The Problem with Sects

I am a Shi’ah Muslim. Just wanted that out in the open and up front before beginning the post.

This ‘blog is not limited to a particular school of thought, nor does it wish to exacerbate differences amongst the schools of thought. However, I have noticed a tendency, even amongst liberal/progressive/intellectual Muslim sites to marginalize Shi’ahs in their discussions. This statement is not meant to be an indictment, but a statement of fact that allows me a chance to get into a discussion.

I don’t want to get into a debate on political correctness, but it is worthwhile to think about the power of language. The Sunni interpretations (contrary to Wahabbi pseudo-Islam of only one notion of Sunnism) are in the majority in the ummah, but majority is not normative; in fact, it is this ideology that many of us in the ‘blog sphere rage against. In talking about Islam, there is a tendency to talk about an Islam; at a meta-level, a spiritual level, there is no problem. However, when the conversation turns to the particular, then the idea of transcendence is lost and normative discourse is the result. A good example is the BeliefNet survey I mentioned previously: the typical line is that Islam has no clergy, which is true as far as it goes, but in Shi’ism there is a hierarchy of religious scholars and representatives of the Imam. In terms of looking for guidance, the average Shi’ah will turn to that hierarchy. Also, for Shi’ah the gates of ijtihad were never closed, even at the theoretical level.

There is also a tendency to refer to Shi’ism as a sect within Islam, a term which has no historical precedent in the Islamic tradition. It is also historically inaccurate. A sect implies a deviation from the norm, but traditionally Islam has been a matter of faith, that is then translated into action, rather than a practice turned into faith. Definitions of Islam revolving around orthopraxy (right practice) are new, and orthodoxy (right belief) is undefinable; the basic belief is in the kalimah “there is no God but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” [Yes, this is a simplification of basic beliefs, but it makes the point without supplying incorrect information.] Orthopraxy was enforced to create a normative tradition; even amongst Sunni interpretations, there are differences in practice.

Historically, we know the Shi’at Ali were perhaps one of the earliest communities of interpretation, coalescing during the time of the Prophet (PBUH). The individuals of what we now call the four Sunni schools of law, were either direct or indirect students of Imam Jafar as-Sadiq. The idea of Ahl us-Sunnah wa Jama’ah did come together until the 11th century under the Seljuqs, as an attempt to solidify a non-Shi’ah identity. It was essentially a broad umbrella category for non-Shi’i communities of interpretation, which why sometimes Sufis are categorized as only being Sunni.

I also mentioned, in response to a Muslim WakeUp! post, that the Shi’ah dynamic is important to understanding the political situation in parts of the Muslim world. If you read the news about the massacres of the Hazara in Afghanistan, it was as much about their beliefs as their ethnicity. Clearly the Taliban were virulently anti-Shi’ah, committing one of the largest destructions of Shi’ah communities in the modern period, which makes their alleged alliance with Iran laughable.

I’m not proposing that we make distinctions in how we reference our discussions of Islam; in fact I think that doing so is antithetical to the points we are attempting to make in our own discussions. I highlight these issues to make sure our use of language is inclusive and non-normatizing. I don’t want us to fall into the same mindsets that we find objectionable.

I’ve included some recent academic works in English about Shi’ism and early Islamic history. They reference some of the older European works as well as drawing on contemporary sources in Arabic and Persian.

Succession to Muhammad
The Origins and Early Development of Shi’a Islam
Doctrines of Shi’i Islam
The Fatimids and Their Traditions of Learning
Islam in Practice
Mysticism and the Plurality of Meaning: The Case of the Ismailis of Rural Iran
The Divine Guide in Early Shi’ism
A Learned Society in a Period of Transition
The Muslim Almanac
Early Shi’i Thought

Institute of Ismaili Studies on Shi’ism
Aga Khan Development Network on Imamate