The Two Different Approaches to Living with Sunnis

The following is a translation of a message written by renowned Iranian researcher and scholar Rasūl Ja’fariyān.

Syed Ni’matullah Jazā’irī (d. 1112 AH) in his commentary on ‘Awāli al-La’ālī, for the reason that the author of this book was inclined to Philosophy and Wisdom, brings up a very interesting discussion. The subject of this discussion gradually focuses on Shaykh Bahā’ī’s (d. 1030 AH) opinion on different topics, and perhaps out of all of the topics mentioned the most important one was the difference in perspective and behaviour he had with Shaykh Karakī (d. 940 AH). In my opinion, this is a discussion that has to be read. Syed Jazā’irī starts by praising the author Ibn Abī Jumhūr Ahsāī (alive in 904 AH) – author of ‘Awāli al-La’ālī – and says:

The fact that he had a perfect understanding in the sciences of Philosophy and Sufism does not show a flaw in his character or level of knowledge. This is because most of the earlier scholars that preceded us tended to be well versed with respect to these two sciences, just how they would be familiar with astrology and mathematics. This requires no explanation. Of course, it can’t be said that their research and knowledge in these sciences necessitated that they believed in it, but rather it was strictly to familiarise themselves with the sciences and to get information of those schools which were based on it.

After this he says, one of the descendants of our teacher Shahīd Thānī said to me: In the life of Shahīd Thānī people used to accuse him of being a Sunni because he used to live in Baalbek and other Sunni towns. During the day he would read about the four different Sunni schools and night he would teach based on the Imāmi school. His understanding of the four Sunni schools, their jurisprudence and books of Hadīth was to such an extent that he understood it better than the Sunnis themselves. Like Shahīd Thānī is the case of Ibn Maytham Bahrāni who in his research work on Philosophy titled Fī Tahqīq Hikma al-Falāsafa and other works, is evidently higher in status than Plato, Aristotle and the other Peripatetic Philosophers. Whoever reads his commentary on Nahj al-Balāgha will find these words there. As for the (philosophical) interpretations he has brought in that work and are not in accordance with the language of Sharī’ah, it appears that these are mere citations of the opinions of the philosophers, Sufis and proponents of their views, not that he himself believed in these far-fetched interpretations.

As for Shaykh Bahā’ī, some people had accused him of being a Sufī. Sometimes they would speak about how he would listen to music (ghinā), others would speak about him socialising with different sects within Islam, cultures, and even with atheists and those who believed in false things. (These were a number of issues people would attribute to Shaykh Bahā’ī and Syed Jazā’irī wants to respond to these). He says in response to the accusation of him being a Sunni: At the time when I entered Basra, the most knowledgeable scholar of the people was a person called Shaykh ‘Umar. I had a conversation with him till we started to speak about Shaykh Bahā’ī. He said: “You think that he is an Imāmī, not at all, I swear by God he is a Sunni! He is only doing taqiyya from the ruler of the time.” When I heard this I explained Shaykh Bahā’ī’s school and that he was indeed an Imāmī. When he heard this he became dumbfounded and started to doubt his own school, to the extent that he said he had internally left it [and become Imāmī].

Some of my most reliable teachers in Isfahān narrated to me that a number of atheist scholars who wanted to have a discussion with people of religion during the time of Shah Abbās I came to Isfahān. Shah Abbās sent those scholars to go and see Shaykh Bahā’ī and they came to him whilst he was busy teaching. They informed him of what they had come for and at that moment Shaykh Bahā’ī started explaining the beliefs of the atheistic school and the refutations of their claims. After the session had finished the atheists kissed the ground and said: “This Shaykh is our teacher and his religion is ours. We now follow him”. They then did some research and found out that Shaykh Bahā’ī was a Muslim and subsequently they officially became Muslim.

It is clear to see that had Shaykh Bahā’ī spoken to them in a dogmatic and polemical fashion they would never have abandoned their falsehood. This is a subtle method in discussions that the Prophets and Imāms would employ with those who opposed them and were stubbornly attached to their falsehood. This method has been emphasised in the Qur’ān in the verse “and argue with them in the most kindly manner1, similarly the Prophet says [in an open-minded manner to facilitate discussion] Then either we or you are rightly guided or clearly lost”2 and similarly in the Chapter of Kāfirūn it says “And I shall not worship that which ye worship3. For those who have read Ihtijāj of al-Tabarasī it is clear to see that this [method of leniency] is the correct method to bring an opponent to the religion.

