Sunday, June 24, 2012

Shia & Shiism: The Backdrop of the Issue (4/4)

Being the concluding part of this series, let’s review a bit.
We say the heart of Shiism is the issue of succession to the Prophet, but during Abu Bakar and Umar, the first two successors of the Prophet, this was actually a non issue, as we have narrated in Part 1

The issue was first brought up during the reign of Uthman, the successor of Umar, but as we see in Part 2, it did not become an accepted ideology.  The perpetrators of this idea managed only to create trouble and killed the caliph.

When Ali took over the leadership, the idea of him being the rightful heir to the Prophet still lingered on, but he considered it as a deviant idea.  When these devious people raised him to the level of divinity, Ali burned them alive, as we see in Part 3

It was after the death of Muawiyah that the idea of Shiism received its fertile ground.  Muawiyah did not intentionally provide the fertilizer to the seed of this bida’ah (innovation, idea foreign to the way of the Prophet), but his action towards the end of his life had inadvertently provided that fertile soil.

How is it so?

A few months before his death, Muawiyah, no doubt being influenced by his clan, had appointed his son, Yazid, to be his heir apparent.  This was his second big mistake, bigger than the time he took up arms and fought against Ali.  He must have meant well and thought that he did the right thing, as Ibnu Khaldun seems to suggest. 

When Hassan bin Ali, or simply Al-Hassan as he is generally known, abdicated his claim to the caliphate in favor of Muawiyah after the death of Ali, he had the unity of the Ummah in his mind.  But Al-Hassan agreed to hand over the power to Muawiyah only if the latter would let the consultative body of the Ummah choose the successor after his time ended.  Muawiyah accepted the term. 

This gracious act by the grandson of the Prophet, Al-Hassan, had led to twenty prosperous and peaceful years.  The Islamic Empire expanded even further.  Muawiyah was more than capable to rule.  He was majestic.  He was hailed as the first real king of Arabs.  He was gracious too.  He would not use sword when words would suffice.  He would not even use words when silence would do the job.  Like his cousin, Uthman, he had a tendency to forgive; but unlike Uthman, he had no problem of being harsh when the occasion called for one. 

When Muawiyah felt that his time had come, after ruling for twenty prosperous years without much internal dissension, he consulted his advisers about his successor.  They reminded him of the trouble after Uthman’s caliphate, and suggested that he appointed his heir apparent while he was still alive. 

This suggestion sounded logical and reasonable enough.  Transition to power can be made smoother if the successor was identified and agreed upon while the Caliph was still alive.  The trouble was that his advisers also suggested that the successor should only come from his clan.

Now, as we know, by the time Muawiyah reached the end of his road, most of the leading companions were already dead.  Muawiyah died in May 680 CE (60 AH), and the Prophet had died 48 years ago (or 49 years according to lunar based Islamic Calendar).  The companions who were still alive by that time were mostly the youth during the time of the Prophet. 

The leading personalities during that time were four, namely:

Husayn bin Ali bin Abu Talib, the grandson of the Prophet.  Since he was the son of Ali, it means that he was also the grandson of the Prophet’s uncle, Abu Talib.  He was born in the fourth year AH.  He was 56 when Muawiyah died. 

Abdullah bin Abbas (famously known as Ibnu Abbas).  He was the cousin of the Prophet and also the cousin of Ali, because both of their fathers were brothers, namely Al-Abbas bin Abdul Muttalib and Abu Talib bin Abdul Muttalib, respectively.  He was about ten years old when Makkah was conquered.  He was the foremost scholar among the companions, whose opinion even the Great Umar sought when he was still very young.  He was about 62 years old by the time Muawiyah died.

Abdullah bin Zubayr (popularly known as Ibnu Zubayr), the son of Zubayr bin Awwam.  He was also the grandson of Abu Bakar, being the son of Asma’ bint Abu Bakar.  He was born in the first year of Hijrah, or early second year according to some.  He was also closely related to the Prophet, because his grandmother was Safiya bint Abdul Muttalib, the auntie of the Prophet.  Safiya was the sister of well known companion, Hamzah bin Abdul Muttalib, the Prophet’s uncle.  He was about 59 years old when Muawiyah died.

Abdullah bin Umar bin Al-Khattab, (popularly known as Ibnu Umar) who was born about three years after Muhammad became the Prophet.  He was the brother of Hafsah, one of Prophet’s wives.  He was the oldest of the four, about 70 years old when Muawiyah died.

When the Prophet was alive, they were just boys, except for Ibnu Umar, but by the time Muawiyah died, they were the elders of the community.  People’s choice would be on any of these four, and anyone of them would have been more than capable to assume the role of the caliph after Muawiyah.  But there was one little problem: none of them was from the Umayyah Clan, the clan of Muawiyah

Anyone of them might have been acceptable to Muawiyah, but not to his clan.  Muawiyah knew the delicate situation he was in.  Against his better judgment, as some say, he succumbed to the influence of his clan.  He chose political expediency instead of doing the right thing.  He appointed his son, Yazid, who was only in his late thirties, and did not have the reputation of being either virtuous, or capable.

Muawiyah perhaps thought that if he could get those four to agree with his decision, all would be well.  But he died before he managed to get the bay’ah (pledge of obedience) from these four elders.  It should be mentioned that none of these four really desired the caliphate for themselves, but all disagreed on account that Muawiyah had broken his promise to Al-Hassan.  Failing to secure their bay’ah, in his deathbed, Muawiyah told his son Yazid, that the first thing the latter should do would be to secure the bay’ah from these four.

It turned out that Ibnu Abbas and Ibnu Umar decided to give their bay’ah to Yazid for the sake of unity, but not Al-Husayn and Ibnu Zubayr.

As for Ibnu Zubayr, he played a hide and seek game.  He did not stir people to revolt, but neither did he give his bay’ah to Yazid.

As for Al-Husayn (as Husayn bin Ali is popularly known), aside from his feeling of being betrayed by Muawiyah who renegade on his promise to his brother, Al-Hassan, he was also influenced by the people of Kufah who had asked him to lead the revolt.

“The Kufans are not to be trusted,” his father’s cousin, Ibnu Abbas, cautioned him, “they had let your father down.  They would do the same to you.”

“But I cannot let this injustice to prevail by giving my bay’ah to Yazid, and he would sure to force me into it,” Al-Husayn replied.

“Then go and hide in Yemen, whose mountainous terrains will be your refuge.  He would not find you there.”  Ibnu Abbas insisted.

“If I should die fighting injustice, then so be it.” 

We merely summarize the feeling of Al-Husayn and the situation he was thrown into.  The story of his revolt is famous, and it is not the place to narrate it here.  Suffice to say that Ibnu Abbas’ caution soon turned out to be true.  Ibnu Umar also advised him not to proceed with his intention, but his mind was already made up. 

