My view on Shi’ism

Before I begin, I am not anti-Shi’a nor have anti-Shi’a feelings. I am sickened when I hear about bombings of Shi’a masjids by Sunnis. Of course I take deep issue with Sahaba-cursing, as any and all Sunnis would. But, this post has nothing to do with condemning anyone. It is purely my perspective on the Shia/Sunni schism.

Why I never became a Shi’a

The primary and single biggest reason I never accepted Shi’ism is because of the Shi’a practice (and some Sunnis do this too) of calling out for assistance to the Ahl al-Bayt. In particular, you hear ‘Madad ya ‘Ali!’ (Help me Ya ‘Ali عليه السلام). This directly contradicts the verse of the Qur’an.

أُولَٰئِكَ الَّذِينَ يَدْعُونَ يَبْتَغُونَ إِلَىٰ رَبِّهِمُ الْوَسِيلَةَ أَيُّهُمْ أَقْرَبُ وَيَرْجُونَ رَحْمَتَهُ وَيَخَافُونَ عَذَابَهُ ۚ إِنَّ عَذَابَ رَبِّكَ كَانَ مَحْذُورًا

Those whom they call upon do desire (for themselves) means of access to their Lord, – even those who are nearest: they hope for His Mercy and fear His Wrath: for the Wrath of thy Lord is something to take heed of. – Surah Israa, Verse 57

Instead of asking Allah, or even the Prophet صلى الله عليه و سلم which would still be wrong, they are asking Imam ‘Ali or Imam Husayn عليهما السلام for help. I fail to see how this is not polytheism. I once saw a man slice his back doing Zanjeer Zani, self-flagellation, and was told by other Shias, “Bus, Imam Husayn qabool kareyga” (English: Enough, Imam Husayn will accept). They want their action to be accepted by Imam Husayn عليه السلام not by Allah. If that is not polytheism, then there is no such thing as polytheism on the face of the Earth. I have heard rationalizations and at best it can be argued that they are asking Imam Husayn عليه السلام to make du’a for them, but the presentation and style is so close to polytheism that it seems best to avoid it entirely.

Aside from that, personally being in an Iranian Maatam program was shocking. It seems as if rather than a genuine display of emotion for the savagery that our dear Imam faced, they were artificially showing off to others. For example, when I first heard the story of the death of Imam Husayn عليه السلام, I really did cry. (I remember, I was driving by our masjid.) That was unplanned spontaneous genuine emotion. Nowadays, Shi’as ritually organize and plan ahead (ie, not spontaneous) to harm themselves with knives and blades. They are more interested in showing off to others their extreme devotion and self-harm than actually reflecting on Imam Husayn’s عليه السلام life and death. One thing that I find absurd is the complete arbitrary nature of the ritual. I have been told that you should not gravely harm yourself and doing so is haraam, but question what the basis is for that injunction. Why is using blades acceptable at all when even mild Zanjeer Zani is harming the body? Why not use guns on the body? Why not cut off a limb or blind oneself? After all, you won’t die, just as blood-letting will not kill you.

Another factor was the obsession with historical events that cannot be changed. Every Shi’a lecture is about why a member of the Ahl al-Bayt عليه السلام is better than one of the khalifahs or leaders or military generals or what-have-you. It has very little to do with controlling the ego, the desires, alleviating grief, sadness, anger, depression or other emotions that come one’s way. Shi’as will argue that these historical events are important. Important is a relative term, the killing of the 3rd Khalifah ‘Uthman رضى الله عنه is important to Sunnis, but we do not obsess over it to the point where we neglect the religion itself. But it seems that they are more interested in talking about why Banu Umayya was wrong over knowing Allah and his messenger صلى الله عليه و سلم. To be honest, I have heard perhaps 1-2 talks from Shi’as on any topic besides Imamah.

Finally, whenever I would read Shi’a websites and articles that presented arguments for their positions, they would often quote directly from Sunni books of ahadith. Whenever they did this, they would always quote ahadith that supported their positions (ie, a criticism of ‘Aisha رضى الله عنها) but then selectively disregard the ahadith about her righteous characteristics – from the same book! I found that highly disingenuous.

Where do I think Shi’ism came from?

In summary, my personal perspective is that Shi’ism began as a political movement with valid objectives and concerns and over time evolved into a theological ideology.

During the early period of Islamic history, there was political instability and a series of uprisings against the Banu Umayya government. These uprising movements had legitimacy because political leadership was usurped by governments that were more interested in consolidating power, authority, control and wealth than actually spreading the message of Islam.

