Shi‘i Islam An Introduction By Najam Haider (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 243 pages.)

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Husein Khimjee

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Abstract

In this detailed study of Shi‘i Islam, Najam Haider provides a uniquely new
approach, one that excels all other scholarly works available to date on the subject.
This book is not just a description of differences between the two major
branches of Islam, concluding with the natural outcome of the split within the
community – Sunnis (roughly 80 percent) and Shi‘is (20 percent) – as the historical
conclusion of two interpretations of Islam. The Sunni interpretation is
that immediately after the Prophet’s death the Muslims elected his father-inlaw
and elderly Companion Abu Bakr as the community’s political leader, followed
by Umar, Uthman, and Ali. The Shi‘i interpretation argues the Prophet’s
intention had always been for his son-in-law Ali to succeed him and that this
was the wish of the Divine. This, they said, was their strongest claim maintained
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through various interpretations of the Qur’anic verses and through several incidents
from the Prophet’s actions and sermons. In this regard, they prove their
claim through the theological tenets proving the necessity of the Imamate,
namely, the divinely appointed leadership of the community.
Keeping all of this in mind, the author shows that the study of Shi‘i Islam
does not stop with this early controversy, but has in fact been a dynamic and
evolving stream of thought down to our our own time. Within this evolution
he includes the Twelver Shi‘is, the Isma‘ilis, and the Zaydis. The author does
not dwell upon the minor differences between Shi‘is and Sunnis; rather, he
demonstrates a more detailed critical thinking and comprehensive look at the
former’s belief and the prophetic narrations (aḥādīth) concerning Ali’s appointment
as not just the community’s political head, but also as the legitimate
authority who would have complete leadership in political as well as
religious issues. In that sense, the book reveals the clear dichotomy between
the political authority possessed by Abu Bakr against the total legitimacy
possessed by Ali.
Unlike other books on the subject, Haider does not end his thesis by maintaining
that Abu Bakr’s election was the main reason for the split and the ensuing
intra-community violence. The author looks at Islam’s complete
historical record and shows that the main difference was a gradual development.
The Shi‘ah were influenced by the theological beliefs of groups like the
Mu‘tazilah, which engendered discussions and debates about the nature of
God and where legitimate authority lies. Based on this new approach, one that
includes the Shi‘i renaissance in the Middle East in the aftermath of 9/11, his
book opens up a new dimension in the scholarship that is only now beginning
to learn about the Shi‘i history of Islam not only from the traditional Sunni
sources. The book enables scholars and political leaders to look at Islam’s
complete history through Shi‘i sources ...

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