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Book review: SHI’I ISLAM: Origins, Faith and Practices

25 June, 2014 11:41

Review of the book SHI’I ISLAM: Origins, Faith and Practices by Mohammad A.Shomali.

Book review:  SHI’I ISLAM: Origins, Faith and Practices

By: Mohammad A.Shomali, published by Islamic College for Advanced S; 1 edition (2003), 176 pages.

Book Review by:Parvin Neginraz

Before The Islamic Revolution in Iran, the West was not very familiar with The Shi’i school of thought. After this event which was followed by the rise of Shi’i Islam in the form of a sociopolitical movement in The Middle East, a great deal of attention was given to shi’i studies. Although some of these studies are strong and based on reliable sources, some others are not as precise. Writing this book, Mohammad Shomali aims at filling the gaps he thinks that exist in Islamic studies in general and Shi’i studies in particular. The book is an outcome of more than twenty years of involvement in Islamic and shi’i studies.

In the first chapter, Shomali defines both literal and technical definitions of Shi’i. In this regard, he refers to some reliable sources among popular Islamic scholars. For the literal meaning of Shi’i he refers to Mu’jam Maqayis al-Lughah (a philologist) that mentions two meanings for Shi’i, 1) to aid or help 2) to spread. Then from the Quranic verse (37:83) he concludes that the best literal meaning for the term Shi'i is 'the helper'. To describe the technical meaning of Shia he refers to definitions by Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari, Shahrestani, al-Hasan b. Musa al-Nawbakhti, Sheikh al-mufid, etc. In the next step, he introduces the main beliefs of the Shi'a as follows:

1. “Successorship of the Prophet depends on divine appointment. 

2. As the Prophet was chosen by God, his successor, the Imam, also must be chosen by God and identified by the Prophet.

3. The immediate successor to the Prophet Muhammad was 'Ali.”

As the discussion proceeds he explains the shi’i school of thought origin and its formation. He starts by posing two main questions: “When was the first time that a group of people came to believe in the necessity of following 'Ali as a divinely chosen successor to the Prophet? In other words, when did the idea of Imamate start? And when did the term Shi’i acquire its technical meaning? In other words, when was the term 'Shi’i first applied to the followers of 'Ali and believers in his Imamate?". After posing these questions, Shomali starts responding to them by referring to different narrations by companions of the Prophet and some verses from the Holy Quran. Afterwards, he refers to the event of Qadir. From the above information he concludes that, “the different sets of hadiths together with the historical evidence mentioned above should leave no doubt that during the lifetime of the Prophet many Muslims came to love Ali deeply, sought out his company and were determined to follow him after the Prophet. These people were so frequently and significantly referred to as the Shi'i of 'Ali that gradually the term Shia' alone became equivalent to the Shia of Ali. More importantly, the idea of the lmamate of Ali certainly started in the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad. The demise of the Prophet naturally brought the issue into focus and made those who still believed in the necessity of following 'Ali distinct from other Muslims, who sooner or later came to believe in the institution of Caliphate- and not divine position- as a legitimate yardstick for successorship to the Prophet in ruling the Islamic society."

Shomali then describes the process of Shi'i thoughts spread in different countries like Syria, Yeman, Egypt,Iran, etc.

In chapter two, Shomali elaborates on some Shi’i beliefs, just like as Shi’i Muslim’s belief in the Quran and its non-altering characteristic. In this part he refers to the statements of some Shi,i scholars about The Quran. Among these scholars are Shaykh al-Saduq, Sayyid as-Mortada, Shaykh al-Tabarsi, etc. In the next step he counts the conditions of the authenticity of Hadith from a Shi’i point of view. He then answers to one of the main questions to the shi’i school of thought, which is the issue of the Mushaf of Fatima. In this regard he mentions that, "the Mushaf of Fatima is also not something that attempts to rival the Holy Quran. There is a tradition from Imam Sadiq, which says that the Mushaf of Fatima includes information about future events and contains a list of names of those people who will rule in the future, including the Umayyad, the Abbasids and so on. There is nothing of the Qur'an in it. Neither is there anything related to the practical laws of Islam.”

Shomali also discusses Sunnah (The Prophets' saying, deeds and his tacit approval of what was conducted in his presence) from the Shi’i point of view. In this regard, he reviews the history of Sunnah during the life of prophet, and during the time of the three caliphs. 

The writer then discusses the status of The Prophet’s House Hold from a Shi'i perspective. In this regard, he refers to different traditions that explain the House Hold of The Prophet as reliable sources in understanding Islam and the necessity of adhering to their teachings to understand Islam. One of these traditions is from Prophet Mohammad (p.b.u.h.):

“I leave behind two successors: one is The Book of God, which is like a rope extended between heaven and the earth, and the second is my Household. They will not separate from each other until they come to me near the fountain of Kawthar”.

