Why Shīʿism cannot be a Fifth Madhhab


Ml Mohammad Taha Karaan

17 November 1999

The call for Sunni-Shi‘i unity, and its concomitant call towards regarding the Shi‘i Ja‘fari madhhab as a fifth madhhab alongside the four Sunni madhahib, will come as no secret to Sunnis acquainted with Shi‘ism.

There are those who sincerely believe that the adoption of this course will achieve harmonious unity between the Ahl as-Sunnah and the Shi‘ah. On the other hand, there are other who perceive this course of action as doomed to fail.

Believers in the effectivity of such a venture usually look upon others who are not as eager as themselves to implement it as the stumbling blocks. Everything would be fine, they reason, if only Sunnis would be prepared to regard the Ja‘fari madhhab as they regard the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi‘i and Hanbali madhhab. Just as there is no acrimony between the four madhahib, there need not be any acrimony against the Ja‘fari madhhab. After all, they are only a school of thought, and not a separate religion.

The Shaltut Fatwa

It was this kind of reasoning that was inspired in Egypt by the Dar at-Taqrib of Muhammad Taqi al-Qummi. The efforts of Dar at-Taqrib culminated in the fatwa of Shaykh Mahmud Shaltut in which he declared that “the Ja‘fari madhhab, known as the madhhab of the Shi‘ah Imamiyyah Ithna‘ashariyyah, is a madhhab valid to be practiced upon, as is the case with all the madhahib of the Ahl as-Sunnah.”

Abu Zahra’s blueprint

Another eminent Egyptian ‘alim who was partial to this idea was Shaykh Muhammad Abu Zahrah. This prolific author devoted several of his many works to historical and jurisprudential aspects of Shi‘ism. However, unlike Shaltut, he had the benefit of having studied some of the classical works of the Shi‘ah. He was therefore in a better position than Shaltut to recognise the serious deviations within traditional Shi‘ism. Although he remained an advocate of the idea of unity, he realised and articulated the fact that in order for such unity to occur, the Shi‘ah will have to distance themselves from the excrecences of their legacy. These excrecences centered around the Shi‘i concept of Imamah.

Abu Zahrah wrote in his book, al-Imam as-Sadiq (p. 11): “It is the duty of the ‘ulama who are the repositories of the knowledge of those sects to present it to the ‘Ulama in general as an Islamic madhhab like the other madhahib of Islam in the various parts of the world; that not everything in it is sanctified; that it too, contains opinions and views which are not based upon the Qur’an and the Sunnah; that it too, can be right or wrong, no matter who the person is who holds the opinion; that there is no infallible person; and that every Mujtahid can err and be right, except for the one who lies buried in the Noble Rawdah, for should he err, Allah will not leave his error uncorrected.”

Imams of the Sunnah and Imams of the Shi‘ah

The unity which Abu Zahrah foresaw was a unity based upon the principle which he here outlined. For as long as it claims its Imams to be infallibles for whom it is impossible to err, the madhhab of the Shi‘ah can never be equated with the madhahib of the Ahl as-Sunnah. The unity of faith which envelops the madhahib of the Ahl as-Sunnah exists exactly for the reason that the Imams of these madhahib are fallible men who used their faculties to the best of their ability to extrapolate and elaborate the Shari‘ah from its sources, the Qur’an and the Sunnah. None of these madhahib has an exclusive or pre-emptive claim to truth. The Hanafis do not claim Imam Abu Hanifah to be been an Imam appointed by Allah just as Rasulullah sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam was appointed by Allah. The Malikis do not believe Imam Malik to be the exclusive repository of the knowledge of Rasulullah sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam. The Shafi‘is do not claim that Imam Shafi‘i has knowledge of the Unseen as well as the Scriptures of earlier Ambiya. The Hanbalis do not claim Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal is endowed with the capacity to know what he wants to whenever he wants to. To the Ahl as-Sunnah it is utterly blasphemous to regard their Imams as superior to the Ambiya and Mursaleen, or to revere them as figures in whose control and under whose authority the entire Universe resides.

