Su-Shi Simplified

July 3, 2006

My brother from another mother, Abdul-Halim, over at Planet Grenada, recently posted about the Shi’i influence on Sufism and the Shi’a influence in Egypt.

His perspective is that of a Sunni looking in, and so I thought it might be beneficial to view the perspective of a Shi’a looking out into the rest of the Muslim Ummah. Many explanations of the Sunni-Shi’a “split” are oversimplified. The brother’s excerpt of Dr. Aminah McCloud’s analysis of the split illustrates the tendency to look at the issue as black and white, when in relaity, there are may gray areas.

(1) For Dr. McCloud, it is a political split that has little bearing on today’s society. (2) For many Sunnis, the split is a matter of jurisprudence. There are four valid Sunni schools, and many do not consider the Ja’fari, Zaidi, or Ismaili to be among them. (3) For others, it is a matter of ‘aqidah (creed). The shi’a obviously have beliefs that do not fit into either of the Sunni schools of ‘aqidah. (4) Still others are turned off by the esoteric nature of Shi’i thought, particular in relation to the 12th Imam. Most Sunnis who follow sufi teachings, however, lean closer to that esoteric thought than other Sunnis.

The truth of the matter is that they are all correct.

1. The dominant shi’a school (Imami Ithna ‘Ashari — also referred to as Ja’fari) has a different political thought: only an Imam from Ahlul-bayt can occupy the highest political position (khalifah).

2. The Ja’fari school of fiqh is different from the four Sunni schools, with different sources of ahadith, and different exegesis of the Qur’an.

3. The Imami ‘aqidah is different, particularly because it includes the principle of imamah as part of it. You can read a book about the ‘aqidah at OneUmmah.net, uploaded by yours truly.

4. Many traditional Sunnis recognize that the esoteric teachings of Sufism are a integral part of Islam. There was an effort among some Sunnis to separate those teachings from Islam. In the Shi’a thought, this attempt at separation never occurred. Although there is a movement of ‘irfan, which seeks to make it more prominent, even the staunchest anti-sufi shi’a ‘alim is still very much ingrained with shi’a esoteric thought. In this sense, one could say that shi’a have their own tariqa (sufi order), and those who have studied the works of luminaries such as Bahr-Ulum or, more recently, ‘Allamah Tabataba`i, would recognize this.

One can conclude, from the above four points, that the shi’a split was essentially a different perspective on Islam from each of the major aspects of Islamic thought. What I have not included is philosophy, not because there is not a difference, but because I am not even qualified to write one sentence about it. This perspective hinges completely on the concept of imamah, because it is from the Imams of Ahlul-bayt that their followers gather around their principles of ‘aqidah, politics, fiqh, and sufism. The question I would ask to Dr. McCloud is: casting aside the political issue, where do you stand on the other issues (fiqh, ‘aqidah, etc.)? Those are the real relevant issues that effect both Sunnis and Shi’as today. What I have discovered is that the differences pale in comparison to the similarities.

Those who seek to cause discord would most likely find reasons to fight one other even without the sunni-shi’a split. Even now, they fight over tribal issues, using Sunni and Shi’a identities as their own personal tribal affiliations. They are more like gang members than students of religious schools of thought. And Allah knows best!


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