For those of us who are in college, the summer may be a nice time to reflect on the challenges and successes of the past year. When I was an undergraduate, I remember one such challenge for me was being one of the few Shia members of my school’s Muslim Student Association (MSA), which was overwhelmingly Sunni. In this article, I hope to highlight some of the issues facing Shia students in MSAs and outline some practical steps we can take as a community to achieve our goals within the MSAs of our respective schools.
During my sophomore year, I remember walking into my school’s MSA prayer room to find a book ominously titled Shias and their Beliefs. When I looked a little bit closer, I found that the book’s author was a prominent member of Sipah-e-Sahaba, a terrorist organization in Pakistan, and that the book itself used hateful language and largely untrue arguments to try to refute Shia doctrine. The point of mentioning this story is not to say that most MSAs have similar anti-Shia books sitting on their bookshelves, but to point out one of the biggest issues you may face as a Shia student in an MSA: malice. In every Muslim Student Association, there will likely be at least a few members who harbor deep-seated ill will towards Shias. These people are likely to be familiar with our beliefs and practices, but believe that we engage in Shirk (associating partners with God) and Bid’ah (innovation in religion). You may find these people refuse to pray behind you, to shake your hand, or even to return your greeting of Assalam Alaikum.
Another time, I was having a cordial discussion with a moderate Sunni brother who was a good friend of mine. When we started discussing Shia-Sunni issues, and I mentioned something about Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his progeny), he asked, “But you Shias, don’t you believe that Jibrael made a mistake and Ali was supposed to be appointed prophet instead of Muhammad?” Up until that point, I had assumed that this brother had a basic understanding of Shia beliefs, but when I heard this, I was shocked. The point of this anecdote is bring to light the second issue you’re likely to face as a Shia student in an MSA: ignorance. There will likely be many well-intentioned Sunni brothers and sisters who simply don’t know anything Shia beliefs and practices and don’t have the slightest clue about the difference between Shia and Sunni. Other Sunnis may have been innocently brainwashed into believing lies about Shia beliefs, whereas others yet may confuse Twelver (Ithna Ashari) Shia beliefs and practices with those of Ismailis and Bohras.
So, now that we know the problems that we face, what are some potential steps we can take to rectify these issues? Here are some of my own humble suggestions:
Educate yourself, then talk to people. The biggest enemy of both malice and ignorance is knowledge. Strive to educate yourself on the justification for Shia beliefs and practices, and try to reference the Qur’an and Sunni ahadith as much as possible. A few resources to consider in this regard are Dr. Tejani Samawi’s Then I Was Guided, Sayyid Sharfuddin Musawi’s Al-Muraja’at, Sayyid Muhammad Rizvi’s Shi’ism: Imamate and Wilayat, and Sayyid Moustafa Qazwini’s Inquiries About Shia Islam, all of which are available online at Al-Islam.org. Then, put yourself out there and talk to your Sunni friends on the grassroots level about the lives of the Ahlul Bayt (peace be upon them), about the tragedy of Karbala, and about Shia views on leadership and justice. If you’re brave, you may even try to organize a lecture through your MSA by a Shia aalim or speaker.
If your school has a Muslim chaplain, meet with him. Arrange a meeting between him and several Shia students on campus and voice your concerns. See if he can incorporate narrations from the Ahlul Bayt into his sermons or if he can give a lecture about the tragedy of Karbala. Another idea would be to ask him to speak about Muslim unity and the need for Sunnis to be accommodating of Shias.
Add Shia books to your MSA’s library. Most MSA libraries are chock-full with Sunni books of hadith, theology, philosophy, and even subscriptions to Islamic magazines oriented toward Sunnis. Talk to your MSA’s board and see if it would be okay to add books introducing Shia Islam – written by Shia authors – to your MSA’s bookshelf. A few must-haves are Nahjul Balagha and Sahifa Sajjadia, as well as Allamah Tabatabai’s Tafsir al-Mizan, Sayyid Muhammad Rizvi’s Islam: Faith, Practice, and History, Sayed Ali Asghar Razawy’s A Restatement of the History of Islam and Muslims, and books by Ayatollah Murtadha Mutahhari and Ayatollah Baqir al-Sadr.
Stress cooperation. Stress cooperation, amicability, and brotherhood with the Sunni members of the MSA. Practice good manners, and show them that you’re willing to be their brother or sister in Islam. Your admirable character will draw them to you and make them want to learn more about your beliefs and practices.
Be confident, not ashamed. Lastly, and most importantly, do not be ashamed at yourself for praying with your hands down. How would anyone be convinced that you’re on the right path if you yourself seem reluctant to practice it? Instead, act with courage and conviction in what you believe, and don’t be afraid to speak up to defend Shia beliefs or practices in case thes opportunity arises.
In short, brothers and sisters, the challenges we may face as Shia members of an MSA are many, but they are not impossible to overcome. Insha’Allah I hope that these suggestions may inspire even one person to become more active in his or her MSA and thereby build bridges with our other brothers and sisters in Islam.