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Shi'a Pundit

Devoted to the viewpoint of Islam of Muhammad SAW and Amir ul-Mumineen, Ali ibn Abi Talib SA, in the Shi'a Fatimi Ismaili Dawoodi Bohra tradition.

March 28, 2003

what is Islam?.

It is indeed a religion founded on truth.

It is such a fountain-head of learning that several streams of wisdom and knowledge flow from it.

It is such a lamp that several lamps will be lit from it.

It is a lofty beacon of light Illuminating the path of Allah.

It is such a set of principles and beliefs that will fully satisfy every seeker of truth and reality Know you all that Allah has made Islam, the most sublime path for the attainment of His supreme pleasure and the highest standard of his worship and obedience.

He has favoured it with noble precepts,exalted principles, undoubtable arguments, unchallengeable supremacy and undeniable wisdom.

It is up to you to maintain the eminence and dignity granted to it by the Lord, to follow it sincerely, to do justice to its articles of faith and belief, to obey implicitly its tenets and orders and to give it the proper place in your lives.

-- Amirul Mumineen Ali ibn Talib AS, in Nahjul Balagha (Peak of Eloquence)

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March 25, 2003

Karbala watch: bleeding sand.

It is said that when Imam Husain AS was martyred, the sands of Karbala turned red, and every rock, when lifted, revealed blood beneath. The earth wept and bled for Imam Husain AS.

The month of Muharram is still upon us, and the sands of Karbala still bleed. To me, this is more than merely weather and good optics. It is a message, a reminder - the month of Muharram is still upon us. Yawme Ashura was only 12 days ago. It is tempting to get caught up in war and debate, as if the fate of the world hinged on the outcome. But ultimately it hardly matters, compared to this. This remarkable photo exhorts us to remember that success of failure in the material world is an illusion, and that our ultimate repsonsibilities lie within ourselves. That is the message of Karbala. In this time of war, this photo calls me to jihad - not violence borne of politics, but discipline demanded of the self.

photo caption: U.S. Army 3rd Infantry Division troops from the A Company 3rd Battalion 7th Infantry Regiment weather the elements as a sandstorm at dusk turns the desert blood red near Karbala Tuesday, March 25, 2003. The sandstorm grounded many US-led forces bombing overflights over Iraq and slowed U.S. military progress in the area near Karbala Tuesday. (AP Photo/John Moore)

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Karbala watch: Saddam's strategy.

From the Arab paper, Al-Hayat, comes a theory about Saddam's deliberate intent to capitalize on the symbolism of Karbala, by making it a focal point for the upcoming battles. The original is in Arabic, but a translation and interpretation comes via

A piece in the London-based Al-Hayat proposed an interesting angle to the scenario of a Baghdad Götterdämmerung. The paper noted that two columns of U.S. forces were moving from the south toward the Iraqi capital and would probably meet in the coming hours in Kerbala—a town holy to Shiites because it is where Hussein, the son of Imam Ali, was killed by a superior Sunni Ommayad force in 680. While Saddam's is a Sunni regime, the symbolism of the locale, which is associated with heroism against greater odds, led the paper to write, "Analysts [believe it possible] that the Iraqi regime intends to turn Kerbala into the major area of confrontation [against U.S. forces], since it captures the spirit of the Iraqi regime, which aspires to inject [both] Islamic and Arab meaning and resonance into its war against the United States." If Al-Hayat is right, then a secular Sunni-led regime will have co-opted Shiite religious symbolism—surely one of the more bizarre features of this war.

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March 24, 2003

Salam Pax returns.

Salam Pax has updated Dear Raed - he and his family are well, though shaken. It seems that internet was indeed cut of for some time, though now access has been restored. Google and Blogger are providing a mirror to the blog at as well.

Salam reports that there has also been some bombing of Karbala. I hope this is not true. I hope perhaps he can leave a comment with more detail - I wonder (in a most desperate self-delusional way) that this might not be misinformation by Iraqi govt sources, to try and rally Shi'a sentiment against the American advance. Or perhaps this is a reference to the helicopter attack against the Republican Guard in the vicinity of Karbala (see post below). Hopefully Salam will have more to say about Karbala soon.

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Karbala watch: Apache down.

Of course I am concerned for American troops - but they have no monopoly on my concerns. Karbala, the site of martyrdom of Imam Husain AS, lies once again at the nexus of powerful forces shaping the world.Both Karbala and Kufa (where Ali AS is buried, near Najaf) are directly in the path of the US forces advancing on Baghdad, and are major religious and demographic centers for Shi'a. A well-written essay in The San Jose Mercury News has a good overview of the historical importance of Karbala and Kufa, as well as this geographic information:

Two of the Muslim world's most sacred places, both of them closely connected to Islam's reverence for martyrdom, lie in the path of the American forces advancing toward Baghdad. Major damage or civilian casualties in either place could incite new Muslim anger at America.

Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, was brutally killed at Karbala, on the Euphrates River about 55 miles southwest of Baghdad. Al Najaf, about 160 miles from the capital, holds the gold-domed tomb of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad.

Karbala is definitely at the focus. As reported in The Guardian:

The Army's 3rd Infantry Division dashed north Monday toward the Shiite holy city of Karbala, only 50 miles south of Baghdad, but was stalled by a sandstorm that blew out of the desert.
The troops moving on Karbala made their rapid advance under heavy allied air protection that wiped out a column of charging Iraqi armor and sent some of Saddam Hussein's outer defenses withdrawing toward the capital. But the weather - not Iraqi troops - halted the long columns of thousands of vehicles that were stretched across the desert and farms.
Outside the Shiite holy city of Najaf, south of Karbala, U.S. soldiers skirmished with Iraqi forces before dawn Monday. Iraqis shot rockets and anti-aircraft guns at the Americans.

Now, according to the BBC, Iraqi television broadcasted pictures of what it claimed was a US helicopter shot down in Karbala. More information and a screenshot comes from

24-03-2003, 09:40 Iraqi television showed Monday morning a downed helicopter which it claims is part of the US forces. The AH-64 Longbow Apache, which appeared intact, was still armed with guided missiles with US markings on them.

The chopper was in a field and was said to have been found by a farmer. Iraqis waving rifles surrounded the black aircraft, which normally carries a crew of two.

The TV report indicated it was in the Karbala area, south-west of Baghdad. There were no indications of what had happened to any aircrew. (

Another news site mentions that command HQ in Doha has confirmed loss of the Apache:

At allied forward command headquarters in Doha, Qatar, an officer confirmed that an Apache helicopter had gone down in Iraq but gave no further details.

The television pictures from Karbala, a Shiite Muslim pilgrimage city some 80 kilometres south of Baghdad, showed the aircraft surrounded by Iraqi civilians, dancing and shouting slogans glorifying President Saddam Hussein and brandishing Kalashnikov rifles.

The inscription "United States of America" was clearly visible on the tail of the helicopter and the figures 95135 were inscribed on the rear rotor.

"The aircraft was shot down with a rifle by a brave fighter, the farmer Ali Obeid of Kerbala," the station announced.

White-bearded and proudly brandishing his rifle for the cameras, the old man claimed to have shot down another helicopter of the same type nearby, but no pictures of his second exploit were shown.

and a report from Ananova has more screenshots of the Iraqi TV report, clearly showing military emblems and the missiles intact.

ABC News in Australia also reports that the US military has confirmed loss of the Apache. The story has also finally penetrated US media, in the Boston Globe.

I think that the Apache may have been part of the helicopter assault on Republican Guard units that has also been reported near Karbala:

Republican Guard division attacked by helicopters near Baghdad; Reports on battle near Karbala 24-03-2003, 09:27
U.S. Apache helicopters moved within 10 kilometres of Baghdad and attacked the armoured Medina division of the Republican Guard early Monday. The battle follows a series of tough firefights to the south. According to CNN, the helicopters attacked the Medina division, which protects Baghdad.

U.S. forces encountered heavy anti-aircraft fire as they tried to take out Iraqi tanks on the ground. Many of the choppers came back damaged.

Late Sunday, there were reports of a battle near Karbala and Al Hillah, where coalition troops engaged the Republican Guard. That battle would be the closest fighting yet to Baghdad. The battle near Karbala lasted three hours and ended in the early morning hours. (

UPDATE: confirmed, the downed Apache was from the firefight. Much more detailed report from the Washington Post.

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March 23, 2003

jihad ongoing.

TheBit has continued the discussion of jihad on his blog, A Muslim Under Progress. I choose to reply because TheBit has been courteous and respectful as a brother in Islam, and I have nothing but reciprocal respect for him as a muslim. He writes:

As might have been evident, I do not claim to be an upholder of the Classical interpretation (I have a slightly different understanding). Yet, even I would not simply dismiss their interpretation or understanding with the ease with which Aziz seemed to do so. But I do not have the comfort of falling back on my sectarian affiliations and annoucing my sectarian rivals as "wrong". The first three "Sunni" Caliphs (ra) form an integral part of the major divison in Islam, and I am forced to accept their status.

