Toward A Better Understanding of Muslim Sectarian Division (Part X)

Abbas Kadhim, Ph.D.

المسجد النبويEverything we have learned about Hanbali extremism pales in comparison with the work of Ahmad ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328 C.E.), who took Hanbali extremist teachings to the highest levels of intolerance that essentially classified much of conventional Muslim practices as acts of shirk (associating other deities with God) and kufr (unbelief).  Ibn Taymiyya made a name for himself by attacking the Shia, the Ash’aris, the Mu’tazila, the philosophers, the Sufis (or most of them), the Jews, and the Christians.  Even practices that are conventional to almost all Muslims, such as traveling to visit the tomb of the Prophet, Ibn Taymiyya considered them violations of the faith and a form of shirk.  Similarly, he went in his rivalry with the Shia to the point that he expressed opinions about their first Imam and highest symbol Ali ibn Abi Talib that are inconsistent with the general Muslim beliefs about Ali. It is safe to say that Ibn Taymiyya went out of his way to challenge the almost unanimous views on Ali’s excellence and, at one point, he expressed doubt in the validity of Ali’s first acceptance of Islam.  He also went many extra miles in praising Ali’s enemies, most notably Mu’awiya.  Ibn Taymiyya’s opinions about Ali were so negative that he was put on trial for them by his contemporary Sunni scholars and was described by some leading Muslim jurists as a hypocrite (munafiq), as prominent Sunni scholar Ibn Hajar Al-Asqalani stated.

Ibn Taymiyya was also known for his extremism in claiming a monopoly on the truth and whenever he made an argument he would use the statement ajma’a ahlu al-ilm… (scholars unanimously said…).  This claim involved an obvious problem: (1) scholars hardly ever made an argument unanimously.  Therefore, he dismissed all those who disagreed with his preferred argument as non-scholars.  For him, the holders of an extremist argument represent a unanimity, whether they were a few or many.  This method of exclusive claim to the truth is commonplace among the followers of Ibn Taymiyya nowadays.

Ibn Tymiyya lived in Damascus during the Mamluk era, when the Levant was united with Egypt.  The general religious environment in Damascus was Shafi’i, while Ibn Taymiyya and his fellow Hanbalis were a minority.  His anthropomorphism (claiming that God has a body and limbs, and He sits on a throne and moves from one location to another, etc) was another important reason for his prosecution and a cause for the writing of many books to refute his opinions.  He ultimately was imprisoned for life and died in jail.  Both in Ibn Taymiyya’s time and following his death, it was considered a crime to publicly espouse his opinions, but when the Saudi monarchy was established, his extremist ideology was resurrected (as we will see shortly) and his fatwas were compiled in more than 30 volumes, published at Saudi government expense for free distribution, and made a basis of the Wahhabi-Saudi state religion, referring to him by the hefty title Sheikh Al-Islam.

Just like reducing most of Muslim jurisprudence into the aberrant opinions of Ibn Taymiyya, the Saudi monarchy put another religious fanatic on a large pedestal, Muhammad ibn Abdulwahhab (d. 1791 C.E.), whose name and opinions became the state religion of the Saudi monarchy since its inception in the eighteenth century.  The family of Al Saud found in the fatwas of Muhammad ibn Abdulwahhab, which are based on the ideology of Ibn Taymiyya, all they needed to subjugate the Arabian Peninsula in the name of jihad and Islam.  All those who were not under the Saudi authority were deemed unbelievers unless they surrendered and adhered to Wahhabism, otherwise, they would be killed to a man, their women and children would be taken into slavery, and their property became spoils of war, no matter what kind of religiosity they practiced.

When they invaded a Shia community, the Wahhabis took a particular interest in committing a systematic genocide.  In 1802, for instance, the Wahhabis attacked the Shia holy city, Karbala, in one of their murderous waves and committed heinous atrocities against the defenseless community on the watch of the Ottoman administration of Iraq.  It is unclear whether the Ottomans were unable to defend the city or they simply looked the other way.  But be that as it may, let us see how the Wahhabi historian Uthman ibn Abdullah ibn Bishr proudly described the massacre:

“The Muslims [i.e. the Wahhabis] scaled the walls, entered the city by force and killed the majority of its people in the markets and in their homes.  Then they destroyed the dome placed over the grave of al-Ḥusayn by those who believe in such things… They took everything they found in town: different types of property, weapons, clothing, carpets, gold, silver, precious copies of the Qurʾan, as well as much else – more than can be enumerated.”

By the time the Saudi monarchy established its political authority and imposed the Wahhabi religion over the Arabian Peninsula, the number of casualties were more than 400,000 people between dead and injured, and they administered more than 40,000 public executions.  They also destroyed all the religious shrines everywhere they took control, simply because their theology, as articulated by Ibn Taymiyya and adopted by Muhammad ibn Abdulwahhab, prohibited the construction of shrines and considered visiting the graves a form of associating other deities with God (shirk).

Despite all such coercive measures and extremely harsh treatment of opponents, Wahhabism failed in two and a half centuries to make itself the religion of the majority of the people in Saudi Arabia – Wahhabis are estimated at 25% of the population.  However, the Wahhabi thought met some success in the West and some communities in South Asia, with the help of billions of petrodollars the Saudi government spent on mosques, schools (madrassas), relief organizations, charities, and aid to governments that accepted to allow Wahhabi proselytization.  This expansion of Wahhabism in communities with limited access to sources of mainstream Muslim theology and jurisprudence became the genesis of extremist and terrorist ideologies that came in full swing in the past decade or so, from Al-Qa’eda, to its off-shoots, such as the self-described Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

To be sure, the first waves of Wahhabi expansion worldwide did not involve any practical anti-Western manifestations.   In fact, it was working toward goals not different from the Western international worldview, the most important of which was the fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and the struggle against communism and nationalist political movements which were not on good terms with the West.  By contrast, the Wahhabis were very friendly to the pro-Western monarchies in the Gulf.  But all this changed completely after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, as the extremist movements ran out of anti-Western targets, so they turned against the West as their next enemy, as we will see in the next article.

Copyright © 2016 Dr. Abbas Kadhim

Toward A Better Understanding of Muslim Sectarian Division (Part IX)

Abbas Kadhim, Ph.D.

المسجد النبويWe saw that the Hanbalis (followers of Ahmed ibn Hanbal) turned the Abbasid caliph Al-Mutawakkil (ruled 847-861C.E.) to their side and ended the Mu’tazila influence on the Muslim state.  With the passing of time, Hanbali doctrines became the dominant theology in Baghdad.  In the beginning of the 11th century C.E. the Hanbalis turned their core beliefs into a state religion.  They imposed on all Muslims the doctrine that considered the Qur’an eternal (not created in time), and anyone who declared otherwise was deemed unbeliever (kafir) whose blood would be shed with impunity. This requirement was clearly directed at the Mu’tazila, but they also went after the Shia for a few beliefs that were not acceptable by Hanbali standards. As a brazen move, the Hanbalis picked several doctrines the Shia always espoused and declared them grounds for disbelief in God (kufr), including the cardinal belief of the Shia that Ali ibn Abi Talib was the best of all companions of the Prophet.

The Hanbalis forced all Muslims to declare that the excellence of the early four caliphs is ranked according to their chronological order, Abu Bakr, then Omar, then Uthman, then Ali.  They also said that anyone to be considered a believer must say only good things about A’isha (wife of the Prophet) and Mu’awiya, founder of the Umayyad dynasty.  It may seem interesting that the Hanbalis mandated the praise of A’isha, but not the other eight wives of the Prophet.  But this makes perfect sense, because the Shia criticized her for declaring a rebellion against Ali and for fighting him in the Battle of the Camel, as we saw in a previous article.  The Shia also have no respect for Mu’awiya, both for challenging Ali and for setting aside all religious and moral obligations throughout his rule.  On criticizing Mu’awiya, the Shia are not alone, we must say. Be that as it may, with their invented doctrines about A’isha and Mu’awiya, the Hanbalis clearly made up a theological requirement out of thin air, as there is no evidence whatsoever that criticizing the conduct of these two individuals would automatically make one a kafir and allow people to kill him and confiscate his property.