As for Ibnu Zubayr, he encouraged Al-Husayn to raise the revolt, but later changed his view when he heard that the uprising in the city of Kufah was being suppressed by Yazid’s agents.   Yazid had instructed his cousin, Ubaydullah bin Ziyad, the Governor of Basra, to suppress any uprising in Kufah when the Governor in Kufah refused to take stern action against the people who planned the revolt.

Al-Husayn proceeded nevertheless with a small band of his close family members to Kufah.  Soon he came to know that the hearts of the Kufans were with him, but their swords were with Yazid.  Yazid’s agents meanwhile intercepted Al-Husayn’s small band at Karbala.   

Al-Husayn was given only two options by the army assembled by Ubaydullah bin Ziyad: either give his bay’ah to Yazid, or die.  Al-Husayn asked for the third option: to leave him alone.  He promised not to stir any trouble.

There was not to be third option.  They would not leave him alone until he give his bay’ah to Yazid.

“Then let my life be sacrificed for the cause, for I can never give my bay’ah to Yazid,” Al-Husayn decided.

It was settled then.  Seventy men fought 3,000 strong soldiers, or 4,000 according to some, and the aftermath is well known.  All fighting men in the small band of Al-Husayn were killed, except for one of his sons, whose name was Ali, better known as Ali Zaynal Abidin.  He was sick and did not take part in the battle, so they spared his life.  Al-Husayn’s descendants were perpetuated through him, for all his other sons were killed.

This battle took place on 10 Muharram 61 AH, the day of Ashura.

Perhaps to show as a proof that they had fulfilled Yazid’s order, either to get Al-Husayn to give his bay’ah, or to kill him, they beheaded Al-Husayn and brought his severed head to Damascus to Yazid, along with his female family members, whom they put to chain.  Yazid was reportedly shedding his tears when he saw the sorry condition of Husayn family members in chained, and released them.  He was shocked to see the severed head of the Prophet’s grandson.  

This was not what he wanted, and not what his father Muawiyah wanted, but his subordinates had been rather too zealous in carrying out the order, as often is the case.  But the damage had been done.

The brutal killing of Al-Husayn and his family members, including many from the sons and grandsons of Al-Hassan, had shaken the Muslim Ummah.  Crying the event at Karbala, Ibnu Zubayr led the revolt.  The Islamic Empire was torn again, with two men claiming to be the caliphs. 

Slowly Ibnu Zubayr was getting the upper hand by encroaching Iraq, part of Syria and part of Egypt, in addition to consolidating his power in Peninsula Arabia.   He was assisted by one of Ali’s sons, Muhammad Al-Hanafiyah, who gained much support from the Shias or supporters of Ali.

Yazid died about three years later, in 683, and was replaced by his son, Muawiyah II, the grandson of Muawiyah.

Muwaiyah II, however, was not like his father or his grandfather.  A pious man by nature, he did not consider the succession of caliphate through bloodline to be legitimate, and wanted to abdicate his position.  He refused to fight the challenger to the seat of caliphate, Ibnu Zubayr, and entertained the thought of abdicating his position in favor of Ibnu Zubayr, but he was opposed by his clan, Bani Umayyah.  He died prematurely and left no son.  The House of Umayyah was in disarray.

Marwan bin Hakkam, the secretary of Uthman when the Third Righly Guided Caliph was in office, managed to take over the caliphate seat in the House of Umayyah.  He was the cousin of Uthman, as well as the cousin of Muawiyah.  He was replaced by his son, Abdul Malik, who in 692 CE managed to eliminate the contender, Ibnu Zubayr.  A man of strange character, pious but brutal at the same time, Abdul Malik bin Marwan ruled with iron-fist, and managed to unite the Islamic Empire once again.

All these while, Al-Husayn’s surviving son, Ali Zaynal Abidin, led a retiring life, preferred to immerse himself with prayers and knowledge.  Neither was his first born son, Muhammad Al-Baqir.  But his step uncle, known as Muhammad Al-Hanafiyah, Ali’s son with different wife than Fatima, was leading the camp of Ali.  Together with Ibnu Zubayr, he opposed the Umayyah Dynasty, as we had earlier narrated.  When Ibnu Zubayr was brutally murdered by the army of Al-Hajjaj, the General of Abdul Malik bin Marwan in 692 CE, however, Muhammad Al-Hanafiyah decided to make peace with Abdul Malik.   

There was peace and prosperity again after Abdul Malik managed to crush the opposition.  A few decades later, however, there was turmoil again.  Ali Zaynal Abidin younger son, Zayd, who was born around 695 CE, inheriting perhaps the blood of his grandfather, Al-Husayn, led the revolt against the Umayyah Dynasty.  His followers were known as Shias.  About the same time, his cousin, Abu Hashim, the son of Al-Hanafiyah, was also leading the Shias from the line of Al-Hanafiyah.

These Shias were supported in the background by the descendants of Ibnu Abbas, their cousins.  The latter, known as Abbasids, or Abbasiyah, managed to snatch the power from the Shias when the Umayyah Dynasty was toppled in 750 CE.

Once again, the Shias felt betrayed. 

In this connection, we need to understand a few things, because they will throw light on the development of Shia and Shiism.

The first thing to note is that, with a few exceptions, the descendants of Ali especially through Fatima, namely the descendants of Al-Hassan and Al-Husayn, were quite indifferent about the caliphate.  With the exception of Zayd bin Ali bin Al-Husayn, none of them really raised revolts.

Zayd’s father, Ali Zaynal Abidin, whose life was spared during Karbala, led a retiring life.  So was his older brother, Muhammad Al-Baqir.  But Zayd felt that it was his responsibility to be the leader of Shias.  Zayd, however, felt into dispute with his followers, and they deserted him.  The story of his grandfather, Al-Husayn, being deserted, was once again repeated.

Some of his followers asked him to curse Abu Bakar and Umar, along with many other leading companions.  He refused.  They rejected him for that, and he also rejected them.  He called these people rejecters, or rafidah.  Zayd group was then known as Shia Zaidiyyah.  Since Zayd was the fifth leader, the group is also known as Fiver.

Those who rejected Zayd, and he rejected them, were then called the Rafidis.  These Rafidis went looking for other descendants of Al-Husayn to be their leaders, whom they call imams.  Some of them stopped at Ismail, the son of Jaafar Sadiq.  They were known as Shia Ismailiyyah.  Since Ismail was the Seventh Imam according to them, this group is also known as Shia Sevener.

Others went on and stopped at Muhammad Al-Mahdi, the son of Hassan Al-Askari.  Since Muhammad Al-Mahdi was the twelfth Imam according to them, this group is known as Twelver, or better known as Shia Imamiyah.

There were many other derivatives, but the point to highlight here is that as the struggle for the House of Ali progressed, strange ideas started to creep in.  The teaching of Ibnu Saba’ which was rejected by the leadership and the majority of the Ummah during his lifetime started to gain adherence.  His teaching was further amplified and systematized until some of its adherents became a distinct group from the Ummah.  The Shias fought among themselves and accused each other of heresy and extremism until they developed many sects and groups.

