The Root of Sunnī-Shīʿī Differences in Fiqh


Ml Mohammad Taha Karaan

29 March 1997

It is often alleged by the protagonists of Sunnī-Shīʿī unity that differences between the two schools are not more grave or serious than the differences that exist within the four Sunnī schools of jurisprudence. Sunnī-Shīʿī differences should therefore be treated with the same tolerance and acceptance as Ḥanafī-Shāfi‘ī differences, and it is in the spirit of this proposed “mutual tolerance” that the advocates of unity speak of the Shīʿī Jaʿfari school of jurisprudence as nothing more than a “fifth madhhab”.

It is therefore only normal for the average Sunnī lay person who has come into contact with advocates of Sunnī-Shīʿī unity to wonder about, or even be taken in, by such a claim. How serious are the differences between the Ahl al-Sunnah and the Shīʿah really? Could they ever be reconciled? If not, could there at least be an amicable agreement to disagree, just like the Ḥanafīs disagree with the Shāfi‘īs, or the Mālikīs with the Ḥanbalīs? It is these questions that this article sets out to answer.

Full reconciliation between the Ahl al-Sunnah and the Ithna ʿAshari Jaʿfari Shīʿah is not merely elusive, it is simply an impossibility. Anyone who knows the reality of the issues that separate the Shīʿah from the Ahl al-Sunnah is bound to agree. Nothing sums up the truth of the situation better than the words of Hamid Algar—an ardent admirer of Khomeini and the revolution—, who describes Sunnism and Shi‘ism as “two parallel lines that cannot meet”.[1] The endeavour to bring about reconciliation between the Ahl al-Sunnah and the Shīʿah is therefore a wasted effort. The next best option is thus mutual tolerance and acceptance.

In order to test the viability of tolerance and acceptance between the Ahl al-Sunnah and the Shīʿah we will have to look more closely at the issues that separate the one from the other. These issues can be categorised into two groups:

1. Fundamental Differences
Which include articles of faith, and all such issues that could be termed “differences in principle”, that by their nature give rise to differences in secondary matters;

2. Secondary Differences:
Difference in matters of jurisprudence, like the way salah is performed, or that marriage and divorce take place, etc.

Each of the fundamental issues of difference would require a separate study to see how they affect compatibility between the Ahl al-Sunnah and the Shīʿah. In this article it is our intention to look more closely at the type of difference that is usually dismissed as “secondary”, and thus “unimportant”. Are differences in fiqh between the Ahl al-Sunnah and the Shīʿah really so insignificant that we can justifiably turn a blind eye when we encounter them?

There can be no doubt that this question is anathema to the propagators of Shi’ism amongst the Ahl al-Sunnah, as well as to those who have fallen prey to their propaganda. Yet, if it is truth we seek, we cannot allow the preferences of such obviously biased persons to deter us. The “unity” such people strive to achieve, and which they accuse others of trying to destroy, is a unity forged in ignorance. How much do we really know about the Shīʿah? We have taken them on face value, and on grounds of what we have thus learnt about them we proceed to create unity. The naivety of such a position in a matter of far reaching religious implications is far too obvious. A unity founded upon ignorance is a very precarious unity indeed. Like a mirage, it seems very real when seen from afar, but as soon as you approach it, it slips out of existence.

There are two levels at which one can look at the differences in jurisprudence between the Ahl al-Sunnah and the Shīʿah. The first is the level of external appearance. When the differences in fiqh are inspected at this level they do not seem any more alien than the differences that exist between the various schools of Sunnī jurisprudence. In fact, in many, or even most cases one will find the Shīʿah position to be conformity with at least one of the four Sunnī madhāhib. This is illustrated in the following three examples:

  1. In the salah, the Jalsah al Istirahah is held to be sunnah by the Shīʿah. In this they concur with the view of the Shāfi‘ī madhhab.[2]
  2. In marriage the majority of Shīʿah jurists hold the view that Khalwah, i.e. valid seclusion, has no effect on the Mahr (dowry) nor upon any other aspect of the marital contract. In this they are once again agreement with the Shāfi‘īs, but differ from the other three schools.[3]
  3. If the husband is unable to pay the mahr the wife is not entitled to divorce according to the Shīʿah and the Ḥanafī schools. The Mālikīs, the Shāfi‘īs and the Ḥanbalīs all have different views.[4]

It is on this level that most people view the differences that exist between the Ahl al-Sunnah and the Shīʿah . Even certain ‘ulama of the Ahl al-Sunnah, looking at the matter on this level, have been known to express the view that “differences between the Ahl as-Sunnah and the Shīʿah are no more serious than the differences that exist between the various schools of Sunnī jurisprudence”.