As we saw in a previous article, the Mu’tazila faded away by the beginning of the eleventh century, but the Shia were granted a great margin of freedom, by the Buyids, who held more political power than the caliph.  The Shia used this margin of freedom to practice their rituals in public for the first time, including the mourning the martyrdom of Imam Husayn (d. 681 C.E.) and the celebration of Eid Al-Ghadir, which is the anniversary of the last speech given by the Prophet during which he declared Ali as the master (mawla) of all Muslims.  The Hanbalis considered both practices a form of blasphemy. One incident shows how the Hanbalis viewed the Shia: the Muslim historian Ibn Al-Athir narrated a story about the conversion of Mihyar Al-Daylami, a leading poet of the time, from Zoroastrianism to becoming a Shia.  When the Hanbali scholar Abu Al-Qasim ibn Burhan saw Mihyar, he told him: “By your conversion from being a Zoroastrian to being a Shia you only moved from one corner of Hell-Fire to reside in another corner.”

Although the Buyids were Shia, their rule in the tenth and eleventh centuries was essentially a time of Hanbali inquisition that tormented the followers of all other faiths and particularly the Shia.  Hardly a year went by without a number of confrontations that led to killing and destruction of property.  For instance, In 972 C.E., an official inflicted corporal punishment on a Shia man from Al-Karkh (Baghdad’s western side), for reasons not stated by the historians.  The punishment led to the death of the man, and the people of Al-Karkh killed the official and burned his corpse.  The vizier, Abu Al-Fadhl Al-Shirazi, who was a “fanatical Sunni,” as described by  the historianIbn Kathir, sent his aide to Al-Karkh and ordered him to set fire to that part of town.  The result was the burning of three hundred shops, thirty mosques, and three hundred twenty houses, and some seventeen thousand Shia, trapped in a wide scale fire, were burnt to death – all in a day’s work and because of the death of one man.

Another incident in 1049 C.E. is illustrative of the sectarian state of affairs: the people of Al-Karkh were prohibited from commemorating the anniversary of Husayn’s martyrdom in Ashura.  This directive aggravated the rift between the two parties and people from both sects were killed.  To put an end to the ensuing bloodshed, the caliph asked his police chief, Abu Muhammed ibn Al-Nasawi, to restore order in the western part of Baghdad.  In order to escape the notorious cruelty of this man, the Shia and the Sunnis suddenly developed mutual amity and understanding and went out of their way to display mutual respect. But this fragile peace was interrupted by yet another episode of violence in 1051 over a newly renovated building in Al-Karkh that involved an inscription which read, according to the Shia account, “Muhammad and Ali are the best of mankind.”  The Sunnis objected to this and complained to the caliph, alleging that the inscription was, “Muhammad and Ali are the best of mankind.  Those who agree are grateful [to Allah] and the deniers are unbelievers.”  Upon investigating the affair, a bipartisan commission reported to the caliph that the Shia were telling the truth. But this did not end the hostilities, and the Shia, under the pressure of cruelty from Ibn Al-Muslimah, the caliph’s vizier, erased the words “are the best of mankind” and wrote “peace be upon them” instead.  The Hanbalis said this was still unsatisfactory, demanding that the bricks carrying the names of Muhammad and Ali be removed and the Shia call for prayer no longer to be used used.  The Shia rejected this proposition and fighting resumed. In the following days, the Hanbalis forced their way into the shrine of Imam Musa al-Kadhim and looted the shrine.  They returned on the following day and burnt the shrine and the surrounding area.  Some of them tried to exhume the graves and carry the remains to be buried near the grave of Ahmad ibn Hanbal, but, according to Ibn al-Athir, their efforts were made unsuccessful by the rubble from the demolished shrine. The Shia in turn went to the residence of the Hanafi scholars and looted whatever they found, killing in the process the Hanafi teacher, Abu Sa’d Al-Sarakhsi; they concluded their rampage by setting ablaze the houses of the Hanafis.

The demise of the Buyids, in 1055 C.E., and ascendance of another political dynasty, the Seljuqs changed the situation dramatically in favor of the Hanbalis.  The Shia had to face intensified adversity without even the modest protection the Buyids had afforded them.  Here is how Muslim historian Ibn Kathir described the change of fortune:

In 448/1056 the Rawafidh were forced to abandon the use of Hayya ‘ala khayr al-’amal in the call for prayer and their caller to prayer was compelled to call, after Hayya ‘ala al-falah, al-Salatu khayrun min al-nawm when calling for the dawn prayer.  The inscriptions of the phrase, “Muahmmad and ‘Ali are the best of mankind”, were removed from the doors of their mosques, and chanters came from Bab al-Basra to Bab al-Karkh, reciting poems in praise of the companions [of the Prophet].  This was due to the eclipse of their [i.e. the Shia] star, because the Buyids were the rulers and they used to support them and side with them.  They were uprooted and their government disappeared and they were followed by another people – from the Saljuq Turks – who loved and valued the Sunnis and sided with them – Allah is to be eternally praised.  The vizier [Ibn al-Muslimah] ordered the police chief to kill Abu Abdillah ibn Al-Jallab, the shaykh of Rawafidh, for his rafdh [i.e being Shia] and extremism in it.  He was killed and crucified at the door of his store and Abu Ja’far Al-Tusi escaped, but his house was looted.”

In the next article, I will trace the late Hanbali extremist manifestations through Ibn Taymiya and Wahaabism.

Copyright © 2016 Dr. Abbas Kadhim

Toward A Better Understanding of Muslim Sectarian Division (Part VIII)

Abbas Kadhim, Ph.D.

المسجد النبويThe primary doctrine of Islam is unity, under the guidance of Allah’s commands and the guidance of rightful rulers.  Divergence and dissension are forbidden emphatically.  The Qur’anic verse 3:103, “And hold firmly, all together, the rope which Allah (stretches out for you), and be not divided among yourselves; and remember Allah’s favor on you, for you were enemies and He joined your hearts in love, so that by His Grace you became brethren”, contains a command that Muslims be united and, for more emphasis, it is followed by a prohibition of division and rivalry.  Then, it describes the progress that has been made by the transition from pre-Islamic Jahiliyya to Islam.  It was a transition from animosity and malice to brotherhood and harmony.  The catalyst for that positive transition was Allah’s Grace.  To maintain this harmony, there must be another catalyst: total obedience to religious and political authority, which was equated with, and derived from, the obedience to the Divine: “O Believers!  Obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those charged with authority among you; if you have a dispute about anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, if you believe in Allah and the Last Day; that is best and most suitable for a final interpretation.” (Qur’an 4:59)  The Qur’an mandates total obedience to the source of authority, Allah, and the holders of authority, the Prophet and other legitimate rulers (Uli al-Amr).  Yet, in the event of a dispute, Allah and the Prophet are the final arbiters, according to the verse.  The rulers are omitted to deny them any role in a final arbitration.  It is also inferred that the rulers are included in the mandate to refer to Allah and the Prophet, just like the ruled are mandated to do so.

These verses were read selectively and given many twisted interpretations when illegitimate rulers began to ascend to authority.  Naturally, they did not struggle in finding scholars of religion, who were willing to endorse such selective and convenient interpretations.  Some of them even volunteered to fabricate supportive statements and attribute them to the Prophet himself to preempt any foreseeable objections.  The concept of unity was given the status of absoluteness – often at the expense of the reason for unity.  The adherence to this concept became the equivalent of faith, whereas any dissent was considered a form of heresy that can be treated only by shedding the blood of those who espouse it.  This mandatory status of unity also came at the expense of the congruent conditions of the verse: unity around what?  The “Rope” metaphor was forgotten altogether in later readings.  Hence, unity under oppression was regarded higher than the dissent and strife for justice.

Ibn Khaldun, in his Muqaddima, quotes the jurist and judge of Al-Andalus, Abu Bakr b. Al-Arabi, who wrote in his book, Al-Awasim wa Al-Qawasim, that the grandson of the Prophet, “al-Husayn was killed according to the law (shar’) of his grandfather, [the Prophet].”  The premise for this historical judgment was built on a statement attributed to the Prophet, that states: “if anyone wants to divide this united community (Ummah), strike him with the sword without regard to his identity.” The logic of Ibn Al-Arabi was the following:

(1) Anyone who wants to divide the Ummah deserves to be killed,  (2) Al-Husayn wanted to divide the Ummah, (3) Al-Husayn deserved to be killed.