What we have narrated thus far would be sufficient to give short background to the development of Shia and Shiism.  As I say in the Introductory Remarks, if Shias simply means the supporters of Ali, then it should be the thing of the past.  More than a thousand years have gone by.   There shouldn’t be Shia and Shiism anymore since this is nothing more than old history.  The fact that it is not suggests something deeper is at play.

I have narrated briefly from historical perspective how the idea gets developed.  The keen readers may detect there are the good, the bad and the ugly among them.  We shall talk about these groups in the next installment.

Stay tuned.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Shia & Shiism: The Backdrop of the Issue (3/4)

When the Caliph Uthman was murdered, the leading companions including Zubayr bin Awwam and Talha bin Ubaydullah went to Ali bin Abu Talib to ask him to take over the leadership.

“I can serve better as an adviser,” Ali responded. “Why don’t one of you take the job?”  He added.

But they wanted him to lead, saying that after Uthman, he was the most qualified to lead. 

This is the authentic report according to leading scholars, such as Ibnu Kathir, At-Tabari and others. 

But there is also a report saying that Ali was forced into the position at the edge of the sword.  This report says that when the rebels assassinated Uthman, a group of them went to Ali and asked him to take the leadership role.  Ali refused.  They then put the sword on his neck, and made an offer that Ali could not refuse, “Either you take the caliphate role, or we will cut your neck off.”   Ali therefore had no choice but to obey the rebels.

This sensational report sounds pretty much like the celebrated novel of Mario Puzo, the Godfather, which was turned into a hugely successful movie.  I doubt Mario Puzo ever read the Seerah of Ali, but like the fictional work of Mario Puzo, this report is likewise fictional.  In the lingo of Seerah, it is called a fabricated report.

In any case, the report is very well liked by the Orientalists and the Muslims who like drama, because, building from there, more sensational fictions about Ali’s reign could be concocted.  It is easy to see, for instance, why Ali could not meet the demand from Aisha’s and Muawiyah’s camps who had asked Ali to bring Uthman’s assassins to justice, because he was under the influence of these assassins.  Since he failed to meet this demand, two bloody wars ensued. 

But Ali is above what they made him out to be, although it is true that the rebels constituted part of his supporters.  It is also true that his relatively short reign of four and a half years was marred with civil wars, first against Aisha, then against Muawiyah, and finally against his own supporters who turned into dissenters, known as Kharijites

Our focus here is not on Ali’s reign.  Rather, it is on the historical development of Shia and Shiism.  In this regards, the first thing to say is that, although those who originated the idea that Ali had the right to the caliphate were in the midst of the Ummah, and that they formed part of his followers, their idea was  not widespread.  Ali’s main occupation was to put the Islamic Empire in order, and only dealt with them much later. 

Ali was very unfortunate that he took over the leadership of the Ummah during the troubled time.  The assassination of Uthman was a major trial to the Muslim Ummah.  Umar too was assassinated, but he was assassinated by a Persian slave who only pretended to be a Muslim.  The assassin was soon caught and executed for his crime.

The assassination of Uthman was different.  It was perpetuated by a large body of Muslims who were misguided and had a score to settle with the Caliph.  Some of them were prominent members of the society.  One of them was even the son of the first Caliph, Muhammad bin Abu Bakar, who was with the Egyptian contingent.

Now, many of the companions were not quite happy with the way Uthman handled things, especially his too lenient approach to the trouble makers.  They had asked him to take stern action against these rebel rousers, as we have narrated in Part 2, but due to his forgiving nature and disliked being the first to shed blood, he forgave instead of punished them.  In the end, they killed him.

But disagreeing with the Caliph is one thing.  Seeing him being brutally murdered is quite another.  When their Caliph, the husband to two of the Prophet’s daughters, was murdered, their sense of justice compelled them to demand for the assassins to be brought to justice.  This is what Aisha asked, and what Muawiyah likewise demanded.

As soon as Uthman was murdered, the companions started to demand for retaliation.  Aisha, the beloved wife of the Prophet, and with her status as the Mother of the Believers, felt that it was her duty to make such demand.  She enlisted the support from her brother in law, Zubayr, and her relative, Talha, both were leading companions including among the Ten Promised Paradise

As we have seen, Zubayr and Talha were the ones asking Ali to assume the role of the caliphate when Uthman was murdered.  When they finally teamed up with Aisha, their intent was not to wage war.  They simply wanted to put pressure on Ali to take action against those assassins, because in their view, Ali had been lagged in this department.

As the call to demand for retaliation was led by the Mother of the Believers and two of the leading companions, many people soon joined their camp.  They at last formed a big group and caused Ali to be concerned.

Ali and his army intercepted them, and reasoned with them.  Ali agreed with the demand, but argued that the situation did not allow him to take the action so quickly.  He needed to identify the real perpetrators first.  He needed to separate between the misguided ones and the real criminals.  It was not right for him to take action against all those rebels, because most of them were merely misled by the rebel rousers. 

Aisha, Zubayr and Talha saw the dilemma, and decided to let Ali sort out the matter first.  The news of the agreement reached the real perpetrators who were in Ali’s camp.  Naturally it worried them tremendously.  So, in the dark of the night, they launched an attack on Aisha’s army.  Taken by surprise, the brief but full blooded war ensued, known as the Battle of Camel. 

This was a mistake that shouldn’t have happened.

The Orientalists, the Shias and the misguided Muslims revel in the conflict between Ali and Aisha, concocting many fictions to dramatize the event.  All we need to see is that on both sides were great companions, whose status was like stars by which we are guided.  Can we really be guided if these people cannot even guide themselves?

With Muawiyah, the situation is slightly different.  As the most senior leader of the Umayyah’s Clan, Muawiyah was pressured by his clans to revenge for Uthman’s blood.   While Aisha, Zubayr and Talha quickly agreed with Ali’s explanation and was empathic with his situation, Muawaiyah appeared to be more demanding.  He refused to give his bay’ah to Ali so long as Ali did not fulfill his demand.

Bloodier war than the Battle of Camel soon followed thereafter.  This war, known as the Battle of Siffin, did not start the way the Battle of Camel started.  The war started because both sides could not come to the agreement.

Thus, although our attitude is not to criticize the great companions like Muawiyah and his main adviser Amru bin Al-Aas, Muawiyah’s persistence demand did contribute to the needless conflict.  If he were more accommodating like Aisha, Zubayr and Talha, the war could have been averted. 

For the current purpose, all we need to say is that, as a result of the conflict between Ali and Muawiyah, Ali had to fight against a section of his people, known as dissenters or Kharijites, who disagreed with Ali’s decision to let the matter between the two be arbitrated.

These were the things that occupied Ali’s reign.  His reign was filled with one conflict after another.  The expansion of the Islamic Empire halted during his time.

