Friday, 7 November 2014

Understanding the Divide

The question is that how do we understand its cosmic or universal essence today?

Are you a Shia or a Sunni? Would one acknowledge to be either in modern ideological sectarian sense? Or wouldn’t the best answer according to both ordinarily categorized as Sunnis and Shias be that they are Muslims – truly Muslim. Isn’t the ideal answer echoed in Salman Farsi’s (RA) answer ‘Salman bin Islam’ when he was asked who he is.
Granted that the tendency to side with Ali (RA) was latent even during the Prophet’s life and emerged to confront certain other forces – it was a hard political choice – the question is how do we understand its cosmic or universal essence today? It could be done only if it revolved around moral superiority of the family of Prophet – even Sunnis grant this – or siding with Justice or Resistance today against oppression – even secular and Marxist historians would recognize this and present Ali(a.s) and Hussain(a.s) as heroes. Shiism can never reduce Ali(a.s) to only a political ally or heir of the Prophet; it emphasizes deeper connections. Now if the deepest question or connection is existential or metaphysical – there can be no doubt about it for anyone who understands ABC of life or philosophy or just is ready to apply common sense – how on earth should I be condemned to disown existential/esoteric/metaphysical understanding of Ali(a.s) or notion of being his friend?
The notion of imamat is perfectly compatible with the notion of Caliphate when we focus on the background idea of Justice or being vicegerent of God informing both. All the traditions agree that the world is never without God’s witnesses. And with Derrida one can’t but agree that Justice is never done on earth, only approximated, ever awaited. Earth is not heaven. Utopias are only ideals, never reality. Mahdis have come only according to or for a fraction of people and this acceptance of some historical person’s claim leads to their excommunication from the mainstream which keeps waiting and waiting.

There are many paths of reconciliation between Shia-thought and Sunni-thought, including esotericism, metaphysics, philosophy and even newer better understanding of history that shows how human elements and power relations have impacted on evolution of both. If all well meaning Shia or Sunni people want dialogue with the other community, why not attempt on these planes? On exoteric theological plane divergences multiply and it is pity that so far polemical and dialogue literature is on this level primarily. The notion of Imam is best understood in light of Irfan that Sufism, a feature of Sunnism, takes care of. For those who can practice hermeneutics Sunnism and Shiism are alternative languages of the soul almost perfectly translatable in each other’s terms. Whatever differences appear irresolvable need not be resolved because human diversity requires diversity of spiritual and theological and juristic expressions and because we can never peep into the dense fog of history in which contending perceptions find support. Our tragedy is being hostage to history we can more speculate about than conclusively verify while forgetting that religion and salvation are wedded to meta-history, to symbols, to revelation which fundamentally transcend history.
The proper question to ask isn’t if one is a Shia or a Sunni but is one  conscious of Tradition. The idea of Tradition can be identified with ad-Deen  and the latter can’t be comprehensively understood except in terms of universal metaphysics inscribed in our hearts (anfus) and cosmos (aafaaq) accessible to Revelation and Intellection. Sectarianism will not be defeated as long as we don’t dissolve it from inside and produce a culture that created and heard such Sunni Shia duos as Ibn Arabi and Mulla Sadra, Ibn Rushd and al-Farabi,  Iqbal and Shariati who talk of God and Love instead of events and personalities  coloured by power structures of history and what Schuon calls human margin. There are no pure Shias or Sunnis in the sense sectarians would have us believe. The best historians condemn Ummayads for converting Caliphate into Mulokiyat, praise Umar ibn Abdul Aziz despite being an Ummayad, vote for Hussain (RA) instead of those who considered him a rebel, appreciate that almost all Sufi orders – and the oceans of gnosis – are traceable to Ali (RA), show almost perfect correspondence of ancient and medieval theory of kingship – of philosopher king – with the ethical ideal of imamate  and hardly question earlier office of Caliphate that was almost indistinguishable from Imamate. Ali (RA) we all know, despite his initial reservations, collaborated with Abu Bakr (RA) and then other predecessor Caliphs.  They see both Sunnism and Shiism getting fully crystallized into current hardened sectarian schools (even today the best thinkers – mystics and poets have always maintained the Religion of Love and hardly know Shia Sunni division – can hardly be called either Shia or Sunni. Nasr, arguably the greatest Muslim philosopher today, has Shia background but his works are treated as authoritative even in Sunni circles. Iqbal, with a Sunni background, confessed despite protest of scholars like Ahmed Javed, his “weakness” for Ali(a.s). Sunni poets have written elegies that rival the best of Shia poets. The great saintly figures of Rumi and Ibn Arabi though Sunni in background have been appropriated by Shia thinkers without any qualms. (Let us also put in perspective their critique of certain Sunni and Shia views respectively) Translated from theological to mystical or metaphysical terms, doctrines of Shiism that are thought to be incompatible with Sunni mainstream, lose their exclusivist marks and one can find them not only in Sunni thought but elsewhere in world traditions. Only serious students of comparative religion can place  sectarian interpretations in proper perspective and on the authority of such scholars as Coomaraswamy, Nasr, Schuon etc. have no problems in declaring both Shia and Sunni interpretations as traditional or orthodox and thus providential helping to cater to different attitudes and sensibilities of Muslim mind and heart. We can’t wish away Shia Sunni divide or convert both to one understandnig – there remains only one Islam with thousand flowers of diverse schools in exegesis, in philosophy, in jurisprudence – we are required to understand it. Interestingly Sunnis do recognize Jafri school of jurisprudence as 5th school. This implies respectful attitude towards doctrinal issues  when properly interpreted can’t be ruled out. Shia interpretation of religion (best seen in masters of gnosis and metaphysics such as Mulla Sadra, philosophers like Nasr  and such scholars as Murtaza Motehari rather than in exotericist theological fanatical polemicists) that is centred on passion or love, that has through and through an esoteric tinge is there by providence rather than by conspiracy. So is the Sunni interpretation  that has been so catholic that hundreds of juristic, theological, mystical and philosophical schools could be accommodated despite how scholars such as Rashid Shaz would construe this power of accommodation, legitimate or orthodox. Without the phenomenal contribution of Shias to Islamic culture – philosophy, poetry, art and architecture, exegeses, mysticism, traditional sciences – the world in general and Islamic world in particular would be much poor. Without Sunni contribution Islam would  not have been a world culture, a tradition with over a billion followers. There would be neither Ibn Rushd nor Rumi nor Ibn Arabi nor Shah Waliullah nor Iqbal. We need to consider again such  works as Barq’s Shia Sunni Bayi Bayi, Nasr’s Ideals and Realities of Islam (chapter on Shiism) and some points regarding purely historical genesis of modern Shia and Sunni structures raised by modern historians, by Raza Arsalan and in captivating prose for Urdu readers by Rashid Shaz ( in bulky Idraki Zawali Ummat or smaller Haqiqi Islam ki Bazyaft) to arrive at a deeper, conciliatory view that appreciates the differences in perspectives of Sunnism and Shiism without absolutizing them and reducing them to ideologies that today cost us virtually a divided Muslim world, at least politically – instability of Middle East, Arab Iran conflict, sectarian violence, and prejudices. No sectarian polemical work can overturn the verdict of history – collective community judgment, poetic and hagiographic narratives –in favour of early Caliphs and Hussain(a.s). Some questions have been raised even in the Sunni camp on certain issues – we can see scholars as diverse as Taha Hussain and Syed Moududi offering somewhat different view on political developments during Uthman’s era.  A view of history that finds only conspiracies everywhere is itself a conspiracy.

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