Islamic Fundamentalism, Shiites and Iran

UI – Part 243 – Islamic Fundamentalism, Shiites and Iran

About a month ago we discussed Islamic Fundamentalism.  The stream of history suggests Islamic Fundamentalism is being perpetrated by the Muslim Brotherhood (‘MB’) utilizing the extreme views of Abdul Wahhab and the Wahhabist form of Sharia or Islamic Law, and primarily Sunni in support and organization.  What about the Shiites and Iran?  You would think too that Saudi Arabia supports the MB. That was not the case for Morsi in Egypt.  Qatar, oddly enough, supported Morsi, and the Saudi’s complained.  Since Morsi’s ouster the Saudi’s have sent financial aide to the military, the Egyptian General El Sissi.  There were political motives, but my sense it was more because of style, the approach and heavy-handed nature of the Muslim Brotherhood, coupled with their history of violence, that created a historical barrier between the Saudi Family and the MB.   

The birth of Islamic Fundamentalism as seen today was in the mid-1700’s when Abdul Wahhab developed his own interpretation of the Quran and historical Islamic Texts and began a crusade of his own in the Arabian Peninsula to convince others his program was the correct form of Islam.  Al Saud supported his claims and together they grew, by force as necessary, a new wave of thought, especially for the Sunni Branch.  Eventually the temporal and spiritual were combined to create a theocratic order to governance.  Saudi Arabia is the home of this foundational way of thinking and the extreme views as expressed in Islamic Law (Sharia) as practiced in that Country.

The rebirth of Islamic Fundamentalism began with the Muslim Brotherhood formed in 1928 in Egypt and supported ever since by the Saud family, and Saudi Arabia, from its oil wealth, after this Country was established.  The concepts of Wahhab have been incorporated along with the goal of an All-for-Allah World.  There is a strong political aspect inherent in the modern Islamic Fundamentalist’s thinking.  Sunni support is greatest for the political Islamic Fundamentalism practiced by the Muslim Brotherhood, but the preference is for Saudi political leaders to be in chanrge, not members of the MB. 

The Shiite, of the community of Shia, having a foundational base in Iran, differs in some ways.  The goal of the Shiite today is less universal politically.

Iran – Shiite

Iran as a country is a storage battery for the fundamental views of the Ayatollah.  Different schools of thought, Islamic thought, come into play for the Shiites as they see themselves, their religious leaders, direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad following the blood line of his daughter Fatima and her husband Ali.  Ali was the son of the Uncle, Abu Talib, who raised Muhammad.  Ali was a son-in-law. Ali was a cousin.  Muhammad was about 30 years older than Ali, and it is said Ali was the 1st male convert to Islam.  The Shia is the ‘party’ formed around Ali, considered the most worthy, as a result of being a direct family member, to lead the umma, or the community of believers in Muhammad/Allah and the proclamations put forth in the Quran.

Historically the Shiites had been a passive faction, and according to an article by the esteemed Middle-East scholar and affiliate of the Washington Institute of Near-East Politcy, Martin Kramer[i], entitled Shiite Islam and Islamic Fundamentalism[ii], “in most times and in most places, Shiites plotted no revolutions and assassinated no enemies. They preferred a quiet existence as tolerated minorities within Sunni Muslim society….These Shiites (Imani or Twelver Shiites) therefor deferred the obligation to wage jihad ‘in the path of God’ to the day when the hidden Imam (#12) would appear as redeemer and raise God’s banners….they drew comfort and inspiration from commemorating the martyred Imams and inflicted violence only upon themselves in penitential rites of self-flagellation.” It was ‘inner repentance’ not ‘revolution’ over “their grief for the Imam Husayn.”  Theocracy was not a goal, even though they “disdained all temporal power as an infringement upon the authority of the hidden Imam.” Their faith as a community was equated to “patience, (and) virtue with suffering.” It was not man, under this rational, that needed to implement the Will of Allah.  Allah remained in charge.

After a thousand years thinking changed.  In the 1500’s the Safavids, Martin Kramer writes, ” established themselves as the uncontested rulers of Iran….They immediately set about transforming Shiite Islam into a state orthodoxy – something Shiism, in its quietest variety, had never been. This process of conversion was accomplished by persuasion and force….”

Conversion by the Force of Man

The conversion process noted must be viewed as an alteration, by men, of the prior interpretation of the Quran and the history of the Shia which was more peaceful and individually reflective.  Abdul Wahhab also changed how the Sunni went about interpreting Islam and the Law and the imposition of their belief, imposed by Al Saul,  although history does not suggest the Sunni evolution was ever peaceful. Also the Sunni history embraced theocracy, and the rule of law for all being the Quranic interpretation of Law – Islamic or Sharia Law. The impact of man, the created, is made more clear in today’s Islam.  They could not leave it to the creator – to God or Allah.

