Shiites have older credentials than Sunnis



Dutch Christian newspaper Trouw continues its speculative series on critical Islam researchers and their ‘spectacular’ questions on the early days of Islam. Here follows a translation of an article by Eildert Mulder claiming that Shiites, not Sunnis, possess the oldest Islam and then my reaction in online newspaper

Eildert Mulder says:

The majority decides, this also goes for the design, structure and image of Islam. Shiites are a worldwide ten percent minority of Islam. Sunnis hold with their ninety percent an overwhelming advantage. This may explain the tendency, also among Islam studies in the West, to discard of Shiism as a younger aberration of Sunni, ‘orthodox’ Islam. Critical Islam experts resist this temptation, however. Some think that precisely Shiism has reserved an older form of Islam. Under-appreciation of the Shiites may also be caused by the fact that the main European colonizers mainly found Sunni Muslims in the conquered territories. This went for the Britisch in India, the Dutch in Indonesia, the French in Northern and West Africa and the Russians in Central Asia. Sunni confession of faith says: ‘There is no deity than Allah and Muhammad is His Messenger’. The Shiites lengthen it: ‘And ‘Ali is His Wali’. Wali can mean ‘guardian’. The result could then be ‘the guardian appointed by Allah’. This addition to Sunni confession sounds slightly artificial. It appears stuck to it and this strengthens the idea of a later aberration of the Sunna. ‘Ali Wali was according tradition Muhammad’s son in law, married to his daughter Fatima. Muhammed supposedly appointed ‘Ali as his successor, not as a prophet, but as leader of the young Muslim community. Muhammad further would have decreed that future Imams (this is the name Shiites give to the leaders of the Muslim community, Sunnis speak of Khaliphas) must descend from ‘Ali and Fatima. Sunnis disagree with this. When Shiites then add ‘Ali being ‘wali’ of God to the confession, it appears overstated. But another explanation is possible, without a person named ‘Ali appearing. That gives the Shiite ‘addition’ another dimension. The linguistic phenomenon of an adjective changing into a first name in people’s experience may have happend with ”Ali’. German linguist Christoph Luxenberg says this happened to ‘Muhammad’. Muhammad literally means ‘(intensely) praised’. The confession’s original confession cannot have been ‘Muhammad Messenger of God’, says Luxenberg, but: ‘Praised be God’s Messenger’. Luxenberg doesn’t mention ‘Ali, but analogy is obvious. ‘Ali means ‘exalted’. Also ‘Ali may originally have been an adjective, therefor one mustn’t read ”Ali God’s Wali’, but ‘Exalted is God’s Wali’. The Shiite confession no longer answers the question who should be king of the Muslims, but which (high) status he enjoys. Assuming that ‘God’s Guardian’ indeed refers to the imam or caliph, as Shiites believe. This other interpretation cut the unfortunate tie with the apocryphal narrations on Islam’s beginnings, part of which is the history of Muhammad’s promise to ‘Ali. Whether the Shiites add another sentence to the confession, remains to be seen. Perhaps it is the Sunni who deleted the second part. The difference in opinion seems obsolete and theoretical anyway. For centuries no caliphs or imams have been in power and for over a thousand years no descendants of ‘Ali and Fatima have been spotted. The twelfth and last Imam is hiding in the Iranian mountains, according to Shiites, and will appear with Jesus at the end of times. It is no more than bawls from a distant past that have little to do with reality today. Yet this doesn’t quite add up. Remnants of the conflicting views on imams versus caliphs seem to live on in the clergy’s organisation in Islam’s two main schools of thought. In Sunnism clergymen are, at least in theory, peers. Shiism, however, knows a hierarchy, with supreme ayatollah’s at the top. Since the Islamic revolution in 1978 initiated by ayatollah Khomeiny the ‘Wali al Faqih’, which means something like ‘spiritual guide’ is (Shiite) Iran’s supreme leader. The Wali al Faqih resembles a priest-king (without inherited leadership), who leaves daily leadership to the president, but keeps a sharp eye on the Islamic course and, in the end, holds power. This perhaps approaches the position of the first eleven imams. Especially ‘imam’ Khomeiny (he didn’t call himself imam, but allowed others to do so) was subject of intense worship. Yet the Wali al Faqih is not on the same level as the first twelve imams, according to Shiites these men also possessed spirtituals qualities, had received divine inspiration in their exegeses of revelations. In Sunni Islam the caliph is more modest. He is ‘the prophet’s successor’, but only politically. However, had the caliph in the very first days this limited meaning as well, or did he more resemble the Shiite imam? The Qur’an gives no definite answer. ‘Caliph’ appears eight times, twice single and six time plural. Both Adam and king David are ‘caliphs on earth’. This latter statement could imply that caliph indeed is a monarch’s title. It is not certain though. Mystical sufi poet Ibn Arabi, for instance, gives another, non-political explanation. In his eyes, caliphs are people with a soul thus pure is seems a perfectly polished mirror that shows God. Danish Islam expert Patricia Crone, now working in the USA, put the cat among the pigeons with her book God’s Califf. She discovers something in the book: old texts don’t say ‘the Prophet’s caliph (successor)’ but ‘God’s Caliph’. This means two things. The idea that ‘caliph’ means ‘Muhammad’s successor’ is of newer date. In this connection caliph can hardly mean ‘successor’, because you then may talk of ‘God’s successor’. Crone concludes that ‘God’s caliphs’ must have had a religious function too. They were Gods ‘governors’. This resembles the Shiite imam and corresponds fairly well (Crone doesn’t put it that way) with the Shiite confession of faith. It may imply that the Shiites represent ancient Islam on important issues.

