes, the divinely appointed choice, the Imam (based on their interpretation of certain verses of the Qur’an and the prophet’s traditions as reported by Shia and Sunni historians alike). Abu Bakr became the first caliph and Ali the eventual fourth.

Professor SHM Jafri, professor of Islamic studies at the Aga Khan University in Karachi, forcefully argues in his The Origins and Early Development of Shia Islam that there existed a group of Muhammad’s contemporaries who regarded Ali as not only his political but religious successor during the former’s lifetime who were referred to as the Shia of Ali. Subsequent political wrangling and civil wars served to galvanise this group into a fully-fledged religious movement.


Anonymous said...

Salam alaikum

I'm a bit disappointed that you introduce Ali as a "war veteran". He was, first and foremost, the Prophet's personal student, and the nation's greatest scholar. The martial aspects are merely a case of "a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do".

Also, IMHO, 100 million is a gross over estimate. When the Iranian regime falls - and fall it will - you will see women ripping off hijabs and men...what do men do in these circumstances?..but the point is that maybe less than 10% of Iranians are actually Muslim if my conversations and experiences are anything to go by.

Good stuff though. Don't forget to plug


Anonymous said...

10% among the wealthy middle classes and exiles. No doubt the poorer rural areas are much higher.