14 January 2016

On the Shia-Christian alliance

A longer version of this article has been posted at Soul of the East:

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 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 Rony Khoury 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. The martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali at the Battle of Karbala 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. Martyrdom is treated very seriously by the Shi’ites. And as I have noted before, 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. Thus on the level of ethics also, Christianity finds some strong overlap with the Shi’ite tradition, which places such insistent emphasis on a model of justice which favours the poor and powerless: particularly the ‘red Shi’ism’ of Dr. Ali Shariati which Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr reflected so strongly in his own life and work. At any rate, I believe there is a 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.

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