Tuesday, August 08, 2006

An Insight into Shia Islam - Part 2/3

One of the central tenets of Shiism is belief in the Imamate, the divinely appointed leadership of the Muslim community following the prophet. The majority of Shias are Ithna-Asheri or Twelver, so-called because of their belief in twelve Imams, the first being Ali. The Imams are regarded as infallible individuals and interpreters par excellence of the prophetic tradition, differing from the prophets only by not being direct recipients of Divine revelation. The concept of imamate is commonly regarded as a corollary of the Shia emphasis on the justice of God, one of the five ‘roots of religion’ alongside Imamate, Oneness of God, Prophethood and belief in the Day of Judgement. The notion of a period in history without a guide, a human exemplar, is unimaginable for a Shia.

An exact (and for that matter even an approximate) number of Shias in Britain is unavailable. The community has a significant presence judging by the number of Shia mosques and imambaras dotted around the country. Four ethnic groups form the bulk of Britain’s Shia population: Iraqi, South-East Asian, East-African Asian and Iranian. The East-African Asians are mainly Khojas who are represented by the umbrella charitable organisation the WF of KSIMC, or to give it its glorious Technicolor title, the World Federation of Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheri Muslim Communities. According to their impressive records there are 8,000 members currently residing in the UK. The National Statistics Office may well address this in the 2011 census.

Perhaps the most significant difference from an ideological perspective is the differing role of ijtihad (the derivation of Islamic law) in both traditions. The word ijtihad derives from the same Arabic root as jihad, both words reflecting a sense of struggle. Sunni Islam is classically composed of four schools of thought, named after their founders who lived in temporal proximity to each other during the 8th and 9th centuries. Sunni Muslims decide to follow a particular school, a decision inevitably influenced by cultural and familial leanings, and carry out their daily obligations in accordance with the school’s requirements. The reach of Islamic law is far and wide ranging from the form of prayer to the validity of voting.

It is said that once the Sunni schools of thought had taken on their solid independent existences, the door of ijtihad was then closed. Joseph Schacht, author of An Introduction to Islamic Law, states in this regard “hence a consensus gradually established itself to the effect that from that time onwards no one could be deemed to have the necessary qualifications for independent reasoning in religious law, and that all future activity would have to be confined to the explanation, application, and, at the most, interpretation of the doctrine as it had been laid down once and for all.”

Ijtihad amongst the Shias took on a more dynamic nature with scholars continuing to derive and refine Islamic law to the present day. Shias are required to imitate a mujtahid (expert jurisprudent) perhaps the most famous of which today is the Grand Ayatollah al-Seestani based in Najaf, Iraq. The position offers the Shia scholars a powerful tool in their armoury of independence from the state, shown to great effect in the Tobacco Fatwa issued by Grand Ayatollah Mirza Hassan Shirazi in opposition to the concession made to British tobacco companies by the Qajar head of state in the late 19th century.

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