The Shiites (a name derived from the Arabic shiat Ali, "the party of Ali") constitute one of the two major branches of Islam, the other, larger branch being the Sunnites. Following the death of Muhammad, disagreement arose as to the necessary qualifications and exact function of his successors as leaders (Imams) of the Muslim community. The Shiites are those who insisted that only members of the Prophet's clan, specifically, the descendants of Muhammad's daughter Fatima and her husband Ali, could qualify. Although Ali became (655) the fourth caliph, he was murdered in 661, and the majority recognized the Umayyad Muawiya I as caliph. The Shiites, however, supported the claims of Ali's sons: Hasan, who died mysteriously c. 669, and Husayn, who was killed by Umayyad troops at Kerbala in 680 (Kerbala, in Iraq, became the major pilgrimage center for the Shiites).
Shiism has three major subdivisions as well as numerous offshoots. The majority are called Twelvers (Ithna Ashariyya), because they recognize 12 imams, beginning with Ali; the 12th disappeared in 873 but will return as the Mahdi (messiah). Twelver Shiism became the state religion of Persia (Iran) under the Safavid dynasty in the 16th century; it retains that position in the present - day Islamic republic of Iran. The other two major subdivisions are the Seveners (Ismailis) and the Fivers (Zaydites).
Shiism emphasizes the spiritual function of the Prophet's successor, the imam, in whom the Prophetic Light is ever present in this world. He is believed to be divinely protected against sin and error and to have an infallible understanding of the Koran, a supernatural knowledge of future events, and intercessory powers.
|BELIEVE Religious Information Source - By Alphabet Our List of 2,300 Religious Subjects|
J R Cole and N R Keddie, eds., Shi'ism and Social Protest (1986); M Momen, An Introduction to Shi'i Islam (1985); A Tabatabai, Shi'ite Islam (1975).
The followers of Ali were known as the Shia (partisans) of Ali. Although they began as a political group, the Shia, or Shia Muslims, became a sect with specific theological and doctrinal positions. A key event in the history of the Shia and for all Muslims was the tragic death at Karbala of Husayn, the son of Ali, and Muhammad's daughter Fatima. Husayn had refused to recognize the legitimacy of the rule of the Umayyad Yazid, the son of Mu'awiyah, and was on his way to rally support for his cause in Kûfah. His plans were exposed before he arrived at Kûfah, however, and a large Umayyad army met him and 70 members of his family at the outskirts of the city. The Umayyads offered Husayn the choice between a humiliating submission to their rule or a battle and definite death. Husayn chose to fight, and he and all the members of his family with him were massacred. The incident was of little significance from a military point of view, but it was a defining moment in the history of Shia Islam. Although not all Muslims are Shia Muslims, all Muslims view Husayn as a martyr for living up to his principles even to death.
The Twelver Shia, or Ithna-'Ashariyya, is the largest of the Shia Muslim sects. They believe that legitimate Islamic leadership is vested in a line of descent starting with Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, Ali, through Ali's two sons, Hasan and Husayn, and then through Husayn's descendants. These were the first 12 imams, or leaders of the Shia Muslim community. The Shia Muslims believe that Muhammad designated all 12 successors by name and that they inherited a special knowledge of the true meaning of the scripture that was passed from father to son, beginning with the Prophet himself. This family, along with its loyal followers and representatives, has political authority over the Shia Muslims.
Ahmad S. Dallal
The Imam, as the Shiites conceive him, is a repository of wisdom, absolute in his political and religious authority. Under the theoretical aegis of the 12th imam, Shiite religious leaders exercise immense influence. They are more likely to take an innovative approach to religious issues and to defy political authority than Sunnites.
During the early centuries of Islam, the Shiites, politically defeated and persecuted, became an underground movement and adopted the principles of taqwa (which in this case means "dissimulation of faith") and of an esoteric interpretation of the Qur'an (Koran). Thus, Shiites believe that beneath the explicit and literal meaning of the Qur'an are other levels of meaning, which are known only to the imam, who can reveal them to chosen followers. These principles, useful to the movement when it was politically powerless, are still accepted by Shiites. They also affirm the validity of a form of temporary marriage called muta. Shiites pay the tax called zakat (originally levied by Muhammad to help the poor and later levied by Muslim states) to their religious leaders rather than to state authorities, as they did before achieving political power (for instance, in Iran in the 15th century). As a result, many Shiite leaders in Iran and Iraq have immense wealth and property.
