Translated by Sayyid Burair Abbas
Edited and annotated by Muhammad Jaffer
As a continuation of the previous discussion regarding the delegitimization of non-orthodox Shī’ah scholars, we have translated the following Q&A found in the writings of Shaykh Ḥaydar Ḥubbullāh.1 For the sake of clarity, we have added some explanatory footnotes of our own to highlight some of the allusions being made in this piece. Our purpose in doing so is simply to demonstrate that this destructive rhetoric is very real and that it has reached even the upper echelons of our religious institutions. As such, properly addressing and treating this malady requires us to revise our ethics of disputation (akhlāq al-khilāf); not just at a personal level, but also at an institutional one.
The Culture of Disparaging Personalities within the Religious Seminary: Causes and Solutions
Q: Controversy abounds regarding the legitimacy of disenfranchising scholars. Some individuals accept this rhetoric while others categorically reject it, and each camp brings forward its own justifications. In your opinion, what is the correct legal criterion in approaching this matter? May God always grant you success!
A: The issue of disparagement should not be exclusively addressed from a jurisprudential perspective; I believe that the deeper problem rests in our culture, our conscience, our morals, and our lifestyle. Sometimes a person may endeavor to delegitimize a particular idea or initiative, whether it be at the intellectual, religious, cultural, social, or political level. At other times, he seeks to delegitimize personalities, whether they be individuals or organizations. Therefore, you see such a person trying to topple such-and-such scholar, such-and-such religious seminary, such-and-such scholarly academy, or such-and-such university/educational institution.
When one believes that a certain thought, reasoning, or methodology is wrong, corrupt, or harmful to society, then he has every right to criticize and refute it while challenging it with real expertise. He retains the right to undermine it and supplant it with his own view, so long as he is employing the language of academics, scholasticism, politics, ethics, etc. However, this dismantling should by no means be suppressive, resorting to such means such as assassination, elimination, closure, confiscation, curtailment, or restriction. Rather, it is assumed among Muslims that there should be fair-market competition based on thought, logic, scholarship, argument and proof, presenting alternatives, elucidating points of weakness and strength, etc. All of this should happen without lying, charlatanism, manipulation, or misleading the public.
However, our problem in the present era lies in two dimensions: the first is in the unprincipled dismantlement of ideas and the second is in the invalidation of people instead of combating schools of thought.
A. The First Level: An Unprincipled Approach to Dismantling Schools of Thought and Ideas
Under this heading, we find several strategies being employed such as the following:
- Insisting on falsely attributing ideas to a faction or certain school of thought in order to distort its image.2
- Connecting said faction without a shred of evidence to another group that is publicly deemed reprehensible or entirely outside the framework of religion or the sect. For instance, when we say that such-and-such view is atheistic, Western, Wahhābī (commonly employed in the Shī’ah community), backward, polytheistic, degenerate, or other directed and specific attributions that aim to distort the image of that view in the public opinion.3
Attempting to raise aspersions about the circumstances that produced a specific intellectual trend, such that it should appear as if it is of questionable origins or wrought out of illegitimate relations. For instance, accusing others of freemasonry, agentship, or other ambiguous circumstances without any argument or evidence, such that political analysis unfortunately becomes the definitive argument against this school of thought!4
B. The Second Level: Disparaging Personalities Instead of Dismantling Ideas
It appears to me that this is the focus of your question; I contend that the problem is extremely dire and that it has truly become a great disease within our Muslim community. We must strive educationally, socially, religiously and ethically to properly treat it. Rather, it seems that almost no group or movement has been spared from it, albeit variation in degree and intensity may exist.
