‘The Mantle of The Prophet’ – Some Thoughts

Write a review of Roy Mottahedeh’s The Mantle of the Prophet (2008- Oneworld Publications). Your review should include (a) an assessment of the Madrasa system and (b) a discussion of the intellectual journey of ‘Ali (the main character in the book).

The madrassas are open systems of ‘great enclosed spaces’ which emerged from the traditions of ‘old styles of learning’ associated with a culture of attainment of knowledge which saw people  ‘wandering from teacher to teacher’. The education that the talabehs received was centered around the organization of the informal discussion circles or the halaqas. The curriculum of the madrassas includes the study of logic, ‘which provided a set of systematic principles for deriving the law from its sources’. Such knowledge is described by Mottahedeh or seen by Ali as ‘a tree that draws its food and water from questions’. The learning provided in the madrassas marked a quest that distinguished these students from ‘the rest of the uninitiated’.  In this sense the juxtaposition of the madrassa within the middle of the inside and outside space is significant because the separation of space as inside (andruni), outside (biruni) were ‘rules that no one dared to violate’.

Initially the madrasssa were also a battleground for ideology, which predominanly excluded the Shia for not following ‘true’  religion.  Shia Sunni one major difference in contrasting intellectual appraches.  In this sense both sects saw themselves as protecting the true religion  and their institutional politics were informed by the  political  rivlary between themselves. In later times another tension became manifest between the secular and religious. The ‘secular Iranians of the new education’ rejected the madrassa system seeing it as a backward insitution in modern times. The political patronage of madrassas also became a part of the ‘ideological armour’ of the state when it realized that the  teaching that had been implemented a millennium earlier could be used to its advantage.

Mottahedeh compares the madressa to a fortress which is ‘seen and sees [itself] as the primary focus of attempts to preserve learning and defend orthodoxy’. It was pecisely because of this defensive and rigid orthodoxy that  mysticism had many opponents in the madrassa and that the ‘mystical implications of theology’ were overlooked and unacknowledged. However from Ali’s personal viewpoint we come to know of the existence of another stream of consciouness in the hawzeh which believed that ‘a mature understanding of Islam came not only from books but from a mystical understanding of the world’. In Ali’s understanding ‘mysticism was a method which was clearing a road to knowing things that transform one’s existence’ but it was also an intensely private matter for him . In this sense the external binary notions of interiority and inferiority seem to carry over into his personal life as well.


Ali puts a human face to the uncertainity that lay behind that machinations of the Iranian revolution. In a paradoxical way the longing for the the past and the apprehension for the future after the success of the revolution is ironic since he is a member of the clergy himself which is poised to claim unsurmountable power. As Mottahedeh describes it ‘he(Ali) knew for certain the past could not return, he felt surprisingly uneasy about what this banner might mean for the future and, more especially for him, for his responsibility as a learned mullah and descendant of the Prophet, a man entitled to wear the Prophet’s color green.’ However such a position is indicative of a sensibility amongst the ulema which is far removed from the image of the power hungry and politically manipulative clergy that has become predominant in the present discourse on the subject. It shows a sense of purpose and responsiblity that Ali felt for his position. His humility that led him to believe that ‘God forbade anyone to call him an ayatollah when there were others, his senior in learning and in every way, who deserved that title…” seemed to be derived from this sense of responsibility. This was also reflecte in the fact that he “lacked the courage—he was tempted to say audacity—to tell other people how to live their lives’.

However it was not just that he felt obliged as a Sayid or from the fact that he was a cleric but he also seemed to like what he was doing or as Mottahedeh’s frames it ‘he had a real taste for mullah learning’ which made him to ‘anticipate future difficulties’ on theoretical positions and to easily re-explain the significance of past texts to others. In short his life in Qom was grounded in such traditions so much so that in his earlier part of life, as Mottahedeh indicates,  he is oblivious to another kind of existence that was ‘rejected by secular intellectuals’. For him ‘Tombs were facts of life’, as was the life that revolved around them.  From the beginning Ali’s proclivities for spiritual or religious teachings set him aside from his contemporaries, as well as the fact that he has an added advantage over others given his family background. His forays into solitude seeking exercises such as hiding under the bushes lead to deep ruminations into existential questions such as the reasons for ‘why wars happens’ and ‘no one seemed to win in the end’. This trend seemed to continue into his later life such as after his mystical initation and his experience of ‘seeing the light’ he did not want to share his experiences with anyone, even as he rejoiced them internally. Even his joy was private for him.

But it was eventually his sense of responsibility that forced him to shed his detachment to the world and overlook his private side to fully undertake his responsibility. His political awakening, was another factor that led him to take on a more pro-active public role. The Algerian revolution became a catalyst to incite a sense of political revolt in Ali, and the ‘ fire burning in the Algerian desert kindled a fierce burning inside him’ . So much so that the  ‘Algerian struggle became Ali’s struggle’. The personal became the political for him and it was in this way Ali’s life was informed by such responsibilities and outlooks which came from the acknowledgement which led to him to feel  ‘more conscious that people saw him as fulfilling a destiny thrust on him both by his descendence and his learning”.

Husayn, Shariati and Fanon

Compare and contrast the “classical” narrative of Imam Husayn at Karbala with Ali Shariati’s narrative. How do you account for the differences? Obviously a good answer makes reference to Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth (2005).

In the earlier narratives of Karbala the primary focus was the idea of redemption in mourning the suffering of Husayn. Husayn’s martyrdom at Karbala was seen as the fulfillment of the broader prophetic mission and connected to the persecution of previous prophets. In Vaiz Kashefi’s text circa 1502 the prominent figures of Karbala were not a symbolic set of political role models but religious ideals to be remembered and commemorated. The idea of Husayn rebelling against injustice and oppressive rulers was manifestly absent in these texts. This was seen as the responsibility of the last imam, the Mahdi, to avenge the death of Husayn. In these Safavid texts the mains villains in the Karbala narratives were the Sunnis, as they were also in the actual Safavid political context.

