I must preface this statement by acknowledging two Shi‘a scholars who, by effectively barring my way to their doctrine, both revealed to me its flaw and their own abandonment of it. I must also mention Sayid Mahdi al-Hakim who asked me, “Are you saying that the only difference between us is political?” meaning, therefore, not theological. I replied in the affirmative. He was assassinated in Khartoum by Saddam’s secret police, so I am unable to tell him that what I answered as an instinctive Muslim, time has shown to me to be true. The issue I discovered, however, was not the politics of ‘Ali’s position, or Fatima’s orchard, or the martyrdom of the grandsons, but something much deeper, more troubling and profound, touching the very definition of the human situation.
The result of my present understanding allows me both categorically to reject Shi‘a doctrine, not as sectarian or even misguided but as the very denial and contradiction of the Islamic events, and at the same time also to oppose any violence private or public against the Shi‘a for this would validate their own macabre and brilliant denial of reality. As an Iraqi with a Shi‘a mother and a Muslim father warned me: “Do not bring rational argument to a Shi‘a – it is a psychology with a hidden source.”
Now. To begin our examination of the Shi‘a phenomenon it is necessary to go back, way back to before the great illumination of Islam’s arrival on earth. A doctor, seeking diagnosis, requires to know the prior family history, so with the human species as patient our elucidation begins at an earlier stage of the creatures and the earlier emergence of the fatal symptoms.
This requires us to look first at the ancient Greek civilisation and then at the later Roman culture – from whom, it must be remembered, we derive our complete political framework today: Republic, Empire, franchise, senate and jury.
The structuring of the self, society and the universe was seen by the pre-Islamic societies in a more complex way than we do, lacking as they were in the illumination of Tawhid, but being in a closer Fitra to a primal nature than later men, they did not fail to grasp that under the web of Divinely separated powers in heaven, the Olympian Gods, man was clearly bound under the dialectical tension between fate and fortune – in Roman, fortuna and fatum. To make sense of the human situation the Greeks constructed a dazzling and astonishing web of mythic creatures moving from the heavenly Gods, to Supermen and creatures, to heroes directly trapped in the historic web.
The Greek arena theatre was used by its authors to tell, or rather, lay bare the knots of human relations and conflict, the intention being to warn humans of what revenge and hatred could bring to pass – disaster and suffering.
Aeschylus, the early and greatest of Greek dramatists, wrote a trilogy of plays, ‘The Oresteia’, which told of the tragic unfolding of family hatred and crime, driven by revenge.
The trilogy tells the story of the House of Atreus.
Atreus’ son is Agamemnon. Agamemnon has set sail for Troy to rescue his brother Menelaus’ wife, Helen, who has been abducted by Paris of Troy. His great fleet on its way to Troy is held by ill winds unable to sail. Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to be granted a fair wind to Troy. On his triumphant return from Troy he is met by his wife Clytemnestra who has taken as lover Aegisthus. Aegisthus is, in fact, the son of Thyestes, brother of Atreus. Together Clytemnestra and her lover decide on revenge. She murders her husband.
The second play tells of Agamemnon’s son and daughter, Orestes and Electra. When they are re-united it is over the crime of their father’s murder. They plot revenge and Orestes kills both his mother and Aegisthus. Yet while this crime is just as retribution it in turn is a crime – matricide. Orestes is haunted by the Eumenides, spirits of punishment.
The third play is nothing less than the trial of Orestes for matricide. The Furies, the Eumenides want to be placated by his punishment. The trial involves Gods and Spirits. Apollo pleads for Orestes, since his mother’s crime of killing her husband required justice. The conclusion is astonishing. Athena convenes a trial of the homicide, Orestes, to be judged by twelve. The vote is even and Athena, the deity of Athens, gives her casting vote to acquit Orestes. Thus, the Eumenides are freed to be guardian benign spirits and Orestes vows peace with Athens and his people. The revenge is over and trial by non-family jury is seen as the founding instrument of Athens, the mother of democracy.
We are not yet finished with the Ancients. Now we must glance at Ancient Rome which gave to us the political frames being fought over in such ignorance today in Cairo, Tunis, Ankara and Damascus. At the lowest point of the Roman Empire, which had emerged from the destroyed Republic after the murder of Caesar, a Cordoban family, that of Seneca, left a profound reading of what had gone wrong when the Republic was transformed into Empire. It had started as a benign dictatorship under Augustus after preliminary slaughter, then it passed dynastically to Tiberius. From there the blood-line swiftly descended through Claudius to Caligula, down to Nero. Seneca, while basically running the Empire in Nero’s youth, created a brief golden age. Soon Nero began to slither into madness forcing the state suicide of Seneca and his nephew, the epic poet of republican values, Lucan, as well as Petronius, the chronicler of Nero’s decadence.
