Friday, January 21, 2005

Two interesting article on Shia experiences

I have had a couple of really interesting e-mails regarding Shias & Sunnis which I have printed in full because I do not have links to them. One of them is called Zaytuna's Smelly Kebabs by Nassim Mobasher: "The non-profit Zaytuna Institute, headquartered in Hayward,California, was co-founded by Hamza Yusuf in 1996 in order to "revive the tradition of sound Islamic teaching institutions." Since then, Zaytuna has become known as a center for promoting Islamic learning based on traditional Sunni sources of jurisprudence; it is often seen as a more moderate, traditional counterweight to narrow Salafi/Wahhabi approaches to Islam in the West. An American who converted to Islam at 17, Yusuf spent ten years in the Middle East, studying Islam with shaykhs in Saudi Arabia, UAE, and North Africa. He rose to public prominence soon after the 9/11 attacks, when President Bush sought his advice on the US response. The BBC has called him "the rock star of the new Muslim generation. "Zaytuna and I crossed paths for a brief period in what now seems a lifetime ago. My adventure began where all noteworthy adventures begin: the MSA mailing list. An email announced a week long spiritual retreat or "Deen Intensive Program( D.I.P)" during the winter holidays. Hamza Yusuf was the only name I recognized among the names of shuyukh. The city hosting it was Calgary, in western Canada, in the province of Alberta. I flagged the message to look at it later. Papers and midterms and organizing a few antiwar rallies, not to mention overdoses of Columbian coffee (two creams, three brown sugars), and suddenly the deadline for the application date had arrived. I filled out the essay questions on the application while sitting through a South Asian Politics lecture. As the instructor was describing Indira Gandhi's (mis)handling of the crisis in the Golden Temple, I was writing about my struggles with the fundamentalists running various Muslim Institutions. Class ended by the time I was halfway through the application."Next class we will look at sectarian violence," announced the professor. The next question on the application read, "What is your madhhab?" There were boxes placed in front of the legitimate four that could be checked off. The fifth box said "Other." That's the one I checked off. And after having "othered" me, they wanted me to"Explain" on the stretch of a line what sort of Other I was. A Jafari/Shia/Ithna Ashari/Alavi/Rafidhi-- depending on how you look atit. I had a break and my next class was philosophy: Aristotle's categorization of beings into neat little boxes.I emailed the application to them that night, almost sure it would be denied.

But Approval from Calgary came a few weeks later--they liked me, they really liked me! Well, so long as I paid them $400 intuition.One of the many boxes I had checked off was the one that said "need financial assistance." But in all likelihood, everyone had requested such assistance and it had run out for the procrastinators. Not to worry, student-loan money paid for my plane ticket and tuition.I arrived in Calgary the night before the event but could not afford a hotel room, so I and other members of "The Coalition of the Muslim Broke" spent a memorable night occupying the sovereign Calgary airport. We had parked on the chairs in front of the Starbucks coffee shop but successfully resisted temptation to Evil, in the face of sleep deprivation. Morning came and vans arrived to pick us up.The day was spent socializing in the Calgary mosque, until we were taken to the Silver Creek Ranch, located in the remote foothills 75km northwest of Calgary. For those of you unfamiliar with the climate in this particular part of the world, the cold enters your skin like sharp, stinging spikes, but it is warmed up when the Chinook winds come around.On the bus, I looked through the reading package and the several articles that we had been required to read before coming to this program. The overall understanding I got from the readings was that the problem with Islam (Wahhabi Islam--although never explicitly stated as such) is that it has abandoned the madhhab system. A prerequisite to approaching the Quran and the hadiths is Islamic scholarship . The Salafis had adopted a method in which any individual felt qualified in passing their own fatwa (verdict) based on a hadith they had come across in bushier, and this method lacked the holistic approach that came with scholarship.We finally arrived on the crunchy snow covering the hills and the trees. The campsite consisted of some cabins, a cozy diner lodge, and a recreation building called the Music Hall with hardwood floors. The Music Hall was where most of the learning would take place, and it was divided by a green curtain that separated the sexes. The division of space was done while mindful of gender equity concerns. The speaker sat in the front and made eye contact with both the men and women.The first night was about covering the formalities. Hamza Yusuf made some introductory remarks, and made it clear that "this was not the place to find a spouse, there are other available venues for those of you looking but this is simply not the place for it."Dinner was served in the diner lodge, also divided by another green curtain. The food was too bland for my taste buds but I was too busy trying to get to know the people who surrounded me. There was a noticeable number of Caucasian converts, African Americans, Arabs from surrounding Canadian provinces and even someone who had come from as far as Australia. It felt like everyone in the room was a pre-med."You mean you are not going to study medicine?" I was asked more than a few times, with a look that said "then what sorry excuse do you have for continuing to exist?" It was no comfort knowing I once had that world view, and gave people that look.

