Kodrā: A Subversive Narrative of Islamic Reform

[Book Review] Rashid Shaz. Kodra: A Narrative of Shi‘a-Sunni Understanding (New Delhi: Milli Publications, 2018). 239 pages. INR 300 hardcover.

A romanticized view of Muslim history still makes Muslims comfortable. Their discussions are heavily loaded with its references and whenever their identity is questioned they refer to the glorious past they inherit. However, like every story, the story of the glorious Muslim past has an end, a tragic end. Ever since experiencing civilizational and political collapse, Muslims have been asking themselves why they declined.

In response to this introspection, various revivalist and reformist movements surfaced in the heartlands of Islam in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Rahsid Shaz’s book  Kodrā: A Narrative of Shi’a-Sunni Understanding, originally written in Urdu, asks the same question about the roots of Muslim decline.

In a very lucid and elegant prose, the book offers a general assessment of how the unity of the umma shattered and the difficult consequences Muslims faced thereafter. Shaz uses a number of intelligent dialogists to tell their stories, experiences, and perspectives about Islam. Furthermore, he also depicts them as the epitomes of a particular phenomenon or behavior that has developed in Muslim lives or in their societies.

Ali Kodrā, the strongest and most interesting interlocuter, after whom the book is named, is the best example in this regard. In the opening chapters, Ali Kodra sheds light on his academic pursuits and activist endeavors in Bosnia, Medina, Saudi Arabia and Qom, Iran. Kodra was a student of Alija Izetbegović, the legendary philosopher-politician Bosniak leader of the twentieth century, and an activist in Bosnia during the Soviet rule.
Because of the unfavorable political conditions in his country, he was forced to leave for Saudi Arabia in 1979, and then Iran in 1992. He stayed there for a long time and had opportunity to study Islam at the feet of Sunni and Shiʿa ulama. Like his mentor Alija, he aspired for the independent Bosnia to be an exemplary Islamic state to the modern world, where all sects of Islam live happily together.

However, his aspirations and desires fell apart as Shiʿa and Sunni countries, rather than unanimously supporting Bosnia and Bosnian Muslims for the sake of Islam, tried to preach their own version of Islam, which caused divisions among the Bosnians ailing from the war and genocide.

In the third and fourth chapters, Kodra recounts how he spent many years in Shiʿa and Sunni worlds learning and studying the traditions of the both of the sects, and now he is not able to decide whose version he should accept. He is so pained and depressed that he develops dissociative identity disorder. He is no longer able to identify himself as Shiʿi or Sunni and continues to struggle with both the Shiʿa and Sunni versions of Islam, questioning which one is true. Shaz implies that Kodra’s experience suggest that there is no sign of true Islam in the two theological traditions. He further develops the argument in his book demonstrating that both sects are founded on false and un-Islamic basis. He, therefore, maintains that Muslims cannot attain revival until they are ready to find the true basis of Islam in the pre-sectarian era of Islam.

The dialogues in this book depict a realistic picture of theological and historical debates and an uncertainty or hope about the future that are part of the Muslim discourses, especially in South Asia. For instance, we can look at a part of the dialogue that I have partially translated and reproduced in the following quote:

“I asked Ali Kodrā: Why are we so discouraged? Why does life seem reckless and sluggish in the Muslim world? Why have we failed to kindle the light of freedom of expression and thought? Why are all the fifty-seven Muslim countries clashing with each other about national identities and borders; why are they constantly at war? Why is it so that, despite having all the natural and human recourses, the Muslim world is suffering from an incessant decline?

‘I swear to God, we will never rise again,’ Ali Kodrā cried as if he had seen the future of Muslims. Nothing will change. The West will be flourishing with all its conflicts and disagreements, and the Muslim world, on the other hand, will remain in chaos forever. Muslims, for an illusory satisfaction, will seek refuge into the Western culture. Even if, as you think, capitalism will bring about ruin to the Western society, there are no possibilities for Muslims to play as an alternative.

What causes such a disappointment? I groped for an explanation.

