“Imam Ali (A.S) Was a Great Peace-Maker”: Interview with Seyfeddin Kara, Holder of Imam Ali’s (AS) Chair in Shia Studies
February 25, 2021 | 8:00 PM
SHAFAQNA– The history and text of the holy book of Islam, the Quran, that was revealed to the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) from 609 to 632 AD is one of the most researched topics among Muslim and non-Muslim scholars and researchers throughout centuries. According to the history of Islam, many of the prophet’s (PBUH) companions memorized the Quran during its 23-year revelation and several ones served as scribes and recorded the text of the holy book.
After the death of the prophet in 632 AD, the three first caliphs began compiling the text of the Quran and established a standard version, known today as Uthmanic codex. However, it is believed that there were other readings of the Quran with the most famous called Imam Ali’s codex. Shafaqna has had an exclusive and comprehensive interview with Professor Seyfeddin Kara the author of the book “In Search of Ali ibn Abi Talib’s Codex: History and Traditions of the Earliest Copy of the Quran”, that was published by Gerlach Press, on July 30, 2018.
Professor Kara is a Muslim scholar and the second holder of the Imam Ali’s (AS) Chair in Shia Studies and Dialogue among Islamic Legal Schools in North America. He is originally from Turkey but completed his studies in seminaries in Iran, Syria and the United Kingdom.
Seyfeddin Kara who also worked at London-based IHRC for several years and submitted reports to the various United Nations treaty bodies. He has focused his research activities at Hartford Seminary – a theological college in Connecticut, the U.S., on early history of Islam and contemporary issues related to Muslims and Islam.
Shaqfana- Dear Professor Kara, Thank you very much for accepting an interview with us about your book “In Search of Ali ibn Abi Talib’s Codex”. I would like to begin my questions by asking: Your new book seems to be a completed version of your article “The Suppression of ʿAli ibn Abi Ṭalib’s Codex: Study of the Traditions on the Earliest Copy of the Qur’an” that was published at the Journal of Near Eastern Studies. What prompted you to work on Imam’s Codex?
Professor Kara – When I was doing my MA, during my readings on the textual history of the Quran, I realised that there had not been any study on Imam ʿAli’s codex. The debate on the origins of the Quran revolves around the Sunni accounts of the textual history of the Quran that the first three caliphs collected the Quran. Therefore, I wanted to bring Imam Ali’s (AS) collection of the Quran, which, according to Sunni/Shia reports, is the first complete Quranic codex, to the attention of the academia.
Shaqfana – Some Shia asserts there is a version of the Quran organised by Imam Ali (AS), and it is different from what declared as the formal text of the holy book by the 3rd Caliph Uthman. Do you agree with this assertion? Why?
Professor Kara – Such a view is highly dubious and seems to stem from some narrations mentioned in the Shia hadith literature, which are often misunderstood/misinterpreted. From the very early periods, majority Shia scholars have vehemently denied such views. The traditions do mention that there is a difference between Imam ‘Ali’s codex and the Uthmanic codex, but the difference is only in the order of the Chapters of the Quran. There is no difference in the order of the Verses between Imam ʿAli’s codex and the ʿUthmanic codex. Otherwise, these the codices are the same, save for Imam Ali’s codex also contains his commentary on the verses, included in the margins of his codex. The fact that, when Imam ʿAli was nominated to be the fourth caliph, he kept the ʿUthmanic codex and copied it with his handwriting, indicates that in the end, Imam ʿAli approved the ʿUthmanic codex, and there was no problem with it.
However, of course, there are significant differences between Shia and Sunni scholars in the interpretation of the verses of the Quran and most of the time; this difference is misunderstood to be the difference in the wording of the Quran.
Shaqfana– What are the shared thoughts or narrations between the Shia and the Sunni regarding the history of Quran, the process of gathering its text and its codices?
Professor Kara– In general, both Shia and Sunni accounts of the textual history of the Quran agree that the Quran was collected into a single codex right after the death of the Prophet. However, according to the Shias, Imam Ali (AS) collected the first copy. When he realised that Muslims would not honour the Prophet’s (PBUH) will that Imam Ali (AS) should be the successor, Imam Ali (AS) decided to steer clear of the political upheavals to avoid internal conflict with fellow Muslims and preoccupied himself with the collection of the Quran.
On the other hand, Sunni accounts of the textual history of the Quran state that first two caliphs Abū Bakr and ʿUmar and then finally ʿUthmān collected the Quran.
Thus, the difference between the Shia and Sunni accounts is the identity of the first collector of the Quran. There is no difference regarding the period when the Quran was collected. I should state that this is the mainstream view in both schools of thought. A minority view in both schools of thought maintain that the Quran was collected at the time of the Prophet (PBH).
Shaqfana – Has anybody ever worked on the same topic of yours or even close to it? What makes “In Search of Ali ibn Abi Talib’s Codex” different from other books in this arena?