While the smell of fabrication is quite obvious in the statement that was attributed to the Prophet, even accepting it as an authentic tradition (Hadith) prompts us to read it reasonably.  The statement was probably fabricated to serve unjust rulers, by condemning the continuous disenchantment and militant dissent against state oppression.  But even in its form, the statement cannot be read without careful evaluation of “unity” and “division.”  The spirit of the statement calls for banning malicious division when the Ummah is united on the first principles of its existence, brotherhood and harmony.  Otherwise, common sense imposes the necessity of dividing an Ummah that is united under oppression and injustice, because such division would create at least one faction that calls for justice and reform. To be sure, Ibn Khaldun mildly points out the mistake of Ibn Al-Arabi.  But was Ibn Al-Arabi oblivious of this reasoning, as Ibn Khaldun suggested?  Of course he was not.  But his attitude is understood only when we remember that he worked for the rulers of Al-Andalus, who were a branch of the Umayyad dynasty that was responsible for the killing of Al-Husayn, among many other atrocities.  As to Ibn Khaldun, who was writing in a different milieu, he simply found a middle position that leaves everyone happy, except for our intelligence.  For him, Yazid was a debauchee (fasiq), but no one had the right to fight against him; and al-Husayn was a martyr – he was wrong when he fought against Yazid, but it was only a temporal error and not a religious error.  As to those, who did not support al-Husayn, Ibn Khaldun says that they were right as well, because they elected to avoid bloodshed and chaos.

Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Al-Arabi are only two examples of the literal reading of the Qur’an and Hadith that pays minimal or no attention to the spirit of the text or, often times, even to its authenticity.  Their literal emphasis on obedience negates the essence of the concept.  The Qur’anic verse mandates obedience to Allah first, then to the Prophet, and finally to the rulers.  The three are listed in a prioritizing manner, but literal readings made them equal.  The new understanding is that obedience to Allah and the Prophet was vested in the rulers after the death of the Prophet.  This reading paved the way to the final step, which represents total neglect of the authority of Allah and the Prophet.  The focus was ultimately shifted to the obedience of the rulers.  Shia theologian Al-Nawbakhti (d. after 910 C.E.) narrates an interesting remark about this phenomenon.  First, he describes the unity of his opponents as the “unity in giving loyalty to whoever seizes power over them, whether he is honest or a debauchee. Therefore, their name, “the Jama’ah,” does not refer to unity of religion.”  He also refers to the shift of loyalty among the rulers.  It only indicates the falsehood of such loyalty.

In the same selectivity, the scholars of Firaq dealt with the Hadith of the Prophet about the division if the Ummah into seventy-three sects.  This Hadith became the point of departure to many of these scholars, and the basis for their methodology.  The first chapter in Al-Baghdadi’s book Al-Farq bayna Al-Firaq (Difference among the Sects), for example, is devoted to this Hadith and its application for studying and classifying the Muslim sects.  He narrates the alleged Hadith of the Prophet according to three different chains of transmission and, interestingly, in three different forms.  This difference is not merely an innocuous discrepancy.  Here are the three texts, as they were recorded by Al-Baghdadi:

  1. “The Jews were divided into seventy-one sects, the Christians were divided into seventy-two sects, and my Ummah will be divided into seventy-three sects.”
  2. “My Ummah will undergo what the sons of Israel went through; they were divided into seventy-two sects, and my Ummah will be divided into seventy three sects – one more sect over what they had – all of them [will end up] in the Hell-Fire, except for one sect. They said, ‘O Messenger of Allah!  Which sect will be saved?’  He said: What I – and my Companions – believe in.”
  3. The sons of Israel were divided into seventy-one sects and my Ummah will be divided into seventy-two sects; all of them [will end up] in the Hell-Fire except for one, the Jama’ah.”

The first glance at the three texts shows some important differences between the first version and the other two.  The first discrepancy is the omission of Christian sects in the last two versions.  This omission led to another major inconsistency in the numbers of the sects.  The Jews had to be seventy-two sects (one more sect than in the first Hadith), in order to keep the number of Muslim sects at seventy-three (one sect more than the Jews).  The three texts also provide two possibilities of the Muslim division: seventy-three in the first two accounts, and seventy-two in the third.

Another significant difference has to do with the fate of the groups.  The first version makes no clear judgment.  It can be inferred that the division is not portrayed as the right thing to do – since it is spoken of in comparison with the other religious divisions.  But it is not clear how grave the offense of division is and what punishment is prepared because of it.  The last two texts specifically address this point.  All are destined for the Hell-Fire, except for one sect.  But even there, we can notice a discrepancy.  The surviving sect is identified in different ways; once as the one that follows the Prophet and his companions, and another time as the “Jama’ah” (the majority).  The result from these inconsistencies is that we cannot accept all, or even two, of the three versions as a reconcilable group.  The only way is to accept only one and disregard the others.  But which version can we endorse?

A survey of the opinions given by the scholars of Firaq turns an inconclusive outcome.  First, because these opinions range from complete ignoring of the Hadith or rejection of its authenticity, on the one hand, to full adherence for all of the three versions, on the other.  While Al-Baghdadi’s book revolves around the Hadith, as we have seen, Ibn Hazm dismisses the Hadith completely, on the basis of the chain of narrators, which he considers to be untrustworthy.  Al-Nawbakhti and al-Ash’ari omitted the Hadith altogether, whereas Al-Razi noticed that he counted more than seventy-three sects in his book, I’tiqadat Firaq Al-Muslimin wa Al-Mushrikin, so he re-interpreted the Hadith to justify his over-counting, as follows:

“It is possible that [the Prophet’s] intent (peace and praise be upon him), was to mention the major sects.  Some of what we have counted here are not major sects.  Also, he told that they will be seventy-three, therefore, they cannot be less than that.  Should they be more, it would not be harmful.  Why not?  For we have not mentioned many famous sects in this brief [work].  It would possibly be many times more if we mentioned all of them.  Indeed, we may find seventy-three groups in one of the rawafidh (Shia) sects – the Imamiyya.”

Whatever the case might be, when a sect is not considered the saved one, here is how it is treated (Al-Baghdad’s treatment of the Shia):

“If the [person’s] heresy is similar to the heresies of the Mu’tazila, the Khawarij, the Rafidha (i.e. Shia) – Imamiyya or Zaydiyya – the Najjariyya, the Jahmiyya, the Dhirariyya, or the Mujassima, he is part of the Muslim community (ummah) with respect to some rules, like the permissibility of his burial in Muslim cemeteries, and not depriving him of his share of the spoils if he fights with the Muslims, and not forbidding him from praying in the mosques.  He is, however, not part of the Muslim community with respect to other rules: it is not permissible to pray behind him or to pray on his body [when he dies], it is not permissible to eat any meat he slaughtered, it is not permissible for him to marry a Sunni woman, and the Sunni [man] is not permitted to marry a woman from them if she holds their beliefs.”

On this “high note” we leave this topic and move to the next in the coming article.  So stay tuned.

Toward A Better Understanding of Muslim Sectarian Division (Part VII)

Abbas Kadhim, Ph.D.

المسجد النبويAmong the theological controversies that were raised by the Mu’tazila was the question of human acts: who creates good acts and evil acts, God or man?  In other words, do humans have a free will or are they predestined to do what they do?  The Mu’tazila believed in the doctrine of free will, considering it unjust for God to create human acts and hold them accountable for them.  And since God only performs what is just, according to the second Mu’tzila pillar of faith, then humans must be the sole authors of their acts.

This doctrine was shared by the Shia, who also believed in free will, but unlike the Mu’tazila who argued that God had no direct or indirect involvement in man’s evil deeds, the Shia allowed an indirect agency for God in the creation of good and evil deeds when he created in the human the ability to act, so God, according to the Shia, was the ultimate creator, but by giving man the equal ability and free will to do good or evil, He will not be unjust if He held humans accountable.

Meanwhile, the Murji’a, a sect that earned this name for postponing judgment on human acts until the Day of Judgment, and cared only about the dichotomy of belief (iman) and disbelief (kufr), found an eminent scholar to articulate their doctrines and develop them into a full theological framework.  This man was Abu Al-Hassan Al-Ash’ari (847-936 C.E.).  He began his life as one of the Mutazila scholars and made a career defending their doctrines.  The story of his departure from the Mu’tazila school is fascinating.  It is said that he asked his Mu’tazili mentor, Al-Jubba’i, about the fate of those who die while still being children, and the reply was that those children will turn into dust, because they were not old enough to merit paradise or hell-fire – the Mu’tazila believed that only acts of adults will make them go to paradise of hell-fire.  Al-Ash’ari then asked: what if a child told God why He did not allow him to grow up, do good deeds, and merit paradise? Al-Jubba’i replied: Well, God will tell him that if he grew up he would have done evil deeds and would have deserved hell-fire, so it was God’s mercy that he died early and was saved from this horrific fate.  Here, Al-Ash’ari said, what if an adult in hell-fire was listening and said: God, why weren’t You good to me, like You were to this child? Why did You let me live long enough to commit my evil deeds?  Here Al-Ash’ari believed that the Mu’tazila doctrines was not as irrefutable as he believed them to be.

