Letter 3 and 4

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Letter 3

I Why do Shi’as not Uphold the Majority’s Sects?

II The Need for Unity,

III Unity Achieved Only by Adhering to the Majority’s Sects.


Thul Qi’da 7, 1329 A.H.

1) I ask you now about the reasons why you (Shias) do not follow the sect of the majority of Muslims, I mean the sect of alAsh’ari, in determining the principles of the creed, and the four sects in its branches. Muslims agreed to abide by them in each time and clime, unanimously acclaiming their founder’s fairness and ijtihad, their trustworthiness, piety, renunciation of worldly riches, straightforwardness, good morals and lofty status in knowledge and deeds.

2) How great our need today for unity and uniformity is! This can be achieved through your own adherence to these sects according to the general consensus of Muslims, especially when the religion’s enemies have made up their minds to harm us by all possible means. They have set their minds and hearts upon such goals while Muslims are heedless, as if they are overcome by slumber, assisting their enemies against their own selves by letting them split their own ranks and tear their unity apart through partisanship and fanaticism, leaving them disunited, divided, leading each other astray, excommunicating one another; hence, wolves preyed on us while dogs coveted our flesh.

3) Do you see other than what we state here, may Allah lead your steps to unite our ranks? Tell me, for you will be heard when you speak and obeyed when you command, and peace be with you.




1 The followers of Abu al Hassan al Ash’ari, 270-320 A.H., a pupil of Abu ‘Ali Muhammad ibn ‘Abdul Wahhab, surnamed al Jubbay. Ash’ari broke away from his tutor and founded his own sect which is named after him. The beliefs of the Ash’aris are briefly as follows: (1) The Qur’an is uncreated; (2) Mankind is not free to choose between right and wrong because all our actions are predestined; (3) Allah’s attributes are distinct from His essence. By means of the second belief mentioned above, the Ash’ari seek to justify all the evil deeds of such persons as Yazid and others whom they regard as Khalifahs; hence their insistence on predestination and on the possibility of Allah being unjust.


Letter 4

I Juristic Proofs Mandate Adherence to the Sect of Ahl alBayt,

II There is No Proof for Mandating Adherence to the Majority’s Sects,

III Generations of The First Three Centuries Never Knew Those Sects,

IV Possibility of Ijtihad,

V Unity can be Achieved by Respecting Ahl alBayt’s Sect.


Thul Qida 4, 1329 A.H.

1) Our adherence, in the principles of the creed, to a sect other than that of alAsh’ari, and our following in the branches of Islam of a sect other than those four sects, has never been due to partisanship nor fanaticism, nor has it been because of doubting the ijtihad of the Imams of these sects, of their fairmindedness, trustworthiness, integrity, or loftiness in knowledge and deeds.

Juristic proofs, rather, have mandated upon us to follow the sect of the Imams from the Household of Prophethood, the cradle of the Message, and the place the angels frequent, the abode of revelation and inspiration. We have always, therefore, referred to them in order to comprehend all matters related to the creed’s branches and doctrines, in the roots and in the bases of fiqh, in the knowledge of ethics, behaviour, and manners. We have done all this in accordance with the judgment of evidence and proof, following the Sunnah of the Master of Prophets and Messengers, peace of Allah be upon him and all his progeny.

Had the proofs allowed us to differ from the Imams of Muhammad’s progeny, or had we been able to achieve nearness to Allah, Glory to Him, by following others’ sects, we would then have followed in the general public’s footsteps, asserting the friendship and strengthening the ties of fraternity. On the contrary, positive proofs stand in the believer’s way, diverting him from following his own inclinations.

2) Still, the majority cannot prove that their own sect must be preferred over those of others, let alone making it obligatory. We have looked into Muslims’ pretexts as one inquiring in depth with keen eyes, but we have found no proof for your argument except what you mentioned of their ijtihad, trustworthiness, fairmindedness and loftiness.

You, however, know that ijtihad, trustworthiness, fairmindedness and loftiness of status are not a monopoly of them only; therefore, how, since the case is as such, can their sects be obligatory by your merely pointing them out?

I do not think that there is anyone who dares to advocate their preference in knowledge or deeds over our Imams who are the purified ‘itra, the nation’s life-boats, the Gate of Salvation, the security against dissension in religion, the flags of its guidance, the descendants of the Messenger of Allah and his remnant in his nation. He, Allah’s peace be upon him and his progeny, has said: “Do not go ahead of them lest you should perish, nor should you lag behind them lest you should perish. Do not teach them, for they are more learned than you.” But it is the dictates of politics at the dawn of Islam.

I wonder about your claim that the good previous generations adhered to those sects, finding them the most fair and the best of sects, and that they agreed to adhere to them in every time and clime. You say so as if you do not know that our predecessors, the good past generations that followed the progeny of Muhammad and that, literally, constituted half the Muslim population, followed only the faith of the Imams among the descendants of Muhammad, peace of Allah be upon him and his progeny. They did not find for it any substitute, and they have been this way ever since the days of ‘Ali and Fatima, when neither alAsh’ari nor any Imam of the other four sects, or even their fathers, existed, as you very well know.

