The Evolution of Shi’ism from Political Activism to a Complex Ideology
The subject of caliphate was purely a political matter. All the misunderstandings and conflicts that revolved around it were simply political in nature too. There was nothing authentic that suggested spiritual investiture of ‘Ali b. Abi Talib (d. 41 AH/ 661 CE), or anybody else, after the Prophet’s death. Since differences between people were not ideological, nor religious, mutual reconciliations frequently occurred and were always encouraged to be resorted to, because Islam espouses that the believers are but brethren, that the most noble of them in the sight of God is the most righteous, and that the honor and dignity of a believer is the most hallowed thing (Al-Hujurat, 6-13). The Qur’an proclaims along those lines: “And if two factions among the believers should fight, then make settlement between the two. But if one of them oppresses the other, then fight against the one that oppresses until it returns to the ordinance of Allah. And if it returns, then make settlement between them in justice and act justly. Indeed, Allah loves those who act justly.” (Al-Hujurat, 9). It is thus crucial that the people when tried with disputes and reciprocal hostilities, as a result of certain human flaws and weaknesses which take over some people’s thinking and decision making panache, stay faithful to themselves as Muslims and not transgress the limits of their faith. That which is supreme and foremost is not to be bartered for that which is secondary and less significant. However, the most challenging problems started to emerge when certain groups and political factions started to make recourse to religion as a sole prism through which the current political developments were to be viewed and weighed up, that is, when politics became excessively tinted with religious quintessence, tones and moral fiber. In other words, the real problems started when politics became overly spiritualized and when religion became merely politicized.
Following the death of ‘Ali as the forth rightly guided caliph, the Muslims, many of whom were bitterly divided, disenchanted and crestfallen in consequence of a period of gory civil strives that tore the community apart and whose end by no means was in sight, found themselves yet again at a crossroads. They needed a new leader in the midst of mutual disagreements, splitting up and blood shedding. On his deathbed, ‘Ali, having always been an exemplar of wisdom and pragmatism, refrained from further fanning the fitnah (trial and tribulation) flames. He neither picked a successor nor said bad about his foes. His parting words were to the effect that if God willed good to the people, good shall happen to them and shall prevail. The whole matter with its minutest detail was about fate and the Will of God. It was all about how a person responded to and conducted himself in a situation wherein the Creator and Sustainer of life affairs placed him. Thus, in his farewell counsel to his son Hasan, his other children, and to all those whom his counsel might reach, ‘Ali spoke of pure spiritual matters for they constitute the core of religion. If they were intact, everything else was bound to be the same. He also insisted that all the companions of the Prophet (pbuh) be honored because the Prophet (pbuh), too, greatly honored them and expected the same pattern from others. Moreover, lest the people should become unduly passive and negligent both in their religion and worldly matters, noteworthy is the advice of ‘Ali to his descendents, as well as to all Muslims, to actively engage in the process of enjoining good and forbidding evil for fear that as a form of punishment the worst among them might be appointed to rule over them. The last words of ‘Ali are in full conformity to the following tradition of the Prophet (pbuh): “You will observe the commandment of al-amr bi al-ma’ruf wa al-nahy ‘an al-munkar (enjoining good and forbidding evil), encouraging each other to do good, or else, Allah will destroy you with a torment, or will appoint the worst among you to rule over you. Thereupon, the best among you shall implore Allah’s mercy, but to no avail.” According to Ibn Kathir, having uttered those farewell words, ‘Ali only managed to additionally pronounce the words of la ilah illa Allah (there is no god but Allah). He then passed away.
As soon as ‘Ali died, his supporters turned their attention to his son Hasan to continue his father’s struggle against the latter’s political opponents, the most prominent and potent of whom was Mu’awiyah in Syria. But Hasan was in favor neither of fighting nor the caliphate post. He wanted to fight nobody; he wanted to shed the Muslim blood no more. All this notwithstanding, he was virtually forced to accept the people’s demands. Luckily though, Hasan’s perspicacity, pragmatism and sense prevailed. He saw that his army was disorganized, lacked coherence and was no match for its counterpart in Syria. Accordingly, Hasan contacted Mu’awiyah and told him that he was willing to give up his claim to the caliphate under a few conditions to which Mu’awiyah readily consented. Some people, including Hasan’s brother Husayn, criticized Hasan’s decision and refused to agree to it under the pretext that he was in the right and Mu’awiyah was in the wrong. However, all things considered, it was never a matter of who really was in the right and who in the wrong; nor was it a matter of who really was better than whom. The answers to those quandaries, more or less, were known to nearly all the individuals who genuinely mattered. But the matter was one of general conditions and circumstances both in the country and in the hearts and minds of the people which were changing and developing at such a pace that they easily transcended the capacities and flairs of individuals. Admittedly, few could fully keep pace with, and abreast of, those changes and developments. Gone were the days when certain individuals were able to generate and dictate global happenings, such as the days of Abu Bakr, ‘Umar and the first phase of ‘Uthman’s rule. What followed were the days of a reversal of fortune. It was an epoch when dynamic macro happenings inspired and controlled individuals and their thinking and behavioral paradigms. It was an epoch, furthermore, when the painful reality of having neither Prophet (pbuh) around, nor a number of those who were closest to him, started to kick in. The people were prepared differently and so, reacted in different ways to the novel circumstances. As such, the new era with its unprecedented philosophical and cultural ethos was able to dictate, impose and mold its leaders. The affair almost seemed as though decided by a form of causal determinism. The latter state of affairs began approximately in the second period of ‘Uthman’s rule, continued to grow throughout ‘Ali’s reign, and in a dramatic fashion matured after ‘Ali’s death and Hasan’s withdrawal from the political scene. It was crowned and its character officially recognized and endorsed, so to speak, by Mu’awiyah’s investiture as the first Umayyad caliph. Such were the times of different philosophies with reference to the caliphate, and of clashes between those philosophies. Obviously, everyday there was less and less support for ‘Ali and the leadership philosophy which he embodied and against the current of the prevailing socio-political conditions desperately advocated, whereas everyday there was more and more support for Mu’awiyah and the leadership philosophy which he personified and along the current of the socio-political conditions of the day effectively promoted.
