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The Origins of the Sunni/Shia split in Islam


Al-Azhar Verdict on the Shia




More Iformation about the Shia

Edited by Zeinab

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The Origins of the Sunni/Shia split in Islam


by Hussein Abdulwaheed Amin




The Shia shahadah (declaration of faith) states:

"There is no god but Alláh, Muhammad is the Messenger of Alláh, Alí is the Friend of Alláh. The Successor of the Messenger of Alláh And his first Caliph."


If you are already familiar with standard Sunni beliefs, you will immediately notice the addition to the shahadah regarding Imam Ali (ra), cousin of the Prophet (pbuh), husband of his daughter Fatima, father of Hassan and Hussein and the second person ever to embrace Islam. The term Shia or Shi'ite derives from a shortening of Shiat Ali or partisans of Ali.




Ali is the central figure at the origin of the Shia / Sunni split which occurred in the decades immediately following the death of the Prophet in 632. Sunnis regard Ali as the fourth and last of the "rightly guided caliphs" (successors to Mohammed (pbuh) as leader of the Muslims) following on from Abu Bakr 632-634, Umar 634-644 and Uthman 644-656. Shias feel that Ali should have been the first caliph and that the caliphate should pass down only to direct descendants of Mohammed (pbuh) via Ali and Fatima, They often refer to themselves as ahl al bayt or "people of the house" [of the prophet].


When Uthman was murdered while at prayer, Ali finally succeeded to the caliphate. Ali was, however, opposed by Aisha, wife of the Prophet (pbuh) and daughter of Abu Bakr, who accused him of being lax in bringing Uthman's killers to justice. After Ali's army defeated Aisha's forces at the Battle of the Camel in 656, she apologized to Ali and was allowed to return to her home in Madinah where she withdrew from public life.


However, Ali was not able to overcome the forces of Mu'awiya Ummayad, Uthman's cousin and governor of Damascus, who also refused to recognize him until Uthman's killers had been apprehended. At the Battle of Suffin Mu'awiya's soldiers stuck verses of the Quran onto the ends of their spears with the result that Ali's pious supporters refused to fight them. Ali was forced to seek a compromise with Mu'awiya, but this so shocked some of his die-hard supporters who regarded it as a betrayal that he was struck down by one of his own men in 661.


Mu'awiya declared himself caliph. Ali's elder son Hassan accepted a pension in return for not pursuing his claim to the caliphate. He died within a year, allegedly poisoned. Ali's younger son Hussein agreed to put his claim to the caliphate on hold until Mu'awiya's death. However, when Mu'awiya finally died in 680, his son Yazid usurped the caliphate. Hussein led an army against Yazid but, hopelessly outnumbered, he and his men were slaughtered at the Battle of Karbala (in modern day Iraq). Hussein's infant son, Ali, survived so the line continued. Yazid formed the hereditary Ummayad dynasty. The division between the Shia and what came to be known as the Sunni was set.


An opportunity for Muslim unity arose in the 750's CE. In 750 except for a few who managed to flee to Spain, almost the entire Ummayad aristocracy was wiped out following the Battle of Zab in Egypt in a revolt led by Abu Al Abbass al-Saffah and aided by considerable Shia support. It was envisaged that the Shia spiritual leader Jafar As-Siddiq, great-grandson of Hussein be installed as Caliph. But when Abbass died in 754, this arrangement had not yet been finalized and Abbas' son Al Mansur murdered Jafar, seized the caliphate for himself and founded the Baghdad-based Abbassid dynasty which prevailed until the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258.


