Monday, February 09, 2009

Shi'ism, Sunnism, & Islam: A Sample Debate, Polemic vs. Academics

Anti-Shi'i propaganda produced by a radical Sunni Muslim group

Recently, I was involved in an impromptu and unexpected (on my part) "debate"/exchange on the status message/comments section of an acquaintance's FaceBook profile, with a friend of his. For those unfamiliar with FaceBook, one can let your friends know what you're up to by writing a "status message," e.g. "Christopher is...reading."

This acquaintance was looking for a particular essay by 'Ali Shari'ati, a prominent Iranian Shi'i intellectual during the 1970s. I posted one of several links where he could find this essay ("Red Shi'ism"). One of his friends then began making allegations about Shari'ati, that his family was "not Iranian" and that Shi'i Islam had been forced onto Iran's predominantly Sunni population in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by the Safavid dynasty, whose founder declared Twelver Shi'ism to be the new state religion. I replied by saying that while forced conversion did occur, the extent to which the transformation of what we now know as modern Iran (the nation-state) from a Sunni to a Twelver Shi'i-majority state was the topic of continued research and debate among the scholars who specialize in medieval Iranian and Safavid history. His friend, who I shall call "Khan" to save space (their surname), said no, ALL Sunni Iranians had been "forced" to convert, and they then proceeded to list a random collection of quotes from books, both scholarly and non, travel web sites, and biased sources (speeches of Baha'i and Zoroastrian, and pro-Pahlavi shah writers and officials who have an interest in denigrating Iran's long Islamicate history). Khan did quote a few scholarly books. However, as I said previously, this is a subject which is debated in the scholarly literature. Khan later crowed that s/he had won, after I declined to debate "it," due to the polemical (polemically Sunni and anti-Shi'i) nature of their tone (it's often useless to try and have an intelligent discussion with such people).

I was not going to engage anymore with Khan, but the debate continued with another person, a Shi'i. Khan and the Shi'i exchanged blows. Khan then made a slew of polemical, biased accusations against Shi'is, Iran, and Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran:

KHAN: Al-Islam is a bigoted site [the site I originally linked to] which promotes hatred of Sunni Muslims. If you can't see that perhaps you should check your own views about Sunni's. It spreads the sort of terrorist hatred which results in people being killed in Iraq, Iran and Pakistan.

Do you believe in theocratic totalitarian states ?...Totalitarian state as preached by [Ayatullah Ruhollah] Khomeini...Do you believe in Khomeini's teachings?

Ok, then in that case you believe women accused of adultery should be buried waist deep and stoned to death ? If you deny it I can link you to the video's.

You believe that children should be sent into war with plastic 'keys to paradise' ?

You believe that children should be subject to capital punishment ?

You believe that minorities such as the Bahai's etc such be discriminated against ?

You believe that a 'Supreme Leader' should be able to override the democratic will of the people of a country ?

Khan then complained about Shi'i criticisms and "cursing" of the first three successors of the Prophet Muhammad, who Sunnis recognize as "Rashidun" or "rightly-guided" caliphs (kings, rulers). S/he compared Al-Islam, the web site referred to above as being similar to Adolph Hitler's Mein Kampf and writings by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, and U.S. white supremacist David Duke (ridiculous claims).

Having seen this ridiculousness, I responded with the following (and have yet to hear back from Khan).

First, I addressed Khan's inference that the stoning issue is unique to Shi'is and Iran by quoting two hadith (traditions attributed, correctly or not, to the Prophet Muhammad) in one of the two main Sunni collections (I selected the first example because Khan cawed about Shi'i criticisms about the second Rashidun caliph, 'Umar ibn al-Khattab, through which the first hadith is narrated):

Sahih Muslim, Book 017, Number 4194:
'Abdullah b. 'Abbas reported that 'Umar b. Khattab sat on the pulpit of Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) and said: Verily Allah sent Muhammad (may peace be upon him) with truth and He sent down the Book upon him, and the verse of stoning was included in what was sent down to him. We recited it, retained it in our memory and understood it. Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) awarded the punishment of stoning to death (to the married adulterer and adulteress) and, after him, we also awarded the punishment of stoning, I am afraid that with the lapse of time, the people (may forget it) and may say: We do not find the punishment of stoning in the Book of Allah, and thus go astray by abandoning this duty prescribed by Allah. Stoning is a duty laid down in Allah's Book for married men and women who commit adultery when proof is established, or it there is pregnancy, or a confession.

