Swans Commentary » swans.com December 31, 2007 - January 1, 2008  



Of Sunnis, Shi'ites, And Strauss


by Michael Doliner





(Swans - December 31, 2007 - January 1, 2008)   When the United States attacked Iraq, it entered, apparently without thinking, a more than millennium-old on-again, off-again war between the Shi'ites and Sunnis. Saddam Hussein's government was Sunni, and the present US-installed government is controlled by Shi'ites. Who are the Shi'ites and Sunnis? We tend to think of them as two local football teams with allegiance determined by where and to whom one was born. The differences, we think, are not much greater than that between Canadians and Americans. Each cheers passionately for his own team, and engages in violence, if necessary, to defend it, but the real differences in outlook between the teams are slight or nonexistent. Those who know a little bit know that the Shi'ites believe Mohammed's son-in-law, 'Ali, was his rightful heir, and the Sunnis do not. As with the European wars between Catholics and Protestants, it is sometimes hard from our perspective to see what all the fuss is about.

Marshall G. S. Hodgson was, until his death in 1968, one of the best scholars of Islam in this country, and perhaps the world. His demand for every possible scrap of information about any subject made him somewhat of an eccentric. At brunches for students on the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago he would pick up some topic and continue talking until all those who tried to follow his logic gave up. He was perfectly lucid, but he knew so much that it was hard to hold onto the many threads of his discourse, and even harder to continue to present an intelligent face when clueless for hours about what he was saying. Even today Hodgson is generally recognized as the Western authority on Islam by virtually everybody who knows anything about it.

Hodgson never tired of telling us that all history is related. We tend to think of Islam as a strange and incomprehensible culture with its own separate history. We forget that it arose at the busiest crossroads of the time. The Middle East had been thoroughly Hellenized through Alexander's conquest, and was the home of all the monotheistic religions. Mohammed sought to bring order to this chaos. He started a small religious community that rather suddenly burgeoned into a vast movement. Many of the Greek texts we think of as the foundation of the Western tradition came to us via Islam. Aristotle and Plato are as much a part of its tradition as ours. Islam and the West were closely intertwined up through the sixteenth century, and at that time were, more or less, equals.

Hodgson's first major book is The Secret Order of Assassins published in 1955. That sect, called Nizari, did assassinate its enemies, primarily Sunnis, and in fact gave the word "assassin" its present meaning though at the time it meant simply "hashish smoker." They were a Sect (Nizari) of a Sect (Isma'ilis) of Shi'ites, and started with much the same outlook as other Shi'ites. Early on in his astonishing book Hodgson describes the difference between Sunnis and Shi'ites. Here are the Sunnis:

Sunnism represented a conscious effort to cling to those community symbols which had widest support already, rejecting any conflicting minority emphasis in the name of community solidarity...They made religion revolve around the basic body of ritual and legal precepts, the Sharia, which all Muslems held in common, and tried to fix it in minute detail. (1)

And Shi'ites:

One characteristic which is found in all this type of Shi'ism is a rich dramatic piety. Far from conciliatory (and slightly colorless) acceptance of all the first generation Muslims, the Shi took a violent part in their quarrels, and cursed the great majority of them, and of all later Muslims, as apostates. Strong in its loves and hates, the Shi'a looked on itself as a saved remnant in a corrupt world. (2)

The Sunnis are primarily concerned with preserving the religious community and allowed a wide range of interpretations of the Sharia. They tended to be inclusive. This does not stop them from being fanatical (the Taliban are Sunni) in their insistence on Sharia law, for there are a large number of generally agreed upon customs and practices. Sunni fanatics want to enforce these rigid rules. The Shi'a, on the other hand, believed there was an inward spiritual sense to the law that the ordinary person could not understand. The Koran had two meanings, the obvious one and the secret inward one. God had sent a prophet not just to deliver the Koran, but to interpret it and unfold this inner meaning, so it was necessary to have a prophet to lead one to this secret meaning. The Shi'a think that at any one time there is a single prophet, the Imam, a successor to Mohammed. So it is crucial just who he is, 'Ali or somebody else. Shi'a religious life is a venture to seek this inner truth as far as one is able. Some Shi'ites even believed that once they apprehended the inner meaning they could discard the outer, the Sharia law itself. The Shi'a, when asserting their political control, have also demanded strict enforcement of Sharia, but for them Sharia is only an outer form, a mere husk.