3) The generations of the first three centuries, then, never followed any of those sects at all. Where were those sects during those three generations, the best generations ever? AlAsh’ari was born in 270 A.H. and died in 320 A.H. Ibn Hanbal was born in 164 A.H. and died in 241 A.H. AlShafi’i was born in 150 A.H. and died in 204 A.H. Malik was born in 95 A.H.[1] and died in 179 A.H. Abu Hanifah was born in 80 A.H. and died in 150 A.H. Shi’as follow the sect of the Imams from the Prophet’s Household, and the household surely know what their house contains. NonShi’as follow the sects of the learned sahabah and tabi’in; so, what makes it “mandatory” on all Muslims, after those three centuries had gone by, to follow those sects instead of the one followed before them? What made them divert their attention from those who were peers only to the Book of Allah and its own companions, the descendants of the Messenger of Allah and his trustees, the nation’s ark of salvation, the leaders, the security, and the Gate of Salvation?

4) What caused the door of ijtihad to be shut in the face of Muslims after it had been kept widely open during the first three centuries other than resorting to reluctance, comfort, laziness, the acceptance of deprivation and the satisfaction with ignorance? Who would permit himself, knowingly or unknowingly, to say that Allah, Dignity and Glory to Him, has not sent the best of His Messengers and Prophets with the best of His religions and codes, nor has He revealed unto him His best Books and Tablets, judgment and doctrines, nor has He completed His Religion for him and perfected His blessing unto him, nor has He taught him the knowledge of the past and the present, except for the sole purpose that the whole matter would end to the Imams of those sects to monopolize for their own selves? They would then forbid all others from acquiring it from any other source, as if the Islamic faith, in its Book and Sunnah, and in all other signs and testaments, a property of their own, and that they forbade faring with it in any way contrary to their own opinions… Were they the Prophets’ heirs, or had Allah sealed through them the successors and Imams, or taught them the knowledge of the past and the present, and that He bestowed upon them what He had never bestowed upon anybody else among all human beings?

No! They were just like many others, pillars and caretakers of knowledge, ministers and callers. Those who call for knowledge are far above closing its doors against others or forbidding others from reaching it. They never curb the minds, nor confine public attention only to their own selves, nor can they seal people’s hearts or make others deaf, blind, dumb, handcuffed, or chained. This can never be attributed to them except as a liar’s allegation, and their own statements bear witness to ours.

5) Let us now concentrate on the matter to which you attracted our attention: the unity of Muslims. What I see is that this matter does not depend on Shi’as forsaking their faith, nor the Sunnis forsaking their own. Asking Shi’as to do so without asking others (Sunnis) to do likewise is to prefer without preponderance, or even to favour the less preferable. It is demanding what is beyond one’s capacity as it is known from our Introduction.

Yes. Unity and uniformity can be achieved if you release Ahl alBayt’s sect and view it as you view any of your own sects so that the Shafi’is, Hanafis, Malikis and Hanbalis may consider the followers of Ahl alBayt just as they consider each other. Only then can the unity of Muslims be achieved, and they will be unified in one fold.

The difference among Sunni sects is not less than it is between the Sunni and Shi’a schools of thought as thousands of books on the principles and branches of the creed of both groups testify; therefore, why have several people among you condemned the Shi’as for differing from the Sunnis? Why have they not, by the same token, condemned the Sunnis for differing from the Shi’as, or even for differing from one another? If sects can be four, why cannot they be five? How come it is alright to have four sects but not five? How can four sects be considered as “unifying” Muslims, and when they increase to five unity is shattered and Muslims are divided unto themselves? I wish when you invited us to “sectarian unity” you also invited the followers of the four sects to the same. The latter will be a lot easier for you and for them. But why have you singled us out for your invitation anyway? Do you find the followers of Ahl alBayt breaking the unity while the followers of others unite the hearts and determination even though their sects and minds are different, their tastes and inclinations are numerous? I think of you to be above that, knowing your love for your kinfolk, and peace be with you.







A layman’s question

One of the most common points of criticism against al Murajaat has been its portrayal of the “Sheikh al Azhar”.[1] Throughout the book the impression is conveyed of the “Sheikh” as lacking in knowledge of elementary points in the various disciplines, as well as in the ability to research them from their standard sources. Here, at the very outset of the book, we have the first glaring example of that phenomenon.

Throughout its history as an educational institute, al Azhar possessed large and well-stocked libraries. Many of the manuscripts its libraries once housed are still preserved in the Taybarsiyyah and Aqbughawiyyah sections of the Azhar complex. Besides the Azhar libraries there were numerous other richly stocked book collections in Cairo, evidence of which can still be seen in the wealth of manuscripts preserved today in the Dar al Kutub al Misriyyah.

Yet, despite this obvious wealth of literature at his disposal, the “Sheikh al Azhar” is constantly portrayed as an ignorant commoner who finds himself compelled to put questions to ‘Abdul Hussain at a level no self-respecting scholar would stoop to, especially not one whom ‘Abdul Hussain himself describes as a man “distinguished by his vast knowledge” and who “deservedly and rightfully occupied the post of religious leadership [in Egypt]”.[2]

Even if we were to assume, for argument’s sake, that the “Sheikh”, despite his vast knowledge on other subjects, might have been not too knowledgeable about Shi’ism—as is evident from the opening words of Letter 1—there still remains a nagging question that needs to be adequately answered. That question is: If the “Sheikh” was aware that his own knowledge in this field was deficient, why did he not take the trouble of acquainting himself with some of what has been written by the experts before him? The libraries of al Azhar in particular, and Cairo in general, were at that time filled with scores of books that could have been of use to him. Yet not once do we find him so much as referring to any of those sources. The only source of knowledge he can ever be seen to take recourse to is ‘Abdul Hussain himself.