He said: ‘The very existence of ours is rotten and meaningless. A disease of frailty has inflicted us. It has been feeding on us for centuries and made us morally weak. No traditional medication can cure us, and, unfortunately, we are not ready for a modern one, neither rationally nor psychologically.

I understood that Ali Kodrā was disappointed by the internal conflicts within Muslims, but I could not agree with him on the points that these conflicts were incurable and that the fate of Muslims is sealed with an indefinite decline.” (pp. 9-10)

This dialogue between Shaz and Ali Kodrā sketches an interesting picture of how Muslims converse over the issue of their decline and revival. It also represents the state of frustration they feel today.

Though a travelogue, as the author claims, this book documents Shaz’s own reflection on the decline of Muslims and his dialogue with other scholars such as Ali Kodrā and Sheikh Suleiman. Along with Shaz, every other character in this book long for the revival of Muslim civilization. Though some are optimistic, others have lost every single hope, seeing Muslims torn into many sects and never ready to unite due to the ‘conflicting traditions’ they inherit.

Ever since the collapse of Muslim political power, it became an obsession of many scholars to understand the causes of the decline of Muslim civilization and how it could be revived. Scholar-activists in the Indian subcontinent such as Syed Ahmed Khan, Altāf Hussain Hālī, Amīr Ali, Shiblī Nomānī, Muhammad Iqbāl, and Abul Aʿla Maudūdī devoted their lives to understanding this phenomenon.
These scholars developed various, sometimes conflicting opinions about the nature of decline, however, they agreed upon one point: It was because Muslims failed to follow Islam in its truest form that their power/stature declined. But they differed, again, on this question: “How should Muslims have followed Islam and what kind of understanding of Islam would guarantee their revival in the future?”

For example, Amīr Ali in his famous, The Spirit of Islam (1891), analyzed the dogmatic and rational understandings of Islam. He believed that the eventual prevalence of Ashʿarī’s formalism, which represents the quietism of today’s ahle sunnat wa- jamāʿt and tasawwuf’s circles which, in his opinion, was contrary to the spirit of Islam, was among some of the reasons that led to the decline of the Muslim civilization. He glorified, so did Shiblī Nomānī in his writings, the period of Fārābī, Ibn Sīnā,, Ibn Rushd etc. and their rationalism as the model that today’s Muslims should follow in order to properly understand Islam. Maudūdī, on the other hand, proposed a different idea, confining orthodoxy to the period of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs. He maintained that Muslims started deviating from the path of Islam after they transferred sovereignty to Muʿāwiyah.  Ushering in Kingship rather than caliphal authority, eventually drove Muslims to their decline. To him, Muslims of the earliest period can only be held as the model for those who seek the true meaning of Islam. Every scholar had guaranteed that his definition of ‘follow-Islam’ could secure the survival and revival of Islam.

Multiple Islams

In his earlier works Shaz had presented a passionate criticism of the conflicting traditions that are preserved in the books of theology of different Muslim sects. Like his predecessors, he thinks that the root cause of Muslims’ decline is in their deviation from the true path of Islam. However, by the phrase, ‘the true path of Islam,’ he derives a different meaning and, interestingly, all of the main interlocutors in the book under discussion seem consensual on Shaz’s understanding. The recurring theme in Shaz’s account is that, in the beginning, there was only one Islam whose adherents were called Muslims unified by a single force, i.e. the Qur’an. With the passage of time, this force was weakened by the diverse interpretations and explanations that got rooted deeply into the Muslim imagination. As a result, Muslims started losing their hold on the Qur’an. In the absence of the single divine guidance, Muslims were divided into many sects to such an extent, says Ali Kodrā, that today no Muslim could claim to be a true Muslim. (21)