That night, we stood outside where a white blanket covered the ground and a black blanket covered the sky above, and Hamza Yusuf shared with us his love of astronomy. I think the reason these retreats were usually held somewhere far away from cell-phone service coverage (i.e.civilization) was to teach us a lesson in humility. We were vulnerable to the cold and to the wild animals lurking in the distance; we were overwhelmed by Nature. We were blips of nothingness when those stars looked at us; we were overwhelmed by the vastness of the incomprehensible Universe. We were quite simply overwhelmed. And readied submit. We slept on bunk beds, worried about mice. We'd been told earlier that any food crumbs would attract them but we had craved chocolate by midnight and had nervously broken off a few pieces, careful not to leave behind any crumbs. "We" consisted of me and other members of"Muslims for Lindor/Cadbury," advocates of sweet milk chocolate and world peace (but certainly not regime change).That night, we had been given a booklet on proper adab or etiquette of learning and lectured on how we were to behave in the presence of shuyukh . The word adab was Arabic but shared in Persian and meant"manners."

Growing up in Southern Iran, my parents had me on a steady diet that included a daily cup-full of adab with my vegetables. When I was seven years old, my reputable image as a child of proper adab was one day shattered.Grandpa had had another one of his dinner parties in which he made meat kebabs that the adults had always said were the best-tasting kebabs in the world. I hated his kebabs for as long as I could remember, usually because I made friends with the lamb in the basement before I saw Grandpa play butcher and cut him up. I could never eat the lamb on my plate, pretending to be a kebab. So that fateful day,when Grandpa came next to me, holding his big pot of hot kebabs to put one on my plate, I was taken up by a whirlwind of courage and said,"No thank you, I don't want any." A few of the adults gasped, the room fell silent, and Grandpa gave me a cold stare before moving on with his pot of patriarchy to fill cousin Sara's plate. My aunt declared that I was a disgustingly rude child, lacking in any adab. "But I said it politely," came my insecure response. "There's nothing polite about refusing your Grandfather. You should be ashamed!" came another aunt'ssharp reply.

Adab, in my current context meant that we were not to question orchallenge a shaykh openly, for traditional learning required that astudent abide by the didactic method, and acknowledge the superioreducation of a shaykh. Politely written questions were okay, but wewere in no place to be disagreeing with the shayookh. We were notallowed to refuse what was being fed to us. I'm not sure how aSouthern Iranian family's understanding of 'adab' managed to coincidewith that of the North American convert community. All I knew was thatI was not going to eat the kebabs I did not want.The next morning, the learning officially began. After prayer andbreakfast, we began our first session, which was led by a ShaykhJamal. Shaykh Jamal's program was going to be a reading of Bukhari'schapter of hadiths on marriage. This was a bit ironic since we hadbeen instructed not to think about the 'M' word here at this venue.Nonetheless, each hadith was read, and commentary from Shaykh Jamalwould follow. This started out a bit tedious but exciting learning wassoon to follow.There was a hadith about treating your wives equally, and in thecommentary, the Shaykh angrily instructed the women to allow theirhusbands to take on more than one wife. Men have needs, he told us,needs that our periods and our eventual menopause could never fulfill.The male sexual appetite sometimes requires more than one woman's workto be fed. He told us to get these silly western notions of monogamyout of our silly little heads. If we really loved our husbands, wewould let him marry others.I listened, thinking of my grandmother, who had been living that lifefor more than forty years now. I thought of the forty years, in ahouse with two floors that were divided with more than just bricks. Ahouse where two women shared one man. I thought of the male sex-drivewith sheer awe for such an insatiable force.On another occasion, Shaykh Jamal instructed us that western courtswere no place to be getting a divorce and if it was possible, weshould try very hard to go to a Muslim country where a divorce couldbe done according to Sharia guidelines. Muslim countries, thosebeacons of Islamic justice, thought I. This was comical, I had to stopmyself from acting on the urge to burst into loud laughter, theadab-police was all over the place.

