Monday, January 08, 2007

Sunni, Shi’a, Heaven, Hell

By Dr. Robert Dickson Crane - TAM The American Muslim - Bridgeton,MO,USA
Friday, January 5, 2007

“Pride in one’s own dignity is divine and loyalty to one’s family and community are extensions of it. But God created pairs and communities as means for individual humans to get to know each other. To draw a line between oneself and everyone else is tribalism, and is part of the problems in the world. Arrogance is the worst sin in all religions, and tribalism is its worst result. Among the cavemen a few millennia ago such tribalism may have had survival value. Nowadays, however, with weapons of mass destruction inevitably proliferating worldwide, the impulse to demonize other tribes constitutes species suicide.”

I. Who Are the Shi’a?Perhaps the only Muslim in America who has worked full-time for fifteen years in ecumenical outreach is Iftekhar Hai, whom I first met at the Parliament of the World Religions in Chicago in 1993, where we both joined its parliamentary governing body. He resigned his job at the time in order to devote all his time as co-founder and director of interfaith relations at United Muslims of America (UMA).

This is a California-based group that follows its motto, “Diversity is part of Islamic belief.” One might go even further by adding that God created diversity as the best means to point the way toward unity in the transcendent Oneness of Allah.

Iftekhar, like all effective da’is, knows that Americans embrace Islam for only two reasons. First, because they find that it helps them develop a personal relationship with God, and, second, because they find that this transcendent knowledge helps them to seek and apply justice in human affairs. These, indeed, namely, taqwa and ‘adl, are the two highest priorities in the Shi’a statement of belief and come even before prophecy and prophets (nubuwiya) as a source of knowledge.

These two goals in life, of course, are shared by all Muslims and even by all the world religions, but they form a distinct dual discipline of ‘ilm al ‘adl only among the Shi’a. The universally recognized purpose of all religion is to empower the truth, which exists independently of human beings but requires religion in order to be translated into principles of compassionate justice. The search for truth at the highest esoteric level is known in Jafari (Shi’a) thought as ‘ilm al taqwa (knowledge of the One through love), and the search to make it manifest at the exoteric or outward level might best be defined as ‘ilm al ‘adl, which is knowledge of balance and justice through the coherence of diversity known as tawhid.

These pursuits have ultimate meaning only as they fulfill each other. This is the essence of Islamic thought and of every world religion, as well as of the classical thought of the 18th-century founders of the American counter-revolution against secularism, known as the Great American Experiment. All the rest is commentary.

Why do the Shi’a place such emphasis on transcendent justice, and why have they always done so? Certainly one reason is that the Shi’a and women in general have always been the primary victims of injustice. The nascent discipline of ‘ilm al ‘adl serves the unique purpose among the Shi’a as a counter to the tendency of political rulers and men in general to govern by fear and oppression.

The usefulness of fear and oppression at all levels of human life may explain why the fear of hell and the oppression of women are the most contentious issues among Muslims, have always been so, and probably always will be, at least until the advent of the Mahdi. Resort to fear and oppression, even under the attractive label of freedom and democracy, seems to be more useful in practically every aspect of modern life and therefore more powerful than the search for knowledge, love, and justice.

Iftekhar Hai asked me recently how to counter those who assert that all Shi’a are going to hell. My standard response is to ignore such people and wish them peace, which Allah has told us in the Qur’an should be our response to those whose diatribes resemble the braying of an ass.

Perhaps in a considered response, however, one should start by focusing on the psychology of those who make such assertions. Demonizing Sunnis is common also among the Shi’a, which serves the useful purpose of justifying mutual genocide. Only those who think that everyone else is going to hell except themselves would demonize the Shi’a and understand why the Shi’a reciprocate the demonization so eagerly.

All extremists in any religion like to portray other religions as the opposite of their own and to condemn them for similar extremism. Perhaps the psychological explanation is the extremists’ need to overcome their own lack of self-confidence in their own faith by creating false certainties about other faiths in order to create a cocoon of certainty exclusively in their own community.

One finds this also in some Sufi orders which resort to totalitarian thought in order to create and sustain an oppressive cult.

Pride in one’s own dignity is divine and loyalty to one’s family and community are extensions of it. But God created pairs and communities as means for individual humans to get to know each other. To draw a line between oneself and everyone else is tribalism, and is part of the problems in the world.

Arrogance is the worst sin in all religions, and tribalism is its worst result. Among the cavemen a few millennia ago such tribalism may have had survival value. Nowadays, however, with weapons of mass destruction inevitably proliferating worldwide, the impulse to demonize other tribes constitutes species suicide.

Iftekhar Hai wanted a specific answer to a Shi’a scholar who stated in answer to a non-Muslims inquiry that, “Loyalty to Ali and his descendents is at the core of Shi’ism. Shias believe that each new leader, or imam, should be a descendent of Mohammed and Ali.” The simple answer is that this is wrong because spiritual depth rather than genetic descent is the only absolute requirement.

The second question, put forth by a non-Muslim was in response to the following follow-up assertion by a Muslim “scholar”: “By this divine decree, scholars from other faiths, such as Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism, who are more capable, knowledgeable, and enlightened, may have to be automatically excluded. Their loyalty to God will be of small significance because they may not be born with loyalty to Ali and Muhammad.” How can this be reconciled, the non-Muslim asked, with clear statements in the Qur’an that this can not be true.