As for the group giving impetus to Shiism, this was just a mere pest.  He confronted and asked them to repent as they started to attribute divinity to him, much like what the early Christians attributed to Jesus.  When they refused, he burned them alive.  The reports that Ali used to burn people alive were alluded to this group.

Ibnu Abbas, Ali’s cousin and his right hand man, criticized the Caliph for taking that measure.  Ali was right to have them killed, but to Ibnu Abbas, only Allah has the right to punish with fire (alluding to Hell Fire).  But both exercised ijtihad (personal reasoning) on the matter.

As can be seen above, while the issue of Shia and Shiism existed during the time of Ali, for it started during the reign of Uthman, there was no such thing as Shia or Shiism during his time.  It was no more than a heretic concept which Ali dealt with harshly.

Ali was later assassinated by Ibnu Muljam, one of the Kharijites.  With Ali’s assassination, his supporters took Hassan, his son, to replace him.  Since Hassan did not want to perpetuate the conflict with Muawiyah, he decided to have a peace treaty and handed the caliphate to Muawiyah, whom by then was called the Caliph.  It is to be noted that during Ali’s reign, Muawiyah was never called the Caliph.  It was not the issue of Caliphate that he contested.  It was the issue of Uthman’s blood revenge.

Muawiyah reigned for 20 prosperous years and Islamic Empire was further expanded during his time.  With gracious gesture from Hassan, peace and prosperity came back to the Islamic Empire. 

But Muawiyah made another grave mistake towards the end of his life.  Pressured by his clan, he went against the terms of agreement with Hassan, namely that the caliphate should be given back for the Ummah to decide.  He appointed his son, Yazid, as his successor.

Because of that decision, people complained and asked Husayn to lead the revolt. But by then, the Umayyah Clan had already become very powerful, because during his reign, Muawiyah had put many of his clans to be the governors of leading regions.

Husayn, who was at Makkah when Yazid was appointed the Caliph to replace his father, prepared for Iraq at the request of the people of Kufah, who wanted him to lead the revolt from the center of his father’s seat of caliphate.  Hassan, the older brother of Husayn, had died a few years earlier, so we wouldn’t know how he would react were he still alive. 

In any case, against the advice of Ibnu Abbas and Ibnu Zubayr, and a few others, Husayn went to Iraq with all his family members, consisted of 70 fighting men.  At Karbala, he was intercepted by 3,000 strong army of Yazid’s Governor in Kufah, Ubaydillah bin Ziyad.  They demanded him to give his bay’ah to Yazid.  He refused. 

War ensued and they killed all 70 fighting men including his baby he carried in his arm, except for one of his sons, named Ali (this is Husayn’s son, not his father), who was sick.  They beheaded Husayn and carried his head, along with non fighting women and the elderly whom they put to chain, to Yazid in Damascus.

Yazid was reported to be crying when he saw Husayn’s head and the condition of the prisoners.  He released them all.  Even Yazid did not order such brutality, but as is always the case, the subordinates tend to overdo when carrying out their master’s order in order to please him.

For that brutal treatment meted out to Prophet’s grandson, in addition to Muawiyah’s mistake of making the office of caliphate hereditary, a movement to make the members of Prophet’s Household, Ahlul Bayt, as imams or leaders of the Ummah, took off.  Those who supported this movement were known as Shias Ali, or supporters of Ali.  Shia was thus born, but it was not yet an ideological Shia.  It was more like political Shia.

The ideological Shia was to come much later.  We shall cover it in the next installment, the last part of this series.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Shia & Shiism: The Backdrop of the Issue (2/4)

As we have said in the previous entry, it was during Uthman’s caliphate that the idea of Ali’s right to the caliphate was first entertained.  But even during this period, and the period of his successor, Ali, there was no such thing as Shia or Shiism. 

That was to come many years later, beginning with the brutal killing of Ali’s son, Husayn, at Karbala.  Even by then, the term Shia was only referred to those who supported Ali’s descendants for the Office of Caliphate.  A shia in those days was different from a shia which came later.  Many scholars, such as Imam Shafie himself, were considered as having a Shia tendency. 

In that respect, Shiism after the brutal killing of Husayn was merely a political movement, not an ideological one. It was nothing more than a reactionary movement against what was thought as injustice perpetuated by the Umayyah Dynasty.  A group of them remained that way till these days, but others have gone off the limit and developed what may be termed as the ideological Shiism foreign to the true spirit of Islam. 

But since the movement started during the time of Uthman, although it never took off as an accepted ideology, our series on the background of Shia and Shiism would not be complete without looking briefly at what had happened during Uthman’s reign.

When Umar died, he had left a huge empire to his successor.  In the ten years of his reign, he had crushed the Persian Empire completely, and had driven the Romans out of the Middle East.  The Islamic Empire had stretched as far as Libya in the West, and the border of Afghanistan in the East.  The Arabs, previously called the brute sons of the deserts, had become the superpower, ruling the then known civilized worlds.

The extent of the Islamic Empire had become a cause of concern even for the man of Umar’s stature.  He used to say: “How I wish there will be the wall of fire between us and them, so that they don’t have to worry about us, and we don’t have to worry about them.”

When Uthman took over from Umar, the Islamic empire expanded even further.  It had encroached to what is now Tunisia in the West and what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan in the East.  It had extended to Armenia in Europe, in addition to Azerbaijan in the Central Asia.  It had also ventured into the seas with the conquest of Cyprus, something that even Umar did not dare to venture, as can be seen from his outright rejection of Muawiyah’s request, when the latter asked his permission to conquer the islands in the Mediterranean.

The addition of the vast frontiers to the Muslims had brought with it unprecedented wealth and foreign cultures.  Along with wealth and foreign cultures, these conquests had brought new adherents to the Religion of Islam.  The companions were by then tiny minority. 

Uthman was therefore left with challenges not quite faced by his predecessors.  To make matters worse, some of his policies, and to a large extent his personality and his lenient approach, did not help either.

For instance, Umar was concerned that these wealth and foreign cultures would have an effect to the companions.  For that reason, he made a policy that the leading companions should not leave Madinah, except for jihad or official duties.  Uthman, however, saw that it was not right for him to stop the companions from leaving Madinah if they so desired, since it is essentially a personal decision.

Furthermore, unlike his predecessor, Uthman allowed people to seek wealth so long as it is within lawful means.  He warned them of the danger of wealth seeking and extolled them on the virtue of moderation, but unlike Umar, he did not make it his policy to discourage this behavior.

Umar’s strict policy, stringent approach and preemptive measures had left no ground for subversive elements to rouse dissatisfaction among the masses towards him.  The only dissatisfaction, if any, came from his appointed officials, because they were treated rather too strictly by their caliph.  But even his officials had no ground to complain to the Caliph, because Umar was even stricter to himself than he was to others.  As for the general populace, they revered his reign. 

