The Origins of Shi’ism between Politics, Creed and Fanaticism
In this paper, the origins of Shi’ism from the perspectives of politics, creed and extremism will be discussed. The study shows that Shi’ism originated as a sheer political faction which however almost immediately started to assume an ideological complexion as well, meant for its philosophical and actual buttressing and thus survival. In the process, unavoidably, as different schemes and ideas and their numerous protagonists came to the fore and departed, Shi’ism oscillated, often dramatically and radically, between legitimacy, moderation and outright deviation and extremism. The paper is divided into the following sections: Shi’ism in the eyes of Shi’is; Shi’ism in the eyes of Sunnis; and the evolution of Shi’ism from political activism to a complex ideology.
Shi’ism in the Eyes of Shi’is
Etymologically, the word shi’ah is derived from the root verb sha’a which means to spread, to become known and common. The noun shi’ah means faction, party, as well as adherents, followers and partisans. In this case, the terms faction and party mean the faction and party that supported the power of ‘Ali b. Abi Talib (d. 41 AH/ 661 CE), the fourth rightly-guided caliph in Sunnism and the first Imam in Shi’ism, and, later, of his descendants (Shi’atu ‘Ali). A shi’i is the one who belongs to the group. The plural is shi’is, or simply shi’ah or shi’ites. Shi’is normally see nothing pejorative in this appellation. Moreover, they even see it for themselves as a source of honor and an overall mark of respect. God says in the Qur’an, for example, that Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) was of those who followed the way of Prophet Nuh (Noah), or were among his kind, using the word shi’ah (Al-Saffat, 83). Also, according to the Qur’anic chapter al-Qasas, verse No. 15, when Prophet Musa (Moses) entered the city at a time of unawareness of its people and he found there two men fighting, God calls the one who just like Prophet Musa belonged to the ranks of the Children of Israel, as one from his party or faction (shi’atihi), and the one who was Egyptian, as the one from among his enemy or foes. “…And the one from his faction (shi’atihi) called for help to him against the one from his enemy, so Musa struck him and (unintentionally) killed him.” (al-Qasas, 15).
Besides, Shi’is tried their best to establish that the term Shi’atu ‘Ali existed even during the time of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and that it was nobody else but the Prophet (pbuh) himself who articulated it on a few occasions, but the attempt is so transparently wrong and does not stand up under close and serious scientific scrutiny. The most widespread evidence used for those contentions is an extremely weak tradition (hadith) of the Prophet (pbuh) to the effect that the phrase khayr al-bariyyah (the best of creatures) in the Qur’anic chapter al-Bayyinah, verse No. 7, denotes ‘Ali and his Shi’ah (faction or party). This weak and, so, discarded Prophet’s tradition is recorded by Ibn Jarir al-Tabari (d. 310 AH/ 922 CE) in his famous exegesis of the Qur’an, which due to the specific methodology adopted by the author contains scores of weak and even unauthentic traditions, or those that have weak narrative chains. Other major commentators of the Qur’an simply ignored the said tradition in their commentaries of the same verse.
However, the term shi’ah could likewise entail some negative connotations, something which the opponents of Shi’ism throughout history did not by any means hesitate to take advantage of and promulgate, often in exaggerated terms. Hence, the word shi’ah is often understood to signify a sect, and even a cult. It is bracketed together with divisive and conflict-ridden tendencies. It is synonymous with the notions of disagreement and discord, hence the word schism in English which translates as a division of a group into opposing factions, or a formal breach of union within, or a separation from, an established or a mainstream unit, a group, or a system of thought. It follows that shi’ah in Arabic and schism in English are almost identical. The Qur’an on a couple of occasions refers to the word in question, insinuating its other side and a few of its off-putting meanings. For example, God says warning against disunity and divisions in religion: “Indeed, those who have divided their religion and become sects (shiya’, plural of shi’ah) – you, (O Muhammad), are not (associated) with them in anything. Their affair is only (left) to Allah; then He will inform them about what they used to do.” (Al-An’am, 159).