Theological Differences


When the last Shia Imam, Al-Askari, who had no brothers disappeared within days of inheriting the title at the age of four. The Shias refused, however, to accept that he had died, preferring to believe that he was merely "hidden" and would return. When after several centuries this failed to happen, spiritual power passed to the ulema, a council of twelve scholars who elected a supreme Imam. The best known modern example of the Shia supreme Imam is the late Ayyatollah Khomeni, whose portrait hangs in many Shia homes. The Shia Imam has come to be imbued with Pope-like infallibility and the Shia religious hierarchy is not dissimilar in structure and religious power to that of the Catholic Church within Christianity. Sunni Islam, in contrast, more closely resembles the myriad independent churches of American Protestantism. Sunnis do not have a formal clergy, just scholars and jurists, who may offer non-binding opinions. Shias believe that their supreme Imam is a fully spiritual guide, inheriting some of Muhammad's inspiration ("light") . Their imams are believed to be inerrant interpreters of law and tradition. Shia theology is distinguished by its glorification of Ali. In Shia Islam there is a strong theme of martyrdom and suffering, focusing on deaths of Ali and, particularly, Hussein plus other important figures in the Shia succession. Shi`ism attracted other dissenting groups, especially representatives of older non-Arab (Mawali) civilizations (Persian, Indian, etc.) that felt they had not been treated fairly by the Arab Muslims.


Sunnis and Shias agree on the core fundamentals of Islam - the Five Pillars - and recognize each others as Muslims. In 1959 Sheikh Mahmood Shaltoot, Head of the School of Theology at Al Azhar university in Cairo, the most august seat of learning of Sunni Islam and the oldest university in the world, issued a fatwa (ruling) recognizing the legitimacy of the Jafari School of Law to which most Shias belong. As a point of interest, the Jafari School is named after its founder Imam Jafaf Sidiq who was a direct descendent through two different lines of the Sunni Caliph Abu Bakr. And Al Azhar University, though now Sunni, was actually founded by the Shia Fatimid dynasty in 969CE.


However, there remain significant differences between the two forms of Islam and these are what tend to be emphasized. Many Sunni's would contend that Shias seem to take the fundamentals of Islam very much for granted, shunting them into the background and dwelling on the martyrdoms of Ali and Hussein. This is best illustrated at Ashura when each evening over a period of ten days the Shias commemorate the Battle of Karbala, with a wailing Imam whipping the congregation up into a frenzy of tears and chest beating. It is alleged that instead of missionary work to non-Muslims, the Shia harbor a deep-seated disdain towards Sunni Islam and prefer to devote their attention to winning over other Muslims to their group. There is ongoing violent strife between Sunnis and Shias in Pakistan. On the other hand, in recent years there has been signification co-operation between the two groups in the Lebanon. And some of the most dynamic developments in Islam today are taking place in Shia-dominated Iran.


Practical Differences


On a practical daily level, Shias have a different call to prayer, they perform wudu and salat differently including placing the forehead onto a piece of hardened clay from Karbala, not directly onto the prayer mat when prostrating. They also tend to combine prayers, sometimes worshipping three times per day instead of five. The Shias also have some different ahadith and prefer those narrated by Ali and Fatima to those related by other companions of the Prophet (pbuh). Because of her opposition to Ali, those narrated by Aisha count among the least favored. Shia Islam also permits muttah - fixed-term temporary marriage - which is now banned by the Sunnis. Muttah was originally permitted at the time of the Prophet (pbuh) and is now being promoted in Iran by an unlikely alliance of conservative clerics and feminists, the latter group seeking to downplay the obsession with female virginity which is prevalent in both forms of Islam, pointing out that only one of the Prophet's thirteen wives was a virgin when he married them.


Shias Today


Iran is overwhelmingly Shia. Shias also form a majority of the population in Yemen and Azerbaijan and … Iraq. There are also sizeable Shia communities in Bahrain, the east coast of Saudi Arabia and in the Lebanon. The well known guerilla organization Hizbollah, which forced the israelis out of southern Lebanon in 2000, is Shia. Worldwide, Shias constitute ten to fifteen percent of the overall Muslim population.

Within Shia Islam there are different sects. Most Shias are "Twelvers", i.e. they recognize the 12 Imams. There are also Sevener and Fiver Shias who don't recognize the later Imams.


There have been various attempts throughout the years to foster Sunni/Shia unity, one of the latest being a website called oneummah.com.


Please find below a commentary from a Shia encyclopaedia concerning Sheikh Shaltoot's fatwa plus the English translation of the fatwa itself. Both were originally posted on the One Ummah site where the original Arabic version of the fatwa is also available.


