Criticism of Twelver Shi'ism

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Criticism of Twelver Shi'ism dates from the initial rift between the primary factions of Islam, the Sunni and Shi'a.[citation needed] Further, Shi'a commentators and authorities have criticised practices and beliefs which have become prevalent in the Shi'a community, engaging in self-criticism in an attempt to reform the faith.[citation needed]

Similarities to Roman Catholicism[edit]

Twelvers have often been criticized mainly by Sunnis, but even some Protestant Christians, for beliefs and practices that are seen as like Catholicism having deviated from the teachings of its founder and having only been introduced during later stages. This comparison to Catholicism extends from the Twelver focus on Husayn and Fatima, much like the Catholic focus of Jesus and Mary, and the associated elaborate mourning myths that surround them, to praying to the Imams, making pilgrimage to their shrines, celebrating their anniversaries and displaying their representations like the vast and elaborate Catholic institution of saint-veneration, and even as far as the similarities of an overmighty clerical class and an undercurrent of mysticism and philosophy.[1]

Twelvers obviously dispute this comparison with Catholicism, arguing that all their beliefs and practices are derived from Muhammad and the 12 Imams and any similarities are simply the result of a common source of revelation.

The Occultation[edit]

According to Twelver Shi’ism, the 12th and final Imam, who is also referred to as the prophesied redeemer of Islam known as the Mahdi, went into occultation in 873. However, this belief has long been criticized by Sunni scholars who “often speculate that the twelfth Imam never existed, but was a myth designed to keep the Shi’a cause alive.”[2] Meanwhile, western scholars have also cast doubt upon the existence of an occulted Imam. According to Robert Gleave, the occultation of the 12th Imam “became subsequent orthodox doctrine” after none of the competing theories that sought to explain the succession to a childless 11th Imam “seemed satisfactory”.[3] According to Bernard Lewis, the occultation and subsequent return of the Imam became a characteristic Shia doctrine following the “suppression of many risings and the disappearance of their leaders”; where the leader disappears and “his followers say that he is not dead; he has gone into concealment”. With each new leader “who disappeared and did not return”, this belief was “enriched” and became more detailed and “essential” as a “feature of Shia Islam.”[4]

However, according to Wilferd Madelung in Encyclopedia of Islam, the doctrine of the Occultation was well-documented by traditions of the Imams before the occultation of the Twelfth Imam whom the majority of the Imamiyya came to consider as the Mahdi after the death of the eleventh. As an example he mentions that "the pattern was already set in regard to Muḥammad b. al-Ḥanafiyya, whose death was denied by the Kaysāniyya [q.v.]. They believed that he was hidden in the mountains of Raḍwā and would return to rule the world. Similar beliefs arose around Muḥammad b. al-Ḥanafiyya’s son Abū Hashim"[5] Moreover, Madelung names several Sunni scholars who have similar beliefs:

Testimony in support of the Mahdīship of the Twelfth Imām by these Sunnī authors, as also of later ones like the Mālikī scholar Ibn al-Ṣabbāg̲h̲ al-Isfāḳusī al-Makkī (d. 855/1451), a Mag̲h̲ribī resident in Mecca, and, more recently, the Ḥanafī Naḳs̲h̲bandī S̲h̲ayk̲h̲ Sulaymān b. Ibrāhīm al-Ḳundūzī al-Balk̲h̲ī (d. 1294/1877 in Istanbul), was regularly noted by Imāmī apologists. The works of al-Gand̲j̲i and Kamāl al-Dīn Ibn Ṭalḥa were extensively quoted already by ʿAlī b. ʿĪsā al-Irbilī (d. 692/1293) in his Kas̲h̲f al-g̲h̲umma fī maʿrifat al-aʾimma, which in turn won positive comment from Sunnī authors because of its extensive reliance on Sunnī sources. Further support for the Mahdīship of the Twelfth Imām came from Ṣūfī circles. Already Abū Bakr al-Bayhaḳī (d. 458/1066) had noted that some Ṣūfī gnostics (d̲j̲amāʿa min ahl al-kas̲h̲f) agreed with the Imāmī doctrine about the identity of the Mahdī and his g̲h̲ayba. The Persian Ṣūfī Ṣadr al-Dīn Ibrāhīm al-Ḥammūyī (late 7th/13th century) supported Imāmī doctrine on the Mahdī in his Farāʾid al-simṭayn. The Egyptian Ṣūfī al-S̲h̲aʿrānī, while generally showing no sympathy for S̲h̲īʿism. affirmed in his al-Yawāḳīt wa ’l-d̲j̲awāhir (written in 958/1551) that the Mahdīwas a son of Imām al-Ḥasan al-ʿAskarī born in the year 255/869 and would remain alive until his meeting with Jesus. His advent could be expected after the year 1030/1621. He based his assertion on the testimony of the Ṣūfī S̲h̲ayk̲h̲ Ḥasan al-ʿIrāḳī, who claimed to have met the Mahdī, and on a spurious quotation from Ibn al-ʿArabī’s al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya identifying the Expected Mahdī with the Twelfth Imām. This quotation of Ibn al-ʿArabī was noted and accepted by both Imāmī and Sunnī scholars. The Egyptian S̲h̲ayk̲h̲ al-Ṣabbān (d. 1206/1792), in his Isʿāf al-rāg̲h̲ibīn fī sīrat al-Muṣṭafā wa-faḍāʾil ahl baytih al-ṭāhirīn, censured Ibn al-ʿArabī for supporting such a view against the clear evidence of the traditions accepted by Sunnī scholars.