What is even stranger is that throughout the book ‘Abdul Hussain provides innumerable references—complete with volume and page numbers—from Sunni works. The “Sheikh”, however, is always content with what he receives from his correspondent, never daring as much as to refer to facts about Shi’ism and its history that any serious participant in a dialogue of this nature would normally have taken the trouble of familiarising himself with.

We return to the point. In Letter 3 we have the “Sheikh” asking ‘Abdul Hussain why the Shia do not follow the same authorities whom the Sunnis follow. To the layman this question might appear to be a very crucial one, and therefore a good one with which to start this kind of dialogue. But that is simply because it is a layman’s question. It is the question of a person who sees before him two groups, and wonders why the one cannot simply join the other. It is not the kind of question that would be asked by a scholar, since the scholar would know and appreciate the causes of the existing disunity. The scholar’s opening question would therefore be on a different level. The type of information sought in the “Sheikh’s” opening question is general knowledge to the adept scholar. Even if the “Sheikh” was not adept, he must have had sufficient academic integrity to research the issue he was about to debate on.

‘Abdul Hussain wrote his book for the Sunni public, and not their ‘ulama’. It was therefore necessary that discussion in the book be kept at a level that would be both understandable and appealing to the layman. Although he used a scholar as his participant, the discussion is generally kept to the level of the layman. Unfortunately, in trying to maintain that precarious balance, he inadvertently exposed the truth behind al Murajaat: Sheikh Salim al Bishri was never involved in the evolution of this book. It came completely from the mendacious pen of ‘Abdul Hussain himself.



At the bottom of “Sheikh’s” letter a note has been inserted that does not appear in the Arabic edition. This note, which gives information about Abu al Hassan al Ash’ari and his creed, may therefore be assumed to have been inserted by the translator. There would have been nothing remarkable about it if the translator had stuck to introducing al Ash’ari and his creed. But his zeal overcame him and he ended up identifying the cause for the Ahlus Sunnah’s belief in Qadar (predestination) with a desire “to justify all the evil deeds of such persons as Yazid and others whom they regard as Khalifahs; hence their insistence on predestination and on the possibility of Allah being unjust.”

At no place in the book is the desire of its publishers to attract Sunnis to Shi’ism by means of disillusioning them with their own faith as clearly or blatantly exposed as it is here. ‘Abdul Hussain himself had no objective in writing the book other than that of the translator and the publishers, but shrewdness and tact made him avoid such transparent tactics by all means. The translator and/or the publishers seem not to have been gifted as the author, for in the last sentence of that footnote they have effectively undermined the claim that this book was written and published for the purpose of forging a better understanding between the Ahlus Sunnah and the Shia. In that single sentence the entire myth of al Murajaat is undone, despite all the care and effort that went into its creation and presentation as a serious effort of Taqrib (rapprochement) between the Ahlus Sunnah and the Shia.

The doctrine of Qadar is as firmly entrenched in the Qur’an and the Sunnah as any other article of faith of the Ahlus Sunnah. Though this would not be the proper place for going into a deeper discussion of this doctrine, we will, for the sake of the sceptic reader, quote from the Qur’an and hadith of Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam texts in which the foundations of Qadar are to be found.


إنَّا كُلَّ شَيْئٍ خَلَقْنَاهُ بِقَدَرٍ

Verily, We created everything with qadar.[3]


In Sahih Muslim we find the well-known hadith in which Jibril ‘alayh al Salam, in human form, put certain questions to Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam in the presence of the Sahabah radiya Llahu ‘anhum. One of his questions was, “Tell me about iman.” To this Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam replied:

That you believe in Allah, His Angels, His Books, His Messengers, the Last Day, and that you believe in Qadar, the good of it and the bad of it.[4]


The above are but two examples. Besides them there are several other verses in the Qur’an that refer to Qadar, while the literature is replete with ahadith on the subject.[5] One is simply at a loss to find a sensible reason why the writer of the footnote had to demean himself by stating so emphatically that the reason for the Sunnis’ insistence on belief in Qadar is their desire to justify the evil deeds of Yazid and his ilk.

This tendency of finding an origin for the faith and practice of the Ahl as-Sunnah in the political occurrences of early Islam is quite a familiar theme in Shi’ism. In fact, according to the classical teachings of Ithna ‘Ashari Shi’ism (Twelver), the differences that exist between the Ahlus Sunnah and the Shia are the result of a conspiracy by the Sahabah radiya Llahu ‘anhum to corrupt and distort the teachings of Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam. (More details about this tendency follow shortly under the heading, Sunni-Shia Differences in Fiqh) To the one already aware of this tendency this statement by the writer of the footnote comes as no real surprise. The only surprise lies in the crass manner in which it was made to surface here. With an attitude like that—of accusing the Sahabah radiya Llahu ‘anhumand the Tabi’in of wilful corruption and innovation in Din—persisting amongst contemporary Shia, and particularly those of them who pride themselves on working towards unity with the Ahl as-Sunnah, one is left to wonder about their true intentions. Furthermore, the display of such an attitude strengthens the conviction that more than the Ahl as-Sunnah, it is the Shia who need to learn the true meaning of the “tolerance” and “mutual respect” which they often accuse Sunnis of lacking.