Regardless of whether this story was true or concocted, the fact remains that Al-Ash’ari was so influential, that he is the only scholar with an entire Muslim sect named after him.  His doctrines rested on a few cardinal tenets, including (1) God is above all judgments humans make for themselves, therefore, whatever he does will be just by definition, so all human standards do not apply to Him, (2) the believers will see God on the Day of Judgment, (3) all the statements about God in the Qur’an are true and not metaphorical, so God has a face, a hand, etc., (4) the attributes of God, such as “life” and “power”, are separate from the essence of God and are eternal, and (5) all human acts are created by God, the sole creator in the universe, while people’s agency is limited to acquiring these acts.

These doctrines were continuously revised and developed by later scholars of the Ash’ari sect such as Al-Ghazali in the eleventh century and Al-Razi in the thirteenth century.  Al-Razi was perhaps the most significant innovator in the sect, mostly by allowing more room for interpretation and rejecting certain literalist readings of the Qur’an, as well as being the first to combine theology and philosophy, after a long history of bitter rivalry and intolerance between the two fields.

Although the followers of Al-Ash’ari lived during the golden era of free theological debate, the Buyid rule of Baghdad (945-1055 C.E.), they did not become a dominant sect until the second half of the eleventh century.  Under the Buyids, patronage was spread around equally and no scholars were targeted for their doctrines.  But the Ash’aris had two obstacles to overcome: the first was the well-established scholarship of rationalist Mu’tazila and Shia theologians who dominated Baghdad’s intellectual circles. Only a few prominent Ash’aris, like Al-Baqillani, were known during that period of time. The second obstacle was the hostile Hanbali social environment that dominated Baghdad during the tenth and eleventh centuries.  Even when Ah’ari theology became a state religion after Baghdad was captured by the Seljuqs in 1055 C.E., because the influential vizier Nizam Al-Mulk was an Ash’ari, Baghdad’s Hanbalis were very recalcitrant and resistant of Ash’ari theology, particularly because it was associated with Shafi’i jurisprudence and these two identities went hand in hand.  Nizam Al-Mulk provided great service to Ash’ari theology, and Shafi’i jurisprudence, when he established a number of state-sponsored schools each one was named after him: Al-Madrasa Al-Nizamiyya.  These schools taught only Ash’ari theology and Shafi’i Jurisprudence, which made the Hanbalis reject them vehemently.  Students and teachers would have to stay inside the school for lengthy periods of time to avoid Hanbali abuse and frequent violence.

One of the other great contributions of Al-Ash’ari was his work on sectology (Al-Firaq), having written one of the most influential books that established this genre as a new field of scholarship.  He and the Shia theologian, Al-Nawbakhti, wrote the first two books that survived in their entirety.  Thanks to these books, much of the lost doctrines from various early Muslim sects were preserved. Al-Ash’ari’s book is Maqalat Al-Islamiyyeen (Doctrines of the Muslims) and Nawbakhti’s book is Firaq Al-Shia (Shia Sects).

In the next article I will look at the literature of Sectarian division.

Copyright © 2016 Dr. Abbas Kadhim

Toward A Better Understanding of Muslim Sectarian Division (Part VI)

Abbas Kadhim, Ph.D.

المسجد النبويThe eighth century C.E. was rich in Muslim intellectual activity, and Iraq (Kufa and Basra – and, later, Baghdad) became the incubator of all emerging schools of thought, mainly because of its being a place where diverse people and cultures met, away from the authoritarian Umayyad stronghold (Damascus) and far away from the classical conservative religious environment of Hijaz.

Ever since it became the capital of Ali’s caliphate, Kufa maintained a Shia affiliation.  It was the locus of several Shia revolutions and the short-lived rule of Al-Mukhtar Al-Thaqafi (d. 687 C.E.) took Kufa as his capital and a garrison from which his forces conducted their offensive and defensive military campaigns.  The Grand Mosque of Kufa was a university of various sciences: Arabic language sciences, literature, and various religious sciences – in early Islam, the mosque was the place of worship and education.  Kufa became an identity label for various schools of thought and intellectualism: there was the Kufa School of Grammar, the Kufa School of Qur’an, The Kufa School of Jurisprudence (Fiqh), and so on.

Basra, the other Iraqi major center of learning, was equally contributing to the rising intellectual currents in Iraq.  It was associated with the other school of grammar, and it was the place where several theological schools emerged.  Al-Hassan Al-Basri (d. 728 C.E.) was one of the authoritative scholars from the generation that followed the companions of the Prophet and learned from them, but he did not live during the time of the Prophet.  He was the most distinguished scholar teaching in the Basra Mosque in his time.  In this capacity, his reply to the Khawarij doctrine concerning the grave sinner (see the previous article) became the basis of a mainstream school of theological thought.  He considered the grave sinner a believer, if he held the essential beliefs of Islam.  Al-Basri argued that belief is a state of mind, and it cannot be negated by a violation of Islamic laws, including grave sins.  Therefore, the sinner is rewarded for his belief and good deeds, and he is punished for his sins, or maybe forgiven, as God wills on the Day of Judgment.

This position, as articulated by Al-Basri, insulted the intelligence of his prominent student, Wasil ibn Ata’ (d. 748 C.E.), who found it and the position the Khawarij advocated to be two sides of the same coin of defective reasoning.  In Wasil’s mind, the Khawarij failed to distinguish between the sinner who believed in God and the sinner who did not, and the school of Al-Basri failed to distinguish between the believer who sinned and the believer who did not.  Wasil said: there must be a status for the believer who sinned that does not equate him with the God-fearing believer or the atheist.  When asked to coin a status name outside the conventional belief dichotomy of “Mu’min” and “kafir”, Wasil used a clumsy, long phrase: Al-Manzilatu baynal-Manzilatayn (a position between two the positions) – the “two positions being the “believer” and the “atheist”.  Wasil’s devotion to defend this doctrine made him the founder of the next sect in Islam, the Mu’tazila and this doctrine became one of their specific Five Pillars of Islamic belief (Al-Usoul Al-Khamsah) according to their interpretation Islamic theology, as we see very shortly.

There are several reasons for the naming of this sect as the Mu’tazila, including the famous account that Al-Basri named Wasil and his followers after the latter separated from Al-Basri’s study circle and took another corner in the Basra Mosque to teach.  But this is not a major concern for us for now.  The Mu’tazila theological school rested on the following cardinal beliefs (they are very briefly discussed here):

  1. Monotheism: (Al-Tawheed): while all Muslims believed in this doctrine, their definition of the concept varies. For the Mu’tazila, the phrase, “God is one”, meant He is the only One worthy of worship, He is one in the sense that He is indivisible, and He is one in the sense that His Essence cannot be limited to a body with specific  shape and parts – all mention of such attributes in the Qur’an must not be taken literally, but has to be interpreted properly to reflect these core beliefs of monotheism.
  2. Justice of Allah (‘Adl): again, while all Muslims believe that Allah is just, the Mu’tazila believe that Allah’s justice meant that He is just in the sense that He performs only just acts, while some Muslims, as we shall see, understand justice in the sense that “whatever Allah does is just by definition”. According to the latter belief, Allah may perform any act and it will be just, simply because He performed it. The Mu’tazila believed that every act is either inherently just or inherently unjust, regardless of the doer’s identity, God or man.
  3. The sinner who believes in God holds a status between the believer and the atheist, as it was discussed above.
  4. The certainty of fulfilment of God’s promise (wa’d) and threat (wa’eed): unlike other Muslims who believed that Allah may forgive the sinner on the Day of Judgment, the Mu’tazila believed that He will never do this, because if He does, He would be untruthful when He threatened to punish the sinners. They said, only repentance can wave the sin if accepted by God.  Therefore God will surely carry out all His promises and all His threats, no forgiveness will take place in the hereafter and no intercession by Prophets will help, according the the Mu’tazila, while other Muslims affirmedthe possibility of both.
  5. Encouraging Good (ma’rouf) and Forbidding Bad and Evil (munkar): here the Mu’tazila took a concept all Muslims agree on and nuanced it in two significant ways. First, they considered this concept as a pillar of faith to be discussed in theology, while all other Muslims took it as a matter of practice to be studies under the banner of jurisprudence. Second, the Mu’tazila argued that Muslims must practice this principle at all times and under all circumstances, otherwise they will be violating a pillar of Islamic belief.  Other Muslims made certain exceptions before mandating such practice, such as ensuring the practice will not cause the doer unbearable harm, for example.