Nonetheless, this was exactly what the Prophet (pbuh) had foretold. He said that after him the caliphate will last for thirty years following which there will be kingdom(s). The short-lived rule of Hasan completed a period of thirty years after the Prophet’s death and after Abu Bakr was elected as the caliph. Mu’awiyah, therefore, officially inaugurated a new era, that of monarchies. He was the first, albeit the best, Muslim monarch or king. Everyone after him was of lesser quality. Mu’awiyah was intelligent and shrewd enough to fully grasp the essence of what was transpiring in the state. Initially, when he opposed ‘Ali’s appointment as the caliph, he did not covet the post for himself. His original main concern was avenging caliph ‘Uthman’s murder. In the course of events, however, the caliphate started gradually to turn its back on ‘Ali and his camp, and was gliding towards Mu’awiyah and his camp. When he so realized, he, in turn, hastened to welcome and embrace it. Mu’awiyah knew that he was not better than ‘Ali. He also knew that his claims for the caliphate and leadership of Muslims were not even close to ‘Ali and his own claims. But the general events and sentiments were increasingly working against ‘Ali and in favor of Mu’awiyah. Mu’awiyah is believed to have never changed this attitude of his. At the same time, however, he firmly believed that in difficult times such as his he was the most suitable and beneficial ruler, hence he firmly clang to it. He knew that he had most to offer for the sake of safeguarding the interests of the community. He is thus reported to have once said to the people: “O people, I am not the best among you. There are those who are better than me, the likes of ‘Abdullah b. ‘Umar (d. 74 AH/ 693 CE), ‘Abdullah b. ‘Amr (d. 65 AH/ 684 CE) and many other nobles. However, I could be the most beneficial and most prolific ruler to you, and the most devastating force for your enemies.
One day the Prophet (pbuh) said about his grandson Hasan: “This son of mine is a sayyid (a chief, a noble), and I hope Allah may reconcile two parties of my community (two large parties of Muslims, as per another narration) by means of him.” This means that the Prophet (pbuh) was able to foretell what was soon to befall Muslims and that it was a preordained series of events, that what Hasan was set to do will be a right thing for Muslims, and, most importantly, that the members of the two major parties involved in the conflict, that of ‘Ali and then his son Hasan and that of Mu’awiyah (shi’atu ‘Ali and shi’atu Mu’awiyah), were and remained Muslims and were integral parts of the Muslim Ummah (community). The Prophet (pbuh) thus also suggested, indirectly though, that the transformation of the caliphate into royal authority was forthcoming and that such transformation will be unavoidable and spontaneous. It will be a sign of generally weakened faith. In no way will it be a sign of established and prevailing heterodoxy, apostasy or hypocrisy. If what Hasan eventually embarked on was outright wrong, as some people would like to insinuate, the Prophet (pbuh) would not have praised him in advance and his judgment. If fighting Mu’awiyah till the end was an obligation, the Prophet (pbuh) would rather have criticized Hasan for his impending abandonment of an obligation. But since the Prophet (pbuh) praised him, that entailed not only that Hasan was in the right, but also that Mu’awiyah’s involvement and his vision of the caliphate and the Muslim government were neither completely wicked nor doomed.
For these same reasons as explained above Mu’awiyah appointed his son Yazid (d. 64 AH/ 683 CE) as his heir, in spite of many people’s vehement objection and despite the existence of many individuals who were far better than Yazid, a fact known and accepted as much by the opposition as by Mu’awiyah and Yazid themselves. Mu’awiyah did not want the whole thing to dissolve and disappear after he had gone. He did not want his government’s efforts to be in vain. He was convinced that the overall positive role which he was performing for the Muslims will also be performed by his heir apparent and son Yazid. When Husayn refused to pledge allegiance to Yazid, thus in effect rising up against him, there was likewise nobody who doubted who was who between Husayn and Yazid on the meritocracy and pre-eminence scale and where exactly the truth lay. Yet, Husayn eventually failed to garner enough serious support to pose any serious threat to Yazid and his Umayyad establishment, as a result of which many people had no choice but to advise Husayn to abort his noble and heroic mission for its impending tragic outcome was easy for everyone to predict. It appears as though Husayn, too, was briefly of the same opinion and is said to have pondered withdrawal, but there were some celestial factors at play, such as seeing the Prophet (pbuh) in his dream who informed Husayn that he was soon to join them in the next world, for which Husayn nevertheless carried on with his undertaking. ‘Abdullah b. ‘Abbas, among others, is said to have advised Husayn: “I fear your destruction and extirpation in this enterprise. The Iraqis are a treacherous people. So do not go near them…” In the latest battle between different visions and philosophies of the caliphate and the leadership of the community, the question, most obviously, was about external as well as collective power, influence, group feeling and authority, rather than personal or family qualities, values and pedigrees. It was not how individuals perceived and judged the matter, but how groups with overwhelming power and authority did so. In the end, Husayn’s trip towards his intended destination, Kufah, was interrupted by Yazid’s soldiers in Karbala where after a prolonged standoff and failed negotiations he and scores of ahl al-bayt were killed.
