History of Shia (Shiite) Islam as a Religion and Theology

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20120509-ali Medaillon_chiite.jpg
Ali Medallion
According to the BBC: “The division between Sunnis and Shi'as is the largest and oldest in the history of Islam. They both agree on the fundamentals of Islam and share the same Holy Book (The Qur'an), but there are differences mostly derived from their different historical experiences, political and social developments, as well as ethnic composition. These differences originate from the question of who would succeed the Prophet Muhammad as leader of the emerging Muslim community after his death. To understand them, we need to know a bit about the Prophet's life and political and spiritual legacy.” [Source: BBC]

Following the death of the Prophet in 632, the Muslim community failed to reach consensus on who should succeed him as the caliph. A majority of Muhammad's close followers supported the idea of an elected caliph, but a minority believed that leadership, or the imamate, should remain within the Prophet's family, passing first to Muhammad's cousin, son-in-law, and principal deputy, Ali ibn Abu Talib, and subsequently to Ali's sons and their male descendants. The majority, who believed they were following the sunna of the Prophet, became known as Sunni Muslims. To them, the caliph was the symbolic religious head of the community; however, caliphs would also rule as the secular leaders of a major empire for six centuries. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The partisans of Ali — the Shiat Ali — evolved into a separate Islamic denomination that became known as the Shia. By the ninth century, however, the Shia Muslims split into numerous sects as a result of disagreements over which of several brothers was the legitimate leader, or imam , of the community. The major divisions occurred over the question of succession to the fourth, sixth, and twelfth imams. Consequently, the origins of almost all Shia sects can be traced to the followers of the fifth, seventh, or twelfth imam. By the fifteenth century, the sect known as the Twelve Imam Shia — a group that recognized Ali and eleven of his direct descendants as the legitimate successors to the Prophet — had emerged as the predominant Shia sect.*

In addition to the orthodox Twelve Imam Shia, several sects that revered the twelve imams but otherwise subscribed to heterodox beliefs and practices emerged between the ninth and twelfth centuries. One of these heterodox sects, the Nusayri, originated in the mid-ninth century among the followers of the religious teacher Muhammad ibn Nusayr an Namiri. The Nusayri became established in what is now northern Syria and southern Turkey during the tenth century when a Shia dynasty based in Aleppo ruled the region. Because of the special devotion of the Nusayri to Ali, Sunni Muslims historically and pejoratively referred to them as Alevi.*

Websites on Shia Muslims (Shiites) Divisions in Islam archive.org ; Shi’a History and Identity shiism.wcfia.harvard.edu ; What is Shi'a Islam? iis.ac.uk ; History of Shi'ism: From the Advent of Islam up to the End of Minor Occultation al-islam.org ; Shafaqna: International Shia News Agency shafaqna.com ; Roshd.org, a Shia Website roshd.org/eng ; The Shiapedia, an online Shia encyclopedia web.archive.org ; Imam Al-Khoei Foundation (Twelver) al-khoei.org ; Official Website of Nizari Ismaili (Ismaili) the.ismaili ; Official Website of Alavi Bohra (Ismaili) alavibohra.org ; The Institute of Ismaili Studies (Ismaili) web.archive.org ; Four Sunni Schools of Thought masud.co.uk

Origin of the Shia

The origin of the Shia was primarily political rather than theological. The more orthodox Shia sect originated in circumstances similar to those of the Kharijite movement. Shia believed that Ali should have led the Muslim community immediately after the Prophet. They were frustrated three times, however, when the larger Muslim community selected first Abu Bakr, next Umar (died in 644), and then Uthman as caliph. When Ali finally became caliph in 656, the Shia refused to accept claims to the caliphate from other Muslim leaders such as Muawiyah. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Saudi Arabia: A Country Study, U.S. Library of Congress, 1992 *]

The dispute between Ali and Muawiyah was never resolved. Muawiyah returned to Syria while Ali remained in Iraq, where he was assassinated by a Kharijite follower in 660. Muawiyah assumed the caliphate, and Ali's supporters transferred their loyalty to his two sons, Hasan and Husayn. Whereas Hasan more or less declined to challenge Muawiyah, Husayn was less definitive. When Muawiyah's son, Yazid, succeeded his father, Husayn refused to recognize his authority and set out for Iraq to raise support. He was intercepted by a force loyal to Yazid. When Husayn refused to surrender, his entire party, including women and children, was killed at Karbala in southeastern Iraq.*