It all began after the murder of the third Caliph, Uthman (656 AD), and the battles of Jamal (656 AD) and Siffīn (657 AD). It was the first time when Muslims drew their swords against each other. All these events had a lasting impact on Muslims self-imagination and affected severely the subsequent interpretations of the scripture. Every group of Muslims, whether Ibāḍī, Shi’a or Sunni, built up great walls of legends, myths, and traditions around the history of these particular events that obstructed their way of seeking the true meaning of the Qur’an. Shaz has termed all the different versions of history and the historical and theological interpretations as ‘conflicting traditions’ and Muslims as the ‘antagonizing community.’ The ‘conflicting traditions’ are the real cause of the blockage of any possibility for generating a serious dialogue and reconciliation process among different versions Islam. Shaz thinks that this conflict of interpretations of Islam and history caused the decline ultimately, and until this conflict is resolved, there cannot be a revival.

Robotic Muslims

In comparing the better and worse of Muslim history, scholars often romanticize the better version and try to present it as the model to amend the mistakes of the past in the present. Shaz paints a romantic view of the early period of Islam where everything was fine and directed by the Qur’an. However, it was replaced soon by tradition. Ali Kodrā defines tradition as a collective treasure that is made of different things, authentic and unauthentic, coming from various sources, and becomes a part of the collective consciousness of a community (107). Shaz discusses how some of the most important things in a tradition, history, symbols, and interpretation became the basis of sectarianism. He blames Muslim rulers and ulama for focusing on tradition instead of the Qur’an. When the central authority of the Caliphate declined, the Abbasid, Fatimid, and Umayyad, then Seljuk and Mamluk rulers emphasized certain relics, allegedly belonging to the Prophet, and a particular interpretation of history for legitimizing their authority. Madrasas were the outstanding means to patronize ulama, theologian-jurists, who remained busy in spreading the state-sponsored version of Islam. Consequently, under the supervision of state, the sectarian and jurisprudential gap widened and consolidated. These developments affected Islam and radically changed its very structure. He argues that because these changes happened in the name of religion, it became part of Islam.”

Shaz discusses how some of the most important things in a tradition, history, symbols, and interpretation became the basis of sectarianism. He blames Muslim rulers and ulama for focusing on tradition instead of the Qur’an.”

We are still part of that tradition and trapped in what Shaz called “the twisted, misleading and poisonous content stored in the books of history and tradition” (135). It can easily be discerned in the writings and the polemical debates of the traditional ulama. as Shaz recalls in his sixteenth chapter with reference to a Shiʿi religious scholar, Sheikh Hasan Faulādī. A respected ʿālim, Sheikh Faulādī is well learned in both Shiʿi and Sunni traditions. His learning of the Sunni tradition is more of the polemical kind. It makes him more confident and ferocious to fight with his adversary, i.e. a Sunni, and humiliate him. He talks about an unintended discussion that happened between Sheikh Faulādī and a Sunni alim, Sheikh al-Huzaifi, on various contentious issues like Imamat-Khilafat between the two sects. At one point, both accused each sect of violating the sanctity of the Qur’an, by referring to the tradition of the possible recitation of some verses of the Qur’an that implied a different meaning. However, this debate did not point to any direction and bore nothing. This narration suggests a general malice that has been developed by the poisonous tradition of sectarianism, and that Muslims, the unfortunate ‘prisoners of history’ are still held as victims of the past.

The Yardstick of the Quran and the Reason

Along with a peculiar assessment of the causes of decline, the book provides a solution for the problem. Though the solution Shaz gives is very radical and subversive, he seems very hopeful about it. Kodra believes that there is no cure of the decline and nothing can reunite Islam as it was during the time of the Prophet. Shaz says optimistically, but in a very allegorical way, “No matter how strong the current of air is, one should not quit burning the lamp”(136).