Has Islam, as practiced today with its violence and want for a world wide theocracy, strayed from Allah’s plan?  Is this now man-made ideology hiding as a religion continuing to dominate and infect the minds of Muslims?

Sunni and Shiite Fundamentalism

From a religious viewpoint, as to faith and belief in the Quran, the sacred scripture, the Hadiths and the Sunnah, are shared by all.  Interpretations may differ, but the fundamentals, the foundations, the basics are of common origin.  As to one Islam for all, the Shiites believe as the Sunni’s, however they differ as to the variety of Islam that must be universal.  Over time the two factions have come up with their own texts to be used by their followers.  There are many other smaller sects with their own views as well, all in conflict with each other.

Politics are different.

“Shiite reading of sacred history has been precisely the opposite of the Sunni….,” so avers Martin Kramer.  Their connection to Ali/Fatima (his wife, Muhammad’s daughter) is a clear distinction.

Where violence arises in Islamic history it is always as to ‘he says, or he says, but if you say differently then off with your head.’  Muhammad was not easily understood or the Quran or history and as a result, the nature of the Arab easily heated and combative, caused wars, fighting for Allah.  It was really fighting for one man’s opinion vs. another’s.  They should have been patient as were the Imani and Twelvers to wait Allah’s decision.  Along came the Ismailis, a force to be reckoned with over the “identity of the seventh Imam”, writes Kramer. The Ismailis created a covert operative group, appropriately called the Assassins.  “They orchestrated a brilliant campaign of assassination against perceived enemies of Islam. They did not believe that preaching their truth sufficed; wrongdoers had to be terrorized into acknowledging that truth,” from Kramer’s article which I suggest you read.    Does this sound familiar today? Kramer continues, “The Assassins targeted Sunni Muslim rulers, ministers, officials, and divines, as well as prominent Crusaders.” This began in the 9th Century.

They killed and killed until they themselves were killed.  All for Allah on their terms.

The Shiite continued to separate the temporal and the spiritual, not so for the Sunni. The Shiite clergy did not become active in government, they in fact were kept to the sidelines, marginalized, as Iran attempted to modernize (1920-1970’s). Material betterment became an objective.

Then a transformation. This began according to Martin Kramer, “with the reinterpretation of texts.”  Here we go again, man in charge.  He goes on to note the change occurred in the “shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala, around the tombs of the imams.” These cities are in Iraq.   The scholars upset with modernity and the youth ignoring their cultural heritage, their traditions, and  “embracing foreign ideologies and ways” had to find a new approach. “The purpose was to make Shiism again relevant….”  The process was not religious, but political, a grasp for power and control of the minds of the humans living in the confines of the Muslim dominated areas, while using, applying, their honored stature as teachers, leaders, scholars and respected authorities of their faith.  Most importantly the ulema decided, via their reinterpretation of the fundamentals “that the clerics themselves should rule”, thus changing, as outlined by Martin Kramer, the “premises of Shiism” and “the role of the ulama.”  Now we have the power of the ayatollahs.  This was/is radical.

Even with a newly elected President of Iran, Hasan Rowhani, look at who is in charge.  It is the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.  They make the military decisions.  It is a political reality.  The transformation was completed in less than 50 years. 

I am not sure Obama or his American advisors understands what I’ve written yet!

The Point of Fundamentalism

With the scholars of Islam holding court, as it were, in their mosques, they have come to enjoy, embrace and utilize their influence to reinvigorate Islam.  Why not hold sway over the temporal leadership as well, using them and the military forces of the government to impose their reinvention of Islam, new traditions established according to their reinterpretation of ancient texts, and shaping of Sharia. They have become attuned politically. This is the basis of fundamentalism.  Hezbollah is a fighting force for the Shia Iranian theocracy commandeered in the background by the Imams.


Shiism today differs from the Islamic Fundamentalism of the Muslim Brotherhood and  the Sunni, Saudi influenced, Wahhabist, Al Qaeda factions and/or affiliates and political all for Allah worldwide engagement.  They have become an organized fighting force, Islamic and militant, to battle for control of the Middle-East, more the Arab/Persian world of Islam.  Islamic fundamentalism is political as well as radical.  The ulema (scholars) of the Shia have altered their interpretation with a focus on Husayn to become more politically involved and controlling.  Iran is their base and is the political theocratic example of their achievements and conversion from a more passive Quranic thinking to political activism.  Their opposition remains the Sunni who did not embrace the succession of Muhammad as being a family member, in the blood line today of Ali.  Remember Muhammad had no male heirs.

Grace and Peace

[i] Martin Kramer is Senior Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, and President-designate of Shalem College (in formation). He is also the Wexler-Fromer Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and the Schusterman Senior Visiting Professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)

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