However just because did not inform the earlier Safavid narratives did not have agentative connotations does not imply that they did not exist as a  significant part of the story of Karbala elsewhere. The Abbasids and the Zaydis had both appropriated the Karbala symbols for their own campaigns.  It can be said then that such opinions are best understood by the political contexts that they are used in. These early texts did not contest the legitimacy of the ruling elite and instead focused on idealizing  ‘patience and perseverance instead of action ‘ perhaps because the authors themselves were part of the ruling elite who were wanted to maintain a status quo or were trying to appease their rulers. Conversely in 1960 Najafabadi’s revision of the Karbala narrative and his opponents like Gulpaygani gave it political agency by ridding it of the ‘symbolically static interpretations’ in order to oppose the Shah’s regime. In this sense the Karbala narrative was appropriated for  political motives.

Such politicization of the Karbala narrative took place manifestly during the Pahlavi regime, when Husayn was inscribed with a political agency. The oppositional political discourse presented by the Karbala Paradigm as ‘a historic rebellion against corrupt leadership’ worked well for the dissidents who recast themselves as the suffering martyrs of Karbala while the Shah became the personification of Yazid or Muawiyyah. The meta-narrative of Karbala which informed and influenced social and political discourse was revised from the dual opposition of pious and loyal Shia followers vs the disloyal followers and evil Sunni forces to become an opposition between just Muslims and unjust Empire. It is significant to note that this reinterpretation of the Karbala narrative in revolutionary terms met with resistance from the orthodox clergy who labeled it as ‘heresy’ and ‘refuted’ their arguments.

It was in this context that Shariati’s unorthodox revolutionary interpretations of Shi’ism which used the symbolism of Karbala to condemn the Shah’s regime was rejected by the ulema. For Shariati(20005)  the most important dimension in Islam was political and he sought to transform Islam into an ideology in order to galvanize the revolutionaries of his time. All the while he highlighted the centrality of Karbala, saying that  ‘Every place should be turned into Karbala, every month into Moharram and everyday into Ashura’. Islam was seen as a struggle against the conservative tribal social order and he traces the origins of revolution back to the Prophets. In his narrative the revolution against conservatism that was initiated by Prophet Mohammad was in danger and Husayn’s sacrifice ultimately showed the world the right path. But Shariati lamented the loss of the revolutionary spirit saying that Islam has changed from a revolutionary movement that was opposed to aristocracy, class, tribe, race, despotism, and exploitation …. into ‘the opiate of the masses’, so much so that Islam was used to legitimize the wrongdoings of the elite.

Shariati entertwined the Karbala rhetoric with revolutionary context and foregrounded the notions of shahadat and jihad in this narrative saying, “Husayn introduces shahadat as a principle above jihad and a duty when jihad is not a feasible alternative”. He attributed Husayn’s martyrdom not to any weakness but rather to dignity under oppression. In this sense his views resonate with those of Fanon who spoke of the oppression of the colonized people  as ‘not a lack of heroism but a fundamentally different international situation’ which they faced with dignity. According to Fanon,  ‘They fought as best with the weapons they possessed at the time’.

Furthermore Shariati combined the symbolism of jihad, uprising and martyrdom with the notions of  liberation of the masses of humanity, universal class struggles and anti-imperialist rhetoric to make the Karbala narrative more actionable. But immersing religion within such ideological contexts can be seen as problematic.  No ideology is universal for all times and when an ideology fails it has the potential to taint the religion along with it. This can be understood to some extent in the light of Fanon’s arguments.

Fanon seems to believe that rather than there being a universal goal for all to attain, all generations have their own distinct narratives which they must interpret according to the demands of their times, when he says that ‘Every generation must find its mission, fulfill it or betray it’. In this sense theKarbalanarrative was seen as a mission which was to be fulfilled or betrayed depending on the agency of the followers. However when the Shah was finally overthrown and the mission ‘fulfilled’ it did not lead to any permanent fulfillment but rather to further disillusionment for the followers of Shariati and such.

Islam and Science: Behisti and Bahonar’s Debate

Week 10. Write a review of the Behisti/Bahonar reading (10.5) that includes a summary of their argument and your evaluation of its efficacy. Also include comments about its broader potential significance.

The basic argument behind the essay is that there is no contradiction between science and religion. Of course they specifically frame the argument from the perspective of Islam which they attempt to present as a religion being very compatible with modern scientific theories, specifically the theory of evolution.  Their attempt to present all scientific discovery and development as being in line with God’s will is informed largely by rational deductions which are juxtaposed and analyzed with Quranic (and at times Biblical) references.

At the very onset the authors seem to be able to make a distinction between some living things as being created through the process of evolution and others as not, but even so both are ‘signs’ of God. (164)  But the Quranic references that are provided to fortify this argument are somewhat ambigious in that they talk about the  ‘signs’ of Allah but do not distinguish between such a discrepancy between living things and leave much to the readers interpretation. While they try to rationally correlate scientific knowledge with the theological debate they also seem to outline the limits of human agency within the debate by saying ‘human creativity does not mean the creation of new phenomenon or a norm’. For them such human activity can exist in the form of exploitation of material and energy available in nature already.(165) In the same way they place inherent limits on the power of science which can be seen as a phenomenon that is intrinsically and eternally subservient to God. Elsewhere they describe human history as somewhat being predestined and planned by God, leaving natural science to only corroborate with the ‘compulsions of history’.(504/B&B10.4)

They further place the rationally accepted timeline of evolution well within God’s domaing because for them it is a manifestation of ‘God’s will’ that  living beings comes into existence at a particular point in the phase of evolution. However within this natural progression of existence they allow for exceptions that could explain away any aberration which could jeopardize the stability of such argument. In this way they attempt to harmonize any conflict that could arise between theological precepts that uphold Adam to be ‘a creation as not evolved from previous living being’ and the theory of evolution which suggests human origins from primates. They also seem to be cognizant of the fact that this argument goes against the grain of theological norms and concerns in Islam as they assert that ‘When the Quran has such wide horizons, there is no reason why a Muslim who follows it, should be narrowminded’. (166)