Ibn Khaldun explains this transformation of the caliphate into royal authority and how it was an impromptu and extemporized, rather than a deliberate and designed occurrence: “When trouble arose between ‘Ali and Mu’awiyah as a necessary consequence of group feeling, they were guided in (their dissensions) by the truth and by independent judgment. They did not fight for any worldly purpose or over preference of no value, or for reasons of personal enmity. This might be suspected, and heretics might like to think so. However, what caused their differences was their independent judgment as to where the truth lay. It was on this matter that each side opposed the point of view of the other. Even though ‘Ali was in the right, Mu’awiyah’s intentions were not evil. He wanted the truth, but missed it. Each was right insofar as his intentions were concerned.”
Ibn Khaldun continued on Mu’awiyah’s appointment of Yazid: “Likewise, Mu’awiyah appointed Yazid as his successor, because he was afraid of the dissolution of the whole thing, inasmuch as the Umayyads did not like to see the power handed over to any outsider. Had Mu’awiyah appointed anyone else his successor, the Umayyads would have been against him. Moreover, they had a good opinion of Yazid. Mu’awiyah would not have been the man to appoint Yazid his successor, had he believed him to be really so wicked. Such an assumption must be absolutely excluded in Mu’awiyah’s case.”
This was a brief account of the political activism of the first three Shi’i Imams: ‘Ali and his two children, Hasan and Husayn. It was a time when the rule came to ahl al-bayt, but as soon as it came, it went away from them. It nested with their bitterest adversaries, firstly with the Umayyads and then with the ‘Abbasids. Henceforth, ahl al-bayt continued to oppose the unjust and oppressive rule of both the Umayyads and ‘Abbasids. Their political activism fluctuated between peaceful pursuits and revolutionary actions. However, the opposition of ahl al-bayt remained just that: valid political resistance. They still believed that they were more qualified for the caliphate than the incumbents. They never forgot the sacrifices and sufferings their forefathers had gone through for the cause. But that belief was a general sentiment not only within the circles of ahl al-bayt, but also in the orb of almost every legitimate oppositional tendency and movement. Loving and honoring ahl al-bayt is paramount in the Islamic message. Thus, apart from the Umayyads, few would have disagreed that ahl al-bayt deserved the leadership of Muslims more than the Umayyads. It follows that there was nothing extraordinary in the thinking and doing of the members of ahl al-bayt in the political arena.
Besides, there was nothing in the whole scheme of things that could be dubbed Shi’ism and those who subscribed to it Shi’is, in the sense that such was an extra and alien dimension of the mainstream Islam, just as there was nothing yet that could warrant dubbing certain people Sunnis and their system of thinking and doing Sunnism (Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jama’ah). If the concept shi’atu ‘Ali (‘Ali’s party) still persisted and morphed into a trend of supporting ahl al-bayt, that must have been sporadic and on a very limited scale, for if there was shi’atu ‘Ali there also was a concept of shi’atu Mu’awiyah (Mu’awiyah’s party) which however soon became extinct. When heresiographer Abu Mansur al-Baghdadi (d. 429 AH/ 1037 CE) wrote his famous book on sects in Islam al-farq bayn al-firaq, he did not mention at all the words shi’ah, shi’ism or shi’is, although he dwelled extensively on them and their numerous major and minor sub-sects. When approximately slightly more than a century later Shahrastani compiled his equally important work in the field of heresiography al-milal wa al-nihal, he mentioned the terms shi’ism and shi’is albeit only as an umbrella faction which included a number of major and minor sub-groups some of which focused more on politics and society while others did so on religion and spirituality. In his approach, Shahrastani somewhat followed in the footsteps of Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari (d. 325 AH/ 936 CE), the pioneer of written heresiography and the most staunch proponent of Sunnism. The latter, too, in his book maqalat al-islamiyyin wa ikhtilaf al-musallin spoke of Shi’ism as an umbrella under which numerous sub-sects existed. His objective was to explain the meaning, disposition and beliefs of those sects. While only sporadically making use of such terms as shi’ah, tashayyu’ (be in somebody’s camp) and shuya’ (factions or sects, plural of shi’ah) Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari seems to have wanted to portray Shi’ism rather as a historical phenomenon and source from which many groups originated but eventually lost their way and deviated. Their affiliation with original historical Shi’ism, it seems furthermore, was nominal; it was but a symbolic superficial relationship. It stands to reason that in his book, Shahrastani might have drawn on the works of Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari, his predecessor and one of the earliest and greatest theologians and heresiographers. After all, in the field of theology Shahrastani followed the Ash’ariyyah school, a school that traced its origins and identity to the personality and teachings of Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari.
If this tells us anything then it tells us that early Shi’i political tendencies even though spearheaded by members of ahl al-bayt, were representative of wider socio-political spectrums. Quite often, it stood for a united and a general opposition action against unjust and oppressive rulers. Such action originated from the community and was meant for the community as a whole. People were driven solely by the exigencies of such fundamental Islamic principles as justice, mutual consultation, egalitarianism and al-amr bi al-ma’ruf wa al-nahy ‘an al-munkar (enjoining good and forbidding evil). The ultimate opposition objectives revolved around setting things right in society and returning the matter of the caliphate to the pre-Umayyad era. Obviously, there was nothing in those codes and attitudes that could belong exclusively to either Shi’ism or Sunnism. The whole enterprise belonged to all Muslims and their religious and civilizational wellbeing. It was a matter of public concern and so, more than a few aspects of the public were always drawn in, with the members of ahl al-bayt leading the way, or someone else who typified their cause or who even acted on their behalf. That is why one can constantly hear and read that members of ahl al-bayt were loved by virtually everyone, especially by the people of erudition, virtue and religious zeal in that they too were of the kind, and their cause and struggles if not actively then, surely, morally were supported by most people, especially the neutrals.
