Islam is being threatened today by a vicious Shia-Sunni divide, or so they say. The Western media is thus deeply invested in covering this strife and consequently in creating caricatures of this conflict. However what is missing from all the discussions about the Shia-Sunni strife is the fact that the Western world is deeply implicated in the supposed Shia-Sunni conflict that can be seen in the Middle East and the surrounding regions. Among the significant ways that the prevalent stereotypes of the Shia-Sunni conflict are perpetuated is the West are through the visual media representations, some of which are reproduced here in this post. These representations are however also contested by counter-visuals from the Muslim world as can be seen in the visual above. Continue reading
A longer version of this article by Haroon Moghul was originally published here http://religiondispatches.org/no-sunni-and-shia-muslims-have-not-been-fighting-forever/
Several days ago, before the Saudi government’s execution of prominent Shia religious leader Nimr al-Nimr took tensions between Riyadh and Teheran to a new high, a reader emailed me a deceptively ordinary question. It’s worth a second look, not only because it helps us get past the simple headlines—check out the front page of the New York Times today, suggesting the Iranian-Saudi rivalry is embedded in and involves all Sunni and Shia—but because this reader’s question inadvertently helps us understand why so many in the West and the Muslim world keep talking past each other. Continue reading
A personal note by Syeda Batool Ali as a guideline for Ziyarat at Karbala
What takes us there? Why go there at all? Who determines our objective? How and when is that achieved?
In 61 AH a Plea for Help was made from the Plains of Kerbala, ‘Hal min nasirin yansuruna …..’. This historic Call by the Last Prophet’s grandson Hussain, was sent forth in the most emphatic and urgent tone to humanity at large. Continue reading
Recently the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York hosted an exhibition on the Sultans of Deccan, based on a diverse group of Shia dynasties in the subcontinent during the early modern period. The Deccan sultanates were originally part of the larger Bahmani Sultanate founded in 1347 by the Turkish governer Alauddin Hassan Bahman Shah. About eighteen Deccan Sultans ruled during the nearly 200 years of the sultanate and its but the exhibition only focuses on the period between 1500- 1700. After 1518, the Bahmani kingdom was divided in four sultanates: Barishahi (of Bidar), Qutbshahi (of Golkonda), Adamshahi (of Ahmadnagar), Imadshahi (of Berar) and Adilshahi (of Bijapur), but are collectively known as the Deccan sultanates.
Here is an excerpt from the museum literature about the exhibition
” Opulence and fantasy characterize the art of India’s Deccan courts during the rule of its sultans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The diamond-rich region attracted artists, poets, writers, and traders from all over the world—including Iran, Turkey, Africa, and Europe—who were drawn to the Shi’a culture and material splendor of the courts. Under their mixed influence, captivating art styles of otherworldly charm evolved. At its zenith, the Deccan became home to Indian and Persian artists, the abode of African elites, and the place where European discoverers embraced new tastes in textiles and gems. By the end of the seventeenth century, the Deccan courts gave way to Mughal domination from the north, but their preceding efflorescence offers a glimpse of the imaginative heights reached in the arts of painting.” Continue reading
Komail Aijazuddin is a Pakistani artist, who often explores religious themes and issues of divinity in his work. A graduate of Studio Art and Art History from New York University, he employs a style of painting that is described as ‘cold-war baroque’ and his depictions often times show Shi’i imagery which are informed by his personal background and observations during the Muharram mourning season.
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. Continue reading
An extensive article from the Huffington Post on the Arbaeen celebrations in Iraq, to commemorate forty days of mourning after Ashura Muharram 10th. Following are a few extracts from the original article here ……. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/sayed-mahdi-almodarresi/arbaeen-pilgrimage_b_6203756.html
It’s not the Muslim Hajj, or the Hindu Kumbh Mela.. Known as Arbaeen, it is the world’s most populous gathering and you’ve probably never heard of it! Not only does the congregation exceed the number of visitors to Mecca (by a factor of five, in fact), it is more significant than Kumbh Mela, since the latter is only held every third year. In short, Arbaeen dwarfs every other rally on the planet, reaching twenty million last year. That is a staggering %60 of Iraq’s entire population, and it is growing year after year.
Above all, Arbaeen is unique because it takes place against the backdrop of chaotic and dangerous geopolitical scenes. Daesh (aka ‘Islamic State’) sees the Shia as theirmortal enemy, so nothing infuriates the terror group more than the sight of Shia pilgrims gathering for their greatest show of faith.
There’s another peculiar feature of Arbaeen. While it is a distinctively Shia spiritual exercise, Sunnis, even Christians, Yazidis, Zoroastrians, and Sabians partake in both the pilgrimage as well as serving of devotees. This is remarkable given the exclusive nature of religious rituals, and it could only mean one thing: people regardless of color or creed see Hussein as a universal, borderless, and meta-religious symbol of freedom and compassion.