Discord and perennial conflicts befalling an erring people, are the signs of God’s wrath. Similarly, they symbolize an adversity and hard times meant for such people: “Say, ‘He is the (One) able to send upon you affliction from above you or from beneath your feet or to confuse you (so you become) sects (shiya’, plural of shi’ah) and make you taste the violence of one another.” (Al-An’am, 65).
Braking into factions and sects is a sign of weakness and imminent doom: “Indeed, Pharaoh exalted himself in the land and made its people into factions (shiya’, plural of shi’ah), oppressing a sector among them, slaughtering their (newborn) sons and keeping their females alive. Indeed, he was of the corrupters.” (Al-Qasas, 4).
The Prophet (pbuh) also used the word shi’ah when he referred to the followers of Antichrist or Dajjal who as an evil figure will appear towards the end of the world pretending to be Masih or Messiah. Dajjal will delude and thus ruin many people. The Prophet (pbuh) said this in the context of rejecting and condemning those among his followers who will reject predestination (qadr). The Prophet (pbuh) inferred about them: “They are the faction, or party, of Dajjal (shi’atu Dajjal)”
Surely, it was because of this that Shi’ism over the course of long and often turbulent Muslim history accrued a legacy which is frequently associated with sheer sectarianism, bigotry, discord, conflict and violence, at the hands of both Muslims and non-Muslims. As a result, Shi’ism with its people, traditions and institutions, habitually found itself on a back foot, highly apologetic and on the defensive. It is yet to shed its tag, at once ideologically, culturally and politically. In a contemporary world, it is yet to live and breathe on its own. The abounding contributions to the growth of Islamic culture and civilization, which are one way or another pertinent to Shi’ism as a religious tradition within Islam, are still, as a result, greatly obscured by the mentioned indictments of Shi’ism and Shi’is. Some of those indictments, admittedly, account for nothing more than plain dishonest fabrications, while others are overstated or misinterpreted Shi’i dubious spiritual, intellectual and cultural realities. Accordingly, the editors of a book entitled “Shi’ism: Doctrines, Thought and Spirituality” emphatically stated in their introductory remarks that one of the chief objectives of their anthology of writings which deals with nearly every aspect of the religion, was to help stop projecting Shi’ism as an essentially political phenomenon, and also as a creed of violence. The somewhat encyclopedic book was an effort to dispel the common myth that Shi’ism always was a volatile and disruptive force, and that it was liability rather than asset to the Islamic and Muslim presence. Shi’ism is thus presented in the book in its most essential nature, in its doctrinal, intellectual and spiritual dimensions. It is expounded as Islam’s major branch and its integral part. It is neither a particular aspect of Islam, nor a sect; nor is it a heterodoxy apart from orthodoxy. Rather, Shi’ism is to be viewed as the embodiment of the Qur’anic revelation, as a religious tradition within Islam.
In his encyclopedic work on the history and doctrines of the Isma’iliyyah branch of Shi’ism, Farhad Daftary, in the same way, argued that Shi’ism should not be regarded as a heterodoxy, a late revolt against, or a deviation from, an established orthodoxy. In fact, both Sunnism and Shi’ism constitute an integral part of Islam and they should more correctly be regarded as different interpretations of the same Islamic message. Indeed, Islam belongs neither to Sunnis nor Shi’is. It transcends them all.
Along the same lines of diversifying and widening the horizons of Shi’ism presenting it as a more agreeable and time-honored system of thought and doctrines, regular and concerted efforts are being made to rebuff the notion which depicts the most pivotal Shi’i tenet of the imamate as a merely political attitude. In view of that, it is emphasized that the political authority of the Imams does not imply that their role and status are restricted to governance or leadership. For their followers, the Imams represent the highest level of piety and they embody the same qualities as personified by the Prophet (pbuh). Some of the qualities attributed to the Imams are thus Hujjah (proof of God) and wali (the guardian). Ahmed Vaezi elaborated: “The Imams are considered to be the successors of the Prophet (pbuh) and the rightful recipients of his authority. This is not because they are from his family; rather, it is because they are pious, obedient to Allah and embody characteristics that are pre-required for this level of religious-political leadership. Equally so, they are not appointed by any popular consensus; the imamate is instituted by divine installation (nasb); only Allah truly knows who possesses the qualities required to fulfill this duty, therefore only He is capable of appointing them. Shi’ism considers the imamate, like Prophethood, to be a fundamental belief, and obedience to the authority of their Imam a religious obligation. Other than receiving divine revelation, which is specifically for the prophets, the Imams have all the qualities, duties and authority of the Prophet (pbuh). Political and religious guidance emanate from them and they are guardians over the believers. This is a manifestation of Allah’s guardianship over human beings.”