In addition, Abu Mansur al-Baghdadi’s omission of the terms shi’ah, shi’ism and shi’is could also imply that the first manifestations of Shi’ism and Shi’is, in the sense that they supported the political struggles of ‘Ali and the early members of ahl al-bayt in particular, did by no means deviate from the mainstream of the Muslim thought and mores. Given that the main objective of Abu Mansur al-Baghdadi’s work was elucidating the beliefs and practices of the deviated groups and sects associated with Islam, on the one hand, and expounding the meaning and scope of the only upright and assured group that followed in the footsteps of the Prophet (pbuh) and his companions, on the other, it follows that the early political Shi’ism in the form of sheer political opposition to the Umayyads and ‘Abbasids was regarded as integral to the mainstream of Muslims and was part of Sunnism which during Abu Mansur al-Baghdadi’s era matured and was widely articulated as a concept that assumed some serious ideological overtones. In the context of Shi’ism and Shi’is, the focus of Abu Mansur al-Baghdadi was on those branches and offshoots of historically legitimate Shi’ism which while using the perennial Shi’i political activism as a platform, delved fanatically, fraudulently and hypocritically into the ambit of articles of faith. They at once attempted to intensify, exaggerate and validate the former on the ideological strength of the latter, and to authenticate, advance and sell the latter on account of the historical, psychological and emotional appeal of the former. Accordingly, Abu Mansur al-Baghdadi highlighted that the most distinguished mark of disbelief and heresy linked to the misguided and strayed Shi’ism sects was to regard those Prophet’s companions who politically did not openly side with ‘Ali as apostates, nonbelievers or hypocrites. This doctrine functioned as a wellspring whence many other Shi’i expressions of disbelief and heresy originated and were nourished, such as regarding ‘Ali as a prophet, a deity, holding all the Imams infallible, more or less equivalent to the prophets of the children of Israel and capable of performing miracles, subscribing to the notion of incarnation, emphasizing a fundamental distinction between the exoteric (zahir) and the esoteric (batin) aspects and dimensions of the sacred scriptures, as well as religious commandments and prohibitions, the latter being accessible only to the elite of mankind and the former to the common people, etc.
Conversely, while dwelling on the characteristics of the majority Sunnism and their values and beliefs, Abu Mansur al-Baghdadi stressed that among them were beliefs that caliphs were not infallible; that the selection of the caliph, conceptually, is a matter of mutual consultation and consensus rather than a matter of divine will and appointment; that the Prophet (pbuh) did not appoint ‘Ali as his heir; that the caliphs are chosen from the tribe of Quraysh; that the caliphates of Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman and ‘Ali were legitimate and biding and that they in descending order were the best companions; that ‘Ali was right in all his conflicts with his rivals and foes; that A’ishah, Talhah (d. 36 AH/ 656 CE), Zubayr (d. 36 AH/ 656 CE) and Mu’awiyah were not sinners in their misunderstandings and confrontations with ‘Ali in that they all were guided by the truth and their respective independent judgments; they all wanted the truth and reformation for the better, but missed the target. Lastly, a trait of Sunnism is also to revere, honor and say nothing but the best about the members of the Prophet’s household: his wives, children and grandchildren. Abu Mansur al-Baghdadi then went on to name some of the Prophet’s descendants who must be targeted with the said treatment, all of whom, except one, were Shi’i (especially Ithna ʿAshariyyah) leaders and Imams. He mentioned by name Hasan, Husayn, ‘Abdullah b. Hasan (d. 145 AH/ 762 CE), ‘Ali b. Husayn (d. 94 AH/ 712 CE), Muhammad b. ‘Ali al-Baqir (d. 114 AH/ 732 CE), Ja’far b. Muhammad al-Sadiq (d. 148 AH/ 765 CE), Musa b. Ja’far al-Kazim (d. 183 AH/ 799 CE) and ‘Ali b. Musa al-Rida (d. 202 AH/ 817 CE).
On the same note, Shamsuddin al-Dhahabi (d. 748 AH/ 1347 CE) called the earliest manifestations of radicalized and heterodox Shi’ism, Rafidiyyah. He did not use the words shi’ism or shi’is. However, as he was bringing up the same phenomenon in the context of ‘Abbasid mihnah or inquisition (approximately 218-234 AH/ 833-848 CE), a time when the original political and radical ideological Shi’ism were as much as ever getting closer to each other, Shamsuddin al-Dhahabi did not hesitate to identify the same trend as Shi’ism. A new emerging brand of Shi’ism at the time stood for something else.
In other words, when early heresiographers either omitted the term Shi’ism or used it only occasionally and in particular contexts, while describing various Shi’i major and minor sects, the message they thus wanted to convey was that those sects did not belong to original and genuine Shi’ism (shi’atu ‘Ali). They in various degrees departed from it. Most of them were just pretenders and opportunists. Rather than following Shi’ism, they subscribed to and were further enflaming schism and deceit. Thus, instead of being called Shi’is, which could be construed as a form of honor and pride and would have been somewhat misleading, such people were called differently, not seldom in pejorative terms, so as to suggest the nature and extent of their deviation from genuine Shi’ism, i.e., from being true followers of ‘Ali and his progeny. Surely, if they were ‘Ali’s true followers, even partly, those people would have stayed within the framework of mainstream Islam and the Muslim community and would have developed a common language with them. If they were ‘Ali’s true followers, they would have become a constructive rather than destructive or obstructive force within society. Consequently, they were called, for example, Rafidiyyah, Imamiyyah, Zaydiyyah, Isma’iliyyah, Kaysaniyyah, Ghulah, Saba’iyyah, Hishamiyyah, Khattabiyyah, and many more. The terms shi’ism and shi’is were attached to them only symbolically and outwardly. They were to function only for orientation purposes.
