Shi’isms : Misconceptions and Misrepresenations

Recently a friend, a devout Muslim, a highly educated and well-placed professional working on the Wall Street, complained about the ‘incredible’ amount of Muharram related emails and updates that she was receiving through her social media and email. She also wondered aloud why she was receiving these messages and updates because while she was connected with various ‘Islamic’ platforms and organization, she does not subscribe to any ‘Shia’ networks. Before trashing these messages off as spam, because they ‘did not make sense’ to her at all, she then offered to forward some to me because I could better make use of this information as a ‘Shia’ who ‘worshipped these people’.

      Curious to see who the people I supposedly worshipped were, on my request she showed me an email recounting the ‘Trials and Tribulations of Imam Zain-ul-Abideen’.  The hagiographical tone and language as well as the names of the religious personalities or groups like the Ahle-Bayt were all alien to my friend and she reacted with some surprise when told that Imam Zain-ul-Abideen was only the fancy title of the Prophet’s great-grandson, the son of Imam Hussain. More astonishment followed when I specified that the Shias , like all Muslims, ‘worshipped’ only God but upheld the Prophet and his family with great devotion and reverence. When I pointed out to her that Sunni Muslims were also obliged to show veneration for the Prophet’s family or the Ahle-Bayt based on numerous records from Sunni traditions where the Prophet implores all his followers to show devotion to his family, she was simply tongue-tied.

      Needless to say this discussion with a friend was perhaps a  normative anecdote that is indicative of the ignorant misperceptions and misgivings with continue to exist between Muslims of all outlooks. And it is on occasions like these when one feels the dire need for a meaningful conversation between Shia and Sunni Muslims. Not very many people realize how similar Shi’ism and Sunnism are in theological terms, and the few visible and apparent differences between the two sects are mostly superficial in nature and have clearly more to do with politics and culture than theology.  The various differences that do exist are minor and superfluous, but are however upheld assiduously by the religious elite on both sides with an urgency that has more to do with the identity politics of these religious elite and less with any ideological or theosophical constructs.

       Clearly the religious elite on both sides have played a major role in creating divisive Shia or Sunni identities with an excessive emphasis on distinct rituals and symbols to bolster their legitimacy. The Shia political elite unwittingly generated an obdurate narrative of Shi’ism using didactic language and obstreperous titles that seem to present the Prophets family as something exotic and thus made them seem somewhat inaccessible for others outside of such discourse. The Sunni religious elite further deprived the Muslim masses of the narratives of the Ahle Bayt by indulging in regimes of disinformation for the sake of political expediency, such as by falsely equating Shia devotion for the Prophets family as ‘worship’ and heresy.

           However while malicious sectarian rhetoric has not been totally imbibed by the mainstream Sunnis, it seems to have had some osmotic effect on people’s psyche. In present times, many Sunnis seem to have voluntarily surrendered any overt religious affiliation with the Prophet’s family and so it comes as no surprise then when one hears even the most well meaning of commentators in the Muslim public sphere describing the Prophet’s Grandson, Imam Hussein as merely ‘a Shia Imam’ or the battle of Karbala  as ‘a tragedy for the Shias’. This is not however to say that such affection does not exist among Sunni Muslims at all, because many continue to publicly show reverence for the Prophet’s family and their respect for Ashura narratives. A recent survey in Pakistan for example suggests that only one in every two Sunni Muslims in Pakistan considers Shias to be Muslims, even though most do not support sectarian violence.  But the fact remains that since the early 1990’s, more than 4,000 Pakistani Shias have been killed for their so-called ‘heretic’ beliefs and the virulent sectarian groups like LeJ’s ‘successful’ violence is reaching alarming proportions. While there is no ambiguity about their subversive agenda (to ‘decimate Shias from Pakistan’) there seems to be a general confusion about dealing with incendiary religious disinformation and the sectarian menace. Such irresolution and the absence of concerted public-opinion regarding a consensus in the ways in which to respond to such violence, may be a cause for concern.

    Prevalent commentary  also continues to insist that the hatred Sunni groups bear towards Shia Muslims is fundamentally theological describing it as ‘religious sectarianism’ when in reality it has little to do with theology and everything to do with the politics of the times. After all it is a commonly held assumption that Islam was divided into two main sects with different theological approaches, that vary at key points in doctrine.  Numerous modern Twelver Shia, Sunni, and Western scholars have structured political and religious conflict during the formative era of Islam around a partisan Sunni-Shi’a divide that did not truly exist, at least as we know it today, until the sixteenth century (Enayat 2005). Much is consequently being said about the need to accept and overcome religious ‘differences’ among both sects presently, but the exact nature or scale of these ‘differences’ is hardly ever a point of reference.