Henry Corby, additionally, affirms that Shi’ism is the religion of spiritual love that initiates one into knowledge of the self. The Imams taught their followers primarily a devotion of love. “The meaning of the Imam as the object of the wilayah (love) manifests itself as being the initiation of the adept to the knowledge of himself. Once initiated, he understands how and why the love of God is impossible without love of the Imam.” Love of the Imams and their heavenly cause is comparable to believing in God’s oneness (tawhid) and the divine mission (risalah) of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). This Shi’i perception of Islam as the religion of love is in stark contrast to another perception which gives emphasis to the representation of Islam as a strictly legalistic religion, as observance of the Shari’ah. To Shi’is, the latter type of perceiving and practicing Islam is confined to mainstream Sunnis, with the exception of Sufism as a mystical and esoteric dimension of Islam. As a small digression, it is no surprise, then, that the Shi’ism played a role in the growth of Sufism because of the ideological closeness between the two poles. Both of them lay clear emphasis on the esoteric dimension of Islam, as well as on the idea of gnosis or the intuitive apprehension of spiritual truths. Their respective notions of spiritual and intellectual leadership and authority were analogous too. Consequently, while emancipating Shi’ism from some of the main misconceptions that protractedly accompanied it, Shi’is turned the tables on their Sunni brethren by contending that their representation of Islam, apart from Sufism, is overly rigid, legalistic and monolithic.
The word Shi’i, literally meaning follower or partisan, has come to be accepted as the designation for those Muslims who follow ‘Ali b. Abi Talib, who was seconded only to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). They are followers of God’s revelation in the Qur’an, of Muhammad (pbuh) who was the last and seal of prophets, and of ‘Ali who was the Prophet’s choice for the successor. The Prophet (pbuh) had a daughter, Fatimah (d. 12 AH/ 633 CE), by his first wife Khadijah (d. 620 CE), whom he married to ‘Ali, his cousin and most trusted disciple. The couple had two children, Hasan (d. 50 AH/ 670 CE) and Husayn (d. 61 AH/ 680 CE), of whom the Prophet (pbuh) was very fond greatly honoring them on every occasion, in the mosque and at home. He called them his children and the best youth of Paradise (jannah). To hurt Hasan or Husayn, or Fatimah or ‘Ali, was considered a defiance of God and Muhammad (pbuh), His Messenger. The Prophet (pbuh) recommended his family to people in private and in public. A Shi’i, therefore, is someone who considers the succession to the Prophet (pbuh) to be the special right of the family of the Prophet (pbuh), and who in the field of the Islamic sciences and culture follow the school of the household of the Prophet (pbuh) (ahl al-bayt).
Just as prophets are appointed by God alone, it is only God alone who has the prerogative to appoint the successor to His final Messenger after whom there will be no more messengers. The matter is not left to people to decide, allowing each man to think for himself and go his way with no one else in agreement with him. Appointing the successor, before he had gone, was one of the Prophet’s topmost concerns. That presaged his utmost care, compassion, love and justice towards the people. If he did otherwise — hypothetically — that would have spelled negligence, indifference, recklessness and injustice on the side of the Prophet (pbuh), none of which — most resolutely — could be correlated to his personality and his general ways of doing things. Thus, ‘Allamah Tabataba’i wondered: “How could he (the Prophet (pbuh)) concern himself with the most natural and common acts such as eating, drinking and sleeping and give hundreds of commands concerning them, yet remain completely silent about this important problem and not appoint someone in his own place?” The Prophet (pbuh), therefore, could not depart from this world and leave the community unattended. It was necessary for him to appoint someone to whom the people could turn, and designate someone in whom they could place their confidence and trust. The Prophet (pbuh) — Shi’is advocate — had appointed ‘Ali for the purpose at times by allusion and at other times by open declaration.
