Before we attempt to create an unrealistic happy-go-lucky brotherhood of unity with people with whom we have clear and undeniable doctrinal differences, let us first attempt to create unity among those who already adhere to the pathway of the Prophet and his Purified Progeny. This is not to simplify ourselves to a monolith (since we are anything but!), but only by first establishing ourselves as a community with certain well-defined values, needs, and parameters can we then attempt to talk of unity with those who do not subscribe to our school of thought, be they Muslims or not.In the contemporary Western Muslim discourse, the word “unity” gets thrown around more so than any other term. We are quick to quote a few verses of the Qur’an to show our support for unity in the abstract sense of the idea, but few of us can coherently define the practical dimensions and limitations of unity as it applies to our current situation as Western Shia Muslims.
The term “unity” implies creating and maintaining some sort of platform of mutual interest upon which we can come together with some other them. For our purposes, we are defined to be Western Shia Ithna Asharis, i.e. those individuals who live in the West and subscribe to the teachings of the School of Ahlul Bayt (peace be upon him).
As such, before we attempt to create an unrealistic happy-go-lucky brotherhood of unity with people with whom we have clear and undeniable doctrinal differences, let us first attempt to create unity among those who already adhere to the pathway of the Prophet and his Purified Progeny. This is not to simplify ourselves to a monolith (since we are anything but!), but only by first establishing ourselves as a community with certain well-defined values, needs, and parameters can we then attempt to talk of unity with those who do not subscribe to our school of thought, be they Muslims or not. As well, it is necessary for us to define the realms and domains in which we wish to create unity.
The most important realms to consider when we talk about unity are three, namely the religious, the political, and the cultural realms. We must address the scope and dimensions of unity in each of these areas.
There are some extremely disturbing polarizations that are currently sharpening in our communities. If we really wish to unite with Sunnis or People of the Book on the religious realm, we must first unite amongst ourselves. And we must do so by coming together at the platform of the Marjaiyyat (Religious Authority), which is the collective representative of the Twelfth Imam (may Allah hasten his reappearance) during his Occultation.
Every Eid, the Fadlullah followers get mad at the Sistani followers, who get mad at the Khoei followers, who get mad at the Shirazi followers. We feel the sky coming crashing down, all because we happen to be celebrating Eid on different days. Instead, it is imperative for us to realize that Taqleed is a very personal issue. There has always been a plurality of Maraja Taqleed in the Shia world, and as such, there has always been a plurality of verdicts when it comes to jurisprudential matters. It is obligatory upon us to respect all Religious Authorities and appreciate the kinds of academic advantages this plurality has bestowed upon us. True religious unity in the Shia community can only be achieved if we turn for religious guidance solely towards our Maraja, who were appointed as guardians of the community by the Imam himself, not towards unqualified “youth speakers” or the self-serving charlatans of various varieties who have sadly perpetrated the community in the guise of “research scholars” and “academics”.
Similarly, there is a deepening divide among the so-called Matamis and the Shahabis (Shia Wahabis!). The extremities of this division are sorely visible during Muharram among certain communities in particular, whereby the former group, usually consisting of immigrants and “cultural” people, is seen to be engaging solely in the rituals of crying, cursing, and chest-beating without any consideration for other religious obligations, while the latter, consisting mainly of second-generation believers, converts, and “activists”, would rather completely do away with Tabarra and lamentation rituals of all sorts and suck all the emotion and passion out of Muharram. Whether we are Matamis or Shahabis, we must remember that we are all Shia Muslims and that we cannot forsake and simply disown the other. The real medium of course lies in the middle, and in order to bridge this gap, the responsibility lies almost entirely upon our religious scholars and speakers to emphasize the importance of crying and weeping for Imam Hussain (peace be upon him), the proper method of expressing our hatred for the Ahlul Bayt’s enemies, and the significance of our lamentation traditions, as well as continually exhort the believers to apply the Imam’s teachings on Namaz and Hijab to our daily lives. Not only does this make practical sense, it is of course exactly what our Maraja Taqleed have instructed us to do time and again.
However much we might want to skirt the issue, there is a clear and deepening division today among the so-called Hezbollahis and Shirazis. The former are relentless to the point of being dogmatic in their support for the Islamic Republic, the Supreme Leader, and the concept of Wilayat al-Faqih, while the latter jump upon any chance to condemn Iran and the Leadership. The former have mosques and Islamic centers where speakers are vigilantly screened for their support of Iran, and anyone who does not openly and unequivocally advocate Wilayat al-Faqih in its most absolute form and fails to mention Imam Khomeini and Ayatollah Khamenei at least half a dozen times in each speech is effectively not permitted to speak. Meanwhile, the latter wince at the mere mention of Imam Khomeini or the Islamic Revolution and condemn all such talk of “political Shi’ism”.
