A Brief Overview of the Shi’a Sects

Here is the final of three posts on a brief bird’s eye view of the sects within the Muslim faith.  For the Shi’a, it is important to recognize that they have always been somewhat of an underdog to the Sunnis.  That is why a Shi’a movement of considerable note was Isma’ilism, as it gave rise to the major dynasties of the medieval Islamic world , rivaling the Sunni kingdoms for a time.  When Ismai’ilism was overthrown by the famous Sunni leader Saladin, the sect was split into two groups.  Some became Musta’lian, following the caliph Mustansir (now called Bohra)  while others followed his brother Nizar. Today, most Ismail’ilis are Nizaris, whose Imam is known as the Aga Khan.   

An offshoot of the Nizaris became the radical order called Assassins. They were never considered mainstream Muslims in any way.  Instead, this militant extremist group of Ismaili’s (Imams of the Nizari line) radically opposed the Sunni majority (since the 11th c.) and their purpose was to overthrow Sunni leadership.  They would target a single victim and set out alone with only a dagger.  They were called assassin from the word hashishiyya as they were thought to either be under the influence of hasish or simply acting like hasish addicts with bizarre behavior.    

The Druze sect is more or less a secret religious sect located in Lebanon, Syria, Israel, and Jordan.  No one is permitted either to leave or to join their community. 

The Alawis are an extremist sect located mostly in Turkey and Syria.  They are deviant to most other Shi’a sects and all Sunnis.  They are an important minority however as the Asad family, the Syrian presidential “monarchy”, are Alawis.

The most influential of the Shi’a sects currently are the Shi’a Twelvers.  This sect began in 765 CE.  After a succession of 12 generations of Imams after Ali, the 12th Imam disappeared circa 814, leaving no successor. This 12th Imam is known as the “hidden Imam”, a Messianic figure who will return in God’s good time.

Shi’a Twelvers played a significant historical  role in the change in the relationship between Sunni and Shi’a all over the Middle East that remains today.  In the 16th century, (the Safavid dynasty, who were Twelvers) seized power back from the Sunnis and reunified Persia (Iran).  They then reconstituted the ancient empire and resumed the ancient title of Shah, used by the emperors of the pre-Islamic era.  They proclaimed Twelver Shiism to be the state religion of the Iranian realm.   This marked them off from their Sunni neighbors in the Ottoman lands to the west, India in the east, and central Asia in the north resulting in a struggle for control of the border province of Iraq-long contested.      

Since the beginning of Islamic rule, Iran and Iraq are the only countries with Shi’a majorities. Their sense of competition for supremacy in the Middle East, has created a different mind set for authority.  Emerging from the centuries old experience of Sunni dominance and the resulting Shi’a subordination are seen all the social and psychological consequences of this reality. For instance, the Shi’a of Iran in the late 19th century created a new title, the Ayatollah, the supreme guide of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a kind of Pope lite, thereby creating ultimate and sovereign power.

Yet the continuing economic strife in most of the Muslim states, along with the influence of the secular world, and access to a constant stream of information, makes the longevity of enforced religious law and ultimate human authority tenuous at best.      

Quote of the day, from the wisdom of the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran in The Prophet:

“And if you would know God be not therefore a solver of riddles. / Rather look about you and you shall see Him playing with your children./And look into space; outstretching His arms in the lightning and descending in rain./You shall see Him smiling in flowers, then rising and waving His hands in trees.


A Brief Overview of the Sunni Sects

Following my last post on the difference between the Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, I have decided to delve a little deeper into the wide variation of belief (and practice) within the sects of these branches of Islam, starting with the Sunnis.  

There are four major schools of thought within the Sunni population. The  most widespread of these are the HanafiThere are considered the most moderate of Islam, preferring an abstract fairness over legal rigidity.  They have been around since late 700 CE. Their practices are used in the governments of Jordan and Egypt.   

Of the more conservative sects of the Sunni are the MalikiTheir beliefs are based on the literal word of the Quran, the Hadith (traditions and sayings of the Prophet), and legal precedents drawn from decisions in Medina only (the first settlement of a Muslim community), with emphasis on the decisions of the very first Companions of the Prophet.  (From the 80o’s CE). 