There are many proofs mainly in the form of Qur’anic verses and the Prophet’s traditions which Shi’is put forward as support for their claims. Some of those alleged proofs are as follows.
God says in the Qur’an: “Your ally is none but Allah and (therefore) His Messenger and those who have believed – those who establish prayer and give zakah, and they bow (in worship).” (Al-Ma’idah, 55). Shi’is believe that this verse was revealed in relation to ‘Ali and thus serves, alongside a host of other forms of substantiation, as a solid and genuine confirmation that he was appointed as the Prophet’s successor. In the context of the narrative due to which the mentioned Qur’anic verse was revealed, the Prophet (pbuh) is said to have declared: “Oh God! I am also Your prophet; expand my breast and make easy my tasks and make ‘Ali my vizier and helper”, (evoking Prophet Musa’s supplication with reference to his brother Harun (Aron)).
God also says: “O Messenger, announce that which has been revealed to you from your Lord, and if you do not, then you have not conveyed His message. And Allah will protect you from the people. Indeed, Allah does not guide the disbelieving people.” (Al-Ma’idah, 67). According to ‘Allamah Tabataba’i, “this verse indicates that God commanded a mission of great concern and importance to the Prophet (pbuh) which if not accomplished would endanger the basis of Islam and prophecy. But the matter was so important that the Prophet (pbuh) feared opposition and interference and in awaiting suitable circumstances delayed it, until there came a definite and urgent order from God to execute this command without delay and not to fear anyone. This matter also was not just a particular religious injunction in the ordinary sense, for to preach one or several religious injunctions is not so vital that if a single one of them were not preached it would cause the destruction of Islam. Nor did the Prophet (pbuh) of Islam fear anyone in preaching the injunctions and laws of religion. These indications and witnesses add weight to the Shi’i traditions which assert that these verses were revealed at Ghadir Khumm and concern the spiritual investiture of ‘Ali b. Abi Talib.”
At Ghadir Khumm, upon returning from the farewell pilgrimage, the Prophet (pbuh) ordered that the place be clean, and after assembling the Muslims, he is reported to have said to them: “Of whomever I am the master, ‘Ali is the master. May God befriend those who befriend him, and be an enemy to those who are enemies to him; may He assist those who assist him, and forsake those who forsake him. May the truth be with him wherever he goes. So, I have delivered (the message).” In connection with this occasion, the following Qur’anic words were revealed: “…This day those who disbelieve have despaired of (defeating) your religion; so fear them not, but fear Me. This day I have perfected for you your religion and completed My favor upon you and have approved for you Islam as religion…” (Al-Ma’idah, 3).
Furthermore, the Prophet (pbuh) mentioned that the two things which he will leave to the people to follow, lest they go astray, are the Holy Qur’an and the members of his family (ahl al-bayt). This is one of the most strongly established hadiths (traditions) and has been transmitted through many chains of transmission and in different versions. Both Shi’is and Sunnis agree on its authenticity and validity. The Holy Qur’an and ahl al-bayt are not to be separated. They will remain legitimate and applicable till the end of days, complementing each other in leading and guiding people. It goes without saying that just as the Qur’an and the Prophet (pbuh) to whom it had been revealed are free from error and sin and are inerrant, so are the members of ahl al-bayt. Whoever follows them, therefore, will not fall into error and will reach true felicity in both worlds. By ahl al-bayt or the “members of the household” and “progeny” — it also must be stressed – it is not meant all the descendants and relatives of the Prophet (pbuh). Rather, specific individuals are only meant “who are perfect in the religious sciences and are protected against error and sin so that they are qualified to guide and lead men. For Shi’ism, these individuals consist of ‘Ali b. Abi Talib and his eleven descendents who were chosen to the imamate one after another.”
