Monday, December 11, 2023

History in a Slaughterhouse Called Ossification

An Iranian jurist looks into the historical aspects of the assassination of a Muslim caliph.


Mohsen Esmaili (Ph.D.) is a jurist and a member of the Guardian Council. Regardless of partisan orientation, he is viewed as an objective writer and critic by the country’s media. A 203rd issue of Panjereh (Window) Weekly has published an op-ed by Dr. Esmaili as to why Imam Ali, the first Shiite Imam and Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, was martyred. The publication of the original article – an analysis of a chapter in the history of Islam – was meant to coincide with the anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam Ali (PBUH). A translated version of the article in question is bound to help the readers develop a better understanding of the underlying reasons behind the emergence of the Taliban and extremist groupings such as ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). It should be noted that ossification, fanaticism and irrationalism are not limited to Islam; they can be found among followers of other faiths, even among seculars, too. The following article is in fact a review of the opinions Martyr Motaharri held as to why Imam Ali was killed:

The martyrdom of the Commander of the Faithful, Imam Ali (PBUH) is one of the most tragic incidents in the history of mankind. He was and still is a legend, not just to Shiites and Muslims, but to all those who seek justice, morality and the Truth. That is why all edified souls mourn his loss. And the question remains as to why he was killed so cowardly.

The martyrdom of Imam Ali (PBUH) can be looked at from two different angles. First, who killed him and how? How was the stage set for his assassination? And what was the fallout of his assassination? Second, why did that assassin commit this inhumane crime? Although narrative history is useful, you should never end your quest for the truth about the past when you come up with answers to the first set of questions. In addition to answers as to who committed this tragic crime, you should explore why such a crime was committed. Only when the second question is answered can one make sure it is not repeated. Besides, research as such renders the martyrdom of Imam Ali, just like his life, into a lesson that deserves to be further explored.

A prominent thinker who has explored this issue is Martyr Morteza Motaharri. The present article is designed to take a look at his findings in this regard. Martyr Motaharri looks at this issue in the context of Islam and the Requirements of the Time. When someone asks, “Who killed Imam Ali?” the answer is Abd al-Rahman ibn Muljam. But when the question changes into what killed Imam Ali, the answer is ossification and fanaticism.

What has been reiterated in different books by Martyr Motaharri is that ossification poses the gravest threat to Islamic society and Muslim line of thinking. On several occasions he has warned about ossification. He believed that the Khawarij (a splinter group whose members initially supported Imam Ali, but later turned their back on the son-in-law of the Prophet) and the killers of the first Shiite Imam were only the tip of the iceberg. What is more important is the fact that the mentality of such individuals has always existed and continues to exist today.

In a book titled “Things about Ali that Attract and Repel” Martyr Motaharri writes, “From a religious perspective, breaking away is out of the question in the modern world, because the stage is not set for it today. But what Khawarij did can provide food for thought for us today. Although the offshoot of Islam they created is now history, the spirit of what they did lives on and is now part of the personality of many of us.”

What do ossification and the tendency to break away mean? What are their symptoms? And what constitutes an example of such mentality? Why are they so dangerous? Why should one always pay attention to them? And what are the ways of countering them? What comes below is an attempt to find answers to those questions in the books of a thinker the late Imam described as “always good”.

Tendency to break away draws a line between rationalism and religiosity

Martyr Morteza Motaharri
Martyr Morteza Motaharri

Martyr Motaharri believed that ossification and fanaticism were to blame for a tragedy as big as the assassination of Imam Ali in the altar. This is the danger that always threatens the humanity. To develop a better understanding of this threat, one should bear in mind that rationalism and religiosity are the two wings a person or a community needs as they fly toward prosperity.

Evidently, flight is impossible with a single wing. Elimination of religion from human life under the guise of wisdom amounts to treason and sinks humans to the nadir of misery. Examples of such misery are in evidence in the West today. To hide behind religiosity to ignore wisdom is bound to have terrible consequences. No doubt, recourse to the outward appearance of religion without paying heed to thinking will have more catastrophic consequences. In religious contexts too, rationalism takes priority and the religiosity of individuals is gauged on the basis of their wisdom.