©2001 Islam For Today

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Al-Azhar Verdict on the Shia


What follows is the Fatwa (religious verdict/ruling) of one of the Sunni world's most revered scholars, Sheikh Mahmood Shaltoot with regard to the Shia. Shaikh Shaltoot was the head of the renowned al-Azhar Theological school in Egypt, one of the main centers of Sunni scholarship in the world. It should be of interest to know that a few decades ago, a group of Sunni and Shia scholars formed a center at al-Azhar by the name of "Dar al-Taqreeb al-Madhahib al-Islamiyyah" which translates into "Center for bringing together the various Islamic schools of thought". The aim of the effort, as the name of the center indicates, was to bridge the gap between the various schools of thought, and bring about a mutual respect, understanding and appreciation of each school's contributions to the development of Islamic Jurisprudence, among the scholars of the different schools, so that they may in turn guide their followers toward the ultimate goal of unity, and of clinging to one rope, as the well-known Quranic verse, "Hold fast to the Rope of Allah and do not diverge" clearly demands of Muslims.

This massive effort finally bore its major fruit when Sheikh Shaltoot made the declaration whose translation is appended below. It should be made unequivocally clear as well, that al-Azhar's official position, vis a vis the propriety of following any of the Madhaahib (schools of law), including the Shi'ite Imami school, has remained unchanged since Shaikh Shaltoot's declaration.


For the readership's reference the phrase "al-Shia al-Imamiyyah al-Ithna 'Ashariyyah" means the Twelver Imami Shi'ite School of thought which comprises the overwhelming majority of Shi'ites today. The phrase "Twelver Shi'ites" is used interchangeably with "Ja'fari Shi'ites" and "Imami Shi'ites" in various literature. They are merely different names for the same school of thought.


"al-Shia al-Zaidiyyah" are a minority among the Shi'ites, concentrated mainly in Yemen located in the Eastern part of Arabian peninsula. For a more detailed description of the Zaidis vs. the Twelver Shi'ites, please refer to the book, "Shi'ite Islam" written by the great Shi'ite scholar, Allamah Tabataba'i, and translated by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, and published by the State University of New York Press (SUNY).

And as for Shaikh Shaltoot's declaration ...


Fatwa (ruling) of Shaikh Mahmood Shaltoot


Head Office of al-Azhar University:


IN THE NAME OF Allah, THE BENEFICENT, THE MERCIFUL Text of the Verdict (Fatwa) Issued by His Excellency Shaikh al-Akbar Mahmood Shaltoot, Head of the al-Azhar University, on Permissibility of Following "al-Shia al-Imamiyyah" School of Thought

His Excellency was asked:


Some believe that, for a Muslim to have religiously correct worship and dealing, it is necessary to follow one of the four known schools of thought, whereas, "al-Shia al-Imamiyyah" school of thought is not one of them nor "al-Shia al-Zaidiyyah." Do your Excellency agree with this opinion, and prohibit following "al-Shia al-Imamiyyah al-Ithna Ashariyyah" school of thought, for example?


His Excellency replied:


1) Islam does not require a Muslim to follow a particular Madh'hab (school of thought). Rather, we say: every Muslim has the right to follow one of the schools of thought which has been correctly narrated and its verdicts have been compiled in its books. And, everyone who is following such Madhahib [schools of thought] can transfer to another school, and there shall be no crime on him for doing so.


2) The Ja'fari school of thought, which is also known as "al-Shia al- Imamiyyah al-Ithna Ashariyyah" (i.e., The Twelver Imami Shi'ites) is a school of thought that is religiously correct to follow in worship as are other Sunni schools of thought. Muslims must know this, and ought to refrain from unjust prejudice to any particular school of thought, since the religion of Allah and His Divine Law (Shari'ah) was never restricted to a particular school of thought. Their jurists (Mujtahidoon) are accepted by Almighty Allah, and it is permissible to the "non-Mujtahid" to follow them and to accord with their teaching whether in worship (Ibadaat) or transactions (Mu'amilaat).

Signed, Mahmood Shaltoot.