Somewhere between these two are the Shafi’i.  Al-Shafi’i (800’s ) was an extremely important jurist in Islam as well as a poet and a revered holy man.  His memory remains forever popular with the poor of Cairo, among whom he is buried.  People still stick supplications to his tombstone and his tomb is considered to have the power to cure sickness, although this is contrary to strict Islam.  He favored logic and only wanted the hadiths reduced to only those sayings of the Prophet with a provable origin.  Less liberal than Hanafi but less conservative than Maliki, many of the Shafi’i reside in Syria, Malaysia, and Indonesia.  This is the fastest and largest growing sect.

The last major sect originated in the 800’s, it was originally called Hanbali (from a scholar of the same name).  However, due to its extreme nature, it almost died from neglect until in the 1700’s when an Islamic scholar, Abd-al-Wahhab brought back this ultra conservative, authoritarian brand of Sunni Islam, now know as Wahhabi.  It does not resemble any of the above “denominations”.  They are extreme Puritans. It was Wahhabism that fueled the ferocious power on which ibn Saud built his kingdom.  It is the official religion of Saudi Arabia.  Ironically, they allow for complete freedom in commercial matters-something that Muhammad was utterly against.  Wahhabis are in exact juxtaposition to Hanafism, which emphasizes good works and exterior acts over interior convictions as the true manifestation of faith.  In addition, Wahhabis are opposed to all other approaches to Islam, especially Sufism.  Not surprisingly, Osama Bin Laden was raised in the Wahhabi tradition.

A few brief words about Sufism.  There are Sufis in both the Sunni and Shi’a communities.  They are the Islamic mystics and their history has been a rich tapestry of people and literature and ideas which have played a considerable role in the development of the religion of Islam.  The word Sufi comes from the name of the rough woolen clothing worn by the mystics (an ascetic practice).   Like the Christian mystics, Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, or Thomas Merton, they too aspire to a complete union with God (tawhid).  As well, they belong to orders (as the Catholics have the Franciscans, Carmelites, and Jesuits).  These are called tariqa or dervishes.  Each has practices or clothing particular to their order. You may recall the whirling dervishes; they are the Mevliv tariqa.  The famous poet and mystic Rumi was a whirling dervish.    The Wahhabis have outlawed Sufism, killing many of them and desecrating their cemetaries, especially those that contain walis, the saints of the Sufis.     

The next post will deal with the Shi’a sects and the importance of this knowledge in understanding the history of the diverse Muslim nations.

Book of the Day: The Sufi Path of Life, the Works of Rumi by William Chittick

Quote of the Day by the poet Rumi:  “Load the ship and set out.  No one knows for certain whether the vessel will sink or reach the harbor.  Cautious people say ‘I’ll do nothing until I can be sure.’  Merchants know better.  If you do nothing, you lose.  Don’t be one of those merchants who won’t risk the ocean.”


Differences between the two main branches of the Muslim faith go back to the very beginnings of Islam.  The origins of Sunni and Shi’a  began as a political dispute over who the rightful successor should be to follow the Prophet Muhammad as the head of the Muslim state and community he founded.  Muhammad’s senior followers were called the Caliphate.  There are various definitions of what a Caliph is, but essentially it means a deputy or successor, and sometimes is synonomous with “commander”.  For instance, during medieval times, the Caliph was the supreme sovereign of the Islamic empire.  This pervasive kind of  power has waned significantly in most modern Muslim states.

The first Caliph after Muhammad was Abu Bakr, his closest friend and one of the very first converts to Islam.  While  Bakr was known as Abu Bakr “al-Siddiq”, meaning the “upright and truthful”, and many writings indicate this to be accurate, he was not a blood  relative of the Prophet.  For the Sunnis, (whose name comes from the word  sunna meaning the well worn path, the practices of the Prophet) his lineage was irrelevant.  They believed that the leaders of the community were to choose a successor, on the basis of worthiness. However, the Shi’a thought this method of choosing illegitimate, that the Sunnis were usurping power by making this decision.  The Shi’a believed that succession belonged by right to the Prophet’s family.  Muhammad had no son, but a daughter Fatima, who married his cousin Ali.  Shi’a literally means “Party of Ali”.