Sahih Muslim, Book 017, Number 4191:
'Ubada b. as-Samit reported: Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: Receive (teaching) from me, receive (teaching) from me. Allah has ordained a way for those (women). When an unmarried male commits adultery with an unmarried female (they should receive) one hundred lashes and banishment for one year. And in case of married male committing adultery with a married female, they shall receive one hundred lashes and be stoned to death.

I then countered Khan's bogus claims that issues of the death penalty, suicide attacks/martyrdom operations (depending on one's point of view), and undemocratic governance were unique to Shi'is or Iran (or even to Muslims):

On Sunni takfiri suicide bombers in Iraq:

On persecution of minorities in Sunni-ruled countries:

These issues aren't unique to Shi'is or to Iran. They are issues globally.

As for the support by radical Sunni 'ulama and activists for suicide attacks, plenty of material can be found online using Arabic and Urdu search engines, Al Qa'ida's al-Sahab media wing (check YouTube and other video sharing sites), certain independent Salafi television stations in Saudi Arabia, and on Internet clearing houses and specialized blogs such as One could also consider where the greatest number of suicide bombings have been carried out and by whom in the Muslim world. They include Iraq (see Mohammed Hafez's study linked above), Palestine, and Pakistan. Of course, suicide attacks aren't restricted to any one group, Muslim or otherwise, as shown by Robert Pape in his study, and from the decades long conflict in Sri Lanka. Many of the suicide attacks committed in Lebanon against the occupying Israeli army in the 1980s were committed by secularists, including members of Marxist groups.

My point isn't to defend or condemn Shari'ati, it's to point out that these issues are far from agreed upon in the scholarly literature and that these issues/problems aren't unique to Khomeini, Iran, Shi'is, Sunnis, Muslims, FILL IN GROUP HERE. They cross boundaries. I'm opposed to blind, polemical, one-sided approaches to complex issues.

Stoning as one of the hudud punishments, which is not only practiced in Iran, is based on a (disputed, among the jurists) reading of prophetic Hadith, Sunni and Shi'i, two of which I quoted above. You can find many more by going through the six collections considered the most authoritative by Sunni jurists, chief among them the "Sahihayn:" Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, or various Twelver Shi'i (as opposed to Zaydi or medieval Isma'ili) collections. See here:, or check out and search the Arabic original volumes, which I'm sure many university libraries have.

Similarly, persecution of minorities isn't unique to Iran. Saudi Arabia persecutes not only Zaydi, Isma'ili, and Twelver Shi'is, but also Sunnis who do not follow the state Salafi creed, and Sufis. Ahmadis are persecuted in Pakistan, with the support of many 'ulama, Sunni and Shi'i.

With regard to democracy, last one checked, most countries ruled by Sunni leaders, however religious or secular, weren't bastions of democracy either: Egypt, Jordan, the Arab Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, to name a few. Again, the lack of real representative democracy isn't unique to Iran.

There are conflicting trends among Muslim jurists, both Sunni and Shi'i, about all of these issues. To take one example, suicide attacks, rulings for and against have been issued by Sunni and Shi'i jurists. For every fatwa, usually by "official" or state 'ulama (e.g. the fatwa from the scholars of Darul Ulum-Deoband, and a fatwa from the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia,, as opposed to pro fatawa issued by non-state Salafi 'ulama like Nasir al-'Umar and the 1998 fatwa signed by Bin Laden, Zawahiri, and other Sunni jurists), against "terrorism" and suicide attacks, one can easily find fatawa in defense of them.