To simplify unconscionably, Sunnism is a legalistic, ritualized interpretation of Islam, Shi'ism is a spiritual interpretation. Shi'ites are seekers. But unlike in the West, being a seeker does give you license to free thought. On the contrary, Shi'ism starts from the shahada -- the statement of witness: "There is no God but God, and Mohammed is his prophet." To unfold all that it contains one needs a prophet. There is only one prophet, the Imam, at any one time, and only through him can one learn the true meaning. Reason, starting from the shahada, requires a sacrifice of free thought to the Imam's guidance. This is the doctrine of ta'lim. Whereas the Sunni scholars are many and none are authoritative, the Shi'a have only one infallible Imam who has the same office as Mohammed, and he is recognized through a sign the previous Imam made, a nass. The Imam is chosen by the previous Imam all the way back to Mohammed, whom God chose. The Imam's interpretations were in the form of rational arguments. Unlike in Christianity, nothing is left to faith other than acceptance of the shahada. The rest flows from that through an admittedly medieval form of reason. One member of an early Shi'ite da'wa, Hasan, derived the whole of Islam from the shahada.

Shi'ism itself broke into many sects over just who the Imam was. Once they diverge they continue to diverge as each Imam in each sect points out the next. Given the importance of the identity of the Imam there is no hope of real reconciliation even among these sects. The two largest sects are the Isma'ilis and the Twelvers. The Twelver Sect includes most of the Shi'ites in Iran and Iraq. Hodgson's book concerns, for the most part, the Isma'ilis, especially the Nizari. For both the Isma'ilis and the Twelvers authority descended in a line from the Imam at the head of a da'wa, a hierarchy of "summoners to allegiance," but for the Twelvers the Imam was in hiding. For all Shi'ite Sects the da'wa formed a complete hierarchy of the entire community.

The gradation of men in a centralized hierarchism of competence according to their level in the search for truth became a social principle in sharp contrast to the egalitarian principle of Sunnism, which rejected so far as possible any sort of ordained clergy, centering on the impersonal shar'ia instead, demanded of all alike. (3)

The Shi'a da'wa rested on the authority of the Imam, and his institutional position made any compromise between the Sunni and Shi'ite claims impossible.

The Sunni position rested on a series of historical events, but the Shi'ites, because of the autonomy of each Imam, saw history as circular. "History became a matter of types, each generation reproduced the recurrent archetypes so that each moment was complete within itself." (4) Since many of the Imams in the past suffered horribly, and the present is just a repeat of the past, Shi'ites expect to suffer at the hands of the apostates and often think that it helps them on their venture. Shock and awe can only strengthen their faith.

The Twelvers believed there were only twelve Imams and that the last, the Mahdi, had occulted himself and would return at the right time and fill the earth with justice as it was now filled with wrong. "For now the faithful must practice what was called among the Shi'ites taqiyya, concealing their true allegiance from the worldly authorities lest persecution wipe out the faith." (5) It is through taqiyya that Shi'ites can sometimes live peacefully in Sunni-controlled communities -- e.g., Iraq. On the other hand, Sunnis, because of their catholicism, can sometimes allow Shi'ite enclaves within theirs. But for the Shi'ites, at least, this acceptance of apostate rule is always provisional. The authorities are never the real authorities. Also, obviously, real democracy is out of the question in a Shi'ite community. "The authority of the da'is and those below and above them, was officially fixed, not dependent upon popular fancy or a warlord's favor." (6) Any democratic government would be only taqiyya. The Imam is not and cannot be chosen by popular vote. The idea is completely alien.

The Shi'ites in both Iran and Iraq, being in large part Twelver Shi'ites, trace the Imam along the same line back to Ja'far as-Sadiq who died in 765 AD. They are part of the same community with the same da'wa. All Shi'ites agree that the true ruler is the Imam, and all the Twelvers look towards the return of the same Imam, Mahdi. So as long as these two countries remain separate, under different rulers, they are practicing taqiyya. But Muqtada al-Sadr has announced, by naming his militia the Mahdi Army, that taqiyya is at an end. Although the United States insists than Iran and Iraq are different countries, Twelver Shi'ism requires a single Imam, who is the ruler. As long as they remain Shi'ites the Twelvers will be seeking to unite the territory they control.