Politically, the Mu’tazila achieved great success in the period 813-847 C.E., during the reign of three Abbasid caliphs: Al-Ma’moun, ِAl-Wathiq, and Al-Mu’tasim, when the state adopted their doctrine and made it the official state religion.  As soon as they attained power through the backing of state institutions, “the Rationalists of Islam”, as the Mu’tazila were called for placing reason above all other sources of theological evidence, ended up instituting a doctrinal inquisition of their own and made all official positions in the state a monopoly for those who adopted Mu’tazila theological doctrines, while those who held other beliefs were persecuted and marginalized.

One of the Mu’tazila doctrines, the believe that the Qur’an was created, as opposed to the doctrine that considered it eternal, was imposed on all Muslims and it became a litmus test for anyone whose belief they wanted to discern.  Governors, Judges, and all other state officials were not appointed unless they acknowledged this doctrine and enforced it.  In one case, the state paid ransom only for Muslim prisoners of war who acknowledged that the Qur’an was created, leaving the others in the hands of the Byzantines.  This intolerant practice was referred to as “the ordeal” (Al-Mihnah).  Among the victims of Mu’tazila persecution was Ahmed ibn Hanbal (d. 855), founder of the Hanbali school of Jurisprudence, who was imprisoned and tortured for his beliefs.

The Mu’tazila lost their political status when Al-Mu’tasim died, and the Hanbalis began to control Baghdad, having persuaded the following caliph, Al-Mutawakkil, that their doctrines better represented “true” Islam.  But the Mu’tazila maintained their scholarly prominence until the end of the tenth century C.E.  We will learn more about their doctrines and history in the coming articles.

In the next article, I will discuss the development of the Murji’a doctrines and its development by Abu Al-Hassan Al-Ash’ari.  Stay tuned!

Copyright © 2016 Dr. Abbas Kadhim

Toward A Better Understanding of Muslim Sectarian Division (Part V)

Abbas Kadhim, Ph.D.

المسجد النبويThese articles will follow a mixed order based on historical chronology and thematic relevance.  The latter will have to take us out of the timeline and trace certain themes back in time, or forward beyond the chronological scope of the general framework of the series.  In this part, I will trace the Shia conditions after the death of the first Imam (and the fourth Caliph), Ali ibn Abi Talib.

Ali’s assassination in 661 C.E. left his camp in a state of disarray.  His son, Hassan, the Prophet’s grandson and the second Shia Imam, was appointed for the caliphate, but was forced by the political realities and balance of powers to abdicate to Ali’s rival, Mu’awiya.  The agreement stipulated that Mu’awiya would be the caliph, to be followed by Hassan, and that all war-related bygones be bygones.

Upon his ascendance to the caliphate, Mu’awiya abandoned all the past tenets of Muslim state practices and established an empire with specific characteristics: (1) a class-based society, (2) a state whose political leadership and religious leadership were no longer vested in the same person, (3) the clergy were classified into privileged court clergy and oppressed opposition clergy, (3) state patronage was based on loyalty to the ruler, while proven and perceived disloyalty were grounds for persecution and exclusion, and finally (4) a hereditary dynastic rule that was passed from father to son or among brothers and cousins.

The Shia were particularly targeted not only because they fought by Ali’s side, but also because of their theological doctrine that considered Ali and his progeny the only legitimate authority in Islam.  Their disloyalty to the Umayyad dynasty was clearly established beyond any doubt.  Prominent loyalists of Ali (many of whom were companions of the Prophet) were executed by the sword and ordinary Shia were deprived of any rights.  By contrast, less prominent figures were given high ranks in exchange for loyalty and cooperation.  A new, pro-Umayyad dynasty narrative, including false statements attributed to the Prophet, was concocted to become the basis of politics and religiosity of the new order.  The genuine Shia found themselves again as an underground sect, while what I call the “Shia by association” switched sides and joined the victors.

By the end of Mu’awiya’s life, in 681 C.E., the Muslim state was nothing like the one Mu’awiya received twenty years earlier.  He molded the state in his own image.  Official politics was a state of tyranny, and official religion was a tamed state tool to justify tyranny and criminalize any act of disobedience of the state.  Statements like, “As you are, your rulers will be,” were falsely attributed to the Prophet, to instruct people that the corruption of their rulers is somehow their fault and is a punishment by God.  Also, the concept of revolution was equated with apostasy.  Order was placed above all other Islamic social and political concepts such as justice, equality, and even morality.

In the midst of this complete departure from the founding principles of Islam no one could stand a chance to challenge the new order except for one man, Husayn, Ali’s son and the third Imam of the Shia.  The grandson of the Prophet put his own life on the line to lend religious and moral authority to the argument that Islam mandates the revolt against the corrupt ruler, against the state-sponsored conventional wisdom.  Husayn began by refusing the new political practice of hereditary rule and denied Mu’awiya’s son, Yazid, an oath of allegiance.  Sensing that he would not be left alone in Medina, he took his family and some followers and headed to his father’s capital, Kufa (Iraq).  The forces of Yazid intercepted his convoy in Karbala, and prevented his arrival in Kufa.  He was given a choice between giving the oath of allegiance to Yazid and unconditional surrender to the governor of Kufa, or fighting to death in a militarily unwinnable war.  He and a group of seventy fighters, mainly his own family and loyal Shia supporters, chose to fight an army of four-thousand soldiers.  They were killed and the surviving women and children, including the grand-daughters of the Prophet, were taken captive from Karbala to Kufa, and finally to Damascus, to make an example for anyone who may contemplate a revolt against the state.  The intended message to all Muslims was clear: if we could do this to the family of the Prophet, we could do worse to anyone else.

However, events did not go as planned, and the speeches given by Husayn’s sister, Zaynab, and his son Ali Al-Sajjad (by then the Fourth Imam) in the presence of Yazid and the elite of Damascus turned the people against the state and Yazid had no choice but to release the captives and lose the war of public opinion, which made his military victory fruitless.  But Yaziid’s defeat did not stop there.  The Battle of Karbala became a defining point in the rest of Muslim history for the next fourteen centuries.  All the challengers of the state before Husayn were considered aggressors and were treated unkindly by Muslim history.  After the Battle of Karbala, revolutions earned legitimacy.  In essence, Husayn was the founding father of revolution in Islam, and the Shia had a formidable precedent to cite every time they carried out an act of revolt ever since.

But the devastating massacre of Karbala forced the following Shia Imams to adopt an intellectual form of opposition to the state, and  maintain a careful position toward the frequent revolts of their followers.  Starting with the imamate of Husayn’s son, Ali Al-Sajjad, who was the only surviving male from the Prophet’s blood line in Karbala, the Shia Imams began to establish an intellectual school that placed theological and jurisprudential doctrines ahead of political  and military engagement.  The school that was established by Ali Al-Sajjad and the two following Imams, his son Muhammad Al-Baqir and Al-Baqir’s son, Ja’far Al-Sadiq developed a fully comprehensive set of theological and jurisprudential doctrines in contradistinction from the rest of Muslim scholarship of their time.  The abovementioned sixth Imam, Ja’far Al-Sadiq, was particularly influential, because he lived in the most opportune time for this type of work, when the Umayyad state was preoccupied with internal power struggle that led to its weakness and ultimate demise.  The latter part of his life was spent during the beginning of the Abbasid Dynasty (established in 750 C.E.) whose rulers took many years to consolidate their power.  During this time, Al-Sadiq cultivated a powerful class of students who became, under his tutelage, the leading scholars of Shia doctrines, such as Hisham ibn Al-Hakam, Hisham ibn Salim, and Jabir al-Ju’fi, to name only a few.  Only among the non-Shia students who benefited from him were Abu Hanifa and Malik, founders of two of the four major Muslim schools of Jurisprudence.  It is not a coincidence then that the Twelver Shia sect is often named after him and referred to as the “Ja’fari Sect”.

In the following article, we will see the development of other Muslim sects and the rise of new ones, The Murji’a sects and the Mu’tazila, during the last years of the Umayyad dynasty and the beginning of Abbasid dynasty’s rule.


Copyright © 2016 Dr. Abbas Kadhim

Toward A Better Understanding of Muslim Sectarian Division (Part IV)

Abbas Kadhim, Ph.D.

