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What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam What is This? A guide to a wide variety of general questions asked by those looking to learn more about Muslim culture and the Islamic world.

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What are the divisions among Shii Muslims?

Shii Islam developed three main divisions, stemming from disagreement over the number of Imams who succeeded Muhammad: the Zaydis (also called the Fivers) recognized five Imams, the Ismailis (also called the Seveners) recognized seven, and the Ithna Ashari (also called the Twelvers) recognized twelve.

The Zaydis split with the other Shii by recognizing Hussein's grandson Zayd as the fifth Imam. They believed that any descendant of Ali who was willing to assert his claim to the imamate publicly and fight for it could become Imam. The Zaydis were the first Shii group to achieve independence. They founded a dynasty in Tabaristan on the Caspian Sea in 864. Another Zaydi imamate state was founded in Yemen in 893 and lasted until 1963.

The split between the Ismailis (Seveners) and Ithna Ashari (Twelvers) occurred in the eighth century over the question of who succeeded the sixth Imam, Jafar al-Sadiq (d. 765). The Ismailis recognize seven Imams, ending with Jafar al-Sadiq's son Ismail, who was designated to become the seventh Imam. Ismail predeceased his father and left no son. The Ismailis formed a revolutionary movement against the Sunni caliphate and established the Fatimid Dynasty, whose empire stretched from Egypt and North Africa to the Sind province of India between the tenth and twelfth centuries.

The Nizari Ismailis were particularly vehement in their violent opposition to Sunni Abbasid rule. Their tactics of violence and terror earned them the epithet of the Assassins. One of the ironies of history is that a Nizari leader who fled to India established a line of Imams known by the honorific title of Aga Khan and created a nonviolent mainstream form of Shii Islam that now has prosperous communities in Canada, Britain, East Africa, and South Asia. The current Harvard-educated Aga Khan oversees the cultural and spiritual lives of his followers, in addition to looking after the educational, social, and commercial institutions of the community.

The third and most populous Shii group, the Ithna Ashari (Twelvers), recognized twelve legitimate successors to Muhammad. Today, they are a majority in Iran, Iraq, and Bahrain. The twelfth Imam, Muhammad al-Muntazar (Muhammad the Awaited One), “disappeared” in 874 as a child, leaving no sons. This created a major dilemma for the line of succession. Shii theology resolved this dilemma with the doctrine of the Hidden Imam, which declares that the twelfth Imam did not die but rather “disappeared” and is in hiding (or in “occultation”) for an unspecified period of time. This messianic figure is expected to return as the divinely guided Mahdi at the end of time to vindicate his followers, restore his faithful community, and usher in a perfect Islamic society of justice and truth. In the interim, religious experts or mujtahids (those capable of independently interpreting Islamic law) guide the Shii community. In contrast to the majority Muslim experience, Twelver Shiism developed a clerical hierarchy at whose apex are religious leaders acknowledged by their followers as ayatollahs (signs of God) because of their reputation for knowledge and piety.

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