on shia sunni methodology

this is a summary of the salient points of Mortaza Matahhari's "The Fundamental Problem in the Clerical Establishment"

Both the Sunni and Shi'a clerical institutions are dependent on an outside force to receive their financial livelihood. They don't receive salaries as individuals in the workforce, rather they are a recognized institution of "clerics" that are paid either through the central government or devout followers.

For Sunni clergy, the government pays the clerical class and either directly appoint or influence Sunni scholars into positions of authority (grand mufti, president of al-Azhar, the turkish Diyanet). In effect, Sunni clergy can issue any fatwas as long as it pertains to religious matters but is powerless to say anything against "the encroachments and oppressions of the government" (p173).

For Shi'a clergy, there is a system of collecting the KHUMS (1/5 of an individual's net income) and appropriating half of it to the clerical establishment and the other half to poorer descendants of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). In this KHUMS system, observant Shi'a give their money directly to a scholar/intellectual whom they follow.

Thus the Shi'a clergy "do not need to abide by the wishes of their governments, but they are forced to act in accordance with the popular style and the opinion of the public and maintain the public's good will. Most of the corruption that exists among the Shi'a ulama is attributable to this" (p171).

Summed up the Shi'a ulama "is able to fight the oppressions and encroachments of the government but it is unable to fight the ignorant beliefs and opinions of the people" (p173).


This is a difference between the two sects that I haven't seen discussed enough by intellectuals on both sides. Shi'a intellectuals like Musa al-Sadr and Ali Shariati, & Ruhollah Khomeini all talked about the Shi'a tendency to be a viable political force against an oppressive authority. And obviously this is one of Matahhari's point in the article. But i want to see a discussion between both sides that first puts aside differences that divide them, and explore how the advantages of each can be combined to improve the social/intellectual/political potential of the collective Muslim ummah.


Shi'i in Iraq are the politically mobile force of the two, and both Sunni and Shi'a clergy agree that certain practices and beliefs in popular religion are unacceptable. Yet the Sunnis on the whole discredit Shi'a for practices that both clerical establishments deem to be wrong. I'm talking specifically about certain Muharram rites, like self-flagellation, the passion of Husayn etc. (comment me if you want to get into this) An issue like this, fuels the fires of mistrust of Shi'i by Sunnis.


The Shi'i clergy is a structured order, where the Shi'a faithful look in one direction for guidance and authority. Sunni clergy is decentralized and as a result have competing sources of authority. This fragmentation is what severely stunts Sunni Muslims in having a clear set of priorities. Is it a question of modernizing with the west? Or should we be focusing solely on reinterpreting our theology? What about modern sciences?

With the shi'i clerics they had this "questioning of priorities" phase through the 19th and early 20th century, resulting in prominent clerics like Ayatollah Burujirdi to lead a new attitude of combining secular/theological goals that by Khomeini's time many Shi'a agreed to. That's not to say all Shi'a clergy agree on this principle; Ayatollah Sistani of Iraq is really big on political involvement, and then there are difference of opinions in the Iranian velayit Faqih and with the decisions of supreme leader Khameini. Sistani's political activism is not something all shi'i ulama would agree with.

So there needs to be a balance of both approaches, sunnis contend that they are following the method of the Prophet in religious practice and belief and that the shi'i are off. Sunnis go to length in discerning authentic sources of traditions related to the Prophet. Shi's because of their autonomy from the government tend to be a watchdog and protector of the masses, but remain silent on popular religious practices simply because it will cause dissent in an already minority community.

For more informaton on the whole Sunni Shia Iraqi/Iran situation, check out Vali Nasr's The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future