Usuli versus Akhbari[edit]

Twelver Shia of the Akhbari and Usuli branches have for centuries debated over the interpretation of religious texts and the responsibilities of Twelver scholars in the absence of the Hidden 12th Imam. This culminated during the latter half of the 18th century with the violent suppression of Akhbari’s, especially under the direction of Usuli scholar Muhammad Baqir Behbahani.[6][7][8]

On the one hand, Akhbaris (nowadays a small minority) reject the use of reasoning in deriving religious laws and verdicts. They believe the Qur'an and Sunnah (traditions of the Prophet Muhammad and the Imams) provide all the laws necessary for their followers, and that reasoning is open to errors from imperfect scholars in the absence of an infallible Imam. They also criticise what they see as the transgressions of Twelver scholars, in gradually acquiring for themselves the powers and responsibilities of the Hidden Imam. Some Akhbaris have reported their belief this was, among others explanations, a result of the greed for power and wealth of Usuli scholars over laymen.[9]

On the other hand, Usulis criticise the rigidity and narrow-mindedness of the Akhbaris and interpret the religious texts and take on much of the roles of the 12th Imam in accordance with the naturally evolving requirements of the Twelver Shia community.

Nikah mut‘ah[edit]

Nikah mut‘ah (lit. "pleasure marriage"), is a fixed-term marriage practiced in Twelver Shi’ism. The duration of this type of marriage is fixed at its inception and is then automatically dissolved upon completion of its term. For this reason, nikah mut‘ah has been widely criticised as the religious cover and legalization of prostitution.[10][11][12][13][14] The Christian missionary Thomas Patrick Hughes criticized Mut'ah as allowing the continuation of "one of the abominable practices of ancient Arabia." [15]

According to Karen Ruffle, assistant professor of religion at Toronto University, even though mutʿah is prohibited by Sunni schools of law, there are several types of similar marriages including misyar and ʿurfi marriage, that gained popularity in parts of Sunni world.[16] Moreover, according to Shia (and some orientalists, e.g. Encyclopedia of Islam[17]), nikah mut‘ah was practiced at the time of Prophet Muhammad, but was outlawed by the second Caliph, Umar ibn Khattab. Therefore, it is forbidden among Sunnis, but Shia consider Umar's account as legally and religiously invalid, as they argue it's legitimated by Quran 4:24.[18][19][20] Shia have systematically contested the criticism that it is a cover for prostitution, and argue their rationales regarding the legal uniqueness of temporary marriage, which distinguishes Mut'ah ideologically from prostitution.[18][21] Children born of temporary marriages are considered legitimate, and have equal status in law with their siblings born of permanent marriages, and do inherit from both parents. Women must observe a period of celibacy (idda) to allow for the identification of a child’s legitimate father, and a woman can only be married to one person at a time, be it temporary or permanent. Some scholars also view Mut'ah as a means of eradicating prostitution from society.[22]

Taqiyya (dissimulation)[edit]

Taqiyya is a Shi'a practice under which it is permissible to hide about one's faith in order to preserve life. The Shi'a have been criticised for this practice, and act deemed against virtues of bravery and courage.[23]

The practice of concealing one's beliefs in dangerous circumstances originates in the Qur'an, which deems blameless those who disguise their beliefs in such cases.[24][non-primary source needed] The practice of taqiyya in difficult circumstances is considered legitimate by Muslims of various sects. Sunni and Shi'a commentators alike observe that verse [Quran 16:106] refers to the case of 'Ammar b. Yasir, who was forced to renounce his beliefs under physical duress and torture.[25]