At the heart of Shi'ism is the idea of the revealed and the hidden doctrine, the zahir and the batin. The Imam is there to disclose the batin to those ready for it, and to seek this batin is the purpose of every individual life. The obvious zahir is there for those who simply are unable to get very far. Such a scheme offers a false Imam an obvious opportunity for abuse. The hierarchy could be used cynically to hold power. There is the questionable history of Ibn Maymunal-Qaddah who is said to have killed the infant Imam. "...[H]e offered to each convert doctrines that would please him and to the depraved chiefs of the conspiracy his own nihilism; and so elaborately duped all and sundry that his descendants were able as Imams to gain the throne of Egypt." (7) More thorough histories seem to have found little of that. There seems to be little evidence that any other Imam used Shi'a doctrine as hollow rhetoric to conceal self-aggrandizement, but it is clear from the above tale that the danger is theoretically there.

While I was reading Hodgson's book the notion of a secret and overt doctrine struck me as similar to the teachings of Leo Strauss. To my surprise I discovered, looking back, that Hodgson had made a reference to Strauss. (8) Hodgson comments that from the medieval point of view, and that of Islam, Strauss's observation that most periods have thought unconventional writers would protect themselves by writing in cipher is correct. That writing in cipher was sensible naturally led to the belief that God too would express himself in cipher.

Strauss's "philosopher" also has both a secret doctrine and an overt one. But for Strauss the idea is quite different from that of the Shi'a Imams. The Shi'a concealed the batin from the many to shield them from its dangerous intoxication. In principle the secret truth was for the ordinary men as well, if only they were able to understand it. All Shi'a know of its existence. Strauss, on the other hand, had a much darker truth. Strauss's Nietzsche-inspired nihilism made his zahir essentially false, a mere bright cloth woven of any religion or patchwork of ideas that would cover the dark pit of nihilism behind it and prevent the ordinary man from seeing that pit. Strauss did think that the ordinary man hadn't the strength to look into this pit. But his further doctrine, that only a few could enjoy a human life and then only by exploiting the others, turned his philosophers into a cabal conspiring against the majority. Their overt doctrine is not merely to placate those who are incapable of the ultimate truth, but to hide that ultimate truth, that exploitation is necessary, and to enable it. Strauss's ideal is very similar to the theoretical potential corruption in the Shi'ite da'wa. In this way it might be said that if the neologism "Islamofascism" has any meaning, it means a regime pretty much like what we enjoy now under the Bush administration.

It is perhaps too facile to identify Islamofascism with the Bush administration itself. More accurate might be to say that both Straussian doctrine and Shi'ism had roots in medieval philosophy, especially in the idea of the secret true doctrine and the revealed, common, ultimately false one. We tend to think of Islam as a doctrine embraced by people wearing strange clothes and speaking a strange language, forgetting, because of our historical amnesia, how close Islam and the West were up until the sixteenth century. Bosnians look and dress like other Europeans; Indonesians and Iranians don't speak Arabic. Islam grew out of Mohammed's attempt to bring order to confusing jumble of monotheistic faiths current in the Middle East in the seventh century. Along with that jumble was the tradition of classical Western philosophy that survived only through Middle Eastern preservation. It is out of that tradition that both Western rationalism and Islam grew. Both Strauss and Mohammed knew Plato's works. And the West too needed to make order of the multitude of monotheisms. People didn't always take for granted the existence of something called the Judeo-Christian tradition.

I am not suggesting that the neocons are secretly reading the Koran. On the contrary what seems to be true is that large portions of the Koran are merely part of the zahir. Hassan, using medieval reason, derived the batin entirely from the shahada -- "there is no God but God and Mohammed is his prophet" Sharia law, the heart of the Koran and the heart of Islam as far as the Sunni are concerned, is a mere husk for the Shi'a. They have in the past, when they have gained political power, thrown it off. (9) What I am suggesting is that the neocons, to the extent that they are Straussians, are fascinated by ultimate truths, just as are the Shi'ites, and that their ways of approaching them are similar. The neocons are different in that they are Western and do not start from the shahada. Overpowered by Nietzsche through Heidegger's reading, they have a batin of nihilism, the abyss. What is interesting is how for both neocons and Shi'ites, pursuit of ultimate truths is tied up with the pursuit of political power and how both employ medieval rather than modern philosophy. Strauss himself definitely believed in medieval philosophy's superiority to modern philosophy. (10) And he admired both Islamic and Jewish philosophers. Shi'ism and Straussian thought have a common method and a similar goal.

