BOOK REVIEW – Shi’ite Islam by by Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabatabai


SHAFAQNA – Despite growing interest in the last hundred years in both orientalism and comparative religions, and the fact that there are over fifty million Shi’a Muslims, until now there has been no thorough and objective study of that part of Islam called Shi’ism for Western scholars. The present work provides a clear account of the origin, history, and doctrines of an important sector of the Muslim religious community. It is written by a distinguished leader of that community, who, in addition to possessing a thorough knowledge of its traditional history and literature, presents its rational-philosophic, traditional-legal, and gnostic-mystical elements with warmth and sympathy. The result is a well-integrated general picture which succeeds in giving the reader a clear and comprehensive picture of how the Shi’ite Muslim views his religion.

Translated into English by Seyyed Hossein Nasr – The translator noted: “Only Sufism or gnosis can reach that Unity which embraces these two facets [Sunni & Shiite] of Islam and yet transcends their outward differences….The distinctive institution of Shi’ism is the Imamate and the question of the Imamate is inseparable from that of walayat, or the esoteric function of interpreting the inner mysteries of the Holy Quran and the Shari’ah. According to the Shi’ite view the successor of the Prophet of Islam must be one who not only rules over the community in justice but also is able to interpret the Divine law and its esoteric meaning. Hence he must be free from error and sin and he must be chosen from on high by divine decree (nass) through the Prophet. The whole ethos of Shi’ism revolves around the basic notion of walayat, which is intimately connected with the notion of sancitity (wilayah) in Sufism.” [p.10] The author presents a pro-Shi’ism analysis in this book. Contents include: The cause of the separation of the Shi’ite minority from the Sunni majority; the political method of the selection of the caliph by vote and its disagreement with the Shi’ite view; the termination of the caliphate of Ali Amir al-muminin; the benefit that the shiah derived from the caliphate of Ali; the bleakest days of Shiism; Shiism between the 2nd and 20th centuries; Divisions within Shism (Zaydism, Ismailism, Batinis, Nizaris, Druzes, Muqannaah, Twelve-Imam Shiism, Zaydism); Three methods of religious thought (Shiism and the transmitted sciences; the way of intellection and intellectual reasoning; Mystical unveiling [Sufism]); Islamic beliefs from the Shiite point of view (the necessity of God; divine essence and qualities; destiny and providence; man and free will); the prophets and proof of revelation and prophecy; Eschatology; The meaning of Imam and succession; the Imamate and its role in the esoteric dimension of religion; a brief history of the lives of the twelve imams; the spiritual message of Shiism; Mutah (pro-temporary marriage); ritual practices in Shiism; and a note on the Jinn. Unlike many Islamic books from Pakistan, this is a very, very well written book in both analyzing and explaining Shi’ism. Because it lacks critical self-analysis, however, I rate it only 4 stars. Yet, it is far superior to the typical religious tract. As the editor, Nasr, opined: “The reader must therefore always remember that the arguments presented in this book are not addressed by Allamah Tabatabai to a mind that begins with doubt, but to one that is grounded in certainty and is moreover immersed in the world of faith and religious dedication.”

This book is a well-organized introduction to Shi’ism by an eminent Islamic scholar. It provides a way of understanding Iran, a country which is about 90% Shi’ite.

As is widely known, there is no division in Islam between “Church and State” as exists in Christianity. Religious and civil society made up a single body of believers. This did not lead to difficulties as long as Muhammed was alive. His view on all matters was definitive. There was no question about control of the ummah (community of the faithful). But at his death there was a split between his family, known in Muslim accounts as the Household, and the his un-related followers, the Companions. The most highly regarded person in the Household was Muhammed’s son-in-law Ali. He was the first person to become Muslim. Among the Companions Abu Bakr was most admired. The question was which of the two should lead the ummah, but more than governance was involved.

Ali’s relation to Muhammed was closer, and being a relative, his relation was more emotional. Ali and the rest of the Household became known as Shi’ites (meaning partisans). But it was Abu Bakr, lieutenant to Muhammed and the person in charge of his military conquests, who became caliph, i.e., successor to Muhammed. Abu Bakr and his followers (a majority) were known as Sunnis, from the word for “tradition”. The Shi’ites continued as a minority for some twenty-four years under Abu Bakr and two following Sunni caliphs; then Ali the dissenter became caliph. His contentious five-year reign ended when he was killed in battle. The Sunni Umayyad dynasty then began. During that time, the Shi’ites remained out of power in the Muslim empire although they ruled various provinces in Persia, Iraq, and Syria.