This practice was emphasized in Shi'a Islam whereby adherents may conceal their religion when they are under threat, persecution, or compulsion.[26] Taqiyya was developed to protect Shi'ites who were usually in minority and under pressure. In the Shi'a view, taqiyya is lawful in situations where there is overwhelming danger of loss of life or property and where no danger to religion would occur thereby.[27]

Shi'a commentators have argued that taqiyya has precedents from the time of Muhammad, including the story of Ammar ibn Yasir, Such commentators argue that to not avoid certain death is illogical, and that dissimulation is permissible under various circumstances, such as to preserve life, to protect the chastity of women, or avoid destitution.[23]

Disrespect to Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman[edit]

One allegation commonly leveled against the Shi'a is that they disrespect the Sunni Caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman who supported Mohammad as per Sunni belief[28] during the early days of Islam but later turned enemies of Mohammad's household (Ahl al Bayt) as per Shia belief.[29] Such Shi'a practices include the recited Dua Sanamain Quraish, which calls God's curse on the first two Sunni caliphs following Prophet Muhammad's death, Abu Bakr and Umar. Following the Safavid empire's conversion to the Shi'a sect of Islam, the first three caliphs, whom the Shi'a felt usurped Ali's right to be caliph, were cursed during Friday sermons.[30]

As Sunni scholar Shaykh Saleh Al-Fawzan summarises the views of the Rafidis as compared to the Nasibis:

The Raafidis are the opposite: they love the Prophet's family (ahl al-bayt) - or so they claim, but they hate the Saahaaba, whom they curse, denounce as kaafirs, and criticize.[31]

During the 1960s, when an incipient ecumenical movement called for the unification of Shi'a and Sunni Islam, religious writers cited this "disrespect" for the Sahaba as a barrier to unification. In 1980s and 1990s, three major religious writers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan again cited this argument, noting that until all "profanity" against the Sahaba was abandoned, dialogue with Shi'a scholars could not begin.[32]

Self-flagellation during Ashura[edit]

The Shi'as have been criticised for the practice of self-flagellation during Ashura, the observation of the martyrdom of Husayn traditionally accompanied by acts of ritual self-harm. These acts have not only been criticised by non-Shi'a; the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei issued a fatwa in 14 June 1994 banning this practice. He considered it irreligious and not suitable for good Muslims.[32]

Child Imams[edit]

Three of the Twelve Imams, held by the Shi'a to be God's representatives on Earth, were less than ten years old when they assumed the undisputed sole and ultimate leadership of the Twelver Shia community. The ninth Imam, Muhammad al-Taqi was 7 and a half years old at the time he assumed the imamate; the 10th Imam Ali al-Hadi was between 6.5 and 8.5 years, and the 12th and final Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi was 4 and a half years old. Pakistani Islamic scholar and polemicist Ehsan Elahi Zaheer argues against the possibility of these personalities assuming the leadership of the Imamate at such young ages.[33] Wilferd Madelung notes, however, that in Shi'a belief the knowledge of an Imam comes from "inspiration, not acquisition", and thus that even a young imam is not considered unprepared, receiving revelation upon the death of his predecessor.[34]

Infallibility of Imams[edit]

There are several attributes considered by Shi'is to be necessary for the Imams and these conditions are held to be proved both by traditions and by logical necessity. Thus in Shi'ism, the Imams are considered to be designated, sinless or infallible (Ismah) and the best of the people.[35] Twelver shi’im has been criticized for exaggerating holiness and infallibility of its Imams. Al-Kulayni in al-Kafi claims that Imams know when they die and they do not die unless by their own choice, they know everything in the past and in the future and every time when god informs his prophet (Muhammad), he orders him to inform Ali too. In Islamic Government Khomeini writes:” Amongst the necessities in our doctrine is that our Imams have a dignity which no favored angel nor sent prophet could ever reach. As it has been narrated, the Imams were lights under the shadow of the throne before creating this world”.[36] According to critics this purity is close to that of the prophet Muhammad, if not quite on the same level, and reflects excessiveness of view.[37] Shi'ism has been criticised for magnifying the role of Imams sometimes larger than that of the prophet.[38]

Fatimah's divine revelations[edit]

According to some Twelver Shia scholars, Muhammad's daughter Fatimah received divine revelations after her father's death.[39][non-primary source needed] During the 75 days that Fatimah had contact and communication with Gabriel, her husband Ali wrote down and recorded the revelations that were made to Fatimah which she dictated to him, to form the Book of Fatimah.