Needless to say that as per the above quote, ‘Allamah Tabataba’i had in mind, mainly, Ithna ʿAshariyyah as the predominant branch of Shi’ism, also called Imamis, English Twelvers, whose adherents believe in a succession of twelve Imams, leaders of the faith after the death of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), beginning with ʿAli as the first imam and ending with Muḥammad al-Mahdi al-Ḥujjah as the twelfth and last Imam who disappeared in 265 AH/ 878 CE and is thought to be alive and in hiding, ready to return at the Last Judgment. It is believed that he as the twelfth Imam has been concealed by God (a doctrine known as ghaybah, or occultation) and that he will reappear in time as the mahdi, or messianic deliverer. However, other branches of Shi’ism do not really subscribe to the idea of a succession of twelve Imams. Their own successions and number of Imams greatly vary. Some even go to the extent of upholding the idea that the imamate could be a matter of consultation (shura) which, if needed, could be extended beyond the perimeters of “members of the household” and “progeny”. For example, at the beginning, the Zaydis (the followers of Zaydiyyah as another major Shi’ah branch), like Zayd b. Ali (d. 123 AH/ 740 CE) himself, considered the first two caliphs, Abu Bakr (d. 13 AH/ 634 CE) and ‘Umar (d. 24 AH/ 644 CE), as their Imams. But after a while, some of them began to delete the names of the first two caliphs from the list of their Imams and placed ‘Ali as the first Imam. As a matter of fact — what is more — as pointed out by Shahrastani (d. 548 AH/ 1153 CE), many Shi’is do not agree as to who the Imams actually are after the first four and six Imams. Their differences are more numerous than those of all other factions and groups put together. Some people go so far as to say that the seventy three factions or sects mentioned in the Prophet’s well-known tradition (hadith) refer to Shi’ism and Shi’is alone. “As to the other sects, they do not belong to the (Muslim) community.”
As evidence for their persuasion that ‘Ali was the Prophet’s choice for his successor, Shi’is also cite the following statement of the Prophet (pbuh): “My household is like the ship of Nuh (Noah), whoever embarks upon it will be saved and whoever turns away from it will be drowned.”
In addition, during the last days of his illness, the Prophet (pbuh) in the presence of some of his companions asked for some paper and ink so that something could be written which, if obeyed by the Muslims, would prevent them from going astray. Some of those present considered the Prophet (pbuh) to be too ill to be able to dictate anything and said: “The Book of Allah is sufficient for us.” There was so much clamor raised over the matter that the Prophet (pbuh) told those present to leave, for in the presence of a prophet there should not be any noise or clamor. This incident, too, Shi’is regard as further corroboration for their beliefs. They deduced that the Prophet (pbuh) had wanted to dictate his definitive views about the person who was to succeed him, but was not able to do so. This occurrence has been reported by al-Bukhari (d. 257 AH/ 870 CE) as well in his Sahih. He added that Abdullah b. ‘Abbas (d. 68 AH/ 687 CE) observed afterwards: “It was most unfortunate (a great disaster) that Allah’s Messenger was prevented from writing that statement for them because of their disagreement and noise.”
One of the most compelling examples of the Prophet’s open declarations that ‘Ali was to succeed him was, perhaps, the following dramatic event. At the beginning of Islam, the Prophet (pbuh) once asked: “Who will swear allegiance to me at the price of his property?” A number of people did so. The Prophet (pbuh) next asked: “Who will swear allegiance to me with his life’s breath? The one who does so shall be my successor, and take over this charge after me.” No one responded to this until at last ‘Ali stretched forth his hand to the Prophet (pbuh) and swore allegiance to him with his life’s breath, an oath to which he always remained faithful. After this incident, the Quraysh used to taunt Abu Talib (d. 619 CE), ‘Ali’s father, with the words: “Muhammad has appointed your son over you.”
There are three principal branches of Shi’ism: Zaydiyyah, Isma’iliyyah and Ithna ʿAshariyyah.