Our culture has become “iconoclastic” (based on breaking icons) rather than “ideoclastic” (based on breaking ideas), such that the ummah has become completely bereft of all its esteemed personalities. Indeed, it is as though each one of this ummah’s icons has had its image completely distorted, being exposed in both public and private capacities. While the pretentious prestige and pompous statuses may have vanished as a result, appropriate and worthy reverence has also fallen to the wayside.5 The culture of disparagement and censure has reached such a deplorable state that we can no longer even psychologically bear to hear the name of a particular person, nor a specific idea attributed to him. We read his work while our hearts throb: tense, anxious, afraid, and apprehensive. We parse through his books, articles, and words for a slip or lapse that he may have committed so that we may lay to waste all that he has built and distort what he has erected. It is yet stranger that some of us who bear a personal vendetta against the living resort to violating the sanctities of the dead, such that their contemporary adherents can be consequently delegitimized as well.6 Sometimes, ideas are targeted simply because their existence may be useful to the opposition, and it is necessary to destroy them. Hence, one seeks to destroy the ideas on which their positions may find repose. Indeed, this is a monumental and grave travesty within this ummah.7
When we say delegitimization here, we do not simply mean critique. Rather, we have time and again advocated towards critiquing one and all without exception, insofar as we are employing a scientific and ethical paradigm as well as professional principles of research; for not a single person is immune from criticism, even the most senior jurisconsults (marāji’). Therefore, the conception that some try to advocate in prohibiting critique of scholars, seminaries, or religious authorities is completely and utterly rejected.
Whoever forbids criticism ought not to err; however, if he himself is perpetrating loads of mistakes and then expecting others to remain silent, he is most definitely delusional. Rather, he will reap what he has sown and witness before his very own eyes his shortcoming, negligence, and underestimation of the scholastic community. He will soon face a day wherein regret won’t avail him, because his commentary will cease to hold any weight.
However, critique is one thing and disparagement is something entirely separate. Its motives, goals, style, approach and mechanisms are completely distinct from simple critique: disparagement aims toward character assassination, complete elimination of certain personalities, and dissipation of their strength, persistence, presence, audience, and so on. This is done in a manner which smacks of revenge and reprisal more so than it does of genuine pity and concern; this is a style wherein it becomes an anathema to even mention the opponent’s name! All of this is conducted, unfortunately, to erect our own positions upon the skulls of our adversaries rather than upon true efforts, capabilities, achievements, and experience.
We strongly repudiate this logic; nonetheless, the problem is not simply limited to one specific religious institution or a particular group. Rather, it is a systemic issue of reforming the entire general paradigm in religious discourse—this is not a matter where we may content ourselves in settling a personal score with certain parties, exposing their weaknesses without elaborating on their positive points. At the same juncture, we also condemn those who want us to remain perpetually silent in the face of erroneous ideas and misguided perceptions. Neither passive and silent solutions nor a furious and destructive rhetoric will yield the intended result; rather both these extremes lead to ethical ruination.
In the spirit of further illustration, I would like to mention some personal examples; despite their simplicity, these incidents are of enormous significance and are representative of a dilemma that is larger by many orders of magnitude:
1. Some esteemed scholars, whom I deeply respect, reproached me as to how I can dare mention the name of al-Sayyid Muḥammad al-Shirāzī or al-Sayyid Ṣādiq al-Shirāzī in my writings: they deemed it offensive that I should mention his opinion, cite his books in my footnotes, or critically acclaim or critique his ideas!8 It is indeed strange in my opinion that merely mentioning a personality in one’s academic research—mind you, a personality who has already left this world—is deemed reprehensible! This is nothing but disparagement and censorship; this strand wishes to completely wipe out their adversary and eliminate his name from the corpus. This is the mentality of ideological war which does not appreciate that “there are no winners or losers.” Instead, even mentioning some of the religious edicts (fatāwā) of these personalities—emulated by millions—is deemed problematic in these circles; their names and personalities are completely and utterly eschewed.
A particularly peculiar occurrence happened to me during the last days of the blessed month of Ramadan (1433 AH). I was in Lebanon and near the place of my residence, there was a mosque where I frequented Ẓuhr prayer. After the prayer and the departure of the Imām of the mosque, we were sitting with some acquaintances, some of whom themselves carried religious credentials. It so happened one day that they asked me about the theory of the Perfect Individual (al-insān al-kāmil).9 I began elucidating it, quoting the opinions of Ibn ‘Arabī and Mullā Ṣadrā al-Shirāzī. Come to find out, the next day a rumor spread among some groups that I was “Shirāzī” in my inclination!
When someone disclosed this to me, I said to him: “Where did this rumor stem from? Does the nature of my thought really resemble this faction?”
He responded, “Well it’s because you talked about Ṣadr al-Dīn al-Shirāzī yesterday.”
