In his seminal book, Shi’i Islam: A Religion of Protest, Columbia University Professor, Dr Hamid Dabashi makes the central point:
“…That it (i.e. Shia Islam) is morally triumphant when it is politically defiant, and that it morally fails when it politically succeeds…”(p vxi)
Dr. Dabashi goes on to argue that Shia Islam, historically, has been at its best when it has not been “politically successful.” He argues that Imam Ali (AS) was the first example of such faithful behavior. One can argue that historically, Shia Muslims have always sought to be champions of the dispossessed, the downtrodden, and the forgotten.
In my humble opinion, Dabashi’s important thesis could be applied to any Religious group in history, which finds itself moving from a religious group, which begins in a state of “powerlessness” and then becomes the dominant force in the land.
Consider Western Christianity, or “Christendom,” which in many ways has fostered a global culture of imperialism, colonialism, exploitation, and inequality that so often follows in the wake of Western Civilization.
So how did this manifest in Christianity, which began as a small religious cult on the Eastern edge of the Mediterranean and has morphed into a dominance that is often destructive as its byproducts include slavery, economic inequality, and exploitation of the world’s resources and people?
Our story begins in 33 AD, when the Jewish sect of “the Way” became the global religion of Christianity.
I am a Historian of Religions and a retired Presbyterian clergy-person. Many scholars consider “primitive Christianity” to be different until the “great event” of the year 313 AD (I will come to that shortly). I refer to the first three centuries as the era of “Pristine Christianity.” In many ways, the faith was similar to that of Islam and specifically, Shia Islam. The “Pristine Christianity” was in many ways freer than it was now. The question is often asked, “did the Bible create the Church or did the Church create the Bible?” I believe the latter, as we shall see shortly. The Romans persecuted this “Early Church”. The Roman Emperor Nero intentionally burned the city of Rome in 55 AD and blamed the Christians. The early “church” did not have buildings choosing instead to meet in “houses.” Each “church house had 25 – 35 people and functioned like many current Sufi Muslim tariqas. They ate together, lived together, and shared all that they had in common – including their wealth. At the common meal, each brought a dish and shared. Around the table, there was no difference between rich and poor. All were equal. They fed the hungry, healed the sick, and housed the homeless.There was a great epidemic in 251 AD in Roman North Africa, which claimed more than half the population’s death. Christians from all over the Roman Empire came to North Africa to care for the sick causing the death of many of the Christian population.
Their beliefs were simple. There was no doctrine, Bible, or dogma. They believed in the “Radical Monotheism” of God (Greek equivalent to Tawhid), the Last Day, the Resurrection, and the “uniqueness of Jesus (although they were not sure what that meant). In those days, there was not an “institutional church” and belief was more “heterodox” than “orthodox.” Christians were Greek speaking, Latin speaking, Coptic speaking, and Syriac speaking. They were Gnostics (mystics) and “spiritualists.” Life was good. To be a follower of God meant something.
And then the great collapse arrived…
The year is 313 AD and Constantine is the Roman Emperor. The Roman Empire is crumbling. The Barbarians were coming in on all sides and Constantine needed UNITY of EMPIRE. What Constantine needed was a Church and a Unified Christianity.
At about that time, Constantine had a vision in which he sought baptism. By Imperial decree, Constantine made Christianity, at first, a tolerated religious sect and finally an “Imperial Church.” And there we have it – Christendom — and, the beginning of Western Civilization! Constantine took the church from the people and made it HIS Imperial Church. To do this, he needed priests, bishops, and Church buildings. All of these institutions were answerable not to God, rather to Caesar Augustus. About 400 years on, the Byzantine Roman Emperor Justinian the Great would discover the “Silk Road” which would lead all the way to China! What we had were the beginnings of “Imperial Capitalism” that was controlled by the Empire.
To consolidate Imperial Authority, Constantine convened Church Councils which, among other things, decided what books would be in the Bible and which books would be considered heretical. Other questionable doctrines such as Trinity, Divinity of Jesus, Original Sin and “salvation by the Church, not be God, were made mandatory belief by – you guessed it – the Emperor. In early Islamic History, the Prophet Muhammad expresses concern about some of the “beliefs” the “People of the Book” had. And the Prophet Muhammad was quite correct in his concern.
