Mellanöstern och Nordafrika Tidningen
Published On: Wed, Sep 7th, 2016

Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, Not Muslim

Religion can be many things, but it gets really ugly when one group insists that another group is not of the same religion. Historically, Islam (like Christianity, Judaism and just about any major religious tradition) has had many variants. Some of these have been labeled heresies, either ruthlessly oppressed or loosely tolerated. Many Christians argue that Mormons in the United States are a heresy, a sect made up by a New Yorker named Joseph Smith in the early 19th century. Many Muslims view the Ahmadi and Baha’i sects as heretical, often persecuting their members.


In the rhetorical war now raging between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia has stated, actually re-stated, that Iranian shi’a are not Muslims. This is not that they are “bad” Muslims nor “backslidden” Muslims, but rather than they are not Muslim at all. The fact that Iran has some of the most beautiful mosques in the World, that Persian Muslim scholars were among the most prominent in the history of Islamic civilization, that the only real difference is in how the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad are viewed: these mean nothing to the Grand Mufti, who represents an intolerant Wahhabi Salafi view that only their relatively recent sect is the true Muslim community.

Dividing the Muslim world into sunni and shi’a, as though someone must be either one or the other, is part of the problem. It is like saying Christians are either Catholic or Protestant, when there are many other groups historically and existing today. The term “sunni” evolved for several so-called “orthodox” Islamic legal schools; they were orthodox because they were politically successful. The term “shi’a” is often used by some sunnis to describe anyone they do not consider as sunni or at least not sunni enough. The basis for being shi’a is belief that the spiritual leader should come from the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, but there are several different sects. The Zaydis in Yemen are “fivers” because they trace their way of thinking back to the fifth descendant of Muhammad; the Ismailis are “seveners” and the Iranian are “twelvers.” There is also the Ibadi, who are mainly in Oman and have been there for centuries.

I grew up in a Fundamentalist Baptist church in Ohio, where I was told that Catholics were not true Christians because they were not “Bible believers” or “Born Again” and thus were bound for hell along with all the other heathen. Absurd as this kind of thinking is, it did not result in any real damage. Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Orthodox, Baptists and whoever all had their own churches to go to and preach whatever they wanted to. Most people probably forgot what the sermon said on Monday morning. But what the Saudi cleric is doing is something far more dangerous. Damning some 78 million Muslims in Iran to Muslim hell goes beyond rhetorical flair. It justifies a political quagmire in which thousands of Yemenis have been killed, many more on all sides harmed in Syria and Iraq and the shi’a population of Saudi Arabia discriminated against.

Such intolerance is insidious because it has unleashed a wave of terrorism that has enveloped the Middle East like a plague. ISIS did not arise by spontaneous combustion (nor was it begun by Obama and Hillary Clinton as Donald Trump suggests), but due to the intolerant views spread far beyond Arabia by the affluent Saudi regime. The only real difference between ISIS and the more military Wahhabis is who the target is. The Wahhabi slaughter of over 5,000 shi’a Muslims in Kerbala in 1802 is on par with those killed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The killing of at least 10,000 Yemeni Muslims in the Saudi-led bombing campaign only adds to the total.

In the real world, not the rhetorical nightmare that the media thrives on, there are good Muslims and there are bad Muslims because there are good people and bad people. There are indeed plenty of non-Muslims, but the shi’a are as Muslim as anyone else.

About the Author

- Anthropologist and historian with 40 years of experience researching and working in Yemen. Varisco is currently the President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, Senior Fellow at the Annemarie Schimmel Kolleg of Bonn University, and an expert advisor to MENA Tidningen.

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