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An Upside-Down History of the World [Japanese]
[Chapter 3] The Origins of Monotheism

Part 1: A Human Hypothesis
31 The Imam and the Sunni-Shia Conflict

For religions that rely on sacred texts, the right to interpret is a serious issue.

The arrival of Shia Islam ushered in the greatest ideological split the Muslim world had ever seen. Shiites were now the new minority, leaving behind the predominant Sunnis, who saw themselves as mainstream traditionalists.

Shiites, of course, disagreed. They believed Muawiyah of the Umayyad Caliphate had by force seized control of what was rightfully theirs—a legitimate caliphate system, which had survived for four generations. He, from their perspective, was by no means the legitimate caliph.

And for the Shiites, there was another problem. Not only was Hasan, the son of Ali, dead, but Hasan’s brother and successor, Al-Husayn, had been murdered along with the rest of the family in the Battle of Karbala. The Shiites were left with the Umayyad Caliphate, a dynasty they saw as illegitimate. Who would be their legitimate leader?

The Shiites’ solution was the imam. Originally meaning “leader” in Arabic, imam appears in the Koran as a reference to the “leader of the faithful.” For the dominant Sunnis, an imam was simply a congregational prayer leader, a person of Muslim faith deemed particularly wise and knowledgeable, selected often, on the spur of the moment.

But the Shiites attached special significance to the imam.

They saw an imam as someone who, in one way or another, shared common ancestry with Ali, and through Ali, Muhammad. And as a descendent of the last prophet, Muhammad, an imam was considered capable of interpreting God’s word, the Koran.

But first, some clarification on the word “interpret.” For religions whose foundation of faith takes form as sacred texts, interpretation becomes a serious issue.

The Right to Interpret

For religions that rely on sacred texts, the written word is absolute. In these texts, it is God’s word. And God’s word is an unconditional commandment.

Most have heard of Judaism and Christianity’s commandment “thou shalt not kill” or the Quran’s prohibition of pork and alcohol.

The problem is when something is not detailed in one of these sacred texts.

Recreational drugs, for example, are relatively new, which is why the Bible and Koran do not prohibit or endorse its use. But because recreational drugs do exist, religions have to have a response, and a response by someone.

For religions where an absolute “assemblage of divine commandments” or sacred texts are central to faith, someone must select the relevant passage and reason a response.

A biblical scholar might argue that in chapter X, verse Y, God prohibits man’s overindulgence, which, the scholar could reason further, means God prohibits the use of recreational drugs. But, of course, that’s only one of many possible interpretations.

Then there’s abortion and the ever-contentious commandment surrounding it—“thou shalt not kill.” Arguing that God is against abortion, while contemplating the myriad “what ifs” is no simple matter. We all know that pregnancy can place a mother’s body in mortal danger.

But of course decisions about controversial topics always involve a difference of opinion. And deciding religious doctrine requires human intervention. Ultimately someone has to decide who is capable of establishing interpretation. That someone must have “interpretive authority” and, for religions founded on sacred texts, determining who has “interpretive authority” is a major hurdle.

Sunnis entrust this interpretive authority not to caliphs but to religious scholars. Shiites, on the other hand, invests this only to the imams.