In recent years several Shiite leaders, including the Iranian political leader the Ayatollah Khomeini, advocated rapprochement and solidarity with Sunni Islam.
Imam (Arabic, "leader" or "exemplar"), in general usage in Islam, is the political head of the Muslim community or the person who leads prayer services. The Prophet Muhammad and his early successors-including those of the Umayyad caliphate-performed both functions; the head of state himself led Friday prayers in the central capital mosque, and his governors did the same in provincial capitals. Later, however, administrative and political functions were separated from religious ones.
In Shia Islam, the term imam is applied to the person who is both the political and religious leader. He must be descended from Ali and Fatima (the son-in-law and daughter of the Prophet Muhammad). No imam, however, except Ali, ever ruled, and beginning with the sixth imam, Jafar al-Sadiq, all eschewed political power. The imam is regarded by the main body of Shiites as immune from error and sin and by the Ismailis as a veritable incarnation of God. Both sects believe the last imam to be in concealment and await his return.
The Imam is regarded by Shi'ites not merely as a political leader but as a metaphysical being, one who is without sin, whose doctrinal pronouncements are infallible and who bestows true knowledge on humanity. The Imams are referred to within the Shi'ite tradition as masum - free from error or sin - and are regarded by the majority of Shi'as as twelve in number. The last Imam, the Mahdi, is believed not to have died but to be in hiding and will appear at the end of time in order to bring about the victory of the Shi'a faith.
Unlike the Sunnis, who perform prayers five times a day, the Shi'ites pray three times a day: in the morning, in the afternoon, and at night. Like other Muslims, they perform ritual ablutions before prayer. However, they customarily place a tiny tablet of clay brought from a holy place on the spot where their forehead will touch the ground. They also build very sumptuous monuments to their saints, organize pilgrimages to the tombs of the Imams and their descendants, and turn death and martyrdom into the focal point of their devotion.
In the sphere of law the principal difference between Shi'a and Sunni is that Shi'a allows for temporary marriage, called mu'tah, which can legally be contracted for a fixed period of time on the provision of a fixed dower. With regard to theology, the Shi'a, particularly the Zaydis and Imamis, differ from the Sunnis in adopting the principles of the Mu'tazilite school of theology. A controversial aspect of Shi'a theology is called taqiya, which means dissimulation of one's real beliefs. This doctrine allows believers to hide their true beliefs for the sake of their own self-protection in the face of persecution.
According to mainstream Shi'a (The Twelver Shi'is) there have been twelve Imams who have succeeded the Prophet Muhammad. These are: 1) Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad (d.661); 2) al-Hasan (d.670); 3) al-Husayn (d.680); 4) Ali Zayn al-'Abidin (d.713); 5) Muhammad al-Baqir (d.733); 6) Ja'far al-Sadiq (d.765); 7) Musa al-Kazim (d.799); 8) 'Ali al-Rida (d.818); 9) Muhammad al-Jawad (d.835); 10) 'ali al-Hadi (d.868); 11) al-Hasan al-'Askari (d.874); 12) Muhammad al-Mahdi.
The early history of the Shi'ite branch of Islam is characterised by a series of unsuccessful insurrections against the dominant Sunnis and the subsequent persecution of the Shi'is by the Sunnis. However, in the 10th century the Shi'is acquired a substantial measure of self-determination as a result of the establishment of various independent Shi'i dynasties which came to control much of the Muslim world. In Iraq and Iran a dynasty called the Buyids held sway. Syria was controlled by the Shi'i Hamdanid dynasty. Egypt and much of North Africa was under the control or influence of the Isma'ili Fatimid dynasty.
In the 11th century, however, these dynasties were swept away by Turkish tribes who were invading the region from Central Asia and who came to adopt Sunni, rather than, Shi'i Islam. These were followed by invasions by the Mongols in the 13th and 14th centuries, the first of which was particularly devastating for both Sunni and Shi'i Muslims.
Shi'i independence was once again reestablished with the emergence of the Safavid dynasty in Iran at the beginning of the 16th century. The establishment of the Safavids exacerbated tensions between the Sunni and Shi'i areas of the Islamic world. The rise of the Ottoman empire to the west led to a long series of struggles between the two empires for control of Iraq. It was, however, internal weaknesses followed by the invasion of Iran by the Safavids' Afghani subjects that led to the fall of the Safavid dynasty in 1722.