      There is ample historical evidence of what seemed to be a porous demarcations of sectarian boundaries and identities during the formative era of Islam. During the first two centuries of Islam, a diversity of religious and political movements clouded the line between Sunnism and Shi’ism and it seems likely that a somewhat fixed Sunni-Shi’a theological divide only began to develop in the tenth century and only became a full-fledged political divide by the sixteenth century. The Islamic world varied geographically, socially, economically, politically, and intellectually, and emanated from hundreds of political sects and intellectual perceptions. Many early Islamic scholars who are now renowned for playing a significant role in the development of Sunni fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) actually had what can be seen as Shi’ite sympathies (Hodgson 1955).

     Traditions from as early as the 7th and 8th century show that, inspite of the political controversy over the issue of succession between Ali and Abu Bakr after the Prophet Muhammad’s death, there was not much correlation between sectarian association and ritual practices, and that people from a range of sectarian identities frequented the same venues and performed prayers and religious rituals in their own distinctive ways. Subtle sectarian identities, it must be emphasized therefore, existed primarily as a consequence of political loyalties rather than any manifest theological differences. The fact that some Muslims sided with Ali, can therefore be explained only in the terms of socio-political reasons, not on the basis of theological teachings. Such socio‑political influences did however lead to later differences and a theological bifurcation on the interpretation and implementation of the tenets of the faith.  Various tribes had loose sectarian inclinations but a tribe, which for example supported Ali politically, did not necessarily come to be designation as Shia and such sectarian tribal affiliations did not lead to the classification of religious identity as being exclusively Shia or Sunni (Haider 2011).

      In the 7th century at Kufa, for example, which was the seat of the Caliphate of Ali, historical records show that people prayed freely with both their hands crossed or unfolded at major public places like the Masjid-i-Kufa. Such precedents are significant to note given the fact that today Muslims are throwing others out of their mosques and killing each other over such trivialities. The leaders of the Hanafi and Maliki schools of jurisprudence Abu Hanifa and Imam Malik were infact students of the Prophet’s great grandson Jafar Sadiq, whom the Shia consider to be their sixth Imam, and were greatly influenced by his teachings (Enayat 2005: Jafri 2002). Such information is however clearly lost on the Hanafi Deobandis in Pakistan for example, who are today vehemently targeting Shia, followers of the Jafari jurisprudence. Such widely accepted historical facts which reflect such diversity in early Islam seem to have been deliberately suppressed and ignored in the consequent centuries by the Muslim religious elite, of all varieties, to create a divisive narrative of hostility.

     Furthermore the Shia Ashura rituals, which are often seen as alienating or foreign practices by many Sunni Muslims and are a focal point of religious contention also need to be understood within a certain context, which must not informed by theology but rather be understood through cultural history. The Battle of Karbala in 680 AD led to the formalization of loose sectarian identities, when after Imam Hussein’s martyrdom a paradigmatic change occurred in the Shia character and certain rituals came to be embedded  distinctly within Shia traditions. These rituals which started immediately after the Karbala tragedy became a novel and powerful public affirmation of the Shia personality and a central ‘vehicle of expression’ for this identity. Such rituals played a defining role in the creation of a distinct Shia socio-political sensibility by providing a unique medium to articulate the devotion of the Prophet’s family. The narratives of Karbala, also introduced a devotional aspect into Shi’ism and created the ethos of the popular Shia personality (Dabashi 2012; Jafri 2002). In this regard, it is very important to point out that the rituals do not signify a divergence on any actual Islamic precepts.

 Infact, as any scholar of Islamic theology would affirm, in actual theological terms Islamic law is virtually identical for both Sunnis and Shias in it’s form and coverage. Shias and Sunnis share the basic notion that the Quran and the Sunnah constitute the fundamental source of divine revelation. The Shi’ite emphasis on ismah, wilayah and Imamah is only of secondary importance to the former provisions (Enayat 2005). However this difference in emphasis distinguishes Shi’ism from Sunnism because it has led to the emergence of a unique ethos, which is a historically developed attitude about Islamic history, society and dogma created under the influence of certain socio politico cultural factors and grounded in the remembrance of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein. Therefore the actual distinction between Sunnis and Shias have not been the actual details of theology and legal practice but this underlying ethos which S. M Jafri (2002) describes as the predominant ‘spirit’ working behind these ‘rather minor divergences’. A few theological embellishments on matters regarding inheritance, religious taxes, commerce, and personal status thus distinguish Shia jurisprudence from Sunni law. The various differences that do exist are minor and superficial, but are however upheld assiduously by the religious elite on both sides with an urgency that has more to do with the identity politics of these religious elite and less with any ideological or theosophical Islamic constructs. In this sense the Shia as the ‘other’ are more of a symbolic notion than a practical reality.


Dabashi, Hamid. (2011). Shi’sim : A Religion of Protest. Harvard University Press.

Hamid Enayat.( 2005). Modern Islamic Political Thought By. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan)

Haider Najam (2011). The Origins of the Shi’a: Identity, Ritual, and Sacred Space in Eighth-Century Kufa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 238

 Hodgson , Marshall. (1955):  “How Did the Early Shi’a Become Sectarian?” Journal

of the American Oriental Society 75, 1-13.

Jafri, S.H.M. (2002). The Origins and Early Development of Shi’a Islam. New York: Oxford University Press.

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