What is differenent about Behisti and Bahonar’s argument is the stance that   but at times the way in which the authors articulate the argument by repetitive emphasis on the compatibility of rational theological thought make the entire exercise at times seems to be a little contrived. While there is some novelty in perceiving Adam’s creation or Isa’s birth as a ‘mutation’ or a supernatural event where ‘divine spirit was infused in a body of clay’ and which willed by God as the authors do (175) it does also seem like a  convenient explanation. By ascribing all inexplicable factors to unseen supernatural powers, they try to validate the theological points of view which does see the prophets as being specially privileged ones and which accept miracles as ‘signs of the power and wisdom of the creator’.  But obviously from the scientific perspective such creation is seen as an aberration. It is problematic also from the Quranic and also Biblical view point which sees all men as progeny of Adam.  In the authors argument this does not hold true for all mankind throughout history, but only for exceptions to the normative phenomenon. (174) However while the authors are dismissive of the textual basis of such belief they do not provide any meaningful explanation for the fact if Adam’s creation was an exception then whyd did human evolution follow a form that was so similar to that of the exceptional and specially priviliged beings.

It seems that at times the authors dwell on ambiguity and the inconclusive nature  of scientific  arguments to  make space for and present a case for religion. The authors take pains to repeatedly emphasise that ‘no decisions are ever conclusively or scientifically proven’ and that the ‘principles of evolution are still subject to further scientific critique and investigation’. (177) In a sense their argument concludes with the assumption that the present debate will remain inconclusive given that it is figuratively the dice is still in the air. Such a conclusion however makes the entire exercise seem a little futile given that the whole point of the argument here seems to be the reconciliation of science and religion. They do raise a pertinent point in such analysis that is, science really cannot explain everything and the inexplicable phenomenon leave a void in our understanding.

The potential significance of Behisti and Bahonar’s discussion is that it can unsettle scientific theory by proving it as inconclusive and arbitary on the one hand and neutralize  all contentious discrepancies within and between religion which they insist can be explained away as anomalies and exceptions. By doing so the authors make a somewhat notable contribution to the argument by creating a middle ground, however obtrusive, that can allow for further debate to take place outside the binary and opposing conception of religion and science.

Shi’ism in the Safavid Period

(a) Assess the impact of the Safavids on Twelver Shiism.

Safavid rule beginning from1501 A.D was characterized by a series of curious paradoxes and contradictions and this reflected in its relationship with Shi’a Islam. It has been noted that the earler version of Shi’ism professed by Shah Ismail seemed to have moved beyond ‘all respectable form of Shi’ism’ including those which indulged in the extremist (ghuluw) views. Inspite of the fact that Shah Ismail decreed for Shi’ism to be the state religion, it has been pointed out the he was not ‘a devoted Twelver Shia’ and his knowledge of Shi’ism has been described as ‘superficial’ and ‘distinctly ill-informed’. However the argument that he could have been practicing taqaiya to appease the Qizilbash, also seems quite credible because this group gave legitimacy to his government and also because he did not show such flexbility towards the religious outlooks of other groups. (Morgan) The arguments that he chose Shi’ism for the sake of political expediency given the hostility from the neighbouring Sunni rivals and that he ‘imported’ Shia ulema perhaps because he did not trust the Persian Sunnis seem a little superficial because he seems to have enforced Shi’ism with some measure of personal conviction and that too when at a time when it was clearly not an easy task to undertake within a Sunni majority population. It was most likely a confluence of both factors that led to his preference towards Shi’ism.

Initially the Safavid state controlled and appropriated the ulema’s religious hiearchy through creating the ‘top mullahs’ and confered ‘honor, wealth and power’ on the Shia ulema and during the Safavid rule the ulema seemed to have access to vast economic wealth from the religious endowments. (Mottahedeh).  Later events however energized the religious sphere and the ulema attained their greatest power during the reign of the last Safavid emperor, Shah Hussain. They seemed to have a firm power base within the region and to have felt secure enough to make an increasingly independent stand viz a viz the Safavid state. (Garthwaite) The ulema were seen as showing contempt for the immoral lifestyle of the Safavid rulers who were extravagantly interested in their harems and their winecellars. (Mottahedeh) The ulema were taking an increasingly prominent role in the affairs of the state. This process came to a head Under the leadership of Baqir Majlisi succeeded in created an official kind of Shi’ism which would define the future clerical roles of the ulema. This newly emerged religious institution however was ‘concerned with its own authority’ to survive. (Garthwaite) Majlisi was one of the most powerful and influential Shi’a alim and his policies and actions reoriented Twelver Shi’ism in the direction that it was to develop to the present day ,with the creation of a  distinct hierarchy of the community of mullahs. (Mottahedeh). In this sense the most significant development in Shi’ism during the time of the Safavids.

Majlisi produced his encyclopediac collection of hadith, the Bihar al-Anwar during this late Safavid era. He also played an extremely proactive socio- political role and significantly the Shah Hussain regime seems to have made almost no effort to control his activities. Majlisi exerted his influence towards the suppression of Sunnism, Sufism and philosphy while propogating what seems to be a very dogmatic legalistic form of Twelver Shi’ism. His attempts to counter and reverse the philosophical Sufi trend in Twelver Shi’ism seem to have been extremely successful, because such outlook seems to have survived till the present day given the current offical outlook of Twelver Shi’ism.

Such an outlook seems to have continued among Majlisi’s successors some of whom distinguished themselves as ‘persecutors’ and even ‘slayers’ of  Sufis. Earlier in the Seventeeth and Eighteenth century the Akhbari school also came to dominate religious politics with the campaign of Mohammed Amin Astarabadi who revolted against such established community of mullahs. Amongst his various complaints against such hiearchy was his disdain for the way such  mullahs had becom ‘cosy with the rulers’ to further their own aims. (Mottahedeh).

