2 Islamic articles on: Shia Islam

IslamQA: The Sunni stance toward Shia Muslims

Could you tell us what you know about Shia Muslims? I completely have no knowledge about them, rather that the Sunni Muslims in Indonesia telling us that they are misguided, but the one I followed on Twitter seems to be A-OK and talks about wisdom and the truth all the time. Thank you.

The main difference between Shia Islam and Sunni Islam is that Shia Muslims believe in a number of imams that are thought to be infallible and whose sayings are as authoritative as the Prophet’s sayings PBUH. So this leads to the fact that they follow different hadith collections filled with information from their imams that is rejected by Sunni Muslims as unauthentic.

Shia Muslims still follow the Quran, which is a source of guidance to whoever reads it, whether Sunni or Shia. So while as Sunni Muslims we consider certain elements of Shia Islam to be false, we should not say that Shia Muslims are misguided. There are many extremely pious people among them. Both Sunni Islam and Shia Islam are paths to God’s guidance and we believe Sunni Islam to be more accurate and freer from falsehoods. But both paths can still lead to guidance.

So there is no surprise in some Shia scholars and preachers being extremely sensible and pious. They still have access to many of the truths of Islam especially the most important truth which is the Quran. So it is an insult against the Quran to say Shia Muslims are completely misguided. They rather follow some truths and some what we consider to be falsehoods. But since they follow the Quran, those of them who follow the Quran most closely can be very well-guided.

There are also Shia extremists who believe in an ideology of hate against Sunnis and ignore the Quran in favor of their non-Sunni hadith collections. But we should not judge all of them by the extremists among them just like we Sunnis do not like to be judged by the extremists among Sunnis.

So while we consider Sunni Islam to be a more authentic version of Islam, we believe that the Quran can guide whoever truly believes in it and follows it, so this should be our stance toward the Shia; they are Quran-followers just like us and God can make the Quran a cause for guidance and piety for everyone who truly follows it. A Shia Muslim who follows the Quran and has heard nothing that convinces them Sunni Islam is better is not responsible for thinking that Shia Islam is the correct choice. God judges all humans according to what they believe to be true in their hearts. We should not hate Shia Muslims or insult them but politely disagree with them on matters having to do with their imams and their hadiths.

Follow-up question:

Assalamu aleikom. Having read your post about sunni vs shia muslims, I was wondering if you could tell more (or share reliable sources) about their differences and why one is more right than the other? Also, is it possible to be just muslim, without following one of the islamic branches? Thank you for your blog, it has really helped me to understand islam from a rational/philosophical perspective.

Alaikumassalam wa rahmatullah,

It is not possible to just be Muslim without being Sunni or Shia. Since Shia Muslims believe that they have divinely-guided imams, the imams’ teachings are as important as the Prophet’s (PBUH). So if a person chooses the Shia path they will have to accept the divine authority of the imams and the tens of thousands of hadith narrations that come from them.

The reason we consider Sunni Islam better is that there is no evidence in the Quran or (authentic) Prophetic tradition that tells us the family of the Prophet PBUH were meant to be the divinely chosen leaders of the Muslims. It makes more sense to us that the Prophet PBUH was just a human and that the teaching of Islam ended with him. But the Shia believe that his descendants were also meant to be divinely-guided semi-prophets, so they have a massive amount of non-Prophetic literature that comes from those descendants (the imams) which they believe are authentic additions to Islam.

So as a Muslim you either have to choose the “minimalist” Sunni version of history (God sent Muhammad to be a prophet like any other prophet) or the Shia version which adds the imamate to Islam and believes that Muslims cannot understand the Quran or the Prophet’s teachings except with the help of the imams.

I do not really know any reliable sources to read more about these issues. If you already know about Sunni Islam, you can find many books on Shia Islam on sites like Amazon.

IslamQA: On the Shia and their fate according to Sunni Islam

What are your views on Shia and their beliefs? And are they among the 70+ sects that are doomed?

First, the notion of the “72 doomed sects” is false, as I explain here. It is based on fabricated evidence.

As for the Shia, I believe that anyone who believes in God and His Books and does their best to follow Him, sincerely and in good faith, will be rewarded by Him, as the Quran promises:

Those who believe, and the Jews, and the Sabians, and the Christians—whoever believes in God and the Last Day, and does what is right—they have nothing to fear, nor shall they grieve.1

The above verse and those like it have been interpreted in various ways. The fate of ‘others’ in Islam, whether non-Muslims or Muslims belonging to sects considered non-orthodox, is a contentious issue that lends itself to many interpretations. Those interested can read professor Mohammad Hassan Khalil’s book Islam and the Fate of Others: The Salvation Question, which is a study that shows that there is sufficient room within Islam for what I mentioned above.

While it is common for Muslims to complain about Islamophobia in the West and the fact that people refuse to try to understand Islam, they themselves unfortunately act in very much the same way toward other Muslims. I have talked to some Sunni Muslims who have never met a Shia Muslim in their lives and who have the most absurd misconceptions and prejudices about the lives and thinking of the Shias. The Iranian government, in the name of Shia Islam, has committed a great deal of injustice and oppression against the Sunnis (a glaring example being that Sunni Muslims are not allowed to pray the Friday prayers in cities like Tehran, in their sectarian chauvinistic view only Shia mosques should have the right to hold Friday prayers). But many Iranian Shias do not support the actions of the government, or are simply busy making a living and not having the time to worry about what their government is doing, similar to the attitude of many Americans toward their government’s mass-murder of innocent people overseas. Among the Shia there are those who do their best to hold onto the Quran and to follow it in their lives, and God is generous and intelligent enough to understand and appreciate the efforts of such people even if they have beliefs and attitude that Sunnis would consider wrong. The Quran says the following about Jews and Christians, and I believe the same applies to the Shia:

113. They are not all alike. Among the People of the Scripture is a community that is upright; they recite God’s revelations throughout the night, and they prostrate themselves.

114. They believe in God and the Last Day, and advocate righteousness and forbid evil, and are quick to do good deeds. These are among the righteous.

115. Whatever good they do, they will not be denied it. God knows the righteous.2

So my view is that God holds each soul according to the knowledge He has given it:

God never burdens a soul beyond what He has given it.3

God will not hold a Shia Muslim responsible for what Sunnis consider wrong beliefs if they really think what they believe is true, if they follow the Quran in good faith, and if they do not knowingly do evil.

By saying that, I do not mean to say that Sunni and Shia Islam are equally good religions. Religions are tools toward understanding and worshiping God, and the best tool is the one that helps the most people worship God in the best way possible. We can judge a religion by the number of pious, self-less and devout people it can produce, and I believe Sunni Islam comes out on top according to this measure.