Calling it madness would be an understatement. It is hard to fathom how we can be so similar and yet so extremely hostile towards one another on this particular issue. As Shirazis, how can we be willing to reach out and create alliances with churches and synagogues, but not with a “pro-Iran” center? On the other extreme as Hezbollahis, how can we be willing to pray behind a Sunni who does not believe in the authority of Imam Ali, but we absolutely refuse to pray behind a Shirazi who does not believe in the authority of the Leader?
It is imperative for us to realize that leadership in the Islamic system belongs to a just jurist, as per the teachings of the Ahlul Bayt. When an Islamic government is established under a just jurist, it becomes obligatory upon all Shias to obey his commands and look towards him for guidance in socio-political matters. As Ayatollah Sistani states on his website, “the Wilayat is for the just jurist who has been accepted as a Wali by the majority of the believers in their general affairs.” (For a detailed discussion on the subject, refer to Shaikh Ahmed Vaezi’s Shia Political Thought, available online.) That said, however, it is ludicrous to expect every single scholar to openly advocate Wilayat al-Faqih and use this as a litmus test to judge his credibility. (Based on this criterion, many of our centers would be unwilling to allow Ayatollah Burujardi, Imam Khomeini’s own teacher, to speak at their events!) We cannot neglect the fact that although none of our Maraja denies the concept of Wilayat al-Faqih, there do exist undeniable differences of opinion among the Maraja about the exact scope and extent of this authority. Moreover, if a scholar is asked to speak about a historic topic or matters of jurisprudence or how to maintain a pious lifestyle, then why does it even matter if he does or does not openly endorse Wilayat al-Faqih?
Along the same lines, there is also the “political over-activism” versus the “political apathy” divide. Some of us are willing to very enthusiastically invite law-enforcement agencies with known track records against Muslims and right-wing neoconservatives with open agendas against the Islamic world to our mosques, Islamic centers, and conferences in the name of “political engagement”, while others openly shun the idea of political involvement of any sort in the name of aiding Taghut and “oppressors”. Once again, the solution is for us to find a happy medium, which can only be discovered by putting aside our personal agendas and biases and consulting our Maraja Taqleed and the Leader about their recommendations on political engagement in a non-Muslim society.
It is disheartening to see the kind of cultural rivalries and ethnic prejudices that exist among our communities. The Iraqis seem to hate the Lebanese, the Khojas seem to hate the Punjabis, the Iranians seem to hate the Hyderabadis, and everyone seems to hate the converts.
On a more “mental” level, we must come to realize how important inter-Shia unity is and how petty our cultural and linguistic differences are. The primary mechanism for this is for us as individuals to learn to appreciate, not belittle, other languages and cultures. If we find faults with other cultures’ religious practices, we must ask whether they lie within their realms of Shariah: if so, we must embrace them as a token of our diversity, not condemn them for failing to lie within our own cultural comfort zone.
On a practical level, we can organize picnics, combined Eid programs, youth sporting events, and the like in order to promote greater cooperation and friendliness among our various cultural communities. There is nothing wrong with having separate Khoja, Iraqi, Lebanese, and Pakistani centers. There is something deeply wrong, however, when we use these ethnic divisions to sow hatred and mistrust against each other. Indeed, we must cherish and transmit our cultural and linguistic traditions to our future generations, but we must also appreciate and respect those of our fellow Shia brethren.
There are certain issues faced by all Western Shia Muslims, regardless of our religious, political, or cultural leaning. We all worry about dealing with Islamophobia at school, work, and in our neighborhoods. We all worry about our children hanging with the wrong crowd. We all worry about our boys growing up in a hypersexualized society. We all worry about our girls having to constantly defend their Hijab. We all worry about the lack of resources available to us and our children. We all worry about presenting a positive image of Islam to the West and promoting the cause of our Prophet and his Household.
What we fail to realize is that these issues will be much easier for us to tackle if we set aside our differences and face them together as a united Shia community. We are all Shias of Ali and Fatima (peace be upon them), and we are all in this together. Many of the polarizations discussd here are of course the extremities, and the majority of us usually falls somewhere in the middle. But the divisions are continually sharpening, and many of us are slowly being forced to choose one extreme or the other.
We cannot simply forsake or abandon our fellow Shias on the basis of these petty and easily reconcilable differences. Surely some of our differences will never go away, and it will be naïve to assume otherwise. But we must remember that unity does not entail uniformity. Thus, let us reconcile those differences of ours that we can and respect those that we can’t. Let us move forward united, hand in hand, under the banner of the Awaited One and his collective representative, the Marjaiyyat.
Of course, it goes without stating that this cannot be achieved overnight. It will certainly require an utmost amount of open-mindedness and dedication. But perhaps more importantly, it will require the vital realization that we owe this to ourselves, to our children, and to the future of Shi’ism in the West.