“It’s High Time for Shi’ites to Change Their Spirit of Victimhood”
By Rev. Bassam Michael Madany
14 September, 2016
The reformist/liberal online journal Al-Awan (Kairos1) published on 6 September, 2016, an impassioned essay by an Arab intellectual addressed to the Shi’ites in their homelands, pleading with them to change, and stop hanging on to their age-long “Spirit of Victimhood.”
Before I share a translation of this thought-provoking essay, I find it necessary to relate certain historical facts about the rise of schism in the Islamic Umma. This will take us back to the very beginnings Islam. It will reveal that the earliest divisions among Muslims were not related to religious themes. They were political, and had to do with issues of governance.
Muhammad’s victory over his Meccan enemies was completed by 630 A.D. He returned to Medina triumphantly as Prophet and Ruler. In June, 632, he became very ill and died without having made any arrangements for his succession as Head of State.
While Ali, cousin and son-law of Muhammad, was busy making preparations for the burial of the Prophet, other members of the Sahaba (Inner Circle of Muslim leaders) met under the leadership of Abu Bakr, the father of Aisha2 and a strong military commander. They came up with the system of governance called the Caliphate; Abu Bakr becoming the First Caliph. The very day Abu Bakr died in 634, Umar, a military hero, succeeded him. Under his rule, the expansion of the Islamic Empire gathered speed with the conquests of Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia, and Persia. When Umar was assassinated in 644; he was succeeded by ‘Uthman whose Caliphate lasted until his assassination in 656. While both Umar and ‘Uthman were from the Quraish Tribe, neither came from the Hisham Clan of both Muhammad and Ali. In fact, ‘Uthman’s Clan of Umayya, had been a strong opponent to Muhammad; and were partly responsible for his decision to leave for Medina in 622!
Between 632 to 656, the transition from one Caliph to another went on, more or less smoothly. When Ali assumed the position of Caliph upon the death of ‘Uthman, he faced many opponents. ‘Aisha joined the opposition group. Mu’awiya, the governor of Syria and relative of ‘Uthman, led the opposition, claiming that Ali was involved in the plot that led to ‘Uthman’s murder.
Civil war broke out between Ali and Mu’awiya; arbitration was suggested and accepted by the two sides; even though Ali’s chance for victory was greater than that of his opponent. Some of Ali’s supporters rebelled, and murdered him in 661. They are known as the Khawarej.
That insured Mu’awiya’s victory! He assumed the role of Caliph in 661, moved the capital from Medina to Damascus, Syria. The Caliphate became dynastic and is known as the Umayyad Caliphate that lasted until 750.
Ali’s two sons by Fatima, were Hassan and Hussein. Hassan manifested no interest in politics; Hussein assumed the leadership of his father’s cause. Muslims who joined him, were known as “Shi’ite Ali,” i.e. Ali’s Party; later on, the term was abbreviated into “Shi’ite.” Muslims who had sided with the Umayyads, claimed they were true followers of the Path of the Prophet; in Arabic the term was “Sunnat al-Nabi.” They are known as Sunnis, and have been the majority among Muslims during the last 1400 years.
Within three decades after the death of Muhammad, Islam had three contending parties: Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Khawarej! The latter became notorious for their crimes against other Muslims. Gradually, they faded from history; the term Khawarej, becoming a pejorative word attached to any dissident group within Islam!
For most of history, Sunnis had the power of the state on their side, while the Shi’ites remained as the Opposition Party, and went underground. When the founder of the Umayyad Dynasty died in 680 (61 A.H.), he was succeeded by his son Yazid. The people in Kufa, Iraq, did not swear allegiance to the new caliph, but sent letters to Hussein pledging allegiance to him and asking for help.
Unfortunately for Hussein, his small group of followers were no match to the large army of Yazid. The battle scene was at Karbala, where Hussein was killed with most of his family and supporters.
That tragedy is known as ‘Ashura, the date was 10 October, 680 A.D. corresponding to the tenth day of the month of Muharram, according to the Islamic lunar calendar. The term ‘Ashura is derived from the Arabic word for ten, ‘Ashrah.
I trust that this background information is helpful for the understanding of the essay that an Arab intellectual addressed to Shi’ites in September, 2016, “to stop hanging on to their age-long ‘Spirit of Victimhood.’”
The following is a summary of the Arabic text:
“Shi’ism has been based on two foundations: Suffering from Victimhood and Asking for Justice. With the passing of time, these basic principles became deeply embedded and accentuated. The tragedy morphed into a catastrophe accompanied by an unbearable weight. The resulting sadness turned into a melancholy transcending time and space. (Emphasis added)
“Wherever Shi’ites live has become Karbala, and all time is now ‘Ashura. The main purpose of the believer has become an act of bemoaning the historic Event, and transforming it into a contemporary Event that must be both actualized and condemned. (Emphasis added)
“A leading Shi’ite authority has declared that even in Paradise, they would be still mourning the death of Hussein!
“Furthermore, requesting Justice has changed into a powerful quest for vengeance. It has become the source of dreams, anticipating with alacrity, the execution of the demands for justice. This powerful motif is then passed on to the following generations. (Emphasis added)
“The Shi’ite Eschatology has these unique features: at the return of the Twelfth Imam, he will be accompanied by Ali and his sons, as well as by their enemies; now resuscitated, in order to receive the just retribution they deserve!
“Thus, instead of seeking justice, Shi’ites dream of a grotesque vendetta. For example, Aisha, the youthful wife of Muhammad and an enemy of Ali’s Caliphate, would be publicly lashed; Abu Bakr and Umar, will be crucified and burned!
“Such Shi’ite tales that describe horrific methods of torture would surpass Dante’s description of the Inferno in his Divine Comedy!” (Emphasis added)
“What a wonderful day that would be when Shi’ism would have transcended a legacy that has become integral to their acts of worship; and would adopt an ethic of forgiveness and reconciliation!”
The author of the essay lives in Iserlohn, in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany.
My purpose in translating this essay was its relevance to the present situation in the Middle East, and throughout the World. This unresolved animosity and rivalry between Sunnis and Shi’ites has caused unprecedented problems to our contemporary world.
Personally, as a Levantine Christian, the unresolved “Sunni/Shi’ite divide” has had dire consequences for the lands of my youth. The Civil War in Syria, now in its fifth year, is a glaring example for that animosity.
In March, 2011, Sunnis in Syria rose up against decades of authoritarian rule by the Assad dynasty, members of a splinter Shi’ite sect. The regime would have crumbled without the assistance of Iran, and its Lebanese surrogates, the Shi’ite Hezbollah. Millions of Syrians, both Sunnis and Christians, have had to migrate to neighboring countries; with some attempting to reach European lands!
In neighboring Iraq, the chaos that followed the U.S. invasion, eventually morphed into an unending struggle between Sunni and Shi’ite groups. That gave occasion for the rise of Da’esh3 (ISIS). The official announcement for the re-birth of a Sunni Caliphate took place at the Grand Mosque of Mosul, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared himself as the Caliph, choosing the very name of the First Caliph who took over the leadership of the Islamic State in 632 A.D.
The rest is history. All Christians in Mosul numbering around 100,000, had to leave their homeland, to find shelter elsewhere. The Caliphate territory expanded into Syria, with the city of Raqqa becoming Da’esh’s capital.
Repercussions from the rise of Da’esh have impacted the world. Just think of those horrible massacres in 2016 that took place in Orlando and Nice, to realize that this movement has become ubiquitous with no end to its Global Jihad!