It also needs to be stated here, before continuing with the next point, that the writer of the footnote has clearly displayed his ignorance of his own faith. Qadar, as the Ahlus Sunnah believe in it, is not unique to them. The early writers of the Shia were all firm believers in Qadar.[6] Ibn Babawayh al Qummi (d. 381 A.H), the author of one of the four major Shia hadith collections, and also the author of a famous tract on Shia belief, affirmed the belief in Qadar. It was the injection of Mu’tazilite rationalism into Twelver Shi’ism by his student al Mufid (died 413 A.H) that led to a change in Shia belief. In his recension of his mentor’s aforementioned work on dogma, al Mufid practically rejected this belief, and Shia scholarship after him have generally followed his lead. However, several of their ‘ulama’ have reverted to the original position on Qadar, influenced by the large number of narrations from their Imams contained in their canonical collections, all of which point to a belief in Qadar on exactly the same lines as the Ahlus Sunnah. An example would be Sheikh Muhammad Rida al Muzaffar, whose booklet entitled, The Faith of Shi’a Islam, is very popular and widely distributed. Under the heading “Doctrine of al Qada (Predetermination) and al Qadar (Divine Decree)” he first states the belief of the Mujabbirah, who maintain that Allah is entirely responsible for the action of his creatures, and that mankind has no free will, and then of the Mufawwidah, who believe in free will. Then he states the belief of the Shia as follows:


Now our belief in this matter follows the teachings of our Imams, that the reality is between these two extremes, a middle way between the two opinions, something which cannot be understood by these disputants in theology (Ahl al Kalam) who have gone some to one extreme, some to the other… Imam Sadiq `alayh al-Salam truly said in clarifying the middle way that “There is no compulsion (jabr) from Allah, nor is there any absolute delegation of power (tafwid) (from Allah to man), but the real position is between the two extremes.” What marvellous significance lies in this saying, and how exact is its meaning! It points out that our actions are, from one angle, really our own actions, and we are the natural cause so that they are all under our control and subject to our free choice; and from another angle they are decreed by Allah and are subject to His Power, because it is He who gives existence. He does not compel us in our actions in such a way that He wrongs us by punishing us for our evil deeds, for we have the power and the choice in what we do. But He has not delegated to us the creation of our actions so that they come beyond His Power, for to Him belongs Creation, Judgement, and Command. He is Powerful over all things and He has complete authority over all things.[7]


The above expression of Qadar by a contemporary and popular Shia scholar is an exact reflection of the belief of the Ahlus Sunnah as well. To understand just how absurd the contention of the writer of the footnote is, one merely has to imagine the possibility of this Shia author believing in Qadar out of a desire to “justify the evil deeds of Yazid and other khulafa”.


The faith of the Ahlul Bayt

The issue of predestination is not the only place where the author/translator/publisher has allowed the true purpose behind al Murajaat to become visible to the careful reader. The manner in which the “faith of the Ahlul Bayt” is dealt with makes it clear that the book was not written for the sake of rapprochement, but rather for proselytization. This comes through very clearly in the first of the headings which sum up the content of Letter 4, where the author states that “theological proofs make it incumbent upon everybody to follow the Ahlul Bayt”.

The existence of difference between the Shia and the Ahlus Sunnah is a centuries old phenomenon. During the times when colonial powers were occupying Muslim countries, concerned persons from both groups expressed the hope that Sunni-Shia unity might be a step towards the solidarity needed for throwing off the yoke of imperialism. From the Sunni side the concern was earnest. There is very little evidence, if any, of Sunnis taking advantage of concern for Muslim unity amongst the Shia by attempting to convert them. On the Shia side the opposite was the case. In Iraq, for example, while others were preoccupied with European hegemony, Shia preachers were industriously converting entire tribes of nominal Sunnis to Shi’ism.[8]

‘Abdul Hussain Sharaf al Din al Musawi was one of those persons who were ostensibly preoccupied with the idea of Sunni-Shia unity. However, instead of any sincere effort, all his efforts in this field bear the distinct traces of proselytization. In his book Abu Hurairah he blatantly slanders the character of that Sahabi with the ill-concealed motive of undermining the hadith legacy of the Ahlus Sunnah. In the present book, al Murajaat, he presents a set of fictitious correspondences between himself and the “Sheikh al Azhar” with the clearly articulated purpose of converting the Ahlus Sunnah. Yet he is persistently portrayed as a leading figure in the movement towards Taqrib, and his book is still regarded as a milestone in that field. ‘Abdul Hussain Sharaf al Din may be regarded as a true champion of Sunni-Shia rapprochement only if the true meaning of this rapprochement is the conversion of the Ahlus Sunnah to Shi’ism.

Attitudes amongst the Shia do not seem to have changed much. In the present political climate, with the Muslim world pitted against the superpowers, the propagators of Shi’ism were once again quick to take advantage of Sunni fascination with the Iranian revolution to start proselytizing amongst the Ahlus Sunnah.

But let us return to the point. This entire book by ‘Abdul Hussain is an attempt to prove the position of the Ahlul Bayt as the sole authorities in religion after Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam. He makes that very clear right from the beginning. The preceding paragraphs are not precisely a response to that claim. They are neither an attempt to draw the reader’s attention away from the issue. In them we have merely attempted to put the book al Murajaat into its proper perspective.