The point of Seneca in our case history is that while he was a Stoic by philosophy – what we would call a primal recognition of Divine unity along with a wise tolerance of events – as a dramatist he was aware that humans were trapped between fortuna and fatum. The mature vision of the plays was way beyond Stoic acceptance – he perceived the very engine of natura – nature – a cyclical historical trap of blood.
So, to come to terms with this he went back – before Aeschylus’ trilogy of ‘The Oresteia’ – back to the founder of the House of Atreus. In his tragedy, ‘Thyestes’, he narrates the primal crime of Atreus, the one which was to unfold over generations.
Thyestes, the brother of Atreus, is presented as suspect by Atreus, as adulterous, placing his children’s parenthood in doubt, and claiming kingship. Atreus, devoured by both envy and revenge, takes two of Thyestes’ eldest sons, kills them, and serves them as a feast to the unsuspecting father. Right at the opening of the play Seneca presents their father, Tantalus, who was condemned to perpetual hunger and thirst in punishment for his cannibalisation of his children, murdered in his quest for power.
By telling of the House of Atreus before the saga of the Oresteia, Seneca both unveils the cyclic historicity of family crime in nature, by legend, but also the cyclic historicity of the Roman Emperor’s Julio-Claudian blood-line and its final disaster, one that would end taking Nero and the whole Senecan family down in blood.
There we saw the highest reading of the human situation in the pre-Islamic world. Let us examine more closely the Shi‘a phenomenon as part of the on-going human encounter with natura, fatum and fortuna.
When the dazzling illumination of the Qur’anic Revelation was sent down in Makkah and Madinah to the Messenger, Allah’s blessings and peace on him, the Roman civilisation was already three hundred years gone. Gaul was in the hands of the Franks, Burgundians and Visigoths. Visigoths and Sueves divided up Spain and Vandals controlled North Africa.
With the arrival of Islam – that is the Messenger and the Qur’anic message – came the social phenomenon of the Prophet and his Companions who in turn were to found a city, naming it Madinah, the place of the Deen, the Deen meaning the life-transaction.
What was this new dispensation?
The Divine Revelation explained it (At-Tawba, 9:24):
Say: ‘If your fathers, your sons,
your brothers, your wives, your tribe
and your possessions you have earned,
commerce you fear may slacken,
dwellings you love –
if these are dearer to you than Allah and His Messenger
and to struggle in His Way,
then wait until Allah brings about His command.
‘Umar ibn al-Khattab said to the Prophet, “I love you more than anything except my soul which is between my two sides. The Prophet replied, “None of you will believe until I am dearer to him than his own soul.” ‘Umar said, “By the One who sent down the Book on you, I love you more than my soul which is between my two sides.” The Prophet said, “’Umar, now you have it!”
Here was the new dispensation – at the core of society, a bonded group united in love of the Messenger.
Qur’an, in Surat an-Nisa (4:69) declares:
Whoever obeys Allah and the Messenger
will be with those whom Allah has blessed:
the Prophets and the siddiqun,
the martyrs and the salihun.
What excellent company such people are!
The Arabic term for these élite is ‘Rafiq’, an exalted praise.
Look at the rich texture of this personal and social bonding.
‘Abda bint Khalid ibn Ma’dan said, “Khalid never went to bed without remembering how he yearned for the Messenger of Allah and his Companions among the Muhajirun and Ansar, and he would name them. He said: ‘They are my root and branch, and my heart longs for them. I have yearned for them a long time. My Lord, hasten my being taken to You!’”
This, this is the new religion in action.
When the Ash’arite clan came to Madinah, they chanted:
“Tomorrow we will meet those we love, Muhammad and his Companions.”
When the Fitnat al-Kubra – the breaking away of the Shi‘a – occurred, it happened when the Deen of Islam was already in a finalised and completed transaction as indicated in the Qur’an at the time of the Prophet’s last Hajj. It follows that any structuration and practices after that form part of a separate and post-Islamic religion.
As I indicated in my opening observations my judgment on the Shi‘a was that it represented a different and contrary political position to Islam. On the face of it that implied that on the one hand, we the Muslims believed power had passed from the Rasul to the four Khulafa Rashidun while on the other hand the Shi‘a claimed the authority should have gone – firstly – to ‘Ali, and then in direct inheritance to the dynastic line of Husayn’s children. To this, they added a metaphysical claim that the twelfth Imam in this inheritance withdrew into the Unseen to emerge at the end of the world as the Mahdi. The issue is, indeed, political. It is not however centred on a polemic of unjust inheritance and the apparent wicked passing over of ‘Ali.
The rejection of Islam by the Shi‘a Arabs goes much deeper.