Due to their corruption, oppression and family rule, the arrival of Banu Umayya was not welcome by many Muslims. This led to dozens of uprisings, most famously the one by Imam Husayn عليه السلام. When this uprising was crushed by ‘Ubaydullah Ibn Ziyad and the like during the tragic events of Karbala, it created intense pain, a feeling of being wronged, and that clearly the bad guys had won and gotten away with it. Numerous secret and not-so-secret groups arose to challenge Banu Umayya, overthrow their power, and attempt to re-establish righteous authority, such as the uprising by ‘Abdullah ibn Zubayr رضى الله عنه and Imam Zayd bin ‘Ali عليه السلام.

One by one, these uprisings were crushed. But the sentiment that the government should be stopped remained. Many of these movements saw the family of the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه و سلم as the most worthy rulers to have authority. At the same time, I am certain not-so-religious minded people wanted to have anyone in power besides the current government – a confederation based on various motivations. Either way, they opposed the government and started a new political party which became known as the Shi’a.

The Shi’a never achieved their goal of trying to overthrow the government. Instead, generations of state-persecution of essentially anti-government forces led them to become insular, radical, and ultimately create independent and extreme theologies that the Muslim world did not know before. They were never a unified theological movement, which is why there there have always been dozens of Shi’a sects and groups, but they loosely maintained the same political agenda.

Over centuries, the original political agenda was lost.

Back-Filling the Imamat Concept

The concept of Imamat as the Shias believe is not clearly mentioned in the Qur’an as you would expect if it truly was so integral to Islam. So where does it come from?

I believe that it came from the various Shi’a groups picking their respective leadership and over-time some built them up as being infallible, perfect leaders. I say some because because not all Shi’a groups revere the Imams as the Ithna ‘Ashari do. No doubt, even the Sunnis regarded them as great Muslims, but not as infallible. Since the family of the Prophet صلى الله عليه و سلم were selected as the only legitimate leadership, his applies retroactively to Imam ‘Ali عليه السلام who is then also seen as infallible. In turn, Abu Bakr, ‘Umar and ‘Uthman رضى الله عنهم, who were from Banu Umayya, are disregarded as usurpers and disbelievers.

Which then leads to the next question…


Why do the Shi’a curse many of the Sahaba? I suspect the basis of this two fold.

First, if the family of the Prophet صلى الله عليه و سلم should have always been the leaders, then even Abu Bakr, ‘Umar and ‘Uthman رضى الله عنهم were wrong to now have “stolen” leadership from Imam ‘Ali عليه السلام. But we know that the Imams of Ahl al-Bayt عليهم السلام from the testimony of Imam Zayd ibn ‘Ali عليه السلام himself! So who created this idea? It was started from those who hated Banu Umayya so much that they extended that hatred backwards.


There are no-doubt explanations for the following inconsistencies, but there are also explanations from people who believe in a flat-earth theory.

Imam ‘Ali عليه السلام married Umm al-Banin and had the children Abu Bakr, ‘Umar and ‘Uthman. I have heard the explanations, but they seem too convenient and too coincidental.

Imam Zayd bin ‘Ali عليه السلام refused to curse Abu Bakr and ‘Umar رضى الله عنه.

The utter disunity of the Shi’a, specifically that the Ithna ‘Ashari were historically not the majority group – it was the Isma’ilis. Their lack of a central theology suggests that they independently developed rather than through the guidance of their alleged Imams.

And finally…Unity?

It depends what you mean by unity. If you mean that we should work towards common efforts, such as civil rights, helping the poor and needy, peace, prosperity, economic and social stability, and the elimination of hate? Then yes, I am unified with the Shi’as.

But if you mean we should pray in a single masjid, Sunnis should immerse themselves in Shi’a practices and celebrate Eid al-Ghadeer and the like, then no, I do not believe in unity.

My observation about unity is that it usually begins from the Shi’a, not the Sunnis, and usually involves Sunnis praying behind Shi’as and adapting Shi’a ideas into their practices.