(b) Outline the primary differences between the Usulis and the Akhbaris.

The rationalist Usulis and the strict-constructionist Akhbaris constituted rival schools of jurisprudence during the Safavid era. The rationalist theologians employed cosmopolitan tools of Greek rationalism in Imami theology and came to be known as the Usulis , while those rejecting human reasoning in favor of a literalist adherence to the words of the Imams became known as Akhbaris.

The differences between the Usulis and the Akhbaris centered around two sets of issues, the first concerned the sources of law and the other the principles of jurisprudence. The Usuli’s accept four sources of authority in matters of doctrine and law,the Quran, Sunna traditions (akhbar), concensus (ijma) and the intellect(aql) but the Akhbaris restricting them to Quran and Traditions (akhbar) from the Prophet and the Imams. The usulis accept and use the literal meaning of the Quran and the Traditions claiming that it is possible to know the meaning of these through the use of the intellect(aql). However the Akbaris consider that the Quran and traditions can be understood only where their meaning has been made explicit by the commentary of the Imams(tafsir and tawil) of the Imams. For them rationalist interpretations made by non Imams create the possiblity of human error. (Algar,Haider) The Usulis consider the books of Traditions to contain many unreliable Traditions while the Akhbari’s consider them to be all reliable. The Usulis consider that the doctrines or legal decisions derived from transmitted sources cannot contradict what is derived from rational principles but the Akhbaris’s consider the transmitted sources to have precedence over what is derived from the use of reason. They also disagreed over the collections of the traditions available from the Imams, the Usulis  discrediting significant collections of traditions that were seen as credible by the Akhbari school. The Akhbaris considered all traditions to be credible.

The Usulis saw the consensus of the jursiprudents as another source of legal judgement, as they did the independent reasoning of the jurist. The Usulis divided all Shi’i into formally trained jurisprudents(mujtahids) and laymen, stipulating that the ordinary believers must emulate the mujtahids in matters of religious law.  They asserted that the mujtahids,as representatives of the Hidden Imam, could substitute for him in performing such tasks as giving legal judgements, implementing rulings, collecting and distributing alms or mandating defensive holy wars.  The Akhbaris although allowing for the relators of oral reports of Imams to perform judicial functions, often disallowed some or all of the other functions in the absence of an infalliable Imam. Akhbari’s further rejected any division of believers into laymen and mujtahid-exemplars, holding that all Shi’i must emulate the Twelve Imams. In practice however the Akhbaris also made interpretations but theybelieved in the human intellect as tool capable of understanding religion. In  sense then when the Imam’s were a conduit for intercession between man and God, the Usuli position further seems to have diluted such intercession by positing the mujtahids as some sort of an intercession between the Imam and the people.

Some Akhbaris went further and also rejected all the Mutazili basis of Shi’i doctrine, reaching an almost Ashari position in theology. Infact if the Akhbari’s had succeeded they would have brought Shi’ism very close to Sunnism. Ironically also the Akhbaris like Shahrastani accused the Ususli’s of borrowing the concepts of rationalistic interpretations from Sunni jurisprudence. The Akbari emphasis on the primacy of traditions seems a little contrived and inconvenient given their outlook that  in the absence of reliable traditions on subjects any action was ‘dubious and best not taken’. (Algar, Haider). This would place significant constraints on the freedom of individual human agency. Also the connection between the knowledge of Arabic language and the comprehension of textual traditions seems misplaced for non-Arab Shi’ites. In this sense the Akhbari school could not possibly hoped to have universal appeal in the world of Shi’ism which extends far beyond the Arab world. The Usuli doctrines on the other hand seem to have introduced great rigidity and inflexibility into Shi’ism and their efforts to declare the Akhbaris as heretics seem quite excessive  and overly aggressive.

The Lives of the Imams – al-Kazim and al-Rida

Compare the Twelver Shi’i accounts of the lives of al-Kazim and al-Rida to those of non-Shi’i sources. In the process, identify similarities or differences that you feel are particularly important

The non Shi’i and Shi’i discourse on the lives of the Imams can be distinguished in the tone and texture of each perspective, which is not to say that there is not any overlapping concensus between the two. There are many similarities in the Sunni and Shia accounts on the lives of Imam Musa Kazim and Imam Ali Rida. Both seem to be revered in the Shia and non-Shia agreed upon their forebearance and piety. (Mufid, Kohlberg)

However the non-Shia biographies are much less reverent and rationalized than the Shia ones. Cooperson for example talks about the ‘contentious atmosphere’ , ‘conflicting alliances and loyalties which arose over the successive claims of Imamate. From such accounts one gets a sense that there existed intense and common place debates over the nature and identity of the Imams. One does not really find this perspective in the Shi’i writings . Some of the generalized assertions made such as that the ‘Imam is interchangeable with his predecessors and successors’ and much of what one says could be attributed any other Imams or that the Twelver biography not grounded in historical accuracy and are ‘mythographic’, obviously diverge dramatically from the Shia narratives. In this sense Cooperson shows how the  Shia sources resemble Christian hagiography production with the difference being that Shi’i use precise dates and transmission (isnads) for ‘polemical purposes’.

The Shi’i narratives follow a more linear progression which sometimes seem to gloss over any discrepancies that would unsettle the offical narratives. They focus instead on the theological  aspects of the Imamate such as their knowledge (ilm), designation (nass) or their infalliability (isma). In the Shi’i narratives God had ordained the creation and succession of the Imamate before the universe was created, therefore it was not up for a human to question it. (Mufid) In the Shi’i narratives the Imam’s became manifestly more powerful and more powers became attributed to the Imam with the increased questioning of their positions. Such discussion is markedly different from the tone of the non-Shi’i accounts which assert that the Imam’s were met with ‘scorn and persecution’, the Imams  ‘struggled to give immediate proofs to their imamate’ or that they ‘exerted themselves to restrain the followers claims’ of their supernatural powers. (Cooperson)  

The Shi’i narratives surrounding the life of Imam Musa Kazim present him as a pious, restrained and forebearing man who had knowledge of the future. (Mufid) They also present a somewhat fatalistic view of the Imam in which he silently perseveres through the tragedies that befall him and turns his imprisonment into an agentative condition which protected the Shi’i from an unjust ruler. (Kohlberg, Mufid) In the non Shi’i accounts he is also portrayed as a learned man who is greatly respected , specially given his status as a transmitter of Prophetic traditions.(Kohlberg) In this regard his persona in historical terms is far less controversial that that of his son Imam Ali Rida, whose Imamate seems to be riddled with difficulties. The accounts of the circumstances surrounding his death however provide the most room for debate within both the Shi’i and non-Shi’i narratives. The Shia narratives are structured to portray his death as a willful act of subservience to God, while the non-Shia narratives question his fore-knowledge which seemed unlikely given the way that he is said to have died.  