Sunni critics argue that Fatimah never received divine revelations[40]


According to Shia religious practice, Khums is an annual taxation on 20% of all profits. This wealth is collected and managed by Shia religious leaders. However, according to scholars such as Musa al-Musawi, the modern development of the practice of collecting khums exclusively by Shia religious leaders, especially the sayyid clerical elite, is simply a case of the usurpation of the place of the hidden Imam Mahdi and as a way of enriching the clerical class.[41][42][43]

Three prayer times per day[edit]

While Sunnis have 5 salat (prayer) sessions per day, Twelvers can opt to pray only 3 times per day by doubling their prayers on 2 occassions[44][45][46] - combining the 2nd prayer with the 3rd and the 4th prayer with the 5th.[47][48] However, Sunnis argue this very practice defeats the purpose of having 5 distinct prayers, since God ordered 5 prayers for 5 separate times of the day rather than 3 prayers for 3 separate times of the day and that Shia have misrepresented the ambiguity of the issue in the Quran for their own convenience.[49][50]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ James A. Bill, John Alden Williams (2003). "1". Roman Catholics and Shi'i Muslims: Prayer, Passion, and Politics (illustrated ed.). The University of North Carolina Press. p. 14. ISBN 9780807854990. 
  2. ^ The Routledge Handbook of Religion and Security, by Chris Seiple, Dennis R. Hoover, Pauletta Otis, 2012, page 60
  3. ^ A Companion To The History Of The Middle East, edited by Youssef M.Choueiri, page 93
  4. ^ Islam and the West, by Bernard Lewis, 1993, page 163
  5. ^ al-Mahdī. Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online , 2012. Reference. University of Southern California. 18 June 2012
  6. ^ Philosophers and Religious Leaders, edited by Christian D. Von Dehsen & Scott L. Harris, page 29
  7. ^ Cole, J. R. I. Roots of North Indian Shi'ism in Iran and Iraq: Religion and State in Awadh, 1722-1859. Berkeley: University of California Press, pages 33 & 164
  8. ^ The New Encyclopedia of Islam, by Cyril Glassé, page 35
  9. ^ J. R. I. Cole (1989). "3.6". Roots of North Indian Shi'ism in Iran and Iraq: Religion and State in Awadh. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 165–166. ISBN 978-0520056411. 
  10. ^ Iran talks up temporary marriages, by Frances Harrison, BBC News, Last Updated: 2 June 2007.
  11. ^ Temporary 'Enjoyment Marriages' In Vogue Again With Some Iraqis, by Nancy Trejos, The Washington Post, 20 January 2007.
  12. ^ Law of desire: temporary marriage in Shi'i Iran, by Shahla Haeri, pg.6.
  13. ^ Islam For Dummies, by Malcolm Clark.
  14. ^ Islam: a very short introduction, by Malise Ruthven.
  15. ^ "In permitting these usufructuary marriages Muḥammad appears but to have given Divine (?) sanction to one of the abominable practices of ancient Arabia, for Burckhardt (vol. ii. p. 378) says, it was a custom of their forefathers to assign to a traveller who became their guest for the night, some female of the family, most commonly the host’s own wife!" Hughes, T. P. (1885). In A Dictionary of Islam: Being a Cyclopædia of the Doctrines, Rites, Ceremonies, and Customs, together with the Technical and Theological Terms, of the Muhammadan Religion. London: W. H. Allen & Co.
  16. ^ Mut'a, by Karen Ruffle, Oxford Bibliographies
  17. ^ The Islamic Shield: Arab Resistance to Democratic and Religious Reforms By Elie Elhadj, p. 51
  18. ^ a b Temporary marriage, Encyclopedia Iranica
  19. ^ Michel Foucault, Discipline and punish: The birth of Prison, Trans Alan Sheridan (New York: Vantage, 1979)
  20. ^ Mahnaz Afkhami, Erika Friedl - 1994 In the eye of the storm: women in post-revolutionary Iran - Page 105
  21. ^ Sachiko Murata, Temporary Marriage in Islamic Law
  22. ^ Said Amir Arjomand (1984), From nationalism to revolutionary Islam, page 171
  23. ^ a b Muḥammad Ḥusayn Ṭabāṭabāʼī, Muhammad H. Al-Tabataba'i. Shiʻite Islam. Issue 5 of The Persian studies series. SUNY Press, 1977. ISBN 0-87395-390-8, ISBN 978-0-87395-390-0. Pg 227
  24. ^ Quran 16:106
  25. ^ Virani, Shafique N. (2007), The Ismailis in the Middle Ages: A History of Survival, a Search for Salvation, New York: Oxford University Press, p. 48, ISBN 978-0-19-531173-0. 
