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Author: Asma Afsaruddin

So far we have been talking about mainstream Islam, the Islam of the majority of Muslim populations, that is Sunni Islam. The word sunni is short-hand for the Arabic phrase, ahl al-sunna, people of the sunna, that is, people who follow the way of the Prophet.  About 90% of the worlds Muslims are Sunni; the remaining 10% are Shi‘i.  As we mentioned before, the word Shi‘a is a shortened form of shi‘at Ali, which means the supporters of Ali.


As you know by now, the Shi‘a came into being when they insisted after the death of Muhammad that ‘Ali should have been the first leader of the Muslim community.  This was so because the Shi‘a  recognize blood-kinship with the Prophet as the most important criterion for picking a successor to Muhammad.  ‘Ali as we know was the cousin of the Prophet and was also married to his daughter, Fatima.  After ‘Ali’s death, the Shi‘a believed that certain of his and Fatima’s descendants should have been recognized as the rightful leaders of the umma.  They prefer to use the term Imam for this religious leader.  The Sunnis in contrast use the term khalifa for their leader, which literally means “successor;” an imam in the Sunni sense refers usually to a prayer leader.

The differences between the Sunnis and the Shi‘a at the very beginning was therefore a political dispute, a dispute over political succession to the Prophet Muhammad.  The dispute at this time had no religious overtones.  Rather, the dispute was framed in terms of what constituted legitimate leadership.  The majority of the Muslims were of the belief that the Prophet did not name any of his Companions as his successor.  The majority of the Muslims thus came to view the office of the caliph as an elective office; that is that the caliph would be chosen or selected from a pool of candidates on the basis of outstanding virtue and moral excellence in general by the larger community of Muslims.  Pious Muslims can point to specific verses in the Qur'an which counsel the faithful to settle their affairs through consultation with one another through the process known as shura, (3:153-59; 42:36-38). The Shi‘a would maintain, however, that rather it was blood-kinship with the Prophet that determined a person's eligibility for leadership of the Muslim community.  The Shi‘a would also come to maintain that Muhammad had actually named ‘Ali as his successor before he died.  To this end, they mention a famous hadith of the Prophet.  This hadith is known as the "Ghadir Khumm tradition." This is a tradition that the Prophet is said to have uttered at a place called Ghadir Khumm on his return from the last pilgrimage to Mecca.  This tradition is believed by the Shi‘a to endorse ‘Ali as the Prophet's successor after his death.   The hadith states, “Of whomever I am the mawla, ‘Ali is his mawla too.”

The word mawla can have several meanings. It can mean master or patron, friend, and a client.  This word is related to the word mawali we learnt before, which referred to the non-Arab clients of Arab tribes.  The Shi‘a understand the Arabic word mawla to mean master in this context.  This designation by the Prophet of Ali as his successor came to be seen by the Shi’a as divine appointment of the Imam; in other words, the Imam was actually appointed by God through the mediation of the Prophet.

A very important consequence of this belief is that the Sunnis believe that the caliphate is primarily a political office while the Shi‘a hold that it is both a religious and political office.  The main task of the Sunni caliph was to see that the Shari‘a, the religious law, was applied in the community, that the borders of Islam were secure, and in general to provide for the well-being of his citizens.  In contrast, the Shi‘a would come to emphasize that the imam was also responsible for interpreting the law in addition to upholding it and providing for the welfare of his citizens.

As time went on, there came to be several factions within Shi‘ism which you do not have to be concerned about in great detail.  Among the three most important groups within Shi‘ism you need to know about are the Twelvers, or the Imamiyya, largely concentrated in Iran, and to a lesser extent in Iraq, and in other parts of the Middle East and South Asia where they live as minority communities.  They are called Twelvers because they believe in twelve divinely appointed religious leaders, all descendants of Muhammad through his daughter Fatima and her husband ‘Ali.  The Twelvers believe that their last Imam, the 12th, disappeared as a child, and will return at the end of time.  He is known as the Mahdi, the guide; in the meantime, the Mahdi remains in occultation, which means he is alive but hidden from us.  The Twelver Shi‘a do not accept the first three rightly guided caliphs as legitimate caliphs; ‘Ali according to them was the first legitimate caliph.

