Monday, January 01, 2007

Sunni -- Shiite watch... and a book report

You think Muslims speak ill of Christians and Jews?

Take a look at how they speak of one another.

CAIRO, Egypt: A top Saudi Arabian Sunni cleric on Friday declared Shiites around the world to be infidels who should be considered worse than Jews or Christians, the latest sign of increasing sectarianism in the Middle East.

Abdul Rahman al-Barak, one of the top several Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia and considered close to the Kingdom's royal family, also urged Sunnis worldwide to oppose reconciliation with Shiites. The Wahhabi stream of Sunni Islam that is followed in Saudi Arabia is conservative and views Shiites as heretics.

"By and large, rejectionists (Shiites) are the most evil sect of the nation and they have all the ingredients of the infidels," Abdul Rahman wrote in a fatwa, or religious edict, that was posted on his web site Friday.

"The general ruling is that they are infidels, apostates and hypocrites," he wrote. "They are more dangerous than Jews and Christians," he wrote in the edict, which Abdul Rahman said was in response to a question from a follower.

Like most hardline Sunnis, Abdul Rahman employed the word "rejectionists," used as a derogatory term to describe Shiites because they opted out of the Sunni school of Islamic theology. He also said the sect was the work of a Jewish conspiracy.

I have only read the opening pages of Vali Nasr's book, The Shiite Revival, but already I have found out how little I know about the differences that divide these two main expressions of Islam. Two notions are dawning for me. First, maps of Sunni-Shiite distribution indicate a heavy Shiite concentration in urban or more-developed areas. This is probably a statistical anomaly and false conclusion on my part. And second, if there is any comparison between Islam and Christianity in taxonomy, the Sunnis are more like Protestants and the Shiites more like Catholics, both organizationally and in terms of how individuals receive and understand faith. Again, these are gross and misleading generalizations, but form for me a kind of mnemonic infrastructure from which I can start to learn. I hope to blog about what I learn as I wade through Nasr's book.
1/1/2007 report

I began this post two days ago, before I started Nasr's book. I had no idea what I was getting into. It's been too many years since I was a student and it will take an exercise of the will for me to finish what I have begun. Reading this little book may be the hardest challenge I have faced for a while!

For my own benefit as much as anyone else's, I will use this post for note-taking. I don't know how it will turn out, but each time I add to it I will adjust the date to keep it at or near the top of the blog. Newcomers, please excuse. Read at your peril or skip to other material.

The book is organized into nine chapters.

1. The Other Islam: Who are the Shia?

2. The Making of Shia Politics

3. The Fading Promise of Nationalism

4. Khomeni's Moment

5. The Battle of Islamic Fundamentalisms

6. The Tide Turns

7. Iraq: The First Arab Shia State

8. The Rise of Iran

9. The Battle for the Middle East

Right away I notice a couple of points. First, the plural of the word "fundamentalism" (Chapter Five) is significant. Having read the first two chapters at least once or twice, it is clear that there are multiple fundamentalisms in Islam. Most people recognize one and might allow for two, but numerous varieties are the reality. That much is clear to me already. Second, most Americans think they understand what Chapter Five is about, but they have yet to ingest even small doses of the first four. (A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but complete ignorance is downright stupid. Ignorance is a curable disorder.) And finally, Chapter Seven, Iraq: The First Arab Shia State, reveals that not everyone in the Middle East is an Arab. Iran is a Shia state, but not Arab.

Next, I have collected a list of terms that appear in just the first two chapters. Some of these we think are household terms, and some are new to me. After what I have read, I think I will have to refer to the list from time to time and look for distinctions that I never knew existed. We take so much for granted, don't we?

Fatima al-Zahra
Ali ibn Ali Talib
Hasan & Husayn
Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, Ali
Rightly Guided Caliphs
Yazid I
The Umayyad Caliphs
The Abbasids
Muslim Brotherhood
Shiites (Twelvers)
Zaydis (Fivers)
Ismalis (Seveners)

Some of these are proper nouns, of course, but others are categorical -- and not necessarily synonymous. I have more to report, but that is enough for now. After I re-read the first two chapters a time or two more, I will get back with you.

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