The clear answer is that the scholar was wrong and was merely spouting off in what is universally recognized by both Shi’a and Sunnis as “Mullah Islam.” Shi’a profess even more respect for those who wear the black turban of a scholar than Sunnis do for those who wear a golden thobe and an agal and qutra, because these people are certified to give the official version of truth. These “mullas” usually do have great knowledge of the externals of their religion but often have no knowledge of its inner wisdom and therefore are not qualified to apply it.

As a life-long political activist, I have learned to take all official anything with a grain of salt, because all official anythings are politically influenced, if not invented specifically for political purposes. My dissertation in 1956 explored the political motivations of all the different heresies in the first six centuries of Christianity, including the Pauline heresy known is trinitarian Christianity, which triggered the first six general councils over a period of centuries to reconcile faith with reason. Each council required a new council, until finally the effort was abandoned as hopeless.

Perhaps fortunately the encultured respect for “mullah Islam” among the younger generation indoctrinated by the mullahs in the madrassas generally does not last even until adulthood. I was much impressed at the second summit conference of the Shi’a in America, UMAA, in 2004 when an American-born cleric, wearing the black turban to designate “a scholar,” interrupted a speech to the three thousand assembled participants to warn everyone not to clap after the speech because clapping is a Western innovation condemned in Islam. Shi’a, he proclaimed, instead must yell “Allahu Akbar.”

As soon as the speech was over, the entire audience erupted in a thunderous clapping that lasted for minutes. I have never before or since seen such a 100% vote on anything in any religious group, a decisive condemnation of Mullah Islam.

Afterwards I approached this imam and asked him where he got such an odd idea, because I had thought that such an obsession was exclusively Sunni, specifically from the Wahhabi sect in Saudi Arabia. This led to a discussion on infallibility in religion. I said that even the very best and most sincere of people can be wrong, and I cited the Prophet Muhammad, salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam, as the prime example. In fact, I cited four instances where the Revelation in the Qur’an corrected the Prophet. The clearest of these was the Prophet’s practice of giving charity only to Muslims. Allah in the Qur’an said that charity should be given exclusively on the basis of need, whereupon the Prophet immediately corrected himself, and this was the general practice observed by all Muslims until corruption later crept in.

The imam was horrified and proclaimed that the Prophet Muhammad was infallible, which by his reasoning, of course, would be necessary if the spiritual successors, the twelve imams of Ithna’ashari Shi’ism Islam are infallible.

Unfortunately, this imam had never studied the doctrines of infallibility that have emerged in the Catholic Church and in various Sufi orders, as well as in all religions, which reveal a very nuanced field of study.

The true scholars qualify such claims very carefully. Catholics have learned to use the doctrine of ex cathedra as a means to restrict the exercise of infallibility generally to not more than once a century and then only to confirm what has always been the consensus anyway on matters of faith and morals. In Mullah Islam, everything is black and white. Infallible is infallible, period. If Ali, ‘alayhi al salam, is the spiritual successor of The Prophet, then, according to the Mullah, he was infallible absolutely in everything, and so were all his successors.

This, of course, would be tantamount to claiming that a human can be an angel or God himself. In the end, the Mullah refused to discuss the issue any further because a crowd was gathering to hear the debate.

Perhaps the major cause of all the hostility between Sunnis and Shi’a is not simply the self-imposed ignorance by designated authorities, but the well-informed and politically motivated scholars of each, who have argued themselves into corners by falsifying history. They no longer can find a way out except by revisiting each other’s history, as well as their own. Once this has been done, then the need to demonize each other should disappear.

The real issue has nothing to do with genetic descent from the Prophet, salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam, and his daughter Fatima, radi’ Allahu anha, married to ‘Ali (’alayhi as-salam). Most Muslims, both Sunni and Shi’a, regard ‘Ali as the spiritual successor of Muhammad.

The Shi’a have always differed among themselves on the purpose and function of any spiritual successors to ‘Ali. Perhaps one reason for such exclusionary tendencies is psychological in an effort to hide, deny, or overcome the ontological, epistemological, and normative uncertainties inherent to their own levels of understanding.

They all agree, however, that any successor, whether physically present in the world or not, lives at the highest level in understanding the batina or inner dimensions of the Qur’an. All the Orthodox Shi’a of whatever persuasion believe that this level is below that of prophecy (wahy) but at the highest level of inspiration (ilham). Thus any successors are not superhuman in any way, because to be human means to be receptive to God.

Shi’a and Sunnis who live at the superficial levels of reality differ in whether or not they like to emphasize the injustice or justice of the political succession at the time of the Prophet’s death. ‘Ali accepted the political decision, and later when he became the fourth and last of the khulafa’a al rashidin, he distinguished his political responsibilities from his spiritual mission in life. He was assassinated for opposing the growing concentration of wealth in the early Muslim community, which today we call the wealth gap, and for challenging the resulting concentration of political power, which in turn had caused oppression.