  26. ^ "Taqiyah". Oxford Dictionary of Islam. John L. Esposito, Ed. Oxford University Press. 2003. Retrieved 25 May 2011.
  27. ^ Momen, Moojan (1985). An Introduction to Shi'i Islam. Yale University Press. pp. 39, 183. ISBN 978-0-300-03531-5. 
  28. ^ Nicholas Schmidle. To Live Or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan. Macmillan, 2010. ISBN 0-8050-9149-1, ISBN 978-0-8050-9149-6. Pg 23
  29. ^ The History of al-Tabari, Volume IX, The Last Years of the Prophet, p186-187, SUNY Press
  30. ^ Patrick Cockburn. Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia revival, and the struggle for Iraq. Simon and Schuster, 2008. ISBN 1-4165-5147-6, ISBN 978-1-4165-5147-8. Pg 25
  31. ^ Muhammad Saed Abdul-Rahman. Islam: Questions and Answers - Schools of Thought, Religions and Sects, Volume 8. MSA Publication Limited, 2003. ISBN 1-86179-291-3, ISBN 978-1-86179-291-4. Pg 102
  32. ^ a b Jamal S. Suwaidi. Iran and the Gulf: a search for stability. I.B.Tauris, 1996. ISBN 1-86064-144-X, 9781860641442. Pg 165
  33. ^ Shia's and Shiaism, there Genesis and Evolution: Shia Sects, by Allama Ehsan Elahi Zaheer. Text quotation: "If God had commanded us to obey an adolescent, He would have also ordered the adolescent to obey His injunctions. Just as it is unlawful to declare a non-adult as "Mukallaf", similarly he is not legally empowered to arbitrate among people. He can not grasp the subtleties and intricacies involved in the solution of problems; he is not fully conversant with religious injunctions and the rules and regulations of Sharia. The Sharia introduced by the holy Prophet (peace be upon him) which is the basic need of the Ummah till the arrival of the doomsday is obviously beyond the range of an adolescent's comprehension. If a non-adolescent can handle these complicated and sensitive issues, then we can also excpet a child who is in his cradle and swings to the rhythms and melodies of nursery rhymes, to show an awareness of these issues and to suggest solutions to dis-entangle their knots. But it all sounds absurd because adolescence is not the same things as non-adolescence and a child can not rationally be expected to behave like a grown-up person. The perceptions and reflections of the former do not operate at the same wave lengts as those of the latter."
  34. ^ An Ismaili heresiography, by Wilferd Madelung, Paul Ernest Walker, pg.114-115
  35. ^ Moojan Momen.An Introduction to Shi'a Islam. page 153
  36. ^ I. M. N. Al-Jubouri. Islamic Thought. page 314
  37. ^ I. M. N. Al-Jubouri. Islamic 107
  38. ^ M. F.Sayeed. Fundamental doctrine of Islam and its 298
  39. ^ Kitab Al-Kafi, Chapter 40 (Statements about al-Jafr, al-Jami‘ and the Book of Fatima (a.s.)), H 639, Ch. 40, h 5, translated by Muhammad Sarwar. A sound tradition according to Grand Ayatollah Khomeini in: “THE POSITION OF WOMEN FROM THE VIEWPOINT OF IMAM KHOMEINI”, pg.10-11. This tradition quotes Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq, as saying: “After the death of her father, Fatima, upon whom be peace, lived for 75 days. She was in this world and she was overcome with grief. Gabriel, the Trusted Spirit, came to her regularly to console her and tell her of future events.”
  40. ^ Thomas Patrick Hughes. Dictionary of Islam: being a cyclopædia of the doctrines, rites, ceremonies, and customs, together with the technical and theological terms, of the Muhammadan religion. W. H. Allen, 1885. Pg 573
  41. ^ al-Shra wa-l-taskih, Musa al-Musawi, pp. 65-76
  42. ^ The Just Ruler in Shi'ite Islam, Abdulaziz Sachedina, pp. 237-45
  43. ^ Shi'a Islam: From Religion to Revolution, Heinz Halm, pp. 93-94
  44. ^ 2017? How to Survive: Road-Testing the Options, Looking for Loopholes, by Kevin Staffa, p. 66.
  45. ^ Islamic Customs and Culture, by Jason Porterfield, p. 10.
  46. ^ Textbook on Muslim Law, by Rakesh Kumar Singh, p. 26.
  47. ^ Muslim Cultures Today: A Reference Guide, edited by Kathryn M. Coughlin, p. 91.
  48. ^ Islam: A Concise Introduction, by Neal Robinson, p. 98.
  49. ^ Muslims: Bio-cultural Perspective, by S. H. M. Rizvi, Shibani Roy, p. 5.
  50. ^ World Criminal Justice Systems: A Comparative Survey, by Richard J. Terrill, p. 605.