In addition to these, Umar never entertained the thought of putting his close relatives to the important positions, not only because he did not want to be accused of favoring his kinsmen, but because he did not want his relatives to be burdened with the heavy responsibilities that come with these jobs. 

When he was dying, he did not nominate any of his relatives to be among the nominees to replace him, although at least two of them were qualified, namely his son, Abdullah, and his cousin and brother in law, Sa’eed bin Zayd.  He was quoted as saying: “One man from Adiy Clan is enough for this difficult job.” 

Uthman, however, had no problem with putting his close relatives to important positions so long as he believed that they have what it takes.  Consequently, he was accused of practicing favoritism.

Lastly, in terms of personality, Umar was strict, often harsh, and at times unforgiving.  Uthman, in contrast, was extremely modest, unusually shy in his ways, lenient, and extremely forgiving.  Their differences are best captured in the popular saying: “When Umar traverses the path, the devils would run away due to his strictness, but when Uthman approaches, even the Angels would feel shy due to his modesty.”

As prosperity increased, people started to be busy with wealth.  As the ability to seek wealth is never equally endowed, the gap between the rich and the poor started to increase.  To make the matter worse, many of those who were rich came from the clan of Umayyah, whose head was Uthman at that time.  The austere and simple life, as was the case during the time of the Prophet and his two predecessors, was beginning to erode.

This had become a cause of grave concerned among some companions.  It also gave the opportunity for the subversive elements in the society to create dissatisfaction with the reign of Uthman. 

Among the leading companions, the loudest critic was Abu Dzar al Ghifari.  Concerned over the change in the Ummah, he preached for austerity and suggested that people had no right to keep wealth for themselves.  Anything above one’s needs belonged to the state treasury and should be distributed to the poor.

His voices were louder in Sham (greater Syria), where Muawiyah was the Governor.  Sensing that his teaching could be detrimental to the social order, since his ideas had gained some influence there, Muawiyah ordered Abu Dzar to leave Syria and sent him to Madinah. 

In Madinah, the Caliph Uthman asked him: “What have you done to make the Levantines [people of Sham, or Greater Syria] complain a lot about you?  Have you been sharp tongue?”

Abu Dzar replied: “Only what I said is that people should not be given free rein to amass wealth to the detriment of others.”

Uthman responded: “My main task in this post is to observe the obligation enjoined on me by Allah and to see that that people also perform their duties, but not to impose an ascetic style of life on people.  The only thing I can do is to advice them to be moderate in spending.”

He also asked the pious and ascetic Abu Dzar to stop preaching his controversial idea.  Not being a troublemaker, Abu Dzar obeyed the order from the caliph to stop preaching, but he could not bear seeing what he felt to be a corruption within the society.  He asked permission from the caliph to isolate himself from the society and brought his family to live alone by themselves in a place called Ar-Rabadhah, not too far from Madinah.

But the teachings of Abu Dzar had left some marks especially on the poor.  More importantly, he was not the only one teaching this controversial idea.  Another man, known as Abdullah bin Saba’, taught even stranger ideas.  Worse, unlike Abu Dzar whose motive was pure, Ibnu Saba’, as Abdullah bin Saba’s was more popularly known, had an evil motive.  He capitalized on the situation and exploited Uthman’s forgiving nature in order to create trouble within the Ummah (Islamic Nation).

Ibnu Saba’ was a Jew who pretended to convert during the time of Uthman.  Projecting the image of a pious and ascetic Muslim to the public, he taught people that Uthman had deviated from the true teaching of Islam by allowing people to acquire wealth, and that he had favored his kinsmen above others.

He went searching for disaffected people, especially those weak in faith and shallow in understanding, and quietly trained them as his henchmen to stir dissatisfaction among the poor.  His group spread false rumors about the governors of Uthman and demanded that they be sacked.

Ibnu Saba’s went further by saying that due to the relationship with the Prophet, Ali was the designated heir to the Caliphate Throne.  He pointed out that among the leading companions, only Ali and a few others chose to live ascetic life. 

He chose Iraq and Egypt as his base, for in these regions, people were more critical of Uthman than in other areas.

As more people started to be influenced, they started to make demands that these governors be sacked and replaced by others of their choice.   When Uthman met their demands, which he strove to meet, they would soon find faults with the new governors and started to register their complaints and demanded that they be sacked and replaced yet with others.

Uthman and his advisers, including Ali, soon knew that there were troublemakers in the society, but against their advice to come hard on them, he decided to be lenient and forgiving, preferring to reform these troublemakers rather than rooting the problem at its core.

To illustrate one example in this regards, he once said to the people of Kufah (who demanded him to remove the Governor there): “Now I have chosen for you as a ruler a person of your choice after dismissing Sa’eed (bin al ‘Aas).  By Allah I will do whatever I can to reform you, to the last drop of my patience.”

In this connection, Ibnu Kathir observes that this exaggerated lenient approach had led people to have no more respect for their leaders, until they eventually demanded him to step down.

That was exactly what happened.  After many years of spreading rumors and creating troubles without being punished, they finally managed to rouse some respected personalities from Egypt, Kufah and Basrah to revolt.   Uthman managed to find out about their intention, and his advisers asked him to kill them in order to rid the Ummah of their danger and nip the sedition in the bud, on the ground that the Prophet had said: “Whoever calls for himself or for someone else while people are under the leadership of one Imam, he is cursed by Allah, so kill him.”

Uthman, however, as was his habit, treated them with leniency and did not listen to the advice of the companions.  Instead, he said: “No, we will forgive them and inform them of our efforts.  We will never punish them unless they commit a punishable crime or declare disbelief.”

His leniency proved to be his undoing.  He entertained the accusations from the protesters in Makkah during the last Hajj season of his life.  It turned out that their accusations had no basis, and people who followed the event were dispersed, feeling satisfied with explanations given by their Caliph who was put on trial. 

But Muawiyah, who sensed a sinister motive on the part of the protesters, offered the Caliph to migrate with him to Syria, where he would be well protected.  The Caliph refused, saying that he would not leave Madinah, the City of the Prophet.  Muawiyah offered the Syrian troops to be based in Madinah for his protection.  The Caliph again refused, saying that he would not want to shed any blood among Muslims.

Muawiyah’s fear turned into a nightmare.  The protesters, who had dispersed after putting the Caliph into trial, came to Madinah after the contingent from Egypt intercepted a letter carried by a man riding in similar direction. 

This rider had been behaving somewhat strangely.  He would approach the Egyptian contingent, then move away, then approach again, until he aroused suspicion on the part of the contingent.   They caught him and found a letter bearing the Caliph’s seal, saying: “When these rebels reach Egypt, crucify or kill them.”

Enraged, the Egyptian contingent turned back to Madinah.  They demanded the answer from the Caliph, who swore that he had no knowledge whatsoever about the letter, and pointed out that in all likelihood, it was a forgery.  They asked the Caliph to bring out his secretary, Marwan bin Hakkam, who was Uthman’s cousin, for questioning.  Uthman refused, fearing that they would assassinate him.