Ja‘fari Shi‘ism, on the other hand regards its Twelve Imams as superior to the Ambiya; as the divinely appointed successors of Rasulullah sallahu ‘alayhi wasallam; as the exclusive repositories of the knowledge of Rasulullah sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam; as possessors of the knowledge of the Unseen as well as of the Scriptures of the earlier Ambiya; as persons endowed with the capacity of knowing whatever they want to whenever they want to; and as higher in status than the Ambiya and Mursaleen under whose control every atom of the Universe resides. They perceive their Imams as absolutely infallible, and look upon the Fiqh of the Ahl as-Sunnah as the corruption of the pristine Islam of Muhammad sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam by the Sahabah radiyallahu ‘anhum. The enigmatic question is: If such is their view of themselves, and if this is how their view of their Imams reflects upon the madhahib of the Ahl as-Sunnah, then why are they so eager to be regarded as a fifth madhhab?


This is where one starts doubting the sincerity of the plea of the Shi‘ah to be regarded as a fifth madhhab. But is it proper to doubt the sincerity of another? Would it be ethical to suspect someone of insincerety merely because his motives do not seem clear to us? In the throes this ethical complex there would be many a doubter who will experience a pang of guilt, and perhaps even shame.

The Khalisi Fatwa

However, the mirage of such sentiments soon recedes into non-existence, to be replaced by the harshness of stark reality, when one reads further into what contemporary scholars of the Shi‘ah themselves have written about the idea of a “fifth madhhab”. At the same time as Shaykh Shaltut was earnestly promulgating his fatwa equating the Ja‘fari madhhab of the Shi‘ah with the four madhahib of the Ahl as-Sunnah, sincerely hoping thereby to bring about unity in the ranks of Islam, Shaykh Muhammad al-Khalisi, a leading Shi‘i scholar from Iraq, and an ardent supporter of Sunni-Shi‘i unity, issued a fatwa in response to a question from Bahrain, in which he declares that “it is not permissible to enter any one of the four Sunni madhahib”. In justification of this stance he states that there is a misconception that when the Ja‘fari Shi‘ah follow Imam Ja‘far as-Sadiq, they do so in the sense of taqlid, with the Imam being a mujtahid, as is the case with the Sunni madhahib. To the Shi‘ah, he says, Imam Ja‘far and all the rest of the Imams are not mujtahids. They are the repositories of the Sunnah, and as such their words constitute the Sunnah, and not merely ijtihad.

The Shi’i response to Abu Zahra’s blueprint

Shaykh Abu Zahra’s demand that in order for the Ja‘fari madhahib to be equated with the four Sunni madhahib, Shi‘ism will have to distance itself from its idiosyncratic and eccentric perception of its Imams, did not go unnoticed by the Shi‘ah either. The Shi‘i response to this demand was articulated in a 300 page book by a Lebanese Shi‘i scholar, Sayyid Husayn Yusuf Makki al-‘Amili, entitled ‘Aqidat ash-Shi‘ah fil-Imam as-Sadiq wa-Sa’ir al-A’immah (the Belief of the Shi‘ah about al-Imam as-Sadiq and all the Imams).

On page 11 states: “If you look at [Abu Zahra’s] introduction and most of his discourse, the fact of the matter is that he has studied Imam Ja‘far as-Sadiq without renouncing the beliefs of his sect. In fact, he has called the Imamiyyah towards something which they cannot possibly accept from him. He has in fact called them to concur with him and to give up their beliefs; to join the stream of the Ahl as-Sunnah in order for their madhhab to be acceptable to the ‘Ulama at large.”

To this he adds in a footnote: “[Abu Zahra] seems oblivious to the fact that the Imamiyyah too, call upon him and the people of his madhhab to give up their beliefs and to join the flow of the Shi‘ah.”