المسجد النبويWe learned in the first articles that the Shia were the first Muslim sect to emerge, in the course of the political and theological dispute immediately after the passing of the Prophet.  Their main founding doctrine was Ali’s exclusive right and merit for succeeding the prophet.  This doctrine remained as the distinct difference of Shia belief from all other Muslims, and it became the core of the Shia doctrine of the imamate — the fourth pillar in their version of Islamic theology, which is an extension of the Prophethood, the third pillar.  This will be discussed in details later, as we trace the development of the full set of Shia theological doctrines.  In this article, we will examine the rise of the Khawarij, the second sect in historical chronology, and look at the development of their politics, theology, and history.

We already learned that the Khawarij were part of Ali’s army, and they were called “khawarij” (seceders) because they seceded from his army.  They had believed, prior to their secession, in his right to the imamate, like the Shia, and supported his cause against his opponents in the two battles they fought on his side: Battle of the Camel and Siffin.  Their secession was due to what they construed as Ali’s deviation from the right path on which they initially agreed with him.  Their stubborn religious essentialism made them unable to discern or accept his esoteric principles of Islamic practice.  Although it was apparent that Mu’awiya was using the call for truce and arbitration as a trick, and even though Ali knew this and pointed it out to his army, Ali had no choice but to accept the call for peace, because the Qur’an clearly says: “If they (the enemy) call for peace, you must accept it.”  It does not require that the enemy’s call for peace to be a genuine call, because this is impossible to prove.  The Khawarij used their hindsight knowledge retroactively to establish what they described as an error in Ali’s decision in the battlefield.

Up to the battle of Al-Nahrawan, which was a decisive defeat of the Khawarij that neutralized their threat for the balance of Ali’s caliphate, their only doctrine was the notion that no authority is legitimate except for Allah’s authority.  But After the end of Ali’s caliphate in 661 C.E. (he was assassinated by a member of the Khawarij), they regrouped and formed a theological sect, and then a militant movement, as their followers increased.  As a theological sect, their main doctrine that caused a large debate was the status of the sinner (the professing Muslim who commits a grave sin): Is he a believer, or a non-believer (kafir)?  They deemed the grave sinner to be a non-believer even if he professed all the statements of faith and, as such, they called for him to be killed.  With this doctrine, they became the champions of “takfir” (calling certain Muslims unbelievers), which is a practice espoused by various groups throughout Islamic history.

The Khawarij rationale was simple: it is impossible to believe in the greatness of Allah and disobey Him. Therefore, the sinner will be unbeliever when he is in the condition of sinning and re-enters the realm of belief when he repents.  They believe that Allah will not forgive a grave sin.  By contrast, other Muslims perceived the sin to be a failure in the practice of a Muslim, which does not take him out of the realm of belief, but he as a believer is rewarded for his belief and good deeds and is held accountable, on the Day of Judgment, for his sins.  Then it is up to Allah to punish or forgive him.

The Khawarij made great military successes during the power struggle between the Umayyad dynasty’s rule (661-750 C.E.) and many revolutionaries and separatist movements, that weakened the state and created ungoverned spaces the Khawarij captured and ruled.  They were divided into a number of sub-sects depending on the various doctrines they developed and enforced against their opponents.  The most extremist Khawarij sub-sect was the “Azariqhah”, the followers of Nafi’ ibn Al-Azraq, who possessed significant military power and captured a sizable territory in southern Iraq and parts of present day Iran.  They initially allowed the killing of anyone who opposed their doctrines, even if he did not fight them.  Then they refused to spare the lives of those agreeing with them unless they joined their militant forces.  The Azariqah continued to cross all boundaries of commonsense and ultimately started killing the women and children of these they deemed “unbelievers”, arguing that a child who is raised by a parent who lacked the proper faith will certainly grow up to become unbeliever (kafir) just like the parent who raised him.  So he must eventually be killed.

The Khawarij remained a threat to the state throughout the Umayyad rule and contributed to its overthrow in 750 C.E. by an army from the Khurasan (the eastern province of present day Iran) and to the founding of the Abbasid dynasty (750-1258 C.E.).  Their extremist doctrines went out of currency over the time, but some sub-sects of the Khawarij continued to exist in North Africa and in the Arabian Peninsula.  The Ibadhi Khawarij of Oman are the best known contemporary community that descended from this sect.  But it must be emphasized that they are not associated with violence or any form of extremism, but rather they provide an exemplary model of a peaceful Muslim community.

In the next article, I will examine the reaction of the larger Muslim community of scholars to the doctrines of the Khawarij, and how they developed countering doctrines concerning the status of the sinners and the question of belief and apostasy.

Copyright © 2016 Dr. Abbas Kadhim

Toward A Better Understanding of Muslim Sectarian Division (Part III)

Abbas Kadhim, Ph.D.

المسجد النبويIn this article I will analyze the three major events that shaped the rule of the fourth caliph (and the first Imam of the Shia), Ali ibn Abi Talib.  Three wars led to the division of the Muslim community into four parties.  Next to the Shia of Ali, the first party was formed in Hijaz (Makka and Medina), mainly for economic interests, the second was formed in Damascus for pure political reasons, and the third was formed in Iraq over religious/theological reasons.  That is why the third party (Khawarij) was the only one that became a Muslim sect, next to the Shia.  Let us look at them in a chronological order.

Upon receiving the oath of allegiance (bay’a), Ali took two fateful reform decisions: he dismissed all corrupt governors of his predecessor and promised to look into the money that was accumulated by wealthy companions of the Prophet and the Muslim elite during the rule of past caliphs, considering it all ill-gotten.  His famous statement: “I will retrieve it even if it was given as wedding dowries”, sent a message to wealthy notables that the era of largess was over.  These two policies presented Ali with two challenges: the governor of Syria, Mu’awiya, who was appointed by the second caliph and retained by the third, refused to give allegiance to Ali and declared he was ready to go to war, and the notables of Hijaz (Makka and Medina) who sensed the imminent economic danger unfolding before their own eyes.

Watching the gathering storm of opposition in Hijaz and the insubordination in Syria, Ali made a strategic decision to move the capital from Medina in the Arabian Peninsula to Kufa, in Iraq, where he had a decent level of support.  But before arriving in Kufa, a hostile army from Hijaz followed him to Iraq and took Basra, the other major Iraqi city and declared a rebellion.  This army was led by two prominent companions of the Prophet (Talha and Al-Zubayr) and one of the widows of the Prophet, A’isha, who was the daughter of first caliph Abu Bakr.  After all calls for reconciliation failed, the army of Ali crushed the Basra rebellion in the famous “Battle of the Camel” (named after the camel A’isha mounted to observe the battle).  Since this rebellion had no ideological principles, nothing of it outlived the battle.  Talha was killed in the battle, Al-Zubayr abandoned the fight after a conversation with Ali, but was assassinated while on his way to a land he owned near Basra, and A’isha was sent back to Medina unharmed, out of respect to her former relation to the Prophet.  Many other leaders in the rebellion were captured but Ali released them.  Unlike Abu Bakr, who declared his opponents unbelievers, Ali prudently refused to impose this doctrine.  He did not impose any punishment on any one or any group, including the leading agitators.  This helped him heal the psychological injuries as he prepared for the next major battle.

After putting an end to the Basra rebellion, Ali led his forces toward Syria, whose governor, Mu’awiya, refused to vacate the position after Ali dismissed him.  Mu’awiya was helped by the counsel of a cunning man, named Amr ibn Al-Aas, who was a companion of the Prophet and a master of conspiracies.  Knowing that neither of them possessed the merit and Islamic credentials of Ali, who was also duly appointed for the caliphate, they masked their rebellion by a clever demand: Mu’awiya said he would do whatever Ali asked if Ali agreed to deliver to him all of the men accused of killing the third caliph, Othman, who happened to be a relative of Mu’awiya.  Ali argued that Mu’awiya had no standing to make a demand like this, because the killers of Othman were not identified by witnesses – he was killed by a crowd of outsiders and even his wife who witnessed the event could not name any particular person.  Also, Ali’s position that, even if an identification is made later and the killers are convicted, the state reserved the authority to punish them, not Mu’awiya, who was an individual with no official status.

This stalemate led to a brutal war between Ali and his followers in Iraq on one side, and the followers of Mu’awia, the Syrians.  The series of battles known collectively as Siffin were fought without an apparent victor.  At one point, Ali’s forces approached a decisive victory, and here came the role of Amr ibn Al-Aas, who brilliantly advised Mu’awiya to have his soldiers raise copies of the Qur’an on their lances and ask for a truce, which they did and hence avoided a final defeat.  The two parties agreed to appoint two arbiters whose role was to decide which side had the right argument.  Needless to say that Mu’awiya was not interested in right or wrong, all he wanted was to buy some time and confuse the situation.  This was his plan during the arbitration, for which he chose his clever ally, Amr ibn Al-Aas, as a representative.  Ali’s followers insisted on a companion of the Prophet named Abu Musa Al-Ash’ari, to be Ali’s representative.  Abu Musa was not known for possessing sharp conspiratorial skills and ended up being deceived by Amr ibn Al-Aas, who talked him into violating the arbitration’s mandate and remove Ali from office.