The above Fatwa was announced on July 6, 1959 from the Head of al-Azhar University, and was subsequently published in many publications in the Middle East which include, but are not limited to:

al-Sha'ab newspaper (Egypt), issue of July 7, 1959. al-Kifah newspaper (Lebanon), issue of July 8, 1959.


• The above segment can also be found in the book "Inquiries about Islam", by Muhammad Jawad Chirri, Director of the Islamic Center of America, 1986 Detroit, Michigan.

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Compiled by Ilyas Islam




La ilaha il Allah, Muhammadan Rasul Allah, Aliyun Wali-Allah, Wasiyu Rasulillah, wa Khalifa tuhu bila fasl. There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, 'Ali is the Friend of Allah. The Successor of the Messenger of Allah And his first Caliph.




1) Tawhid (The Oneness of Allah)

2) 'Adl (Divine Justice)

3) Nubuwwah (The Prophethood)

4) Imamah (The Imamate)

5) Qiyamah (The Day of Judgement)




1) Salat (Prayer)

2) Sawm (Fasting)

3) Zakat (Poor-due of 2.5%)

4) Hajj (Pilgrimage to Makkah)

5) Khums (The Charity of 20%)

6) Jihad (To Struggle in the Path of Allah)

7) Amr bil ma'ruf (To Promote the Good)

8) Nahy 'an al-munkar (To Forbid the Wrong)

9) Tawalla (Loving the Prophet's Family)

10) Tabarra (Shunning the Enemies of the Prophet's Family)


THE PROPHETS OF Allah (mentioned in the Holy Qur'an)


1) Adam

2)Idris (Idrees)

3) Nuh (Noah)

4) Hud

5) Salih

6) Ibrahim (Abraham)

7) Isma'il (Ishmael)

8) Ishaq (Isaac)

9) Lut (Lot)

10) Ya'qub (Jacob)

11) Yusuf (Joseph)

12) Shu'aib

13)Ayub (Job)

14) Musa (Moses)

15) Harun (Aaron)

16) Dhu l-kifl (Ezzekiel)

17) Dawud (David)

18) Sulaiman

19) Ilyas (Elijah)

20) al-Yasa' (Elisha)

21) Yunus (Jonas)

22) Zakariya (Zakariyah)

23) Yahya (John the Baptist)

24) 'Isa (Jesus)

25) Muhammad


In a famous hadith (prophetic tradition), the number of prophets given was 124 000. May the blessings of Allah be upon them all. Prophethood ended with Muhammad (peace be upon him and his progeny). Then, Allah deputed Imams to guide us.



1) Nuh

2) Ibrahim

3) Musa

4) 'Isa

5) Muhammad




1) Sahifa (scroll revealed to Nuh)

2) Sahifa (scroll revealed to Ibrahim)

3) Taurat (the book revealed to Musa)

4) Zabur (the psalms revealed to Dawud)

5) Injil (the gospel revealed to 'Isa)

6) Qur'an (the Koran revealed to Muhammad)




Muhammad, Fatima al-Zahra, 'Ali, Hasan, Husayn



Muhammad, Fatima al-Zahra and the Twelve Imams




1) Imam 'Ali ibn Abu Talib al-Murtadha (The Satisfied One)

2) Imam al-Hasan al-Mujtabah (The Chosen One)

3) Imam al-Husayn Sayyid al-Shuhudah (The Lord of the Martyrs)

4) Imam 'Ali Zayn al-Abidin (The Jewel of the Believers)

5) Imam Muhammad al-Baqir (The Spreader of Knowledge)

6) Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq (The Truthful One)

7) Imam Musa al-Kazim (The Patient One)

8) Imam 'Ali al-Ridha (The Accepted One)

9) Imam Muhammad al-Taqi (The Pious One)

10) Imam 'Ali al-Naqi (The Pure One)

11) Imam Hasan al-Askari (The One with an Army)

12) Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi (The Rightlyl-Guided One)


The Twelth Imam is still alive. He is in a state of occultation. He will reappear at a moment determined by Allah. He is the Awaited One who will spread justice throughout the world.