It is really interesting to find that with regards to Imam Rida the early non-shiite or even Shi’i historians ‘say nothing about him’ and that there was manifest repudiation within the Imami Shi’i concerning his position.( Cooperson). Rida’s imamate was clearly a matter of dispute and his reputation went through different stages before it became crystalized in a canonical form. His  reputation apparently spread through the various efforts of his associates. This was specially so from a group of Kazim’s followers, the Waqifiya who  refuse to acknowledge him. This could possibly be because his transmitters were strictly Shiites and he was rejected by the Sunnis.( Madelung) Non-Sunni accounts show how he struggled to make his claim persuasive in that  ‘he strove to guide his followers, persuade doubters, refute opponents and bring malcontents back into the fold’. The Shi’i and non Shi’i sources also diverge over the assessment of the antagonists such as Caliph Mamun. While it has been pointed out that there was an absence of credible reports of Mamun’s guilt in the death of Ali Rida even in shia sources and that he held pro-Alid views until the end of his life. 

Many detailed traditions in the Shi’i accounts about Imam Rida are openly refuted by the non-Shia versions such as the fact that he visited Qom or made ‘miraculous visits’ to Kufa and Basra to visit his followers. (Mufid) Most non Shi’i versions deny Shia sources like Mufid and believe that he had not traveled from Medina until his trip to the Khorasan and even argue that the name Rida was given to him by Mamun not his father. ( Madelung)  Sunni historians have gone as far as to claim that the Shi’i had ‘fabricated lies’ about him. (Cooperson)

Central Narratives of Karbala

Identify the central threads that emerge from the classical narrative of the death of al-Hussain.

The battle of Karbala, which took place in the deserts of Southern Iraq in 680 AD, is a central event in Shi’ism which serves as a point of reference for many Shi’i religious beliefs and practices. In a sense, Karbala has become the ‘root metaphor’ for Shi’i beliefs and the narratives associated with it have came to be known as the ‘Karbala Paradigm’(Aghaie).  The main themes that have emerged from this event such as resilience in the face of oppression, suffering and redemption, along with unflinching loyalty to the Imams, have become defining features of the Shi’i narrative.

The Karbala narrative has evolved over the centuries but there is no single authoritative version of the event today even according to Shi’i historical accounts. Different versions present different details of the battle and historical accuracy is apparently not a central concern in the retelling of these narratives as they became part of popular historical folklore. Several contingent and subjective factors such as the fear of repercussions in presenting the ruling elite of the time in a negative light or the divergent geo-political, Arab vs Byzantinian outlooks and rivalry make it difficult to distangle historical myth from reality. There are however many ‘correct representations’ of the event that the Shi’i agree upon.(Aghaie)The Shi’i discourse presents a larger than life image of Hussain and his band of men whose story is imbued with the ideals of self-sacrifice and loyalty.(Mufid) The men in Hussain’s army symbolize piety and courage as do the women accompanying them in all the narratives. One central aspect that also emerges within this narrative is the agency of the women of Karbala as spokespersons and guardians of the faith in the absence of men. The sacrifices made during the battle ofKarbalahave become intertwined with the narrative of spiritual redemption and salvation in the life after death. Through the process of intercession, the Shi’i followers believe they will attain atonement for their sins in this world. (BahrulUloom)

In the later versions among the other villainous characters like Ibn Ziyad, Shimr, Umar Ibn Saad, Yazid becomes the ‘ultimate, impious tyrannical villain’ (Aghaie) In the earlier versions, he is seen as a remorseful and ambiguous character who ultimately makes good will gestures to the Prophets family in the aftermath of the battle of Karbala.(Mufid) This presents somewhat of a glaring contrast between the two representations of Yazid, because in the mainstream, present Shi’i narratives he excessively degrades the Ahl-Bayt in his court and mocks their tribulations. In many traditions he forced them to stand outside the gate of his Palace for days. The same can be said in general regarding the accounts of Yazid’s army, who are shown as being motivated by monetary greed to indulge in the vilification of the Prophet’s family but are hesitant in killing Hussain, who embodies the Prophet’s charisma and tradition. ( Bahr ul Uloom)

Ultimately in its central narratives, the Battle of Karbala has come to be seen as the vindication of upright Shi’ism against violent distortions of Islam. As the Prophet’s grandson, Hussain fulfilled his obligation to save the religion from moral depravity and decay that was being perpetuated by the Ummayads under Yazid. (Mufid) Hussain’s sacrifice  has a universal appeal as a principled stand against tyranny and had far-reaching effects on the Muslim world because it identified and highlighted the ‘true Islam’ and distinguished it from the coercive religion of the political elite.  In this sense he  ‘lost the battle but won the campaign’. (BahrulUloom)

Occultation and The Hidden Imam

First, list the primary elements of the Twelver Shi’i doctrine of occultation (ghayba). Next, articulate the primary arguments (a) for and (b) against its validity.