This tension led to a series of armed insurrections in the years following the Prophet’s death.  There was coups overthrowing those in power.  Of the first four caliphs who succeeded the Prophet, three were murdered, and their reigns ended in civil war.  Ali’s sons, Hasan and Husayn were both martyred.  Then there followed a series of claimants to the caliphate, known as Imams (this word is more broadly defined today to include religious teachers) who all  claimed to be descendents of Ali and Fatima.

As an aside, by all accounts, Abu Bakr was a thoughtful and strong leader. It was Abu Bakr who ordered the scattered portions of the Quran to be collected shortly after Muhammad’s death, thereby allowing for an authorized version to be completed within 25 years of the Prophet’s death.  (The immediate occasion of this command was the death in battle of a large number of men who knew much or all of it by heart and the concern that parts of it could be lost forever).  Many of the surahs (chapters) of the Quran are said to have been written down on palm leaves, white stones, the breastbones of humans, animal leather, bits of papyrus (essentially any material until paper was known around the 8th century), but much of the Quran was communicated through oral transmission.  

In addition, Abu Bakr’s daughter Aisha was and is (aside from Khadijah, Muhammad’s first wife) the most beloved by Muslims, a gifted leader of the faith in her own right and an example of virtuous living. These early founders continue to be beacons for both Sunni and Shi’a as they practice Islam in their own ways.

The majority of the world’s Muslims are Sunni.  The majority of the world’s Muslims, including the Shi’a, practice a moderate and life affirming faith.  Tomorrow I will look at the different sects within these two “denominations” and provide an overview of some of the extremist offshoots as well.

Book of the Day, Muhammad, A Prophet For Our Time by Karen Armstrong, “Those who kept the faith were not simply “believers”.  Their faith must be expressed in practical actions: they must pray, share their wealth, and in matters that concerned the community, “consult among themselves” to preserve the unity of the ummah.  If attacked, they could defend themselves, but instead of lashing out in an uncontrolled way, they must always be prepared to forgive an injury…”Hence, whoever pardons his foe and makes peace, his reward rests with God”, the Quran insists tirelessly.”


There is power in place to move us and feed us spiritually.

My last post talked about a place and its unity with nature. Lots of  places are people made places built especially for worship. Houses of worship with their spires, their domes, their minarets.  Inside, there are altars and private corners, to listen to the word, to light a prayer candle, or unload a sin.  Outside, there may be a shrine to a patron saint where one can may pray, meditate, or plead for personal intercession. These are sanctuaries and sacred spaces. 

There are also the spaces we make for ourselves.  It could be an Adirondack chair we set up purposefully near a shady tree or bird bath.  Writer Sarah Ban Breathnach tells of a “meditation table” she set up in her bedroom.  She gathered items that had meaning for her: “a large golden pillar candle, a Victorian lithograph of an angel, a print of the Madonna and Child, pictures of family and pets, a small blue and white vase for fresh flowers….this encourages me to meditate more often.”

We have seen altars of all shapes and sizes.  In the salon where I occasionally go to get a manicure, the Vietnamese women who work there have a shrine in the back room with Buddha statues, incense bowls, bits of food, and photos of loved ones.  Leslie (her American name) told me they each go there in the morning and throughout the day.

Down the main road from me, there is a man who has been building a cairn for several years now.  A cairn (Gaelic, old Scottish) is essentially a pile of stones, sometimes elaborately stacked with smooth and rounded rocks which act as a land marker or as a memorial.  They often appeared inspired, like sculpture, works of art.  This guy down the road… his is a tower.  I don’t know how he does it.  It’s been climbing upwards for several years now.  It’s like the game where you don’t want to be the last person to knock all the marbles down.  Every time I drive by, I think, “How is he doing it”?

Then I found out what this marker is for.  Each rock stands  for each month our country has been in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He wanted to have some tangible way to show how long it’s been, he is keeping watch and  remembering.  Those stones are both marker and memorial.  This cairn is no longer just a thing of beauty, it reminds me in a haunting way that as I run through my busy day, others are in harm’s way. 