An explanation of the differences amongst the Sunni Muslims

A lot of people get confused by the multitude of sects and groups amongst the Muslims. There seem to be an endless number of labels that people add to the simple title Muslim. Having been through most of the groups, I feel qualified to shed some insight on these differences. This short post discusses the intra-Sunni differences.
Before I continue, I want to make two points. First, I openly acknowledge the differences between the Sunni and Shi’a sects. Anyone who do downplays the differences is either misinformed or ignoring major issues of belief, practice and spirituality. Second, I would advice my readers to read Differences in The Ummat and Siraat-e-Mustaqeem by Mufti Afzal Hoosen Elias.
Per the famous Hadith Jibreel, I am going to divide this analysis into three sections, namely Beliefs, Practice and Spirituality.
Beliefs – ‘Aqidah

The core beliefs of islam are very simple and can literally be explained in less than one minute. They are known as the six pillars of faith: Belief in Allah, the Angels, the Revealed Books, the Prophets, the Day of Judgement and the Good and Bad of the Divine Decree. Where Muslims differ is on the correct understanding of these six pillars of faith.
There are essentially two groups amongst these: those who accept a reason-based approach to theology as an extension to the Qur’an and those who reject the reason-based approach as an extension to the Qur’an. The former group consists of the Ash’ari and Maturidis. While technically separate, the differences are negligable and have coallessed into a single approach. The latter group is primarily the Atharis.
The dispute between the two is that the Atharis argue that the Ash’ari/Maturidi approach uses potentially flawed reason to do Tahreef (distortion) of verses of the Qur’an which apply to nature of Allah. The Ash’aris/Maturidis retort that the Athari approach of literalism when applied to Allah is mustahil (inconceivable).
Practice – Fiqh

The Qur’an has clear Islamic law, but it is primarily a book of guidance and beliefs. As such, the practices of Islam were taught by the Prophet Muhammad and were recorded in compiled works of ahadith (prophetic traditions). The books of ahadith were written by scholars for scholars and legal rulings cannot be properly deduced by the layman without years of prior study.
With the arrival of new circumstances that never affected the Muslims during the time of the Prophet, the Qawa’id al-Shari’ah (legal maxims and principles) were derived from the Qur’an and prophetic traditions to address these issues.
These principles and its conclusions coallessed into four primary maddhabs (schools of legal thought), namely the Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki and Hanbali schools. Centuries of development produced corpuses of legal rulings on a multitude of issues with acceptable variations. They share 75% of the same conclusions and the 25% of what they differ on are usually minor or negligable.
With regards to the maddhabs, there are essentially two approaches, with many shades of gray in between. Either to accept or reject Taqlid (following without knowing the evidence). Those who accept Taqlid argue in favor of following the conclusions of one of the four maddhabs. They argue that the layman does not have the ability to independently interpret Islamic law and there is no need to “reinvent the wheel” of the conclusions the legal scholars derived and agreed upon for generations. Those who reject Taqlid argue that there are undeniable mistakes in the conclusions of the maddhabs, and that the methodology of the four Imams themselves was to follow the truth, not blindly follow their teachers.
Spirituality – Tasawwuf

The final issue of dispute is the approach to purifying the heart, controlling the Nafs (ego), trusting God, accepting his decree, etc. In short, the spiritual aspects of the religion. The difference is over the legitimacy or illegitimacy of Tasawwuf (Sufism) and whether its practices are valid approaches to the above-stated goals. According to those who practice or support Tasawwuf, they argue that their practices are proven effective and were developed after generations of implementation and spiritual insight from Awliya’ (saints) who received instructions via Ilhaam (divine inspiration, distinct from prophetic revelation) or from person to person connecting directly back to the Prophet. Opponents of Tasawwuf argue that their practices are nothing more than sophisticated Bid’aat (invalid innovations) and that all practices can be directly or indirectly derived from the ahadith.
While this is more related to Fiqh, its important to note that the two approaches have different definitions of Bid’ah (invalid innovations in religion). One argues that a bid’ah is what has no explicit evidence from the Qur’an and Ahadith. The other argues that a bid’ah is what goes in opposition to or has no basis eminating from the Qur’an and Ahadith.

The differences listed above are intra-Sunni and thus do not constitute a distinct sect. The groups within the Sunnis are essentially different permutations of the positions on Beliefs, Practice and Spirituality. Its worth mentioning that nearly all groups conform to a reason-based extension to the Qur’an in matters of belief, to a strong degree of adherence to one of the our maddhabs, and to a general acceptance of a tariqah (schematized implementation of Sufism). The only group that rejects all three is known as Salafiyya, which does so in the name of returning to the pure roots of the religion. Yet other differences are based in different responses to political phenomena and as such have no theological bearing.
For the most part, most Sunni Muslims do not adhere to any labeled sect or group. Many do not even know that they are Sunnis, but only refer to themselves as Muslims. As I always say, if you were to blind-fold your average Muslim and put him in any masjid around the world, he would not know which group that masjid belonged to unless he asked very specific, pointed questions that rarely come up in casual conversation.