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Study of Shi'ism & the Orientalists

Adopted from the Book : "Shi'ism; Imamate and Wilayat" by : "Sayyid Muhammad Rizvi"

When the Egyptian writer, Muhammad Qutb, named his book as Islam; The Misunderstood Religion, he was politely experessing the Muslim sentiment about the way Orientalists have treated Islam and Muslims in general. The word "misunderstood" implies that at least a genuine attempt was made was made to understand Islam. However, a more blunt criticism of Orientalism, shared by the majority of Muslims. comes from Edward Said, "The hardest thing to get most acadamic experts on Islam to admit is what they say and do as scholars is set in a profoundly and in some ways an offensively political context. Everything about the study of Islam in the contemporary West is saturated with political importance, but hardly any writers on Islam, whether expert or general, admit the fact in what they say. Objectivity is assumed to inhere in learned discourse about other societies, despite the long history of political, moral, and religious concern felt in all societies, Western or Islamic, about the alien, the strange and different. In Europe, for example, the Orientalist has traditionally been affiliated directly with colonial offices."1

Instead of assuming that objectivity is inhere in learned discourse, Western scholarship has to realize that precommitment to a political or religious tradition, on a conscious or subconscious level, can lead to biased judgement. As Marshall Hudgson writes, "Bias comes especially in the questions he poses and in the type of category he uses, where indeed, bias is especially hard to track down because it is hard to suspect the very terms one uses, which seem so innocently neutral ..."2 The Muslim reaction to the image portrayed of them by Western scholarship is beginning to get its due attention. In 1979, the highly respected scholar trained in Western acadamia, Albert Hourani, said, "The voices of those from the Middle East and North Africa telling us that they do not recognize themselves in the image we have formed of them are too numerous and insistent to be explained in terms of acadamic rivaltry or national pride."3 This was about Islam and Muslims vis-a-vis the Orientalists.

When we focus on the study of Shi'ism by the Orientalists, the word misundertood" is not strong enough; rather it is an understatement. Not only is Shi'ism misunderstood, it has been ignored, miserepresnted and studied mostly through the hersiographic literature of their opponents. It seems as if the Shi'ism had no scholars and literature of their own. To borrow an expression from Marx, "they cannot represent themselves, they must be represented," and that also by their adversaries!
The reason for this state of affairs lies in the paths through which Westerm scholars entered the field of Islamic studies. Hodgson, in his excellent review of Western scholarhip, writes,

First, there were those who studied the Ottoman Empire, which played so major a role in modern Europe. They came to it usually in the first instance from the viewpoint of the European diplomatic history. Such scholars tended to see the whole of Istanbul, the Ottoman capital.

Second, there we those, normally British, who entered Islamic studies in India so as to master Persian as good civil servants, or at least they were inspired by Indian interest. For them, the imperial tenasition of Delhi tended to be the culmination of Islamicate history.

Third, there were the Semitists, often interested primarily in Hebrew studies, who were lured into Arabic. For them, headquarters tended to be Cairo, the most vital of Arabic-using cities in the nineteenth century, though some turned to Syria or the Magrib. They were commonly philologians rather then historians, and they leaned to see Islamcate culture through the eyes ofthe late Egyptian and Syrian Sunni writers most in vogue in Cairo. Other paths- that of the Spaniards and some Frenchmen who focused on the Muslims in Medieval Spain, that of the Russians who focused on the northern Mulims were generally less important.4

It is quite obvious that none of these path would have led Wastern scholars to the centres of Shi'a learning or leterature. The majority of what they studied about Shi'ism was channelled through the non Shi'i sources. Hudgson, wo deserves out highest praise for noticing this point, says, "All paths were at one in paying relatively little attention to the central areas of the Fertile Crescent and Iran, with their tendency towards Shi'ism; areas that tended to be most remote from western penetration."5 And After the First World War, "the Cairene path to Islamic studies became the Islamicist's path par excellence, while other paths to Islamic studies came to be looked on as of more local relevance."6

Therefore, whenever an Orientalist studied Shi'ism through Ottoman, Cairene or Indian paths, it was quite natural for him to be biased against Shi'a Islam. "The Muslim historians of doctrine [who are mostly Sunni] always tried to show that all other schools of thought other than their own were not only false but, if possible, less than truly Muslim. Their work described innumerable 'fiqahs' in terms which readily misled modern scholars into supposing they were refering to so many "heretical sects."7 And so we see that until Sunni'ism as "orthodox Islam" and Shi'ism as a heretical sect". After categorizing Shi'ism as a heretical sect of Islam, it became "innocently neutral" for Western scholars to absorb the Sunni scepticism concerning the early Shi'a literature. Even the concept of taqiyyah (dissimulation when one's life is in danger) was blown out of protection and it was assumed that every statement of a Shi'a scholar had a hidden meaning. And, consequently, whenever an Orientalist studied Shi'ism, his precommitment to Judeo-Christian tradition of the Wast was compounded with the Sunni bias against Shi'ism.

One of the best example of this compounded bias is found in the way the event of Ghadir Khumm was studied by the Orientalists, an issue that forms the main purpose of this paper.

1. Said, E, W, Covering Islam (New York; Pantheon Books, 1981) p.xvii.

2. Hodgson, M. G, S, the Venture of Islam, vol, I (Chicago; University of Chicago Press, 1974) p.27.

3. Hourani, A. "Islamic History, Middle Eastern History, Modern History," in Kerr, M,H (ed) Islamic Studies: A Tradition and its Problems (California: Undena Publications, 1979) p.10.

4. Hodgson, op.cit, p.39-40.

5. Ibid

6. Ibid

7. Hodgson, op.cit. p.66-67.

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