Shomali also discusses about the identity of The Prophets' House Hold. In this regard he refers to a narration from Ayishah in Sahih of Muslim” (it is noteworthy that there are also other narrations):

“The Prophet went out wearing a black woolen cloak, when Hassan the son of 'Ali came to him, so the Prophet let Hassan come in with him under the cloak. Then Husayn came and he too entered. Then Fatima came. She entered as well. Then Ali came. He also went under the cloak, such that the cloak covered the Prophet, Ali, Fatima, Hassan and Husayn. Then the Prophet recited: 'God only desires to keep away immunity from you, People of the House and to purify you a (thorough) purification.”

The next Shi’i belief that the writer argues about is the matter of reason. According to Shomali, “The Shi’i believe that the reason is a reliable source of knowledge and it is in complete harmony with revelation.”In this section, by referring to the speeches of a number of shi’i scholars, Shomali tries to expound upon the great value that the Shi'a doctrine gives to reason. 

The next source that Shomali elaborates on is the concept of consensus in the shi'i school of thought. In this regard he states that “for the Shi’a, consensus is not a proof in itself. It is authoritative only when it leads to the discovery of Sunnah.”

In chapter three, under the title of “Doctrine”, Shomali first mentions a brief description of Islam based on Imam Ali b. Musa al-Reza’s (eighth Imam of Shi’i) definition of the essence of Islam and its practical laws. 

After presenting a brief description of general Islamic beliefs, the writer elaborates on shi’i doctrines, in which he describes the love for Prophet Mohammad by shi’is , the shi’i belief on calling prophet for help (before and after his demise), love for the House Hold of the Prophet, the companions of Prophet, Imamat and the doctrine of al-Mahdi.

About the love for the House Hold of the Prophet, the writer refers to the following verses and some other traditions and verses:

Say: I do not ask you for any reward for this. (38:86)

However, God himself asked him to tell people to love his household:

Say: I do not ask of you any payment for this but love for my progeny. (42:23)

In the next discussion about the companions of The Prophet, referring to some verses from The Quran, Shomali attempts to distinguish between genuine companions of Prophet and those who pretended to be his companions. In this regard, he states: “Like other Muslims, the Shi'a have a great respect for the Companions of the Prophet, i.e. those who sincerely embraced Islam and supported the Prophet's mission with their lives and resources without expecting any reward or position, and who remained loyal to the Prophet in all circumstances, especially after his demise, down to the very end of their lives.”

“The Shi’a believe in the institution of Imamate as a continuation of prophethood.” To clarify this belief, he initially explains the Sunni view on this issue and then proceeds by describing the infallibility of the Imams. Among various reasons, the writer explicates on the reasons that explain the infallibility of The Imams. A interesting quote from Nasir al-Din al-Tusi can highlight the concept of infallibility in Imams: “Infallibility is when the servant [of God] is able to perform sins, but he does not wish to do so at all. And this lack of will [for sins] or the existence of something that prevents him from that (sins) so he does not disobey God, not because he is unable to do so, but because he does not will to do so, or because there is something that overrides his will. Thus,considering his power (and free will) it is possible for him to perform sins, but considering his lack of will or the existence of the overriding obstacle, it is impossible.” In this regard he also refers to a verse from The Quran:

…God merely wants to remove any uncleanness from you [since you are] People of the [Prophet’s] House, and to clean you thoroughly.(33.33)

About the doctrine of al-Mahdi he refers to some verses from The Quran, the sayings of The Prophet and some Islamic scholars. Among them I would like to refer to Ibn Khaldun: “Let it be known that it is a narrated event by all Muslims in an era that at the end of time, a man from the family of the Prophet will, without fail, make his appearance and will strengthen Islam and spread justice; Muslims will follow him and he will dominate over the Muslim realm. He will be called al-Mahdi.”
In chapter four, Shomali elaborates on major mandatory acts of worship which are accepted by both Sunni and Shi’i. They are: the daily prayers, fasting, pilgrimage to Mecca, almsgiving, struggle for the sake of God, and enjoining good and prohibiting evil.

In chapter five Shomali describes the general characteristics of Islam and Shi’ism. He briefly discusses the concept of spirituality in Islam, complete support by God, exclusive devotion to God, immense love for God (to love God alone), witnessing God in everything, supplication, and rationality.

In the last chapter of his book Shomali gives information about the approximate population of Shi'as in the world and in different countries. Then he describes about holy cities and places to Shi’i Muslims. 

The writer has used Shi’a in some sentences and Shi’i in some others. In this regard the book lacks a kind of uniformity.

Instead of using the general world God, in my opinion, it was much better to use Allah. 

The title of some parts seems to have little relevance to the content of that part; for example, “Shi’a Hadith about Quran”. Reading this title, the reader may think that he is going to read some traditions that Shi’as believe in about The Quran, but in this part the writer discusses how a hadith becomes authentic from a shi’i point of view.

Having an eloquent literature, this book can be a good introduction to some Shi’i beliefs and can help readers to gain a better understanding on some controversial issues about The Shi’i school of thought. 

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Book review:  SHI’I ISLAM: Origins, Faith and Practices
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