Indeed, this was a chief reason why the ‘Abbasids in their propaganda against the Umayyads ostensibly in the name of returning the caliphate to ahl al-bayt were able to hoodwink and bring on board most of the members of ahl al-bayt and their supporters. When eventually the ‘Abbasids and Shi’is broke up, after the former displayed its true colors, that they as members of ahl al-bayt as well wanted the caliphate only for themselves and that Shi’is and their capacities were only used for the purpose, the ensuing confrontations between the ‘Abbasids and Shi’is were just like between the Umayyads and Shi’is in the past. They were purely for political headship and supremacy. There was very little, or nothing, related to the religion and creed cores that separated them. This ideological equivalence between the two parties concerning the most fundamental religious precepts, but with intensely dissimilar political visions and agendas, was manifested in a correspondence between the second ‘Abbasid caliph Abu Ja’far al-Mansur (d. 159 AH/ 775 CE) and Muhammad b. ‘Abdullah b. Hasan b. Hasan b. Ali b. Abi Talib (the Pure Soul) (d. 145 AH/ 762 CE), who led a failed rebellion in Madinah against the former. In their letters they both argued their respective cases, who and whose ancestors, that is, which branch of ahl al-bayt, are more deserving and qualified to rule. However, there was nothing significantly new in the discourse. It was an old story shrouded in a new cloak and tinted with a dimension of modern-day happenings and psychology, and with some new-fangled jargons. It is noteworthy that in the beginning Muhammad “the Pure Soul” hoped to rebel against the Umayyads when Banu Hashim paid their allegiance to him at Abwa near Madinah. Among them there were Ibrahim b. Muhammad, the head of the ‘Abbasids, and his two brothers, al-Saffah (d. 137 AH/ 754 CE) and Abu Ja’far al-Mansur, the first two ‘Abbasid caliphs. But it soon became clear that the ‘Abbasid rule was established as a result of which the descendents of ‘Ali and their expected roles and position became passed over, so the ahl al-bayt alliance inconsolably disintegrated. While some went on to support the Ababsid cause, others remained with Muhammad “the Pure Soul” who soon revolted. However, many of his followers quickly deserted him. Left with only few hundred of his soldiers to face a huge ‘Abbasid army, the revolt was crushed and Muhammad “the Pure Soul” killed. It is held that it was only following the accession of the ‘Abbasids that Shi’is came to define the ahl al-bayt concept more restrictively to include only the descendents of the Prophet (pbuh) through Fatimah, known as the Fatimids (covering both the Hasanids and Husaynids). The bulk of the non-Zaydiyyah Shi’is had come to acknowledge chiefly the Husaynid Fatimids. The latter definition was the one adopted by the Ithna ʿAshariyyah (Twelvers) and Isma’iliyyah Shi’is.
Furthermore, the same reason stood behind the fact that it was not uncommon for the members of ahl al-bayt and the rest of Muslims, especially the scholars, to teach and learn from each other. They held each other in high esteem. An excellent example here is Ja’far b. Muhammad al-Sadiq, the sixth Shi’i Imam, whose students also included Abu Hanifah and Malik b. Anas (d.179 AH/ 795 CE), two celebrated Sunni jurists and eponyms of the Hanafi and Maliki schools of law. Abu Hanifah is reported to have said about his teacher that he was most knowledgeable in the field of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh).
Moreover, there were many leading Sunni personalities who openly or clandestinely and by various means supported the political programs of ahl al-bayt. Some even suffered as a result at the hands of the Umayyad and ‘Abbasid regimes.
The authors of the most reliable Sunni compilations of the Prophet’s traditions (hadiths), including al-Bukhari and Muslim, have relied in their works upon a few of the Shi’i scholars. Those narrators are normally portrayed as devout and erudite Shi’is with sound beliefs. Their political penchant affected neither their articles of faith nor their standing in the community. One of them, ‘Ubayd Allah b. Musa b. Abi al-Mukhtar (d. 213 AH/ 828 CE), who is said would not let anyone enter his house whose name was Mu’awiyah, was one of the most important teachers (shuyukh) of al-Bukhari. He was one of the most knowledgeable people in Kufah.
When prior to the ‘Abbasid caliphate practically all the leading members of Banu Hashim paid their allegiance to Muhammad “the Pure Soul”, as mentioned earlier, it was Ja’far b. Muhammad al-Sadiq, the sixth Imam, who refused to do so. He might have done so because of the then existing rivalries between the Husaynids and the Hasanids (Ja’far b. Muhammad al-Sadiq was a Husaynid, while Muhammad “the Pure Soul” was a Hasanid), or because he regarded himself as the rightful leader or the Imam of the time, or simply because he was not inclined to the matter, seeing it as no fundamental concern under the circumstances; he preferred to dedicate his life to religion and scholarship. He and his father, Muhammad b. ‘Ali al-Baqir, the fifth Imam, explicitly rejected the notion of armed rebellion against the Umayyad and later the ‘Abbasid political establishments. It stands to reason, consequently, that Ja’far b. Muhammad al-Sadiq, as Muhammad Abu Zahrah proposed, might not have considered the imamate to be instituted by divine installation. Rather, he could have viewed it to be a matter of mutual consultation and choice. All the actual thoughts and actions of Ja’far b. Muhammad al-Sadiq pointed at that direction. There was nothing bona fide that was suggesting otherwise. Ja’far b. Muhammad al-Sadiq’s discreet political views, as well as prudent silence on some of the most sensitive questions, are believed to have instigated the genesis of taqiyyah (religious dissimulation, or concealing the faith when at risk of significant persecution) as a Shi’i doctrine. Taqiyyah, perhaps, was the most widely manipulated concept in an attempt to establish some of the most fundamental aspects of the Shi’i code of belief. At any rate, clearly there were no clear-cut decisions and tactics as to the prospects of commonly agreeing on and attaining the Shi’i goals. Mutual disagreements were considerably weakening original authentic Shi’ism. The cruelty of the Umayyads which was followed by the dishonesty, and at times cruelty too, of the ‘Abbasids was making things much worse. The situation was increasingly becoming vulnerable to the ambitions of the Shi’i fanatics and heretics who were lying in wait to penetrate the Shi’i political spectrum and gradually make their unorthodox views and ideas accepted as an integral part of the doctrinal dais of the mainstream Shi’ism. This marriage of convenience between politics and religious heterodoxy and fanaticism in the Shi’i universe had a long way to go to be completed; however, signs were on the horizon that it was coming thick and fast.
