Lebanon, religion, Syrian history

Ashshams: Shi’ah Heterodoxy and the Imam Caliph

The district of Ra’s al-Ayn lies to the south of Baalbek, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley; it is a popular destination for the Shi’ah community, as the tree-lined park provides a perfect picnic spot. Families arrive in mini buses with their children, to enjoy fairground, horse and camel rides. For its visitors the allure of Ra’s al-Ayn is the sacred remains of Masjid Ra’s (head) al-Imam al-Hussayn. The mosque derives its name from Shi’ah folklore, which recalls how Hussayn ibn Ali was decapitated and his head taken to the surrounding regions. As the second son of Ali ibn Abi Talib and his wife Fatima, Hussain was a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed and the third in a line of infallible Imamah, the mystics who are the mainstay of Shi’ah faith.

The Lebanese Ministry of Tourism claims the mosque at Ra’s al-Ayn was erected in AD681 out of the stone from Baalbek’s renowned Phoenician city, to commemorate the third Imam’s death at the Battle of Karbala, in Iraq. It further claims that the mosque was extended in AD1277 under the auspices of the Mamluk Sultan, Zaher Rukn al-din Baybars. The assertion is credible as the Mamluks did conduct an extensive building programme in Syria, which then incorporated Lebanon. Ironically though, their mosque complexes celebrated the re-establishment of the Sunni Caliphate, following the defeat of the Shi’ah Fatimids who governed parts of North Africa and Arabia from AD909 to 1171.

Though the Abbasid Caliphate had dominated the Islamic empire between AD750 and 1258 it fell into disarray in its later years. Its expanding jurisdiction had caused social upheaval bringing about changes to political and religious doctrine, which not only confirmed the separation of the Sunni and Shi’ah branches of Islam but allowed the latter to flourish. By the ninth century the Abbasids had developed a pragmatic approach to the separation of religion and state, whereby the perception of a divine caliph was emblematic, leaving the Sunni religious leaders (Ulama) to determine religious matters. In AD909, the founder of the Shi’ah Fatimids, Abd’allah al-Mahdi Billah, claimed descent through the house of the Prophet Mohammed, which presented religious as well as political challenges to the Abbasids.

The Fatimids were Ismaili, a denomination that had left the main corpus of Shi’ah following the death of the seventh Imam, Ja’far al-Kazim in AD745. They adhered to the concept of the infallible Imam thus Billah, as a descendant of the prophet, was invested with the authority to govern as Imam Caliph, wich gave him the potential for unbridled power over political and religious doctrine. The Fatimid rule was, by and large, pluralistic but its empire faced many challenges and in its last years it was reduced to little more than a dynasty. Not only had it failed to unite the Shi’ah under the banner of a true Islamic doctrine but its eventual dissolution meant the first Imam Ali ibn abi Talib, would be the only Shi’ah to govern the Muslim empire.

During the early part of the Abbasid period Shi’ah Islam was in crisis, the perceived heterodoxy of the faith failed to attract a majority of the population and the lineage of the the Imam Ali appeared to have disintegrated, causing the Shi’ah Ulama to abandon the caliphate and any hope of establishing an enduring religious doctrine on earth. By AD846 the Shi’ah faith was predicated upon the allegory of a twelfth hidden Imam, who was secreted by God and was not destined to return to earth, until the apocryphal day of judgement. From then on, the Twelvers as they became known, vowed not to participate in political life and would accept any ruler providing they were allowed to worship in peace. However as quietists, their religious practices alarmed the Sunni majority, leaving their communities to live in fear of persecution.

In AD1501 the founder of the Safavid dynasty, Ismail Shah, departed from Twelver orthodoxy, when he declared Shi’ah Islam the official religion of Iran. Over a century later, in AD1687, the theologian, Muhammed Baqir Majlisi attempted to eradicate the mystical elements of the faith. He fostered the ritualistic and fervoured displays seen at the festival of Ashura, which commemorates the death of Imam Hussayn. Majlisi hoped the passions awoken in the worshippers would divert any frustrations they felt with the Safavid elite towards the Sunni, who had been responsible for Hussayn’s death. However the esoteric aspects of the religion continued through the philosophy of scholars like Sadra ad-Din Mohammed Shirazi. Mulla Sadra was to have a profound influence on Sayyid Ayatollah Khomeini.

As a mystic, Khomeini affirmed the occultation of the hidden Imam but when, in 1979, he proclaimed Iran an Islamic state, he too departed from Shi’ah orthodoxy. Though Khomeini lacked the status of infallible Imam and caliph he was both a religious and political leader and thus perceived as a threat by the surrounding Sunni states. The political climate was changing and as there is safety in numbers, it is likely he realised its future of the Shi’ah Twelvers was rooted in strong government rather than in religious quietism. Khomeini inspired Lebanon’s Hizb’allah, which combines political will with an adherence to the faith that is poignant for countless Lebanese Shi’ah.

At Ra’s al Ayn, the small lake, lying adjacent to the mosque, is sourced by the spring water. The stone work, which forms its banks and the small island, suggests it may once have been part of a greater Mosque complex. Baalbek has been subject to earthquakes and flooding throughout time and the sight of the spring water flowing down to the Phoenician site and the fields beyond makes it easy to envisage a catastrophe. However precarious its history, the mosque remains a beacon of hope for the Shi’ah of Baalbek as it echoes the mystery of the infallible Imam and a long held adherence to the faith.


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