I bear witness that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad, peace be upon him, is His servant and Messenger, and that 'Ali, the Commander of the Faithful, and the Chief of the Deputies of Allah, is the Imam whose obedience has been made incumbent by Allah on all people; and that Hasan and Husayn, 'Ali ibn al-Husayn, Muhammad ibn 'Ali, Ja'far ibn Muhammad, Musa ibn Ja'far, 'Ali ibn Musa, Muhammad ibn 'Ali, 'Ali ibn Muhammad, Hasan ibn 'Ali, and the Living One, the Mahdi (the blessings of Allah be upon them all), all the Imams of the believers and the Proofs of Allah for the whole of creation are my Imams, the rightly-guiding and the pious. I bear witness that: Allah is my God, Muhammad is my Prophet, Islam is my religion, the Qur'an is my scripture, the Ka'aba is my qibla, 'Ali ibn Abu Talib is my Imam, Hasan ibn 'Ali is my Imam, Husayn, the Martyr of Karbala, son of 'Ali, is my Imam, 'Ali Zayn al-'Abadin is my Imam, Muhammad al-Baqir is my Imam, Ja'far al-Sadiq is my Imam, Musa al-Kadhim is my Imam, 'Ali al-Ridha is my Imam, Muhammad al-Taqi is my Imam, 'Ali al-Naqi is my Imam, Hasan al-Askari is my Imam, and al-Huja al-Muntazar is my Imam. They, upon whom be peace, are my Imáms, Masters and Intercessors before Allah. I love them, all of them, and shun their enemies in this life and the next.


I bear witness that: Allah, the Almighty, the Exalted, is the best Lord; that Muhammad, the blessings of Allah be upon him and his Family, is the best Prophet; and that the Commander of the Faithful, 'Ali ibn Abu Talib, and his offspring, are the best Imams; and that the message Muhammad brought from Allah is true, death is true, the questioning in the grave by Munkar and Nakir is true, the Resurrection of the dead is true, the appearance before Allah is true, the Bridge (al-sirat) is true, the Divine Scales are true, the dissemination of the book of one's deeds at Doomsday is true, paradise is true, and hell is true; and that there is no doubt about the coming of the inevitable Hour of Reckoning; and that the rising of the dead from their graves is true.




1) Qadim: Allah is eternal. He has neither a beginning nor an end.

2) Qadir: Allah is omnipotent. He has power over all things.

3) 'Alim: Allah is omniscient. He is all-knowing.

4) Hai: Allah is living. He is alive and will remain alive forever

5) Murid: Allah has his own discretion is all affairs. He does not do anything out of compulsion.

6) Mudrik: Allah is all-perceiving. He is all-hearing, all-seeing, and is omnipresent. Allah sees and hears everything though he has neither eyes nor ears.

7) Mutakalim: Allah is the Lord of the Worlds. He can create speech in anything: the burning bush for Musa and the curtain of light for Muhammad.

8) Sadiq: Allah is truthful. His words and promises are true.




1) Sharik: Allah has no partners.

2) Murakab: Allah is neither made, nor composed, of any material.

3) Makan: Allah is not confined to any place and has no body.

4) Hulul: Allah does not incarnate into anything or anybody.

5) Mahale hawadith: Allah is not subject to changes. Allah cannot change.

6) Mari: Allah is not visible. He has not been seen, is not seen, and will never be seen, because he has no form or body.

7) Ihtiyaj: Allah is not dependant. Allah is not deficient, so he does not have any needs.

8) Sifate zayed: Allah does not have added qualifications. The attributes of Allah are not separate from His being.

Edited by Zeinab

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More Information about the Shia


Shi'a Islam (also called Shiite, or Shi'i) is the second largest division of Islam, constituting about 10-15% of all Muslims. The Sunni Muslims recognize the Four Caliphs as ‘rightly guided’, while Shi’a Muslims recognise Ali as the First Caliph and his descendants. Shi’as differ on how many Imams there have been. Some talk of Twelve and others of Fourteen. They also differ on who is the last Imam (Mahdi). Imamites say it was the Twelfth Imam, Muhammad al’Mahdi, the Zaydites say the Fifth, Zayd, and, the Isma’ilites say the Seventh Imam, Ismail. However, Shi’as agree that the Last Imam went into hiding and will return to bring in the end of the world.