Shi’ism arose as a movement of political protest against political oppression, especially during the first Muslim dynasty, the Ummayed. This protest was based on opposition to the very concept of political dynasties, which by definition are unjust. Unfortunately, some Shi’a then perverted this protest into a movement to create rival dynasties. Fortunately, however, the original opposition to any concentration of economic or political power survived.

The purpose of the Shi’a imams is to separate “church and state,” so that spiritual guidance will not be corrupted by political power. One may legitimately debate whether the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt shortly before the time of the Mongol invasion was aberrant. And one certainly may question whether the first Safavid emperor in Persia at his accession in 1502 violated this principle by declaring Twelver Shi’ism to be the state religion when the majority of his subjects reportedly were Sunnis. But, these were political innovations.

Ayatollah Khomeini was the first Shi’a religious leader in 1400 years to violate the prohibition against the establishment of a religious state, whether Islamic, Christian, Jewish, or “Sabian.”

The Orthodox Shi’a teachings also forbid the establishment of a global political caliphate, because any true caliphate to unite the Muslims can legitimately consist only of a consensus of the scholars and wise spiritual guides on the human responsibilities and derivitive human rights in the maqasid (purposes) of the shari’ah, known also as the universal principles (kulliyat) or essentials (dururiyat) of Islamic jurisprudence. By definition, such a consensus on a code of human rights, even though it might serve to define the practical meaning of justice, can not be imposed on anyone.

A decade ago, I published a chapter in a book in Teheran arguing that his followers, rather than the Imam, had invented the concept of wilaya al faqih, known as governance through the authority of the clerics. In this and other writings I elaborated on the universal principles of Islamic law to contain at least seven duties, namely, haqq al din (respect for the divine origin of truth), haqq al haya (respect for life based on the divine origin of every person), haqq al nasl (respect for the nuclear family and for community at every level up to that of humankind on earth), haqq al mal (respect for the universal human right to own capital or the means of production as the only means to avoid wage slavery), haqq al hurriya (the right to political self-determination or political freedom with the necessary institutions most conducive to implementing this right in the particular human community), haqq al karama (the duty to respect human dignity in the realms of religious freedom and gender equity), and haqq al ‘ilm (the duty to respect knowledge and the derivitive rights of freedom of thought, speech, and assembly).

This book was later withdrawn as politically unacceptable. In a word, Ayatollah Sistani’s experience in Iran explains why he refuses to be drawn into the political battles in Iraq.

Iftekhar replied in the discussion that prompted his original question that the model of Islam comes from the Sunnis. He states: “The Sunni system of authority is based solely on capability, scholarship, and leadership, being elected through due process, which is more aligned with the democratic American system of justice.”

Would that over the centuries this were so! In fact, perhaps nowhere in the world has the system of shura ever been more grossly violated than in some of the various Muslim empires over the centuries.

Muslim tyrants today may call their system of governance a republic, which by definition recognizes that the ultimate authority comes from God. And they may call it a democracy, which means that ultimate authority comes from a majority of one in a plebiscite. But they know better than anyone else that in such pretensions they are frauds.

Invidious comparisons, however, are not productive. People in glass houses should not throw stones at each other. Furthermore, stone-throwing does not penetrate or answer the real questions that must be addressed more objectively.

II. What is HellAny answer to the question whether Shi’a are doomed from birth to an eternity in hell depends in part on one’s definition of hell.

At issue is the common reading that Allah in the Qur’an is emphasizing fear and punishment by anthropomorphic analogies most suitable for those of the very lowest level of understanding, an understanding that is hardly above that of the apes. Such a reading, common in both Christianity and Judaism, is the root of all the utilitarian doctrines that have pervaded American thought for more than a century.

This problem of the exoteric and anthropomorphic reading of heavenly huries and the fires of hell has concerned all the great Islamic thinkers over the centuries, particularly the historically interdependent movements of Shi’ism and Sufism.

The early generations of both were ascetics whose goals in life were to fear God and forsake the world. Somewhat later generations emphasized love by and for God so much that fear of God was interpreted as loving awe of God. They emphasized such hadith as the sahih report of the favorite prayer of the Prophet Muhammad, allahumma, asaluka hubbaka, wa hubba man yuhibuka, and hubba kuli ‘amali yuqaribuni ila hubbika (Oh Allah, I ask you for your love, and for the love of those who love you, and for the love of every action that will bring me closer to your love).

This movement within Islam, especially among the Sufis, led many Muslims to forsake not only this world, but Heaven as well. Thus the famous Rabi’a al-Adawiyya, who died in A.H. 185, prayed, “Oh my God, if I worship You out of fear of Hell, burn me in Hell, and if I worship You with the hope of Paradise, make Paradise forbidden for me, and if I worship You for Your own sake, do not deprive me of Your Eternal Beauty.”

This view of heaven and hell was popularized even among Christians by the story about Rabi’a running and carrying fire in one hand and water in the other. When asked what she was doing, she replied, “I am going to set Heaven afire and pour water on Hell so that both of these distracting veils are removed and the destination becomes clear, and the servants of God may serve God without the motive of hope and the reason of fear.”

This level of spirituality was dominant among Sufis until about four hundred years ago, when the great shaykh of the Mujadidia branch of the Naqshbandi family of tariqat, Ahmad Sirhindi (still the dominant form of Naqshbandi spirituality), started teaching that Rabia, like Hallaj, had reached only an intermediate stage in the saluk or spiritual journey and was ungrateful to Allah for His great favors.