As for the suggestion that unity will be achieved by the Ahlus Sunnah agreeing to follow the Ahlul Bayt, the question that arises here is this: Is the faith and practice of the Ithna Ashariyyah really that of the Ahlul Bayt? To the uninformed, this question might seem to be just another case of hair-splitting to avoid the issue. However, when one studies Ithna Ashari Shi’ism from within its classical legacy, and not just from the writings of its modern proponents and apologists, one is increasingly seized by the conviction that the legacy they ascribe to the Ahlul Bayt—or at least those members of the Ahlul Bayt whom they take as their Imams—that this legacy could never have derived from those noble, pious, and learned personalities. The hypocrisy of Taqiyyah clashes too blatantly with their courageousness. The bitter acrimony against the Sahabah collides with their known reverence for them; Sayyidina ‘Ali, for example, named three of his children Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, and ‘Uthman.[9] The doctrine of Tahrif al Qur’an, so widespread in the writings of the ‘ulama’ of the Shia and in the narrations which they ascribe to their Imams, violently assaults the very foundations of Islam. These are but a few examples amongst a multitude of others, for refusing to acknowledge that the faith and practice of the Ithna Ashari Shia derives from the Ahlul Bayt.

We have seen in the case of Qadar how Mu’tazilism came to influence Shi’ism. That was not a solitary example. The influence of Mu’tazilism on Ithna ‘Ashari Shi’ism, and the role played in this regard by al Mufid, is vast enough to constitute an independent area of study. In the hadith literature which the Shia ascribe to their Imams too, there are enough discrepancies and irregularities upon which to base the contention that this legacy was more likely the creation of the Shia themselves than of the Imams. This too, is an area of investigation that requires individual attention and effort, and for which a few paragraphs or pages will not suffice.

In short, what we are saying is that ‘Abdul Hussain’s claim that the problem of disunity will be solved by the Ahlus Sunnah agreeing to follow the Ahlul Bayt, falls flat when we consider that there is no way we can ever consider the beliefs and practices of the Shia to be the legacy of the Ahlul Bayt.


Sunni-Shia Differences in Fiqh[10]

It is often alleged by the protagonists of Sunni-Shia unity—like ‘Abdul Hussain here—that differences between the two sects are not more grave or serious than the differences that exist within the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence. They therefore demand that Sunni-Shia differences be treated with the same tolerance and acceptance as Hanafi-Shafi’i differences, and it is in the spirit of this proposed “mutual tolerance” that the advocates of unity speak of the Shia Jafari school of jurisprudence as nothing more than a “fifth madhhab”.

It is therefore only normal for the average Sunni lay person who has come into contact with advocates of Sunni-Shia unity to wonder about, or even be taken in, by such a claim. How serious are the differences between the Ahlus Sunnah and the Shia really? Could they ever be reconciled? If not, could there at least be an amicable agreement to disagree, just like the Hanafis disagree with the Shafi’is, or the Malikis with the Hanbalis? It is these questions that this article sets out to answer.

Full reconciliation between the Ahlus Sunnah and the Ithna ‘Ashari Ja’fari Shia is not merely elusive, it is simply an impossibility. Anyone who knows the reality of the issues that separate the Shia from the Ahlus Sunnah is bound to agree. Nothing sums up the truth of the situation better than the words of Hamid Algar, who describes Sunnism and Shi’ism as “two parallel lines that cannot meet”. The endeavour to bring about reconciliation between the Ahlus Sunnah and the Shia is therefore a wasted effort. The next best option is thus mutual tolerance and acceptance.

In order to test the viability of tolerance and acceptance between the Ahlus Sunnah and the Shia we will have to look more closely at the issues that separate the one from the other. These issues can be categorised into two groups:

  1. Fundamental differences, which include articles of faith, and all such issues that could be termed “differences in principle”, that by their nature give rise to differences in secondary matters;
  2. Secondary differences, i.e. difference in matters of jurisprudence, like the way salah is performed, or that marriage and divorce take place, etc.

Each of the fundamental issues of difference would require a separate study to see how they affect compatibility between the Ahlus Sunnah and the Shia. Here it is our intention to look more closely at the type of difference that is usually dismissed as “secondary”, and thus “unimportant”. Are differences in fiqh between the Ahlus Sunnah and the Shia really so insignificant that we can justifiably turn a blind eye when we encounter them?

There can be no doubt that this question is anathema to the propagators of Shi’ism amongst the Ahlus Sunnah, as well as to those who have fallen prey to their propaganda. Yet, if it is truth we seek, we cannot allow the preferences of such obviously biased persons to deter us. The “unity” such people strive to achieve, and which they accuse others of trying to destroy, is a unity forged in ignorance. How much do we really know about the Shia? Does our knowledge of the Shia and Shi’ism qualify us to make the judgement that the differences which exist between ourselves and them are negligible and that they may be ignored for the sake of unity? We have taken them on face value, and on grounds of what we have thus learnt about them we proceed to create unity. The naivety of such a position in a matter of far reaching religious implications is far too obvious. A unity founded upon ignorance is a very precarious unity indeed. Like a mirage, it seems very real when seen from afar, but as soon as you attempt to approach it, it slips out of existence.