How to define these type of attacks (as "suicide" or "martyrdom") is often key to these debates. Suicide attacks of course are not called this by groups, Sunni or Shi'i or secular, who use them as a tactic. Rather, the term "martyrdom operation" (عملية استشهادية ), avoiding the Qur'anic and Hadith proscription against suicide.

In the Middle East and the wider Muslim world, suicide or, if one prefers, the tactic of the عملية استشهادية , attacks have been utilized by Shi'i (Hizbullah, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps), Sunni (al-Qa'ida, Lashkar-e Taiba, Jaysh-i Muhammad, Ansar al-Sunna, Tawhid wa'l Jihad, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, HAMAS, Palestinian Islamic Jihad), and secular (al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Tanzim militias, Lebanese Marxist/Communist groups) organizations. The "last stand" and the suicidal "last charge" is romanticized in the West as well. The scholarly literature on this subject (see Mohammed Hafez, Mia Bloom, Robert Pape, Talal Asad), coupled with observations of fields in which such attacks are used, clearly shows this.

With regard to execution of minors (those under 18), this is an important issue in Iran. It is not, however, unique to Iran or Shi'is.

One recent example from (Sunni majority) Somalia:

The group who carried this execution out, al-Shabab, are a Sunni militant group affiliated, however loosely, with (Sunni takfiri) al-Qa'ida:

To read a fatwa from a Sunni web site on whether stoning is a punishment to be found in the Sunna of the Prophet, see:

Such punishments are or have also been carried out in Sunni-majority countries/regions including northern Sudan (particularly in the state of Kano, where [simplistic] shari‘a courts were re-established in 1999), Pakistan, Taliban Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia.

On the issue of women, this is also something debated by Sunni and Shi'i jurists/'ulama, both with one another and internally within their own groups. One example: When Grand Ayatullah Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, who is often falsely called the "spiritual leader of Hizbullah" (see Augustus Norton & Jamal Sankari's works, or commentary by As'ad Abu-Khalil for explanation of the inaccuracy of this allegation), issued a series of fatawa that said all people (men and women) once they reach maturity are independent, thus negating the "male guardianship" supported by both traditional Sunni and Shi'i juridical interpretations of the Qur'an and Hadith, and that women could defend themselves with force against abusive husbands, he was denounced by Sunni 'ulama, including several Salafi jurists from Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia, a Sunni majority country, has perhaps the most restrictive laws for women and "gender-mixing" of any country, including Iran and Pakistan. The driving ban doesn't exist in Iran, despite the other issues of gender equality that need to be addressed there. It is unique in (Sunni-Salafi) Saudi Arabia. The religious police, Mutawaa'in, publicly enforce these laws, as I witnessed personally in the summer of 2007. Their official name is the "Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice," after the Qur'anic injunctive: امر بالمعروف و نهى عن المنكر . Certain regions and cities are reportedly "better" and "worse" with regard to the level of harassment from the Mutawaa'in. Let's not forget the infamous and tragic case of the deaths of 15 schoolgirls in Mecca due to the Mutawaa'in:

Offices in Mecca, near Jabal al-Thur, of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice (translated slightly differently here).

Photograph Copyright 2007 by Christopher Anzalone

Criticisms of the Rashidun caliphs have also been written by Sunni authors, particularly modern ones, among them Sayyid Qutb, who is particularly harsh with 'Uthman and 'Ali. See his Social Justice in Islam. This is one of the reasons Salafi Sunni 'ulama in Saudi Arabia don't like his works (see David Commins' excellent study).

Critical reports of the first four caliphs can also be found in al-Tabari's History of Prophets and Kings, translated and published by the State University of New York Press (or see the Arabic originals).

For radically different, or more "progressive" or "liberal" views, if one wishes to classify them this way, on gender relations/equality and government & religion, one should see the works of Kadivar (currently a visiting professor at UVA), Eshkevari, and Said'zadeh. Charles Kurzman wrote an excellent survey of a new wave of 'ulama questioning some of the basis for the current Iranian governmental system.

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