Crone’s intentions become more obvious in another book that she wrote with another author, Michael Cook: Hagarism. With aid of documents from Christian contemporaries of the first Muslims they conclude that the word Muslim was not yet in use. Followers of the new religion are called mahgraye, an Aramaic word meaning something like migrants, call them migrants from the desert. It is related to the Arabic word hijrah, according to orthodox exegesis Muhammed’s and his followers’ ‘flight’ from Mecca to Medinah in 622. These migrants meet, when arriving in Palestine, first the Jews, from whom they adopt many things. Later they oppose themselves against the Jews. They find a new role model, the Samaritans, related to the Jews, but fiercely rallying against them. From them the migrants adopt high priesthood, according to Crone and Cook, namely ‘God’s Caliph’. ‘God’s Caliph’ goes astray when halfway the eigth century the center of the Arabian state shifts towards Irak. The new religion meets once again a rich Jewish tradition, with scholars in religious law as its leading characters. Scholars in Islamic law developed themselves in scholasticism after their example. Through time they laid the fundament for the shariah legislation to come according to Qur’an and transmitted traditions of the Prophet. The scholars of law become the professional explainers of God’s Will. Therewith the spiritual function of the caliph diminishes. He degrades into ‘Prophet’s Caliph’, who, like everyone else, lives under shariah law. From now on he is a ‘constiutional monarch’ and not a priest or half-prophet with his own, direct line to God. The attenuation continues. The caliphs later loose their worldly power to soldier-kings (sultans), usually Turks and sometimes Kurds. The symbolism, however, remains forceful, sultans fight for the honour to ‘protect’ the powerless caliph. But the revolution of scholasticism against ‘Allah’s exalted Guardian’ is irrevocable. And the ancient essential conflict over the leadership of the ummah has been congealed in a tale of Muhammad’s promise to ‘Ali. Eildert Mulder (With special thanks to Thomas Milo.)

The first part of this article is the most bizarre part. Trouw has claimed before that the name Muhammad didn’t exist yet in the known Prophet’s era and would be an adjective or honorary title, with the meaning of the praised one. According Trouw the name Muhammad might as well refer to Jesus. Now they say that the name ‘Ali didn’t exist yet in those days and would also be nothing more than an adjective meaning protector, guardian. They relate this to the speculation that the Shiite confession of faith could be older than the Sunni and not just that: the Shiite may very well be the right one. After all the word khalifa, leader, is not connected to a specific name in Qur’an al Kerim and is also used for Prophet Dawud for instance, king David. They forget, however, that Qur’an also gives the word ‘messenger’ and this happens to be reserved for the prophets, among whom Muhammad. For good reason Qur’an dedicates an entire chapter to Prophet Muhammad pbuh. Trouw just about doesn’t proclaim ‘Ali ra to be Islam’s real prophet, which is something Shiites happen to proclaim neither, for those among us who happen to not know. We may even conclude from the article that there wasn’t at all a prophet of Islam. Shortly, what is it that Trouw really wants to say? 🙂

This cat among the pigeons is a bit weird too, in my opinion. As if Muslims didn’t know yet that the word khalifa, caliph, figures in their Book and if they didn’t know that indeed it means ‘leader’. Shiites indeed believe that Allah wouldn’t leave man without guidance after the Prophet’s death. Leadership in the sense of approved and inspired leaders by Allah swt Himself. By the way: ahadith recorded by Sahih Buchari, which are important to Sunnis too, confirm this issue:

