Earlier this month, a peaceful cleric of Shia Islam, the Arab ayatollah Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, was put unjustly to death by the odious extremist Saudi regime, for making the statement that the Shi’ites under their rule deserved the bare basics of human respect – and that if they didn’t get it from the government, then they should appeal to authorities elsewhere. But, contrary to the claims of the government which killed him, he never appealed to violence: he insisted that protesters use ‘the roar of the word’ rather than the blade of the sword. Naturally, the only way to deal with a troublemaker like Sheikh al-Nimr is to prove him right and to further his cause by making him a martyr, and that, the Saudis have accomplished with remarkable effectiveness.
The unjust shedding of the blood of the righteous ayatollah has led to something of a chill in Saudi-Iranian relations, naturally. But what is truly interesting about al-Nimr’s case is how it has highlighted the common plight of Christians and Shi’ite Muslims in the Middle East, particularly in areas and under regimes where the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam holds its strongest sway. It is this shared plight that has brought together Shia and Christian first in Iraq, then in Lebanon, then in Syria. But is this shared plight merely the basis of an alliance of convenience, as Lebanese Christian Rony Khoury, interviewed by the Christian Science Monitor, claims? Or is there some deeper and theological reason that Shia Muslims and Christians are making common cause throughout the Levant and the Fertile Crescent, and look set to do so even in repressive Saudi Arabia?
It certainly hasn’t always been the case, and it is never wise to look at the history of relations between Christianity and Islam without a good cold dose of realism. Both Sunni regimes and Shi’ite ones have historically repressed Christians – and these usually belonging to the Assyrian, Armenian or Georgian nations. Modern revolutionary Iran, though Armenian and Assyrian Christians are for the most part left to themselves and even guaranteed representation on the Majlis, still does not legally allow any ethnic Persian to become a Christian. But it does seem fair to say, in the same spirit of realism, that the Sunni regimes have always treated us more barbarically than the Shi’ite ones, and very often, the nation of Iran has been the sole convenient refuge for Christians facing worse repression elsewhere. I think it may be warranted to look at the philosophical, if not theological, reasons why Shia Islam is often closer to Christianity – and not just the political reason of the convenience of two minorities banding together against a violent and murderous majority.
From the first, in the Shia-Sunni split, there have been interesting parallels with Christendom amongst the followers of Ali. Martyrdom is treated very seriously by the Shi’ites on account of the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali at the Battle of Karbala, which, in particular, is of a Christian type. The seventy-two followers of Husayn, who were hopelessly outnumbered in the fight against an army of five thousand, behaved chivalrously, riding out one at a time to draw the fighting away from their main camp, in order to protect the women and children who were with them; Husayn himself did the same thing, and fought in personal combat against the armies of Yazid, and was killed. His body and those of his followers were mutilated outrageously. But in that battle, they laid down their lives for their friends in the same way many military saints of our Church have done. This is not to say, naturally, that the Islamic theology they held to, with its Arian presuppositions, is correct or justified, or that Husayn (or Sheikh al-Nimr) should be treated as a saint by Christians. Only, rather, that the Shia Muslims have for their own prominent spiritual model, a type which (whether consciously or not) recalls the self-sacrifice of Christ.
Shia Islam, particularly that of Iran, has been for understandable cultural reasons highly receptive to the ideals of righteous kingship and social justice that pervaded the convictions of the Zoroastrians who preceded them. Zoroaster, the pre-Islamic Persian prophet, was among the first prophets outside of Israel to proclaim a single God, transcendent, without form and not contingent upon history or culture; and thus also to proclaim truth, beauty and goodness as transcendent ideals, outside of historical or cultural constraints. He was also among the first of the world’s prophets to preach what was then, and apparently is again now, the radical social doctrine that it is not the absolute and untrammeled private right of the wealthy and the powerful to dominate the poor and the weak. He preached, indeed, that the treatment of the poor and weak, whether good or ill, would have eternal consequences, correspondingly good or ill. He preached a divine right of kings that is dependent on the righteous behaviour of the king, as measured by how he treats the least and most vulnerable in his kingdom. He held additionally that it is not wrong to overthrow an unjust ruler, a ruler without farr – a Persian word meaning the divine ‘glory’ that accrues to a just and compassionate king. Indeed, he was among the first people to hold that each person is responsible for her own actions (and only her own actions) in her own lifetime. He was also – remarkably for a man outside of Israel – among the first of the Gentiles to foresee a Saviour (saošiyaņs) of the world, born of a virgin, who would come at the end of time to judge the living and the dead.
The dual emphasis in Shia Islam on the need for a monarchical, hereditary succession to Muhammad, as well as on the ideal of just, courageous and compassionate leadership exhibited by Husayn ibn Ali, filled an intellectual and moral vacuum in post-Sasanian Persia, after the last of the Zoroastrian rulers had been overthrown. As journalist Stephen Kinzer notes briefly in his excellent book, All the Shah’s Men, Shi’ism was an organic answer to the latent and unfulfilled promises of social justice, of a ‘glorious’ kingship in the Zoroastrian sense: it was, in the words of Iranian social critic Jalal al-e-Ahmad, ‘an answer to the call of Mani and Mazdak three centuries earlier’. Another famous Iranian social critic, Dr. Ali Shariati, also wrote on these themes with his famous essay ‘Red Shi’ism versus Black Shi’ism’. Kinzer does wax somewhat romantic with regard to Shia Islam’s populist potentials and its model of justice favouring the poor and powerless; the ecstatic, self-sacrificing ethos of martyrdom in the tradition of Ali and his son Husayn; and the scholarly penchant of Shi’ism for preserving and re-appropriating pre-Islamic Iranian traditions. He is also keen to present these tendencies as key shapers of the Iranian reaction to the British colonial presence in the country, and to the subsequent reaction in Iran to Mohammed Mosaddegh’s clandestine removal from power in a CIA-backed coup.
This same dual emphasis – on righteous hereditary kingship and on martyrdom – therefore also gives Shia Islam some strong overlap with Christianity in the realm of ethics. We can identify particularly strongly with the ‘red Shi’ism’ of Dr. Ali Shariati, which the late Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr reflected so strongly in his own life and work. As is shown herein, there certainly is a creative foundation besides convenience on which the Shia-Christian friendship can stand, and on which further work in making the Middle East safe again for both minorities can be done.
Matthew Cooper is a graduate of Kalamazoo College in philosophy and of the University of Pittsburgh – GSPIA in development economics; and recently an English and Western history teacher in China. He is heavily influenced in his intellectual formation by the Russian religious philosophers Aleksey Khomyakov, Ivan Kireevsky, and Nikolai Berdyaev, as well as by idiosyncratic economists like Sergey Bulgakov and Fei Xiaotong, and social historians like Christopher Lasch and Wang Hui.