Strangely, even the contingents from Kufah and Basrah, who were not supposed to know about the letter, soon joined the Egyptian rebels.  We can guess who were behind this plot.

They barricaded his house and cut off the food supplies, and demanded that he step down as a caliph.  Uthman refused to step down, recalling the words of the Prophet years earlier, that perhaps one day he will be given a shirt (meaning caliphate), and that if people ask him to take it off, he should not take it off for them. 

Ali asked his permission to assemble the troop to fight against these protesters who had turned into violent rebels.  Again, Uthman refused by saying that if there was to be any bloodshed, let it be his own blood.  Not wanting to shed the first blood, because he remembered the saying of the Prophet, that “once the sword is unsheathed among my followers, it will not be unsheathed until the Last Day,” Uthman’s blood was instead spilled. 

Some said the siege took a long time.  Others said it took no more than a week or so.  The most likely scenario is that it did not take that long, although probably more than a week.  The news of the siege had reached other regions, and Muawiyah was already approaching from Syria with his army to save his cousin the Caliph. 

The rebels broke into the house and some fighting took place between the rebels and the sons of the companions, including Hassan and Husayn, both the son of Ali, and Abdullah the son of Zubayr bin Awwam, who were guarding the house of Uthman.  Their number being small, the guards were soon overpowered by the rebels and they killed Uthman before the army from Syria and elsewhere arrived at Madinah.

The news of Uthman’s murder had shocked the Ummah.  The man whom the Prophet gave two of his daughters in marriage had been assassinated in the hands of Muslims.  Umar too was assassinated, but he was killed by a Persian slave.

At this point, perhaps it is proper to ask:  Had Uthman handled the situation differently, by nipping the problem in the bud from the beginning, or at least towards the end, would the situation turn out differently?

Only Allah would know.  We can only guess, and your guess would be as good as mine.  In any case, it is pointless to speculate what could have been for what had already happened.  And we should not make it a habit to criticize the reign of Uthman, as some Muslims do.  After all, he is not only one of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, but also included among those promisedParadise before he died.  Perhaps, in His Grand Design, God has something to teach us, whatever it may be.

One thing is for sure, though.  Even if Uthman had solved the problem by going to its root rather than being too forgiving, the issue of Shiism would remain.  His successor, Ali, had nailed the problem in the bud.  He burned alive those who claimed that he is divine, after they refused to repent.  Yet, Shiism thrived and prospered years after his death.

Uthman is not the cause for the development of Shia and Shiism.  The cause was Ibnu Saba’ and his ilks.  Shiism did not take firm root during his time, but we mention his story to show how this strange idea originated, and the background surrounding it.

The strange idea of Shiism was propagated ever further during the time of Ali, and Ali had dealt with them harshly, after his persuasion for them to repent had failed.

This we shall cover in the next installment. 

Stay tuned.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Shia & Shiism: The Backdrop of the Issue (1/4)

The heart of Shiism is the issue of succession to the Prophet.  The Shias believe that the successors to the Prophet must come only from his households. 
This sounds innocent enough, except that these successors have to be Ali and his descendants.  And by Ali’s descendants, they mean through the line of Husayn.  Hassan, the older brother of Husayn, is also considered as one of the heirs, but none of his descendants is given similar privilege.

This in itself is problematic, because the members of Prophet’s household do not just consist of Ali’s family.  They include also Prophet’s wives and the family of Abbas, his uncle.  They would also include the family of his adopted son, Zayd bin Haritha, whose son, Usama bin Zayd, was considered by the Prophet as his grandson. 

To some extent, Prophet’s in-laws, such as Uthman who married two of his daughters, or those whose daughters the Prophet married, such as Abu Bakar and Umar, are also included as the members of his household.  If we want to go further, then the family of Salman al Farisi is also included, because, when Salman was freed from slavery, the Prophet made him the member of his household. 

For reasons known only to them, the line of succession has to be as the above mentioned.  No two ways about it.

The real problem with this idea is that it effectively makes the succession to the Prophet hereditary, which has no basis whatsoever, except in their fancy.   They beautify this fabricated idea by hiding behind the love for Ahlul Bayt (the members of the Prophet’s household).

Since there is no basis for this assertion, they extrapolate the verses of the Quran by saying that the issue of succession is preordained.  They claim that Allah has divinely appointed the successors to the Prophet.  They call these successors imams, whom they consider infallible.  

To further support their claim, they either extrapolate the authentic sayings of the Prophet (ahadith, plural of hadith) by giving false meanings to these, or they fabricate other ahadith to achieve similar purpose.

Since their claim is contrary to what the companions say or believe, they reject these companions, accepting only a handful.  They not only revile these companions, but calling them disbelievers and worse. 

By rejecting these companions and calling them infidels, the main body of Sunnah is therefore lost.  This is because the Sunnah of the Prophet is known only through his companions, since they lived with him and knew him intimately.  To make up the loss, they fabricate their own body of ahadith, consisted mainly of the sayings they attribute to the descendants of the Prophet.  The descendants of the Prophet, however, are free from these lies attributed to them.

That, in the nutshell, is what Shiism is all about.  It is not as innocent as it is made out to be, as I have narrated at length in the Introductory Remarks.

Like everything else, to understand this issue properly, we need to look at how it developed, what makes their teachings heretic, and why most of them are deviated from the true Islam.  Since the matter appears to originate from the issue of succession, it is better to start from there.

As we know, after the death of the Prophet, Abu Bakar replaced him.  After Abu Bakar, Umar took over.

From Seerah, we know that the Prophet did not deliberately appoint his successor.  For instance, he never said: “Abu Bakar would replace me.”  When the Prophet was sick towards the end of his life and could no longer lead the prayer, however, he ordered Abu Bakar to take his place as the imam (the leader to lead the prayer). 

Aisha, the wife of the Prophet and the daughter of Abu Bakar, objected to that appointment, saying: “Abu Bakar is a softhearted person who is prone to extreme sadness.  So, if he stands in your place, he would not be able to lead the people in prayer.” 

She proposed that the job be given to Umar instead, because Umar is a man of strong character.

The Prophet ignored her objection and again ordered Abu Bakar to lead the prayer.  Aisha objected again, three times in the row.  Other women who were there, including the other wives of the Prophet, appeared to agree with Aisha, until the Prophet was exasperated and said: “Woe to you.  You are like the female companions of Joseph.  Order Abu Bakar to lead the people in prayer.”

These are strong words from the Prophet, alluding to Zuleikha and her friends who plotted for the incarceration of Prophet Joseph, as we have narrated in the Story of Prophet Yusuf

Why did Aisha object rather strongly to the appointment of Abu Bakar to lead the prayer?  Did not Abu Bakar use to lead the prayer before, when the Prophet was not around, or when he was appointed as the leader of the expedition? 

