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Ashura, Shi’ism,…and Yet Another 'Jewish Conspiracy Against Islam'

Last week, marked the gruesome and bloody spectacle which punctuates the annual Shiite Muslim celebration of Ashura (the 10th day of the month of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar). This date serves as a memorial for slain Shiite leader Hussein bin Ali, executed by order of Sunni Caliph Yazid bin Muawiyah in 680 C.E. Following his decapitation, Hussein’s head was brought to Damascus, the seat of the Umayyad Caliphate of Yazid and displayed for a month, culminating (temporarily) a furious period of internecine strife in early Islamic history, whose sanguinary and brutal sectarian legacy is still manifest today, most notably in Syria, and Iraq.

While such narrative accounts of Sunni-Shiite sectarian strife are routinely shared by non-Muslim pundits, these experts never reveal its dark theological underpinning: Islam’s most bitter and lasting internecine struggle is yet another “Jewish conspiracy.” As put forth in seminal early Muslim historiography (for example, by Tabari, d. 923), Abd Allah b. Saba, an alleged renegade Yemenite Jew is claimed to be the founder of the heterodox Shiite sect. He is held responsible—identified as a Jew—for promoting the Shiite heresy and fomenting the rebellion and internal strife associated with this primary breach in Islam’s “political innocence,” culminating in the assassination of the third Rightly Guided Caliph Uthman, and the bitter, lasting legacy of Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian strife. Here are key extracts from Tabari’s account:

Abd Allah b. Saba’ was a Yemenite Jew. . . . He later converted to Islam in the time of [Caliph] Uthman. Then he traveled through the lands of the Muslims trying to lead them into error. . . . [For example] in Egypt he promulgated to the people the [heterodox] doctrine of the Return [of Muhammad as Messiah]. So the Egyptians discussed this idea. Then, after that, he said that there were one thousand prophets, each of whom had an agent; and that Ali was Muhammad’s agent. Then he said, Muhammad was the Seal of the Prophets and Ali was the Seal of the Agents. Also, he asked: “Who is more evil than those who denied Muhammad’s designation of Ali as his agent-successor, pounced upon this successor- designate of Ali’s messenger and seized (illegitimately) the rulership of the Muslim community?” [In answer to this question as it were,] he told the Egyptians that Uthman had seized power illegitimately while Ali was, in fact, the agent-successor of Allah’s messenger. “Rebel against this illegitimate rule, provoke it, and challenge your rulers . . .” [said ‘Abd Allah b. Saba’].

Over a millennium later, at the momentous international gathering of Muslim religious authorities, sponsored by Sunni Islam’s Vatican, Al-Azhar University, the Fourth Conference of the Academy of Islamic Research, September, 1968, Al-Azhar Professor Muhammad El-Sayyed Husein Al-Dahabi, declared,

Among the leading figures of heresy and sectarianism was Abdullah ibn Saba the Jew, who feigned to be a Muslim, disguising his unbelief, making a show of supporting the Prophet’s offspring (Alu-l-Bait), so as to deceive Muslims and to propagate among them his heretical and noxious views… [T]he earliest heresiarch, Abdullah ibn Saba, who was the foremost leader of sedition and heterodoxy. He, with his adherents,… feigned to be devout Muslim, and went to all lengths in their deceitfulness, by simulating to be the most fervent supporters of the offspring of the Prophet, so as to corrupt the beliefs of Muslims.

Finally a Hudson Institute Center for Religious Freedom review of Saudi Arabian textbooks, circa 2008 (“Update: Saudi Arabia’s Curriculum of Intolerance”), demonstrated that this traditionalist, mainstream example of Sunni Islam’s conspiratorial Jew-hatred was still being inculcated amongst Muslim youth:

The cause of the discord: The Jews conspired against Islam and its people. A sly, wicked person who sinfully and deceitfully professed Islam infiltrated (the Muslims). He was ‘Abd Allah b. Saba’ (from the Jews of Yemen). * began spewing his malice and venom against the third of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs, ‘Uthman (may God be pleased with him), and falsely accused him.” (Tawhid: Literature, Science, and Qur’an Memorization Section, Twelfth Grade. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Ministry of Education. Education Development, 1428-1429; 2007-2008, p. 78.)

Ignoring this mainstream Sunni Islamic narrative—redolent with conspiratorial Jew-hatred—is yet another salient example of the prevailing willful blindness to institutional Islam’s unreformed and unrepentant canonical antisemitism.