What I Learned in the Introduction to Shi‘i Islam Course

The Wilmette Institute’s December 2016 course called Introduction to Shi‘i Islam proved to be a remarkably dynamic and exciting course. One of the learners in the course, Stewart Mathison, a Bahá’í living in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and the marketing director for the Bahá’í Publishing Trust, was no exception. He began the course by writing that he was “excited” to “have an opportunity to explore this fascinating topic” with his fellow learners. Here Stewart explains in his own words what he learned and how he is putting it to use.

One of Stewart’s goals was “to be able to explain, at least minimally in an overview way, to Bahá’ís and non-Bahá’í, the basics of Shi‘i Islam, the doctrine of the Imamate, the Twelfth Imam, and its relationship to the Bábí and Bahá’í Faiths.” Here is what he wrote about this goal:

Since just last weekend, I had a brief conversation about these topics with my Ruhi class (via Skype), with those in attendance at our Feast last evening, and in a one-on-one conversation with a friend today who was asking/commenting about Sharia law. To those in my Ruhi class I indicated that I would compose my thoughts in a more organized way and give an overview presentation for those interested (several were). I now find myself able to at least answer a few basics and sometimes surprise myself with how much I am actually able to convey in a knowledgeable way to others. Time permitting, I will likely be putting a presentation together over the next week or two.

As for some of the understandings and insights Stewart learned from the Introduction to Shi‘i Islam course, here is what he wrote:

I told a friend that, while I still don’t pretend to understand a fraction of Islam, through this course that little bit I do now know gives me a far greater understanding than most Americans have at present. The new key insights for me are:

  • How the Islamic Faith so quickly split into its two main factions and, within both —but especially, as was our focus, in Shi‘i Islam—how it has continued to split into various factions or schools to this very day.
  • How a variety of successors to Muhammad impacted the development of Shi‘i Islam in both positive and negative ways, theologically and politically.
  • How the Imamate developed into such a social, political, and economic institution above and beyond its religious aspects.
  • Some of the fascinating theological concepts at play in some of the more prominent schools within Shi‘i Islam—for example, Occultation and the world of “archetypes.”
  • How the Shaykhi School of Shi ‘i Islam and its teachings/doctrines played such a role in influencing the Báb, His followers, and also Bahá’u’lláh and the Bahá’í Faith.As for skills and new feelings or attitudes, Stewart had this to say:
  • I would say that my ability to compare and contrast doctrines and dogmas was enhanced, with thanks due to the various comparative charts and related information in the main textbook for this course.
  • I have a much greater appreciation for the complexity of Islam, and Shi’i Islam in particular. I also have greater appreciation for the development of various theological doctrines which arose (and, perhaps in some cases, faded) over time.

    Finally, Stewart shared the ways in which he plans to use what he has learned in the Introduction to Shi‘i Islam course:

I feel that I am able to speak knowledgeably with individuals or groups about the topic—certainly not at an expert level, by any means, but to perhaps give a better presentation of how and why the Bahá’í Faith emerged as it did and why some of its own teachings draw upon a history that is well-grounded historically and in terms of its theological underpinnings. For example, our broader Bahá’í community in our area was just asked to make a roughly thirty-minute presentation about the Faith at the end of March to a small, progressive Christian church nearby. We are still working out the details of what that presentation will consist of and who will do what within that presentation. But, if not actually covered briefly during the main presentation time, during the question-and-answer time afterward, if someone wants to know more about the background of the Faith, I feel confident I could at least give a bit of helpful information in that regard.

Stewart’s final comment on the Shi‘i Islam course was this:

I have thoroughly enjoyed this course and have told others so. It was challenging, indeed. But I think that is what contributed at least in part to my enjoyment of the material along with the conversations in the forum. Thank you, everyone!

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