riyada in arabic means "training" or "discipline". It was used by the arabs in relation to horse taming. Sufis refer to their discipline as "riyadat an-nafs": disciplining the soul / training the ego. Today, the word riyada has come to mean "sports". There is an Arabic proverb that says: "The purpose of sports (riyada) is not to win cups, but to discipline the soul". This blog is here to help me discipline my soul and train my body.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Shiism and Christianity

Over the past 4 or 5 years, I have been realizing just how much Twelever, or Imami, Shiism is similar to Christianity, primarily Roman Catholicism. I never really had a conscious effort to compare the two, but every once in a while I'd learn of something in Shiism that would remind me of Christianity and think "huh". Sadly I never wrote them down as they came along so I've forgotten a lot of these similarities.

Just yesterday I was watching tv with my aunt and we saw some Shii supplications being chanted and my aunt noted how much it resembled, in style, the supplication of priests and pastors. This led me to try and list for her the similarities between Shiism and Christianity.

Well, on the very same night, I was reading a magazine at the doctor's office and was surprised to find a short book review for a book comparing Roman Catholics to Twelver Shi'is! The book is called Roman Catholics and Shi'i Muslims: Prayer, Passion, and Politics and is written by James A. Bill. The review itself was short, but it gave some more examples. So here is a short list of the similarities that come to my mind, as well 3 or 4 from the book review. The most important similarities are of course those of doctrine, but I will list those toward the end.

* First of all, the most important event in the history of Shi'i Islam is the Battle of Karbalaa, in which the Prophet's grandson al-Husayn, peace be upon them both, and his family, were martyred. This martyrdom has almost the same significance for the Shii's as the crucifixion does for Christians.

* The identical practice of passion plays, in which Roman Catholics and Twelver Shii's commemorate and re-enact the Crucifixion and the massacre at Karablaa, respectively.

* Shii's self-flagellate every year in large processions, in order to atone for their sin: the fact that they (or rather their ancestors) failed to support al-Husayn at Karbala. This practice is usually looked down upon by the Shi'i Ulama but they cannot say anything against it because of its popularity with the public. Since the 13th century, and throughout the middle ages, there was a large Flagellant movement in which processions would walk long distances flagellating themselves, sometimes during a pilgrimage, and this is still practiced today by some Christian groups. It was outlawed by the Catholic Church, however.

* Al-Husayn's mother Fatima, daughter of the Prophet, peace be upon them all, has taken a very similar role in Twlever Shiism as the Virgin Mary in Christianity, and even the paintings they do of Fatima are almost identical to those that Christians do of the Virgin Mary. While painting of humans, especially religious figures, is strictly forbidden by Islam, Twelever Shi'is have always drawn the family of the Prophet, in the same style as those of Mary and Jesus are drawn in the Christian tradition.

* Christianity was at first the religion of the weak and oppressed (I'm remember here what Nietzsche wrote about religion in general), and in the same way, the first proto-Shii groups provided a cause for the weak and disaffected within Muslim society, and as these groups had not really developed an ideology yet, most of their followers came because they felt oppressed.

* Twelver Shiis and Roman Catholics share a hierarchy of priesthood (ulama in the case of the Shiis). This does not exist in Sunnism, but the hierarchy is elaborate and well-defined in Shiism.

* At the top of the hierarchy for Roman Catholics is the pope, while for Twelver Shiism it is the 12 Imams and those who represent the twelvth Imam now that he is in occultation. Both the Roman Catholic pope and the 12 Imams are thought to be infallible. Even the highest level of ulama today for shii's, the Ayatollah, are considered to be almost infallible. While they are not said to be infallible, they are treated in the same way. This is why in Twelever Shiism no Ayatollah can ever reverse the fatwa of a previous Ayatollah, because that would imply a mistake on the behalf of an Ayatollah.

My next post will be about the historical development of the idea of infallibility of the Imams in Shii thought, insha'Allah. It is based completely on Shi'i sources and studies of Shi'i sources.

* The importance of - and impatience for- the return of Jesus/the Mahdi in Christianity and Shiism. Much more so than in Sunni Islam.

Those were some similarities that I can think of right now, but there were many more that I feel I had noted and have forgotten. I'm sure the above-mentioned book has many more examples and a deeper level of analysis but I dont think I'll be buying it.

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October 3, 2007 at 5:13 PM


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