In the first part of “Bridging the Sunni-Shia Divide“, I discussed common misconceptions regarding Sunnis and Sunnism. The second part of this series will be dedicated to clearing misconceptions regarding Shia Muslims and Shi’ism. This is a difficult task given the number of profiteers from sectarian wars and the few bad apples amongst the Shia who are used to generalize against the entire global Shia community. It is much easier to make lies about Shia Muslims and get away with it since they are a minority in the Muslim world.
The fact of the matter is that most individuals with deeply rooted anti-Shi’ism have never cordially interacted with Shia Muslims or tried to understand their views outside of unacademic clips or websites. As Muslims, we should be cautious of doing to our Muslim brothers and sisters what Islamophobes do to us; which is to judge and hate without knowing the other properly.
Anti-Shi’ism is a severe problem across the Muslim world, resulting in several forms of oppression from terrorism to ideological suppression. A Pew Research Center poll from 2012 showed that more than half of Palestinian, Egyptian, and Morrocan respondents believe that Shias are not Muslims despite Sunni religious institutions like Al-Azhar University in Cairo, teaching otherwise.
For the sake of brevity, “Shia” used alone in this article will refer to Ja’fari Shia, since Zaydi Shi’a are considered the closest to Sunnis and had no problem with them historically. Luckily, tolerance between Sunnis and Shia have been increasing in the past decade, and this trend ought to be celebrated. In this article, I will be clearing up three misconceptions about Shias and Shi’ism in hopes to decrease sectarianism between Muslims and encourage tolerance within Muslim communities.
“All Shia Curse the Companions of the Prophet!”
The cursing of the companions of the Prophet, prayers and peace be upon him, is probably the biggest issue dividing Sunnis and Shia today. The emphasis on Shia Muslims insulting the companions have always been incredibly politicized and highlighted as the biggest divide, despite it not being an essential principle of faith in either school.
The reason it is emphasized is that it provokes emotional sentiments given the connection many Muslims have with most of the companions, rightfully so. Regardless, the idea that Shias have a consensus and agreement on insulting great figures of the companions is abundantly false. As expressed before, Zaydi Shia, predominantly found in Yemen, never had a problem with the Sunni school of thought. They have a genuine appreciation of the companions and dislike the use of foul language to describe them. What is seldom known is that the Ja’faris have made major leaps forward in condemning the disparagement of the honorable companions in the past couple of decades and a have displayed an effort to spread more awareness about this very issue.
The world’s most followed Jafari Marja’ (religious authority) in the world, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, said that the cursing of Sahabah “is condemned and strongly objectionable, and is against what the Imams of Ahlul Bayt has ordered their followers. Allah is the Guide.” His fatwa on the companions has influenced the attitudes of tens of millions of Shia around the world. And he is not alone on this uniting take.
The supreme leader of Iran, Ali Al-Khamenei, also took this position, saying to those who asked about insulting As-Sayyedah Aisha:
Insulting the personalities of Sunni brethren, including the wives of all the Prophets, in particular those of the Leader of the Prophets and accusing the wife of the Prophet of Islam, is forbidden (haram).”
Yet another one, The late Ayatollah Muhammad H. Fadhlallah, explicitly said that disrespecting the companions of the Holy Prophet, prayers and peace be upon him, and Umm Al-Mu’mineen Aisha is impermissible. Beyond that, several other high-profile Twelver scholars stood against the disrespect of companions like Kamal Al-Haydari, Wahid Al-Khurasani, and Sayyed Muhammad Baqir Al-Sadr.
The Ja’fari scholars above have invested in changing Shia attitudes towards Sunni figures towards a more positive direction, and these changes should be appreciated by those of us who want peace and tolerance between Muslims. We cannot disregard that some Ja’faris indeed curse the companions, but it is simply unjust to generalize the few who use such offensive language against all Ja’faris.
The fact of the matter is that the overwhelming majority of Ja’faris follow these big Marja’s who have spoken out against this phenomenon. On the other hand, Shirazis, who are at the forefront of propagating the reviling of Sayyidah Aisha and other companions, are severely criticized by Ja’fari legal and spiritual authorities. It is crucial that we avoid judging large groups based on the actions of a minority.
“Shia Venerate Ali More Than the Prophet!”
In some communities where interaction between Sunnis and Shia are minimal, and sectarian talk is rampant, the idea that Shia Muslims venerate Ali more than the Beloved Prophet, peace be upon him, is prevalent. This misconception says a lot about the nature of this conflict: it is fueled by lies and misunderstandings.
No existent Shia group today believes that Ali bin Abi Taleb was superior in virtue to the Holy Prophet. Ja’faris, like all Muslims, fully recognize the subordinate position of Imam Ali, may Allah ennoble his face, to the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him. In fact, believing that Ali or any of the Imams of Ahlulbayt had a higher status than the Prophet is considered Kufr (disbelief) in all of the Shia schools.
