The Sacred Door Project

For far too long, the Islamic branch of Shi’ism has been labeled as the heterodox sect, a reactionary form of heresy to the true teachings and traditions of the Prophet. In fact, it was not until the latter half of the 20th century, that this narrative began to slowly shift. This was due to the tireless effort and work of countless scholars who noticed the gap in the literature on Shi’ism in Islamic studies and decided to rewrite the perspective on Shi’ism. It was not for a lack of textual evidence of early Shi’i sources or the quantity of those willing and qualified to write, but the reason behind false associations with Shi’ism was a wildfire of misinformation and stigma. In addition, a plethora of critical primary sources remained untranslated from Arabic into Western languages until the 20th and 21st centuries. Many of them still await translation. Despite the recent profusion of literature on Shi’ism as its own discipline of Islamic studies, as opposed to the notion of Shi’ism as a blasphemous response to Sunnism, Shi’ism is still treated as the chronic branch of Islam within the broader field of Islamic studies – as if the belief system of 300 – 350 million followers worldwide is a pandemic that scholars of Islam are still trying to develop a vaccine for. Nevertheless, Shi’ism has emerged from false accusations and believes in the teachings of the Prophet and his progeny.

Thus, it is within this context that the following bibliographical list of the most essential texts on Shi’i studies from 1979 until 2022 is presented at the end of this paper. These 25 texts are listed in chronological order of their publication date. This decision was made in order to highlight the timeline of publications on Shi’ism. Amazingly, the vast majority of these texts were published in the last 10 years or so. This shows the growth of Shi’ism as its own field of study within Islam. While no one text can provide a complete or all-inclusive depiction of Shi’ism – which itself is so filled with diversity and multiplicity – together, these texts provide a comprehensive overview of the nature of Shi’ism and its many traditions, thoughts, practices, and disciplines as it is perceived by the Shi’i themselves.

Furthermore, the purpose of this brief bibliographical survey is to draw special emphasis to a sample of particular works which served as major turning points in their contribution to Islamic studies. The four texts are as follows:

1) Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba’i, Shi’ite Islam, 1979

2) Wilfred Madelung, The Succession to Muhammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate, 1998

3) Ayatollah Ja’far Sobhani, Doctrines of Shi‘i Islam: A Compendium of Imami Beliefs and Practices, 2001

4) Saïd Amir Arjomand, Sociology of Shi’ite Islam, 2016

This paper will now proceed to examine the different theories of each author and text.

Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba’i (1903-1981) changed the way the West perceived Shi’i Islam in its entirety, and he redefined how Shi’i Islam is studied in the modern world. As an esteemed Iranian scholar with a traditional background and education, he himself symbolized the beginning of intellectual revitalization with his prolific writings, including an extensive exegesis (tafsir) of the Quran, Tafsir al-Mizan, which has been translated and commonly cited worldwide. In addition, Tabataba’i did not live in the seclusion of a Shi’i state. As a worldly scholar, he prided himself on learning about other faith traditions and how these traditions viewed Shi’ism. He considered it his personal responsibility to respond to detrimental beliefs about Shi’ism. In fact, the purpose behind Tabataba’i’s efforts in elaborating on the tenants of the Shi’i faith tradition was spurred by the infamous French orientalist scholar, Henry Corbin. This led to the publication in Persian of Shi’ah dar Islam, which was then translated by the renowned western scholar on Shi’ism, Seyyed Hossein Nasr. All of these efforts were for one cause: to provide a true understanding of Shi’ism.

Shi’ite Islam, was one of the first texts to provide a thorough introduction to Shi’ism from a Shi’i perspective. This is evident by the contents and structure of the text. Shi’ite Islam exists within the framework of three broader categories: 1) “The Historical Background of Shi’ism,” 2) “Shi’ite Religious Thought,” and 3) “Islamic Beliefs from the Shi’ite Point of View.” While the first section of the book deals with the historical overview of Shi’ism over the past 1400 years, the second section discusses the teachings of Shi’ism through a rich tradition of textual and rational sources within the field of Islamic sciences. Thus, these first two sections create an elaborate background of understanding for the outsider studying Shi’ism and work to eradicate previously held notions and stereotypes about the reality of Shi’ism. This shows the necessity of the amount of unlearning that had to be done in order to protect the sacredness and authenticity of Shi’ism.

The second half of the book, which comprises the third section, outlines the principal beliefs of God, the Prophet, and the 12 Imams from the Shi’i perspective. In comparison to the amount of detail allotted to the background and development of Shi’i religious thought, the passages on each of the 12 Imams are minuscule and undetailed. If the lives, teachings, and legacies of each of the Imams is so central to the Shi’i tradition today, then why does Tabataba’i not elaborate on these aspects of the Imams. Unfortunately, each Imam is only allotted about a page of brief background information. This does not do justice to the centrality of Imamate to Shi’ism. While it is clear that an exposition of each of the 12 Imams was not the purpose of this text as it was not an immediate concern, it is also clear that this was still a huge gap in the literature on Islamic thought. The position and status of the 12 Imams should be elaborated on in order to provide a more in-depth understanding of Shi’ism.