People wrote their question on paper and passed them on person toperson to the front. The moderators at the front chose which questionsthey would read out ( I know because I wrote questions aplenty thatwere never read out) and then Shaykh Jamal gave his opinion."Shaykh, this girl and I really want to do it, but we are not marriedyet. What should we do?" The Shaykh answered, going off on sometangents about the troubles of our times: these days, the girl'sparents are too picky and require too many household appliances fromthe poor groom. There seemed to be an endless way of rephrasing thissame question and the Shaykh never grew tired of answering it. Myfriend, sitting next to me, (both a member of the 'Coalition of theMuslim Broke' and 'Muslims for Lindor/Cadbury') nudged me andwhispered, "I feel like my brain's shrinking."In the fiqh session, we were divided into three differentmadhhab-groups and each taught in different spaces. I had chosen theShafi'i madhhab, which was taught by Imam Zaid Shakir in the dinerlodge, where we learned in the presence of the camp's staff. We openedImam Shafi'i's Reliance of the Traveler, and began with the section onwater and the rules of purity. Those who staffed the camp werenon-Muslims who had seen us during meals and noticed how segregated wewere but they were in for a surprise during these sessions. One of themembers of the staff was setting the lunch tables as Imam Zaid explicitly detailed out ejaculations and secretions in the context ofpurity. He then proceeded to answer further explicit questions in thisregard, and I watched the shock on the staffer's face as she placedbreadbaskets on the tables.Imam Zaid was quite mellow and had us laughing often. He also taugh the Science of Hadith on a white-board in the evenings in the MusicHall. He explained the rigorous process that hadiths underwent and howthey were classified. The sahih (authentic) hadiths were theequivalent of Qur'anic verses, since Islam could not be understood ina vacuum and needed to be understood with the practice of the Prophet.After my persistent writing and re-writing of a question and sendingit to the front, it was finally passed through to Imam Zaid, and heread it out: "If our premise is that we believe that the Qur'an is theunchanged word of God, and our second premise is that the hadiths weresayings that were related to the Prophet after his death, then byconsidering a sahih hadith equal to a Qur'anic verse means, aren't weholding the words of fallible humans in equal regard to the Word ofGod?"Imam Zaid explained that the Qur'an was also passed on orally, andwritten and collected after the death of the Prophet, by fallible human beings, just like the hadiths. If we were going to discredit thevalidity of hadiths based on such reasoning, then this same reasoningwould also discredit the accuracy of the Quran.

I wanted the chancefor rebuttal, to say that the difference lay in the fact thataccording to the Quran, Islam was to be a religion for all people ofall times. If we were to limit our understanding of it to the way inwhich it was practiced in seventh century Arabia, we would strip Islamof its universality. I wanted to argue that many of the hadithsfollowed a dated logic that was no longer applicable; the language ofthe hadiths was in the style of factual reporting, not containing interpretative value like the Qur'an, and the two could simply not beequated. I wanted to say a lot of things but I could not, and mywritten questions were no longer read out.I had tried several times to stay after the session was over and speakto the Shaykh, but a pushy, possessive crowd that usually sat on thefront row during sessions also hogged the Shaykh's time after thesession was over. They usually talked to him, just to talk and sometimes asked the most elementary questions. I would wait for themto finish, but they never seemed to until the Shaykh was finally readyto go.