That they engaged in wars of aggression, to gain politial control, is, therefore, an important aid in an understanding of the Qur'an. I did mention that we must try to ascertain the meaning of the words as understood in the cultural environment of Revelation. Evidently, based on a cursory examination of history alone, Jihaad seems to have been understood as a term implying "the utmost use of physical force".

There is an interesting reversal of causality here. My sectarian affiliation as a Shi'a is not the cause for my disagreement regarding the legitimacy of the Sunni Caliphs. I simply adhere to the comand of the Prophet SAW, who said at Ghadir-e-Kum:

man kuntu mawlahu fa `Aliyyun mawlahu

There are over 700 separate isnad (chains of transmission) that record this hadith, from Sunni sources, listed on the Ithna Ashari website,

It is because I follow the words of my Prophet SAW, that I am defined as Shi'a. By referring to my disagreement as "sectarian", TheBit has marginalized my belief in favor of a political assumption. This is my religion, not a game to me.

Therefore I recognize that as a historical fact, three men took the title of Caliph after the death of the Prophet SAW - this is not an opinion, or interpretation, it is fact.

I am NOT compelled or forced to accept their legitimacy as leaders of Islam, however. There is no rationale for assuming their actions had anything to do with Islam - in fact, if you accept the hadith above, then it is an inexorable logical conclusion that they were operating outside Islam from the beginning of their ascension.

Therefore, their wars of aggression are irrelevant to my understanding of the Qur'an, or of jihad. In fact, the Caliphs are utterly irrelevant. They are a dry well from which there will be no water to slake the thirst of theologic inquiry. If TheBit chooses to be forced to incorporate their actions into his understanding of jihad, that is his prerogative. But to assert that their actions impose any meaning on Islam itself is to put cart before horse. Islam was perfected by Allah and given to Muhamad SAW to disseminate to mankind. IT is immune to the actions of its followers. Or its hypocrites.

TheBit also says that we MUST "ascertain the meaning of the words as understood in the cultural environment of Revelation" - this is something new to me. The cultural environment of the Revelation is also irrelevant to Islam. If TheBit chooses to factor it into his understanding then that is also his prerogative, but it is certainly neither necessary nor sufficient.

Ultimately, I am not concerned with how jihad was interpreted by usurpers, or caliphs, or non-muslims. I am not interested in jihad as a cultural, literary, or political tradition. I am solely concerned with jihad as a fundamental part of my religion. There can only be Truth and Falsehood.

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God =? Allah =? YHWH =? etc. .

It's a common question - is "Allah" the same as "God" ?

The answer is yes and no. Islam explicitly recognizes Jesus AS as a prophet before Mohammed SAW, as well as Moses AS. Islam therefore asserts that the God that those earlier prophets (and Abraham AS, and Noah AS, and Adam AS) interacted with, and whose message they promulgated to mankind, is Allah.

Of course, a Jew or Christian will find it a trivial, moot question as to whether the god they believe in today is the same god that Moses AS or Jesus AS believed in. I confess to ignorance about Jewish concepts of God, apart from an aversion to vowels in representing the deity with words. In Ismaili theologic texts, there is a similar recognition of the limitation of mere words in trying to describe Allah (which is beyond the scope of this post). However, I think I am reasonably familiar with the Christian concept of God - briefly, a trinity of representations, of which Jesus AS was considered to be only one. This is quite blasphemous from an Islamic perspective. The concept of trinity violates several Qur'anic principles, notably that of tawhid (the one-ness of Allah) and taqwah (a more difficult concept to define, but which is often oversimplified as "fear of God"). The violation of tawhid is clear - Allah does not need or have sons, wives, dualities, avatars, or any other intermediate form. The violation of taqwah is more difficult to define to a non-muslim audience, but where it becomes relevant is in the basic Islamic postulate that the nature of Allah is abstracted beyond human comprehension. Ultimately, the trinity is a reduced concept of God, and the very necessity of taqwah itself is undermined.

Therefore, since Jesus AS was considered to be a Prophet of Allah, then the concept of trinity cannot be compatible with God from the Islamic perspective. It is a logically impossible for a prophet of Allah to mislead the very people he was sent to enlighten! It ultimately hinges on how important to Christian theology that Jesus AS be both the son of God and God himself. As long as Jesus is God, then to claim that Allah = God would be equal to claiming Allah = Jesus, which is impossible within the Islamic theological framework.