In my view, all Muslims should read Muhammad ‘Abd al Haqq Ansari’s book, Sufism and Shari’ah: A Study of Ahmad Sirhindi’s Effort to Reform Sufism, which was published in London in 1986 and has been on a shelf above my desk now for twenty years. This movement of higher spirituality is known as tajdid ruhanniya or spiritual renewal.

Many of the Naqshbandi in Pakistan today (most notably Faqir Muhammad Akram Alwani, with whom I spent considerable time in Chakwal Province in the southern outliers of the Himalayas fifteen years ago) are the most vehement opponents of Shi’ism in their efforts to “purify” Muslims of heterodox ecumenism as an alleged barrier to political reform.

Nevertheless, their emphasis on justice as a principal of balance in the exoteric manifestation of the shari’ah gives them common ground with the Shi’a, who emphasize the higher principles of normative law and the tawhidian balance of the maqasid al shari’ah in both the inner and outer dimensions of Islamic jurisprudence.

The classical Naqshbandi, like the classical founders of most Sufi schools before they became organized orders as in the Catholic Church, tried to avoid extremism in every field, including their conception of heaven and hell.

They taught that intoxication with love of Allah, typified by fana fil Allah, baqa, and wahdat al wujjud (as distinct from wahdat al shuhud or the subjective impression of union with Allah), is merely a stage on the spiritual path. Most persuasively taught by Ahmad Sirhindi, the balanced path of sobriety leads to love not merely of Allah but of everything that Allah loves, including heaven, and dislike of whatever Allah warns against, including hell.

Rabi’a was limited in her understanding of heaven and hell because she inherited the literalist understanding of the Qur’anic descriptions and failed to understand the esoteric and allegorical meanings that are available to those of higher understanding and particularly to those who inherited the spiritual mantle of the Prophet, salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam.

For Sunnis these inheritors are the saints. For the Shi’a these inheritors are at the highest level of understanding, and their wisdom finally will be revealed only by the Mahdi. For those of higher understanding, Paradise is desirable and Hell is undesirable not only for what they symbolize but simply because Allah has declared them to be so.

Since I have never accepted anything unless I have personally experienced it, the best way to describe heaven and hell, at least for me, is through ‘ilm huduri or presential knowledge. Most simply, heaven is the presence of Allah and hell is its absence. Only in the presence of Allah can we even begin to imagine its absence. This is why analogies are necessary for most people in this life before our transformation at its end. As the director of volunteers at a hospice for the dying in Chicago during the past year, this most rewarding period of my life has been to witness the presential awareness of God that grows the closer our patients come to physical death. Al hamdu li Allah, there have been no exceptions.

This experience of the divine presence cannot be intellectually grasped or even intelligently discussed. The best writing on the subject may be the article, “Reason and Direct Intuition in the Works of Suhrawardi,” which distinguishes discursive (bathiyya) from experiential (dhawqiya) knowledge as the two essential and interdependent paths to become the unique person that God created every person to be, and which is everyone’s real identity known only to God.

This marvelous article by Roxanne D. Marcotte at the University of Queensland in Australia appears as the short Chapter 17, pages 221-234, in the 558-page magnum opus entitled Reason and Inspiration in Islam.
This was compiled as a Festshrift for Hermann Landolt under the editorship of Professsor B. Todd Lawson, Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations at the University of Toronto, Canada. This Festshrift was published at the end of 2005 by I. B. Tauris Publishers, London and New York.

Sadly, political rulers often prefer literalist interpretations of sacred scripture because they can manipulate their subjects most effectively by resorting to fear and reward, both in this world and in the next. Most of the deviations in religion, perhaps especially in Christianity, have come from political motivations. This was the conclusion in my dissertation in 1956 on the origin of Christian heresies in the first six Christian centuries. The same would seem to apply to Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and every other religion.

The tragedy is that most people live their lives at such a low level of spiritual awareness that they easily become dupes of those who have managed to stamp out their own inherent awareness of higher truth and of its projection in the form of justice. The search for justice at every level of awareness is what I call ‘ilm al ‘adl. It is the only effective counter to ignorance and injustice.

The Prophet Muhammad, salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam, was once asked whether he had ever seen Allah.

He answered with the question, “How can one see Allah, when Allah is light?”

By this he meant several things. The ‘arifun say that by this he was teaching the wisdom that one can see Allah through oneself, because one is the reflection of Allah, as taught in the Christian and Muslim doctrine that every person is created in the image of God.

From this analogy comes the teachings of Sadr al Din Isfahani, known better as Mullah Sadra, and many Shi’a teachers that knowledge descends like light and illuminates each successive layer of understanding but at a descending level of intensity. The meaning of heaven and hell in the Qur’an depends on one’s own level of understanding, which is why there are no valid definitions of anything in the ghraib or hidden dimensions of reality.

And this is why non-Muslims and Muslims alike will always debate the meaning of divine revelation and see internal contradictions in sacred scripture when in fact there are none.

1 comment:

irving said...

A very good and thoughtful article :) Thank you for posting it.

Ya Haqq!