At this point, I was dying to talk to my friend who was on theother side of the green curtains. He had more access to the shuyukh since they ate and socialized with the men. Maybe the green curtainsweren't so mindful of gender equity after all.The next evening, while we waited for Hamza Yusuf to arrive, I heard ayoung woman standing behind me tell her friend, "Even if Hamza Yusufhad three wives, I would kill to be his fourth wife!" What followedwas the distinct sound of my brain shrinking. Mind you, Hamza Yusufwas a beautiful man, an eloquent speaker with wit and soul. There wasincredible peace in his voice that indicated the presence of innercalm. But he was sectarian, and often taught an idea with sentenceslike "we believe the Mutazilites were misguided." He left little roomfor diversity of views, for there was only one true path.But while describing Halima holding infant Muhammad (peace andblessing be upon him) and breast-feeding him for the first time, Hamzacould not hold back his tears nor keep his voice from breaking. Inmoments like these, I felt nothing but love for the California convertwho spent years in the deserts of the Middle East learning hisreligion. The co-founder of Zaytuna also made references tocontemporary western literature and philosophy. He was sociallyconscious of the ills of free-market capitalism: "Muhammad used to hugtrees. Our Prophet was a tree-hugger!" he would say.

There was so much to admire about Yusuf's character. He made it apoint to discourage the cult-like bunch that swirled around him. Onthe first evening, when he walked into a room full of people in theMusic Hall, the front-row bunch stood up and would not sit until hedid, despite his disapproval. When he did sit on a few pillows on thehardwood floor, he said , "please don't do that, I'm afraid that oneday I might walk into a room expecting it."The contradiction and confusion lay with the theoretical backbone of Zaytuna's teaching methods. While Hamza Yusuf may not have approved ofbeing treated like a celebrity-shaykh, Zaytuna preached that a proper Islamic education required the guidance and supervision of a shaykh,where learning took place through proper adherence to adab.Most of the front-row crowd attended these spiritual retreats routinely, in the different cities that they were held in. Some weretrying to get noticed among the shuyukh so that they could be acceptedunder the wing of a shaykh to pursue further studies. Others went tothe deserts in the Middle East, where pure Islamic knowledge awaitedunder the tents of the elderly, but water was scarce. It was all verymuch a romantic method of learning. Loving and surrendering oneself toa shaykh in order to find Ultimate Love, like Rumi did. Zaytuna wantedto reform Islam by restoring the lost status of the Muslim scholar.But this method was vulnerable to abuse, for absolute power lay in thehands of the shaykh.

The next few days demonstrated Zaytuna's fatal flaw.Days into being instructed on marriage according to Bukhari and ShaykhJamal, which was taking up a large chunk of our time in Calgary, andwe came across a hadith about the curses that the angels sent to thewoman who refuses her husband sex. "Not in the mood? You get yourselfin the mood!" came Shaykh Jamal's instruction, furious with us womenfor the cruel moody creatures that we are. He continued in his angrytone. A man had a right to his wife and her duty was to fulfill himall the time, she had no right to ever refuse him. I sat, motionless,trying to comprehend who this God was that tolerated marital rape. Hadthis been a political science class, I would have made theinstructor's life a living-hell, but my fury had been silenced byadab. I was being force-fed those smelly kebabs and then some. That God was my Grandfather, staring coldly.When the session ended, I tried to articulate my anger to someone torelease myself of it.

A young woman who sat in front of me and said she was a social worker tried to justify things to me, because that'swhat women do when they still have faith in a belief system that turnsagainst them. They justify it to themselves and each other. "This isdifficult for me too," she said, "but we have to try and understandwhere Shaykh Jamal is coming from." Yes, and while we are at it, let'ssympathize with my Grandfather for the 13 lives he ruined: those ofhis children, not to mention the lives of the two wives who continueto serve him. Hell, let's also sympathize with the imperialists, withthose responsible for the slave-trade, and let's have some sympathyfor President Bush and understand where he is coming from, trying tobomb the world to peace or pieces. Let's be understanding of those whocontinue to screw us.

