Misconceptions About Shia Islam: A Sunni Perspective
By M. Umair Arif
The start of holy month of Moharram witnesses a serious debate regarding Shia Islam amongst the Sunni Muslims of Pakistan. Unfortunately in many of the aspects, this debate is driven by emotions and misconceptions and has no knowledge based reasoning.
The misguiding concepts of the two groups about each other have done nothing more than seriously destroying the unity of Muslims around the world while provoking hatred and anger for each other. The discussions are mostly superficial and I being a Sunni myself do not believe in the core Shia concepts but I was once a believer of many misconceptions regarding Shias. However, it was not long ago that I started reading things by myself and having discussions with many shia friends on the misconceptions with a rational basis. I would like to share my evolution of thought in this matter with an aim of bringing harmony between the two groups wherever possible and encouraging an atmosphere of constructive debates.
Shia Islam is a detailed and controversial topic in Islamic history and requires serious understanding of Islamic fundamental thought before jumping to any conclusions but unfortunately, our society has a tendency of superficial thinking in some very critical matters. First of all, we need to know that there are several sects amongst the Shias namely, Jafari, Zaidi, Ismaili etc. In Pakistan, the only serious debate occurs between Jafari Shia and Sunnis. The other prominent groups like Agha Khanis and Bohris are seldom part of discussion because of their minority and very closed community structure. Zaidis are mostly found in Yemen so no discussion there as well.
Now coming to the question, what is Jafari Shia Islam? If you ask a layman sunni, an abrupt answer would be that they are kafir (Non-Muslim) because they abuse Sahaba like Hazrat Abubakr (R.A), Hazrat Umar (R.A), Hazrat Ayesha (R.A) they believe Hazrat Ali (R.A.) is God, they pray from Hazrat Ali (R.A) and ask for his support, they do not believe in 30 chapters of Quran, they think Hazrat Ali (R.A) is above Prophet Mohammad (S.A.W), they pray three times, they think Hazrat Ali (R.A) is all knowing, they have changed the kalma, they do matam with knives and spill blood etc. This is supposed to be an informed answer from a Sunni which is also mostly incorrect and filled with misconceptions. But if you talk to the badly informed ones, you would find nothing but hatred and bias to discuss Shias. For Instance, Shias are accused to be from the family of Jews and accused of spitting in food for a sunni Muslim and there are several offensive terms used to describe them. This is all based on the rumours and misconceptions that are spread amongst the mainstream Sunni families.
The best part in such a discussion with a Sunni is that when you tell him that I ate lunch together with my Shia friend and he did not spit on my plate nor has he changed his kalma, the answer is: Umair! You do not know. They do taqqayya (hide their faith) and they lie on your face. If that is true, then consequently, whatever the sunnis say about Shias is correct and whatever the Shias say in justification is taqqayya. I really do not buy this unusual logic in which only the accuser is correct and the accused is a liar and therefore the accused is guilty! What an absurd way of thinking!
After several discussions with my Shia friends and some serious literature reading on this topic, I think I am in a position to clarify many of the misconceptions of my Sunni fellows. The objective is not to offend any group with my views or to hurt the feelings of anyone but it is to initiate a sensible dialogue in an environment of lack of knowledge and misconceptions. The sole purpose is to highlight the notions that divide us but are not actually there.
The biggest misconception amongst Sunnis is that all Shia groups are the same. This causes the greatest hurdle in a fruitful discussion on this subject. In Pakistan and even across the Muslim world, the mainstream majority Shia group is generally known as the Twelver Shia or Ithnā’ashariyyah or Imami or Ja’fari. The second most influential group amongst the shias are the Zaidis and then comes others like Ismaili, Alawi, Nauseri, Bohri etc. Understanding the difference amongst the prominent groups is fundamental to the shia sunni discourse. The Jafari for example have the understanding of 12 Imaam while the Zaidis accept 5 Imaam and the Ismaili Bohras believe in 21 Imaams and the Ismaili Agha Khanis have the 49th current Imaam. Since Imaam is a fundamental concept amongst Shia groups, it is evident that difference on the Imaams would mean difference in understanding on fundamental issues.
The Jafaris do not consider Hazrat Ali (R.A) as God or higher or equal to the Prophethood of Muhammad (S.A.W) or that Angel Gabriel made a mistake. They do consider Hazrat Ali (R.A) as an Imaam (Spiritual leader) who is Masoom (pure from any sins) and the heir to the Khilafah after Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W). These concepts do not in anyway contradict the fundamentals of Islam. Considering someone Pure or the heir to the khilafah is a matter of difference of opinion in jurisprudence and no known scholar of repute consider it a basis of Takfir (disbelief).