This suggests that YHWH = Allah? maybe. But God = Allah? no. However, I take a more pragmatic view. Christians do identify themselves as montheists - they argue that the trinity is not a polytheistic feature, but rather multiple aspects of the same single deity. While this is not sufficient to preserve your monotheistic credentials from an Islamic perspective, it is by definition valid with the Christian one, so it must be accepted on that basis. Therefore I do not make the claim that "Christians are polytheists" because that would imply that Christians believe in polytheism.[1]. SO, when a Christian invokes God (or Jesus AS, wince), they are praying to a single monotheistic deity. Since it strikes me as pointless to argue "no, MY god is the only god", I prefer to assert " there is one god - that much we agree on - but we disagree as to the nature of that God". This suggests that God = Allah? yes. I suppose the final answer to the question hinges on what context it is asked.

[1] However I do assert that Christians violate tawhid. This is admittedly a semantic difference, and I do not argue with Muslims who assert that Christians are polytheists. This distinction I have made is tantamount to defining degrees of violation of tawhid, for my own personal purposes of classification. I doubt anyone else would need or bother to split these hairs in the precise way I am doing. My real theological interest is how these issues relate to taqwah (which I am unprepared and unwilling to discuss here)

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March 22, 2003

I say Qatar, you say Kutter.

I am not normally a pronunciation Nazi. But this Explainer from Slate gets one thing wrong (by omission). The pronunciation of Qatar is not "cutter" but rather "Qutter" - the Q here represents the hard qaf sound of Arabic rather than the soft ke. Think of qaf as the same thicker, glottal sound you see in the word "baroque". Plus, the first vowel is not just "uh" but more like "aw". And even the "t" is really softer, halfway between "t" and "th".

UPDATE: my mistake, and kudos to Slate. They did get it right, way back in December. They even have an audio link.

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March 18, 2003

Unrest in Karbala?.

This news report is via Free Republic, so I am still not sure if it is absolutely correct:

DAMASCUS, March 16 (KUNA) -- The Iraqi opposition Al-Wefaq movement said on Sunday that bloody confrontations have taken place in the city of Karbala between the so-called Saddam's commandos and demonstrators leaving scores killed and wounded.

A statement issued by the movement distributed here today said that a mass crowd shifted their ceremonial rally on the occasion of Ashoura day into a demonstration to express feelings of rebellion and objection of the bloody regime of Saddam in Baghdad, a matter that had led to bloody clashes between the two sides.

It said that hundreds of people have been detained.

The statement pointed out that this accident was also repeated in Khan Al-Rab'a area between Al-Najaf and Karbala as Saddam's commandos and the Baath party members have attacked the demonstrators that flocked to streets to commemorate the anniversary of Ashoura.

The statement urged people inside Iraq for self-restraint during these critical and serious circumstances and to await the zero hour for an all-out uprising in which the military, tribesmen and Iraqi people would take part for the sake of sparing the Iraqi regime the chance of dominating this sole area, while exploiting the state of division among all parties.

I have mixed feelings on this. It's important that democracy be achieved from within Iraq rather than impoosed at gunpoint - but mixing politics with the Ashura day itself is distasteful.

I will see if I can confirm these reports with members of my community there... there are always Bohra pilgrims in Karbala, from all over the world. We stand out, with the women in their colorful two-piece ridah and the men dressed in white saya and kurta, with topis on their heads.

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March 17, 2003

salam to Iraq.

Bhai Pax, the mumineen in the Bohra community remembered your people in our precious Ashara duas. Come what may, may you be safe from harm.

I did pilgrimage to Karbala in 8th grade. I was sadly ignorant of the meaning and importance. I will someday return, insha'Allah.

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March 6, 2003

My God is not Mohammed, either.

On Monday, Imam Mohamad Joban, of the Islamic Center of Olympia, delivered the following opening prayer before the Washington State House of Representatives:

: "We open this session of House of Representatives in the name of Allah the one God Abraham, God of Moses, God of Jesus, and God of Mohammed, peace be upon them all. . . . We ask Allah or God to bless the state of Washington so it may continue to prosper and become a symbol of peace and tranquility for people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds. We pray that Allah may guide this House in making good decisions for the people of Washington.

"At this time, we also pray that America may succeed in the war against terrorism. We pray to God that the war may end with world peace and tranquility."

In response, two lawmakers lawmakers stepped off the chamber floor:

"It's an issue of patriotism," Rep. Lois McMahan, a conservative Republican from Gig Harbor, said of her decision to stand in the back of the room.

"The Islamic religion is so . . . part and parcel with the attack on America. I just didn't want to be there, be a part of that," she said. "Even though the mainstream Islamic religion doesn't profess to hate America, nonetheless it spawns the groups that hate America."