Before Maghrib prayer, Shaykh Jamal answered the redundant questionsonce again, save the best for last: "Shaykh, is it permissible tomarry a Shia girl of the Ja'fari madhhab?" The question was readout-loud. After a minute's pause, the Shaykh replied, "No."I walked out into the snow, numbed by the cold. Alienated. Alone.Othered, with no cell-phone service to connect me to a place out ofhere. Overwhelmed by the darkness of what seemed like jahiliyya, butnot ready to submit to it. I went into the cabin, sat on my bed andate chocolate, indifferent to the crumbs--let the mice come and takeme away.We took a late-night stroll on the snowy hills. "We" being a handfulof us from both sides of the curtain. During this walk, I learned what was happening on the other side of the curtain. During dinner, myfriend (who is a boy!) had approached Hamza Yusuf and asked about theproper adab in making a complaint about one of the shuyukh. Yusuf hadasked who this shaykh in question was and my friend had said, "ShaykhJamal." "What has he done?" Hamza Yusuf wanted to know. "Hiscommentaries are borderline misogynistic," my friend had said."Borderline?" I interrupted his story, "He was an all-out,unapologetic misogynist! Why are you sugarcoating it for him? Whoseside are you on anyway?"

Okay, so I was in a bad mood, being mean toour dear comrade, the man-feminist.My friend went on to explain that Hamza Yusuf had gotten defensiveabout such "unfounded" accusations and asked the guy standing next toour comrade if he also agreed with this description of Shaykh Jamal.The poor guy who was put on the spot by the Shaykh that the UK'sGuardian has called "the most influential Muslim scholar in the west,"told Hamza what he wanted to hear. Shaykh Jamal? Misogynistic? No way!Alright then, case closed, and don't go around spreading such venomabout the shuyukh young man!To add insult to injury, the fine gentlemen who had been present atthe occurrence of this exchange had later asked our comrade, "Dude, are you some sort of feminist?" When he replied in the affirmative,another brother then declared, "Dude, there's another three-letterword for that which starts with an 'f' and ends with a 'g.'" Leave itto our genteel Muslim brethren to complement their misogyny with somehomophobia.That night, I did ablution in the bathroom while listening to twogirls argue over whether or not it was fard (obligatory) to coverone's nose under niqab in the Hanbali madhhab. A girl waiting for thesink behind me said, "you are doing your wudu wrong, the water on yourarm is supposed to be rubbed up, not down." I turned around and gaveher a nasty look. I should have told her that this was the backwardsShia-method of making wudu, that our waters were always headed in thewrong direction, but I simply walked out of the bathroom.I'm sure that Isha prayer I prayed was not accepted, not because Irubbed the water the "wrong" way, but because all I thought aboutduring prayer was the insignificance of this fixation with the rulesabout how to rub the water. I thought about the nonsensical argumentthat strict implementation of these rules would save Islam. Thismethod had already been exhausted by us Shias, creating afiqh-centered Islam. We had a Revolution and implemented such an Islamas the rule of law in Iran. We made it obligatory for everyone tochoose a shaykh or Ayatollah and follow his living verdicts in theresalats. We even had families indoctrinate their children with properadab so that they dare not question the Great Ones. What we ended upwith was a soulless religion and a country full of young people whowanted to have nothing to do with it.

