Lessons on Islamic Beliefs (LIB) is a scholarly work to provide the reader with a concise, and, at the same time, comprehensive study of the five principles of Islam, among which God’s unity, prophethood, and resurrection are shared by all Abrahamic faiths, and divine justice and Imamate are specific to the Shiʿa school of though.
The author, H.I. Dr. Muhammad Ali Shomali, who comes from a long and wide background of training in the Islamic Seminaries of Qom, and, holds in philosophy a BA and MA from the University of Tehran, and a Ph.D. from the University of Manchester, has written the LIB based on a series of lectures on the Islamic Creed delivered by him at the Islamic Center of Stanmore, London in 2006-2007. Although many publications by Dr. Shomali, some more related to the LIB are Islamic Belief System (2015), Shiʿa Islam: origins, faith, and practices (2003), and Discovering Shiʿa Islam (2014).
The five above-mentioned principles consist of the five chapters of the LIB. “It must be mentioned here that there is no explicit hadith that list these five as being principles of faith.” he says “Rather they have been laid down and developed historically”.
In the first chapter, unlike most scholars, he prefers discussing the Unity of God, rather than proving the most fundamental starting point of the existence of God, claiming that the existence of God is not considered to be that much a point of contention. “Divine unity is so important that whatever we were to write about it would not be enough,” he states. “If we fully understand and implement divine unity, it would be no exaggeration to say that all our problems will be solved. There is no problem in this world, except as a result of lack of understanding, implementation, or attention to divine unity,” he adds. He divides divine unity into that which we need to believe and that which we need to practice, i.e., divine unity in theory and divine unity in practice. The first category involves Unity with respect to His divine essence, Unity with respect to His divine attributes, and Unity in His acts. The second category is about something that we need to practice in addition to what we know about God, and that is unity in worship or servitude. He explains: “When we say that the only worthy of worship is God, the same is true of obedience. The only One who deserves to be obeyed in this world is God.” He believes that obedience and putting one’s belief into practice is the crux of conviction in the Unity of God. Here, we may ask if we are to obey only God, then is it forbidden to obey other people, for example, our parents? He beautifully draws a picture to remove this conflict stating: “The people who have authority from God, like prophets, Imams, and parents, we do obey them, but only [because] God has asked us to obey them” he adds: “if e.g. your father, however, asks you to do something contrary to God’s commands, then he automatically losses that authority.”
Choosing Divine Justice as the second chapter shows its special importance after the Unity of God. According to the LIB, Divine Justice historically was questioned and became a point of controversy among Muslims. In order to safeguard this very important aspect of Islam, the Shia stressed this very issue to distinguish themselves from those who did not give justice its due place. Then, the author discusses schools of thought regarding the issue of Divine Justice, namely Ash’arites, Mutazilites, and Shiʿa: “We believe that there is a real difference between good and bad.” He adds: “A person who is honest and a person who betrays are different in reality, and this is why you see that basic moral values are understandable, even by people who have no faith.” Dr. Shomali cites the very famous saying: “Whatever is good is commanded by God, and whatever is bad is prohibited by Him.” This means God’s legislation is based on real reasons. Dr. Shomali then has a very wise saying that, with no exaggeration, I found very inspiring: “Divine justice must be translated and reflected into our daily life. It was no use theorizing a concept of divine justice and not drawing practical consequences from it.”
In chapter three, he deals with the topic of prophethood, in general, as shared by all Abrahamic faith, and, in particular with the specific prophethood of Prophet Muhammad (s). After he explains the need for the Prophet by bringing some verses of the Quran, he reflects on the duties of the Prophets, e.g., activating and reviving people’s intellects, instructing them on many things that they would not be able to deduce with their reason, exemplifying what they say in their own lives, reminding them of the blessings of God. The next part discusses the very important question of how the claims of prophets are verified. The next topic is about the infallibility of Prophets and its realms. Finally, he writes on the seal of prophethood: “We are able to deduce rationally that this process must come to an end at some point when human beings become mature enough and understanding enough to receive the message of God and protect it.” The fact clarifies the reason why God has sent Prophet Muhammad with the Quran as a literary and intellectual miracle.
The fourth chapter discusses the continuation of prophethood, Imamate. It is true that the miracle of Prophet Muhammad was preserved as it came down, but the need for a perfect model and a teacher of the Quran remained. Imam is a divine guide appointed by God, who the world cannot exist without; because there must be always a divine proof (Hujjah) on the earth. Imam Ali’s knowledge and wisdom surpassed all the companions, and the event of Ghadir was a proof of his guardianship (wilayah) after the prophet. There are hadiths that state the number of imams as twelve: they are Imam Ali, his two sons, and the nine sons of Imam Hussain until Imam Mahdi (the last Imam, and the awaited savior).
The author states “According to the Quran the belief in God as the only Creator of the world and the belief in the resurrection are the main beliefs of every divinely revealed religion.” the author says in the last chapter. Death is not destruction or annihilation, but it is a transition to the other world. The discussion in this chapter covers the belief in Barzakh (the middle world), the questioning of the grave, the resurrection, and the embodiment of our actions.
What makes this book unique is that it gives many details on the Islamic creed from Shiʿa perspective in the most concise way. More importantly, it wisely attracts attention to the requirements of each, just as we mentioned about the full implementation of God’s Unity, and, about practical requirements of Divine justice, in the other words. The LIB is inspiring and can play a fundamental role in world peace-making programs. As an Islamic scholar in the Seminary of Qom, I think the words and sentences in LIB are chosen and put together carefully which makes it accurate. Finally, I do recommend this book for those non-Muslims who want to have a brief and reliable picture of Islam, and for the Muslims who want to reach the most accurate knowledge about Shiʿa.