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Ahlul-Bayt Digital Islamic Library Project


Reviewed by:
Sumaiya Hamdani
George Mason University
March 2003

Most websites on Islam are founded by Sunni Muslims (see review of The Noble Quran). Islam also includes three Shi`ite sects, the largest being the Twelver Shi`ite sect. This sect dominates Iran, southern Iraq, southern Lebanon, and some parts of Pakistan and India. The Twelver Shi`ite community sponsors this website to present Islamic resources “with particular emphasis on Twelver Shia Islamic school of thought.” These resources include important Islamic art, calligraphy, and Shi`ite primary sources in translation. Comparing these with primary sources on other Islamic sites can provide a useful way of exploring diversity in Islam.

Shi`ites, in contrast with Sunnis, believe that the Prophet’s family (or ahlul-bayt) was especially pious and knowledgeable, and therefore most qualified to assume leadership of the Muslim community after the Prophet’s death in 632. They were denied this leadership by the Sunni majority, resulting in long-standing tension. There are no fundamental differences over theology—they share the same holy book, or Qur’an, the same prophet, and adhere to the same five pillars of faith: the testament of faith, five daily prayers, fasting during the month of Ramadan, charity, and the pilgrimage to Mecca. Shi`ites, though, have additional prayers and holidays specific to the lives of the Prophet’s descendants (or imams), and different sources for law. Shi`ites only look to sayings of the Prophet’s family and are led by a religious elite, such as the ayatollahs of Iran. Thus many (though not all) of these sources are edited or authored by Iranian ayatollahs, and as such are scholarly and reliable.

This site features hundreds of images and multimedia sources and thousands of full-length texts; new resources are added regularly. Some materials are secondary works, but many are images and primary sources in translation. The Images link, for example, includes images of Islamic calligraphy and sacred sites. Calligraphy is a specifically Islamic art form. Since the representation of the human figure is forbidden in Islamic religious art (for fear it might lead to idolatry), the Arabic script became the focus of tremendous creativity, as these 77 examples demonstrate. Students unable to read Arabic script can appreciate the imaginative ways in which it is put to sacred use. One collection of calligraphic images traces the evolution of Arabic in religious art. There are 300 photographs and paintings of sacred sites, such as mosques and mausolea, holy to all Muslims and/or Shi`ites ranging from Mecca and Medina to Jerusalem and Damascus. Since many of these sites are off-limits to non-Muslims (such as Mecca), or are in countries which Americans cannot or rarely visit (such as Iran or Iraq), these images are invaluable, and can help illustrate diversity in Islamic art and architecture, as well as differences between Islamic and Christian religious monuments.

Important Shi`ite texts include the Nahjul-Balagha (500 sermons, letters, and sayings of Ali b. Abi Talib), the al-Sahifa al-Kamila (83 prayers and a treatise by the 4th imam), and a Shi`ite Anthology with sermons and prayers on the nature of God, leadership, prayer, and spirituality. Additional sources include the text and commentary in Arabic and English of the Supplication (or prayer) of Kumayl (one of the companions of the first imam, Ali b. Abi Talib), a collection of 33 Shi`ite Ramadan Supplications (the Islamic month of fasting), and a multilingual Qur’an database featuring two Arabic and four scholarly English translations. Supplications are different from Islam’s required prayers taken from the Qur’an; these are personal appeals of imams or pious individuals, often emotional and spiritual, and can be similar in many ways to Christian prayers.

A possible classroom exercise might be to compare some of the supplications and sayings of the imams available from this site to prayers from the Qur’an, or other religious traditions, with an eye to exploring the diversity of religious experience in Islam. The full-length texts, the Nahjul-Balagha, the Sahifa, and the Shi`ite Anthology, again contain supplications, and lengthier sermons on a variety of spiritual and historical experiences of the imams, and can be similarly used.

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