If Zaytuna intended to Shia'nizeSunni Islam and have a following that demanded blind submission to thescholars, we Shia's had already traveled that road, and thedestination was not reform. I had no hope in a movement thatdiscouraged individual critical thought.We (the women) had begun the week by committing to read a section ofthe Qur'an so that together we could complete the whole thing. On NewYear's Eve, as the clock struck twelve, we sat in a circle and bondedwith the Words and each other. There were hugs and tears when the final sura was read, and the prayers that followed. If nothing else,we shared a beautiful Book, and that was enough, at least in those fewmoments, to feel Oneness.The last days were spent on damage control. It appeared that HamzaYusuf and Imam Zaid were not aware of the content of Shaykh Jamal'sprogram, and upon realizing what had been said, they reacted byorganizing a session to make a few things clear: Islam values women,Islam is not pro-slavery (at some point, Shaykh Jamal had commented that sex with one's female slave was permissible), etc. There was no mention of the fact that Shaykh Jamal had said otherwise, nocondemning of Shaykh Jamal's statements, no apology, not directrefuting of all that had been seen. This was emblematic of Zaytuna: no matter how wrong the actions of a shaykh were, preservation of hisstatus took priority.The day we left Silver Creek Ranch, the sun had come up. I slept adeep sleep during the bus ride back. This retreat had brought me nocloser to realizing my purpose in the world, but it had made clearwhat I did not want. Some more kebabs? No thank you!"