I told him, while barely able to keep from chuckling: “Ṣadr al-Dīn al-Shirāzī died about four hundred years before the Shirāzī with whom you have a problem!”
This is the nature of the current intellectual clime: it is superficial and pre-canned. It has reached a point that if you were to ask in many circles: “What is your problem with so-and-so?” Well, they don’t even have the slightest idea!
I do not intend to defend anyone here. Rather I am simply lamenting upon how we have been treating one another; generations are raised on rumors and fables while no one really has an inkling of real knowledge. I am not concerned here with who is on the right and who is on the wrong, for they have gone to their Lord, and He is More Knowledgeable to reckon them.10 It does not behoove us to do anything but beseech God to bestow His Mercy and Pleasure upon all of them; we ought to instead take recourse in the etiquette of pious requiem for our deceased.
2. I wrote some jurisprudential research pieces for some respectable journals about seven years ago; these essays were completely unrelated to politics. The editor of this journal—a dear friend—coyly asked me: “Would it possible to omit the name of Shaykh Al-Montazeri and his book from one of your footnotes?!” Incidentally, Al-Montazeri’s book was simply one of many that I had cited in that footnote. Even to this extent, in legal research pertaining to the Ḥajj, they were unable to bear the name of this personality! What does politics have to do with me? This is academic research! Why is it necessary to eradicate al-Montazeri’s name from existence while he is a reputable jurist, acclaimed by all?!11
3. Someone wrote an extensive dissertation regarding Islamic government and presented it at Al-Muṣṭafā International University in Qom. The book was presented to the Examining Committee for review prior to its submission, so that its writer would be able to obtain his doctoral degree in this specialization. Most shockingly, the author (may God preserve him) did not mention the name of Imām al-Khomeinī; not even once in his entire book! How is it possible to write about Shī’ah political thought and theocracy without devoting even a single marginal note, chapter, or paragraph to Imām al-Khomeinī and his political thesis? This would be like mentioning the martyrdom of Ḥusayn (as) without mentioning Karbalā! Are not Imām al-Khomeinī and his school of thought akin to the Sun and the Moon of Shī’ite political thought in the last few decades? But this is the mentality of erasure and extirpation inherent in our thinking.
4. Several years ago, one of my students had been attending advanced juristic investigations (baḥth al-khārij) under my tutelage. When one of the esteemed scholars learned about the matter, he tried to discourage him from attending. Hence he told my pupil that I belong to the camp of Sayyid Faḍlallāh (may God be pleased with him). My student strongly repudiated that, saying that in the years he had attended my classes, I had discussed the views of Faḍlallāh and critiqued them academically.
At this juncture, I would have expected this esteemed personality to take to silence; however, he shockingly used this as proof for his claim. He stated that my mere discussing of Sayyid Faḍlallāh’s views substantiates that I promote him, even if I should critique his opinions! He further added that it is more appropriate that Faḍlallāh’s name be completely expunged from academic research and religious discussions—rather, his name should not echo in the chambers of the religious seminary at all!
Unfortunately, this is the mentality that governs us today. There is no objection to writing about Western thought, discussing its views, and critiquing it; but it is taboo to mention the opinion of an unorthodox personality who belongs to the ḥawzah, even if you are simply critiquing him!
In other words, critique connotes respect, while what is demanded here is misrepresentation, extermination, disintegration, and disenfranchisement! You may speak about Karl Popper and Karl Marx as esteemed professors, but it is completely forbidden if you should say: Professor Aḥmad Al-Kātib (in fact I was personally rebuked for this)!12
If I continued to list the examples, we would perhaps need a book or several, because this is a practice that dominates our reality today. It has reached the point that when you yourself hear the words of those who seek to delegitimize you, you assume at first glance that they are talking about some strange and baffling creature—you turn this way and that trying to figure out who it is they are talking about! You are left baffled wondering to yourself who is this person they speak of?! All this because the pervading rhetoric is one of misrepresentation, delegitimization, and distortion.
Even more peculiarly, sometimes the logic employed is the double standard of “what you say goes and what I say doesn’t.” If you should mention something that opposes the majority view, it is considered a major achievement; however, if your opponent should do so, then it is an abomination!