Personally, three places come to mind that rarely fail to inspire, heal, and quiet my soul.  The first is the Cape Cod seashore.  There are particular beaches and towns I could mention, but what’s important is the time of day. The early morning and just at dusk, times when the beach is empty or almost so, and I can sit and listen to the promise of each new wave, watch the sandpipers scurry after their infinitesimal food, and become peacefully blurred into the expanse of sea and sky.  As JFK once noted, there is indeed something about the ocean and humans, something about how we are mostly made of water and it may because we all came from it.  I don’t know. I know it’s powerful.

There is a chapel in Sedona, Arizona.  It is built on a twin pinnacled spur 250 ft. high jutting out from a thousand foot red rock wall.  It is magnificent and while all of Sedona is a mecca for a variety of spiritual seekers, The Chapel of the Holy Cross is a palpable oasis.  While affiliated with the Catholic Church, it welcomes every denomination to walk up the steep drive and stay awhile.  You can hear murmurs of many languages as you pray your own way.

Lastly, my antique French pine writing desk with its worn top and soft yellow cabriolet legs .  It’s my sacred menagerie.  There are funky framed  photos of my children (when they were little and sweet!), stacks of favorite, dog eared books, watercolors by my artist daughter, always a brightly colored coffee mug, and a giant jar filled with writing utensils where I have taped a poem by William Henry Channing.  Outside my window is a very old apple tree (now blossoming) and birds of all sorts stop by to delight.  

Where are your places?  What is it that moves you about them?  Is is time for you to create your own space?  Or is time to return a place that perhaps is a long overdue visit? 

Professor Joseph Campbell (another folk hero of mine) spoke many times about the importance of finding or creating a sacred space: Quote of the Day: “You must have a room or a certain hour of the day or so where you do no know what was in the morning paper…a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are, and what you might be…At first you may find nothing’s happening…But if you have a sacred place and use it, take advantage of it, something will happen.”


Today’s word of the day is worship.  It comes from roots of words sprung from the West Saxon and Anglican languages (very close in their etymology) meaning the condition or state (ship) of being worthy, of having honor or merit (worth).  It a primarily used as a verb and involves action.   Traditionally, we think of worship as a noun/verb.  It is something we engage in on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday mornings (depending on our faith) and is something we go to (noun) and do things at (verb).  Worship is usually segregated in our minds to the religious aspect of our lives, communicating about God with other like minded souls.

This notion of worship is good.  It allows us for the continuity of rituals and theological language that may have been a part of our family for generations.  It may be the vocabulary of words for God and talk about God that we have waited for our whole lives, that before this time may have seemed elusive to us. We may feel like we have finally come home.

Sharing our own ideas about God with others and finding that this God that we are talking about is worthy of our time, devotion, effort… and love, can only enrich the Giver and the Receiver, those that hear the words and those that speak them.       

Yet, so much that is beyond our immediate control is worthy of our devotion or at the very least, our recogntion. With the daily reminders of new life sprung from dormant earth in the blessings we call early spring, I join with a multitude of others in nature worshipping.  The forsythias, the daffodils, cherry blossoms, dogwoods, apple blossoms, lilacs, pansies, jonquils, and the bright, bright green on the buds of all variety of trees are worthy of my wonder, my gratitude, and my belief in the continued promise of rebirth  when all seems dark and gray and colorless.

Yesterday in the early morning hours, I was driving past one of the most beautiful farms in all of New England (that declaration must be so) and there was this mist lying low, formed in response from the cold early air and warm ground.

I have been driving past this property almost every day for close to two decades and its ability to inspire has not waned in the least. The light streamed through with celestial rays and even though my children thought I was completely a “noob”  at this moment, I was giddy with worship.

I would like to conclude with a poem that I wrote in 2006:

Saltonstall Farm

God is not a secret/Tucked away in a special person, distant place or thing/Exotic and ethereal/Turn left, make a right, follow due east after the fork.

Instead, wonder everyday in this…

Green Green Green/Ever and spring and sage and pea./ Sprawling fields/Busily breeding/Open to all.

White farmhouse/rambling/black shutters/red barn/A silo/battered tin roof/America’s  young antiquity, new england.

Bovine beauties and their babies/Perennially bask against this bucolic backdrop/Chocolate and cream/Doe-eyed and docile/Sticking together/Telling the weather.

