How interpretation of the word maula caused the Shia-Sunni schism

Rana Safvi
Rana SafviSep 07, 2017 | 14:24

How interpretation of the word maula caused the Shia-Sunni schism

  • Man kunto Maula
  • Fa hazaa Aliyun Maula

Any lover of qawwali would have heard myriad soulful versions of this sung by the greats.

What they probably wouldn't realise is the significance of the words or their ambiguity and the schism they left behind in the Muslim world.

On 18th Zill Hijj 10 AH /March 10, 632 AD, (which falls on September 10 this year), just three months before his demise, Prophet Mohammad performed his first and also what was his last hajj. It is known as Hajjat-ul-Vida or Farewell Pilgrimage. Realising its significance many people had accompanied him.


On his way back from Mecca he stopped near a small pond in a place called Khum (now the city of Juhfa in Saudi Arabia). Since Ghadeer means pond in Arabic it came to be called Ghadeer e Khumm. It was a barren place with no potable water source, but this was the point where caravans from Mecca left to take separate routes.

He said that he had received a revelation from Allah and wanted to announce it to the people with him. This is also supposed to be the last time he spoke to a large congregation of Muslim men and women.

This Quranic verse (5:67) is said to have been revealed to him:

O Messenger, announce that which has been revealed to you from your Lord, and if you do not, then you have not conveyed His message. And Allah will protect you from the people. Indeed, Allah does not guide the disbelieving people.

The Prophet called back those who were getting ready to go their separate way. A makeshift dias was made of palm leaves and sticks topped with camel saddles. The Prophet climbed on to the dias and began his sermon:


"O people, Allah the Most Kind the Omniscient has told me that no apostle lives to more than half the age of him who had preceded him. I think I am about to be called (to die) and thus I must respond……."

He asked the assembled people if he had acquitted his responsibilities equitably to which they responded that he had informed, advised and striven. After testifying that there is but one God, and his own Prophethood he talked of death and the day of judgment. The assembly bore witness to it.

Then the Prophet called his cousin and son in law Ali ibn Abu Talib and very dramatically lifting his forearm in line with his own went on to say

  • Man kunto Maula
  • Fa hazaa Aliyun Maula
  • whoever accepts me as a maula
  • Ali is his maula too

He added, "God be the friend of he who is your friend, the enemy of he who is your enemy."

The root of the problem arises from the meaning of the word Arabic maula. Its root is the Arabic word "wali" which means friend, guide, to be close to.

It can be interpreted in various ways and has over 20 meanings such as master, protector, friend, owner of a slave, judge and even servant etc.


Since the Prophet did not specifically use the word "khalifa" which means successor a dispute arose after his death as to whether Ali ibn Abu Talib, the Prophet's was his successor or friend.

According to the Shias the verse:

"Today I have perfected your religion and completed my bounty upon you, and I was satisfied that Islam be your religion." (Qur'an 5:3) was revealed after this pronouncement. This proves that Islam was perfected only after the appointment of Ali as the khalifa or successor. Mohammad was the last Prophet so he could only have a khalifa after him.

The word Shia means friend/followers and those who believed in Ali as the natural successor of the Prophet came to be known as Shiaa't e Ali or followers of Ali which later became just Shia. The word Sunni comes from those who follow the Hadith or Sunnat of the Prophet.

According to the Shia scholars, the Prophet also said that he was leaving behind the Quran and his ahle bait (immediate family) as guides. The Sunni scholars say he had said he is leaving behind the Quran and his sunnat (hadith).

Shia and Sunni commentators both mention that this event took place, and that Omar (who became the second Caliph) congratulated him, however the crux of the matter is the interpretation.

While Shias celebrate it as festival, Eid e Ghadeer — the day the Prophet appointed Ali as his successor-maula (leader) of the believing men and women, the Sunnis treat it as just another day.

It is also celebrated by the Chisty Sufis as my friend, Syed Salman Chisty the gaddi nasheen of Ajmer Sharif dargah says, "We celebrate Eid e Ghadeer with great reverence every year as we trace out lineage to Hazrat Ali. It was the day the Prophet (peace be upon him) appointed Hazrat Ali as his spiritual heir and guide for all believing men and women."

It used to be celebrated by the Sufi khanqahs in Pakistan but of late with the growth of a more orthodox version of Islam it has declined, says Dr Mohammad Taqi. He says that "it was the Sunni Sufis who were truly the torchbearers of Ghadeer," but now "religio-cultural events have been truncated" leading to a decline of such celebrations.

Maula can be interpreted in various ways and has over 20 meanings such as master, protector, friend, owner of a slave, judge and even servant etc.

According to many Sunni scholars, Ali had just finished a victorious campaign in Yemen and there was a dispute regarding distribution of spoils, as Ali wanted it all to be handed over to the Prophet and not distributed immediately.

Seeing this, the Prophet reaffirmed his faith in Ali, whom he was extremely close to. So it was natural that he would warn people of enmity against Ali and would announce his close bonds to Ali by calling him maula (friend).

They question the timing. If the Prophet wanted to announce Ali as his successor he should have done it at Mecca where Muslims from everywhere were present. Why only at Khumm where there were only the people going towards Medina present? According to them, the verse 5:3 was announced at Arafah during the farewell hajj.

Three months later the Prophet left this world. On his deathbed he asked for pen and paper so that he could dictate something that would not lead to error. At that time his companions Abu Bakr, Umar and his wives were present. Lesley Hazleton in her book After the Prophet writes that it produced a near panic and everyone started protesting that he was too weak to strain himself, till out of sheer weakness he asked to be left alone.

We will never know what he wanted to say. Perhaps he would have specifically named Ali as his khalifa in it, as Ali was the closest to him and the first man to accept Islam as his religion.

What we do know is that a shura (inter tribal council) was called for by the head of a major Medina tribe and after deliberations from amongst those present, Abu Bakr, the Prophet's close companion was elected as the first Caliph of Islam. Ali was not present in that council as he was busy preparing the Prophet's body for burial.

Till then enjoy the Prophet's words set to music by Amir Khusrau in the first ever qawwali composed, and ponder over what if!

Last updated: December 01, 2017 | 22:42
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