Firstly, let us recall that Shi‘a Salat is not considered valid unless the brow in Sajda rests on a piece of pressed earth from Kerbala, where Husayn perished. Now Kerbala is the largest necropolis in the world, and here wealthy Shi‘a from all over the world have their loved ones flown in to be buried on its to them holy ground.
The new anti-Islamic religion was also founded on a version of events that involved slander and cursing of key personalities who had been close to the Messenger and the period of Revelations that became al-Qur’an. Claiming legality of the family of ‘Ali involved the displacement of that community within the community, named Companions. To name only the most notorious, the cursing of Mu’awiya and his son Yazid is given the lie by the known standing of Mu’awiya while his son Yazid was always elevated in esteem by Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal who quoted from his Khutbas and placed him in his ‘Book of Zuhd’.
The Shi‘a religion from a ritual point of view is centred on the killing of Husayn. Daily in the Salat it is the holy dust of Kerbala that is worshipped. Once a year, on the anniversary of his death on the day of Ashura, the Shi‘a men parade in great public demonstrations at which they ritually flog their bare backs with whips until blood flows copiously. This is accompanied by weeping and lamentations. Poems of the event produce scenes of women sobbing and beating their breasts. As the classicist A.J. Boyle defines ritual mourning:
“Past becomes present, becomes future by means of human actions; but the cycle is its own power and its own law.”
What we are witnessing when Shi‘a people gather together is the ritual mourning for the denial of blood inheritance and the tragedy of its slaughtered victims.
In Seneca’s tragedy, ‘The Troades’, Andromache, the widow of the hero, Hector, heir to the throne of Troy laments:
Andromache: Why, Trojans, do you tear your hair and beat your breasts, and wet your cheeks with tears?
All chance of happiness is gone, but horrors can still find a way.
Old man: What were your dreams? You can tell me all your fears.
Andromache: Before my eyes stood Hector. He shook his head and said: ‘Wake up, and seize hold of our son,
My loyal wife. Hide him. That is our only hope. Hurry.
Take away our tiny little seedling.
The last left of our house.’
Oh my child, the certain son of a great father.
You are descended from an all-too-famous bloodline.
Will that time ever come, the longed-for happy day
When you will be the defender and avenger of Trojan soil?
When will you raise up fallen Pergamum, bring home our exiled citizens, and restore their rightful names to Troy and the Trojan people?
There is not even room to hide a child.
What secret place can I choose?
There is my darling husband’s tomb, a holy place:
The enemy respect it.
Come now, be bold enough to enter the sacred tomb of your dead and buried father. If fate refuses to let you live – you have a tomb.”
Here is the ancient and tragic celebration of the inescapable disaster of blood inheritance.
The family is a doomed entity. It continues. But it continues in the ritual repetition of the parental failure and curse. Some say nine, some say twelve – but the message is the same. The generations are victim to the primal crime – the murder of Husayn at Kerbala. The matter cannot end until all things come to an end. Then, and only then will the avenging inheritor, the Mahdi, be raised up to claim his inheritance – a world that no longer exists. It is the religion of a revenge, of a future with no escape and no victory until the world’s end when neither victory nor inheritance will have meaning for the future will be abolished.
It is, therefore, the nihilistic denial of the present, suspending in lamentation for a ruined past, and promising no future till the world ends. It is the abolition of the Good News brought by the Messenger of Allah.
Our classical ‘ulema used to call Islam the Deen of the Orphan. Allah the Exalted explains in Qur’an, Surat al-Ahzab (33:40):
Muhammad is not the father of any of your men,
but the Messenger of Allah and the Seal of the Prophets.
Allah has knowledge of all things.
This is the Divine indication that Nabawiyyat has no inheritance. The Shi‘a promotion over centuries of the concept of Ahl al-Bait veils the deception of their positions. The Messenger’s Bait ends with him. The Bait of ‘Ali is the on-going dynastic line. Yet to lay claim to a prophetic inheritance they have to have linkage to the Messenger. This obliges them to elevate Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter, as the pivotal Shi‘a figure. The Shi‘a Hierarchy is, by their definition – Fatimid.
The Messenger left his Companions. Then came the Followers.
Then came the Followers of the Followers.
Aisha was neither daughter nor mother of his children. Aisha was ‘Umm al-Muminun.
As ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab lay dying of his wound he was asked who should succeed to the Khalifate. He replied:
“If I appoint a successor, I will then say that someone better than me appointed his – and if I do not do so, I will then say that someone better than me abstained from doing it.” (Muqaddima III, 28 p. 505: Pléiade)
The blood relationship is not denied – but political governance has passed to the best of the inner group. Ibn Khaldun names the political dynamic of a Muslim state – Asabiyya.
As Tacitus in his Histories stated (4.7.175):
“Good friends are the most effective instruments of good governments.”
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