Battle of Karbala

The killing of Husayn provided the central ethos for the emergence of the Shia as a distinct sect. Eventually, the Shia would split into several separate denominations based on disputes over who of Ali's direct male descendants should be the true spiritual leader. The majority came to recognize a line of twelve leaders, or Imams, beginning with Ali and ending with Muhammad al Muntazar (Muhammad, the awaited one). These Shia, who are often referred to as "Twelvers," claimed that the Twelfth Imam did not die but disappeared in 874. They believe that he will return as the "rightly guided leader," or Mahdi, and usher in a new, more perfect order.*

The Shia minority in Saudi Arabia, like the Shia in southern Iraq, traces its origin to the days of Ali. A second Shia group, the Ismailis, or the Seveners, follow a line of Imams that originally challenged the Seventh Iman and supported a younger brother, Ismail. The Ismaili line of leaders has been continuous down to the present day. The current Imam, Sadr ad Din Agha Khan, who is active in international humanitarian efforts, is a direct descendant of Ali.*

Although present-day Saudi Arabia has no indigenous Ismaili communities, an important Ismaili center existed between the ninth and eleventh centuries in Al Hufuf, in eastern Arabia. The Ismailis of Al Hufuf were strong enough in 930 to sack the major cities of Iraq, and they were fanatical enough to attack Mecca and remove the sacred stone of the Kaaba, the central shrine of the Islamic pilgrimage. The pilgrimage was suspended for several years and resumed only after the stone was replaced, following the caliph's agreement to pay the Ismailis a ransom.*

Shia Expansion and Leadership

According to the BBC: “Meanwhile, the leadership of the Shia community continued with 'Imams' believed to be divinely appointed from the Prophet's Family. Unlike the Sunni Caliphs, the Shia Imams generally lived in the shadow of the state and were independent of it. The largest sect of Shia Islam is known as The Twelvers, because of their belief that twelve divinely appointed Imams descended from the Prophet in the line of Ali and Hussein, led the community until the 9th century CE. [Source: BBC, August 19, 2009 |::|]

“Muhammad al-Muntazar al-Mahdi was the Twelfth Imam. The Shia believe that as a young boy, he was hidden in a cave under his father's house in Samarra to avoid persecution. He disappeared from view, and according to Shia belief, has been hidden by God until he returns at the end of time. This is what Shias call the Major Occultation. The Shia believe this Twelfth Imam, or Mahdi or Messiah, is not dead and will return to revive the true message of Islam. His disappearance marked the end of the leadership of the direct descendants of the Prophet. (Note: While the information provided is the position of the largest Shia subdivision, that of The Twelvers, other Shia groups, such as the Ismailis, hold differing views.) |::|

“In the absence of the Mahdi, the rightful successor to the Prophet, the Shia community was led, as it is today, by living scholars usually known by the honourable title Ayatollah, who act as the representatives of the Hidden Imam on earth. Shia Muslims have always maintained that the Prophet's family are the rightful leaders of the Islamic world. |::|

Development of Shia Theology

The development of Shia Islam was complex.Charles F. Gallagher wrote in the “International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences”: Its psychological foundations seem to have been laid first in the personal devotion ac-corded to ‘Ali by his followers and, second, in the sense of rejection and bitterness which accompanied his defeat and death in 661 and the martyrdom of his son Husain in 680. At the same time, the political bases of the movement were strengthened by the opposition of the Arabs of Iraq to rule from Syria. The movement attracted many recent non-Arab converts, or clients, to Islam, who were seeking equality and fuller integration within the community and who came principally from among Persian and Aramaean elements in Iraq and Iran. From this period begins a cross-linkage of the political and social grievances of non-Arab Muslims with Shia Islam, which culminates in the sixteenth century in the Shia nationalism of the Safavid state in Iran. [Source: Charles F. Gallagher, “International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences”, 1960s, Encyclopedia.com]

The earliest Shia Islam had no distinctive doctrine, and in questions of theology and law individual Shias were indistinguishable from others in the community, with whom they lived, on the whole, harmoniously. However, the political insistence on the legitimacy of ‘Ali called into being a doctrine that refused recognition to the first three caliphs who followed Muhammad and thus challenged orthodox belief. Moreover, the elevation of ‘Ali to the position of an infallible and charismatic leader (imam) brought Shia Islam, in later centuries, into sharper conflict with the Sunnite concept of consensus of the community. Gradually a polarization occurred in which Hellenistic remnants in formerly Byzantine areas attached themselves to and influenced the development of orthodox theology, while a variety of sects and ideas from the pre-Islamic Oriental substrata in Iraq, Iran, and later India were grafted onto Shia Islam. Moreover, Shia Islam served as a banner to cover social revolt against the orthodox establishment on more than one occasion.

