Shia Islam, Dearborn, and Reinhold Niebuhr -by Sel Harris



In his book, “SHIISM: A RELIGION OF PROTEST,” Columbia University Professor Dr. Hamid Dabashi, makes the following observation.

He argues that the spirit and ethos of Shia Islam is, at times, one of PROTEST. Beginning with Imam Ali (AS), Dabashi argues that Shia Muslims have always protested against injustice and exploitation. Shia Muslims have stood by anyone who has not been treated as a “creature of God.” Shia Muslims understand well what it means to be a “viceregent of God” on earth!

I delight in the reality that a vibrant, faithful, and progressive group of Americans who are Shia Muslims are in the USA. I am glad that in Dearborn, Michigan, our Shia Muslim sisters and brothers are taking their rightful place in the arena of the American Religious Scene.

I want to tell them that their tradition as Shia Muslims is a perfect fit in the American Religious Family.

Allow me to introduce you to one of your kindred spirits is the American tradition of Protest . His name was Reinhold Niebuhr and he served a church in Detroit, Michigan!


Reinhold Niebuhr and his brother H Richard Niebuhr were, undoubtedly, the most famous Amercan pastors/theologians ever. Reinhold Niebuhr taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York (1928-1960) and H Richard at Yale Dvinity School for about the same time period. Both taught and wrote in the field of Social Ethics.


Before Reinhold went to teach in New York, he served a small working class congregation in Detroit from 1915-1928. His time in Detroit greatly informed the wonderful books he would eventually write. His ministry for the poor, the exploited, and the sick would catch the attention of both the nation and the world. Niebuhr’s criticism of “big business” would get him into trouble with Henry Ford.
Niebuhr organized “workers’ organizations” that advocated on the behalf of autoworkers such things as sick pay, family leave, fair wage, and a shorter work day. He reached out to all in Detroit who had needs. In a word, Niebuhr performed a “ministry of protest!” In many ways, my Amercan Shia brothers and sisters, Niebuhr did what you have all done so well.

His ministry did not stay confined in Detroit. He saw the oppression of African Americans in the South. He spoke and reached out to them. His ministry and reputation became well known in both the nation and the world. Americans from Dr. Martin Luther King to President Barack Obama have been inspired and influenced by him. Niebuhr brought the spirit of Prophecy to the American religious scene. That spirit now belongs as well to the Shia Muslim community in Dearborn.

Niebuhr’s parents were born in Germany and immigrated to the United States in the late 1800s. Reinhold visited his relatives in Germany often while he served the Church in Detroit. He wrote of the tertible way Germans were treated after World War I. He preficted that another conflict would soon emerge in Europe. He was correct!

My Shia Muslim sisters and brothers might be interested to know that Reinhold, holding German hetitage, was on a government watchlist during World War II. He was an American citizen. Niebuhr would be appalled today if he were still alive and heard all of Donald Trump’s terrible rhetoric about patrolling Muslim neighborhoods. He would stand with you, feel your pain, because he too experienced what you have exoerienced.

His first book was called “MORAL MAN AND IMMORAL SOCIETY” was published in 1932 and is a personal favorite of mine. A timeless book and word to all American Religious Communities. I hope my Shia sisters and brothers will read this book. As a retired American Presbyterisn Pastor, I can tell you that this book is the best book I have ever read. It has influenced me in the Interfaith work I perform with Muslims.


His thesis is simple. He argued that you cannot expect groups (churches) to be involved in the ministry of protest as these groups should. The reasons being that groups want to preserve power, prestige, and influence. He stated that we need individual “prophetic figures” ( like Ali) to inspire those groups to act in the name of God — for ALL OF GOD’S PEOPLE!!

Many all over the world have been inspired by these words — and these words have made a difference.

I hope my Shia friends in Dearborn will get to know Reinhold. Were he living, he would want to get to know you. He would embrace you, your tradition, and your spirit! He would welcome you and let you know that he is glad that you are here.

I join him in welcoming you. I rejoice! You are wanted and you are here because God wants you here!

There is so much that you, as Americans and fellow immigrants, can contribute to American life. Your presence is making us a better nation!!!


Thank God for all of you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *