ON our community calendar there’s what I call a series of “seasons”. And like spring, summer, autumn or winter, they have their moods. One such “season” is Muharram, which marks the beginning of the Islamic year.
This is because it is a sacred month in which major events occurred, especially on the 10th day: for example, the creation of Adam and Eve and the escape of the Bani Isra’il from the Pharaoh.
However, its wider significance is often eclipsed by the martyrdom of Hussein, the son of Sayyidina ‘Ali, the noble Prophet’s cousin. His passing (in 680 CE) on the 10th of Muharram is lamented for ten days by the Shi’ah sect, and is called “‘Ashura”.
Hussain’s slaying – also lamented by Sunnis, but without the ritualistic dramaturgy of the Shi’ah – is an event hallmarked by the intrigue that characterised the politics of the era.
For instance, this is why Sayyidina ‘Ali – condemned for being too lenient in punishing the assassins of his predecessor, ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan – was forced to lead an army against A’isha bint Abu Bakr, one of the Prophet’s (SAW) wives, at Basra.
Historically, the problem has always been that the Prophet (SAW) left no indications as to what political system Muslims should adopt after his demise. It was a “consensus of the elders” that had elected the first Caliph, Abu Bakr.
It was this decision that led to a measure of dissent amongst ‘Ali’s supporters. Their view was that Abu Bakr, and the succeeding Caliphs ‘Umar and ‘Uthman, should not have accepted office ahead of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, a blood relative of the Prophet (SAW).
The Shi’ah quote the Hadith of Khumm, related after the final Hajj, which has the Prophet (SAW) passing the mantle of Commander on to Sayyidina ‘Ali, and Sayyidina ‘Umar pledging allegiance. Sunni scholars do not accept this interpretation of the Hadith.
Nevertheless, ‘Ali became the fourth Righteous Caliph, but he was handed a poisoned chalice: those who had been associated with the assassination of ‘Uthman supported him becoming Caliph.
So when ‘Uthman’s kinsman in Damascus, Mu’awiyyah, refused to accept ‘Ali’s rule, a schism arose in the Islamic realm. In public interest Sayyidina ‘Ali submitted to arbitration. He was assassinated by Ibn Muljam, a Kharijite, who claimed that ‘Ali had committed apostasy by allowing human intervention.
“Kharijite” originates from the Arabic root word “kharaja”, and means “seceder”, or one who “goes out”. Their belief was that jihad was a sixth pillar of Islam; and that if a Muslim sinned he became an infidel or a kafir.
Scholars such as Sayyid ibn Zaini Dahlan consider the offshoot of the Kharijites to be the modern Salafi-Wahhabis, the disciples of Ibn ‘Abd ul-Wahhab, the 18th century Saudi cleric. Kharijite (and Wahhabi) opposition to the Shi’ah spans over 1,300 years. For their ilk the Shi’ah are kafir and their blood halal – a view contrary to Sunni legal thought.
After Sayyidina ‘Ali’s demise, Mu’awiyyah became the Caliph. And as the centuries passed, the Shi’at ul-‘Ali (the party of ‘Ali) grew into a sectarian doctrine. There are historians such as Tabari who say Shi’ism was introduced by Abdullah ibn Sabah, a Yemeni Jew, who embraced Islam and declared ‘Ali divine.
Ibn Kathir also refers to this, but the question of Ibn Sabah is an academic minefield.
Shi’ah culture was definitely strengthened by the slaying of Hussain at Karbala. This was after Mu’awiyyah died and his son, Yazid, took power. Hussain’s elder brother, Hasan, had already retired from public life. Today, the Shi’ah curse Yazid and the Salafi-Wahhabis praise him. The Sunni ‘ulama, seeking balance, say that he had good and bad qualities.
Like his father, Hussain was caught up in events beyond his control. The citizens of Kufa, unhappy at Yazid’s Caliphate, wrote a letter to Hussain, requesting him to come to the city as their leader. But whilst he was en-route, Kufa switched allegiance to the Ummayads.
Hussain encountered Yazid’s forces at Karbala outside Kufa. After a 10-day siege during which time he refused to pledge allegiance to Yazid, his small party was slaughtered – Hussain dying with his infant son in his arms. His head was cut off and delivered to Yazid in Damascus.
The poetic lamentations about Karbala, recited during ‘Ashura, are famous in Shi’ah lore, as are the self-flagellations of Shi’ah devotees.
I’ve already said that calling the Shi’ah kafir has never been the Sunni way. The Shi’ah perform the Hajj. But during the ‘Ashura season, when emotions run high, there has to be a more level-headed community understanding of Shi’ah belief.
Yes, there is divergence, and in the spirit of adab i-ikhtilaf (the ethics of argument) surely it would be better to face these differences than to indulge in pulpit bashing or, worse still, killing the messenger by targeting the media?
Briefly, there are key points where Sunnis differ with the Shi’ah. But surely, the goal of confronting these differences should be comprehension rather than conflict, and critical empathy rather than emotion-soaked enmity?
The primary sticking-point for the Sunni world is that the historical Shi’ah imams, leading up to the end-times Mahdi, are regarded as infallible. Sunni theology only accords perfection and lack of sin to prophets. It does not agree that mere humans can enjoy the same status.
Whilst there are some similarities to the Sunnis in the application of Shi’ah Sacred Law, Sunni theologians do not agree with the rationalistic Shi’ah view that the Qur’an was “created”. In Sunni theology, the Qur’an was inherently “uncreated”.
Shi’ah aversion of Traditions transmitted by A’isha, Sayyidina Abu Bakr, ‘Umar and ‘Uthman, is problematic for Sunni Hadith scholars. The edict of temporary marriage, or mut’ah, permitted by Shi’ah fiqh seriously troubles Sunni jurists.
Finally, the fact that taqiyyah, the disguising of one’s true beliefs, is obligatory in Shi’ism is an anathema to the four prominent Sunni schools of legal thought, which only permit such dissembling if one’s life is at stake.
Obviously, space does not permit more than a cursory look at some complex questions, but it has to be said that the paranoia about Shi’ism during Muharram is baffling. Surely the right to know the difference, on an intellectual level, should be the preserve of every Muslim, Shi’ah or Sunni?