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Shiism: An Overview


Shiism is a major branch of Islam with numerous subdivisions, all upholding the rights of the family of the Prophet (ahl al-bayt ) to the religious and political leadership of the Muslim community. The name is derived from shīʿat ʿAlī, the Arabic term for the "party" of ʿAlī ibn Abī ālib, cousin of the prophet Muammad and husband of Muammad's daughter Fāimah.

Origins and Early Development

Historically, the Shīʿah emerged in support of the caliphate of ʿAlī (ah 3540/656661 ce) during the First Civil War, which followed the murder of the third caliph, ʿUthmān. The Shīʿah see the foundation of Shiism, however, in Muammad's appointment of ʿAlī as his successor, a choice that the Prophet is claimed to have made at Ghadīr Khumm not long before his death, and one that the Muslim community ignored in recognizing Abū Bakr as the first caliph. After the murder of ʿAlī and the abdication of his eldest son, asan, in 661, the Shīʿah continued a latent opposition to the Umayyad caliphate from their center in ʿAlī's former capital of Kufa in Iraq. Their attachment to the family of the Prophet, and especially to ʿAlī's sons and descendants, reflected local resentment of both the loss of the caliphate to Damascus and the Umayyad denigration of ʿAlī and his caliphate. Reports about the activity of one ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sabaʾ, who in some anti-Shīʿī sources is described as the founder of Shiism and as having denied ʿAlī's death and taught his divinity, are legendary. If such beliefs arose at this early stage, they remained marginal.

Kufan revolts

The violent death of ʿAlī's second son, usayn, at Karbala, Iraq, in 680 led to the formation of a radical wing within the Shīʿah. After the death of the caliph Muʿāwiyah, the Kufan Shīʿah invited usayn from Medina, promising to back his claim to the caliphate. The Umayyad governor gained control of the situation, however, and it was a Kufan army that met usayn and killed him together with many of his relatives. A Penitents movement arose in Kufa; they lamented the death of the Prophet's grandson at his grave in Karbala and sought revenge from those responsible. In 685 the leadership of the Penitents was taken over by al-Mukhtār ibn Abi ʿUbayd, who revolted in Kufa and proclaimed another son of ʿAlī, Muammad, to be the imam and Mahdi, the messianic Restorer of Islam. Unlike asan and usayn, Muammad was not the son of Fāimah, and he was known, after his own mother, as Ibn al-anafīyah. The movement backing him was called the Kaysānīyah after Abū ʿAmrah Kaysān, chief of al-Mukhtār's guard and leader of the non-Arab clients (mawālī ) in Kufa. These clients, local Semites and Persians, now joined the Shīʿah in large numbers for the first time, although the leading role in the movement was still played by Arabs.

The Kaysānīyah movement, which survived the collapse of al-Mukhtār's revolt and the death of Muammad ibn al-anafīyah in 700, elaborated some of the beliefs and doctrines that came to distinguish the radical wing of the Shīʿah. They condemned the first three caliphs before ʿAlī as illegitimate usurpers and considered ʿAlī and his three sons, asan, usayn, and Muammad, as successive, divinely appointed imams endowed with supernatural qualities. Many of them denied the death of Muammad ibn al-anafīyah, the Mahdi, in the belief that he was hiding and would return in glory to rule the world. They taught rajʿah, the return of many of the dead at the time of the coming of the Mahdi for retribution before the Resurrection, and badāʾ, the possibility of a change in the decisions of God.

Abbasid revolution

A branch of the Kaysānīyah known as the Hāshimīyah continued the line of imams to Muammad ibn al-anafīyah's son Abū Hāshim, who, in contrast to his father, took an active part in the leadership and organization of the movement. After his death in about 717/8 the Hāshimīyah split into several groups over the succession. The majority recognized Muammad ibn ʿAlī, a descendant of the Prophet's uncle ʿAbbās, as the imam after Abū Hāshim; they became historically important as the core of the revolutionary movement in Khorasan that overthrew the Umayyad dynasty and established the Abbasid caliphate in 750. The Abbasids initially espoused the Shīʿī cause, establishing the reign of the family of the Prophet and demanding revenge for ʿAlī and his wronged descendants. Soon, however, they distanced themselves from their mostly extremist Shīʿī followers to seek broader support in the Muslim community, while the Shīʿah increasingly confined their backing to the descendants of ʿAlī and Fāimah. After the collapse of a widely supported Shīʿī rebellion in favor of the ʿAlid Muammad al-Nafs al-Zakīyah, Caliph al-Mahdī (775785) pressed the Abbasid Shīʿah to trace the line of divinely invested imams back to ʿAbbās through his own ancestors, thus denying that the Abbasids had inherited their title from Abū Hāshim and ʿAlī. The Abbasid Shīʿah disintegrated soon afterward.