As there was nothing grossly abnormal when ‘Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mun (d. 218 AH/ 833 CE) appointed ‘Ali b. Musa, the eighth Shi’i Imam, his successor and called him al-Rida. He also made him marry one of his daughters, Umm Habib. The appointment in the end was not a success. It failed not because ‘Ali b. Musa was a Shi’i and al-Ma’mun a Sunni. Those terms were still ambiguous and vague, and there were no demarcation lines yet to delineate the actual meaning and parameters of each one of them. Rather, the appointment failed because al-Ma’mun tried to snub the role and impact of the cooperative influence, group feeling and authority, rather than personal or family eminence, virtues and pedigrees. As elaborated before, it was not how individuals comprehended and determined the matter of leadership, but how groups with overwhelming power and influence did so. Al-Ma’mun naively perpetrated the same mistake as many before him had done. He should have known better. In keeping with his vision and interpretation of the caliphate and leadership, Ibn Khaldun said that when al-Ma’mun appointed ‘Ali b. Musa his successor “the ‘Abbasids greatly disapproved of the action. They declared invalid the oath of allegiance that had been rendered to al-Ma’mun, and took the oath of allegiance to his uncle Ibrahim b. al-Mahdi. There was so much trouble, dissention, and interruption of communications, and there were so many rebels and seceders, that the state almost collapsed. Eventually, al-Ma’mun went from Khurasan to Baghdad and brought matters back to their former condition.”
Several Imams in original authentic Shi’ism were in fact the leaders of Muslims in different fields. They are free from all the fabrications and falsehoods that deluded and fanatical Shi’is have attributed to them. They had nothing to do with the development of doctrinal Shi’ism. Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 729 AH/ 1328 CE) said about the twelve Ithna ʿAshariyyah Imams dividing them into four categories. Firstly, ‘Ali b. Abi Talib, Hasan and Husayn who were noble companions of the Prophet (pbuh). No one doubts their virtue and leadership. However, many others shared with them the virtue of being companions of the Prophet (pbuh) and among the companions there are others who were more virtuous than them, based on authentic evidence from the Prophet (pbuh). Secondly. ‘Ali b. Husayn, Muhammad b. ‘Ali al-Baqir, Ja’far b. Muhammad al-Sadiq and Musa b. Ja’far al-Kazim who were among the trustworthy and reliable scholars. Thirdly, ‘Ali b. Musa al-Rida, Muhammad b. ‘Ali b. Musa, ‘Ali b. Muhammad b. ‘Ali, and Hasan b. ‘Ali b. Muhammad who did not show a great deal of knowledge such that the Muslim Ummah might benefit from them, nor did they have any authority by means of which they could help the Ummah. Rather, they were like any other member of Banu Hashim, they occupy a respected position and they have sufficient knowledge of that which is needed by them and expected of people like them; it is a type of knowledge that is widely available to ordinary Muslims. But the type of knowledge that is exclusive to the scholars was not present in their case. Therefore, seekers of knowledge did not receive from them what they received from those who preceded them. Had they had that which was useful to seekers of knowledge, they would have sought it from them, as seekers of knowledge are well aware of where to go for knowledge. Fourthly, Muḥammad al-Mahdi al-Ḥujjah (the awaited one) who did not exist at all.
