Some Common Misconceptions about Shi'ism
by Shahid Athar
centuries-old Shia-Sunni differences are the
major obstacle to Muslim unity. These
differences have always been fanned by the
enemies of Islam to their benefit.
Unfortunately, some so-called Muslim
scholars on their payroll have also played a
key role in keeping these differences alive.
was born into a Sayyid Sunni family, I did
not know of many differences while growing
up as a child. Our families always respected
Imam Hussain (peace be upon him) and his
parents and participated in ceremonies
marking the anniversary of his martyrdom
(the 10th day of the month of Muharram which
is called Ashura) by reciting the first
chapter of the Quran (al-Fatihah) and other
chapters and verses of the Quran and fasted
on the ninth and tenth days of that month.
Now when I
give lectures on Islam to non-Muslims, one
of the questions they always ask me is if I
am Shia or Sunni. I ask them if they know
the difference. They have no knowledge,
other than what has been given to them by
the media. So they say Shias are the ones
who are the bad guys, the militant version
of Islam, and cause all the trouble in the
Middle East these days.
non-Muslim American audiences of mine are
surprised to learn that some of the known
tyrants like Saddam Hussain and
troublemakers like the PLO and Hamas are all
Sunnis, just as they are surprised to learn
that Tariq Aziz (Iraq's Foreign Minister) is
Christian and not a Muslim.
what I say to them about Shi'ites."If Ali
Ibn Talib (cousin of Prophet Muhammad) was a
Shia, then I am a Shia. If he was a Sunni,
then I am a Sunni(i.e., a follower of
Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). In Islam there are
five recognized schools of Divine Law:1)
Hanafi;2) Shafi;3) Maliki;4) Hanbali and5)
four are called Sunni, and the fifth one,
who in addition to following sayings and
actions of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), also
follows those of Ali and consider him as the
rightful successor of the Prophet, are
called Shia. The first four have many major
theological differences among themselves and
according to a Christian friend of mine,
"The only time Sunnis are united is when
they are fighting Shias."Shi'ism started as
a political movement (Shia means follower or
partisan) to help Ali become successor of
every successful popular figure, there are
some admirers whose own future interests
rest with the rise of their leader. Thus in
Indiana, we have "Friends of Lugar Club",
who are hoping that some day Senator Richard
Lugar will become a US President.
Nationally, we now have a "Hillary Rodham
Clinton Fan Club" with 4,000 members! Thus,
there were the Followers of Ali Club which
later on became apolitical movement. During
the initial battles with unbelievers, Ali,
the Sword of Islam, was in the forefront and
defeated and killed many of their leaders
whose children and grandchildren, even when
they became Muslims, always remembered who
killed their father (animosity).
raised by Prophet Muhammad as a child so he
knew Islam very well. Thus, when he became a
judge, his judgments were based on strict
Islamic principles, much to the
disappointment of many who expected him to
be lenient to the rich and powerful. He was
so well respected and trusted by both Caliph
Abu Bakr and Umar, that in difficult cases
they asked his opinion.
Nevertheless, I tell my non-Muslim audience
that both Shia and Sunni have many things in
common. They both believe in One God
(Allah), follow the same Prophet Muhammad
(PBUH) as the last Prophet, offer five daily
prescribed prayers, perform the prescribed
fast in the month of Ramadan, go to Mecca
for the pilgrimage (hajj),read the same
Quran, and pay the poor-due.
answers can only satisfy my uninformed
non-Muslim audience. TheSunni brothers,
misguided by western propaganda. who are
ready to embrace non-Muslims (especially the
white ones), in the pretext of invitation to
Islam, will not do so for Shia. They are
ignorant Sunnis. Our job as a missionary
should be to invite both groups to the true
Islam and not chase them out. There is a
movement in the Sunni world to have Shias
labeled as disbelievers. I have been told
that Shaykh Bin Baz of Saudi Arabia has
declared an edict that the meat of the
People of Book (Jews and Christians) is
permissible for Sunni Muslims to eat but not
the meat slaughtered by Shias.
scholars on both sides, like Imam Khomeini
and Shaykh Shaltut of al-Azhar who have done
their best to minimize these differences and
bring unity, but it is not working due to
the misinformation prevailing in the common
masses of Sunnis about Shi'ism. Thus I am
listing their misconceptions of Shia belief
and practices. For answers, I have consulted
two Shia scholars in America., Dr. A. S.
Hashim o fWashington and Imam Muhammad Ali
Elahi of Detroit.