Turkeys race back and forth, back and forth/Zigzagging the country road/Can’t decide…gobble gobble gobble/Which way…gobble gobble gobble/To go…so like us/Imperfect, indecisive; but still moving.

Neat rows of cornstalks line up/Good little soldiers/Giving life for life./The trees, acres of them, pine and oak, maple and birch, frame the scene.

One lone elm sits deep in the middle of the field/Shades the cows, flaunts its splendor.

At Christmas time, lights dress its empty branches/Clothing its nakedness, clad in white light/ Glad tidings for the harried, the weary; the traveler. 

And in the morning, a cool mist hovers low and mysterious over the land.

And in the evening, the moon rises high, casting shadows, sculpting all like a bas relief.

And Always, whispers between created and Creator.

The Top 5 and a Half Movies with a Message

In some ways we are often engaged in the process of practicing religion, even if that’s not what we’re calling it, or its not about our formal theology (God talk).   The most basic notion being that we are all human and from that perspective, we are bound together by our collective experience of being human.

Movies have a particular advantage in this regard.  They connect us, fill our senses with the sights, sounds, and emotions of other’s stories. When done well, they move us… (to tears, laughter, reflection, or inspiration).   

Here are Nun Tuck’s pick of the top 5 and a half movies with a message:       

51/2. Stand by Me (1986) A coming of age movie based on a novella The Body by Stephen King.  It received Golden Globe Awards for Best Picture and Best Director as well as an Academy Award for Best Screenplay. The only reason this is number five and a half is that six sounded less exciting and this movie (one of my all time favorites) while  meaningful may not have the overarching power of the other four. 

Stephen King also wrote the next 2 picks. We often associate King with scary, deranged, but page turner novels.  Yet there is also something prolific in his ability to capture the darkness and suffering of the human soul but also it’s resilient potential with an occasional glimpse of cosmic justice.

5. The Green Mile (1999) A story of the baseness and wonder of human behavior set in a death row prison in the 1930’s.  See how the supernatural abilities and character of John Coffey bear a resemblance to another J.C.   Based on Stephen King’s novel The Green Mile, it was nominated for best picture, best supporting actor, and best screenplay.  

4. The Shawshank Redemption (1994) Another prison setting, this movie is based on Stephen’s King’s Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption.  “The narrator (Morgan Freeman) is healed from his despair by Tim Robbin’s character’s hope in the face of suffering.  There is the redemption that comes when one man is redeemed by the suffering of an innocent man who takes on the suffering of prison, seeing life within and beyond it, and living fully.” (Edie Bird)  (Again the Biblical reference of Jesus (the innocent) taking on the sins of others.  The metaphors of endless, the prison itself being one of them.  This movie was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Director, but it was running against one of my other picks that year.  

Now, my daughter says that my top 3 picks are a little cliche, but a lot of things sound  like a cliche, but that doesn’t make them any less real…or wonderful. 

3. Chariots of Fire (1981) British Film- true life story of 2 athletes in the the 1924 Olympics in Paris, Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish Christian who runs for the glory of God and Harold Abrahams, an English Jew running to overcome prejudice.  The faith and courage of both men is inspirational and the title comes from the Bible, 2Kings 2:11- “Bring me the chariot of fire“.  It won the Academy Award for Best Picture.    

2. Forrest Gump (1994) Forrest is a simple minded man whose innocence and trust are made all the more poignant as he travels through the turbulent culture in which he lives and the effects he has on the broken lives whom he touches.  This film won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Writing, among others.  It won these same accolades at the Golden Globes (including Best Supporting Actess).  Bible reference: Luke 18:15-17, “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”     

1. Gandhi (1982)- An outstanding and gripping biography of Mahatma Gandhi, the lawyer who became the face of the Indian people’s non-violent protest (which inspired Martin Luther King.) This movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor, among others. Gandhi wrote several books on Jesus Christ, one of which was entitled The Message of Jesus Christ.  The Hindu leader said, “The message of Jesus as I understand it is contained in the sermon on the Mount unadulterated and taken as a whole…If then I had to face only the Sermon on the Mount and my own interpretation of it , I should not hestitate to say, ‘Oh yes, I am a Christian’.  But negatively I can tell you in my humble opinion, what passes as Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount…I am speaking of the Christian belief, of Christianity as it is understood in the west.  

