Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future

The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future by Vali Nasris a must-read book for anyone trying to understand what is going on right now in the Middle East, and, in particular, in Iraq and Afganistan.

The problem is that we tend to view the world via the prism of our own world view. But the disputes in the Middle East must first be viewed as a conflict between two quite different strands of Islam: Sunni and Shite. For any number of reasons, the Sunni dominated Islam for the past 1400 years. And, as a result of that, and their philosphy of not fully separating church and state, dominated the region for much of that time. It was only with the abolation of the Caliphate, by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1924, that the tight connection between Sunni Islam and centralized political control of the Middle East was broken. The Shiites on the other hand have spent most of their 1300 or so years since their split with the Sunni as an oppressed minority - oppressed by the Sunni who often consider the Shiites second class Muslims, or worse.

Theologically, there are strong parallels between Sunni Islam and Protestant Christainity. Indeed, Wahabi Islam, the brand of Islam practiced by the Saudi royal family and endorsed by al Qaeda, bears an even more striking resemblence to the religion practiced by our Puritan ancestors. Some of the features that distinguish fairly strict Sunni Islam from Shia Islam is that it is based almost exclusively on the wording of the scriptures (i.e. Quoran); tradition is mostly irrelevant; intercession is unneded; veneration of saints (and martyrs) borders on polytheism and idol worship; and much of the scriptures are literally true.

The Shiites on the other hand have a strong resemblence to Roman Catholics in their beliefs. They are mystical (except, now, in Iran); tradition is a big part of their religioni and provides for much of their practice thereof; saints and martyrs are venerated; the structure of Shiite Islam roughly parallels that of the Roman Catholic church, with the exception that there is no single Pope, but rather, invariably, several competing Grand Aylatollahs; much of their practice is legalistic, with the clergy being experts at the legalisms; and because interpretation is so hard, the clergy are needed to interpret for the masses.

The big difference though between Islam and Christianity in this regard though is that in Islam, the Protestant/Sunnis are the vast majority and have enjoyed teporal control over the less numerous Catholic/Shias for most of the last 1300 years.


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