However, concurrently with the political activism of the majority of ahl al-bayt and their leaders, there existed extreme ideological elements which from time to time managed to raise their ugly heads. The first seeds of those extreme tendencies were sown as early as during the turbulent caliphate of ‘Ali when some traitors, fanatics and hypocrites realized that the situation had become conducive to unleashing their intrigues and plots. Henceforth, they used to resort to their methods whenever given a chance and were trying to bring on board the leading members of ahl al-bayt who nevertheless never stopped dissociating themselves from them and their malpractices. They planned to exploit political Shi’ism as a platform for transforming the whole Shi’i culture into a conglomerate and complex ideological system. The advances of those bogus Shi’is were successfully kept at bay until the influences of genuine members of ahl al-bayt started to fade dramatically. Numerous precarious political and religious situations, plus the mounting number of years and generations that stood between the people and the initial ground-breaking meaning and struggle of the shi’atu ‘Ali (‘Ali’s party), was taking its toll on the people. It was a time when the Shi’i political activism and its conceptualized objectives were started to be altered to the tune of the ideologies, beliefs and goals of the extremists. It was a time, furthermore, when both parties became opportunists, embarked on a marriage of convenience, and when they institutionalized Shi’ism not only as a unified political, but also a comprehensive religious faction with a set of major and minor sects within it fold, which at all levels was supposed to rival Sunnism and Sunnis. It was also a time when the concept of ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah (the people of the tradition of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and the consensus of the Ummah or Muslim community) was crystallizing. The concept might have seemed too exclusive to Shi’is as a consequence of which they decided to initiate an alternative conglomerate block, an alternative religious tradition within Islam. When around the same time, a few powerful Shi’i dynasties were set up to symbolize and spearhead the latest developments, the split between the two poles widened and was never to be bridged again. The sectarian conflicts became real and, what was most damaging, they were conducted at the level of institutions. They were thus omnipresent. They were military, religious, socio-economic and intellectual in character. Hence, moderate political Shi’ism was defeated forever, yet it became virtually extinct. Its radical and ideologically renegade type prevailed. The most important Shi’i dynasty, which has left an undeletable mark on the exacerbating of total Sunni-Shi’ah confrontations, was the Fatimid dynasty. Shahrastani hinted at this nature of the evolution of Shi’ism when he said that at first Shi’is followed their Imams in doctrinal matters. When after a long time a number of conflicting traditions appeared purporting to come from their Imams, each sub-sect went its own way. They followed different doctrinal paths. Some lost their way altogether and went astray. “Even God did not seem to care in what valley he destroyed them.” Fabrications, distortions, lies and exaggerations were the rule of the day in the process of finally transforming Shi’ism from sheer political activism to a complex system, creed and ideology. In the context of ‘Ali b. Musa al-Rida, the eighth Imam, for example, Shamsuddin al-Dhahabi said that Shi’is lied about him and his ancestors from ahl al-bayt. In their names they fabricated many traditions and books. Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari mentioned the names of several Shi’i scholars who were among first to write books on doctrinal Shi’ism, its creed, thought and practices.
The following are some illustrations relating to the above discussion which concentrated on the elongated tensions between original authentic political Shi’ism and the fanatics and their heretical beliefs, which ultimately were smoothed out, the former giving in to the latter, and merged into Shi’ism as we know today. For example, Shahrastani said that the idea of anthropomorphism first arose among Shi’is and was only later found among some Sunnis. This was so because Shi’ism and Shi’is in their quest for ideological and spiritual self-assertion fluctuated between one extreme sect to another. Analyzing some basic laws of history and society, it was both natural and expected that mere political Shi’ism in the long run will dwindle and degenerate, while its extremist doctrinal dimension will grow from strength to strength so as to accommodate, so to speak, people’s perennial frustration, despondency and hope for righteousness and deliverance.
As early as during the time of ‘Ali himself some heretics headed by a man called ‘Abdullah b. Saba’ believed that ‘Ali was firstly a prophet then a god. ‘Ali fought the people burning many of them and banishing ‘Abdullah b. Saba’. Such was their case that ‘Ali feared if he burned them all, his other followers could have become confused and further divided.
Moreover, following ‘Ali’s death, some people articulated that ‘Ali although dead, will be brought back before the Day of Judgment. A man said to Husayn, ‘Ali’s son: “This faction (shi’ah) believes that ‘Ali will be resurrected and brought back before the Day of Judgment.” Husayn retorted: “They are liars; by God, they are not from shi’ah. If we know that he will come back, we would not marry off his wives and would not divide his property.”
When Zayd b. ‘Ali b. Husayn rose up in revolt against the Umayyad establishment, and when his attempt was mercilessly thwarted, as a result of which he was slain and his body placed on the gallows supposedly entirely naked, Shi’is went on an ideological offensive, especially in Khurasan. Shi’ism was spreading like wildfires, so to speak. As per al-Mas’udi (d. 345 AH/ 956 CE), huge masses of people joined Shi’ism, or were sympathetic towards them and their cause. Umayyad injustices and atrocities towards the members of ahl al-bayt were exposed and passed on, so much so that there was no city or town which was unaffected by the campaign. Preachers and emissaries emerged and were on the move, folktales and fables were constructed, and the pamphlets and books depicting the heroic resistances and life-stories of ahl al-bayt were composed and widely articulated. It stands to reason that those events added extra fuel to the fire of escalating Shi’ah ideological radicalization. It, certainly, was not by chance that precisely during that time the first major split in Shi’ism occurred, each side championing its political and religious viewpoints buttressing them by a myriad of substantiations. On account of such split, Zaydiyyah emerged. As it was not by chance that Zaydiyyah, too, before long split into its own three main groups whose radicalism and bias varied and were evolving over time. Some salient disputes between the Zaydiyyah factions revolved around the notion of the relationship between ‘Ali b. Abi Talib and the three caliphs who preceded him, and whether a qualified member of ahl al-bayt could be considered the Imam even if he did not rise in revolt against the unjust, oppressive rulers. Consequently, most Shi’is did not agree as to who the Imams actually were after the first four and six Imams (for Zaydis, Zayd b. ‘Ali was the fifth Imam). As put by Shahrastani, Shi’i differences, eventually, became more numerous than those of all other factions and groups put together.
‘Ali b. Husayn, Zayd’s father, was once told that since he was a sayyid (a chief, a noble) of the people, he should not be seeking knowledge from someone who was lower in degree than him, something which ‘Ali b. Husayn used to do. More profoundly perused, these words also implied that ‘Ali b. Husayn was infallible, a member of a select few, and his knowledge was without equal and was coming from a unique divine source. His interactions with “ordinary mortals” thus had to echo those truths. However, ‘Ali b. Husayn replied that knowledge is to be sought wherever it could be found, and a person sits with anybody who could contribute to his religious wellbeing. Similarly, when ‘Ali b. Husayn saw that the people of Iraq were exaggerating in revering the members of ahl al-bayt, he advised them: “O people of Iraq; O people of Kufah, love us with the love of Islam. Do not place us above what is our right.” He always had only the best to say about Abu Bakr, ‘Umar and ‘Uthman, admonishing those who did otherwise.
