Many of my friends have been asking me about Shiism, that is, the belief system of Shia people. A few weeks ago, some of them pointed out that, since I have a blog, I should write about it here. I told them that I would do it one day, but I have been reluctant to start.
You see, like the average young boys in Malaysia, I grew up not knowing anything about Shia or Shiism, except that this is the group that favours Ali. Since I was told that during his caliphate, Ali fought against Muawiyah, I had the impression that Shias were the good guys.
In those days, Shiism was not officially considered as a deviant group in Malaysia, as it is now. As far as I can recall, the Malays generally have special liking for Ali, perhaps more than any other companions. With Shia being considered as the party of Ali, it naturally followed that the general view on Shia was favorable, or at least not unfavorable.
When the Islamic Revolution of Iran successfully staged the coup against the tyrant Shah of Iran in 1979, and declared Iran as the Islamic state, the whole world, including Malaysia, was watching. With the picture of a pious and charismatic Ayatollah Khomeini shown throughout the world, along with his mantra “there is no Sunni, there is no Shia, only Islam,” the prestige of Shia naturally enhanced.
Many of those who went to visit Iran in the 80’s and 90’s spoke glowingly about the Iranians. The late Ahmad Deedat, the celebrated Islamic debater against the Christians, was one of those who spoke highly of them. In fact, Iran is still heralded as among the few Islamic nations brave enough to face the US and the Israel squarely to their faces.
As for me, I grew up having favorable view on Shia, though I must confess that up to my teenage years, I knew nothing about Shiism.
When I went to the US for my tertiary education, I began to hear some disparaging remarks about Shia. Some said that they have a different Quran. Others said that the Archangel Gabriel had made a mistake: Quran should have been revealed to Ali, not Muhammad. Yet others said that Shias consider Ali to be divine, pretty much like our fellow Christians who consider Jesus to be likewise.
But when I asked some of my Shia friends in the US, they always gave this reply to me: “We do not reject Abu Bakar; neither do we reject Umar or Uthman. But we prefer Ali.” And they went on saying that their Quran is the same as ours, that the Archangel Gabriel did not make a mistake, and that Ali is not divine.
“Just like you have heretic groups, we too have the same,” my Shia friends added.
The basis for the differences appeared to be political then. If it is just a matter of politics, I thought, then it is not a matter of consequence. You can prefer Obama over Bush if you like. In the case of Malaysians, you can prefer Anwar Ibrahim over Najib Razak. Politics is a matter of administration, not a matter of faith.
So, I did not pursue the matter further. From time to time, I have heard of people, including the Malaysians, warning against the threat of Shiism. They have been infiltrating Malaysia soil and other Muslim nations, these voices echoed. I simply brushed those talks as mere chauvinistic thinking.
About two decades ago, however, the Internet came to the scene. I was shocked to read that some who called themselves Muslims consider Abu Bakar and Umar to be infidels. These people called themselves Muslims of Shia persuasion.
I had read disparaging remarks about the companions of the Prophet before, but these came from non Muslims or orientalists, so there was nothing new to it. When shocking remarks about the companions came from those claiming themselves to be Muslims, I got curious. Since then, I went searching whatever I could get my hands on this subject: first through Internet, then books.
After years of research, it appears that the issue is not just a matter of political preferences. It does not even appear to originate from political conflicts, as many, even among Sunnis, try to paint it. It is originated from something far more sinister.
Simple logic dictates that if it originated from political conflicts during the times of Uthman, Ali or even Umayyah Dynasty, then it should be the thing of the past. These people had died more than a thousand years ago, and whatever political conflicts they might have, it is now a matter of ancient history.
But the issue of Shia and Shiism persist until our times, suggesting that it is more sinister than just a mere political issue.
There is also another reason why I am compelled to write about the issue of Shiism in my blog and feel that I should do it now rather than later.
You see, in countries where social order is given preference over understanding, the threat of Shiism is largely confined to a limited scale before the era of Internet. In this respect, perhaps Malaysia is more pronounced as compared to other Muslim countries.
Islam is the official religion of Malaysia; Sunni is the official sect; and Shafie’s School of Thought is the official mazhab. All other sects and schools of thoughts are not taught, except in passing to students specialized in Islamic studies.
The authority must have thought that too many ideas would confuse the masses, and they would consequently turn against one another. After all, when everyone knows only one idea, everyone will think alike. Thus, social order is achieved.
In this insulate approach, real understanding becomes the casualty, because understanding is perfected only through comparison. We can only understand and appreciate “what is good” when we know “what is bad.” Umar al Khattab illustrates this concept very well when he says: “I fear that people will fall into Jahiliyah (Ignorance) because they are ignorant about it.”
People in general, and the youth in particular, have curious minds. God makes human beings as such. Without curiosity, there will be little progress. Before the information explosion through the Internet, the information can be blocked, but the curiosity remains. Armed with information at their fingertips, the curious minds would naturally try to seek the answers to the questions they have been wondering. With the absence of understanding, this can lead to various problems.
This is exactly what happens to the Malays in Malaysia. In the past, being Malays means being Muslims. By a Muslim Malay, it means that the he belongs to Shaari’s School of Thought in terms of aqeedah (Islamic dogma) and Shafie’s School of Thought in terms of fiqh.
Nowadays many Malays are Christians, Shias or even atheists. Many others belong to various heretic groups, and some are Muslims only in names, while others we cannot even place who they are in reality. As for those who go to the extreme left or right—left being those who are labeled as extreme Islamists, and right being those who embrace liberalism and pluralism, as in anything goes, everything is okay—these we have in abundant too.
But this situation is hardly unique to Malaysia. The difference is only in a matter of degree, for the Internet does not recognize border.
This is the main reason why I feel compelled to give some perspective on the issue of Shiism in this blog, although I do not cherish the controversial nature of the subject. My hope is that it would provide some basic understanding on the subject to whoever is wondering what Shiism is all about, and why it has been at the loggerhead with Sunnis since the beginning of Islam.
If these series would benefit and enlighten the readers of this blog, then I consider my effort worthwhile.
But let’s get clear with the terminology first.
For the Malays, Shia is often spelt as Syiah. Since it is often spelt as Shia in English, this will be the spelling that I would use.
Shia is actually plural of Shii. It refers either to person or group believing in Shiism. As for Shiism, it refers to their belief or dogma, since “ism” relates to ideology, such as Communism or Capitalism.
For my purpose, however, I will use Shia when referring to a single individual or the group of Shia. For plural, I will use Shias. This usage is wrong in Arabic, but as people tend to write Muslim for singular and Muslims as plural, I hope this would not cause confusion.
As I tend to understand things better through history, I shall start with the same. This we shall cover in the next installment, insyaAllah.