Why do some African Americans find Shiism appealing? Here are some of its reasons:
The spirit of resistance and opposition to tyranny
Because it was considered to be “the other” Islam gave many African Americans a new identity. But Shiism in particular had a special appeal for many in the black community. Since it has been a minority religion in much of the Islamic world, it bears a sense of what Charles Long has called “lithic consciousness”—a state of mind and being that in confronting reality invokes a will in opposition, a veritable cosmic no. Deeply ingrained within Shiism are the concepts of resistance and opposition to tyranny, and fighting for a just cause.
The “central and most enduring feature of Black Religion is its sustained and radical opposition to racial oppression.” It is this spirit of resistance and opposition that could be perpetuated to its fullest extent in Shia rather than Sunni Islam, which had, on many occasions, accommodated itself to tyrannical rulers as it did not want to create fitna (schism). Many traditions were circulated to quell opposition to the ruling elite. An evil ruler, it was declared, was better than anarchy in the community. Obedience to the rulers was tantamount to obedience to God.
Shia Imams as role models
The Shia oppositional mode is amplified by the Shia personification of their Imams as the victims of Sunni injustice. Such notions resonate strongly with the conflict between white and black America that many African Americans have had to contend with.
Shiism also posited role models from whom Black Shias could derive inspiration in their quest for socioeconomic justice. Shia Imams, especially ‘Ali and Husayn, have become role models due to their opposition to tyranny and injustice. Such notions resonate strongly with African Americans who have suffered from racism, unemployment, and discrimination. Shiism offered them not only the spirit but also the role models of protest and resistance to tyranny.
Strive to establish a just social order
In addition, the emphasis on ‘adl (justice) in Shia theology is a component that is attractive to many Black Shias. Historically, Shia theology was closely aligned with Mu‘tazilism especially its emphasis on reason and justice, whereas the majority of contemporary Sunnis espouse the Ashari doctrine of predestination, a notion with which Black Shias cannot identify. For many Black Shias, the accentuation of ‘adl as an important component in Shia theology indicates the need to strive to establish a just social order.
Believing in Messianism
Another aspect that appeals to many African Americans is the Shia emphasis on messianism. Shia rejection of the golden period of the first three caliphs, its emphasis on the injustices committed by them against the family of the Prophet, and its accentuation on the establishment of a just sociopolitical order when the twelfth Imam (the Mahdi) appears is highly appealing. It especially resonates with a concept that African Americans were taught in their churches: The Second Coming of Christ. The binary opposition of an oppressed past and a golden future under the guidance of an eschatological messianic figure is a concept that many African Americans can readily identify with.
Taken from: “ Shi’ism in America”
By: Liyakat Nathani Takim