We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more History of the Shi'a, The - Oxford Islamic Studies Online
Select Translation What is This? Selections include: The Koran Interpreted, a translation by A.J. Arberry, first published 1955; The Qur'an, translated by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, published 2004; or side-by-side comparison view
Chapter: verse lookup What is This? Select one or both translations, then enter a chapter and verse number in the boxes, and click "Go."
:
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result

History of the Shi'a, The

Source:
Atlas of the World’s Religions, Second Edition What is This? Depicts the historical development and present state of the world's major religions

    History of the Shi'a, The

    THERE ARE TWO main traditions within Islam: the Shi'a and the Sunna. The origins of the Shi'a (‘party of ‘Ali’) have traditionally been associated with a group of supporters of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib. They claimed that he was entitled to be Muhammad's immediate successor on the basis of his appointment by Muhammad , of his blood links to the prophet (he was Muhammad's cousin) and his marriage to the prophet's daughter Fatima. ‘Ali, however, only became the political guide of the Muslim community after the death of the third caliph. ‘Ali's caliphate ( 656 – 61 ) was marred by dissent and civil war which culminated in his death at the hands of one of his opponents. This political instability led to the emergence of a new force which eventually gave rise to the Umayyad dynasty.

    The issue of who should lead the Muslim community and the nature of such leadership has divided Islam. The Shi'a emphasis on the figure of ‘Ali and his descendants, the imams (guides), is expressed both doctrinally (‘Ali is included in the shahadah) and ritually (there are special festivals to commemorate the birth and death of the imams and associated shrines are places of pilgrimage). Shi'a eschatology, their martyrdom-related vision of history and some aspects of family law also differ from mainstream Islam.

    Shi‘i Groups and Dynasties

    Mainstream Muslims, known as Sunnis (‘followers of the sunna [custom]’), differentiate between political authority, represented by the caliphs, and spiritual authority represented by the religious scholars (‘ulama’). Shi'is, instead, believe that spiritual and political authority, both embodied in the prophet, were transmitted first to ‘Ali and then through him and his wife Fatima to the imams. The Shi'is disagree over which line of descent to follow and from this, various groups originate, broadly: the Zaydis, the Twelvers and the Seveners.

    History of the Shi'a, The

    1. The Shi'i Dynasties

    view larger image

    The Zaydis (following the line of imam Zayd ibn ‘Ali, d. 740) are seen as the most ‘moderate’ of all Shi‘i groups; they believe that the imam can be any pious Muslim descendant of ‘Ali. They founded two states, one south of the Caspian Sea ( 864 – 1126 ), another in the northern mountains of Yemen where, despite internal feuds and external invasions, they succeeded in holding power until the Republican coup in 1962 . Today's Zaydis are still an important social and religious force in Yemen.

    The Twelvers, the largest group, acknowledge a line of twelve imams, from ‘Ali through his sons Hasan (d. 669) and Husayn (d. 680) to the last, Muhammad al Muntazar, who they believe went into occultation (withdrew from the world) in 874 . This ‘hidden’ imam eventually cut off all links with the community in 941 , thereby initiating the ‘greater occultation’ and – it is believed – will reappear at the end of time to fill the earth with justice. Since the ‘greater occultation’, religious authority has been exercised on behalf of the ‘hidden’ imam by religious scholars. During the ninth and tenth centuries, several dynasties professed Twelver Shi'ism, upholding Shi'ism also as a political means to oppose the Sunni ‘Abbasid power. In 1501 the Safavid king Isma‘il proclaimed Twelver Shi'ism the state religion in the predominantly Sunni region of Persia. Gradually, Persia converted to Shi'ism.

    The third main Shi‘i group is that of the Seveners (or Isma‘ilis) whose line of seven imams ended in 760 with the alleged occultation of Isma‘il (or Muhammad ibn Ismai‘il). Belonging to this group are the Qarmatians, who ruled from a principality around al Ahsa’. In 930 they entered Mecca taking the Black Stone to their capital, only to return it in 951 . Later, their power was reduced to that of a local dynasty which lasted until the fourteenth century. Another group within the Seveners claimed that the line of imams had continued secretly until the emergence in 909 of the imam al Mahdi. He was the founder of the Fatimid dynasty ( 909 – 1171 ) which, first from Mahdiyyah and later from Cairo, controlled a vast territory, from the Mediterranean to the Yemen. Fatimid imams had both religious and political authority, they were considered infallible but still human. However, the Druzes, an offshoot branch, considered one of the Fatimid imams to be a manifestation of the divine. Since the Fatimids, the line of imams has reputedly continued to this day with the forty-ninth imam, the Aga Khan Karim, being acknowledged as the religious leader of the Isma‘ili communities scattered throughout the world.

    The Shi'is Today

    Shi'is constitute around 10 per cent of the overall Muslim population and are especially concentrated in the Middle East and parts of Central Asia.

    History of the Shi'a, The

    2. The Shi'a Today

    view larger image

    The Western media has clearly associated some groups with local conflicts: the Druzes in the Lebanese civil war, the Shi'is among the mujahidin in Afghanistan, the Shi‘i Azeris in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Christian Armenians, and the Shi'is of Iraq in revolt first against Saddam Hussein's regime, and, after the Western coalition invasion in 2003 , being one of the factions in the civil war. But by far the best-known political and social event associated with Shi'ism is the Iranian Islamic Revolution of February 1979 under the leadership of the cleric Ayatollah (‘sign of God’) Khomeini ( 1902 – 89 ). This has given Shi'ism in general an image of militancy and intolerance, thereby ignoring its history of persecution and its deeply spiritual nature.

    • Previous Result
    • Results
    • Highlight On / Off
    • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
    • Next Result
    Oxford University Press

    © 2020. All Rights Reserved. Cookie Policy | Privacy Policy | Legal Notice