Rep. Cary Condotta, a Republican from East Wenatchee, also left the floor. He said the timing was not a coincidence, but he declined to comment further on why he left, except to say he was talking to another lawmaker and "let's just say I wasn't particularly interested."

McMahan clarified her action, saying she didn't oppose having a Muslim deliver the prayer, but called Islam "the focal point of the hate-America sentiment in the world." adding, "My god is not Mohammed."

I guess I should be offended, but I'm not. If anything, my opinion is that Joban should have stayed home. This demonstrates why there is so little point in Muslim comunities doing any kind of active outreach to the greater community - it becomes counter-productive. Even without the walkout, did havig Joban deliver the address actually achieve any good?

The energy of Muslims is better spent directed inwards, to their own comunities, to protect ourselves from cancerous infestation from fanatics, rather than try to prove how moderate we are.

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March 4, 2003


The dawn of the new year is a poignant time for a Shi'a, for it heralds the beginning of the ten days of Ashara, the martyrdom of Imam Husain AS. I have chosen to pay homage by reproducing the intro to the book, A Story of Faith, by Rashidabhen Ghadiali of Mumbai, which tells the history and background of this event:

Rasulullah (SAW) himself had declared that the community of Islam would split into seventy-two fragments and one more, before the Day of Judgement. Hardly had Rasulullah passed away, when the first major split occurred when tempted by the wealth and power of the Islamic world, a large group of the Muslims acknowledged Abu Bakr as their leader, choosing to forget that Rasulullah had, in the presence of seventy thousand people sworn that Ali was heir to all that he, Rasulullah, was Maula of. The community of Islam reeled. Rasulullah had died. If that was not catastrophe enough, his companions had already betrayed the pledge. To maintain calm in a time of such distress, Maulana Ali AS refrained from the assertion of his rights, choosing forebearance, telling Maulatena Fatema AS as the muezzin's voice asserted that Rasulullah was the messenger of Islam, "Why do I keep silent? Because if I lifted the sword you would not hear your father's name in the azaan anymore."

Abu Bakr, Umar, Usman, died one after another. Maulana Ali had always been leader of the mumineen whether or not he controlled the Islamic empire. But now, he ascended the caliphate for four years until his death. After him, his son, Imam Hasan AS was designated caliph. Muawiya, son of Abu Sufyan, found this unbearable and violently claimed the post. Imam Hasan made peace with Muawiya, appearing to acede to his claim to political leadership while in Medina, he continued with his quiet work. Imam Hasan was poisoned and died a little while later, and Imam Husayn suceeded him as the second Imam of the Shias.

In Damascus, the political centre of the Umaiyyads, Yazid succeeded Muawiya. He was aware that in Medina Imam Husayn still called people to Islam and the Shias continued to follow and revere him whether or not he offered them a chance to rule the world. The deen of Islam showed no signs of weakening and day by day Husayn's strength grew. Incensed, he sent word to Imam Husayn to come to his court and offer him a pledge of allegiance in order to ensure that Imam Husayn would never be a threat to him. Husayn went to Syria and found Yazid drinking wine, playing with dogs, allowing the dancers to entertain him, and enraged and impassioned at the mockery of the faith, Imam Husayn swore that he would never pledge loyalty to this man.

Yazid threatened by the power of the son of Maulana Ali and fearing the wrath of the idealistic Shias, had Imam Husayn slaughtered by Shimr, with his two sons, sixteen other men from the family, and fifty-four others, after starving them all, depriving them of water for three days in the blazing heat, before outnumbering each one by a thousand in one of the most heartrending battles in the history of mankind.

And so Imam Husain was martyred, and that was on 10th Muharram - Yawm - e Ashura. Ya Husain!

I do apologise to any of my Sunni brothers for any offense they may take from these, my beliefs. But I must be true to my convictions and I will not be held back from my assertion of same, especially not during Muharram. This is a time for grief, reflection, and ibadat. Nothing else.

I remain steadfast in my respect of other muslims (except those whose interpretations lead them to violence against innocents. This I will never sanction). I ask that the same respect is accorded to me as well.

Mubarak to everyone for the dawn of this year, 1424 Hijri.

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Nahj-ul Balagha

About Shi'a Pundit

Shi'a Pundit was launched in 2002 during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. The blog focuses on issues pertaining to Shi'a Islam in the west and in the Islamic world. The author is a member of the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community. Bohras adhere to the Shi'a Fatimi tradition of Islam, headed by the 52nd Dai al-Mutlaq, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin (TUS).

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