Islamic history, religion

Alawites and their place in the Islamic World, part 4: orthodoxy, the esoteric movement; the significance of the Twelve Imams in brief

Alawais and their place in the Islamic World: The consequences of expansionism

As we have seen so far Jihad or the struggle to establish an Islamic ideology was multi-faceted. The idea of a Khalifa united by the Ummah was complicated by succession issues and political pragmatism. As the empire expanded it was forced to absorb many styles of governance as well as cultural difference and religious practices both intrinsic and extrinsic to the Islamic faith. As the Arabic language was established in the colonies the opposing ideologies of Arabism and Islamisation emerged.

Broadly speaking there were three views, sects such as the Kharajites believed, that the most pious and devout Muslim was the best man to unite Islam under the Ummah. The followers of Ali demanded, that the spiritual leader be a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, while others believed in the political solution provided through the Umayyad rule, under which citizens were safe and secure and non Muslims were allowed to worship.

The struggle for succession had not only produced a division in orthodox Islam, which had a profound effect on religious practice but a dichotomy between orthodoxy and the esoteric philosophies. Karen Armstrong differentiates the esoteric movement as she explains how orthodox Islam, like Judaism and unlike Christianity requires its followers to adopt a certain life style, while the esoterics interpret their religion in a more mystical way.

The quest for Orthodoxy: piety, free will or predestiny, succession

There were many leading lights involved in the development of orthodox Islam including Hasan al-Basri, who was brought up in Medina but moved to Basrah, now in Southern Iraq, where he established ideas of piety and frugality. His religion was based on Qadariyyah, the decree of God but deemed destiny not to be predetermined but rather, that people have free will and are responsible for their actions.

Though he supported the Umayyad empire he was critical of its affluence and recognised the impact of its ruler’s example on ordinary people and their capacity to live as good Muslims. His support for the Umayyad empire arose out of a belief, that it was in the best position to preserve the unity of the Ummah. Not an uncommon view, as to this day strong government and inclusion appears to ensures people’s safety and serves to preserve their way of life.

Both the Kharajites and the Qadariyyah shared a principle of equality for Islamic people but the former advocated predestination and separation rather than the concept of free will. The Kharajites also condemned an empire, which condoned the freedoms of other religions. Orthodoxy continued to develop through the doctrine of the Mutazilites, which opposed the Kharajite position but advocated equality among Muslims.

Many Mutazilites were revolutionary and though they ignored the succession issue some of their number supported the Shia uprisings in the provinces. Out of their doctrine there emerged a ”principal of jurisprudence” (fiqh). As mentioned in a previous entry the Qu’ran is not an overly legislative document so people searched for other sources, including the ahadith and the Sunnah, to support a legal philosophy.

The Madhab school of judisprudence, developed by Abu Hanifah is still followed today in some quarters, though the doctrine was amended many times, through the ages. History too was a feature of the era as, during this period, many attempts were made to settle the question of succession. Scholars referred back to the Rashidun era and enquiries were launched into the intention of the prophet and into the death of Uthman ibn Affan.

Historical conext became a factor when interpreting the epiphanies of the Prophet, men like Muhammed ibn Ishaq collated the ahadith and came to the conclusion, that descendants of the Prophet were the rightful successors and therefore the ones to unite Islam under the Ummah. It should be said, that during the Rashidun era many of those who opposed the prophet later became devout Muslims and part of the Ansar (helpers to the Prophet).

I’m not in a position to take sides here but the arguments are complex and passions continue to run high in relation to the succession issue. It is a shame, that there is such an irrevocable split between the Sunni and Shia strands of Islam but as discussed throughout the entry given the disparities between ideology and the religious practices, succession was not the only barrier to the unity of the Ummah.

The Esoteric movement; Shi’ism and the Twelve Imams in brief

The above disparities are not exclusive to Sunni Islam, orthodox Shiism is too is plagued by ideological differences. Some historians argue, that Shi’ism began as a political movement, while others maintain, that the religious and political foundations of Shi’ism are intertwined. Considering that Ali was a devout man, who truly believed that due to his bloodline, he was the true successor to the Prophet, the second theory is probably more accurate.

What distinguishes the Shia faith from that of the Sunni is its belief in the authority of the twelve Imams, of which Ali ibn Abi Talib was the first, while the last is a rather mystical character who  has existed throughout time and is destined to return to bring justice to the world (more about that next time). All twelve Imams are said to be direct descendants of the Prophet.

Sorry this is a lot briefer than expected, both my new laptop and my old desktop is running so slowly I’ve run out of steam. More next time though.

Going to Calais tomorrow to spend a bit of time with the migrants. I’ve been before but not for a few years.



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