I Greeting the Debater,
II Asking Permission to Debate.
Thul Qi’da 6, 1329 A.H.
1) Peace and Allah’s mercy and blessings be upon the learned honourable Sheikh ‘Abdul-Hussain Sharafuddin AlMusawi.
I have not been acquainted yet with Shi’as’ conscience, nor have I tested their manners, for I have never kept company with any of them, nor come to know the traditions of their folks. But I have always been eager to debate with their renown scholars, anxious to mix with their commoners, in order to sift their trends and attempt to know their inclinations, until Allah helped me stand by the spacious shore of your ocean of knowledge, and you let me taste of your brimful cup; Allah helped me quench my thirst. I swear by the city of Allah’s knowledge, your Chosen Grandfather, and by its gate, your pleased ancestor, that I have never tasted anything so satisfying to the thirsty, and so curing to the sick, like your overflowing stream. I used to hear that you, Shi’a folks, prefer to avoid your brethren, the Sunnis, and keep away from them, and that you find your ease in loneliness, resorting to isolation, and so on and so forth. But I have found your person to be gently charming, keen in debating, courteous, strong in argument, well humoured, honest in duel, appreciated in misunderstanding, cherished in competition; therefore, I have found the Shi’a a pleasant fragrance to sit with, and the quest of every man of letters.
2) While standing by the shore of your tumultuous sea, I ask your permission to swim in it and dive deeply in pursuit of its jewels. If you grant me your permission, we will dig deeply for the root causes of particulars and obscurities which have long been agitating me; if not, it is entirely up to you. In raising my questions, I do not look for a fault or a defect, nor do I oppose, nor refute; instead, I have only one quest: searching for the truth. When truth is manifest, it then deserves to be followed; if not, I am only like one (poet) who said:
We in what we have, and you in what you offer,
Are all satisfied, even when our views differ.
I will, if you permit me, confine my debate with you to two topics: one deals with the sect’s Imamate, in its roots and branches, and the other deals with the general Imamate, i.e. succession to the Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him and his progeny. My signature at the close of all my debates shall be “S,” and let yours be “Sh.” In advance, I solicit your forgiveness for every fault, and peace be with you.
1 Having sought permission to debate, he starts explaining the debate’s subject-matter, thus demonstrating his moral accomplishments and excellence as far as the norm of debate is concerned. The use of the initials “S” and “Sh” is an obviously suitable vehicle for carrying such a debate on, since “S” denotes his name “Salim” and his being a Sunni, while “Sh” signifies the author’s surname “Sharafud-Din,” and his being a Shi’a.
I Greetings Reciprocated,
II Permission to Debate Granted.
Thul Qi’da 6, 1329 A.H.
1) Peace of Allah be with Maulana Sheikh alIslam, His mercy and blessings.
Your very kind letter has granted me and bestowed upon me so many graces for which the tongue can hardly thank you enough, nor can it fulfill a portion of its duty even in a lifetime. You have placed your hopes on me and brought me your request while you yourself are the hope of anyone with a quest, the refuge of whoever seeks refuge. I myself have come to you all the way from Syria in order to relish your knowledge and seek your favours, and I am sure I will leave you strong in optimism except if Allah wills otherwise.
2) You have asked permission to speak up. You have the right to bid and forbid. Say whatever you will: you have the favour; your judgment is final, your verdict fair, and peace be with you.
It has already been shown that the publishers of the English translation of al Muraja’at of Muhammad Amir Haider Khan preferred not to include the author’s own introduction as part of the book, for the simple reason that a careful reading of that introduction reveals the book’s true provenance. Instead of the author’s own translation the publishers of the English translation opted to include an introduction of their own, after which they launch directly into Letter 1.
The initials “S” and “SH”, and the liberty taken by the translator in his rendering of the footnote have also been discussed earlier under the heading “Identity of the correspondent”. We will therefore not repeat that discussion here.
Suriya is the Arabic name for modern Syria. This name has its origins in antiquity and is closely associated with the Christian culture of Syria. The Syrian Christians speak a dialect of Aramaic called Syriac, and their church is known as the Syrian Orthodox Church.
Ever since Syria became part of the Islamic world it was known as al Sham, which was the Arabic name for Syria. Sham included more than just modern Syria; Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon were part of Sham. In the Arabic language this name was retained until Ottoman times, when the region of Sham was governed as the three provinces of Damascus, Aleppo, and Beirut. In Turkish it was referred to as ‘Arabistan. With the collapse of the Ottoman empire during World War I Britain and France in 1916 concluded the secret Sykes-Picot agreement under which Sham would be carved up into the four territories of Syria, Transjordan (Jordan), Lebanon, and Palestine (which was then further divided into Jewish Israel and Arab Palestine). In 1918 British forces entered Damascus and Ottoman administration of Sham came to an end. An Arab administration was set up under the Amir Faysal, son of the Sharif Hussain of Makkah. Faysal was elected king of Syria in 1920. The official replacement of the old name Sham with Suriya in Arabic took place either in 1918 or 1920. Prior to this date the only ones who were known to use the term Suriya in Arabic were Christian Syrian nationalists whose religion and culture were better identified by this term than by the Arabic Sham or Turkish ‘Arabistan.
Al Muraja’at was supposedly written in 1911. During this time Syria was still known in Arabic as Sham. The switch to Suriya would come at least seven years later. However in the original Arabic text of al Muraja’at ‘Abdul Hussain writes distinctly of Suriya. At this stage we need to keep the fact in mind that al Muraja’at was first published in 1936. ‘Abdul Hussain’s usage of the term Suriya will only seem proper if the actual writing of the book is placed in the 1920’s or even the early 1930’s, long after the death of Sheikh Salim al Bishri in 1916. In 1911 the usage in Arabic of the term Suriya is as anachronistic as the usage of the name Saudi Arabia for Najd and Hijaz before 1932.
This one single word provides us with a strong indication of the time when al Muraja’at was really written. It is clear that Sheikh Salim al Bishri, who died in 1916, could not have had anything to do with al Muraja’at. In 1911—when ‘Abdul Hussain claims to have had the correspondence with al Bishri—or even 1916—when Sheikh al Bishri died—no Muslim Arab would call Sham by the name Suriya. It could only be used after 1920—and by then the Sheikh was long dead. It is therefore manifestly evident that al Muraja’at had only one, and not two authors.
It is vehemently asserted that this alleged exchange took place in Cairo itself, and not between Cairo and Syria, which leaves us with a the nagging question: Why would two people who live in the same city, who know each other well, and who are in regular contact with one another, need to correspond with one another by post? This entire correspondence seems to have only taken place in the imaginative mind of ‘Abdul Hussain.