After a brief attempt to reimpose Sunni Islam on Iran by its new Shah, Nadir Khan (r.1736-47), and a period of anarchy and factional fighting following Nadir Khan's assassination in 1747, the country came under the authority of Karim Khan (r.1750-79) whose wise rule brought temporary stability and prosperity to the region. Following the death of Karim Khan in 1779 the country was led by a series of weak leaders until a new dynasty, the Qajars, established themselves and ruled Iran until 1909. The reign of the Qajars coincided with the beginnings of the attempt to modernise Iran in the context of the growing impact of the European presence in Iran.
The attempt to modernise and westernise Iran was taken further by the final ruling dynasty the Pahlavis (1925-1979). Following the ascendancy of the Pahlavis a series of laws were passed which were designed to erode the power of Islamic law in favour of a form of secularised civil law. In 1928 a law was passed making it illegal to wear traditional dress. In the 1931 the power of the religious courts was reduced. In 1936 the use of the veil was forbidden. Between 1941 and 1953 the Shah was forced to abdicate because of his support for the National Socialists during the second world war. On his return he continued the process of secularisation and westernisation.
Growing opposition to the Shah's westernising policies on the part of the clergy and their supporters, accompanied by increased political corruption and oppression within Iran, led to the downfall of the Shah in 1979 and its replacement with an Islamic republic under the rule of Ayatullah Khomeini. The regime immediately introduced the Shi'i version of the shari'ah, thereby undoing the modernising reforms that had been introduced by the Pahlavis and their predecessors. Although Ayatullah Khomeini died in 1989, the Islamic revolution which he founded continues to dominate the political and religious life of Iran.
Overview of World Religions Project
The branch of Islam that is called Shi'a has its origins in a series of disputes within the early Muslim community over who has the right to rule the community. Shi'ites believe that shortly before his death the Prophet Muhammad publicly nominated his cousin and son-in-law, 'Ali, to be his successor. However, according to Shi'ites, contrary to the expressed wishes of the Prophet, the community came under the leadership of three of his companions: Abu Bakr, 'Umar, and 'Uthman ibn 'Affan. It was only as a consequence of the assassination of 'Uthaman in 656 that 'Ali himself was chosen as caliph.
Not everyone accepted 'Ali's authority. A rebellion led by 'A'isha, the daughter of Abu Bakr and wife of the Prophet, was defeated by 'Ali's supporters at the Battle of the Camel, which took place near Basra in 656. (The battle is so-called because 'Ali observed the battle while seated on a camel.) A second rebellion, led by Mu'awiyya of the Ummayad clan, culminated in the inconclusive battle of Sefin in Iraq. The conflict between 'Ali and Mu'awiyya was brought to an end in 661 when 'Ali was stabbed to death by a Kharijite in front of a mosque in his capital city Kufa. 'Ali's death enabled Mu'awiyya to establish himself as the next caliph.
The response of 'Ali's sons, al-Hasan and al-Husayn, to the ascendancy of the Umayyads was to remain silent in the hope that, on the death of Mu'awiyya, the caliphate would be transferred back to the Prophet's family. When, however, the caliphate was passed on to Mu'awiyya's son, Yazid, Husayn was persuaded to rebel against the Ummayads. The rebellion proved to be futile. In 680 Husayn, his family and seventy of his followers were intercepted and massacred at a site called Karbala', near Kufa. This event, which is commemorated annually by Shi'ites, is generally regarded as the point at which Shi'ism emerged as a religious movement in its own right.
Central to Shi'i belief is the doctrine of the Imam. The status of the Imam within Shi'i Islam is different from that of the Sunni caliph. The Sunni caliph is the spiritual and political head of the community. The Shi'i Imam, however, is not only the political and religious leader of the Shi'i community; he is also considered to be infallible and free of sin and, therefore, one whose unique spiritual status enables him to mediate between the human world and the invisible world.
The various schisms that have taken place within the tradition are largely to do with disputes over who has the right to inherit the Imamate. The solid lines in the chart depict groups which have separated themselves from the dominant tradition as a result of disagreements over who is the rightful heir to the Imam. The broken lines reveal groups who have adopted doctrines and practices that are so different from those of the mainstream Islam that they are considered by mainstream Shi'a to have placed themselves outside of the Islamic tradition.
The main branch of Shi'ite Islam is called Imamiyyah or Twelver Shi'ism. This branch claims that there have been twelve Imams who have descended from the Prophet Muhammad. With the exception of the third Imam, Husayn, who became Imam after his brother abdicated his claim to the caliphate, the Imamate has been passed down from father to son. The twelfth Imam, however, did not have any sons and did not designate a successor. According to Shi'i tradition, this Imam did not die but is concealed and will return one day to establish a reign of peace on earth. The twelfth Imam is known as the Mahdi.