Seyyed Hossein Nasr wrote to me "to ignore
and not waste time in responding to such
wrong allegations." He also mentioned that
"a great deal of money and effort is being
spent in the last few years to fan the fire
of hatred between Shia and Sunni in the
Persian Gulf region with obvious political
and economical fruits for powers to-be."
However, in the interest of Islamic unity, I
must deal with the questions rather than
shun them. Please note that Imam Jafar
(peace be upon him), founder of the Shia
school of law, was the teacher of Imam
Abu-Hanifa (peace be upon him).
Misconception #1: Shias have a different
Quran. They add another 10 chapters to the
Not true. I have checked many times Quran
kept in Shia homes and mosques. I still find
it the same as the original Quran. More
recently, I took care of an Iranian lady
patient hospitalized here. I saw a copy of
the Quran by her side. I borrowed it from
her and browsed through cover to cover. In
Arabic it was the same as our Quran. Of
course, since I did not know the Persian
language, I can't say much about the
translation. It is a sin to even say that
the Quran can be changed or added to by Shia
when it is protected by God.
Misconception #2: Some Shia consider Ali as
Not true. It is disbelief to even think of
such a thing. During the time of Ali, some
pagan groups called Gholat did consider Ali
as Lord. When he found out, they were burned
Misconception #3: Shias have different
declarations of faith and they add to the
call to prescribed prayer.
The declaration to become a Muslim, as
administered to non-Muslims, is the same.
Some Shia add to themselves, "Ali is a
friend of God (PBUH) or Ali is a spiritual
leader of God," after the call to prescribed
prayer, but not as part of the call to
Misconception #4: Shias do not perform
sunnah prayers. Sunnah prayers are non
obligatory prayers performed by Prophet
Shias do perform non-obligatory prayers, 36
cycles per day in total, but call it nawafil
and not sunnah.
Misconception #5: Some Shia believe the
Angel Gabriel made a mistake and prophethood
was meant for Ali and not Muhammad (PBUH).
Not true. No Shia thinks of such false
claims. "Only demented minds think of such
Misconception #6: Shias slander and ridicule
the first three caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar and
Uthman) and Prophet Muhammad's wife, Ayisha.
Shia consider the first three caliphs as
great companions and good Muslim
administrators, but not spiritual leaders
(imams). Imam Jafar Sadiq, whose mother and
grand mother came from the line of Abu Bakr,
said of Abu Bakr, "He gave me birth twice."
Ayisha is respected by Shias as the"Mother
of Believers," as Ali respected her when he
sent her back from Basra to Madinah after
the Battle of the Camel. If some Shia do
slander the three caliphs and Ayisha, they
do it out of ignorance and should ask God's
Misconception # 7: Shias combine all five
prayers into one prayer in the evening.
Not true. In Shia mosques, whether in Iran
or the USA, all five daily prayers are
performed. Some working Shia do combine noon
and afternoon and evening and night, but
Shia scholars recommend performing them
separately. Such combinations may not be
ideal, but better than not praying at all.
How can a Sunni who does not pray at all be
better than a Shia who combines prayers?
Misconception # 8: Shias do not pay zakat
Not true. They not only pay 2.5% left over
from savings as zakat, but also an
additional 20% as khums or general charity.
However, they prefer to pay directly to the
needy rather than corrupt Sunni government.
Misconception #9: Shias practice temporary
Mutah (temporary marriages) was allowed
during the time of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)
and he himself practiced it. Ibn Zubayr was
born out of the temporary marriage. Later on
Caliph Umar prohibited it due to social
reasons as the Islamic world was rapidly
expanding. Shias discourage mutah but do not
consider it prohibited. Some do abuse this.
As a temporary privilege during travel, it
is better than adultery.
Misconception #10: They consider Imams
infallible and above the prophets.
Not true. All prophets are born Prophet but
as mentioned in Quran about Abraham that
after passing the test, a prophet becomes a
leader (Imam). Imams are carriers of the
message of Islam. Shias consider Ali only as
an Imam, but Muhammad (p) is the Prophet
(nabi), Messenger (rasul) and leader (imam).
With the little knowledge I have, I have
tried to do my best as a Sunni in defending
my Shia brothers in Islam with the hope and
prayer to God Almighty that He will "instill
love in the heart of the believers" and
bring us closer to each other so that we
jointly can fight our common enemy, Satan
and his followers.
forgive my mistakes in this article and this
Shahid Athar M.D., a Sunni Scholar, is
Clinical Associate Professor of Internal
Medicine and Endocrinology, Indiana
University School of Medicine Indianapolis,
Indiana, and a writer on Islam.