According to Shi’ite traditions  a leader know as the Qaim (the one who rises up), who is a redresser of wrongs and is also referred to as the Mahdi, will arise from the family of Muhammad. The two concepts of the Mahdi and the Qa’im became conflated and were transcribed against the  concept of the Twelfth Imam by the beginning of the fourth/tenth century. (Modaressi) This Imam will distribute equality and establish justice among his subjects. The role of the saviour or the Mahdi can be understood within the context of  eternal struggle between right and wrong, the Mahdi is needed to ascertain the final supremacy of good over evil and right over wrong because God can help create change  but ‘the role of man in human effort and struggle is utmost’. (Behisti&Bahonar)  The end of the period of the greater Occultation will be ‘a  time when contradictions will disappear and peace and tranquility will prevail’. The Imam can be  symbolically seen of ‘an inspiration cherished by mankind’ which provides hope for ‘persecuted individuals’ and ‘oppressed nations’ and keeps them away from evil. (Sadr & Mutahhery)

The death of each Shi’ite imam invariably created a problem of succession, with splinter groups either denying his death or believeing in his imminent return. In each case the deceased imam was believed to return as the Qa’im. (Moderessi) This happened in the case of the Eleventh Imam, whose death was confirmed by the Imamis and the concealment of his son, who was the hujja (proof) of God on earth, was proclaimed. A doctrine of occultation was presented as a rationally established dogma, asserting the neccessary existance and absence of the Hidden Imam or the Qaim. The twelfth Imam was said to be alive in his occultation and was able to communicate with this followers throught his agents. It is this doctrine of Occultation which distinguishes Twelver Shi’ism from the earlier Imamiyya as the ‘Belief in the ghayba is a direct corollory to the belief in the 12 Imams’. (Kohlberg) There were two periods of Occultation. The ‘lesser’ ghayba  which was a shorter period lasted from 260/874 to 429/941, during which the Imam was represented on earth by four successive agents. This period gave way to a  longer and ‘greater’ ghayba “whose duration is known only to God”. (Kohlberg)

The Case Against the Doctrine of Occultation:

For obvious reasons the concept of  Occultation is against the laws of nature because it covers a time span that goes well beyond a human lifetime and defies any reasonable measures of sustained existence. Not only is there no scientific proof but there also does not seem to be  sufficient religious proof for such a doctrine which is largely based in a ‘strong belief in the imperceptable’. (Sadr & Mutahhery) Such beliefs also attributes a superhuman role to the Imam which seems contradictory to the assertions made by the Shii’i imams to negate the extremist ghulat beliefs which were characterized as untrue and misplaced. Given the dissent and division within the Shi’te community after the death of each imam, clearly the delegation of authority nass cannot be proved easily. It also has to be said that bare a handful, no humans seem to have humanly know him. Infact “until after his father’s death, the news about his birth and existence was not publicized”. (Moderssi )

The prophetic traditions which assert the succession of twelve caliphs and the traditions from the Shi’te Imams themseves regarding this subject can be said to be of ‘questionable authenticity’. (Kohlberg)  Such traditions as are presented to justify the Occultation had “never attracted the attention of the Shi’ite community” until after 295/908 to provide a background as evidence to ground these assertions. (Modaressi )Apparently the concept of the Mahdi was essentially a non-Imamite concept and had existed even before Islam as the saviour who will fill the earth with equity and justice. It has also been recounted that by the year 940 around the time of the Twelfth Imam’s occultation many shi’i were in a state of ‘confusion’ and ‘fierce doubt’. (Moderessi)

The Shi’ites themselves claim that the concept of the Mahdi is  ‘an abstract idea’ of an unknown saviour in the distant  future which was given a concrete shape by Islam.  because the Mahdi is already present and waiting for suitable time and circumstances for his arrival to beginhis great mission. (Sadr & Mutahhery) The question also come up then why did the majority of other imams carry a disdain for  taking up  political roles, even at times when conditions were favorable and people were unjustly oppressed and needed saviours.

The multifarious indications of the arrival of the Twelfth Imam (Mufid ) seem to be manifestly human constructs that seem extremely time specific and constrained by the circumstances of the the early Islamic period and many of which do not seem realistic in a universalistic sense in today’s world for instance. This could be a reflection of the fact that they were construed by the human mind and were not not divinely sanctioned indications.

The Argument for The Doctrine of Occultation:

The basic justification for the  ghayba  is that  mankind cannot remain without a guide. Belief in ghayba is based on Quranic concepts and precedents of the prophet as interpreted by Shi’i traditions.  The concept of the Mahdi finds resonance in the Quranic concept of the muamarun( those whose life has been prolonged by God) . The significane of the number twelve and the idea of ghayba are early motifs in islamic history and therefore the notion of ghayba was achieved throught the reinterpretation of already existing materials. (Kohlberg) The notion of twelve successors to the Prophet existed long before the disappearance of the Twelfth Imam in the prophetic traditions and was widely accepted and known before the beginning of the ghayba so that “no one can … claim that the statement was in any way authored by the Imamites in the post-Occultation period.” (Modaressi) “Even the belief in two concealments did not originate with the Ithna’ashariyya, and the traditions of ghayba of Abraham and Muhammad to fend persecution can serve as religious historical precendents for the ghayba of the Twelfth Imam. (Kohlberg)

Futhermore at the time of the beginning of the Occultation the Abbasid persecution had become intolerable which nessitated the ghayba. It was a responsiblity that the Twelfth Imam has undertaken and “he was in hiding because he feared that  he would be captured and killed”. (Modaressi) The persecution of all the Shi’a imams had been so severe that even the names of the Imams were forbidden  to pronounce and were even unknown to many.(Kohlberg) In such a situation it seems logical that the final Imam retreat  within God’s protection.

The issue of the unnatural longetivity of the ghayba can also be seen as a miracle. Miracles are attested to in all scriptures and accepted by all religions. As can be seen through them that natural law was suspended for Abraham when the Nimrod’s fire turned cold. The case of Noah who lived for 950 years to guide his people, the sea was parted for Moses and the instance of Mairaaj in Quran seem incomprehensive in the logical and rational sense but are accepted today as facts.  (Sadr & Mutahhery) In the same way one can make a case for the validity of the ghayba as a phenomenon that is ‘understood best by God’.