Monday, January 08, 2007

Sunni, Shi’a, Heaven, Hell
By Dr. Robert Dickson Crane - TAM The American Muslim - Bridgeton,MO,USA
Friday, January 5, 2007

“Pride in one’s own dignity is divine and loyalty to one’s family and community are extensions of it. But God created pairs and communities as means for individual humans to get to know each other. To draw a line between oneself and everyone else is tribalism, and is part of the problems in the world. Arrogance is the worst sin in all religions, and tribalism is its worst result. Among the cavemen a few millennia ago such tribalism may have had survival value. Nowadays, however, with weapons of mass destruction inevitably proliferating worldwide, the impulse to demonize other tribes constitutes species suicide.”

I. Who Are the Shi’a?Perhaps the only Muslim in America who has worked full-time for fifteen years in ecumenical outreach is Iftekhar Hai, whom I first met at the Parliament of the World Religions in Chicago in 1993, where we both joined its parliamentary governing body. He resigned his job at the time in order to devote all his time as co-founder and director of interfaith relations at United Muslims of America (UMA).

This is a California-based group that follows its motto, “Diversity is part of Islamic belief.” One might go even further by adding that God created diversity as the best means to point the way toward unity in the transcendent Oneness of Allah.

Iftekhar, like all effective da’is, knows that Americans embrace Islam for only two reasons. First, because they find that it helps them develop a personal relationship with God, and, second, because they find that this transcendent knowledge helps them to seek and apply justice in human affairs. These, indeed, namely, taqwa and ‘adl, are the two highest priorities in the Shi’a statement of belief and come even before prophecy and prophets (nubuwiya) as a source of knowledge.

These two goals in life, of course, are shared by all Muslims and even by all the world religions, but they form a distinct dual discipline of ‘ilm al ‘adl only among the Shi’a. The universally recognized purpose of all religion is to empower the truth, which exists independently of human beings but requires religion in order to be translated into principles of compassionate justice. The search for truth at the highest esoteric level is known in Jafari (Shi’a) thought as ‘ilm al taqwa (knowledge of the One through love), and the search to make it manifest at the exoteric or outward level might best be defined as ‘ilm al ‘adl, which is knowledge of balance and justice through the coherence of diversity known as tawhid.

These pursuits have ultimate meaning only as they fulfill each other. This is the essence of Islamic thought and of every world religion, as well as of the classical thought of the 18th-century founders of the American counter-revolution against secularism, known as the Great American Experiment. All the rest is commentary.

Why do the Shi’a place such emphasis on transcendent justice, and why have they always done so? Certainly one reason is that the Shi’a and women in general have always been the primary victims of injustice. The nascent discipline of ‘ilm al ‘adl serves the unique purpose among the Shi’a as a counter to the tendency of political rulers and men in general to govern by fear and oppression.

The usefulness of fear and oppression at all levels of human life may explain why the fear of hell and the oppression of women are the most contentious issues among Muslims, have always been so, and probably always will be, at least until the advent of the Mahdi. Resort to fear and oppression, even under the attractive label of freedom and democracy, seems to be more useful in practically every aspect of modern life and therefore more powerful than the search for knowledge, love, and justice.

Iftekhar Hai asked me recently how to counter those who assert that all Shi’a are going to hell. My standard response is to ignore such people and wish them peace, which Allah has told us in the Qur’an should be our response to those whose diatribes resemble the braying of an ass.

Perhaps in a considered response, however, one should start by focusing on the psychology of those who make such assertions. Demonizing Sunnis is common also among the Shi’a, which serves the useful purpose of justifying mutual genocide. Only those who think that everyone else is going to hell except themselves would demonize the Shi’a and understand why the Shi’a reciprocate the demonization so eagerly.

All extremists in any religion like to portray other religions as the opposite of their own and to condemn them for similar extremism. Perhaps the psychological explanation is the extremists’ need to overcome their own lack of self-confidence in their own faith by creating false certainties about other faiths in order to create a cocoon of certainty exclusively in their own community.

One finds this also in some Sufi orders which resort to totalitarian thought in order to create and sustain an oppressive cult.

Pride in one’s own dignity is divine and loyalty to one’s family and community are extensions of it. But God created pairs and communities as means for individual humans to get to know each other. To draw a line between oneself and everyone else is tribalism, and is part of the problems in the world.

Arrogance is the worst sin in all religions, and tribalism is its worst result. Among the cavemen a few millennia ago such tribalism may have had survival value. Nowadays, however, with weapons of mass destruction inevitably proliferating worldwide, the impulse to demonize other tribes constitutes species suicide.

Iftekhar Hai wanted a specific answer to a Shi’a scholar who stated in answer to a non-Muslims inquiry that, “Loyalty to Ali and his descendents is at the core of Shi’ism. Shias believe that each new leader, or imam, should be a descendent of Mohammed and Ali.” The simple answer is that this is wrong because spiritual depth rather than genetic descent is the only absolute requirement.

The second question, put forth by a non-Muslim was in response to the following follow-up assertion by a Muslim “scholar”: “By this divine decree, scholars from other faiths, such as Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism, who are more capable, knowledgeable, and enlightened, may have to be automatically excluded. Their loyalty to God will be of small significance because they may not be born with loyalty to Ali and Muhammad.” How can this be reconciled, the non-Muslim asked, with clear statements in the Qur’an that this can not be true.