One of the dialogists that Shaz introduces to his readers is an old man, Sheikh Suleiman, from the Alawite Nusayri sect. Suleiman is presented as an erudite scholar with a deep knowledge of different Islamic traditions, which he learned in many institutions in different Muslim countries. While narrating his discussion with the Sheikh, Shaz highlights some of the important points about the possibility of an Islamic revival. Suleiman holds every sect responsible “in upsetting the centrality of the Quran and relying upon others than the Prophet” (163) in religious matters. In the light of the history of the Shiʿi-Sunni rivalry that has been wavering and developing with the passage of time, Suleiman infers that the human interpretation of the din, religion, is not definite and irrevocable (162). If it is so, there is no need to carry on the same traditions that have caused hatred and conflict for years within the Muslim community. As long as Muslims are divided, their revival is not possible. They will have to agree on a common point (and that could be the Qur’an) to make a critical breakthrough for the future (158).

Shaz believes that freeing Muslims from the shackles of the conflicting history and tradition is possible not just by replacing it with another tender version of history, but with something that is more authentic to Muslims than the history itself. And that something is the Qur’an. He argues that, “both sects, Shīʿah and Sunnī, have different conflicting historical narratives. Instead of the true historical facts, both of them are based on fictional and legendary stories. If they are analyzed in the light of the reason and revelation they will lose their authority, hence a death sentence to sectarianism” (187). Shaz seems very confident about the solution he has proposed. On the basis of his argument, he rejects the historical accounts of the immediate events subsequent to the death of the Prophet, about the persecution of the Prophet’s family by Abu Bakr and Umar, the first and the second Caliphs, as fabrication. He brings a testimony against these events from the Qur’an, which says that “the companions of the Prophet are merciful among themselves” (Quran, 48:29).  He argues that if the Qur’an testifies that the companions of the Prophet are compassionate toward one another, how could it be possible that soon after the death of the Prophet they turned against one another? Therefore, he thinks that the existing history of the early period is distorted and against the Qur’an and the reason.


Thinking of completely rejecting a centuries-long tradition for a new beginning is a terrifying idea. But, Shaz’s general criticism spares nothing in the Muslim tradition. He believes that the whole tradition, including religious sciences, such as theology is built on false basis; therefore, it is so diverse. Had it been built on the Qur’an, there would be a unity in it. He suggests, with reference to the current geopolitical realities, if Muslims forget their age-old differences, there could be stability in the Muslim world. His thesis for the unification of Islam may seem motivating for those Muslims who abhor the internal tensions and see the unification of Islam as the only hope for their social and political development. However, for the traditional Muslims it is blasphemous and completely unacceptable.

While discussing the theses of the book, Maulana Zishan Misbahi, trained in a traditional madrasa and an author himself, explained to me that rejecting the tradition will not bring Muslims towards unity, it will create more dissension. He thinks that differences will always be there. This is why we should rather work on developing tolerance among all the sects. He believes that the real problem is takfīrism, declaring apostate the Muslims of different sects and whoever does not subscribe to the creeds of his own sect, no matter if they believe in the basic tenets of Islam. Misbahi thinks that takfīrism should be discarded and those who believe in the basic tenets of Islam should be considered Muslim, even if they do not associate themselves with any sect. And if anyone leaves Islam, he still has rights to life, dignity, and freedom. Another friend, Nicholas Roberts, a graduate student in history at the University of Notre Dame thinks that when Shaz talks about the political and civilizational decline of the Muslim world, it seems that he is excluding in his discourse those Muslims who are doing great in different fields in the West from the intended meaning of the Muslim world. This disregard of Western Muslims in Shaz’s theory about the decline narrative is rooted  in the premises he uses for building the whole edifice of argumentation. As mentioned earlier, the whole discussion about decline started as early as in the twentieth century when Muslims were located mainly in the parts of Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe. The scope of their thinking was obstructed by the time they were living in. However, things are different now. The mass-scale migration of Muslims to the West and their integration to its culture has impacted drastically the past understanding of Muslim world and its revival. Perhaps, the whole question of decline and revival needs to be reassessed with a wider scope.

Despite the fact that Shaz has limited his enquiry regarding the question of how Muslims declined and how would they attain revival again to sectarian conflicts and disregarded many other historical, socio-economic and political aspects, his book is engaging in its narrative and style and an important work to look into the minds of Muslims, to see how and what they think about their past and the future.