Shi’a Beliefs


The five Shia principles of religion (usul ad din) are: belief in divide unity (tawhid); prophecy (nubuwwah); resurrection (maad); divine justice (adl); and the belief in the Imams as successors of the Prophet (imamah). The latter principle is not accepted by Sunnis.


Most Sunnis believe the Sharia (religious law of Islam) was codified and closed by the 10th century. Shia followers believe the Sharia is always open, subject to fresh reformulations of Sunna, hadith, (traditions of what Muhammad and his companions said and did) and Qur’an interpretations.


Like Sunni Islam, Shia Islam has developed several sects. Because of their belief that the leader of the Muslim community must be a blood relative of the prophet, disputes arose when two sons of an Imam (the title given to the Shia leader) both claimed to be the rightful successor. These disputes caused the Shia sect to further divide into three groups: Zaids, Ismai’ilis, and Ithna Asharis. The Twelver or Ithna-Ashari sect is the most important of these, as it predominates not only in Iraq but in the Shia world generally. Broadly speaking, the Twelvers are considered political quietists as opposed to the Zaydis who favor political activism, and the Ismailis who are identified with esoteric and gnostic religious doctrines.


Canonical schools in Islam, are called "Fiqh's"; the only Fiqh's in Shia Islam, are Usuli, Akhbari, and Shaykhi. These 3 all belong to the Ithna-Ashari or mainstream Shia Islam, which believes in the 12 Shia Imams; hence the name which means "Twelver's". The dominant Shia legal school is sometimes termed the Ja'fari Fiqh, after lmam Jaafar Sadiq (a.s.), the Sixth Infallible Imam of the world of Shiism.


The 1964 Afghan Constitution, which was the basis of new 2003 constitution, stated: "Islam is the sacred religion of Afghanistan. Religious rites performed by the state shall be according to the provisions of the Hanafi school of jurisprudence." This stipulation left Afghan Shia without proper representation. Thus in March 2003, Ayatollah Mohammad Asef Mohseni, leader of the predominantly Shia Harakat-e Islami-yi Afghanistan, proposed that, along with the Sunni Hanafi school of jurisprudence, the Shia Ja'fari school of jurisprudence be included in the new constitution as an official sect. Mohseni said he proposed two additional formulas if his proposal is not accepted: mentioning "Islam and the Islamic sects," or just mentioning Islam without any mention of sects to ensure that Afghan Shia have their jurisprudence recognized and are allowed to "perform their religious duties according to it."


The Ja'fari [Hafari] fiqh of the Imami Shias is in most cases indistinguishable from one or more of the four Sunni madhahib, except that "Muta'h" or temporary marriage is considered lawful by the Fiqh Jafari, whereas it is prohibited in all the Sunni schools. But the Shia are still viewed with great caution by the Ulema of the Sunni world. Although Sunni and Shi'a Muslims are historically ambivalent, this traditional enmity was dampened in Central Asia due to shared resistance to Russian and Soviet rule. Indeed, both Sunni and Shi'a delegations to the 1905 Third Congress of Muslims in Russia declared Ja'farite Shi'ism as a fifth legal school, equivalent to the Hanafi, Maliki, Hanbali, and Shafi'i madrasehs.


Two distinctive and frequently misunderstood Shia practices are mutah, temporary marriage, and taqiyah, religious dissimulation.

Mutah, that is, marriage with a fixed termination contract subject to renewal, was practiced by Muslims as early as the formation of the first Muslim community at Medina. Banned by the second caliph, it has since been unacceptable to Sunnis, but Shias insist that if it were against Islamic law it would not have been practiced in early Islam. Mutah differs from permanent marriage because it does not require divorce proceedings for termination because the contractual parties have agreed on its span, which can be as short as an evening or as long as a lifetime. By making the mutah, a couple places the sexual act within the context of sharia; the act then is not considered adulterous and offspring are considered legitimate heirs of the man.