The other one is called Saudi Shia - the Kingdom's apartheid by Amir Taheri: "Officially, they do not exist. In reality, however, Saudi Arabia'sShias account for 15 percent of the kingdom's population of 20 million. Last month their existence was tacitly acknowledged when the statemedia briefly reported a meeting between a delegation of Shia and thekingdom's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdallah Ibn Abdel-Aziz. Those who took part in the meeting say they are bound by a vow ofsecrecy . But they also say that the talks, which lasted for almost four hours, were held in "a positive atmosphere."In any case, the Shia appear determined to come out of the closet and equal citizenship rights.The latest sign of their determination came last weekend when theypublished a petition signed by almost 500 business, cultural, andsocial leaders of the community. Addressed to the Crown prince, the petition calls on the government toset a national committee to propose "urgent measures" to remove alldiscrimination against Shia and other religious minorities.The petition refers to the "historic changes in the region,"presumably meaning the war to liberate Iraq, and urges the authoritiesto "adapt to new circumstances." Concentrated in the oil-rich province of Al-Sharqiyah, Saudi Shia forma good part of the kingdom's urban middle class. They are alsostrongly present in the liberal professions and the private businesssector.And, yet, when it comes to public positions, Saudi Shia shine with their absence. Of the top 400 government positions, a only one is held bya Shia undersecretary of state. Of the 120 members of theall-appointed Saudi parliament only two are Shia.Worse still, the official theological organs of the state, exclusivelyheld by clerics from the Hanbali Sunni school of Islam, publiclycastigate Shia as non-Muslims. Courts, controlled by the Hanbaliclerics, do not admit testimony by Shia. The same clerics have bannedmarriages between Hanbali Sunnis and Shia and declared all Shiamarriages as "illegal."The Shia counter by insisting that the Hanbalis, often wrongly known as Wahhabis, do not represent the overwhelming majority that they claim."Saudi Arabia is a far richer mosaic of religious beliefs than manypeople imagine" says a Jeddah scholar on condition of anonymity.Apart from duodecimains (twelvers), who share the same beliefs asIranian and Iraqi Shia, there are Ismaili "sevener" Shia, a majorityin the Najran area, and Zaydi Shia of Yemeni origin all over the kingdom. But even the Sunni majority, some 70 percent of the population, is notmonolithic. Hanafi and Shafei Sunnis are probably the majority in theRed Sea provinces of the kingdom.The situation has become more complicated because many heterodoxindividuals, and at times whole villages and towns, practice taqiyah,or dissimulation, to escape persecution and Discrimination by themajority.Saudi state policy towards the Shia has varied between benevolentneglect and active repression. The late King Faisal Ibn Abdel-Aziz removed many restrictions againstthe Shia in the 1960s and enabled them to benefit from stateeducational and health services. In the 1980s agitators dispatchedfrom Iran tried to mobilize Saudi Shia in support of a Khoeministversion of their faith. They failed. But their presence gave the hard-line Hanbali clerics apretext for seeking new restrictions on Shia. Some Saudi Shia fledinto exile, mostly to Iran and Britain. In 1987, however, King FahdIbn Abdel-Aziz persuaded most of the exiles to return home in exchangefor reforms in favor of the Shia.With the rise of militant Hanbalism, one version of which isrepresented by the fugitive terrorist Osama bin Laden, Shia, includingIsmailis and Zaydis, have emerged as the strongest supporters of theroyal family.The rational for their support is that if the Al Saudi dynasty istoppled its place would be taken by fanatics like bin laden whopublicly state that Shia must either convert to Hanbalism or leave thecountry or face death. Some radical bin Ladenists have used the wars in both Afghanistan andIraq as a pretext for fomenting violence against the Shia. They claimthat the Taliban regime in Kabul collapsed because Afghan Shia, theHazara, and the Badakhshani, cooperated with the U.S. "forces ofinvasion." They also blame the quick fall of Saddam Hussein's regimein Baghdad on Shias, a majority of the Iraqi population. Somehard-line preachers told mosque congregations that the ultimate aim ofthe Shia is to "destroy Muslim Arab states in the interest of theU.S., Israel, and Iran."Such is the hatred of the Hanbali clerics for Shia that they haveissued an edict that humanitarian aid collected for Iraq should not bedistributed among Iraqi Shia."Let the Shia of Iraq be fed by their masters: America, Iran andIsrael," thundered one radical Sunni preacher, Sheikh Utba Ibn Marwan,in a Riyadh mosque last week. Conspiracy theorists have been spreadinganti-Shia rumors for months. One such rumor is based on a partialreading of a report presented by the French-born scholar LaurentMurawiec to the National Defense Board in Washington last year. In the report, which was rejected by the board, Murawiec urged theU.S. to use military force to occupy the Saudi oil provinces whereShia form a majority of the population.What is the main reason for the radical Sunnis' dislike of Shia? I putthe question to Sheikh Abdel-Aziz bin Baz, then Saudi Arabia's ighestranking Sunni theologian during a four-hour, often stormy, interview.It turned out that bin Baz was specially shocked by the Shia claimthat even the basic rules of Islam could be open to interpretation and reinterpretation. "When the Shia say that Reason (Aql) must be favored over Tradition(Naql), what they mean is putting man in place of God," the blindsheikh asserted. " For us Islam is a truth from the beginning (Azal)to the eternity (Abad). It cannot be something today and some thingelse tomorrow."Such issues, of course, cannot be debated in any useful context for aslong as radical Sunni theologians believe that they become "unclean"even by shaking the hand of a Shia. Right now Saudi Shia are making modest demands. First, they want their faith to be officially acknowledged as alegitimate version of Islam. They base themselves on a 1947"concordat" signed between Qom, the center of Shia Islam, and Cairo,the center of Sunni Islam, on mutual recognition and respect.Next they want the kingdom to purge its educational textbooks of"vicious lies and slanderous claims" against Shia. (Some books, oftenfinanced by the government, claim that Shiaism was "invented by a Jewas a means of splitting Islam" and accuse Shia of practicing incestand cannibalism in secret.)Another demand of the Shia is for legal equality that would includerecognition of the marriages and admission of their testimonies at allstate courts.Also, they want the state to allow Shia to own and manage their ownmosques, perform their religious rites, including the mourningceremonies of Ashura and Arbain, to open schools to train their owntheologians, on to go on pilgrimage to Shia sites in Iraq and Iran.Further, the Shia want the government to open the civil service andthe armed forces to Shia candidates."It is not normal that there are no Shia army offices, ministers,governors, mayors, and ambassadors in this kingdom," says a Shiabusinessman from Dhahran. "This form of religious apartheid is asintolerable as was apartheid based on race."It is not at all clear whether the Al Saud is prepared to risk adirect clash with the Hanbali sheikhs to please the Shia. But someShia leaders claim to have "strong allies and sympathizers within theroyal family." There is one other factor: Iraq may soon emerge as a democracy inwhich the Shia majority has the leading role. That prospect, plus thepresence of a large American army just next door, has changed the political landscape of the region. "