The clear answer is that the scholar was wrong and was merely spouting off in what is universally recognized by both Shi’a and Sunnis as “Mullah Islam.” Shi’a profess even more respect for those who wear the black turban of a scholar than Sunnis do for those who wear a golden thobe and an agal and qutra, because these people are certified to give the official version of truth. These “mullas” usually do have great knowledge of the externals of their religion but often have no knowledge of its inner wisdom and therefore are not qualified to apply it.

As a life-long political activist, I have learned to take all official anything with a grain of salt, because all official anythings are politically influenced, if not invented specifically for political purposes. My dissertation in 1956 explored the political motivations of all the different heresies in the first six centuries of Christianity, including the Pauline heresy known is trinitarian Christianity, which triggered the first six general councils over a period of centuries to reconcile faith with reason. Each council required a new council, until finally the effort was abandoned as hopeless.

Perhaps fortunately the encultured respect for “mullah Islam” among the younger generation indoctrinated by the mullahs in the madrassas generally does not last even until adulthood. I was much impressed at the second summit conference of the Shi’a in America, UMAA, in 2004 when an American-born cleric, wearing the black turban to designate “a scholar,” interrupted a speech to the three thousand assembled participants to warn everyone not to clap after the speech because clapping is a Western innovation condemned in Islam. Shi’a, he proclaimed, instead must yell “Allahu Akbar.”

As soon as the speech was over, the entire audience erupted in a thunderous clapping that lasted for minutes. I have never before or since seen such a 100% vote on anything in any religious group, a decisive condemnation of Mullah Islam.

Afterwards I approached this imam and asked him where he got such an odd idea, because I had thought that such an obsession was exclusively Sunni, specifically from the Wahhabi sect in Saudi Arabia. This led to a discussion on infallibility in religion. I said that even the very best and most sincere of people can be wrong, and I cited the Prophet Muhammad, salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam, as the prime example. In fact, I cited four instances where the Revelation in the Qur’an corrected the Prophet. The clearest of these was the Prophet’s practice of giving charity only to Muslims. Allah in the Qur’an said that charity should be given exclusively on the basis of need, whereupon the Prophet immediately corrected himself, and this was the general practice observed by all Muslims until corruption later crept in.

The imam was horrified and proclaimed that the Prophet Muhammad was infallible, which by his reasoning, of course, would be necessary if the spiritual successors, the twelve imams of Ithna’ashari Shi’ism Islam are infallible.

Unfortunately, this imam had never studied the doctrines of infallibility that have emerged in the Catholic Church and in various Sufi orders, as well as in all religions, which reveal a very nuanced field of study.

The true scholars qualify such claims very carefully. Catholics have learned to use the doctrine of ex cathedra as a means to restrict the exercise of infallibility generally to not more than once a century and then only to confirm what has always been the consensus anyway on matters of faith and morals. In Mullah Islam, everything is black and white. Infallible is infallible, period. If Ali, ‘alayhi al salam, is the spiritual successor of The Prophet, then, according to the Mullah, he was infallible absolutely in everything, and so were all his successors.

This, of course, would be tantamount to claiming that a human can be an angel or God himself. In the end, the Mullah refused to discuss the issue any further because a crowd was gathering to hear the debate.

Perhaps the major cause of all the hostility between Sunnis and Shi’a is not simply the self-imposed ignorance by designated authorities, but the well-informed and politically motivated scholars of each, who have argued themselves into corners by falsifying history. They no longer can find a way out except by revisiting each other’s history, as well as their own. Once this has been done, then the need to demonize each other should disappear.

The real issue has nothing to do with genetic descent from the Prophet, salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam, and his daughter Fatima, radi’ Allahu anha, married to ‘Ali (’alayhi as-salam). Most Muslims, both Sunni and Shi’a, regard ‘Ali as the spiritual successor of Muhammad.

The Shi’a have always differed among themselves on the purpose and function of any spiritual successors to ‘Ali. Perhaps one reason for such exclusionary tendencies is psychological in an effort to hide, deny, or overcome the ontological, epistemological, and normative uncertainties inherent to their own levels of understanding.

They all agree, however, that any successor, whether physically present in the world or not, lives at the highest level in understanding the batina or inner dimensions of the Qur’an. All the Orthodox Shi’a of whatever persuasion believe that this level is below that of prophecy (wahy) but at the highest level of inspiration (ilham). Thus any successors are not superhuman in any way, because to be human means to be receptive to God.

Shi’a and Sunnis who live at the superficial levels of reality differ in whether or not they like to emphasize the injustice or justice of the political succession at the time of the Prophet’s death. ‘Ali accepted the political decision, and later when he became the fourth and last of the khulafa’a al rashidin, he distinguished his political responsibilities from his spiritual mission in life. He was assassinated for opposing the growing concentration of wealth in the early Muslim community, which today we call the wealth gap, and for challenging the resulting concentration of political power, which in turn had caused oppression.