The first major schisms took place in the 8th century. The first of these was led by Zayd b.'Ali, the son of the fourth Imam and half-brother of the fifth Imam. He challenged the principle that the Imamate should automatically go to the eldest son of the previous Imam; the Imamate should instead be available to any descendant of 'Ali who was worthy of the position. Zayd's followers came to be known as Zaydis. Zaydi communities continue to the present day in the Yemen region.
In the same century a second dispute arose over who should succeed the sixth Imam, Jaf'ar al-Sadiq (d.765). The Imamate was originally intended to go to al-Sadiq's eldest son, Isma'il. However, because Isma'il predeceased his father by five years, al-Sadiq nominated his younger son, al-Must'alis, to be the next Imam. This decision was not accepted by certain groups. Some claimed that Isma'il did not in fact die but was in hiding, and would return as the Mahdi. Others recognised that Isma'il had died but argued that the Imamate should go to Isma'il's son Muhammad.
Both groups were overshadowed by another faction: the Fatimids. The Fatimids rose to power in Egypt at the beginning of the 10th century and established a dynasty which they claimed to be directly descended from 'Ali through Isma'il to themselves. As professed descendants of 'Ali, the Fatimids claimed the title of Imam for themselves. The Fatimid dynasty lasted from 909 to 1171, during which period they set themselves up as rivals to the Ummayad caliphs who were based in Baghdad.
The Isma'ilis who lived in Iraq and the Persian Gulf were divided in their attitude towards the Fatimids. Some accepted Fatimid authority; others rejected it. This latter group, which came to be known as Qarmartis, continued to regard Muhammad ibn. Isma'il as the Mahdi. This group survived until the 14th century.
The next schism to take place within Isma'iliyyah happened in the early decades of the 11th century. An Isma'ili missionary called al-Darazi proclaimed the sixth Fatimid caliph, Abu 'Ali al-Mansur al-Hakim (985-1021), to be God, and denounced both Islam and Isma'iliyyah to be mere superstitions. It is not exactly certain when this event occurred; the earliest evidence of it is a letter of November 1017 written to al-Darazi rebuking him for his unorthodox teachings. Following the death of al-Hakim the sect was driven out of Egypt into Syria where it flourished and continues to the present day and is known as the Druzes. The Druzes are also important minority groups within Israel and the Lebanon.
In the final decade of the 11th century Isma'iliyyah itself split into two groups: Nizariyyah and Musta'liyyah. Following the death of the Fatimid Imam, al-Mustansir, in 1094, his two sons, Nizar and al-Must'ali, fought with each other over who had the right to inherit the Imamate. Al-Must'ali prevailed and imprisoned and executed his brother. Nizar's followers fled Egypt and established themselves in Iran, from where they spread to India. Indian Nizaris are today known as Khojas. Al-Must'ali's descendants continued in Egypt until the fall of the Fatimid dynasty. Today Must'alis are to be found in India, China, Russia and South-East Asia.
In addition to groups that seceded from Isma'iliyyah, a number of groups have emerged from within the Imamiyyah branch of Shi'a. The first of these are the Nusayris. the Nusayris trace their origins to the eleventh Shi'i Imam, al-Hasan al-'Askari (d.873), and his pupil Ibn Nusayr (d.868). the sect, however, seems to have been organised by a certain al-Khasibi who died in Aleppo in about 969. His grandson, al-Tabarani, moved to al-Ladhiqiyya on the Syrian coast, where he refined the Nusayri religion and, with his pupils, converted much of the local population. Today Nusayriyyah exists as a minority, but politically powerful, religion in Syria.
Following the Nusayri schism the Imami tradition remained relatively stable until the 19th century when a number of millenarian sects emerged anticipating the return of the hidden Imam. One such sect, the Babis, was founded by Ali Muhammad Shirazi, who claimed initially to be the Bab (gate) of the hidden Imam and then the hidden Imam himself. These claims led to his arrest in 1845 and execution in 1850. In 1863 one of the Shirazi's followers, Mirza Husayn Ali Nuri, proclaimed himself to be the prophetic figure foretold by the Bab. Shirazi taught that God had been manifest in many different forms, and that he was the most recent (but not final) manifestation. Since its inception the Baha'i faith has developed into a world wide religion completely independent of its Shi'ite roots. Baha'is do not consider themselves to be Muslims and are not regarded as Muslims by any Islamic tradition.