There are two levels at which one can look at the differences in jurisprudence between the Ahlus Sunnah and the Shia. The first is the level of external appearance. When the differences in Fiqh are inspected at this level they do not seem any more alien than the differences that exist between the various schools of Sunni jurisprudence. In fact, in many, or even most cases one will find the Shia position to be conformity with at least one of the four Sunni madhahib. This is illustrated in the following three examples:

  1. In the salah, the jalsat al istirahah is held to be sunnah by the Shia. In this they concur with the view of the Shafi’i madhhab.
  2. In marriage the majority of Shia jurists hold the view that khalwah, i.e. valid seclusion, has no effect on the mahr (dowry) nor upon any other aspect of the marital contract. In this they are once again agreement with the Shafi’is, but differ from the other three schools.
  3. If the husband is unable to pay the mahr, the wife is not entitled to divorce according to the Shia and the Hanafi schools. The Malikis, the Shafi’is, and the Hanbalis all have different views.

It is at this level that ‘Abdul Hussain wishes us to look at the differences, because when we look at it on this level we would probably agree with him that we should “look upon the Shias in the same way as [we] regard the Hanafis, the Shafi’is, the Malikis, and the Hanbalis”; and that by us doing so “the unity of Islam will be achieved and discord healed”. Even certain ‘ulama’ of the Ahlus Sunnah, looking at the matter on this level, have been known to express the view that “differences between the Ahlus Sunnah and the Shia are no more serious than the differences that exist between the various schools of Sunni jurisprudence”.

However, when we confine ourselves to viewing the problem of Sunni-Shia differences on this level we are in effect closing our eyes to the most important aspect of those differences: the root. The true nature of Sunni-Shia differences can never be appreciated or understood in full without comprehending the reasons for their existence. It is only when the problem has been viewed and grasped on the level of the reasons for difference, and not merely the external appearance of difference, that one is justified to take further steps.

When the Shia differ from the Ahlus Sunnah, it is not the same as when one Sunni school differs from the other. This is because the various Sunni schools all trace their roots back to the same legacy. They share a common heritage in the Sunnah of the Prophet salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam. When differences do occur, they occur not because one madhhab bases itself on a legacy other than the legacy of the other. Both believe in and hold on to the same legacy. Their differences are caused by secondary factors, like whether certain categories of hadith possess binding authority or not, or the divergence in the methods they regard as valid to interpret the legacy and extrapolate from it. The following two examples illustrate how such differences occur:

1. The mursal hadith (a hadith with an interruption in its chain of narrators between the Prophet salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam and the Tabi’i), for example, is deemed to possess binding authority by the Hanafis, while the Shafi’is do not accept it, except when it is supported by any one of a number of external factors. If we imagine a mursal hadith that is not supported by any of the factors the Shafi’is stipulate, it is only logical to expect that the Shafi’i ruling on the issue the hadith pertains to will differ from the Hanafi ruling.

2. Spoken words are sometimes accompanied by implied meanings. For example, when it is said, “Stay awake”, this also means “Don’t sleep”. This unspoken opposite meaning is termed mafhum al mukhalafah. The Shafi’is accept it as a valid means of extracting meaning from a text, while the Hanafis do not. If the former extract such meaning from a text and base a ruling upon the meaning inferred by this method, and the latter base their ruling upon some other grounds, there is bound to be a measure of difference in the outcome of their respective views.

Sunni-Shia differences, on the other hand, are fundamentally distinct from inter-Sunni differences. While it may rightly be claimed that the Shia, too, have their particular principles of extrapolation, it would be incorrect to describe those principles as the root cause of difference between them and the Ahlus Sunnah, the reason for that being that while the Sunni schools each have methods of extrapolation particular to themselves, they all apply their respective methods to the same legacy. The Shia, on the other hand, have not only their own set of principles, but also a legacy distinct from the legacy of the Ahlus Sunnah. When there are differences between the Ahlus Sunnah and the Shia, they arise not on account of differences in interpretation or methods of extrapolation, but because the source from which the Shia draw their law is a source other than the source of the Ahlus Sunnah.

What is this “legacy”, the reader may well ask. It is embodied in the Sunnah of the Prophet salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam. As far as the Qur’an is concerned, although history is witness to a lot of Shi’ite calumny against the inviolability of the Qur’an, most contemporary Shia scholars, and even many of their classical ‘ulama’ who staunchly believe in its interpolation, will admit the Qur’an’s status as the prime source of legislation.[11] Since the Qur’an is thus “agreed upon” between the Ahlus Sunnah and the Shia, there remains only the other part of the legacy we inherited from the Messenger of Allah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam: the Sunnah.

Essentially, the difference lies in the concepts each have of what constitutes the Sunnah. According to the Ahlus Sunnah, the Sunnah is everything narrated from the Prophet salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, as long as the transmitters are trustworthy. The Shia, on the other hand, will only accept as the Sunnah that which is transmitted by ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib radiya Llahu ‘anhu and the rest of the Twelve Imams, and that which is narrated from these Imams by their Shia followers. Leave aside what is narrated by the rest of the Sahabah, not even the narrations of other members of the household of the Prophet salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam—like his daughters other Fatimah radiya Llahu ‘anha, his wives, his cousins or uncles—are considered part of the Sunnah by the Shia. That is the first observation.