In this regard, Shi’ite Islam reads like a handbook. Perhaps this would be the text taught to Western students in an “Introduction to Shi’ism” course. In no way does this text provide a complete understanding of Shi’ism, but it provides enough background to unlearn preconceived notions. Shi’ite Islam continues to serve as a critical resource and introductory book on the founding beliefs and principles of the Shi’i school of thought. Many similar introductory books on Shi’i Islam followed after Shi’ite Islam (i.e., Najam Haider, Shi’i Islam: An Introduction, 2014; Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, What is Shi’i Islam? An Introduction, 2018), but this text remains the model in the field of Islamic studies. With Tabataba’i’s contribution to Shi’ism and how it is studied in the Western world, he paved the way for the literature on every facet of Shi’ism that would follow not 30 years after his death.  

While Tabataba’i was raised within a Shi’i family and nation, Wilfred Madelung (b. 1930) represents the rise of learning about Shi’ism in the Western non-Muslim world at the turn of the 21st century. As a professor of Arabic studies at Oxford University, Madelung was able to contextualize primary sources including the Quran, relevant tafsir, and hadith collections, in the original Arabic language. By relying on sources in Arabic rather than translations and commentaries in other languages, Madelung was able to steer away from the pre-existing narrative that prevailed. Prior to the publications of Madelung’s text, The Succession to Muhammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate, there was and even continues to be many preconceived notions about the Shi’i at the time of the Prophet’s death in the year 632. In many texts, the Shi’i community was painted as those who turned away from the Islamic community and shunned the traditions of the Prophet.

Thus, the purpose of The Succession to Muhammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate, was to provide a detailed analysis of the Prophet’s death and circumstances that followed afterward from the Shi’i view. Overall, Madelung does an exceptional job at describing the circumstances that led to the Shi’i following the first Imam, Ali ibn Abi Talib, after the Prophet’s death. He bases his claims on fundamental principles founded in the Quran. Moreover, Madelung discusses the evidence that the Shi’i use, and he compares it to Sunni traditions. This allows for a comparative study and deeper understanding of the Shi’i tradition concerning the succession of the Prophet.

The Succession to Muhammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate, is such an essential addition to the field of Islamic studies because it also shatters the incorrect notion that the Shi’i-Sunni split was derived from political feuds. By relying on the Quran as well as textual and rational evidence, Madelung argues that the divide between the Shi’i and Sunni communities is a theological one.

One example that Madelung refers to in the Quran argues that the successors of the previous prophets were normally based on “dynastic kinship and inheritance.” [1] In the Quran, God addressed upholding kinship ties. In verse 90 of Surah An-Nahl (Chapter 16), God encourages kindness and forbids transgression towards close relatives. It is a religious obligation to treat relatives kindly. The Prophet followed the footsteps of the prophets before him by treating his son-in-law and cousin, Ali, in the most perfect of manners. For example, in verses 25-35 of Surah Taha (Surah 20), Prophet Moses asks God to allow his brother Aaron to help in his task against the tyrant Firon. God responds to Moses’s prayer and appoints Aaron as Moses’s minister. God highlights familial bonds. Likewise, Ali was appointed by God as the Prophet’s successor in order to share the Prophet’s task of spreading the message of Islam. In the Quran, the descendants and close righteous kin of the prophets are “their heirs also in respect to kingship (mulk), rule [2] Ali possessed close bonds of kinship with the Prophet and embodied the Prophet in his spiritual leadership. In response to the Sunni tradition of electing Abu Bakr due to the consensus of the people, the Shi’i believe that Ali had precedence over Abu Bakr due to his familial bonds.

This type of contextualizing of the Quranic verses was a major breakthrough in Shi’i studies, especially in understanding the key differences between the two branches and why each branch holds different beliefs. An important aspect that one can derive from Madelung’s presentation of his research, is that it does not matter which branch is correct, but the evidence for the Shi’i and Sunni theological claims must be analyzed in their own respective manner. Understanding the beliefs of another does not risk one’s own beliefs but opens one’s mind to the acceptance of others. In fact, studying the belief system of different branches leads to sectarian rapprochement. Thanks to the influx of literature published in the 21st century, it has become exceedingly easy to learn the true beliefs of the Shi’i.

[1]Wilfred Madelung, The Succession to Muhammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate, (Cambridge University Press, 1998), 17
[2]Madelung, The Succession to Muhammad, 17.