Critques of Shi’ism and Mutazalism

Week 4 (A) Write a critique of the Twelver Shi’i concept of the Imamate from a Mutazili perspective.

According to the Mutazalli precepts the primacy of reason over revelation does not make it possible to easily accept the concept of an infallible Imam appointed through divine sanction. The fact is that inspite of their emphasis on the contrary, the Shi’i themselves rely excessively on reason. Shi’i scholars incessantly implore people towards ‘intellectual evaluation’ which  however they feel would lead them towards the same conclusion that is presented by the infalliable imams. (Shobani) The qualifications that are presented for the necessity of Imams is that they must assist people towards that ‘to which their reasons guide them’. (Hilli )

If the Imam’s are those who have ‘supreme leadership over affairs of religion and mundane life’ ( Modaressi) and are sent to ‘give proofs’, ‘protect’ and ‘guide’ men at all times (Hilli), then they are essentially making the decisions for people or at the very least manifestly influencing them. Eventually then the Imam’s are responsible for all human behavior, a notion which undermines the concept of free will. If the human being is so dependent on the will of the Imam than there is really no space for him to act independently. Furthermore the concept of divine justice can never be actualized if man is not held accountable for his deeds. The notion of the intercession of the Imams is problematic in this sense that if man commits evil deeds but believes that he will not be held responsible for his actions because of the intercession of the Imams. This could easily become the basis of anarchy in a society.

 (B) Write a critique of Mutazilism from a Twelver Shi’i perspective.

One of the biggest contention between Shi’ism and Mutazalism was over the concept of  Imamate. Mutazallism does not believe in infalliability and necessity of the Imams. There is also a significant disagreement on the intercession of the Imams which is directly related to the  concept of waid or unconditional punishment of God.

Mutazalism does not believe in the necessity of the Imam or the fact that Imamate comes from divine appointment . From the Shi’i perspective human beings are always in need of a leader and an organized society needs a  guide to avoid disorder and chaos. Since Islam is a religion predominantly concerned with social life it needs a leader who can navigate throught the pitfalls of society. (Tabatabai) Imamate is directly derived from the Prophet-hood and  is ‘a universal authority in the things of religion’. Imamate is an incumbent kindness (lutf) and is described as that ‘which brings the creature near to obedience and keeps him far from disobedience’, an idea that is fully realized only by the concept of Imamate.  In this sense the Imams are also a proof of God on earth (hujja ) and without them the earth will perish and descend into chaos. (Hilli)

The Mutazali believe that the appointment of imam is possible from within a community through the concensus of the Ummah and believe that it can be ascertained by reason and election (ikhtiyar).  However the Shi’i believe that consensus is not a ‘convincing proof’ and because of ‘the possibility of error in every individual of them, and so in all of them’.  The Prophet has said: “After me this people will act some by the Book and some by Hadith and some by Analogy, and whenever they do thus then they have gone astray and let astray.” Thus nothing remains to be the guardian of the law except the Imam. (Hilli)

 According to the Shi’i there is sufficient traditions and texts available from the prophet’s life and the Quran to determine who can be Imam and successor, and none of these indicate it as a human decision. So therefore for the Shi’i the Imams have to be designated through divine appointment (nass). The Shi’i therefore seek to understand religion not through reason but through revelation and prophecy, unlike the Mutazalite. (Tabatabai)  Contrary to Mutazalite belief, the Shi’i Imams can be visible, known or  hidden, protected and eventually ‘it is not possible for us, nor for any believer, to choose an Imam by rational thought and choice. (Calder)

Since infalliability and immunity to sin (isma) is one of the salient aspects of Imamate and is a matter which no one perceives but God himself. Imamate is a succession (khilâfa) from God and His Messenger, and it cannot be acquired except by the word of them both.  Immunity to sin is ‘a hidden kindness which God Most High shows’. Also by establishing the Imamate by acknowledging any human who is fallible as an imam and by his claim to it total authority would result in conflict (fitna). (Hilli ) The Imams are persons without attachment to the world and do not seeks worldly gains.  This cannot be said of the ordinary people who  according to Mutazali thought can fit into such a criterion.

Mutazalites do not believe in bodily ressurection, but if there was no return in the hereafter then the challenges of human existence would become meaningless and infact God would be seen as unjust.  This can be explained throught the concept of taklif which can be seen as ‘an obligation on rational adults’ and a  ‘labor which requires a compensation’ and any labor without re-compensation could be equated with injustice. (Hilli) If bodily resurrection does not happen then man cannot be given his due share for the period of taklif (his life) and this would be great injustice on the part of God, which is an impossibility since God is just. Man clearly possesses an inner spiritual life and the Quran affirms the ‘existence of another life and another spirit’. (Tabatabai)

Week 3- Doctrinal Implications of Divine Justice

Prompt Week 3 -Provide a clear and cogent summary of the Shi’i-Mut’azili Tenet of Divine Justice. What are it’s primary doctrinal implications? What would be the most problematic consequences of this conception of a rationally just deity?

At the very onset it can be said that Shiism and Mutazalism cannot be conflated with each other (Madelung), but they do seem to have significant resonance on common concerns . There is clearly a longterm impact of Mutazalite thought on Shia theology which seems to have evolved towards the conclusion that the fundamentals of religion are to be derived from reason alone. There are fuzzy boundaries between divergent strains within Shi’ism with regards to the Mutazali influence where Usuli Shiism in  more  in resonance with Mutazli that the Akbari school and the Baghdad Mutazalite school, which was less radical , was more in agreement  with the Shii values.

In term of Divine Justice the Shi’i outlook is not a radical departure from Mutazalite views but  there is a significantdisagreement on the intercession of the Imams, the position of waid or unconditional punishment of God. In the Mutazalite view justice and goodness exist as universal values are independent of God, as opposed to the theistic subjectivism view. So God cannot do evil even if he tries, because justice is inherent in his essence (Hourani). The Mutazalites, as  rationalizing philosphers theologians,  exalted reason and valued reason as a source of true knowledge. Mutazalism also believes in free will and does not accept the concept that all acts are predetermined.  