Professor Kara – The traditions (Ahadith) regarding Imam Ali’s (AS) collection of the Quran is mentioned both Sunni (non-canonical) and Shia hadith collections, and some Muslim scholars have naturally discussed Imam Ali’s codex. However, there has not been academic research written in the English language on this topic. Further, what made my research significant is that I employed late Harald Motzki’s isnad-cum-matn method to analyse the relevant traditions. The method is accepted in Western academia as the only valid tool to assess Muslim traditions. It is a very rigorous method and supported by traditional Muslim hadith assessment methods. The outcome of my study was also significant: I managed to date the tradition on Imam Ali’s (AS) collection of the Quran to a very early date.
Shaqfana – You are the second holder of the Imam Ali Chair in Shi’i Studies and Dialog among Islamic Legal Schools. Who is the first holder of this chair? What has been his/her significant work about Imam Ali?
Professor Kara – Yes, the Imam Ali’s Chair in Shia Studies and Dialog among Islamic Legal Schools is first of its kind. It is a significant initiative purely supported by the North American Shia community. The aim is to give more voice to Shia studies in western academia and create avenues to maintain genuine dialogue between Sunni and Shia schools of thought. Unfortunately, the recent political developments in the Middle East, there has been a rise of sectarianism in the world. One of the aims of Imam Ali’s (AS) Chair is to promote the intra-faith dialogue in the Muslim world, which is grounded in academic study and debate. My predecessor was Ammar Nakshawani is well-known for his public lectures about Shia Islam.
Shaqfana – Could you tell us how many departments across North America are involved in Shi’i studies? What topics in Shia studies specifically grab their attention?
Professor Kara – To my knowledge, in the North America/Europe, aside from Hartford Seminaries’ Imam Ali’s (AS) Chair, there are no departments, academic post etc. dedicated for Twelver Shia studies. There are only three or four courses that exclusively teach about Shia Islam. However, there have been individual academics who have incorporated Shiʿi Islam in their courses about Islam and Muslims world.
Shaqfana – How old is the department of Islamic Studies at Hartford Seminary? Would you tell us about the activities done at this theological seminary in regards to Islamic Studies?
Professor Kara – The MacDonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, the country’s oldest centre for such study in the USA, opening in 1973. However, the study of Islam in Hartford Seminary goes back to 1893, thanks to the efforts of late Duncan Black MacDonald. We have two Degree Programmes related to Islamic studies at Hartford Seminary: Islamic Chaplaincy and PhD in Islamic Studies and Muslim Christian Relations. There is also the Muslim World academic journal, one of the oldest and the most prestigious academic journals in the world, published by Hartford Seminary.
Shaqfana – Has Hartford Seminary ever involved in dialogue among various Islamic sects or religions? What were the results?
Professor Kara – Before, filling up the position of Imam Ali Chair and during my tenure, I continuously participated in the intra-faith activities, including attending seminars, conferences and meetings. Especially the political violence committed in Syria and Iraq gave rise to sectarianism on a global scale. Such a large scale of sectarianism needs to be tackled with the combined efforts of academics, religious scholars, politicians, the media and community leaders. So long as the intra-faith dialogue is not supported by all segments of the society, there is little chance of success.
Shaqfana – You are a researcher with extensive works on Islamic traditions: what subjects do you think Western researchers should focus on, during their studies of Shia Islam?
Professor Kara – I am kind of against to focus on only Shiʿi Islam. What I mean by this is that scholars should study Islam, and when they study Islam, they should study it holistically. To do it, they need to make use of all the available data Sunni, Twelver Shia, Zaydi and Ismaili sources. This has been the main problem so far; Islam has been only studied within the framework of only one school of thought. The other sources have been neglected. The textual history of the Quran is a perfect example of this. If we look at the literature on the subject, we cannot find anything about the Shiʿi view on the subject. As it has been demonstrated in my book, once we study all the available data, we may end up with a more convincing conclusions about the early history of Islam.
Shaqfana – How well does the Western world know Imam Ali? What should Muslims do to introduce this important Islamic figure better to the world?
Professor Kara – There has been great interest in Shia Islam due to the politico-religious events in Iran, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria. Consequently, people learn more about Imam Ali who is the most central figure in Shiʿi Islam after the Prophet. I think the establishment of Imam Ali Chair in Hartford Seminary, a very reputable academic institution, is an essential step in terms of introducing Imam Ali to the world. There need to be serious academic studies on Imam Ali’s life, teachings, achievements. Such studies would introduce him to the world and help Muslims, in general, to appreciate him dully.
Shaqfana – When it comes to introducing Imam Ali (AS) to the world, which aspects of his character and life should be heeded more?
Professor Kara – I think his peace-maker character is the most relevant to today’s Muslims. Imam Ali (AS) is known to be the greatest Muslim warrior. He was the bravest and fiercest warrior who decimated the enemy ranks single handedly. However, he only fought when the community was under threat.
At other times, he was a great peace-maker. After the death of the Prophet (PBUH), despite the provocations, he remained silent to keep the unity of Muslims. He supported, protected and advised the caliphs. He also treated non-Muslims fairly and protected their rights when he was the caliph. He advised his representatives to be kind and fair towards people. He had a deep love for humanity in general. There is a famous saying attributed to Imam Ali that: “Man is either your brother in faith or your equal in humanity.”
This interview is originally published on July 3, 2019.