It is an absolute lie that Shias have a Quran with 40 chapters. You can go and visit to your Shia friend house or a Shia mosque and you would find the same Quran. There is disagreements on the Tafseer aspect of the Quran of Shias and Sunnis and this is a domain in which even many Sunnis groups and Sahaba had disagreements.
The kalma of Shia and Sunnis is the same which is a declaration of faith of all Muslims. They do add “Ali (R.A) is a friend of God” . If you ask a serious Fiqhi Shia or Sunni Scholar that adding this after the kalma or before the kalma is kufr (disbelief), his answer would be in the negative. The Kalma remains the same and adding something which does not contradict the fundamentals of Islam is not a matter of disbelief by any standards and it does not mean that the kalma has been changed.
The most misunderstood issue on both sides is the issue of abusing the Sahaba. It is well accepted by Sunni and Shia scholars alike that abusing anyone is haram in Islam as per the Hadith of the prophet S.A.W saying that “Abusing a muslim is fisq (haram)”. The issue of the Sahaba with the Shias is the political issues over several matters i.e. The matter of heir to Khalifa, the Battle of Jamal, the Battle of Siffeen, the issue of Karbala, the issue of Hazrat Fatima’s R.A land etc. On the basis of their understanding of ill-treatment, the Jafri Shia declare disbelief on Hazrat Abubakr R.A and Hazrat Umar R.A. The learned Shia view this matter as a sign of dissatisfaction on such matters however, abusing is still out of question. There is a fatwa of Grand Ayatullah Sistani that it is kufr (disbelief) on those who disrespect Bibi Ayesha (R.A). Moreover, it is an absolutely wrong opinion that Shia abuse or reject all the Sahaba other than ahl-e-bait. Infact Imaam Jafer Sadiq had praised the Sahaba of Rasulullah (S.A.W) in the book Misbah al Shariah as follows:
“Allah (S.W.T) from amongst the Sahaba had selected a group, and showered them with respect, they were successful and the blessed lips of Rasulullah (s) praised them for virtues. You should [likewise] love them, extol their virtues and separate from the people of Bidah as sitting with them leads to one’s heart being filled with kufr and hatred”.
Just like the badly informed Sunnis and their unacceptable allegations, the badly informed Shias go on and start abusing some of the Sahaba publicly which creates chaos amongst the Sunnis who love the companions of Rasoolullah (s.a.w) and naturally their emotions are provoked when they hear abusive language about Hazrat Abubakr R.A. and Hazrat Umar R.A. who have been praised by many Hadith from Rasoolullah (s.a.w). This has been the biggest cause of hatred and dispute amongst the Sunnis and Shias which has given rise to organizations like Sipah Sahaba and Lashkar Jhangvi and Sipah Mohammad in retaliation.
The issue of praying only 3 namaz and praying with hands un-folded. Shia pray all 5 prayers and they do combine prayers of noon/afternoon and evening/night prayer. This combining of prayers is done during time of hajj and even travelling by many Sunni schools of thoughts. Not folding hands during namaz and combining prayers is a matter of jurisprudence based on Imaam Jafer Sadiq which is well accepted by the Sunni schools of thought like Imaam Shafi. So once again, this is nothing more than a misconception and lack of knowledge about Islam.
If you ask a Shia that Hazrat Ali (R.A) is all knowing and has the power to help, the learned one would say that he knows what all knowing Allah has informed him through his messenger Prophet S.A.W and he is the Wali Ullah ( Allah’s friend ) so if he requests from Allah regarding a matter then Allah will bestow that to us. So it is a matter of fact that it is only Allah who is all knowing and all powerful. This concept has no flaw with regards to the fundamentals of Islam. There are some mainstream Brelvi Sunni Muslims who have the same understanding on this matter with their Spiritual leaders.
Regarding the issue of matam, there is disagreement between Ayatollah of Iran and Ayatullah of Iraq. There is a clear fatwa by the Ayatollah Khomeni that pronounces it forbidden to hit yourself with knives and spill blood while the other Ayatullah of Iraq agrees to this practice. Does that make one a kafir (disbeliever)? The Sunni position on this issue is that it is haram to do matam. But to mourn the death of Imaam Hussain R.A. is completely allowed. The disagreement is on the styles of mourning and nothing else.
The above discussion should sum up a lot of the debate that goes on amongst the Sunni Muslims and it should give them a new perspective to re-think about Jafri fiqh in Shia Islam especially from the perspective of takfir (disbelief). This understanding is very important at both ends and a sensible serious dialogue should be started by the scholars of both groups. This would create harmony among the two groups and bring them close. We should become a party in spreading this call of unity and should not be infected by the negative propaganda of hatred, lies and misconceptions on both ends.