The further development of Shia Islam may be traced from its character as a volatile opposition movement dependent on strong personal leadership, which contained within itself the seeds of further splitting. Secrecy, concealment of one’s true beliefs, the possession of esoteric knowledge by the infallible imam, and a doctrine of messianic return and salvation became the hallmarks of the various Shia subsects.

Splintering of Shia Islam

Out of early Shia Islam three principal groups emerged, each with its own concept of divinely inspired leadership, or “imamism”. These views made into basic doctrine, although with differences of interpretation. Charles F. Gallagher wrote in the “International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences”: The Zaidi branch, which is prominent in the Yemen, attributes no superhuman qualities to its imam’s and is closest to Sunnite Islam. The majority Imami branch is the state religion of Iran and has many adherents in Iraq and India among other countries. [Source: Charles F. Gallagher, “International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences”, 1960s, Encyclopedia.com]

The extreme Isma‘ili branch has contributed some of the most extraordinary episodes to Islamic history, among them the odyssey of the Fatimid caliphate in north Africa and Egypt, the activities of the sect of the Assassins (hashshashiri),and several revolutionary uprisings in the Middle Ages. The distinctive features of Isma‘ilism, which today has a following primarily in India and east Africa, consist of graded instruction in religious mysteries, a distinction between external and internal meaning in all their aspects, and the practice of dissimulation.

Several offshoots of Isma‘ilism, such as the Druze, the Nusairi, and the Yazidi sects in the Levant, display such extreme syncretism that it is doubtful whether they should be considered fully Muslim.

Development of Shia Islam and the Safavids

declaration of Shi'ism as the state religion of Iran by Shah Ismail of the Safavid dynasty

Shia Islam grew formally in the 10th and 11th century under the Fatamid dynasty in Egypt and in Assassin city states in Iran, the first powerful Shia states. The theology of the sect also developed around this time. Shia sharia law was created in the 13th and 14th centuries and was based only on the Qur’an and hadiths that has been passed down by the Prophet’s family. It allowed things like temporary marriage.

Shia Islam reached new heights under the Safavids (1502-1736) — fanatical Iran-based Shia who fought with Sunni Ottomans for over a century and influenced the culture of the Moguls in India. They established the great city of Isfahan, created an empire that covered much of the Middle East and Central Asia and cultivated a sense Iranian nationalism. At its height the Safavid empire (1502-1736) embraced the modern states of Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Afghanistan and parts of Syria, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Pakistan.

The Safavids claimed descent from Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and the inspiration of Shia Islam. They broke from the Sunni Muslims and made Shia Islam the state religion. The Safavids are named after Sheikh Safi-eddin Arbebili, a widely revered 14th century Sufi philosopher.

Like their rivals, the Ottomans and Moghuls, the Safavids established an absolute monarchy that maintained power with a sophisticated bureaucracy influenced by the Mongol military state and a legal system based on Muslim law. One of their great challenges was to reconcile Islamic egalitarianism with the autocratic rule. This was achieved initially through brutality and violence and later through appeasement.

Rise of the Safavids

Safavids originated in what is now Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijani region of northwest Iran. The began as a Sufi order that converted to Twelver Shia Islam and emerged as a major power by taking control of northwest Iran and raiding Christian areas in Georgia and the Caucasus. Many of the warriors in the Safavid armies were Turks.

Safavid Flag
Shah Ismail (ruled 1501-1524), the founder of the Safavid Dynasty, was a descendant of Sheikh Safi-eddin He was regarded as a great poet, statements and leader. Writing under the name Khatai, he composed works as a members of hf his own circle of court poets.

In 1500, 16-year-old Ismail became the leader of the Safavids after his father was murdered by regional military commanders. His first order of business was to avenge his father’s death. In 1501, he conquered Tabriz. Within a decade he had captured all of Iran. Shah Ismail forged relations with Hungary and Germany, and entered into negotiations regarding a military alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor Karl V.

Safavids and Shia Islam

Ismail declared Twelver Shitte Islam to be the state religion and based his legitimacy on dubious claim to be a descendant of the Shia imams. This was a major development in Islam. Before that time most Shia had been Arabs and the previous Shia dynasties had been made been ruled by Arabs. Although few Iranians were Shia when the Safavids took power, most of them were Shia by the 17th century and remain so to this day.