When the arbitration ended in a fiasco, Ali ordered his troops to be ready to resume the fighting, but he was confronted by ten thousand of his best soldiers accusing him of blasphemy and blaming him for the arbitration’s failure, which they argued he should not have accepted in the first place.  This group of people were known as the Khawarij (the Seceders).  They demanded of Ali to admit he committed blasphemy and publicly repent before they would join him again.  He refused their proposal and promised not to retaliate against them for betraying him on the battlefield as long as they did not use violence against him.  But they did not take this offer.  Instead, they began developing a set of religious doctrines the first of which is that “authority belonged to Allah, not to Ali” – they also considered posthumously that Othman, his predecessor, was an unbeliever.  Ali replied to this argument about Allah’s exclusive possession of authority, by saying “it is a true statement with a false intent, because people must have a ruler.”  In other words, although Allah holds the ultimate authority, he does not exercise it Himself, but through a human being in the position of leadership.  Here, we notice the theological debate taking shape between two schools: Ali’s thought, which was adopted by the Shia, and the Khawarij on the other side.

This dialectical tolerance from Ali’s side was disrupted by the practice of the Khawarij, who organized themselves as a terrorist group and formed checkpoints on the roads applying a test for the people who passed by them.  They would ask every man they encountered what he thought of Ali.  Anyone who said good words about Ali was killed.  At his point, Ali took action against them.  By that time (ca. 659 CE), the Khawarij had a strong army.  Before the fight he sent his cousin, Abdullah ibn Abbas, who was brilliant orator.  After a serious debate, Abdullah managed to convince half of them to return to Ali’s side.  The rest, some four thousand fighters, were wiped out in a battle known as Al-Nahrawan (named after the battle’s location).  Although the Khawarij were virtually annihilated – only a few men were left alive – their theological principles did not die.  They continued to exist for decades and controlled vast areas in Iraq and Iran, as one of the earliest Muslim sects.

In the next article, I will examine the development of the Kawarij extremist theology and political practices, which may be considered the first terrorist group in Islam, with thought and acts very similar to today’s self-described Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Toward A Better Understanding of Muslim Sectarian Division (Part II)

Abbas Kadhim, Ph.D.

المسجد النبويIn the second article of this series, I will to examine the early disputes among the companions of the Prophet, which I suggest to be the genesis of divergent schools in Muslim Jurisprudence and theology.  We saw in the first article what Al-Shahrastani called “the first dispute among Muslims”: the conflict about the imamate.  This dispute was both political and theological, because the imamate (before it was canonized as a temporal caliphate) meant both the political leadership of the state and, at the same time, its holder was the custodian of the religious authority, because he was assuming all of the responsibilities of the Prophet, except for the authority to add to, or subtract anything from the two original sources of Islamic teachings: the Qur’an and the tradition of the Prophet (the sunna).  But he had the authority to improvise precedents through the interpretation of these two sources when presented with new situations not addressed before.  This process of interpretation became a matter of dispute among the senior companions of the Prophet after his death because they saw themselves as co-equals.  Naturally, each one of them reached a different interpretation, or judgement, depending on his level of understanding, intellectual aptitude, and personality.  When they did not come to consensus, their differences lingered on and presented their followers with a list of choices.  Each companion of the Prophet had a number of followers who became the nucleus of his school.  There were the followers of Ibn Masoud, the followers of Ibn Abbas, and of course, the followers of Ali (the Shia), among others.

If the first unsolved political dispute was over the imamate between Abu Bakr and Ali, as Al-Shahrastani told us, I would argue that the first unsolved dispute in Muslim jurisprudence was between Abu Bakr and Fatima, Ali’s wife and the daughter of the Prophet.  It was over legal theory and methodology.  Upon taking the position of leadership, Abu Bakr confiscated a land called Fadak from Fatima.  She claimed that it was a property of her father, the Prophet, who gave it to her during his lifetime and that was how she came in possession of the land until the Prophet’s death.  Abu Bakr asked Fatima to present two impartial witnesses with first-hand knowledge that the Prophet gave her the land, which she could not provide to the satisfaction of the caliph.  Her only witness was her husband, Ali, as it was a family affair, and her two sons and a maid.  Abu Bakr disqualified all of them.  He considered Ali’s testimony invalid, implying a conflict of interest, and her sons were small children, while the maid was not a native Arabic speaker.  Aside from the crude treatment of the Prophet’s daughter, implying a possible false claim on her part, Abu Bakr ignored a commonsense rule in jurisprudence processes: “possession is nine tenths of the law”.  Abu Bakr shifted the burden of proof from the state (represented by him) to Fatima, who had possession of the land.

The other part of the case was Fatima’s claim that she had an inheritance right in her father’s possessions like everyone else’s right to inherit his or her deceased father, which Abu Bakr denied on the basis of a statement he attributed to the Prophet — no one else seemed to have heard it but Abu Bakr, his daughter, and a certain man from the desert — stating that the Prophet said: “We, the Prophets, cannot be inherited, whatever we leave behind is charity.”  Fatima disputed the authenticity of this aberrant statement and presented several Qur’anic verses that contradict it and affirm that inheritance was practiced by other prophets, but Abu Bakr insisted on his position.  These disputes were the first signs of divergent interpretations by the companions of Prophet Mohammed, whether on the basis of their thinking processes or personal preferences.  In this case, the law of inheritance was tested and ended in a major fiasco, with the first victim being the daughter of the Prophet, who apparently was the first recipient of the new era’s fallible justice system.  She boycotted the first Caliph until she died at a very young age a few weeks later.  Whether Abu Bakr was cleverly targeting Ali’s financial resources, to eliminate his political threat, or he was just an incompetent jurist is anyone’s guess.  What is certain was that the whole proceedings were not a proud start for the so-called “rightly guided caliphate.”

The second dispute that caused a major historical blunder was the question of the zakat (religious tax).  It was not only a dispute over a religious practice, but it involved a cardinal theological question: who is a believer and who is not?  And who is to determine one’s belief or lack thereof?  Let’s turn to the relevant events. A number of the tribes insisted on the old practice they had during the Prophet’s time, when they distributed their zakat among their own poor.  Abu Bakr was determined on collecting the tax by the central government, claiming the need to have funds for mobilizing armies and other expenses needed for the expanding state.  When they refused to comply with his taxing policies, he declared them apostates (murtaddoun) and sent armies with clear instructions to tax or kill.  Thousands of Muslims whose religiosity was no less valid than the religiosity of Abu Bakr and his troops were branded as unbelievers and killed.  The case of Khalid ibn Al-Waleed’s massacre of Banu Yarbou’ may have been one of the earliest genocides in Islam, when an entire group of people were massacred in cold blood.  All in a night’s work, and over a disagreement not on whether to pay the zakat, but how to distribute it.

These disputes are discussed here not only as part of Muslim history, but they involved the acts and thought of the companions of the Prophet, and therefore, until now they represent to many Muslims precedents to imitate when encountered by similar situations.  Here is a clip with Dr. Tareq Al-Suwaidan, a Kuwaiti scholar, stumbling all over Muslim history to justify the abovementioned massacre committed by Abu Bakr’s commander, Khalid ibn Al-Waleed, and brand it as an act of “jihad“, urging people to differentiate between “jihad” (his description of Khalid’s massacre) and “terrorism”.  It might be helpful to mention that Dr. Al-Suwaidan is a graduate of Pennsylvania State University, not some Muslim educational institution.  Yet, his selective use of narratives and his mediocre interpretations and inferences are very consistent with the methodologies of any retrograde religious university in Saudi Arabia.