Jazā’irī says: A person who I consider reliable and trustworthy told me: Some of the Shi’ī scholars who resided in Mecca sent a letter to the preachers and orators (ahl mehrāb wa minbar) of Isfahān saying: You curse their leaders in Isfahān and us living in the Haramayn are being punished because of it. Here Syed Jazā’irī begins to describe the different practical approaches taken by Shaykh Bahā’ī and Shaykh Karakī. The approach adopted by Shaykh Karakī4 caused the fitna [between the Sunni and Shi’ī leaders] to increase whereas Shaykh Bahā’ī, having seen this approach previously [and it’s repercussions], strove to take a different approach that wouldn’t cause any fitna.

Jazā’irī says: Similarly our teacher, Shaykh Karakī, whenever he would enter Isfahān and Qazvīn during the time of the just ruler Shāh Tahmasb, the Shāh would offer to pass him the reigns of rulership and governance. The Shāh would say to him: You are more worthy of this dominion than I am. This is because you are the representative of the Imām and I am from amongst your workers. I shall abide by your commands and prohibitions. I [Jazā’irī] saw letters and rulings from Shaykh Karakī that he would send to scholars all across the land commanding them to abide by the law of justice, how to deal with workers and the manner to correctly take tax. Within this there was also a command that all non-Shi’ī (mukhalifīn) were to be exiled so that the believers would not be misguided. He gave the order that in every town an Imāmi scholar from Jabal Amel should be present to lead prayers and teach Islamic law.

The Shāh wrote letters to his subordinates to inform them of Shaykh Karakī’s commands and made it clear that Karakī had the final say in these commands and prohibitions. Additionally, Karakī never travelled around [to different towns to see how people were doing]. The only time he would travel was when he would accompany the Sabāb5 and he would openly curse the two Caliphs and those who followed them. When the rulers who opposed this became aware of what this group was doing [a cycle of violence would ensue where] people would get killed [in retaliation], wealth would be plundered and fitna would increase. This was at a time when Shaykh Bahā’ī witnessed these events and had good relations with the heads of other faiths, for this reason he feared [what would happen] with an increase in fitna.

Manuscript of Jazā’irī’s commentary on ‘Awāli al-La’ālī.

Here Jazā’irī mentions the practice of Syed Murtadhā in dealing with non-Shi’ī and people of different faiths: As for our respected Syed Murtadhā, he was inclined to having dialogue with people of different faiths, and in his poetry he would praise people [of different faiths] due to the knowledge that they had. One person particularly who he praised was Ishāq Sābī who would attend his gatherings and accompany him in travels. When Ishāq died he composed poetry in his remembrance which I believe he didn’t even do for the death of his own brother Syed Radhī. It is narrated that when he would pass Ishāq’s grave while mounted [on a horse] he would come down and then after he had passed the grave he would remount again. When asked for the reason for this he replied: I came down out of respect of his great position and the levels of perfection he had, and not for the school of thought he followed.


  1. Qur’ān, 16:125
  2. Qur’ān, 34:24
  3. Qur’ān, 109:4
  4. Muḥaqqiq Karakī in one sense of the meaning was an early instance of what is considered a Walī Faqīh. Due to his political and religious positions, he played a significant role in popularizing the culture of public cursing in Safavid Iran and had written a book called Nafaḥāt al-Lāhūt fī La’n al-Jibt wa al-Ṭāghūt in which he attempts to prove the disbelief of the first three caliphs and even addresses the personality of ‘Āyesha at the end.
  5. These were a group of Safavid propagandists and thugs whose main role was to roam the streets praising Imām Alī and cursing Caliphs Abu Bakr and Umar. They were mainly seen gathered around scholars and statesmen. At times they would also kill people who did not join them in their actions of cursing and insulting. They were also known as the Tabarriyān. Their presence amongst the people caused significant controversy and for a number of years they were given free reign to cause havoc across Sunni populated lands within Safavid Iran. Rasūl Ja’fariyān has discussed them extensively in his numerous works on the Safavids.

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