To appreciate this event, we must understand that, during their time, prayer was the most important duty.  It was led only by the leader.  The Prophet was the leader, therefore he always led the prayers.  In the expeditions not involving the Prophet, leaders would be appointed and they would lead the prayers.

The importance of the imam (leader) leading the prayer is clearly illustrated in the expedition of Dhaat as-Salaasil.  The Prophet had appointed Amr al Aas, who had just joined the fold of Islam a few months earlier, to be the leader of this expedition. 

When Amr’s delegation came near Dhaat as-Salaasil, a place north of Madinah, near the border of Roman Province of Syria at that time, he was informed that the enemy had mobilized a large army.  With a small contingent of 300 men, he felt the task entrusted to him was too risky, so he sent a message to Madinah, asking for reinforcements.  The Prophet sent reinforcements under the leadership of Abu Ubaydah bin al Jarrah.

When the time for prayer came, Abu Ubaydah, being the senior companion, wanted to lead the prayer, but Amr objected to it: “I am the leader of this delegation.  You are only the leader of the reinforcements.  You have no right to lead the prayer.” 

Despite his status as the senior companion, who had embraced Islam from the beginning, and despite being included among the Ten Promised Paradise, Abu Ubaydah did not object to that, and throughout the expedition, Amr led the prayer.

Aisha understood this.  Hence, when her husband, namely the Prophet, ordered her father, namely Abu Bakar, to lead the prayer, she took it as the hint that her father should succeed the Prophet as the leader, because the Prophet was already nearing the end of his life. 

Aisha was later quoted as saying that she did not want to burden her father with the task of being the successor of the Prophet, for she knew the job was not going to be easy.  She felt that the job should be shouldered by a stronger person, which was why she proposed that it should be Umar instead.

From the above, we see that the issue of leading the prayer was not as we understand it now.  Nowadays, the prayer is not led by the “real” leader, but by an appointed official whose job has nothing to do with leadership.    

During the times of the companions, up to the period of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, all the way to the Umayyah Dynasty, and some period of Abbassiyah Dynasty, the prayers were always led by the real leaders.  When the caliphs were present, no one would dare to lead the prayers other than the caliphs.

It is for this reason that Aisha objected to the Prophet’s order.  She wanted to free her father from being selected as the successor to the Prophet.  If it is just a matter of leading the prayer, as we understand it now, then Abu Bakar was more than competent to do it. 

It turned out that her fears came true.  Her father was eventually elected as the first caliph.

That said, the order to lead the prayer is not exactly as unambiguous as saying that “Abu Bakar will be my successor.”  He only hinted at his successor, without making it unequivocally.  For that reason, as soon as the Prophet died, a group among the Ansars (the helpers, namely the natives of Madinah) appointed Sa’d bin Ubadah to be their leader.  They preferred to have their own leader for themselves.  As for the others, they can have their own leader.

But the potential dispute leading to disunity was settled when Umar, along with Abu Bakar and Abu Ubaydah, intervened, saying that the Islamic nation can only have one leader.  Else, unity could not be maintained.  Thus, after a short exchange of words, some were heated ones, the office of the Caliphate was handed unanimously to Abu Bakar.

In those days, the way to accept one’s leadership was simple.  You take his hand, and give him your pledge of obedience (bay’ah).  Those who are bent on painting false picture said that Ali did not give his pledge of obedience until Fatima died.  They said that Ali did not dare hurt the feeling of Fatima by giving his bay’ah to Abu Bakar, because Fatima wanted her husband to carry out the job of her father.

Fatima was above all that.

They further said that when Ali finally came to give his bay’ah six months later (Fatima died six months after the death of her father, the Prophet), Abu Bakar asked: “What has delayed you from giving me your bay’ah?

Ali answered: “I was compiling al Quran.  Now that it is done, I am coming to give you my bay’ah.

Now, anyone with basic knowledge on history would know that such cannot be the truth.  If truly Ali had compiled the Quran, as the above story suggested, then Abu Bakar would not have entrusted the task of compiling the Quran to Zayd bin Thabit, who was quoted as saying that moving mountain would have been an easier task, for the integrity of the Words of God lies in his hand.  It would have been easy just to take the work done by Ali. 

The authentic reports said that Ali gave his bay’ah even from the beginning, on the first or second day of Abu Bakar’s caliphate, according to Ibnu Kathir. 

Those who want to believe otherwise are not the supporters of Ali, but people who want to paint bad picture not only to Ali, for he was above the desire to seek the worldly post, but to the companions as a whole.  If the Prophet had made it known that he wanted Ali to be his successor, the companions would not have abandoned that instruction as soon as the Prophet died. 

Ali was also reported to have said that had the Prophet made him a successor, then he would have fought for the post even if the whole world turned against him.

There was no question, therefore, that Ali did not regard the appointment of Abu Bakar to be legitimate. 

When Abu Bakar came to his end, he was intent on appointing Umar to be his successor, a decision he reached after much thought.  He consulted his leading companions about his opinion.  They all agreed, including Ali.

The only voice of caution, if at all it can be called that way, came from Abdul Rahman Auf  (or from Ali and Talha according to some).  Abdul Rahman said that Umar is the best man for the job, but he is rather too harsh in his ways.  Abu Bakar simply replied that once Umar assumes the job, the burden of Caliphate will soften him.

Some reports, which appear more romantic than authentic, tell us that Umar was very reluctant to take the job.  Like Abu Bakar, Umar was not keen on the difficult job.  Abu Bakar, however, had made up his mind.  Not in the mood for negotiation, Abu Bakar simply said: “Take that sword and bring it to me.”

Not quite getting the message, Umar asked: “What do you want it for?”

“So that I can cut your head off.  You had asked me to take this burden, and God knows how much I didn’t want it.   But when your time comes, you refuse to take it.”

Whether or not such event really took place, the appointment of Umar was made through direct selection by his predecessor, who felt that Umar had an edge over all others.

When Umar felt his time was near, he was in anguished over the issue of his successor.  There were many qualified companions to replace him, but there was no clear choice.  Ali was foremost in his mind, but unlike his predecessor who seemed to have a clear choice, Umar thought that a few others beside Ali were equally qualified.

For that reason, he formed a committee of six leading companions.  They had to choose one among themselves.  They were Ali bin Abu Talib, Uthman bin Affan, Abdul Rahman bin Auf,  Zubayr bin Awwam, Talha bin Ubaydillah, and Sa’d bin Abu Waqqas. 

Abdul Rahman soon relinquished his right to be appointed as a caliph, and acted instead as the supervisor to the process.  The others also said that they were not keen for the job while Ali and Uthman were still around.   Thus, the final choice would be between Ali and Uthman.  The final choice fell on Uthman. 

It was during Uthman’s time that the idea of Ali’s right to caliphate first appeared.  This we shall cover in the next installment. 