Volume 9, Book 89, Number 306:

Narrated Abu Sa’id Al-Khudri:

The Prophet said, “Allah never sends a prophet or gives the Caliphate to a Caliph but that he (the prophet or the Caliph) has two groups of advisors: A group advising him to do good and exhorts him to do it, and the other group advising him to do evil and exhorts him to do it. But the protected person (against such evil advisors) is the one protected by Allah.’ ”

Volume 9, Book 89, Number 329:

Narrated Jabir bin Samura:

I heard the Prophet saying, “There will be twelve Muslim rulers (who will rule all the Islamic world).” He then said a sentence which I did not hear. My father said, “All of them (those rulers) will be from Quraish.”

The fact that Qur’an gives no definite answer, is not surprising either. Later leaders after the Prophets have a lower status than the Prophets. Their names aren’t mentioned. This is why the majority of Muslims criticize the efforts to re-instate the four schools, maddhahib, of Sunni law in their former high status; their wisdom may very well be followed, however, it cannot be imposed upon us to follow a maddhab and pledge it an oath of allegiance. Secondly, the majority of Muslims criticize the Shiite practice to proclaim the traditions transmitted from ‘Ali ra and the ten Imams into compulsory religious ahadith. The sayings and practices of these people have, to my best knowledge, been recorded and are teached by the Shiites. Large part of Sunni criticism focuses on this overstated status of the Imams.

Sunni main criticism, however, deals with the misunderstandings concerning ‘Ali’s caliphate. Shiites are not justified to suppose ‘Ali ra receiving not enough honorable credit in Sunni Islam. ‘Ali was made caliph and belongs to the four righteous caliphs. He does receive honor. Secondly, just before his passing away the Prophet appointed not ‘Ali but Abu Bakr to lead to people in prayer:

Volume 1, Book 11, Number 649:

Narrated Anas:

The Prophet did not come out for three days. The people stood for the prayer and Abu Bakr went ahead to lead the prayer. (In the meantime) the Prophet caught hold of the curtain and lifted it. When the face of the Prophet appeared we had never seen a scene more pleasing than the face of the Prophet as it appeared then. The Prophet beckoned to Abu Bakr to lead the people in the prayer and then let the curtain fall. We did not see him (again) till he died.

Apparently someone other than ‘Ali was allowed to lead the faithful. Neither had the Prophet saws appointed a successor or caliph, also according ‘Ali’s own words:

Volume 5, Book 59, Number 728:

Narrated ‘Abdullah bin Abbas:

Ali bin Abu Talib came out of the house of Allah’s Apostle during his fatal illness. The people asked, “O Abu Hasan (i.e. Ali)! How is the health of Allah’s Apostle this morning?” ‘Ali replied, “He has recovered with the Grace of Allah.” ‘Abbas bin ‘Abdul Muttalib held him by the hand and said to him, “In three days you, by Allah, will be ruled (by somebody else ), And by Allah, I feel that Allah’s Apostle will die from this ailment of his, for I know how the faces of the offspring of ‘Abdul Muttalib look at the time of their death. So let us go to Allah’s Apostle and ask him who will take over the Caliphate. If it is given to us we will know as to it, and if it is given to somebody else, we will inform him so that he may tell the new ruler to take care of us.” ‘Ali said, “By Allah, if we asked Allah’s Apostle for it (i.e. the Caliphate) and he denied it us, the people will never give it to us after that. And by Allah, I will not ask Allah’s Apostle for it.”

Shiites themselves, however, see this differently. They state that the Prophet saws did introduce his son in law ‘Ali as the people’s future leader during his farewell sermon after his last pilgrimage to Mecca. Who likes to know more of it, should visit search engines and follow the name Ghadir Khumm… that should give you quite some hours of reading material.

Patricia Crone seems to ignore that Sunni development took another path after ‘Ali’s death than Shiite. The Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs named themselves caliph, but Sunnis themselves don’t recognize them as righteous caliphs. ‘Ali was their last one and he died less than thirty years after his father in law. ‘Ali was to Shiites, however, the first of eleven caliphs, who swiftly succeeded each other. Already early in their history the eleventh caliphate was over. The twelfth caliph, whom they await now, disappeared as a child in 941 AD and will return one day. However, their caliphate era had indeed ended then. This is how caliphate ended.