Taqiyah is another practice condemned by the Sunni as cowardly and irreligious but encouraged by Shia Islam and also practiced by Alawis and Ismailis. A person resorts to taqiyah when he either hides his religion or disavows certain religious practices to escape danger from opponents of his beliefs. Taqiyah can also be practiced when not to do so would bring danger to the honor of the female members of a household or when a man could be made destitute as a result of his beliefs. Because of the persecution frequently experienced by Shia imams, particularly during the period of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, taqiyah has been continually reinforced.


Shia practice differs from that of the Sunnis concerning both divorce and inheritance in that it is more favorable to women. The reason for this reputedly is the high esteem in which Fatima, the wife of Ali and the daughter of the Prophet, was held.


The Imamate


Among Shias the term imam traditionally has been used only for Ali and his eleven descendants. None of the twelve Imams, with the exception of Ali, ever ruled an Islamic government. During their lifetimes, their followers hoped that they would assume the rulership of the Islamic community, a rule that was believed to have been wrongfully usurped. Because the Sunni caliphs were cognizant of this hope, the Imams generally were persecuted during the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties. Therefore, the Imams tried to be as unobtrusive as possible and to live as far as was reasonable from the successive capitals of the Islamic empire.


The Imamate began with Ali, who is also accepted by Sunni Muslims as the fourth of the "rightly guided caliphs" to succeed the Prophet. Shias revere Ali as the First Imam, and his descendants, beginning with his sons Hasan and Husayn, continue the line of the Imams until the twelfth, who is believed to have ascended into a supernatural state to return to earth on Judgment Day. Shias point to the close lifetime association of the Prophet with Ali. When Ali was six years old, he was invited by the Prophet to live with him, and Shias believe Ali was the first person to make the declaration of faith in Islam. Ali also slept in the Prophet's bed on the night of the hijra or migration from Mecca to Medina when it was feared that the house would be attacked by unbelievers and the Prophet stabbed to death. He fought in all the battles the Prophet did except one, and the Prophet chose him to be the husband of his favorite daughter, Fatima.


The Sunni-Shia division of Islam originated as a succession dispute shortly after the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632 A.D. Shia believe that the proper successor of Muhammad was Ali. The word “Shia� means partisan or faction of Ali. Ali was elected to be the fourth Muslim ruler or caliph, but was later overthrown and assassinated. Shia Muslims believe that the first three caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman were usurpers, and that Ali was the first true Imam.

Shia hold Ali in equally high regard as Muhammad. Ali was buried in the Iraqi city of Najaf, which established an early connection between Iraq and Shiism and became a shrine city that continues to be a destination for Shia pilgrims.


In 661 A.D. Mu’awiya, the governor of Syria, named himself caliph and made the caliphate hereditary in his own family, the Umayyads, who the Shia rejected as usurpers of Ali and his sons’ rights to the caliphate. In the year AD 661, Imam Ali, Muhammad's son-in-law and the fourth caliph of Islam, was assassinated in southern Iraq in a struggle over who would rule the faithful. Ali was buried in Najaf, and his tomb is housed in a Masjid in the city's center.


Nineteen years after Ali's death, his two sons were killed in battle and subsequently buried in nearby Karbala. Their battlefield deaths made martyrdom one of the most important tenets of Shiism. Shia attempts to challenge the Umayyad leaders resulted in the death of Ali’s son and the third Shia Imam, Husayn, at the Battle of Karbala in 680. The city of Karbala has become a Shia shrine city.


Husayn’s death is commemorated annually in the Ashura ceremony, and is seen as a symbol of the persecution and oppression experienced by the Shia community. Celebration of Ashura can also be a form of Shia political dissent. Male participants in the Ashura rituals beat their chests and chant in an action called lahtom. Some use swords to lacerate their heads to symbolize the beheading of Husayn, or use chains to beat their backs to evoke the suffering of Husayn.

Shia may place a piece of stone or clay, known as a turba, from the shrine of an Imam or other Shia figure on the ground so that their forehead touches the stone when they prostrate themselves in prayer. The possession of such a disc is a sign of Shia identity.