Zaydiyyah constitute a group which owes allegiance to Zayd b. ʿAli, grandson of Ḥusayn b. ʿAli. Its adherents are also known as Fivers. Doctrinally, Zaydiyyah are closer to majority Sunnis than are the other major and minor branches of Shi’ism. In matter of theology, Zaydiyyah follow a path close to that of the Mu’tazilah, while in matters of Islamic jurisprudence they follow Abu Hanifah (d. 150 AH/ 767 CE), a famous jurist and eponym of the Hanafi school of law. They also differ among themselves concerning a myriad of issues and problems. Zaydiyyah believe that any descendent of Hasan or Husayn, the sons of ‘Ali, can be an Imam if he exhibits two attributes: excellence in knowledge and calling others to fight against oppressors. If an individual possesses one of these two attributes, he can be considered an Imam of a lesser degree. For example, Zaydiyyah consider the fourth, fifth, and sixth Ithna ʿAshariyyah Imams as Imams in this lesser sense due to their high levels of knowledge, but they do not consider them Imams in the absolute sense because they did not revolt against the oppressors of their time.
Most Shi’is acknowledge one of two family lines stemming from ʿAli but diverging at Ḥusayn’s great-grandson Ja’far b. Muhammad al-Ṣadiq (d. 148 AH/ 765 CE). After Ja’far’s death, one group opted to follow his son Isma’il (d. 158 AH/ 774 CE). They became known as Isma’iliyyah or Seveners, because Isma’il was the seventh and final Imam in their lineage. Isma’iliyyah developed a unique religious system and established a caliphate of their own, ruled by the Fatimid dynasty in North Africa, which later spread to Egypt. Isma’iliyyah devotees also proselytized in Iraq, Iran and other parts of the region between the western border of Egypt and the western border of Iran. This brand of Shi’ism was extremely esoteric and never developed a mass following in its realms. Most Fatimid subjects in North Africa remained Sunnis.
A majority of Shi’is now acknowledge another line, one descended from a second son of Ja’far b. Muhammad al-Ṣadiq, Musa b. Ja’far al-Kazim (d. 183 AH/ 799 CE). This lineage ended with the twelfth Imam, Muḥammad al-Mahdi al-Ḥujjah, when he purportedly went into occultation (ghaybah) in 265 AH/ 878 CE. Consequently, this branch of Shi’ism is referred to as Ithna ʿAshariyyah (Twelvers). As his name might suggest, the twelfth Imam, or Hidden Imam, as he is often known, took on eschatological significance for the followers of this branch of Shi’ism. He is expected to return as the mahdi before the Last Judgment to establish justice on earth. Religion in modern Iran is dominated by this section of Shi’ism. It is the official state religion. The followers of the same division form a majority in Iraq, Azerbaijan and also Bahrain. On the whole, approximately 85% of Shi’is are Twelvers, and the term Shi’a Muslim as commonly used in English usually refers to Twelver Shi’a Muslims only.
As seen above, Twelvers share many tenets of Shi’ism with other related Shi’a groups, such as the belief in Imams, but they differ as regards a number of Imams and, for the most part, different paths of succession regarding the imamate. They also differ in the role and overall definition of an Imam. This seeming mutual proximity and similarity notwithstanding — according to Murtada Mutahhari — Isma’iliyyah or Seveners, who are also known as Batinis (secret faction), despite their Shi’ah beliefs stand at a greater distance from the true Shi’ah faith than the non-Shi’ah sects in the sight of the scholars of Ithna ʿAshariyyah (Twelvers) who are unanimous in this opinion. Sunnis, on the other hand, who do not believe in any of the Imams in the same sense as Shi’is do — Murtada Mutahhari underlines — are nearer to Shi’ism than Isma’iliyyah or Seveners.