Shi’ism arose as a movement of political protest against political oppression, especially during the first Muslim dynasty, the Ummayed. This protest was based on opposition to the very concept of political dynasties, which by definition are unjust. Unfortunately, some Shi’a then perverted this protest into a movement to create rival dynasties. Fortunately, however, the original opposition to any concentration of economic or political power survived.

The purpose of the Shi’a imams is to separate “church and state,” so that spiritual guidance will not be corrupted by political power. One may legitimately debate whether the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt shortly before the time of the Mongol invasion was aberrant. And one certainly may question whether the first Safavid emperor in Persia at his accession in 1502 violated this principle by declaring Twelver Shi’ism to be the state religion when the majority of his subjects reportedly were Sunnis. But, these were political innovations.

Ayatollah Khomeini was the first Shi’a religious leader in 1400 years to violate the prohibition against the establishment of a religious state, whether Islamic, Christian, Jewish, or “Sabian.”

The Orthodox Shi’a teachings also forbid the establishment of a global political caliphate, because any true caliphate to unite the Muslims can legitimately consist only of a consensus of the scholars and wise spiritual guides on the human responsibilities and derivitive human rights in the maqasid (purposes) of the shari’ah, known also as the universal principles (kulliyat) or essentials (dururiyat) of Islamic jurisprudence. By definition, such a consensus on a code of human rights, even though it might serve to define the practical meaning of justice, can not be imposed on anyone.

A decade ago, I published a chapter in a book in Teheran arguing that his followers, rather than the Imam, had invented the concept of wilaya al faqih, known as governance through the authority of the clerics. In this and other writings I elaborated on the universal principles of Islamic law to contain at least seven duties, namely, haqq al din (respect for the divine origin of truth), haqq al haya (respect for life based on the divine origin of every person), haqq al nasl (respect for the nuclear family and for community at every level up to that of humankind on earth), haqq al mal (respect for the universal human right to own capital or the means of production as the only means to avoid wage slavery), haqq al hurriya (the right to political self-determination or political freedom with the necessary institutions most conducive to implementing this right in the particular human community), haqq al karama (the duty to respect human dignity in the realms of religious freedom and gender equity), and haqq al ‘ilm (the duty to respect knowledge and the derivitive rights of freedom of thought, speech, and assembly).

This book was later withdrawn as politically unacceptable. In a word, Ayatollah Sistani’s experience in Iran explains why he refuses to be drawn into the political battles in Iraq.

Iftekhar replied in the discussion that prompted his original question that the model of Islam comes from the Sunnis. He states: “The Sunni system of authority is based solely on capability, scholarship, and leadership, being elected through due process, which is more aligned with the democratic American system of justice.”

Would that over the centuries this were so! In fact, perhaps nowhere in the world has the system of shura ever been more grossly violated than in some of the various Muslim empires over the centuries.

Muslim tyrants today may call their system of governance a republic, which by definition recognizes that the ultimate authority comes from God. And they may call it a democracy, which means that ultimate authority comes from a majority of one in a plebiscite. But they know better than anyone else that in such pretensions they are frauds.

Invidious comparisons, however, are not productive. People in glass houses should not throw stones at each other. Furthermore, stone-throwing does not penetrate or answer the real questions that must be addressed more objectively.

II. What is HellAny answer to the question whether Shi’a are doomed from birth to an eternity in hell depends in part on one’s definition of hell.

At issue is the common reading that Allah in the Qur’an is emphasizing fear and punishment by anthropomorphic analogies most suitable for those of the very lowest level of understanding, an understanding that is hardly above that of the apes. Such a reading, common in both Christianity and Judaism, is the root of all the utilitarian doctrines that have pervaded American thought for more than a century.

This problem of the exoteric and anthropomorphic reading of heavenly huries and the fires of hell has concerned all the great Islamic thinkers over the centuries, particularly the historically interdependent movements of Shi’ism and Sufism.

The early generations of both were ascetics whose goals in life were to fear God and forsake the world. Somewhat later generations emphasized love by and for God so much that fear of God was interpreted as loving awe of God. They emphasized such hadith as the sahih report of the favorite prayer of the Prophet Muhammad, allahumma, asaluka hubbaka, wa hubba man yuhibuka, and hubba kuli ‘amali yuqaribuni ila hubbika (Oh Allah, I ask you for your love, and for the love of those who love you, and for the love of every action that will bring me closer to your love).

This movement within Islam, especially among the Sufis, led many Muslims to forsake not only this world, but Heaven as well. Thus the famous Rabi’a al-Adawiyya, who died in A.H. 185, prayed, “Oh my God, if I worship You out of fear of Hell, burn me in Hell, and if I worship You with the hope of Paradise, make Paradise forbidden for me, and if I worship You for Your own sake, do not deprive me of Your Eternal Beauty.”

This view of heaven and hell was popularized even among Christians by the story about Rabi’a running and carrying fire in one hand and water in the other. When asked what she was doing, she replied, “I am going to set Heaven afire and pour water on Hell so that both of these distracting veils are removed and the destination becomes clear, and the servants of God may serve God without the motive of hope and the reason of fear.”

This level of spirituality was dominant among Sufis until about four hundred years ago, when the great shaykh of the Mujadidia branch of the Naqshbandi family of tariqat, Ahmad Sirhindi (still the dominant form of Naqshbandi spirituality), started teaching that Rabia, like Hallaj, had reached only an intermediate stage in the saluk or spiritual journey and was ungrateful to Allah for His great favors.