Jaafari [Jafari] Faith means the Religion according to lmam Jaafar Sadiq (a.s.), the Sixth Infallible Imam of the world of Shiism. Ascription of the Shiite Religion to Imam Jaafar ben Muhammad A]-Sadiq (a.s.) was due to the fact that this noble Imam lived longer than all other Infallible Imams and, thus, he has had more time and opportunity for action. Because of the conditions of his time, the role of imam Sadeq (a.s.) in reviving true, genuine Islamic teachings, formation of numerous education centers and training of faithful men was exceptional to the point that the Shiite religion by ascription to him has been named the "Jaafari Faith". The infirmity and confusion of the Caliphate due to the clashes between the Abbasid, and the Omayyad dynasties, in particular, afforded wider opportunities to the Imam to teach, instruct, discuss and train the faithful and sincere forces and to establish lbeologic Centers and promulgate the Islamic truths.


During the eighth century the Caliph Mamun, son and successor to Harun ar Rashid, was favorably disposed toward the descendants of Ali and their followers. He invited the Eighth Imam, Reza (A.D. 765-816), to come from Medina (in the Arabian Peninsula) to his court at Marv (Mary in the present-day Soviet Union). While Reza was residing at Marv, Mamun designated him as his successor in an apparent effort to avoid conflict among Muslims. Reza's sister Fatima journeyed from Medina to be with her brother, but took ill and died at Qom, in present-day Iran. A major shrine developed around her tomb and over the centuries Qom has become a major Shia pilgrimage and theological center.


Mamun took Reza on his military campaign to retake Baghdad from political rivals. On this trip Reza died unexpectedly in Khorasan. Reza was the only Imam to reside or die in what in now Iran. A major shrine, and eventually the city of Mashhad, grew up around his tomb, which has become the most important pilgrimage center in Iran. Several important theological schools are located in Mashhad, associated with the shrine to the Eighth Imam.


Reza's sudden death was a shock to his followers, many of whom believed that Mamun, out of jealousy for Reza's increasing popularity, had the Imam poisoned. Mamun's suspected treachery against Imam Reza and his family tended to reinforce a feeling already prevalent among his followers that the Sunni rulers were untrustworthy.


The Twelfth Imam is believed to have been only five years old when the Imamate descended upon him in A.D.874 at the death of his father. Because his followers feared he might be assassinated, the Twelfth Imam was hidden from public view and was seen only by a few of his closest deputies. Sunnis claim that he never existed or that he died while still a child. Shias believe that the Twelfth Imam never died, but disappeared from earth in about A.D. 939. Since that time, the greater occultation of the Twelfth Imam has been in force and will last until God commands the Twelfth Imam to manifest himself on earth again as the Mahdi or Messiah. Shias believe that during the occultation of the Twelfth Imam, he is spiritually present--some believe that he is materially present as well--and he is besought to reappear in various invocations and prayers. His name is mentioned in wedding invitations, and his birthday is one of the most jubilant of all Shia religious observances.


The Shia doctrine of the Imamate was not fully elaborated until the tenth century. Other dogmas were developed still later. A characteristic of Shia Islam is the continual exposition and reinterpretation of doctrine.


Shia Muslims hold the fundamental beliefs of other Muslims. But, in addition to these tenets, the distinctive institution of Shia Islam is the Imamate -- a much more exalted position than the Sunni imam, who is primarily a prayer leader. In contrast to Sunni Muslims, who view the caliph only as a temporal leader and who lack a hereditary view of Muslim leadership, Shia Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad designated Ali to be his successor as Imam, exercising both spiritual and temporal leadership. Such an Imam must have knowledge, both in a general and a religious sense, and spiritual guidance or walayat, the ability to interpret the inner mysteries of the Quran and the sharia. Only those who have walayat are free from error and sin and have been chosen by God through the Prophet. Each Imam in turn designated his successor--through twelve Imams--each holding the same powers.

Implied in the Shia principle of the imamah is that imams, are imbued with a redemptive quality as a result of their sufferings and martyrdoms. And, although imams are not divine, they are sinless and infallible in matters of faith and morals. That man needs an intermediary with God is an Iranian idea that long predates Islam, as is the idea of a savior or messiah (Mahdi) who will come to redeem man and cleanse the world. To expect that the Mahdi, who is the last (twelfth) Imam, really will one is a religious virtue (intizar).

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