In this sense Shi’ism holds an intermediate position between Mutazalism and Sunni traditionalist doctrine. (Behisti & Bahonar)  Shi’ism, following Imamic traditions, also upholds that  justice begins with the assertion of one’s agency or exercise of will. However in Shiism there is no ultimate pre-destination or absolute human discretion. There is some sense of relativism in the argument about pre-determinism and the truth seems to lie between the two extremes. Human beings are responsible for their actions but free will has its limitations. Some Shi’i Mutazalites explained this as the acts of men being created by God (makhluqa), which  qualifies this act of creation as pre-estimation or fore-knowledge ,but not as production (takwin). (Madelung.) In a paradoxical way then God has ordained free will for man. Whenever man wills an action , Divine power brings into effect its punishment. Man determines his destiny by his own decisions. (Shobani )

Everything in this universe is a necessary existant and there is a  causal connection between rationality and justice, in Shi’ism. Given this human beings have a purpose in this world as rationl beings (mukallaf) to respond to God by worshipping him. The actions which proceed from humans, all take place by their own power and choice. In other words ‘he is not forced to act as he does, but he can act and he can refrain from acting’. (Hilli) If humans have no power over their own actions, then God would be ‘the most unjust of unjust beings’ because he would be willing these actions and setting human beings up for failure. However the Quran states that there is no possibility of injustice by God because God is just , justice is a divine attribute. (Sobhani)

In the Mutazallite view then God is seen as a rational being that imparts justice (Caspar) According to them all things exist according to an ‘objective moral order’, so that good and evil were intrinsic to all things. Believers are judged by their own faith and action which are independent of God’s will. Some Mutazalites have even gone as far as to say that It is better for humans to reach heaven by their own efforts rather than with God’s help. The problem with divine justice theory is that it  limits Gods power and agency over man.  Furthermore by imposing free will upon man, God is forcing humanity to be free.  In a way the free man, completely responsible for his actions, becomes set up as a creator or a rival of God. (Hourani) Obviously then God’s authority becomes constrained and its existence comes into question. This position intrinsically negates God’s omnipotence, and it also seems to ascribe to God the constraints of man which brings it into a direct opposition to the traditionally accepted concept of Tanzih, which proclaims that Allah is free of all defects and failures.

Week 2: The Advent of Islam

Week 2 Prompt – Which was more important for the rise of Islam: when God sent His prophet, or where He sent him?

In spatio-temporal terms both the location and the time of  Islam’s advent in Arabia are of great importance. Needless to say the location of Arabia, as a ‘blank spot’ located at the ‘center’ of the world of the dominant empires at the time, was a significant factor in the evolution of Islam. However it seems that the geography was not almost as critical as the time that Islam was sent. Ofcourse Arabia will forever remain a point of reference for Islam but Islam’s message is undoubtedly universal and the sociological vision of an Islamic community has maintained a rejection of the distinction between any geography, class, race, caste, tribe or ethnicity. The fact that Islam expanded outside of the Arab demographic even within the Prophet’s lifetime is an affirmation of the fact that geographical boundaries are somewhat irrelevant to Islam. Infact the inherent conflation of Islam with Arabia and of Muslims as Arabs can be easily questioned in the present context given that Arabs today represent less than a fifth of the world’s one billion Muslims today. 

The timing of Islam’s revelation in a period that is described as ‘late antiquity’, an era that was to be the harbinger of early modernity, was crucial. Much scholarship has depicted  Islam as standing between the ancient and the modern world with the source of Muhammad’s revelation being grounded in the ancient world and it’s spirit belonging to the modern world. As we know from Donner’s work, at the time of Islam’s revelation the ancient classical cultures were undergoing cataclysmic transformations and were changing beyond recognition. Furthermore this time period was one of extreme socio-cultural degeneration and of moral and ethical depravity, being described as an era of the worst form of ‘jahiliya‘ or ignorance in history. The period in which Islam arrived was thus conducive to the new spiritual message that Islam bought. This was possibly so because although people were familiar with diverse religious ideas and Judaism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity were well established religious traditions by the time Islam arrived, however one can learn from the history of the period that both the Byzantinian and Sassanian empires were floundering.  Had Islam been revealed at a time when these civilizations were at their peak or if the Abraham religions were not yet been fully actualized or become firmly grounded in the regional vicinity, it would have faced a totally different socio-political context and would possibly have followed a very different historical trajectory.

It is also significant that at this particular moment in history both the predominant Byzantinian and Sassanian civilizations were disintegrating from within and the underlying religious ideologies that was supposed to give coherence to these empires was actually dividing them. For instance the Byzantinian rule was facing immense difficulty in enforcing its official version of Christianity because of the diversity of theological thought that existed within the empire. Even within the Sassanian empire, while Christianity was predominant in the region aroundArabiait existed in variousdiverse manifestations. Such polarization and dissent within these empires could also possibly give us an insight into the peoples disenchantment with the structured religions of the time and underline a need that was felt for a change from existing religious paradigms. As Schimmel points out people were perhaps looking for a ‘purer’ and a ‘more satisfying faith’ than the ones being practiced at the time.

 In this sense, people were particularly receptive to Islam at this time in history because it gave them a new ‘frame’ to identify with, even as it did not reject the earlier Abrahamic religions and infact built a narrative based upon them. The Quran itself underlines this fact when it describes Muhammad as the seal of the Prophets. In Islamic traditions, for instance, the symbolic change in direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca, can be seen therefore not only to signify the geographic significance of Arabia but also as an indication of further development and continuation which complements and consolidates the earlier Abrahamic traditions. It is possibly because of this fact that Islam has come to be seen as religion in which both tradition and innovation sustain each other, making it relevant for all times. Given this context Islam would not been able to evolve in the distinct way that it did if it had not come into existence at such a particular time period.