Another major Shi'a group is the Zaydis, or the Fivers.  As you may guess from their name, they believe in only five Imams as opposed to the Twelvers who believe in 12.  Their first four Imams are the same as the Twelvers.  Disagreement arose among the early Shi‘a over which son of the 4th Imam should become the leader; the Zaydis chose Zayd b. ‘Ali as the 5th Imam, from whom they get their name.  The majority of the Shi‘a picked another son (Muhammad al-Baqir) and separated from the Zaydia.  The Zaydis are considered to be more moderate and closer to the Sunnis since they do recognize the first three caliphs as valid leaders of the Muslim community.  The Zaydis established a state in Yemen in 893 and ruled there until 1963.

The other major faction within Shi‘ism is the Isma‘ilis, also known as the Seveners.  They are so-called because they accept the first 7 Imams from among the twelve.  After the 6th Imam (Ja‘far al-Sadiq d. 765) common to the Twelvers and the Seveners, the Isma‘ilis chose his elder son, Isma‘il as the 7th Imam.  The rest of the Shi‘a followed a younger son (Musa al-Kazim) and continued until the disappearance of their twelfth Imam. The Isma‘ilis are notable for coming to power in 969 in Egypt, establishing the new capital called Cairo which was the seat of the dynasty they founded called the Fatimids.  They also established the famous al-Azhar university in Cairo which exists to this day and which is therefore the oldest university in the world.  The Fatimids were defeated however by the celebrated Salah al-Din (Saladin in Western literature) in 1171, known for his heroism against the Crusaders.

Your textbook also mentions a sect called the Druzes; they are an offshoot of the Isma‘ilis, and rose during the Fatimid period. They are today minority communities in the Levant, Syria and Lebanon in particular.  They are a highly secretive community with special rituals, the details of which are known only to them.  They avoid intermarriage or mixing in general with other Muslims.

Al-Azhar University

Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt
Photo courtesy of flickr user  Travel Aficionado. Some rights reserved.


It is useful to compare Shi‘ism to Catholic Christianity.  As Shi‘ism came to develop by the ninth century, it's leader, the Imam, like the Catholic Pope, came to be regarded as infallible charged with interpreting the religious law.  The Imam, like the Pope, is primarily a religious, charismatic leader who rules by God's decree and who once installed in office cannot be deposed by man.  He is named by his predecessor as the succeeding Imam, and since the Imam is divinely inspired, amounts to a divine appointment.

By contrast, the Sunni caliph governs or at least is supposed to govern by the people's consent, he is not considered infallible in his decisions, and is considered a temporal leader, that is primarily a political, not a religious, leader whose primary duty is to maintain law and order and uphold but not necessarily interpret the religious law.  He can also, at least theoretically, be removed from office for wrongdoing.

In Islam, as you probably know by now, there is no clergy, no ordained priestly class to carry out special religious rites and functions.  This is certainly true for Sunni Islam.  However, in Shi‘i Islam there came to be a distinctive class of theologians who were charged with the interpretation of the religious law and whose decisions were binding on the Shi‘i faithful.  Popularly, theologians from the lower ranks are called mullahs, a term that you have probably heard of in relation to Iran.  There is a definite hierarchy of theologians; the highest rank to which only the most learned theologians may aspire to is Ayatollah.  Of course I assume everyone has heard of Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran; it is a term of great religious honor and respect for such an individual and implies years of learning and service as a theologian.  So again, like Catholicism, there is a definite hierarchy of religious officials and the overall religious structure is more authoritarian and centralized.

Another feature that Shi`a Islam shares with Catholicism is the belief that pious, holy people after their death can intercede for the living.  Therefore, visitation of the graves and shrines of holy figures, especially of members of the Prophet’s family, is a frequent feature of worship among the Shi‘a just as Catholics are prone to visit the shrines of saints, to ask for special favors, for example, to request the healing of certain illnesses etc.  By the way, the Sufis are also inclined to this kind of religious activity.

The Twelver Shi‘ites I mentioned before do not have an Imam right now; they believe that sometime in the 9th century (874), their last Imam, the twelfth, disappeared under mysterious circumstances and will reappear at the end of time as a messianic figure.  In fact, messianism is a very important part of Shi‘ism as it is of Christianity.  Minority, persecuted religions often develop a strong messianic orientation and this is as true for Shi‘ism as it had been true for early Christianity.  According to the Shi‘a, the twelfth Imam will come out of hiding at the appropriate time, defeat his enemies and inaugurate an era of peace and prosperity.  Millenarian vision, according to the textbook.

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