Najaf Views on Sunnism and Shi'ism
When you listen to clerics in Najaf, you often get rather confused as to precisely what their position is to their Sunni coreligionists, at least if you spend even ten minutes trying to take apart the position. If you ask the question directly, then they will tell you that one of the central roles of the marja’iyya is that of unification توّحد of all of
The problem, however, and one must always remember this, is that when in Najaf, you are in the company of the truest of believers, and among these truest of believers, relativism has no place. And so the other thing you hear, and we heard it first from Sh Bashir Al-Najafi, is that if one wants to understand Islam, one must seek to understand which version of Islam is the true and correct one, the one originally intended by the Prophet and the by God in the Qur’an, and without such knowledge, the study of the Islamic world is useless. There are many varieties, just as there are many varieties of Christianity, but only one can be the correct one, and the purpose of the study is to determine that.
You must imagine the scene. Sh Bashir’s house, one of the four Grand Ayatollahs, is, as all of the homes of the senior clerics are, small and sparse. We’re sitting on a carpeted floor. It smells of feet because nobody is wearing their shoes. He is in a corner holding court, we are all leaning against the four walls. It’s him, his deeply devoted students, and five Western Islamic studies people, four of them nonMuslim. And he is explaining to them (amiably, he is a warm and engaging fellow, the devotion of his students can be no surprise, the man can teach) that the way to pursue the study of Islam is to find the true version first. Not necessarily accept it, but at least identify it as consistent with the original texts.
Now most Western academics would regard this as ridiculous, that somehow there is a “right” version of any religion hanging out somewhere and it is their task to find it, but then most Western academics aren’t believers in the one straight and narrow path that leads to salvation. So what would engender laughs in an Islamic studies department is delivered with utmost sincerity in Najaf.
And that’s fine, I intend no pretentious academic smugness in that description, if I explained the process by which law review articles were submitted and accepted and how seriously it was taken, they’d find it even more ridiculous, or I think they would since I certainly do. (A belief in a single true Islam posits a very doctrinal God, law reviews make law students into one, you tell me which is more absurd.) The point instead is that this absolutist view of the clerics does lead to at least a theoretical problem, in that surely if the goal of the marja’iyya is to represent all Iraqis, it’s a little odd to be searching for the one true Islam, which will, of course, have to end up in the eyes of the Grand Ayatollahs declaring Sunnism to a greater or lesser extent false.
A Grand Ayatollah will not go so far as to say this, but disciples will. They will explain first that Islam is about tolerance and love and peace, that Sayyid Sistani has repeatedly told Shi’is who come to him seeking sanction to kill extremist Sunnis, “leave me 8 Shi’a on the planet and I still won’t sanction it,” that Imam Ali was the paramount of believing in all of humanity as a brotherhood. And, here it gets juicy, that the reasons that these Islamic studies people don’t get this and equate Islam with terrorism instead of the above is because they overstudy Sunnism, they are unfamiliar with the Shi’a, they don’t know the one true Islam, and they are led astray. Shi’ism is free, tolerant and dynamic, it allows reinterpretation of sacred text, but Sunnism is hidebound and closed to the theories of new interpretation, it is stuck with the rulings of the past.
Now I’m not one to disagree that Shi’ism is dramatically understudied in
But the point here is a bit different. You can’t claim to represent Sunnis because you are so open minded and tolerant, because you believe in the brotherhood of humanity, because your clerics won’t allow anyone to kill even extremist Sunnis who kill Shi’a, when you also seem willing to profess that Sunnism is false, regressive, ignorant, stagnant and excessively prone to terrorism.
And in a way, that’s not a surprise. The real surprise is more in the claim that the marja’iyya represents all Iraqis that the Sunnis are not our brothers but ourselves, rather than in the fact that it cannot be true. It’s a religious institution, it has admirers from
Some see it as encouraging and enlightening when institutions in
Above all this: we’re going to build a new