The creation of a Shia state caused great tensions between Shia and Sunnis and led to not only intolerance, repression, persecution directed at Sunnis but to an ethnic cleansing campaign. Sunnis were executed and deported, administrators were forced to a vow condemning the first three Sunni caliphs. Before that time Shia and Sunnis had gotten along reasonably well and Twelver Shia Islam was regarded as fringe, mystical sect. Twelver Shia Islam went through great changes. It had been previously practiced quietly in homes and emphasized mystical experiences. Under the Safavids, the sect became more doctrinal and institutionalized and less tolerant of dissent and mysticism. Individual soul searching and discovery and Sufi acts of devotion were replaced with mass rituals in which throngs of men collectively beat themselves and moaned and cried and denounced Sunnis and mystics.

Shia in Iraq

Safavid map
Jon Lee Anderson wrote in The New Yorker: “The oppression of the Shia in Iraq extends back at least to 1638, when an Ottoman sultan captured Baghdad. Shiism had been established as the state religion of neighboring Persia in the sixteenth century, and the Sunni Ottomans and the Shia had fought over the Mesopotamian provinces for a hundred years. The Ottomans maintained control until the First World War, and even though more than half the population embraced Shiism, Sunnis were politically dominant. The British upheld this tradition soon after they established the state of Iraq, in 1920. They installed a Sunni Hashemite king, Faisal. Following the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958, political power remained in Sunni hands, with few exceptions, until Saddam Hussein was toppled in April.” [Source: Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker, February 2, 2004 ~]

“Despite the long history of hostility between the Sunni and the Shia, sectarianism has not been the central organizing force of Iraqi society in modern times. Until recently, most Iraqis would probably have identified themselves first by nationality or tribe, or by whether they live in an urban or a rural community, or by some ideological position that is not necessarily religious. But sectarian divisions were reinforced during Saddam's regime, because the Baathists persecuted political groups that were Shia, even if secondarily, and because the Shia suffered most during Saddam's war with their co-religionists in Iran. In the nineteen-eighties, Saddam executed thousands of Shia. Several hundred thousand more were accused of being ethnic "Persians" and were forcibly expelled to Iran.~

There have been worries that Iraqi Shia would turn out to be like the hard-line Shia in Iran. “The first George Bush had this in mind in 1991, when he didn't intervene to stop Saddam's slaughter of Shia who rebelled after the Gulf War...Religion, in its institutional form, became even more important in the weeks following the fall of Saddam. There was a sudden vacuum of authority, and it was often filled by Shia organizations that could handle practical matters while the Americans were muddling around, trying to get their bearings. Forces loyal to the radical young Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr quickly seized control of the huge slum in northeastern Baghdad known as Saddam City. They established vigilante control of the streets, took over hospitals, and renamed the place Sadr City, in honor of Moqtada's father, an ayatollah who was murdered, apparently on Saddam's orders, several years ago. ...The Mahdi Army, or God's Army, a young, ragtag, largely untrained group, further bolstered Sadr's power in parts of southern Iraq. And Hakim's Badr fighters moved in. They occupied several towns northeast of Baghdad, and battled Saddam loyalists for the town of Baquba. A contingent of American marines arrived in the area several weeks later and skirmished briefly with the Badr forces before they relinquished control of Baquba. Keeping a low profile, they remained in several other key towns along the border, in Baghdad, and in numerous communities in the south.” ~

Shia Today

According to the BBC: “There are significant differences between scholars of Shia Islam on the role and power of these representatives. A minority believe the role of the representative is absolute, generally known as Wilayat Faqih. The majority of Shia scholars, however, believe their power is relative and confined to religious and spiritual matters. |::| [Source: BBC, August 19, 2009 |::|]

“Although the Shia have never ruled the majority of Muslims, they have had their moments of glory. The 9th century Fatimid Ismaili dynasty in Egypt and North Africa, when Cairo's prestigious Al-Azhar University was founded and the 16th century CE Safavid Dynasty which engulfed the former Persian Empire and made Shia Islam the official religion. |::|

“Significant numbers of Shias are now found in many countries including Iraq, Pakistan, Albania and Yemen. They make up 90% of the population of Iran which is the political face of Shia Islam today.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, Encyclopedia.com, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Library of Congress and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

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