For example, recently the Iranian seminary in the city of Qom was engaged in a controversial debate about a fatwā issued by one of the jurists loyal to a certain current (Shaykh Bayāt Al-Zanjānī),13 which says that if a fasting person is intensely thirsty (beyond the normal exigency), he may drink a certain amount of water to relieve his thirst and then complete his fast validly without compensation (al-qaḍā). This jurist relies on two narrations which he considers reliable that are narrated in the ḥadīth corpus; he believes these narrations supersede the narrations to the contrary regarding fasting. We are not concerned here with the validity of his opinion nor the weight of his evidence, more than we are concerned with the vociferous reactions to him. What is most puzzling is that one of the leading marāji’ existing today—himself well-known for fatwās that contradict the consensus—launched a violent attack on this jurist and described his fatwa as “manipulation of religion!”14
How is it that when I issue a specific fatwā contradicting the prevailing opinion, I boast about reforming jurisprudence and accuse my detractors of being intolerant?15 But then when someone else does the exact same as me, he is accused of “manipulating religion” and attempting to dismantle it completely? The only reason for this is rivalry between affiliations and currents of thought; this is the problem today!
As for us, we defend the right of these two scholars together in their ijtihād. We do not say “this is a preposterous ijithād and this is a legitimate one,” insofar as both these ijtihāds provide their respective intellectual arguments; it is immaterial whether we accept these justifications or refute them.
Indeed, how many a juridical opinion raised in the last few years appeared ludicrous to some at first, then became popular and was later adopted by some jurists! Consider al-Sayyid (…) who famously ridiculed an edict issued by another marja’ regarding the permissibility of female masturbation in his religious classes over a decade ago. This same Sayyid today now allows that one should ejaculate while fantasizing about his wife, so long as he does not manipulate his genitals.16
With this new fatwā of his, he has made a small rift in the fabric of the majority juridical opinion, and we do not fault him for it; but just as those who have a differing opinion are not entitled to ridicule this fatwa, he should not have mocked that fatwa earlier. So long as one offers a methodology in understanding the religious texts and attempts to ascertain the truth through academic discussion, we cannot employ such a double standard.
But why is it that we have replaced critiquing ideas with disparaging personalities?
One of the main reasons is that our societies are still engaged in emulation (al-taqlīd) and their minds still revolve within the confines of this mindset, even when we speak beyond the parameters of religion.17 Therefore, you will find that when our societies debate with you, they will retort: “Such-and-such jurisconsult said…” and “Such-and-such scholar believes…,” instead of saying: “God and the Holy Prophet (saw) have said…”
Instead of bringing you evidence, he will bring you the words of a scholar whose words do not constitute evidence but are rather just his opinion about the issue in question. As an Islāmic community, we are inclined more towards “thinkers” than we are to “ideas” themselves. Hence, each one of us employs against his adversaries this rhetoric of dismantling his figureheads—because our affinity is towards personalities rather than the thoughts. In my view, this is the fundamental reason for this quagmire.
Of course, this goes without mentioning the moral vices which also perpetuate this conflict, such as envy (and what a big contributor that is!).
But what is the solution?
The solution can only be through creating an ethical, conscientious, and cultural revolution aimed at truly opening the gate of ijtihād—a revolution in every sense of the word.
This revolution should be based on real principles, not counterfeit ones that allow me to fabricate when it suits me, while forbidding it onto others. Principles that are far exalted over trivialities and intellectual impasses; principles whereby morals have intrinsic value, not just the ends which they achieve; principles that govern stratagems, not stratagems that govern principles.
I am not someone averse to exceptions, however I do not accept many exceptions when it comes to morality and ethics. We are in dire need for a socio-ethical revolution that recalibrates our mindset based on a renewed paradigm of our interpersonal relationships. This should start with the generation of children and the youth, because the older generations are hardly capable of rehabilitation at this point.
The solution also lies in students of pluralism and tolerance standing up for what they believe and condone; for what has increased this ummah’s deplorability is that the students of tolerance are practically sometimes even more close-minded than their counterparts. When we present ideas and truly act upon what we have endorsed, we will have laid the first real racetracks towards building a successful religious experience, God-willing.