Muhammad b. ‘Ali al-Baqir and his son Ja’far b. Muhammad al-Sadiq were asked about Abu Bakr and ‘Umar. Their reply was: “Befriend and love them and dissociate yourself from their enemies, for they were the true leaders of guidance.” Muhammad b. ‘Ali al-Baqir is also reported to have said: “By God, I befriend and love Abu Bakr and ‘Umar and seek Allah’s forgiveness for them. I did not meet a single member of ahl al-bayt who did not do the same.” Ja’far b. Muhammad al-Sadiq once said that if a person thought that he had distanced himself from Abu Bakr and ‘Umar, may God then distance Himself from that person. To him, ‘Ali was not greater than Abu Bakr and ‘Umar. He also explicitly rejected the prospect of him being an Imam or a leader to whom submission and obedience were due. He was prohibiting Muhammad “the Pure Soul” from revolting against the ‘Abbasid establishment. He insisted that he obeyed them.
However, as Shamsuddin al-Dhahabi remarked, those views of the two remarkable Shi’i Imams, just like the views of the rest of the Imams, Shi’is tried to significantly distort. They contended that the two Imams in question in reality operated under the mandate of taqiyyah (religious dissimulation). The Imams rejected the legitimacy of the caliphates of Abu Bakr and ‘Umar, regarding them as usurpers, but concealed their actual convictions due to existing risks of persecution. It stands to reason that these and similar baseless allegations were part of Shi’i extremists’ strategies to resolve in their favor their conflicts with gradually weakening legitimate political Shi’ism. Obviously, they were ready to take everything possible in the process, but give nothing away. They even alleged that Ja’far b. Muhammad al-Sadiq wrote certain books in support of extreme Shi’i doctrines. Many sayings of the Prophet (pbuh), as well as the Imams, were fabricated for the same purposes. It seems as though Ja’far b. Muhammad al-Sadiq was one of the most important targets because during his time the streams of the formative Shi’i thought were developing through their most decisive phases. It is thus not surprising to note that it is maintained that “the earliest Shi’i currents of thought, whatever their precise nature, developed gradually over time, finding their full expression and consolidation in the doctrine of the imamate. The stages through which this doctrine passed remain rather obscure. But it is generally known that the basic conception of this distinctive Shi’i doctrine, which embodies the fundamental belief of Shi’i Islam, came to be postulated in the time of the Imam Ja’far b. Muhammad al-Sadiq.”
The views of Ja’far b. Muhammad al-Sadiq on extremist doctrinal Shi’ism are summed up in the following narrative, which could further be viewed as a microcosm, as it were, of the total ahl al-bayt ethos. One of the extremist Shi’i sub-sects were the Khattabiyyah. They were the followers of Abu al-Khattab Muhammad b. Abu Zaynab who claimed to be an adherent of Ja’far b. Muhammad al-Sadiq. “When, however, Ja’far b. Muhammad al-Sadiq heard of his false and extravagant views about him, he not only dissociated himself from him and anathematized him, but also called upon his followers to dissociate themselves from him. He was very insistent on this, and went to great lengths in dissociating himself from Abu al-Khattab and in anathematizing him. When Abu al-Khattab seceded from Ja’far b. Muhammad al-Sadiq, he claimed the imamate for himself. He said that the Imams are prophets firstly, and then divine beings. He believed in the divinity of Ja’far b. Muhammad al-Sadiq and that of his forefathers. They are all, according to him, sons of God and beloved to him.”
Indeed, Ja’far b. Muhammad al-Sadiq was one of the most important Shi’i figures. The internal dispute over who was to succeed him as Imam led to the most consequential schism within Shi’i Islam. This, in turn, led to the proliferation as well as proselytization of doctrinal Shi’ism as hitherto unheard of. As a result, two major Shi’i branches emerged: Isma’iliyyah who believed that Ja’far b. Muhammad al-Sadiq’s eldest son Isma’il (d. 158 AH/ 774 CE) was the heir, and Ithna ʿAshariyyah who believed that his younger son Musa was the heir. This disagreement over the proper heir to Ja’far b. Muhammad al-Sadiq has been a point of contention between the two groups ever since. From their inception, the two Shi’i groups remained two household names for Shi’ism. Isma’iliyyah rose at one point to become the largest branch of Shi‘ism, climaxing as a political power with the Fatimid Caliphate (297-567 AH/ 909-1171 CE). The amalgamation of political and doctrinal Shi’ism was thus once and for all firmly brought to fruition. Thereafter, there was no turning back. Shi’ism established itself as a comprehensive sociopolitical and spiritual tradition within Islam standing more and more on similar footing as Sunnism. On the other hand, when Safavids (907-1149 AH/ 1501–1736 CE) as one of the greatest Persian empires after the Muslim conquest of Persia was founded, they established Ithna ʿAshariyyah as the official state religion. In many ways, that too marked one of the most momentous turning points in Muslim history as much for Shi’ism as for Sunnism. Finally, Shi’i fiqh, Ja’fari jurisprudence is named after Ja’far b. Muhammad al-Sadiq. Not so long after his death, the books on Ja’fari jurisprudence were composed by several prominent Shi’i scholars. That, certainly, was done in order to expedite as well as facilitate the transition of Shi’ism from sheer political activism to a conglomerate ideology and a system of thought.
About the Author:
Dr. Spahic Omer, a Bosnian currently residing in Malaysia, is an Associate Professor at the Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design, International Islamic University Malaysia. He studied in Bosnia, Egypt and Malaysia. His research interests cover Islamic history, culture and civilization, as well as the history and philosophy of the Islamic built environment. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; his blog is at www.medinanet.org .