To Abu Zahrah’s demand that the Shi‘ah give up their perception of their Imams as infallible, al-‘Amili replies on page 17 by saying that this is a matter upon which the Imamiyyah will not not compromise. To them it is a matter decided by incontrovertible evidence, so they will stick to it, whether others will agree with them or disagree.

He goes on to say on page 19: “The gist of [Abu Zahra’s] words is that he is calling upon us to believe that not everything in the Ja‘fari madhhab is holy and sacred; that it does contain things which are not based upon the Qur’an and the Sunnah; that it is possible for this madhhab to err, even though it derives from a personality like Imam Ja‘far as-Sadiq. This we cannot accept, because in our belief structure the Imam is absolutely infallible, and it is is impossible for him to err in an opinion. It is fundamentally impossible for him to say something which is at variance with the Qur’an and the Sunnah.”

On page 21 he concludes his argument against Abu Zahra’s blueprint for Muslim unity in the following words: “If Abu Zahrah would endeavour towards the removal of division and acrimony between Muslims, it would be necessary for him to accept the infallibility of the Imam; to look upon the Imam as as the criterion for all the sciences of the Muslims; and to attempt to remove differences on these and other matters, of which there is no shortage. Only if he could achieve success therein, will the confluence of Muslims around the table of unity will become conceivable.”

The historical precedent of Nadir Shah

Abu Zahra’s blueprint for Muslim unity was not unpredented in the history of Sunni-Shi‘i interaction. In the 18th century the Iranian monarch Nadir Shah endeavoured to create peace with his predominatly Sunni neighbours by reforming Shi‘ism. This reformation entailed stripping Shi‘ism of its eccentricities which stand in the way of assimilation with the madhahib of Sunni Islam. He was particularly emphatic about the ritual cursing of the Sahabah, and warned that the perpetrators of this practice would be subjected to grave punishment. More importantly, he mooted the idea of the Shi‘ah taking their place as a fifth madhhab along with the four Sunni madhahib, even asking the Ottoman sultan to institute a fifth maqam for the Shi‘ah at the Ka‘bah in Makkah. This madhhab, declared Nadir Shah, would be known henceforth as the Ja‘fari madhhab, and would differ from the other madhahib only as the other madhahib differ from one another.

The response of the Shi‘ah of the time reveal the revulsion they felt at being put on equal footing with the Sunni madhahib, and at their Imams being relegated to the same status as the Sunni Imams. The ‘ulama of the Shi‘ah fled Iran en masse, believing that the king had abandoned Shi‘ism. The nobility turned against Nadir Shah. A group of his generals turned against him and murdered him. His nephew and successor, ‘Adil Shah, cited Nadir’s “abandonement” of Shi‘ism as the cause of his assassination.

Hamid Algar comments: “The religious policies of Nadir Shah … served … to emphasise the permanence and autonomy of Shi‘ism in Iranian soil. From the firm roots it had struck, Shi‘ism continued to put forth numerous branches; and it became apparent that the Shi‘ism of Iran, far from being a madhhab capable of assimilation with Sunni Islam, contained within itself a variety of madhhabs” (“Religious Forces in 18th and 19th century Iran” in Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 7 p. 708-709)


Thus, while it is undoubtedly true that there is Sunni opposition to the idea of placing the Ja‘fari madhhab on equal footing with the four madhahib of the Ahl as-Sunnah, it is seldom considered that the greatest obstacle in this route to Muslim unity lies not with the Ahl as-Sunnah, but arises from the very basic foundations of the Shi‘i faith. To the Shi‘ah, acceptance of the idea of being a “fifth madhhab” on par with the Sunni madhahib is nothing less than the first step towards denying Shi‘ism.

In other words, it is not so much because Sunnis will not have the Shi‘ah as a fifth madhhab. It is rather because the Shi‘ah do not want to be a fifth madhhab.