As God has stated in the Holy Qur’ān,
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آَمَنُوا لِمَ تَقُولُونَ مَا لَا تَفْعَلُونَ كَبُرَ مَقْتًا عِنْدَ اللَّهِ أَنْ تَقُولُوا مَا لَا تَفْعَلُونَ
“Oh you who believe, why do you say that which you do not do? It is indeed despicable in the sight of Allāh that you say what you do not do.” (Sūrah al-Ṣaff, verses 2-3).
Sayyid Burair Abbas is a SAP consultant by profession & an independent reader & researcher in Islamic studies with a particular focus in Shi’i tradition. His areas of interest are in both ‘Aqliyāt and Naqliyāt which primarily pertain to “Practicality of Religion”, relevant to contemporary issues.
- Please find the original Q&A in Arabic here: tinyurl.com/34k3kazn
- Some simple examples are the claims made by some Sunnī polemicists that the Shī’ah believe Imām ‘Alī is better than the Holy Prophet (saw) or that the Shī’ah believe the Qur’ān is distorted (muḥarraf). Within Shī’ah circles, one may cite how al-Sayyid Kamāl al-Ḥaydarī was demonized by some, who falsely claimed that he did not believe in the birth of the Twelfth Imām (as). Al-Ḥaydarī himself strongly repudiated this mischaracterization.
- As an example, there are some belligerent personalities within the Shī’ah community, such as Yāsir al-Ḥabīb, who accuse those who abstain from cursing certain personalities as “al-Batriyyah,” originally a denomination of Zaydīs who combined allegiance of the Shī’ah Imāms with that of the first three caliphs. These labels are deliberate attempts to “otherize” members of the Twelver Shī’ah community.
- Within the Shī’ah community, we may cite the claim made by some that the Shirāzīs are agents of Western governments or that there is an orchestrated conspiracy from them to destroy the religion from within.
- This trend has now spread within English-speaking circles as well, with several English pulpiteers recently falling under fire. While several cults of personalities have rightfully been demolished, a sense of social disillusionment and mistrust has come to pervade the religious milieu, even for the hard-working and sincere speakers.
- Recently, a famous khaṭīb named ‘Abdul Ḥamīd al-Muhājir accused Sayyid al-Khoeī (rh) of being a deviant and “unworthy of religious emulation,” because he misconstrued the opinion of Sayyid al-Khoeī (rh) about the meaning of the word “nāṣibī” in one of his jurisprudential discussions. In essence, this was nothing but a veiled attempt to attack the students of Sayyid al-Khoeī, who include many of the prominent marāji’ of today.
- An example of such an individual is Shaykh ‘Abd al-Ḥalīm al-Ghizzī, who owns his own Shī’ah satellite channel out of London. He has attacked and lambasted several of the marāji’ in a very demeaning manner. He has also engaged in a highly nonsensical tirade against Shī’ah ‘ilm al-rijāl; by attacking this edifice, it appears al-Ghizzī aims to undermine many of its prominent forerunners, such as Sayyid al-Khū’ī.
- Many of those loyal to the Iranian government take issue with the Shirāzīs given their harsh opposition to the political system of Wilāyah al-Faqīh. Unfortunately, they use this pretext to completely delegitimize their scholarly standing and claim that they are not real scholars. This is extremely disunifying, as there are millions of Shī’ah, especially in Iraq, who do taqlīd of the Shirāzīs.
- This is a famous theory within theoretical mysticism (al-‘irfān al-naẓarī), first exposited by ibn ‘Arabī and expanded by Shī’ah mystics, including the famous Ṣadr al-Dīn al-Shirāzī (1050 AH).
- It appears the reference here is to al-Sayyid Muḥammad al-Shirāzī, who passed away in 2001 CE and was quite critical of the Iranian government.
- Grand Āyatullāh Hussein-Ali Montazeri (d. 2009 CE) was originally designated the successor to Imām Khomeinī, however he later became one of the major critics against the Iranian government as it pertained to human rights violations.
- Aḥmad al-Kātib is a controversial Iraqi journalist who currently lives in London; in his most contentious work, he has criticized the belief in Imām al-Mahdī (as) as well as the political system of Wilāyat al-Faqīh. While his work is highly flawed, this does not mean he should be misrepresented or demeaned.
- Āyatullāh Asadollāh Bayāt al-Zanjānī was among the supporters of the Iranian Green Movement and often has taken a critical political stance against the Iranian government. Most recently, he criticized the Morality Police responsible for the death of Mahsa Amini.