Overview of World Religions Project
Betts, Robert Brenton. The Druze. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.
Brockelmann, Carl. History of the Islamic Peoples. Trans. Joel Carmichael and Moshe Perlmann. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1948.
Cole R.I., Juan and Nicki R. Keddie. Shi'ism and Social Protest. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.
Daftary, Farhad. The Isma'ilis: Their History and Doctrines. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Esslemon, J.E. Baha'u'llah and the New Era. London: the Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1974.
Gross, Jo-Ann. Muslims in Central Asia. Durham: Duke University Press, 1990.
Halm, Heinz. Shi'ism. Trans. Janet Watson. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991.
Harris, Ian et al. Longman Guide to Living Religions. Harlow, Essex: Longman, 1994.
Lewis, Bernard. The Assassins: a Radical Sect in Islam. Al-Saqi Books, 1985.
Makarem, Sami Nasib. The Druze Faith. Delmar, New York: Caravan Books, 1974.
Momen, Moojan. An Introduction to Shi'i Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shi'ism. New haven: Yale University Press, 1985.
Nasr, Seyyed Hosein, Hamid Dabashi and Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr (eds.) Shi'ism: Doctrines, Thought, and Spirituality. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988.
Pinault, David. The Shiites: Ritual and Popular Piety in a Muslim. London: I.B. Taurus and Co. Ltd., 1992.
Richard, Yann. Shi'ite Islam. Trans. Antonia Nevill. Oxford, Blackwell, 1995.
Smith, Peter. The Babi and Baha'i Religion: From Messianic Shi'ism to a World Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
During the early centuries of Islam the terms Sunni and Shi'i meant different things at different times, as did many other names designating various schools of thought. It was not until the eleventh and twelfth centuries that the current pattern of usage stabilized.
Sunni essentially means one who follows the Sunnah, which is the desired aim of every sincere Muslim. It has come to mean, however, those Muslims who follow the Sunnah and Jama'ah, that is, the way of Muhammad and the consensual majority of Muslims. The term was first adopted by a faction of Muslims who had accepted Abbasid rule, stressing the importance of its continuity with the Marwani past. It was well over a century after Muhammad that the term Sunni began to be widely used to distinguish between the largest common group (which is the literal meaning of Jama'ah) and the Shi'i, that is, those who were loyal to `Ali's party. It also implied those who strictly and exclusively referred to the Hadith as opposed to engaging in theological and philosophical discourse as a means of gaining guidance. In latter-day usage Sunni has become synonymous with 'orthodox', though it would be more accurate to employ the term Jama'ah to signify the popular mainstream.
In the early years after the Prophet's death the term Shi`i meant 'follower' or 'partisan', with particular reference to `Ali. The Shi'as believe that the Prophet had categorically appointed `Ali Ibn Abi Talib as his successor at the gathering of Ghadir Khum. `Ali in turn nominated as his successor his eldest son Hasan, who then nominated his brother Husayn and so on through another ten generations of the Prophet's descendants. Although the Sunnis all acknowledge the event at Ghadir Khum, they take the Prophet's message as merely an acknowledgement of `Ali's merit rather than a definite political appointment.
In the end, however, the successor to the Prophet was elected by a group of Medinan elders (while the Prophet was being buried). The first Muslim ruler (later to be called Caliph) was Abu Bakr, the Prophet's father-in-law and a close and loyal Companion. Though `Ali and his followers made occasional protests, they did not contest or revolt against the early Caliphs. `Ali himself remained loyal to the cause of Islam and served wherever and whenever he could alongside his predecessors. Upon the demise of the third Caliph, however, `Ali was elected the fourth.
The general Sunni stance on leadership was that peace under an unjust ruler was better than anarchy under a just one. For the Shi`i, justice in the government of human affairs could not grow if the ruler did not reflect the Prophet. The ruler had the status of a prophetic figure who, in the Prophet's absence, should be the ultimate spiritual and temporal authority. The prophetic mantle was taken up by the Sufis in the person of their Shaykhs or teachers. This fact is significant because while most Sufis were Sunni, the necessity for enlightened leadership reflects the essential nature of transmission of knowledge and guidance. Hence the Shi`is turned to their Imams.
Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri
THE ELEMENTS OF ISLAM
This page - -
- - is at
This subject presentation was last updated on - -
Send an e-mail question or comment to us: E-mail shiites
The main BELIEVE web-page (and the index to subjects) is at: BELIEVE Religious Information Source - By Alphabet http://mb-soft.com/believe/indexaz.html