The era of the second caliph, Omar ibn Al-Khattab had its major military successes and vast conquests in Iraq, the Levant, and North Africa.  This development was accompanied by new innovations on matters that were not addressed by previous leadership.  One such issue was the distribution of the great wealth that was brought to the central government, both as zakat, land tax (kharaj) and as spoils of war.  While Abu Bakr used to distribute the money equally among the eligible recipients, Omar decided to make the pay follow a sliding scale, with the wives of the Prophet receiving the highest pay, then the family of the Prophet and the early Muslims and worked his way down.  While the rationale was to honor certain people for their relation to the Prophet and their seniority in accepting Islam, Omar ended up creating a class-based society and a precedent that was greatly abused during the following caliph’s rule.  Once it was established and imposed, the preferential treatment in pay turned from Omar’s system of classification to the Umayyad network of corruption and cronyism.  At one point, the third caliph, Othman, ended up granting one fifth of Africa’s taxes — a large fortune — to his cousin and chief of staff, Marwan ibn Al-Hakam, arguing that it was an “extra” money that remained after paying the salaries. Othman understood his authority as an “imam” to allow him an elastic scope of discretion to appropriate the “extra” money as he pleased, as we understand from his rhetorical question, “If I cannot do what I want with extra money, why am I the imam then?”, while the other companions of the Prophet, who disagreed with him, found this to be sufficient grounds for impeachment and asked him to abdicate, which he did, but rescinded his abdication shortly thereafter.  According to his opponents’ worldview, there is no such thing as “extra money”.  If it were “extra”, then he should not have collected it from the taxpayers in the first place.

As the Muslims grew angry with Othman, they began to search for an alternative who was the opposite of everything Othman’s era stood for.  By that time, no one was to compete with Ali.  We can see evidence of rise in his popularity from many events during the last days of Othman’s rule.  For instance, Ali was the only mediator the opponents of Othman trusted and allowed to negotiate on their behalf.  It can be safely said that by 656 CE, the Shia of Ali were many more than the handful who remained loyal to him after the death of the Prophet.  So, by the time the third caliph was killed, Ali was the undisputed choice of the people.  His description of the crowd that came to force him to accept the position was a good evidence of an increased number of people who saw in him the only choice for the position of leadership.  “I was shocked by the people stampeding towards me like the hyena’s neck-hair.  They tore my cloak and stepped on [my sons,] Hassan and Husayn,” he recalled later.  Once he was in the position of leadership, the number of what I call “Shia by association” increased exponentially, as it is expected.  In the next article, I will look at the beginning of Muslim division during the era of Ali’s rule and how the Muslim society was fragmented into distinct parties that met only in the battlefield.

Copyright © 2016 Dr. Abbas Kadhim

Toward A Better Understanding of Muslim Sectarian Division (Part I)

Abbas Kadhim, Ph.D.

المسجد النبويWith every flare of sectarian division in the Muslim world, we read hastily written articles on the subject, mostly by journalists who are not well-trained in the field of Islamic studies.  These articles often contribute more confusion than clarification.  Mistakes, generalizations, and stereotypes not only go unchallenged, but re-enforced.  In this series of articles, I intend to provide a helpful guide for the informed readers and for those who want to become more familiar with the subject of Muslim sectarian division and its religious, social, and political aspects without having to deal with the academic jargon and terminologies that need lectures to explain.  I undertake this project drawing on my life experience and my scholarly training, having written my doctorate dissertation in classical Muslim theological thought.  So, let us begin from the beginning and provide a road map of the terminologies.

I will carefully use “Muslim” to refer to everything that describes Muslims and their thought and action, while “Islamic” is reserved for anything that is a genuine thought and and acts that have an unequivocal basis in the doctrine of Islam that is clearly applied in the Qur’an and the authentic teachings of Prophet Mohammad.  For example, I consider a linguistic construction such as “Islamic terrorist groups” as a grossly misleading term and an oxymoron, but “Muslim terrorist groups” is correct if we are referring to terrorism committed by Muslims.  The fact that a Muslim may commit an act of terror in the name of Islam does not automatically make the act “Islamic”.

The second terminological set that needs to be addressed is the “Shia” and “Sunni”.  This is a completely false dichotomy, unless it is used as a tag of political identity.  In religious terms, there is no such thing as a “Sunni” or “Shia”.  There is no Sunni theological school, but there are four main schools of theology, each one believes that the others are holding some degree of corrupt theological beliefs.  These schools are, chronologically, the Khawarij, the Murji’a, the Mu’tazila, and the Ash’aris.  As we will see in the course of this series of articles, these schools differ on all theological concepts such as the Essence of God, His attributes, and the scope of human agency in the universe, to cite only a few theological headings.  On the side of jurisprudence (Shari’a), the so-called “Sunnis” fall historically in many schools, four of which survived the test of time: again, in chronological order, the Hanafis, the Malikis, the Shafi’is, and the Hanbalis.  Each one of them has a different interpretation of Islamic law and uses different methodologies. They have a history of civil conflict and they often burned each other’s mosques and wrote books ridiculing one another’s interpretations and methods.  Yet, they are all lumped under the falsely constructed term “the Sunnis”.

The same goes for the Shia, albeit in a lesser fashion, because the vast majority of the Shia are the “Twelver Shia” (those who believe in 12 infallible Imams, as it will be explained later).  The Twelver Shia are the contemporary vast majority of Shia around the world.  But there are also other Shia like the Zaidis (also Zaydis) and Isma’ilis, and others, who disagree with one another on both theological beliefs and legal practices. Unless one speaks about the Twelver Shia, who have their home-grown theologians and Jurists, the term “Shia” will be another tool of inaccurate generalization.

Now let us go to the genesis of the division.  As Al-Shahrastani (1086 – 1153 CE) correctly stated in his book Al-Milal wa Al-Nihal, “The first dispute among Muslims was the dispute over the imamate (leadership), and ever-since, the sword was never drawn over a matter more than it was drawn over the dispute of the imamate, and no blood was shed more than the blood that was shed over this dispute.” This dispute is dated back to the hours that followed the death of the Prophet, who was the undisputed religious and political leader of the Muslim community.  Upon his death, a few of his prominent companions longed to occupy the position of leadership (initially called Imamate, and shortly thereafter, Caliphate).  Abu Bakr, was an elder companion of the Prohpet, whose daughter (A’isha) was married to the Prophet, ended up being appointed for the position against the objection of Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law.  The majority of Muslims gave allegiance to Abu Bakr, while Ali and a small number of the Prophet’s companions refused, affirming Ali’s right and divine designation to succeed the Prophet.  Those who supported Ali were called “Shia’atu Ali” (the partisans of Ali) and the term was truncated as time passed to the single word, “Shi’a” (also: Shia).

Abu Bakr secured his political authority in the capital city (Medina) by compelling the acquiescence of Ali and his Shia, who preferred to give up their claim to the leadership temporarily to avoid a civil conflict that might have threatened the existence of the new religion.  He then consolidated his political power by waging a brutal war against the Muslim tribes of Arabia, calling them apostates (murtaddoun) — some of Abu Bakr’s opponents had indeed reverted from Islam, but the majority of them were solid Muslims who refused to acknowledge his claim to the caliphate or disagreed with his economic and tax policies.  He treated both sides as unbelievers and took their lives and property, perhaps the first act of takfeer in Islam (takfir means calling someone unbeliever even if he claims to be a Muslim, which is part of the contemporary Modus operandi of Saudi Wahhabism and its offshoots, like ISIS and Al-Qa’ida, among others).

Abu Bakr died after three years, and while on his deathbed he appointed in his position another companion of the Prophet, Omar ibn Al-Khattab, who was assassinated ten years later.  Similarly, on his deathbed, Omar designated a council of six men to select one of them for the caliphate, and the choice was Othman ibn Affan, another companion of the Prophet, who ruled for thirteen years before being killed in his own house by a crowd of Iraqis and Egyptians who went to the capital, Medina, to protest the political and financial corruption of his governors.  He mishandled the protests and ended up being the victim of bad governance that accompanied his rule.

Throughout these twenty-five years, Ali — and his Shia — always maintained his right to the position of religious and political leadership.  While dealing with the previous caliphs as a historical fact, Ali and his devoted Shia never acknowledged the claim of legitimacy by those caliphs.  This doctrine about Ali’s being the most qualified companion of the Prophet for the imamate is the single difference between the Shia and all other Muslim sects.  However, the Shia also differ internally between the Zaydi sub-sect that accepted the legitimacy of the caliphs before Ali under the doctrine of legitimacy of the inferior (jawaz imamate al-mafdhoul) and the other Shia who considered Ali the only qualified and legitimate person to succeed the Prophet.

In the midst of these chaotic events, after the killing of the third caliph, Ali was drafted by the people to become the fourth caliph.  He ruled for five tumultuous years and fought three wars, before being assassinated while leading the dawn prayer in the Grand Mosque of Kufa, the Iraqi city he chose as his capital.  In the next article, I will look in depth at the doctrinal developments during first thirty years that followed the death of Prophet Mohammed (mostly Jurisprudence-related disputes) that led to the development of various Muslim sects.

Copyright © 2016 Dr. Abbas Kadhim