However, when we confine ourselves to viewing the problem of Sunnī-Shīʿī differences on this level we are in effect closing our eyes to the most important aspect of those differences: THE ROOT. The true nature of Sunnī-Shīʿī differences can never be appreciated or understood in full without comprehending the reasons for their existence. It is only when the problem has been viewed and grasped on the level of the reasons for difference, and not merely the external appearance of difference, that one is justified to take further steps.

When the Shīʿah differ from the Ahl al-Sunnah, it is not the same as when one Sunnī school differs from the other. This is because the various Sunnī schools all trace their roots back to the same legacy. They share a common heritage in the Sunnah of the Prophet salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam. When differences do occur, they occur not because one madhhab bases itself on a legacy other than the legacy of the other. Both believe in and hold on to the same legacy. Their differences are caused by secondary factors, like whether certain categories of hadith possess binding authority or not, or the divergence in the methods they regard as valid to interpret the legacy and extrapolate from it. The following two examples illustrate how such differences occur:

  1. The mursal hadith (a hadith with an interruption in its chain of narrators between the Prophet salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam and the Tabi’i), for example, is deemed to possess binding authority by the Ḥanafīs, while the Shāfi‘īs do not accept it except if it is supported by any one of a number of external factors. If we imagine a mursal hadith that is not supported by any of the factors the Shāfi‘īs stipulate, it is only logical to expect that the Shāfi‘ī ruling on the issue the hadith pertains to will differ from the Ḥanafī ruling.
  2. Spoken words are sometimes accompanied by implied meanings. For example, when it is said, “Stay awake,” this also means “Don’t sleep”. This unspoken opposite meaning is termed mafhum al mukhalafah. The Shāfi‘īs accept it as a valid means of extracting meaning from a text, while the Ḥanafīs do not. If the former extract such meaning from a text and base a ruling upon the meaning inferred by this method, and the latter base their ruling upon some other grounds, there is bound to be a measure of difference in the outcome of their respective views.

Sunnī-Shīʿī differences, on the other hand, are fundamentally distinct from inter-Sunnī differences. While it may rightly be claimed that the Shīʿah, too, have their particular principles of extrapolation, it would be incorrect to describe those principles as the root cause of difference between them and the Ahl al-Sunnah, the reason for that being that while the Sunnī schools each have methods of extrapolation particular to themselves, they all apply their respective methods to the same legacy. The Shīʿah, on the other hand, have not only their own set of principles, but also a legacy distinct from the legacy of the Ahl al-Sunnah. When there are differences between the Ahl al-Sunnah and the Shīʿah, they arise not on account of differences in interpretation or methods of extrapolation, but because the source from which the Shīʿah draw their law is a source other than the source of the Ahl al-Sunnah.

What is this “legacy”, the reader may well ask. It is embodied in the Sunnah of the Prophet salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam. As far as the Qur’an is concerned, although history is witness to a lot of Shīʿah calumny against the inviolability of the Qur’an, most contemporary Shīʿah scholars, and even many of their classical ‘ulama who staunchly believe in its interpolation, will admit the Qur’an status as the prime source of legislation. (A Shīʿah scholar of the present century, Muhammad ‘Ali Tabataba’i, reconciles belief in the interpolation of the Qur’an with acceptance of the Qur’an as a source of legislation by saying that “interpolation occurred specifically in those verses relating to Imamah.”[5] Verses with a legal purport are thus left uncorrupted.) Since the Qur’an is thus “agreed upon” between the Ahl al-Sunnah and the Shīʿah, there remains only the other part of the legacy we inherited from the Messenger of Allah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam: The Sunnah.

Essentially, the difference lies in the concepts each have of what constitutes the Sunnah. According to the Ahl al-Sunnah the Sunnah is everything narrated from the Prophet salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, as long as the transmitters are trustworthy. The Shīʿah, on the other hand, will only accept as the Sunnah that which is transmitted by ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib radiya Llahu ‘anhu and the rest of the twelve Imams, and that which is narrated from these Imams by their Shīʿah followers. Forget what the rest of the Sahabah narrate, not even the narrations of other members of the household of the Prophet salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, his daughters besides Fatimah radiya Llahu ‘anha, his wives, his cousins or uncles, are considered part of the Sunnah by the Shīʿah. That is the first observation.