But we should certainly not underestimate the Shi'ites. Just as it is a mistake to think of the Shi'ites as secretly materialistic, it is also a mistake to think of them as, like us, inclined to believe that somehow everybody can get along if they would only just try. They have fought passionately for political power before. The history Hodgson reveals is one of warfare, massacre, assassination, and conquest. Both Sunnis and Shi'ites have engaged in no-holds-barred battles for many centuries. Some of these battles are between different Shi'ite sects. Unlike the Sunnis, the Shi'ites are not ready to simply live and let live even if they do practice taqiyya for a long time.

The Nizaris were feared and detested as few other heretics have been; the policy [assassination] meant therefore a frank bid for present power at all costs; regardless of any other human or religious hopes they might entertain. They were not seeking mild conversions, but total devotion or total enmity. (11)

In other words you were either with them or against them.

Radical Shi'ism has been quiescent for many centuries. In theory Shi'ism is universal, and in theory the Shi'ites do want to convert the world just as Christian missionaries did. For the most part Shi'ites would argue for their cause, but they have fought, especially with Sunnis, in wars that have been as bitter as those between Catholics and Protestants. Given how prone they are to schism, and how unbending they are, they are unlikely to be able to maintain political power for too long or in any large area. We should realize that their way of life is a challenge to our own, but that at the same time they cannot pose a serious threat, except intellectually. And given the incompatibility of their ideas with Americans' love of freedom, even this is highly unlikely. Only in the wildest throes of paranoia, such as we experience under the Bush administration, could we ever fear them militarily.

We, however, overestimate the effectiveness of military power. Nizari power rose and declined. When it was already on the wane, in the twelfth century, the Mongol invasion drove through the Middle East. With the Mongol reputation for invincibility nobody wanted to even challenge them except for the Nizaris. They fought and were all but wiped out. The Mongols swept to power everywhere, but then a strange thing happened.

For a while it seemed as if all Islam, all the Middle East, were in the dust before the heathen Mongols; and that it scarcely mattered any longer which sort of Islam, Sunni or Shi'a either, might have claimed an edge of the other. In fact, the Mongols proved impotent before the two great muslim powers of Cairo and of Delphi; and even in Iran were themselves converted after a few decades to Islam. (12)

The Mongols simply vanished. We Americans should ponder long the fate of the Mongols. Like them we are militarily strong but spiritually weak. The isolation of our troops in all our military bases exhibits our weakness. The boys go out only to frequent whorehouses. We are afraid to engage other people openly as human beings, needing instead to hide ourselves in little-defended fast food arcades and to fortify ourselves spiritually by animalizing those outside. We are, as I have written elsewhere, "hollow at the core," and it is unlikely that many Americans, if they engaged in it honestly, could withstand Shi'ite argument any better than the Mongols could. Indeed, even our president is more terrified of follow-up questions than of bombs. What is his famous isolation but an expression of this morbid fear of the challenge of opposing points of view? In his press conferences he looks like a little prairie dog, popping out of his hole, glancing furtively around, and popping back in again at the slightest hint of threat. This is not the way to rule the world.

American meddling in Iran, Lebanon, and now in Iraq has awakened the enigmatic Shi'ites and they will not likely be lulled back to sleep. After centuries of political slumber, the Shi'ites again seek power. Because the various sects have different Imams, and because these Imams have elaborated the batin differently, the Shi'ites will never form a political force outside their own territory. Each sect will have its own da'wa. However, the Shi'a will also be difficult to conquer, and if conquered difficult to rule, and if ruled dangerous to the ruler. We are going to have to live with a challenge that is far more complex than what I have outlined here. Perhaps some of us will rise to it.



1.  Marshall G. S. Hodgson, The Secret Order of Assassins, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005) p. 6  (back)

2.  Ibid. p. 8  (back)

3.  Ibid. p. 18  (back)

4.  Ibid. p. 19  (back)

5.  Ibid. p. 12  (back)

6.  Ibid. p. 18  (back)

7.  Ibid. p. 23  (back)

8.  Ibid. p. 15  (back)

9.  Ibid. p. 150  (back)

10.  See chapter 9, Leo Strauss, The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 1989, p. 217  (back)

11.  Hodgson pp. 83-84  (back)

12.  Ibid. p. 271  (back)


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About the Author

Michael Doliner has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He lives with his family in Ithaca, N.Y.



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Published December 31, 2007 - January 1, 2008