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Shi'a Islam

Shi'a Islam

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.


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