The second is the way the Shīʿah regard the legacy upon which the foundations of Sunnī fiqh rests. Since the days of the Sahabah radiya Llahu ‘anhum the Sunnah of the Prophet was handed down from generation to generation. The Sahabah narrated it to the Tabi’in, they to the generation after them, and so on, until it came to be compiled in what we know today as the hadith literature. To the Shīʿah, when this legacy is found to be in contradiction to what is supposedly narrated from their Imams, the reason behind it is that the Sahabah radiya Llahu ‘anhum were guilty of wilfully distorting and corrupting the Din of Muhammad salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallamThus, where inter-Sunnī differences amount to nothing more than technicalities, Sunnī-Shīʿī differences are differences in historical perspective.

To use an example: In salah, the Mālikīs let their hands hang by their sides, while the Ḥanafīs, Shāfi‘īs and Ḥanbalīs fold their hands. The Shīʿah too, let their hands hang by their sides. In this single issue of fiqh we thus have an inter-Sunnī difference as well as a Sunnī-Shīʿī difference. Between the Mālikīs and the other three madhhab the difference is a mere technicality. The Mālikīs accept the validity of folding the hands in salah (after all, Imam Mālik himself in the Muwatta’ narrates a hadith that supports the folding of the hands), but prefer letting the hands hang for the reason that in Imam Mālik’s day this was the practice of the community in Madinah. The other madhhab take into consideration that the Companions of the Nabi salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam who narrate his Sunnah were not exclusively settled in Madinah. Many of them resided in the Makkah, ‘Iraq, Syria and Egypt. Ahadith to the effect that it is sunnah to fold the hands have been authentically narrated from a number of Sahabah (amongst whom ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib radiya Llahu ‘anhu, and therefore this, and not the practice of the people of one particular city, takes precedence. Between the Sunnī schools this difference is a technical one, one that amounts to giving preference to one view over another. But between the Shīʿah and the Ahl al-Sunnah the issue assumes much more serious proportions. From a question of mere technical preference, it turns into an acrimonious indictment of the Sahabah radiya Llahu ‘anhum. Traditions in the book Tahdhib al Ahkam, one of the four major collections of Shīʿah hadith, describe the folding of the hands in salah as “an act of kufr” and “something that is only done by the fire-worshippers”. Here one would have to ask: How could an alien practice like this creep into Islam? The answer is given by Ayatollah Khomeini himself, in his treatise al Ta’adul wat-Tarjih, wherein he quotes the following tradition from the book ‘Ilal al Sharai’ by Ibn Babawayh al Qummi:

Abu Ishaq al Arjani says — Abu ‘Abdullah (Imam Jafar al Sadiq) asked: Do you know why you are commanded to act contrary to the ‘Ammah (the Ahl al-Sunnah)?

I replied: I do not know.

He said: Verily, the Ummah contradicted ‘Ali in each and every aspect of his religion, intending thereby to destroy his cause. They used to ask him about things they did not know, and when he gave a ruling they would invent an opposite verdict from their own side to mislead the people.[6]

In the Shīʿah perspective of Islamic legislative history the fact that the Sahabah deliberately corrupted and distorted the teachings of the Nabi salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam is such a fundamental truth, that is came to be looked upon as a criterion of truth in itself. This position is reflected in the way they deal with the phenomenon of Shīʿah narrations that contradict one another. Abu Jafar al Kulayni, in the introduction to al Kafi, the most important of their four canonical hadith collections, expresses it in the following terms:

Know… that no one can distinguish narrations of the Possessors of Knowledge (the Imams) by his opinion; except according to the words of the Possessor of Knowledge: ‘Compare them to the Qur’an. Accept that which is in accordance with it, and reject that which contradicts it,’ and his words: ‘Abandon that which is in accordance with the people (the Ahl al  Sunnah), for truly, guidance lies in being different to them’.[7]

This particular perspective has persisted in the Shīʿah psyche over the centuries since al Kulayni and his teacher al Qummi, until it became, in the opinion of Khomeini and all other Shīʿah jurists, one of the two principal methods of juridical preference in cases of conflicting narrations. In light of the alarming frequency with which contradictions occur in the ahadith of the Shīʿah (one of their four major hadith sources, al Istibsar, is devoted to the phenomenon of contradiction) the importance of a principle of this nature is evident. We reproduce here from Khomeini’s works various Shīʿah narrations in which he and other Shīʿah mujtahids find justification for their view:

  1. Hassan ibn Abi al Jahm asked: If something is narrated from Abu ‘Abdullah (Imam Jafar), and something contrary to it is also narrated from him, which should we accept?
    The Imam answered: Accept that which is in contradiction to the people, and avoid that which is accordance with them.[8]
  2. Abu ‘Abdullah said: Our Shīʿah are those who submit to our command, who accept our words, and who act contrary to our enemies. Whoever is not like that is not of us.[9]
  3. ‘Ali ibn Asbat narrates that he asked Imam al Rida: (What should I do in case) an incident occurs for which I am need of a juridical opinion, but nowhere in the city do I find anyone of your partisans (the Shīʿah) whom I can ask?
    He replied: Go to the (Sunni) faqih of the city and refer your case to him. Then take the opposite of whatever answer he gives you, for verily, therein lies the truth.[10]

It is on account of these and other similar narrations which the Shīʿah claim to emanate from their infallible Imams that the mujtahids of the Jaʿfari madhhab were led to formulate the principle Khomeini expresses in these terms:

In cases of conflicting reports, contradiction of the Ahl al-Sunnah is a factor of preference … In fact, it is the most common and widespread factor of preference in all chapters of fiqh and upon the tongues of the fuqaha. There is no ambiguity with regard to the issue of contradicting the Ahl as-Sunnah being a factor of preference in the case of conflicting narrations. The factors of tarjih (preference) are limited to two: conforming to the Qur’an and the Sunnah, and contradicting the Ahl al-Sunnah.[11]

All of these quotations show a definite obsession with being different from the Ahl al-Sunnah. We therefore ask: If so much importance is attached to being different, to the point of it being regarded as the criterion of truth, why should there be such a noise and clamour for unity? Why should the Shīʿah seek unity with people whose version of Islam they regard as the corruption of the Din of Muhammad salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam wrought by the hands of his Companions? And even if the Shīʿah do manage to create a semblance of such unity, how much goodwill and sincerity can be expected of them if one considers their particular perspective of the legacy which forms the basis of our faith and practice?

We have chosen Khomeini’s views as representative of Shīʿah opinion for a very special reason, and that is the fact that in the contemporary world it is he and his successors who are the most vociferous proponents of Sunnī-Shīʿī unity, and who dismiss Sunnī-Shīʿī differences as negligible. In more than one of his public addresses he takes to task those who attempt to create mischief amongst the Muslims by “misleading” them into believing that there are substantial differences between the Ahl al-Sunnah and the Shīʿah. However, closer scrutiny of his jurisprudential works reveal that such condemnations are nothing but political rhetoric. When we remove the image he projects as Leader of the Revolution, we are left with merely another Shīʿah scholar imprisoned by the fundamentals of his faith. In his eyes, and likewise in the eyes of generations of Shīʿah scholars before him, the legacy of the Sunnah upon which their Sunnī “brothers” base their practice of Islam is the product of the envious mischief and the disbelief of the Sahabah, who in the hope of destroying the cause of the Ahlul Bayt distorted every teaching of the Nabi salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam they could lay their hands upon. If this is how they regard the very basis upon which the foundations of our Din rests, what remains to be said for unity?

[1] Shi‘ism p. ed. by Sayyed Hossein Nasr et al.

[2] Yahya ibn Sa’id al Hilli: al Jami’ li al Sharai’ p.75 (Mu’assasah Sayed al Shuhada’, Qum 1405)

[3] Muhammad Jawad Maghniyyah: The Five Schools of Islamic Law p. 319 (Ansariyan Publications, Qum 1995)

[4] Ibid. p. 317.

[5] Tafsir al Qummi, editor’s foreword.

[6] Al Ta’adul wa al Tarjih by Ayatollah Khomeini, p. 82, cited in Dr. Zaid al ‘Is: Al Khomeini wa al Wajh al Akhar p. 131.

[7] Al Kafi vol. 1 pp. 55-56 (Dar al Adwa’, Beirut 1992).

[8] Al Ta’adul wa al Tarjih p. 80.

[9] Tahrir al Wasilah p. 83, from al Fusul al Muhimmah by al Hurr al  ‘Amili p. 225

[10] Al Ta’adul wat-Tarjih p.82, from ‘Uyun Akhbar al Rida by Ibn Babawayh al Qummi, vol. 1 p. 275

[11] Al Ta’adul wa al Tarjih p. 83 – 84.

 This article first appeared in the March 1997 / Rabi‘ II 1417 issue of the bimonthly journal AL-ISTIQĀMAH