Those who hide behind religion to deny the fundamentals of wisdom have not only not developed any insight into religion, but are painting an ugly picture of the Muslim faith, which is a divine boon, and thus prevent individuals from turning to religion. Is this not treason? They have stopped their search for the truth at the outermost layer of religion and are thus acting against faith. Khawarij were the epitome of individuals with such mentality. In this regard, Ibn Abi-Hadid says, “If you wish to understand the meaning of ossification and ignorance, pay attention to the fact that when they [Khawarij] decided to do it [kill Imam Ali], they deliberately chose the 19th of Ramadan, and said because they wanted to do good, it was much better to do it on a religiously important night so that they could be awarded by God.”

So Martyr Motaharri concludes that drawing a line between wisdom and religion is a pillar of the breakaway tendency, and warns that today such distinction is pretty much alive and as dangerous as ever. He further says, “Although the ideology of the splinter group did not last long, the mentality they cherished has been there in all Islamic periods. Today some contemporary intellectuals of the Muslim world have incorporated a modern version of such mentality into philosophy.”

Martyr Motaharri believes that Akhbari Shiites [who reject the use of reasoning in deriving verdicts] follow a similar line of thinking. “These two groups are very much like each other.”

Taking wisdom and reasoning away from religious instructions is like taking the soul away from human body. That is exactly what the Church did and today all faiths, including Islam, are paying a price for it. That is why the Koran and other religious texts lay much emphasis on reasoning and wisdom. Mohammad Reza Hamiki, a contemporary scholar, has put forth the theory of “Religious Goals, Religious Decree” to advise the faithful against becoming content with the outward appearance of religion. When caught in this snare, religious requirements which usually surface with the passage of time, turn into a force against the faith itself and fall into the hands of those who accuse Islam of inefficiency. That is an unforgivable sin to commit.

Signs and Consequences of the Breakaway Faith

It was mentioned that in the eyes of Martyr Motaharri what led to the martyrdom of Imam Ali (PBUH) was the fact that his fanatic, ossified killers drew a line between reasoning and religion. They were so fixated on the outward appearance of the faith that they believed those who committed cardinal sins were apostates. That is exactly what rendered their mentality more dangerous.

In his book, Martyr Motaharri said that the threat of hiding behind religion to reject reasoning still exists and has reared its ugly head several times since the emergence of Islam. He identified Khawarij as:

1. People who were diligent and steadfast in sticking to their ideology

2. Religious people who kept vigils and did not care about the material world

3. Ignorant people who were unable to tell right from wrong and misinterpreted things

4. Narrow-minded people who believed they were the only true Muslims in the world and alleged that others either misunderstood things or did not understand them at all and deserved to be tossed in hell.

Bringing these dangerous qualities together poses two serious threats to society. Imam Ali issued the following warning to Khawarij; “You are amongst the worst people. You are like arrows Satan uses against his targets and thus leads people astray and makes them doubtful.”

What are these two grave threats?

By putting aside tolerance and reasoning, Khawarij turn into tools in the hands of the powerful individuals. In other words, what makes the ignorance of these people doubly grave is that they might become playthings in the hands of the powerful and thus interfere with efforts to serve Islamic interests. Faithless hypocrites usually incite ignorant religious individuals against the Islamic community. In fact they turn into a sword in their hands and an arrow in their bows.

Their ignorance caused a certain victory of Imam Ali in the Battle of Siffin to be replaced by truce and his acceptance of arbitration which in turn resulted in the ouster of Imam Ali. Still, they later accused him of bowing to pressures to accept arbitration and assassinated him.

A second threat which the Nahj al-Balagha mentions is confusion among the public. That Khawarij capitalize on religious themes and implement the superficial aspects of the faith leads the public astray, consequently any effort to combat them becomes an uphill battle. Imam Ali (PBUH) likens their mentality to rabies and says, “In light of the fact that they keep a misleading appearance, no one other than me dares gouge their eyes.” (Nahj al-Balagha, 94)

Of all problems Imam Ali had to wrestle with Martyr Motaharri described Khawarij as the biggest. And Imam Ali so proudly says, “I was the only one who spotted the threat Khawarij posed. That they maintained a religious appearance and kept praying and were firm in their beliefs did nothing to keep the reality hidden from my eyes. It was me who realized if they gained power they would spread ossification, irrationalism and factionalism in the world and thus break the back of the Muslim faith. The Prophet has said, ‘Two groups really bothered me: irresponsible learned men and pious fools.’”…


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