Let me know your thoughts….do you have a nomination? 

Gonna Take a Sacramental Journey

Growing up as a child in a liberal but devout Roman Catholic household, I lived somewhat of a dichotomy.  We sang our kumbayas with guitar strumming folk masses on Saturday afternoons (Vatican II being brand spankin’ new) and then switched gears when it came to time to discuss the “Holy Sacraments”.  Not only did they sound solemn and serious, they were confoundedly shrouded in mystery. I knew they were very important as we usually had to complete a year of religious education devoted to a particular sacrament in order to receive it.  But at the end of the day, I still couldn’t really figure out what was actually about to take place. No matter, there were the actual after benefits.  A party with all your relatives bringing you gifts (and money) and a big sheet cake with cascading frosting roses.

It is hard as a child to understand something which is far from concrete.  Indeed, it can be difficult as an adult.  Yet each religion has their own version of sacraments whether they use the language or not. They are the means by which humans can discover the subtleties, the sublime joy of touching the sacred through symbols and ritual. Who knows?  Maybe you may come up with some sacrament making of your own.

The word sacrament describes a rite or a set of physical symbols that either separately or together comprise a visible form of grace.  Sacraments are transmitted through a series of  material elements. 

Roman Catholics and Episcopalians have seven sacraments: Baptism, Holy Communion, and Confirmation (these  3 comprise the sacraments of initiation), Confession, Marriage, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick. Most Mainline Protestant denominations confer only 2 of these as sacraments: Baptism and Communion.  Some of the many symbols and rituals involved in these rites include water (the baby or person’s head being dunked in it), oil (for anointing the sick), candles (to represent union, light, sacred space), and chalice (for bread or wine).

While denominations differ as to their theological understandings of what the literal or symbolic meaning(s) are in any given sacrament, they would agree that these items become more than what they appear.  They become tangible representation of the unseen, pointing to the very real presence of God.  Everyday items like water, oil, or candles can be conduits for confering Grace.  

This tendency to acknowledge and penetrate the holy using objects and ritual is an inherently human one. In Hinduism, they use the word samskara to describe the sixteen personal sacraments (there are also noncanonical samskaras) observed at every stage of life, from the moment of conception to the scattering of one’s funeral ashes.  Each region and caste of India have their own specific ways of enacting them. 

Buddhists also use the word samskara to define “the constructing activities that form, shape, or condition the moral and spiritual development of the individual”  (Encyclopedia of Religion).  Repetition of these activities is imperative to imprint a particular samskara on the psyche  so that it will be carried over to the next life.

Jewish observances are the rituals that make up the spiritual life of the individual and community. Whether it be the ‘Brit Mahal‘ (the naming ceremony) or the “Bar or Bat Mitzvah” where the teen becomes an official “child of the commandments”, they are furthering their blessings as they acknowledge their covenant with God.    The Jewish wedding ceremony is called the “Kiddushin”, which means holiness and their Chuppah (the bridal tent) represents the making of a home together, and it is open on all sides, just as Abraham and Sarah’s tent was, to welcome all in unconditional hospitality.   The Kaddish, the special prayer for the dead, which means  “the hallowing, the making holy.” We all mark the milestones that make up a life and we provide a powerful dimension when we invited the sacred.  

As we look to the symbols and rituals that nurture our souls and make meaning for us (whatever they may be),  it may be helpful to also to remember the words of the irascible Mark Twain : “We despise all reverences and all objects of reverence which are outside the pale of our list of sacred things and yet, with strange inconsistency, we are shocked when other people despise and defile the things which are holy for us.”

Book of the Day, Body of God by Sallie McFague, Quote from the Book of the Day: “The world in our model is the sacrament of God, the visible, physical, bodily presence of God.  God is available to us throughout nature.  It is available everywhere, it is unlimited-with one qualification: it is mediated through bodies.  Our model is unlimited at one end and restrictive at the other: the entire cosmos is the habitat of God, but we know this only through the mediation of the physical world.”