The second is the way in which the Shia look upon the legacy upon which the foundations of Sunni fiqh rests. Since the days of the Sahabah radiya Llahu ‘anhum the Sunnah of the Prophet salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam was handed down by one generation to the next. The Sahabah narrated it to the Tabi’in, they to the generation after them, and so on, until it came to be compiled in what we know today as the hadith literature. To the Shia, when this legacy is found to be in contradiction to what is supposedly narrated from their Imams, the reason behind it is that the Sahabah radiya Llahu ‘anhum were guilty of wilfully distorting and corrupting the Din of Muhammad salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam. Thus, where inter-Sunni differences amount to nothing more than technicalities, Sunni-Shia differences are differences in historical perspective.

To use an example: In salah, the Malikis let their hands hang by their sides, while the Hanafis, Shafi’is, and Hanbalis fold their hands. The Shia too, let their hands hang by their sides. In this single issue of fiqh we thus have an inter-Sunni difference as well as a Sunni-Shia difference. Between the Malikis and the other three madhahib the difference is a mere technicality. The Malikis accept the validity of folding the hands in salah (after all, Imam Malik himself in the Muwatta’ narrates a hadith that supports the folding of the hands), but prefer letting the hands hang for the reason that in Imam Malik’s day this was the practice of the community in Madinah. The other madhahib take into consideration that the Companions of the Nabi salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam who narrate his Sunnah were not exclusively settled in Madinah. Many of them resided in the Makkah, Iraq, Syria, and Egypt. Ahadith to the effect that it is Sunnah to fold the hands have been authentically narrated from a number of Sahabah (amongst whom is ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib radiya Llahu ‘anhu), therefore this, and not the practice of the people of one particular city, takes precedence. Between the Sunni schools this difference is a mere technical one—one that amounts to giving preference to one view over another. But between the Shia and the Ahlus Sunnah the issue assumes much more serious proportions. From a question of mere technical preference it turns into an acrimonious indictment of the Sahabah radiya Llahu ‘anhum. Traditions in the book Tahdhib al Ahkam—one of the four major collections of Shia hadith—describe the folding of the hands in salah as “an act of takfir (un-Islamic gesture of obeisance)” that is “only done by the fire-worshippers”.[12]

Here one would have to ask: How could an alien practice like this have crept into Islam? We will take the answer from another Shia scholar who, like ‘Abdul Hussain, was an ardent advocate of Sunni-Shia unity Ayatollah Ruhullah al Khumayni. In his treatise al Taadul wa al Tarjih he quotes the following tradition from the book Ilal al Shara’i by Ibn Babawayh al Qummi:


Abu Ishaq al Arjani says—Abu ‘Abdullah (Imam Jafar al Sadiq) asked, “Do you know why you are commanded to act contrary to the ‘Ammah (the Ahlus Sunnah)?”

I replied, “I do not know.”

He said, “Verily, the Ummah contradicted ‘Ali in each and every aspect of his religion, intending thereby to destroy his cause. They used to ask him about things they did not know, and when he gave a ruling they would invent an opposite verdict from their own side to mislead the people.”[13]


In the Shia perspective of the history of Islamic jurisprudence the fact that the Sahabah deliberately corrupted and distorted the teachings of the Nabi salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam is such a fundamental truth, that it came to be looked upon as a criterion of truth in itself. This position is reflected in the way they deal with the phenomenon of Shia narrations that contradict one another. Abu Jafar al Kulayni, in the introduction to al Kafi, the most important of their four canonical hadith collections, expresses it in the following terms:


Know… that no one can distinguish narrations of the Possessors of Knowledge (the Imams) by his opinion; except in accordance with the words of the Possessor of Knowledge: “Compare it to the Qur’an. Accept that which is in accordance with it, and reject that which contradicts it,” and his words: “Abandon that which is in accordance with the people (the Ahl as-Sunnah), for truly, guidance lies in being different to them”.[14]


This particular perspective has persisted in the Shia psyche over the centuries since al Kulayni and his teacher al Qummi, until it became, in the opinion of ‘Abdul Hussain, al Khumayni, and all other Shia jurists; one of the two principal methods of juridical preference in cases of conflicting narrations. In light of the alarming frequency with which contradictions occur in the ahadith of the Shia (one of their four major hadith sources, al Istibsar, is devoted to the phenomenon of contradiction) the importance of a principle of this nature is evident. We reproduce here from al Khumayni’s works various Shia narrations in which he and other Shia mujtahids find justification for their view:

  1. Hassan ibn Abi al Jahm asked, “If something is narrated from Abu ‘Abdullah (Imam Jafar), and something contrary to it is also narrated from him, which should we accept?”

The Imam answered, “Accept that which is in contradiction to the people, and avoid that which is accordance with them.”[15]

  1. Abu ‘Abdullah said, “Our Shia are those who submit to our command, who accept our words, and who act contrary to our enemies. Whoever is not like that is not of us.”[16]
  2. ‘Ali ibn Asbat narrates that he asked Imam al Rida, “(What should I do in case) an incident occurs for which I am need of a legal opinion, but nowhere in the city do I find anyone of your partisans (the Shia) whom I can ask?”

He replied, “Go to the (Sunni) faqih of the city and refer your case to him. Then take the opposite of whatever answer he gives you, for verily, therein lies the truth.”[17]


It is on account of these and other similar narrations which the Shia claim to emanate from their infallible Imams that the mujtahids of the Jafari madhhab were led to formulate the principle which al Khumayni expresses in these terms:


In cases of conflicting reports, contradiction of the Ahlus Sunnah is a factor of preference… In fact, it is the most common and widespread factor of preference in all chapters of Fiqh and upon the tongues of the Fuqaha’.