Though some laymen Shi’a may remember Ali more than they remember the Prophet, that may be constructively criticized. But it is undeniable that the superiority of the Holy Prophet over all humans is a point of consensus amongst Muslims, Ja’faris included. The idea that Shia believe Angel Jibreel, peace be upon him, made a mistake by giving the prophecy to Muhammad instead of Ali is actually a baseless myth. That was the belief of a small off-shoot fringe group called the Ghurabiyyah that only existed in the 13th century AD as far as we know and ceased to exist beyond that. It is incredibly misinformed, and unjust for that matter, to compare Ja’faris to Ghurabiyyah, who have been an extinct group for almost a thousand years. The Ghurabiyyah are not considered Muslims even by Shia, because their belief is Kufr by consensus of all Muslims, whereas Twelvers are considered Muslims by all major Sunni institutions like Al-Azhar.
“Shi’a Practice Self-mutilation!”
Sadly, if you search “Shia” in Google images, some of the first pictures you will see are of Shia Muslims using sharp objects to hurt themselves in Ashura commemorations. Due to the gruesome, and thus memorable, nature of these pictures, they become strongly linked with Shia Muslims. These are actions that are rightfully regarded as repulsive by most humans, let alone Muslims. However, it is once again, objectively, an overwhelming minority of Ja’faris who commit these ignorant and ridiculous actions. And they usually come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Moreover, other Shias like Zaydis rule that self-beating and harming are categorically impermissible. Once again, it is imperative to separate the actions of the few from the majority or the school of thought entirely. Self-harm rituals are not native or representative of the Twelver (Ja’fari) school. Slowly but surely, these practices are disappearing again.
Studying the origins of these self-harm rituals, Yitzhak Nakash, in his article: “An Attempt to Trace the Origin of the Rituals of ʿĀshūrāʾ” states the following regarding the origin of these practices:
The flagellations were introduced into central and southern Iran, as well as into Iraq, only in the nineteenth century. This proposition is supported by the data provided by Shi’i biographies and Iraqi Shi’i oral history. The biographies identify Shaykh Mulla Agha `Abidal-Darbendi (d. 1868/9) as the first to introduce violent acts of self-flagellation into Tehran around the mid-nineteenth century.”
Unfortunately, the (relatively) newly introduced rituals practiced by a few have wrongly become a signature image for Shi’ism. Considering the spread of these ugly rituals, big-time Ja’fari scholars have (rightfully) condemned such actions.
Ayatollah Ali Sistani, mentioned previously, was asked if cutting oneself during Ashura for Imam Husayn is haram in his liaison office in London. He answered: “Reviving Hussaini traditions is encouraged, but one is not allowed to harm the body or the noble reputation of the Faith”. Ali Khamenei also shared these sentiments and called the rituals disappointing and wrongful fabrications that would never be accepted by the Imams of Ahlulbayt. Other famous Twelver scholars and Marja’s who condemned self-harm include Abul Qasim Al-Khoei, Kamal Al-Haydari, Muhammad Baqir Al-Sadr, Ahmad Al-Wa’eli, Asif Al-Mohseni, and Wahid Al-Khurasani.
For all the reasons above, Iran has made self-mutilation illegal and punishable by law since Khomeini’s time. Shias, in general, detest this act so much that they have invested in campaigns and projects to end this dishonorable ritual that disrespects the name of Ahlulbayt and Islam. One does not need to go further than http://tatbir.org/ to see their efforts. Tatbir.org is a well-organized website offering extensive arguments against self-mutilation from Ja’fari text and authorities and is thankfully gaining traction across the Shia world. The progress being made in the past couple of decades ought to be commended by all Muslims, as it presents the case of how Islamic scholars can change and reform interest with fringe behavior.
Sunnis and Shia Muslims have irreconcilable theological differences. That is the reality, for now. When dealing with other groups, it is vital for Muslims to attempt to understand the minority so that their story is not blurred, and to highlight the similarities. When we’re with Christians, we should highlight Mary and Christ (as Jaafar b. Abi Talib, Allah be pleased with him, did with King Negus). With Jews, we should focus on Moses and other Israelite prophets. When dealing with Muslims, we should highlight the two weighty things that the Prophet mentioned according to Sahih Muslim: the Qur’an and the household of the Prophet, prayers and peace be upon him.
This famous narration [Mashhoor] amongst Sunnis and Shia allows us to focus on commonalities if we are genuinely interested in peace-making. If we focus on the foundations that what we agree on, and seek clarity from each other where we think we disagree, we can see new horizons as far as learning and cooperating. Hopefully, this article will contribute to a movement towards less sectarianism and more cooperation between Muslims with different ideological backgrounds.