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The Roots of Theological Thought in Iraq

An important point to bear in mind is that the teachings of three of the Holy Prophet’s (PBUH) companions, i.e. Imam `Ali (PBUH), the caliph `Umar, and Ibn Mas`ud, played a crucial role in the establishment of the first movements of religious education in Iraq. It is impossible to determine the degree to which various schools of Kufah were influenced by these three, but what is certain is that the influence was not evenly spread. In the first decades after the hijrah, coinciding with the caliphate of `Umar, Iraq came to serve as the base from which the wars of conquest were launched and coordinated. As a consequence, the presence of a large number of the Companions and Successors who had taken up residence in Kufah and Basra had transformed these cities into major centers of learning. However, the dominant atmosphere of the two cities was one of jihad and thus many were attracted to the learning of the Quran and worship, rather than pursuing theoretical discussions or even exchange of hadiths.

From the early days of Islam Kufah was a magnate for `Alawite and Shi`ite tendencies and the followers of Imam `Ali (PBUH), among the Companions and Successors, comprised those who played the most crucial role in establishing the foundations of theological movements of the city. One of the key ideas set forth by this group (33 Ah/ 653 AD) was the Imam-inspired notion of equality among the peoples of various racial and tribal backgrounds, especially among Arabs and non-Arabs. This concept, which was widely propagated in Kufah, was based on an ethico-political idea whose conflict with the alleged hadith of Prophet Muhammad (“the imams belong to the Quraysh”) accorded it a theological slant. This intellectual movement was spearheaded by such prominent Shi`ite figures as Malik Ashtar, Sa`sa`h b. Sawhan, Kumayl b. Ziyad and `Amr b. Hamaq. These were joined by the likes of `Abd Allah b. Kawwa’ who joined the Muhakkimah after the arbitration at Siffin and who propagated the idea among the members of the sect and even those of other orientations. There were others such as `Amir b. `Abd Allah b. `Abd Qays, the head of the ascetic Qurra’ (reciters) of Basra, who represented the Basrians in the anti-`Uthman opposition movement which formed in 33 AH in Kufah and whose actions resulted in his banishment to Syria.

As a counterpoint to the ascetic tendencies of the Iraqi Qurra’, the followers of Ibn Mas`ud, at whose head stood `Ubaydah Salmani and `Alqamah b. Qays, represented the circles in Kufah with a view that was a synthesis between seeking salvation in the world to come with a moderate life in the present one. A second minor faction was led by another of Ibn Mas`ud’s disciples named Rabi` b. Khathim who combined the views of the ascetic Qurra’, stressing the need for the practice of “enjoining the good and forbidding the evil”, with an optimistic theory that viewed sin as a disease of the soul which could be healed through repentance. This theory together with Rabi`’s position of neutrality during the Battle of Siffin associates him with the background of the thought of irja’ (to defer judgment) which flourished in Kufah. This goes to indicate that the first roots of the notion of irja’ should not be sought in the teachings of the advocates of tolerance but rather in the views of ascetics such as Rabi`. In the discussion of the same group mention should also be made of Abu `Abd al-Rahman Salmi who set forth the theological notion of negation of “istithna’ in faith” (the addition of the formula “if God wills” to the affirmation “I am a believer”) which served as a basis for the ethico-theological theory of the “later irja’”. Abu al`Aliyah Riyahi was another prominent member of Basra circle who rose up against the extreme ascetic practices of his time by underscoring the notion of raja’ (hope), i.e. that one should be hopeful toward divine forgiveness. Regarding controversial issues he tended to opt for neutrality and suspension of judgment (waqf).

source: Pakatchi , Ahmad "Islam Entry" The Great Islamic Encyclopedia. Ed. Kazem Musavi Bojnourdi.Tehran: The Center of Great Islamic Encyclopaedia , 1989-, V.8 ,pp.419 - 421

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