- The reference here is to Āyatullāh Nāṣir Makārim al-Shirāzī, who famously said in response to this fatwā that “one should not play with the religious practice of the people.”
- Nāṣir Makārim himself has issued many edicts wherein he went against the majority scholarly opinion. An example is his fatwā that those living in northern countries that have long days like twenty-two hours, for example, may equilibrate their fasting duration to the average hours of fasting in Middle Eastern countries, which is about fifteen or sixteen hours. Therefore, they can break their fast before sunset there.
- Sayyid Muḥammad Ḥusayn Faḍlallāh was highly criticized when he issued an edict permitting female masturbation under extenuating circumstances. He did this under the rationale that women do not emit seminal discharge, and therefore this cannot truly be deemed “al-istimnā” (the emission of seminal discharge). He received a stark critique from Sayyid Ṣādiq al-Roḥānī regarding this point, however the latter himself issued a fatwā regarding masturbation where he went against the grain, as Shaykh Ḥubbullāh notes here (reference: http://www.rohani.ir/ar/idetail/4586/-p-style–text-align–justify—–span-style——). The argument being made is that if Roḥānī’s right to issue such a fatwā is respected, why is Faḍlallāh not offered the same right to issue a fatwā where he goes against the majority opinion?
- Blind emulation particularly of religious groups is the major reason why we witness rise in disparagment & cancel culture among Muslims.
There are two crucial factors which has led to this consequence:-
1. This trend of blind emulation of scholars, norms, culture, traditions is likened to what Qur’ān says about the disbelievers(following their ancestors blindly & not pay heed to Allah’s guidance),
وَإِذَا قِيلَ لَهُمُ ٱتَّبِعُوا۟ مَآ أَنزَلَ ٱللَّهُ قَالُوا۟ بَلْ نَتَّبِعُ مَا وَجَدْنَا عَلَيْهِ ءَابَآءَنَآۚ
And when it is said to them, “Follow what Allah has revealed,” they say, “Rather, we will follow that upon which we found our fathers.”]
Obviously, we witness how we try to resolve everything via religion and that too based on a view of a scholar even if the theme of the mawḍu is subjective or the issues are non-religious and we’re bestowed intellect and knowledge to discern them. For example- to seek a fatwa of a marja’ on COVID vaccines when we know this is a personal health issue & a marja’ doesn’t have medical expertise nor this is a religious matter. But we insist on trying to resolve our issues with scholarly views only. This has led to convolution of religion and if we don’t agree with it, we start putting labels on people even though Qur’ān has emphasized on tafakkur(reflect) and tadabbur(contemplate).
Like Qur’ān states, أفلا تعقلون (Don’t you apply reason?).
2. Each group claims that they’re on Haq & others are on Bāṭil which leads to denial of rights to dissent or having differing views and this absolute truth mentality is discarded by Allah.
The Qur’ān using the Jews and Christians as misdāq states,
[وَقَالَتِ ٱلْيَهُودُ لَيْسَتِ ٱلنَّصَٰرَىٰ عَلَىٰ شَىْءٍ وَقَالَتِ ٱلنَّصَٰرَىٰ لَيْسَتِ ٱلْيَهُودُ عَلَىٰ شَىْءٍ وَهُمْ يَتْلُونَ ٱلْكِتَٰبَۗ كَذَٰلِكَ قَالَ ٱلَّذِينَ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ مِثْلَ قَوْلِهِمْۚ فَٱللَّهُ يَحْكُمُ بَيْنَهُمْ يَوْمَ ٱلْقِيَٰمَةِ فِيمَا كَانُوا۟ فِيهِ يَخْتَلِفُونَ
The Jews say, “The Christians have nothing [true] to stand on,” and the Christians say, “The Jews have nothing to stand on,” although they [both] recite the Scripture. Thus do those who know not [i.e., the polytheists] speak the same as their words. But Allah will judge between them on the Day of Resurrection concerning that over which they used to differ].
One beautiful example of how we can live by respecting each other and praying for them despite having varying opinions is what Ibn al-Wazīr mentioned in Tarjīḥ asālīb al-Qurʾān whose concise narrative can be read here: https://t.co/H9bBYMEtx3