In my view, all Muslims should read Muhammad ‘Abd al Haqq Ansari’s book, Sufism and Shari’ah: A Study of Ahmad Sirhindi’s Effort to Reform Sufism, which was published in London in 1986 and has been on a shelf above my desk now for twenty years. This movement of higher spirituality is known as tajdid ruhanniya or spiritual renewal.

Many of the Naqshbandi in Pakistan today (most notably Faqir Muhammad Akram Alwani, with whom I spent considerable time in Chakwal Province in the southern outliers of the Himalayas fifteen years ago) are the most vehement opponents of Shi’ism in their efforts to “purify” Muslims of heterodox ecumenism as an alleged barrier to political reform.

Nevertheless, their emphasis on justice as a principal of balance in the exoteric manifestation of the shari’ah gives them common ground with the Shi’a, who emphasize the higher principles of normative law and the tawhidian balance of the maqasid al shari’ah in both the inner and outer dimensions of Islamic jurisprudence.

The classical Naqshbandi, like the classical founders of most Sufi schools before they became organized orders as in the Catholic Church, tried to avoid extremism in every field, including their conception of heaven and hell.

They taught that intoxication with love of Allah, typified by fana fil Allah, baqa, and wahdat al wujjud (as distinct from wahdat al shuhud or the subjective impression of union with Allah), is merely a stage on the spiritual path. Most persuasively taught by Ahmad Sirhindi, the balanced path of sobriety leads to love not merely of Allah but of everything that Allah loves, including heaven, and dislike of whatever Allah warns against, including hell.

Rabi’a was limited in her understanding of heaven and hell because she inherited the literalist understanding of the Qur’anic descriptions and failed to understand the esoteric and allegorical meanings that are available to those of higher understanding and particularly to those who inherited the spiritual mantle of the Prophet, salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam.

For Sunnis these inheritors are the saints. For the Shi’a these inheritors are at the highest level of understanding, and their wisdom finally will be revealed only by the Mahdi. For those of higher understanding, Paradise is desirable and Hell is undesirable not only for what they symbolize but simply because Allah has declared them to be so.

Since I have never accepted anything unless I have personally experienced it, the best way to describe heaven and hell, at least for me, is through ‘ilm huduri or presential knowledge. Most simply, heaven is the presence of Allah and hell is its absence. Only in the presence of Allah can we even begin to imagine its absence. This is why analogies are necessary for most people in this life before our transformation at its end. As the director of volunteers at a hospice for the dying in Chicago during the past year, this most rewarding period of my life has been to witness the presential awareness of God that grows the closer our patients come to physical death. Al hamdu li Allah, there have been no exceptions.

This experience of the divine presence cannot be intellectually grasped or even intelligently discussed. The best writing on the subject may be the article, “Reason and Direct Intuition in the Works of Suhrawardi,” which distinguishes discursive (bathiyya) from experiential (dhawqiya) knowledge as the two essential and interdependent paths to become the unique person that God created every person to be, and which is everyone’s real identity known only to God.

This marvelous article by Roxanne D. Marcotte at the University of Queensland in Australia appears as the short Chapter 17, pages 221-234, in the 558-page magnum opus entitled Reason and Inspiration in Islam.
This was compiled as a Festshrift for Hermann Landolt under the editorship of Professsor B. Todd Lawson, Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations at the University of Toronto, Canada. This Festshrift was published at the end of 2005 by I. B. Tauris Publishers, London and New York.

Sadly, political rulers often prefer literalist interpretations of sacred scripture because they can manipulate their subjects most effectively by resorting to fear and reward, both in this world and in the next. Most of the deviations in religion, perhaps especially in Christianity, have come from political motivations. This was the conclusion in my dissertation in 1956 on the origin of Christian heresies in the first six Christian centuries. The same would seem to apply to Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and every other religion.

The tragedy is that most people live their lives at such a low level of spiritual awareness that they easily become dupes of those who have managed to stamp out their own inherent awareness of higher truth and of its projection in the form of justice. The search for justice at every level of awareness is what I call ‘ilm al ‘adl. It is the only effective counter to ignorance and injustice.

The Prophet Muhammad, salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam, was once asked whether he had ever seen Allah.

He answered with the question, “How can one see Allah, when Allah is light?”

By this he meant several things. The ‘arifun say that by this he was teaching the wisdom that one can see Allah through oneself, because one is the reflection of Allah, as taught in the Christian and Muslim doctrine that every person is created in the image of God.

From this analogy comes the teachings of Sadr al Din Isfahani, known better as Mullah Sadra, and many Shi’a teachers that knowledge descends like light and illuminates each successive layer of understanding but at a descending level of intensity. The meaning of heaven and hell in the Qur’an depends on one’s own level of understanding, which is why there are no valid definitions of anything in the ghraib or hidden dimensions of reality.

And this is why non-Muslims and Muslims alike will always debate the meaning of divine revelation and see internal contradictions in sacred scripture when in fact there are none.

1 comment:

irving said...

A very good and thoughtful article :) Thank you for posting it.

Ya Haqq!