Undoubtedly, the doctrine of the imamate was the most salient doctrine in all Shi’ism. It constituted a nucleus around which almost every other doctrine, conviction and canon revolved, and was influenced by it, one way or another. The presence of an Imam in every age, it follows, is a must. In their capacities as the spiritual and political successors to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Imams play the role of the divinely appointed authorities on all matters of faith and law in Muslim society. Their quality of being infallible is at once essential, considered necessary and assured. As a result, Shi’is believe that Sunni orthodox caliphs before ‘Ali were usurpers who usurped from ‘Ali his right to succeed the Prophet (pbuh). Those companions of the Prophet (pbuh) who did not side with ‘Ali during the bloody civil wars, and who supported Mu’awiyah (d. 61 AH/ 680 CE) and the subsequent Umayyad establishment, are to Shi’is far from being righteous. Some have even been accused of out-and-out hypocrisy as well as apostasy, having betrayed the Prophet (pbuh) and his will and command concerning, most importantly, the matter of succession and leadership. The righteousness of the companions after the Prophet’s death could be assessed by their support and loyalty towards the household of the Prophet (pbuh) (ahl al-bayt) and their noble struggle and cause, which, if truth be told, connotes support for the Prophet (pbuh) and his heavenly mission. Without a doubt, the companions (sahabah), their immediate successors (tabi’un), and the latter’s successors (atba’ tabi’in), with their outstanding status and position in descending order as the best generations after the Prophet (pbuh), had more than a few chances to prove themselves and to display their right colors, because throughout the said epochs the members of ahl al-bayt went from one stern trial and tribulation to another. They and their valiant undertakings were in dire need of truly righteous individuals and ardent supporters. However, in the end many failed to stand up and be counted. While trying to ascertain the superiority of ‘Ali and ahl al-bayt over the rest, believing that the imamate belonged firstly and exclusively to ‘Ali and then to his descendents with Fatimah, the Prophet’s daughter, on the grounds of clear designation and unambiguous appointment by the Prophet (pbuh), many Shi’is ultimately went to the point of slandering the leading Prophet’s companions and declaring them unbelievers, or at least accusing them of injustice and hostility for usurping ‘Ali’s succession right, and then when his deferred appointment finally came, for failing to side with him.
This fundamental Shi’i tenet had some profound and far-reaching implications for developing the Islamic sciences, shaping an Islamic culture, as well as for forging Sunni-Shi’ah relations and dialogue. For example, the Shi’i understanding and interpretation of the Qur’an is founded on the doctrinal belief that only the Shi’i Imams possess the hidden, esoteric (batin) knowledge of the Qur’anic verses. Their knowledge is not acquired as a result of conventional epistemological means and methods. Rather, it is a divine gift supplied by the most knowledgeable One (al-‘alim) from sacred metaphysical sources and wells inaccessible to ordinary mortals. The Prophet (pbuh) is thus believed to have said that the Qur’an has a beautiful exterior and a profound interior, and that it has an inner dimension, and that inner dimension has an inner dimension up to seven inner dimensions. It follows that the Imams are so authoritative and knowledgeable that except for receiving divine revelation, they enjoy all the other qualities, duties and authority of the Prophet (pbuh). This proximity to the Prophet (pbuh), in terms of the Imams’ representation of the highest level of piety and their embodiment of the same qualities as exemplified by the Prophet (pbuh), has at times been described as follows: “The twelve Imams themselves, and above all the present twelfth or hidden Imam, were held to be necessary to the constitution of the universe and of true religion. The Imam is God’s proof (Hujjah: guarantee), he is the pillar of the universe, the ‘gate’ through whom God is approached. Knowledge of revelation depends upon him.”
Still on the Qur’an, there are several allegations wherein Shi’is are alleged to believe that there are at least extra two Qur’anic chapters which signify an authentic part of the Qur’an, leading, in turn, to the construction of a false concept identified as “Shi’i Qur’an”. Those two chapters are Surah al-Nurayn (two lights) and Surah al-Wilayah (mastership). Shi’is are thereby meant to be viciously depicted as believers in the corruption or distortion of the existing form of the Qur’an, and their Imams, implicitly at least, as pretenders to the throne of prophethood, or to some other equivalent grades. However, this could only be a view of some slim radical Shi’i minorities which, in effect, has nothing to do either with Islam or the mainstream of Shi’ism. The latter is unanimous in rejecting such a blasphemous and heinous accusation. Whereas in this study, clearly, we are focused not on those extreme, fanatical and wicked Shi’i minor sects most of which have become long ago extinct, and some of which went so far in its fervor and malice as to assert that ‘Ali was a deity, a prophet, etc., but on the surviving Shi’ah majority which is relatively in agreement with most Sunnis pertaining to the most fundamental matters of Islamic faith and worship.