Key to Shi’ism is the concept of certain individuals who possess very superior enlightenment. They are known as Imams, and have a status between Prophets (like Muhammed) and ordinary people. Only one Imam can be alive at any time. There were a number of Shi’ia sects, differing as to who the Imams were and how many of them there were. But today the Twelvers are predominant by far. To get a better understanding of the concept of the imam, we need to know something about Islamic religious philosophy. The author explains this in Chapter III-V, treating Shi’ism and Sunnism as essentially similar. There are three levels of religious thought. The simplest is the observation of procedures such as fasting and prayer. These are actions of which all people are capable. Then there is the intellectual and analytical analysis employed in philosophy, both Western and Islamic. This is certainly more complex. Last, there is intuitive mysticism, i.e., an intuitive perception of reality which is difficult to explain, but leads to the perception of reality as a whole rather than specific rituals or concepts. This is the most difficult of all. The two higher levels are not for everyone.

The author presents a straightforward realistic philosophical idealism. He believes in an inner world of thoughts and an outer world of physical objects and sense perceptions. These worlds are harmonious. The outer world conforms to human needs. The author points out “If creation has given man bread, it has also given him feet to seek it, hands to grasp it, a mouth to eat it, and teeth to chew it.” (p.125) This leads to an “argument from design” that the universe is a product of conscious design. All in all, it seems to be a pleasant world for human individuals. There is one God, who possesses all positive qualities. Man has free will, but the author reconciles this with determinism by asserting that “God the Exalted has willed and made necessary the act through all of the parts of the complete cause, of which one is the will and free choice of man.” (p.135)

There would seem to be a rational universe and a place for individual human beings in it. But the laws that govern the happiness of human society cannot be found by reason but depend on revelation. They place a demand on everyone’s understanding. Being disinclined to logical analysis and mystic intuition, ordinary humanity requires miraculous events in order to believe. In Shi’ism, those with the ability to produce miracles and receive revelations are called Prophets. Muhammed was the last of them, but there were many before him. The chief miracle he left behind is the Quran itself. There are other extremely virtuous individuals called Imams, who do not perform miracles but can experience revelations. The reason for this division is that the prophetic voice is needed only once in history, but therafter it must be continually explained; therefore an Imam is always required.

The author devotes a number of pages to demonstrating that Ali, by virtue of Muhammed’s endorsement, was properly the first Imam. The evidence consists entirely of “hadith”, which are anecdotes of Muslim history. There are thousands of hadith; some of them are not considered genuine by Muslim scholars. A problem is that there appears to be no way of validating the first Imam, Ali, other than by citing hadith. The author states “Shi’ism has reached the conclusion that there are sufficient traditional texts left by the Prophet to indicate the procedure for determining the Imam and successor of the Prophet. This conclusion is supported by Quranic verses and hadiths which Shi’ism considers as sound …” (p.177). So we must hope. We have only anecdotes, not history.

In the usual “Twelver” Shi’ism there were twelve Imams from Ali to the final one, of a similar name, Ali ibn Muhammed Simmari, who went into “occultation” (hiding) in 909 CE and will not emerge until God grants permission. There is a hadith that states that on his emergence (as a heroic figure, the “Mahdi”) “He will fill the earth with equality and justice as it was filled with oppression and tyranny.” (p.211). We are not told what sort of equality and justice it will be. The Imamate seems to be a hereditary calling, since each of the eleven after Ali was the son of the previous Imam. Shi’ism does not seem to have any political philosophy, since as said before the governance of human society is a matter of revelation.

The author presents capsule biographies of the Twelve. They show that Islam in its first few centuries was a tumultuous affair. The fight over who should control the ummah was ferocious. A majority of the Twelve were killed by poisoning; others were killed in battle with their political opponents. This book appeared in 1978, but it certainly seems prophetic given that 909 CE is the latest date in it.


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