The martyrdom of Imam Al-Hussein at Karbala in 680 A.D was a defining moment for the creation of a distinct Shi’a identity. This tragedy had a greater impact on Shi’ism than any other event in Islamic history and has been described as a ‘root metaphor’ around which Shi’a religious beliefs and practices are grounded. Although the controversial issue of the succession of Imam Ali led to the initiation of Shi’a partisanship, it was the Karbala tragedy that gave impetus to create a distinct Shi’a identity that could be distinguished from other mainstream outlooks in Islam. The way in which this clear distinction manifested itself after the events of Karbala can be assessed from the way sectarian identities became firmly demarcated in the Muslim community of Kufa, for example, after this event. The centrality and importance of Karbala, in the ideological and geographical context, was also affirmed by the traditions of the later Imams and it’s significance can be further assessed by the evolution of distinctly Shi’a rituals informed by it. The rituals that came to be associated with the Karbala tragedy played a defining role in the creation of a distinct Shi’a identity and a political sensibility by becoming a central ‘vehicle of expression’ for this identity. 
Segregation of Sacred Space in the Aftermath of the Tragedy of Karbala:
An overview of the earlier diversity of sacred space and its later segregation provides an instructive insight into the way the tragedy of Karbala had played a crucial impact on what came to characterized as a distinct Shi’a identity. Before the events of Karbala, there seemed to be porous demarcations of sectarian boundaries and identities in Islam. Various tribes had loose sectarian inclinations but most Muslims followed their clan’s tribal affiliations. However, such sectarian tribal affiliations did not lead to the classification of religious spaces as being Shi’a or Sunni. Although sectarian affiliations existed, people from a range of sectarian inclinations prayed at the same venue in their own distinct ways in the 7th century Kufa, for example. Given that this situation changed by the 8th century within two decades of the battle of Karbala, it is clearly probable that the tragedy of Karbala created new ‘religious geographies’ in its aftermath which delineated a clear distinction between ‘friendly/sacred’ and ‘hostile/accursed’ spaces. Although a transformation towards the consolidation of sectarian identity had started taking place in the mid 7th century when ritual practices began to eclipse tribal affiliations  it was in the post-Karbala milieu when ‘some mosques were renovated to celebrate the death of al-Hussein’ that some religious spaces became safe havens for the Shi’a while other became openly hostile. In this way it was in the aftermath of this tragedy that by segregation of spaces a Shi’a identity seems to have been consolidated. Continue reading
For all those readers and commentators who have been asking for updates, thank you for visiting and taking time out to read this blog. Just wanted to let you know that this blog was created as part of a graduate syllabus requirement in Spring 2012 and therefore is basically situated largely on academic discourse on Shi’ism. I will try to contribute whenever I have the time. Any feedback or comments are welcome in the meanwhile.
I do realize that this is a useful space to share nuanced ideas and to start a meaningful discussion on Shi’ism, which is significantly sparse in the cyber-world presently. Much of the debates and arguments taking place on Shi’ism in the global public sphere are unfortunately all focused on violent issues which mostly have a negative connotation ( and for a good reason too) such as politically motivated sectarianism, Shia genocide in Pakistan,the civil war in Iraq or associated with the Shia personality of the repressive regimes and groups in Iran and Lebanon etc. Perhaps we need to rethink Shi’ism, highlight its universality, throw light on the actual sociology of Shi’i communities and present Shia Muslims as ordinary Muslims living ordinary lives, rather than as distinctly ‘religious’ or ‘political’ entities or statistics,who are represented by political groups and organizations. To quote my professor, Hamid Dabashi , we need to ‘alter the very language of thinking, speaking and writing about Shi’sim’ because the ‘very language we have been using about Islam and Shi’ism is an occupied territory and needs to be liberated for a wider and more welcoming feast’.
This is a very well put together visual documentary of Ashura celebrations around the world in 2011.
The Ashura is celebrated on the 10th of Muharram by Shi’i Muslims every year to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain in Karbala. These Ashura celebrations are grounded in symbolism or ritual which is expressed in the public sphere, and in many ways have become a distinct manifestation of the Shi’i identity. In this sense it is interesting to note the great extent to which the Ashura has come to represent the ‘face’ of the Shi’i faith. The theme of martyrdom and suffering is predominant in the Shia narrative because it is seen as being embodied in the lives of the Shi’i Imams themselves and sums up what has been described unwittingly as the ‘Shia attitude’. How this ‘attitude’ plays out in various different cultural and social setting can be assuaged from the diverse interpretations of the Ashura commemoration around the world, as the visuals presented in this photo-feature show.
It is also worth noting the physical commemorations of the Ashura at times seems to overshadow the spiritual aspects of the message of the sacrifice of Karbala. Another thought provoking article written by Professor Hassan Abbas recently, juxtaposes the historical narrative of Imam Hussain’s martyrdom and the larger message of the Ashura in Shia Islam with the present context of the widespread persecution of Shia Muslims in the Muslim world such as the attack on Shi’a Muslims observing Ashura in Kabul on December 6, which killed 55 people.