As a note of history, the Old Testament Hebrew text is something called the “Masoretic text” and is only as old as 1100 AD. The oldest complete New Testament (Greek) text is called “Codex Sinaiticus” and only goes back to the 5th century AD. Once can see endless examples of redaction (editing) and order which means that unlike the Holy Qur’an) the Old and New Testaments that we now have went through many different versions and editing. The Qur’an, on the other hand, came from the mouth of the Prophet Muhammad and bears the literary marks of the “Word of Allah” that Muslims claim it to be. And while modern day Islamic society are by no means perfect, Muslims are correct in their belief. Even comparing Eastern rite of Christianity to Western Christianity will show Eastern Christianity is closer to Islam in this regard.
In the West, the endless Church Councils have produced witch-hunts, wars, crusades, slavery, income inequality, and other such “irreligious” horrors. Many argue that such doctrine contributed to such ideologies as Nazism and anti Semitism.
In the year 1492, the Church of Western Civilization was “born.” The year 1492 was the year that Columbus “discovered” (or more appropriately, stumbled upon) the New World. It was also a sad year for Muslims for this was the year that Muslim Spain was destroyed. The Church of Western Civilization wrongly interpreted this event as a “mandate” from God to control the whole world – forever! The Church sent out missionaries, diplomats, and armies into the entire world – to subjugate, and to “colonize” the world. This began with the Christian annihilation of the Native American population in the New World as well as the theft of human chattel from West Africa, which created the “Capitalist” reality of the commodity of human slavery!
Now how in the world can a “religion from God” justify this?!
It comes from an “intentional misinterpretation of Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:15-22. Jesus is asked if it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. He asks for a coin, a Roman coin, and asks whose image is on the coin? Of course, it is Caesar’s. Jesus then tells them that they are to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and the things that are God’s to God.”
What this “misinterpretation” lead to was a false Christian belief in “the Two Kingdoms” which suggests that we live in two Kingdoms which means we have two different systems of ethical behavior. One Kingdom is God’s kingdom. We behave one way. The other is “the Kingdom of the World” which means that people can do whatever they want. Jesus NEVER said or meant this. When Jesus asks whose image is on the coin, what they know he is also saying is “…. And what image is on you?” Of course the answer is “God’s Image” which means loyalty to God trumps everything else. Such a false belief has lead Western Civilization into such practices as usury, predatory capitalism, and human exploitation. THIS IS WRONG!
Individualism vs Community
It has lead to a ridiculous belief in “individualism over community.” Most citizens of Western Civilization will tell you that they are Libertarians, which means that they do whatever they want as “individuals”, and bear no social responsibility whatsoever. This belief is not what Jesus meant and it is certainly not Islamic. Both Shia and Sunni Hadith demonstrate that command that a Muslim bears responsibility to Allah first and the Umma secondly.
The Holy Qur’an teaches (2:30) that Allah creates humanity as the “Vicegerents of Allah.” What this means is that people – both individual and community – are to act towards one another as God would act. Western Civilization and Western Christianity have missed the boat on this one. In fact, in the economic sphere, German Sociologist Max Weber states that Protestant Christianity gave rise to Capitalism to advance the cause of Western Civilization.
I close with a quote from German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Nietzsche may be said to be the “great critic of Western Civilization.” In fact, I believe that he predicted its downfall. Nietzsche said that “…. Western Civilization has given the world two evils: Alcoholism and Christianity…” Nietzsche also famously said that “Gods dead.” He did not mean that he was an atheist. Rather, the son of a Lutheran minister, he saw that the German Church was “hurting God.” And he was right.
Nietzsche’s last work before his death was entitled “The Anti-Christ.” The work should be more appropriately titled the “Anti Christianity.” In it, he gives a scathing indictment against Western Christianity and the horrors that it has caused the world.
I want to leave you with a direct quote at the tail end of the book. What I quote will shock most Westerners. I believe that Muslims will agree with what he says:
“…Christianity destroyed for us the whole harvest of ancient civilization, and later it also destroyed for us the whole harvest of Muslim civilization. The wonderful culture of the Moors in Spain, which was fundamentally nearer to us and appealed more to our senses and tastes than that of Rome and Greece, was trampled down………The Christian Crusaders later made war on something before which it would have been more fitting to us . . . . .. The Germans have destroyed for Europe the last great civilization, the Renaissance…With this, I come to a conclusion…I condemn Christianity…”
As a Christian, I think that Nietzsche is spot on correct! Dear Shia sisters and brothers please do not forget your history. Remember, Dr. Dabashi’s words, retain your moral fiber. Remember that God has called you to protest and to be the advocate for all those who are denied his gifts!