There is no ambiguity with regard to the issue of contradicting the Ahlus Sunnah being a factor of preference in the case of conflicting narrations.[18]

The factors of tarjih (preference) are limited to two: (1) Conforming to the Qur’an and the Sunnah, and (2) Contradicting the Ahlus Sunnah.[19]


All of these quotations show a definite obsession with being different from the Ahlus Sunnah. We therefore ask: If so much importance is attached to being different, to the point of it being regarded as the criterion of truth, why should there be such a noise and clamour for unity? Why should the Shia seek unity with people whose version of Islam they regard as the corruption of the Din of Muhammad salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam wrought by the hands of his Companions? And even if the Shia do manage to create a semblance of such unity, how much goodwill and sincerity can be expected of them if one considers their particular perspective of the legacy which forms the basis of our faith and practice?

We have chosen al Khumayni’s views as representative of Shia opinion for a very special reason, and that is the fact that in the contemporary world it has been he and his successors who are the most vociferous proponents of Sunni-Shia unity, and who dismiss Sunni-Shia differences as negligible. In more than one of his public addresses he has taken to task those who attempt to create mischief amongst the Muslims by “misleading” them into believing that there are substantial differences between the Ahlus Sunnah and the Shia. However, closer scrutiny of his jurisprudential works reveal that such condemnations are nothing but political rhetoric. When we remove the image he projects as Leader of the Revolution, we are left with merely another Shia scholar imprisoned by the fundamentals of his faith. In his eyes, and likewise in the eyes of generations of Shia scholars before him, the legacy of the Sunnah upon which their Sunni “brothers” base their practice of Islam is the product of the envious mischief and the disbelief of the Sahabah, who in the hope of destroying the cause of the Ahlul Bayt distorted every teaching of the Nabi salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam they could lay their hands upon. If this is how they regard the very basis upon which the foundations of our Din rests, what remains to be said for unity?

It is true that we have quoted from the works of al Khumayni, and not those of ‘Abdul Hussain. However, that does not constitute a problem at all, since what al Khumayni expressed were not merely his own personal opinions. The quotations adduced here are part of the very same legacy which ‘Abdul Hussain buys into, and when al Khumayni declared it a criterion of truth to contradict the Ahlus Sunnah, he was not speaking for himself. He explicitly ascribes it to the ‘ulama’ of the Shia—one of whom, we must remember, was ‘Abdul Hussain Sharaf al Din.



NEXT⇒ Letter 5 and 6

[1] See Mahmud al Zu’bi, al Bayyinat fi al Radd ala Abatil al Murajaat vol. 1 p. 14, and Dr. Nasir al Qafari, Mas’alat al Taqrib bayna Ahlus Sunnah wa al Shia vol. 2 p. 215

 [2]Al Murajaat p. 76 (Arabic edition)

[3] Surah al Qamar:49

 [4]Sahih Muslim (with al Nawawi’s commentary) vol. 1 p. 157

[5]See for example al Mujam al Mufahras (Concordance et Indices de la Tradition Musulmane) vol. 5 pp. 317-318, and Miftah Kunuz al Sunnah pp. 393-395

[6]Minhaj al Sunnah vol. 2 p. 92, cited in al Qaffari, Usul Madhhab al Shia al Imamiyyah al Ithna Ashariyyah p. 638

[7]Al Muzaffar, The Faith of Shi‘a Islam p. 12 (Ansariyan, Qum) The discussion on Shia belief in Qadar is owed to Dr. Nasir al Qaffari in his aforementioned work.

 [8]See Dr. ‘Abdullah al Gharib, Wa Ja’a Dawr al Majus, p. 318

[9]See al Mufîd, Kitab al Irshad, pp. 269-269 (Ansariyan Publications, Qum)

[10] The material under this caption appeared as an independent article which was published in AL ISTIQAMAH vol. 1 no. 2 (April 1997) under the title The Roots of Sunni-Shia Differences in Fiqh. I have slightly adapted it to be included here.

[11] A Shia scholar of the present century, Sayed Tayyib al Musawi, reconciles belief in the interpolation of the Qur’an with acceptance of the Qur’an as a source of legislation by contending that “interpolation occurred specifically in those verses relating to Imamah.” Verses with a legal purport were thus left uncorrupted. See his introduction to Tafsir al Qummi, published by Kitab farosh-e ‘Allameh, Qum 1968.

[12] Tahdhib al Ahkam, vol. 2 p. 84

[13] Al Taadul wa al Tarjih by Ayatollah al Khumayni, p. 82, cited in Dr. Zaid al ‘Is: al Khumayni wa al Wajh al Akhar p. 131

[14] Al Kafi vol. 1 pp. 55-56 (Dar al Adwa’, Beirut 1992)

[15] Al Taadul wa al Tarjih p.80

[16] Tahrir al Wasilah p. 83, from al Fusul al Muhimmah by al Hurr al ‘Amili p. 225

 [17]Al Taadul wa al Tarjih p.82, from ‘Uyun Akhbar al Rida by Ibn Babawayh al Qummi, vol. 1 p. 275

[18]Al Taadul wa al Tarjih p. 83

[19]ibid. p. 84