Stay tuned.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Shia & Shiism: Introductory Remarks

Many of my friends have been asking me about Shiism, that is, the belief system of Shia people.  A few weeks ago, some of them pointed out that, since I have a blog, I should write about it here.  I told them that I would do it one day, but I have been reluctant to start.
You see, like the average young boys in Malaysia, I grew up not knowing anything about Shia or Shiism, except that this is the group that favours Ali.  Since I was told that during his caliphate, Ali fought against Muawiyah, I had the impression that Shias were the good guys.  

In those days, Shiism was not officially considered as a deviant group in Malaysia, as it is now.  As far as I can recall, the Malays generally have special liking for Ali, perhaps more than any other companions.  With Shia being considered as the party of Ali, it naturally followed that the general view on Shia was favorable, or at least not unfavorable.

When the Islamic Revolution of Iran successfully staged the coup against the tyrant Shah of Iran in 1979, and declared Iran as the Islamic state, the whole world, including Malaysia, was watching.  With the picture of a pious and charismatic Ayatollah Khomeini shown throughout the world, along with his mantra “there is no Sunni, there is no Shia, only Islam,” the prestige of Shia naturally enhanced.

Many of those who went to visit Iran in the 80’s and 90’s spoke glowingly about the Iranians.  The late Ahmad Deedat, the celebrated Islamic debater against the Christians, was one of those who spoke highly of them.  In fact, Iran is still heralded as among the few Islamic nations brave enough to face the US and the Israel squarely to their faces.

As for me, I grew up having favorable view on Shia, though I must confess that up to my teenage years, I knew nothing about Shiism.

When I went to the US for my tertiary education, I began to hear some disparaging remarks about Shia.  Some said that they have a different Quran.  Others said that the Archangel Gabriel had made a mistake: Quran should have been revealed to Ali, not Muhammad.  Yet others said that Shias consider Ali to be divine, pretty much like our fellow Christians who consider Jesus to be likewise.

But when I asked some of my Shia friends in the US, they always gave this reply to me: “We do not reject Abu Bakar; neither do we reject Umar or Uthman.  But we prefer Ali.”  And they went on saying that their Quran is the same as ours, that the Archangel Gabriel did not make a mistake, and that Ali is not divine.  

“Just like you have heretic groups, we too have the same,” my Shia friends added.

The basis for the differences appeared to be political then.   If it is just a matter of politics, I thought, then it is not a matter of consequence.  You can prefer Obama over Bush if you like.  In the case of Malaysians, you can prefer Anwar Ibrahim over Najib Razak.  Politics is a matter of administration, not a matter of faith. 

So, I did not pursue the matter further.  From time to time, I have heard of people, including the Malaysians, warning against the threat of Shiism.  They have been infiltrating Malaysia soil and other Muslim nations, these voices echoed.  I simply brushed those talks as mere chauvinistic thinking.

About two decades ago, however, the Internet came to the scene.  I was shocked to read that some who called themselves Muslims consider Abu Bakar and Umar to be infidels.  These people called themselves Muslims of Shia persuasion.

I had read disparaging remarks about the companions of the Prophet before, but these came from non Muslims or orientalists, so there was nothing new to it. When shocking remarks about the companions came from those claiming themselves to be Muslims, I got curious. Since then, I went searching whatever I could get my hands on this subject: first through Internet, then books.

After years of research, it appears that the issue is not just a matter of political preferences.  It does not even appear to originate from political conflicts, as many, even among Sunnis, try to paint it.  It is originated from something far more sinister. 

Simple logic dictates that if it originated from political conflicts during the times of Uthman, Ali or even Umayyah Dynasty, then it should be the thing of the past.  These people had died more than a thousand years ago, and whatever political conflicts they might have, it is now a matter of ancient history.

But the issue of Shia and Shiism persist until our times, suggesting that it is more sinister than just a mere political issue.

There is also another reason why I am compelled to write about the issue of Shiism in my blog and feel that I should do it now rather than later.

You see, in countries where social order is given preference over understanding, the threat of Shiism is largely confined to a limited scale before the era of Internet.   In this respect, perhaps Malaysia is more pronounced as compared to other Muslim countries.

Islam is the official religion of Malaysia; Sunni is the official sect; and Shafie’s School of Thought is the official mazhab.  All other sects and schools of thoughts are not taught, except in passing to students specialized in Islamic studies. 

The authority must have thought that too many ideas would confuse the masses, and they would consequently turn against one another.  After all, when everyone knows only one idea, everyone will think alike.  Thus, social order is achieved. 

In this insulate approach, real understanding becomes the casualty, because understanding is perfected only through comparison.  We can only understand and appreciate “what is good” when we know “what is bad.”  Umar al Khattab illustrates this concept very well when he says: “I fear that people will fall into Jahiliyah (Ignorance) because they are ignorant about it.”

People in general, and the youth in particular, have curious minds.  God makes human beings as such.   Without curiosity, there will be little progress.  Before the information explosion through the Internet, the information can be blocked, but the curiosity remains.  Armed with information at their fingertips, the curious minds would naturally try to seek the answers to the questions they have been wondering.  With the absence of understanding, this can lead to various problems.

This is exactly what happens to the Malays in Malaysia.  In the past, being Malays means being Muslims.  By a Muslim Malay, it means that the he belongs to Shaari’s School of Thought in terms of aqeedah (Islamic dogma) and Shafie’s School of Thought in terms of fiqh

Not anymore.

Nowadays many Malays are Christians, Shias or even atheists.  Many others belong to various heretic groups, and some are Muslims only in names, while others we cannot even place who they are in reality.  As for those who go to the extreme left or right—left being those who are labeled as extreme Islamists, and right being those who embrace liberalism and pluralism, as in anything goes, everything is okay—these we have in abundant too.

But this situation is hardly unique to Malaysia.  The difference is only in a matter of degree, for the Internet does not recognize border. 

This is the main reason why I feel compelled to give some perspective on the issue of Shiism in this blog, although I do not cherish the controversial nature of the subject.  My hope is that it would provide some basic understanding on the subject to whoever is wondering what Shiism is all about, and why it has been at the loggerhead with Sunnis since the beginning of Islam. 

If these series would benefit and enlighten the readers of this blog, then I consider my effort worthwhile.

But let’s get clear with the terminology first.

For the Malays, Shia is often spelt as Syiah.  Since it is often spelt as Shia in English, this will be the spelling that I would use. 

Shia is actually plural of Shii.  It refers either to person or group believing in Shiism.  As for Shiism, it refers to their belief or dogma, since “ism” relates to ideology, such as Communism or Capitalism.

For my purpose, however, I will use Shia when referring to a single individual or the group of Shia.  For plural, I will use Shias.  This usage is wrong in Arabic, but as people tend to write Muslim for singular and Muslims as plural, I hope this would not cause confusion.

As I tend to understand things better through history, I shall start with the same.  This we shall cover in the next installment, insyaAllah.

Stay tuned.