Sunday, 17 November 2013

Shia Good, Sunni Bad?

A regrettable misconception currently in vogue amongst many who claim to understand the Islamic world is that the Shias are somehow more liberal than the Sunnis. Such a manner of viewing things seems to be partly effected by the ongoing conflict in Syria, where the Sunni side has been guilty of barbaric acts of wellnigh epic proportions. Even so, the mentioned misconception must be dispelled sooner rather than later, because our ability to develop a cordial relationship with the Islamic world hinges on whether we succeed in reaching out to the Sunni majority or not.

Contrary to popular conception, the Sunni majority is not at all sympathetic to the theocratic aspirations of the monarchs of the Gulf and their Salafi-Hanbali henchmen. Salafism represents a minority within Sunni Islam, but owing to the fact that the Salafists are heavily funded with petrodollars and weapons by the monarchies of the Gulf as well as the Anglo-Americans, e.g., in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Syria, they are a vocal minority exercising political influence to a degree far in excess of their actual numerical strength.

The Sunni majority adheres to the Hanafi school of law. It is interesting to note that the Hanafi school of law is predominant in the non-Arabic regions of the Islamic world: Turkey, the former Soviet Union, the former Yugoslavia, South Asia, and Afghanistan. The Hanafi school of law has been successful in abstracting the essence Islam from the tribal context in which it arose; this is to say that it has carried out a de-arabisation of Islam. In doing so, the Hanafi school of law has given its variety of Sunni Islam a distinctly cosmopolitian outlook in contradistinction to the tribal Islam of the Hanbalis. The Hanafis are renowned for their creative interpretation of the precepts of Islam with a view to making religion compatible with time and circumstance. Furthermore, the Hanafi school of law permits its adherents to pray in their native languages rather than in Arabic. This freedom of choice in the realm of liturgy is of pivotal importance; for instance, I can envisage a future Islam in Russia, where the Muslims recite their prayers in their native Russian tongue rather than in Arabic.

As regards the rich intellectual heritage of Islam, it must be emphasised that the Sunnis have always been its main proponents and custodians: all the great philosophers of Islam - Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, Ibn-Rushd, Ibn-Sina, Al-Ghazzali, Ibn-Khaldun, and Rumi - were Sunnis. Likewise, mystical Islam or Sufism is accepted by the Hanafis as an integral part of their Islamic heritage, whereas it is rejected as a heresy by the Hanbalis.

The Shias, like the Salafists, represent the polarising forces in the Islamic world. The monarchies of the Gulf are not the sole obtstacles to unity in the Islamic world; Iran is as great a stumbling block in this respect. The double-dealing nature of the Mullahs in Qom should be obvious to anyone who has taken the time to study the history of this country. The denunciation of Israel is a weekly event in Iran, but this seemingly uncompromising anti-Zionism did not prevent the Iranians from cooperating with Israel against both the Soviet Union and Iraq (cf. the destruction of Osirak). Similarly, America may be the Great Satan in the geo-theological scheme of things, but the Iranians have never been averse to striking deals with their arch-enemy either, as seen in the case of the Iran-Contra affair. In the light of this dubious track record of Iran, both Russia and China would be well advised to approach this country with the greatest caution.

In order to understand the double-dealing nature of the Iranians one must familiarise oneself certain core theological and jurisprudential concepts of Shia Islam. Two such concepts are zahir and batin. The English equivalents of these concepts are apparent and hidden, visible and occult, or exoteric and esoteric. What you would do well to note regarding the modus operandi of the Shias is that they are able to combine a seemingly liberal exterior with a veiled fundamentalistic adherence to the dogmae of their religion. In many Muslim countries, the Shias are prominent in the showbiz industry, thus leaving one with the optical illusion that the Shias are liberal or westernised, whereas the Sunnis are puritans enslaved by a medieval mindset. This optical illusion has a great deal to do with the Shias' all too frequent recourse to Taqiyya, a concept which is central to Shia jurisprudence and only of peripheral importance to the jurisprudence of the Sunnis. Given the fact that the Shias are a minority in most countries, it is permissible for them to conceal their religious affiliations so as to avoid persecution, but there is no denying that these tactics of dissimulation are subject to misuse. Sham conversions to Christianity, particularly amongst the Shias, is not an unheard of phenomenon amongst asylum seekers in many Western countries. Taqiyya, in this case, serves the purpose of furthering one's economic-existential interests rather than guarding one against persecution. An interesting example in this regard is the Iranian scholar Reza Aslan who - so it seems to me - converted to Evangelical Christianity in order to carve out an academic career for himself as a biblical scholar, and reverted to being a Shia upon attaining his ph.D. I have visited many an Islamic country, from Maghreb to Malaysia, and I am yet to see any evidence of the Shias' being more liberal than the Sunnis. To the contrary, during the month of Muharram I have seen Shia mobs march through Sunni neighbourhoods while hurling insults at those Islamic khalifs whom they do not consider the legitimate successors to Muhammed; this spectacle is very much reminiscent of the Orangemen who march through Catholic neighbourhoods with the primary purpose of flexing their sectarian muscle. The Shias are essentially a sect within Islam and do not deserve to be treated on an equal footing with the Sunni majority. The very word Shia means party or faction; this self-designation in itself tells us something about the sectarian ethos of the Shias. This sectarian ethos of the Shias is radically at odds with the ecumenism of the Sufis, who are no strangers to praying alongside Christians and Buddhists in Central Asia. And we would do well to note that the Sufis are currently being persectuted in Iran. Sectarianism also informs the foreign policy of the Iranians, who did not lift a finger in support of Gadaffi - a man who had advocated the case of Iran at the Arab League summits on more than one occasion; the ingratitude of the Iranians in this regard was beneath contempt. The only occasions on which the Mullahs of Qom voice their indignation is when their fellow Shias are under fire, be it in Syria or in Bahrain. The same sectarianism can be witnessed amongst the Shias of the Arabic nations: they seem more interested in singing the praises of their Mullahs in Qom than worrying about the well-being of the countries in which they actually reside.

There are two internal sources of all the ills of the Islamic world: one is Saudi Arabia and the other is Iran. It is incumbent on the Muslims to do their utmost to repel the incursions of both the Salafists and the pro-Iranian Shias into their countries. As for the Sunnis, it is worth pointing out that it is amongst these people that the future allies of both Russia and China are to be sought. It bespeaks an appalling nescience of Russia's true intentions to think that Putin is walking out on a limb for Assad. From a Russian point of view, it is far more important to preserve the Baathist structure in Syria than to perpetuate the rule of Assad and his Alawite clan. Assad is dispensable; Baathism is not. Indeed, the very future of the Islamic world is dependent on whether it can find a secular-nationalist alternative à la Baathism to a tribal Islamism or not.