Islamic history, Syrian history

The Alawites and their place in the Arabic world, part 5: orthodoxy & esotericism, an introduction; the five pillars of Islam; Islamic scholarship

Orthodoxy v heterodoxy

As expressed in earlier posts the succession issue is just the tip of the iceburg in relation to the polarities between Sunni and Shia Islam. The last entry in this series referred to orthodoxy and esotericism, this entry seeks to explore the significance of these concepts further, in order to cast light on a rift, which refuses to heal.

The post draws on the theories of Luis Alberto Vittor and Seyyed Hossein Nasr. In his work, Mr. Vittor critiques Orientalist methodology, which in his view, interprets the eastern way of life, religion and culture in relation to western value systems, he claims also to give Shia Islam a perspective, that is not ”over-shadowed” by its Sunni counterpart.

Mr. Vittor supports the view, that in spite of its esoteric qualities Shia orthodoxy exists simply because, as is true of other strands of the religion, there is no formal institution to determine what constitutes orthodoxy; adherence to Islam is dependent on Quranic teachings rather than to religious practices. Further he argues, that all it requires to be an orthodox Muslim is to adhere to the 5 pillars of Islam.

The five pillars of Islam in brief

Briefly these are the tawhīd, a belief in divine unity, the nubuwwah, a belief in prophecy and the mī’ād, a belief in resurrection. It is the last two, wilāyah, guardianship and ‘adl, divine justice, which are a source of dissent between the Sunni and Shia strands of Islam as both concepts are associated with the role of the Imamate.


Mr Vittor claims, that the divisions which occur between Sunni and Shia Muslims inevitably centre on the question of heterodoxy or more precisely esotericism. He cites Nahj al-balāghah (The Path of Eloquence), a collection of sermons, epistles, and aphorisms compiled by Sharīf al-Razī (406/1015) and’written by ibn Abī Tālib, the first Imam, which refer to a spiritual freedom given by God.

The passages describe how, regardless of the different schools of religious thought, which pertain to the Islamic faith, it was the religion God had chosen for his own and thus was unbreakable. In the light of the various inter-factional tensions both present and past this has proven to be a pipe dream and shows people are driven often by political dogma and economic factors rather than their faith.

Shia heterodoxy and Sufism

Though the entry has explored in the main, the heterodoxy of Shia Islam, which appears to exist in contrast to the Sunni strand of Islam, it is worth noting, that Sufism is equally important to the philosophical development of the Islamic religion. Sufism or the tasawwuf (Islamic mysticism), though some claim it is neither Shia or Sunni, is widely associated with the Sunnism. The tasawwuf is considered heretical by those Sunni Muslims; who believe an earthly path is the only way to achieve enlightenment; or reject certain Islamic philosophies.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr in his book ‘Islamic Life and Thought’, describes how, during the Abbasid era, the philosophies of Aristotle and other ancient philosophers were translated into Arabic by the Islamic scholar, Hunayn ibn-Ishaq, an Assyrian and convert from the Nestorian faith. This is a source of pride for all Muslims but prior to the Abbasid period the author describes how the 6th Shia Imam, Ja’far al-Sadiq showed an interest in pre-Islamic studies, such as alchemy, which sits less comfortably for those who are more earth centred.

Nevertheless it is likely, that scholars had an interest in all sorts of possibilities, like today when the wetern world is so science orientated, governments continue to show an interest in Astrology and the paranormal. People are simply curious and unwilling to dismiss ideas out of hand.

Next time language and theology.



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