Whoever likes to read more of Trouw’s unrealistic and unfounded views on the birth of Islam and masters Dutch, should look under the head De Verdieping. (Indepth)

Trouw sees itself as quite the scholar now, but with which evidence, especially when we check Shiite statements, where Ali and his sons were not seen as prophets:

Imam Hussain

The Imam was one of Prophet Muhammad’s (saws) much beloved grandsons. As soon as he heard of his grandson’s birth, he ran to Fatima’s (ra) house and shouted immediately: ‘bring me my son!’ Asma came with Imam Hussein to the Prophet, he kissed him, covered him with a white cloth and read adhan into his right ear and iqama into the left. The Prophet was full of joy, but also full of sadness. He knew what was to happen to this Holy Imam in Karbala and could not hold his tears. Imam Hussein holds an important position in Islam that only few, the Imams, could achieve. Imam Hussein was brought into mubahala by the Prophet. Mubahala is the state where a person has a strong conviction and believe it to be true, but cannot persuade others. They then pray to Allah to curse the one who lies, or holds the wrong view. On this occasion the country’s best people are chosen to perform this Mubahala. Ahlubait Jongeren.

It is fascinating, nice, to philosophize on how Islam might alternatively had developed, however, we are still bound to existing historic records. It concerns onetime events and they can only be proved by witness. The arrival of Islam under Prophet Muhammad saws has extensively been recorded by many oral and writing witnesses, plus that many  of the Prophet’s and his near companions’ personal belongings have been carefully conserved. It is hard fighting such large legacy and Christian and Jewish efforts to do so cannot be seen as highly professional or scientific. It is allowed of course, however, they are stuck in the level of childish and hobbyist efforts leading to nothing tangible.



Filed under Established heritage of Islam

6 responses to “Shiites have older credentials than Sunnis

  1. Thomas Milo

    This article is an installment of a series that reports on a less timid approach to early Islam that slowly taking shape in scholarship today. This neutral, unbiased approach is as such is not new at all. It applies to the study of all subjects, including religions. For Muslims this may seem unnecessary, but these scholars see it as a responsibility – regardless the outcome. They authors of the series nor the newspaper subscribe to any position or conclusion, they simply attempt to report this debate. For the nature of the arguments and the ensuing discussions makes this matter very difficult to follow for outsiders, hence the series, which, by the way, other newspapers failed to produce for that reason alone.

    I very much appreciate the care you took in translating this article, thank you.

    With kind regards

  2. hajarmulder

    ‘Scholarship’… which scholarship might we ask then. Any serious attempt to a scholarly approach implies giving proof to hypotheses: backup from solid and truly existing sources for done statements. Until then the attempt remains stuck in playful pastime. This is what Muslims have a problem with, not with the effort. Let non-Muslims have their effort!

    Nevertheless, I appreciate the articles and like to respond to them.



  3. Thomas Milo

    Playfulness is the essence of true scholarship. Without inquisitiveness and the courage to blunder, scholarship remains glorified bureaucracy.

    With kind regards,


  4. hajarmulder

    True, but something else is also true: the second vital part of scholarship is validation. Part of validation is responding adequately to feedback. That is no glorified officialdom.

  5. Thomas Milo

    The “revisonist current” follows the normal academic procedure. Their participants publish observations, i.e., potential evidence, usually along with a possible interpretation of these observations. By publishing them the revisionists enter the academic arena: they enable colleagues to challenge these finds. Therefore it is not fair to dismiss them as dilettantes with a playful pastime

    And indeed, for the moment, the ball is in the court of the “main stream” scholars. It is no more than reasonable that it takes some time to prepare an thorough answer to the revisionist claims.

    But in the mean time it must be said that islamic studies to date have failed to produce the instruments that are necessary for the academic validation of the conventional wisdom in this field. For instance, a authoritative critical text edition of the Koran on the basis of the oldest surviving manuscripts is not even in sight. Secondly, an authoritative etymological dictionary of the Arabic language of the same thoroughness that we have for any major Indo-European language is not available.

    As a result there are far too many many academically unverified assumptions to be able to dismiss the “revisionist” positions as irrelevant.

    With kind regards,


  6. hajarmulder

    It is nothing more than playful pastime by dilettantes, since they produce no hard evidence of their claim, namely a credible finding of an ancient pre-qur’an. Europe’s apparent problem lies in the fact that Islam rose among people and places beyond it’s reach. It has to surrender to their findings, records, exegeses and history. The same goes for Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions and philosophies that emerged out of Europe’s reach.

    There is no evidence of an older Aramaic Qur’an and there is overwhelming evidence of an Arabic Qur’an, plus it’s exegesis by many scholars and witnesses, sometimes hostile among each other, some of them non-Arabic, too. Those are the facts that matter, not the possibility of finding Aramaic false friends.



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