Martin Luther from Iran
According to the New York Times, Ayatollah Khamenei is running a new religious reformation from Tehran using satellite television and the Internet.
The NYT correspondent reports from Syria which seems to be gripped by the same anti Shia paranoia now raging across the Sunni world. But more than the question of how many Syrians actually converted to the Shia version of Islam recently, it's the explanations of why provided by fresh converts that are the most interesting part of the article.
The New York Times
By ANDREW TABLER
Published: April 29, 2007
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Direct inquiries into Shiite numbers in Syria raise more questions than answers, as the sensitive topic gives observers complex incentives to round up or down. When I asked Sayyid Abdullah Nizam, leader of Syria’s Shiite community, to estimate the size of his flock, he put it at less than 1 percent of the population of 19 million. Asked the same question, the leader of Syria’s Sunnis, Grand Mufti Sheik Ahmad Badr Eddin Hassoun, replied carefully; he said that 6 to 8 percent of Syrians now adhere to the “Jaafari school,” the school of Islamic jurisprudence followed by mainstream Shiites in Iran and Lebanon.
It was only when I met an actual convert that the mufti’s words began to make sense. Louay, a 28-year-old teacher in Damascus wearing jeans, a wool sweater and a close-cropped beard, seemed the epitome of the capital’s Sunni middle class. Yet within the last year, as Hezbollah rose to national prominence in the Lebanese government, he — along with his mother — began practicing Shiite Islam . . .
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Politics, it seems, is only one of the attractions of Shiism. In addition to Louay, I spoke with four other Syrian converts, who asked not to be identified for fear of harassment by Sunni fundamentalists. Louay and the others all spoke of religious transformation as much as of Hezbollah. “Half the reason why I converted was because of Ijtihad,” Louay said, using the Arabic word for the independent interpretation of the Koran and the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad. Suddenly the mufti’s enigmatic answer became clearer. Ijtihad is practiced more widely by Shiites of the Jaafari school than by Sunnis. These Shiites believe that, on all but the largest moral issues, Muslims should interpret their faith by reading holy texts and reasoning back and forth between them and current issues. Many Sunnis say they quietly (!!! NB) practice Ijtihad in everyday life as well, but conservative Sunnis do not encourage individual interpretation of the Koran.
For Louay, the difference is immense. “Take the Internet. Some conservative Sunni sheiks say the Internet is haram,” or illegal, he said. “If I go back to Jaafar al-Sadiq” — the eighth-century founder of the Jaafari school — “I will not find a ruling on it. So instead I use my mind to sort it out. On the Internet, some things are positive, some negative. I choose the positive for myself.”
Americans might find it surprising that the man Louay looks to for more current and oftentimes liberal guidance on controversial issues is Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran. For four decades, Syrians had to rely on advice from the local Sunni clerics who appeared in state-owned media. With the advent of satellite television and the Internet, however, Louay said he is now able to keep up with his favorite scholars across the Islamic world. You could easily draw a comparison with the way Protestants in Europe were able to follow the likes of Martin Luther after the introduction of movable type.
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