In the sphere of the Prophet’s hadith and hadith (traditions) literature development, a similar rule has been applied. By and large, only those traditions narrated by members of ahl al-bayt and their supporters have been taken into account. Still however, as explained by ‘Allamah Tabataba’i, Shi’is insist that they accept and act upon only those traditions which are not contrary to the text of the Qur’an (here comes into view the relevance of the esoteric dimension of the Qur’an and its special interpretation intended only for a few, i.e., the Imams). “As for hadiths whose agreement or disagreement cannot be established, according to instructions received from the Imams they are passed by in silence without being accepted or rejected. Needless to say there are also within Shi’ism those who, like a group among Sunnis, act on any hadith whatsoever which they happen to find in different traditional sources.”
Furthermore, the religious rites practiced by most Shi’is are not fundamentally different from those of Sunnis with certain modifications which, for the most part, are down to fiqh or jurisprudence differences and disagreements. According to Seyyed Hossein Nasr, they are little more than the differences that are to be found among the Sunni schools (madhhab) themselves. Some of the Shi’ah Imams were at the same time recognized scholarship authorities among Sunnis as well. They learned from and supported each other, having only been acquainted with the language of knowledge and truth, endorsing and promoting their dignified objectives only. For example, Shi’is also pray the five daily prayers with the same number of units (rak’ah), but they don’t do so completely separately. Usually, the noon (zuhr) and afternoon (’asr) prayers, as well as the evening (maghrib) and night (‘isha) prayers, are performed together. The Friday (jumu’ah) prayer, however, has a greater social and political significance in the Sunni world. In Shi’ism, although this prayer is performed in at least one mosque in every city and town, in the absence of the Imam, who according to Shi’ism is the true leader of the Friday prayer, its importance is somewhat diminished and more emphasis is placed upon individual prescribed prayers.
As for the rite of fasting, it is practiced in a manner that is nearly identical with that of Sunnis and differs only in the fact that Shi’is break their fast a few minutes later than Sunnis, when the sun has set completely.
And for the pilgrimage (hajj) obligation, Shi’i and Sunni practices have only very minor differences. It is the pilgrimage to other holy places that is emphasized more in Shi’ism than in Sunnism. The visit to the tombs of Imams and saints plays an integral role in the religious life of Shi’is. The latter forms of pilgrimage are not obligatory rites, but they play such an important religious role that they can hardly be overlooked.
Indeed, espousing and putting into operation all the mentioned and many other somewhat less significant Shi’i principles and traditions resulted in the production of a corpus of not only Shi’i, but also Sunni, religious literature. Each side based its vast intellectual and spiritual legacies on the contributions of those individuals and groups who fitted most its political propensity and agenda as well as its ideological predilection and model. Every so often, unfortunately, it was a tit-for-tat approach which pulled the two sides even more apart. It was not rare that moderation, restraint and open-mindedness were partially or even totally passed over in the process. At any rate, when all’s said and done, it must be borne in mind that most Sunni-Shi’ah misunderstandings and disputes that run through the veins of the mainstreams of both poles are due to only certain political and fiqh, or jurisprudence, questions and concerns where plenty of leeway is granted for ijtihad or independent judgments and opinions, provided they are based on, and driven by, spotless sincerity, honesty and faith. Some of those grave questions and concerns have been blown out of all proportion and have overly been tainted with ideological colors and zeal. In reality, Sunnis and Shi’is have more in common and enjoy better prospects for constructive dialogue and cooperation than what at first glance appears to casual observers. Sooner rather than later, such a potential will have to be seriously looked into and made the most of by the people of good will on both sides.
To be continued…