Extremists and moderates

Other minor offshoots of the Hashimīyah were notable for their extremist doctrine. Bayān ibn Samʿān (killed 936) taught in Kufa that Abū Hāshim, who had conferred prophethood on him, would return as the Mahdi. ʿAbd Allāh ibn Muʿāwīyah (d. 748/9), a descendant of ʿAlī's brother Jaʿfar and recognized by some as the successor of Abū Hāshim, claimed that the Divine Spirit had devolved upon him through the prophets and imams and that he was able to revive the dead. To ʿAbd Allāh ibn al-ārith, one of his followers in al-Madāʾin (Ctesiphon), Iraq, is ascribed a major role in the elaboration of key doctrines including metempsychosis, the preexistence of human souls as shadows (aillah ), metaphorical interpretation of the resurrection, judgment, paradise, and hell, and a cyclical history of eras (adwār ) and aeons (akwār ) initiated by seven Adams. Such teaching became characteristic of many groups of extremists (ghulāt ) excommunicated by the mainstream Shīʿah in the following centuries. The Kaysānīyah as a whole was repudiated by the more conservative, moderate Shīʿah in Kufa. All of its branches rapidly disintegrated after the rise of the Abbasid caliphate and virtually disappeared by the end of the second century ah. Its place in the radical wing of the Shīʿah was taken by the Imāmīyah, who traced the line of imams after ʿAlī through asan, usayn, and the latter's descendants.

The increasing prominence of the Husaynid imams within the Shīʿah was connected with a shift in the function of the imam. With the rise of legal and theological schools espousing conflicting doctrines in the late Umayyad period, many of the Shīʿah sought the guidance of the imam as an authoritative, divinely inspired teacher rather than as a charismatic leader. The first to perform this new role was Muammad al-Bāqir (d. 735?), a grandson of usayn who was widely respected for his learning among both the Shīʿah and non-Shīʿah. His teaching of religious law and Qurʾān exegesis attracted a large number of the Kufan Shīʿah. Keeping aloof from revolutionary activity, he laid the foundations of Imāmī Shīʿī law. A few years after his death his brother Zayd ibn ʿAlī came to Kufa and was persuaded to lead an anti-Umayyad revolt. Although he was widely supported by the Kufan Shīʿah, including some prominent former followers of his brother, the more radical followers of al-Bāqir refused to back Zayd ibn ʿAlī after he declined to condemn the first two caliphs unequivocally as unjust usurpers. They turned instead to al-Bāqir's son Jaʿfar al-ādiq, who, like his father, strictly refused any involvement in armed rebellion. Zayd's revolt ended quickly in failure, and he was killed in 740. The movement backing him survived, however, and formed a Shīʿī sect known as the Zaydīyah. They were moderate both in defining the religious rank of their imams and in condemning the rest of the Muslim community for its failure to do so, yet they were militant advocates of armed uprising against the illegitimate rulers. In contrast to the Zaydīyah, the Imāmīyah exalted the rank of the imams and broke radically with the Muslim community at large, accusing it of apostasy for failing to accord the imams their proper rank and rights. Politically, however, they remained quietist. They were called Rāfiah, "rejectors," by the followers of Zayd because of their refusal to support his revolt. The term became a pejorative nickname among Sunnī Muslims, who used it, however, to refer to the Imāmīyah's repudiation of the three caliphs preceding ʿAlī. Those Shīʿī moderates of Kufa who shrank back from the Zaydī commitment to revolt were soon absorbed into Sunnīsm as ʿAlī came to be accepted generally as the fourth of the "Rightly Guided" (Rāshidūn) successors of Muammad.

The ImĀmĪyah and Twelver ShĪʿah

The Imāmīyah became a significant religious community with a distinctive law, ritual, and religious doctrine under Jaʿfar al-ādiq (d. 765), the foremost scholar and teacher among their imams. Jaʿfar elaborated the legal pronouncements of his father into a comprehensive doctrine; in recognition of his role, Imāmī law is sometimes called the Jaʿfarī legal school. In theology, some of his statements upheld intermediate positions on controversial questions such as human free will versus predestination, and the nature of the Qurʾān. These were developed into systematic theological thought by certain contemporary Imāmī scholars who took a prominent part in the intercommunal theological debates of his time. Jaʿfar enjoyed a high reputation as a teacher of esoteric and mystical thought, though his actual role in this field is obscure.

The imamate

The constitutive element of the Imāmī community is its doctrine of the imamate, which was definitely formulated in this age. It was based on the belief that humanity is at all times in need of a divinely appointed and guided leader and authoritative teacher in all religious matters. Without such a leader, according to Imam Jaʿfar, the world could never exist for a moment. In order to fulfill his divine mission, this leader must be endowed with full immunity (ʿimah ) from sin and error. Following the age of the prophets, which came to a close with Muammad, the imams continue their prophetic mission in every respect except that they do not bring a new scripture. The imamate is thus raised to the rank of prophethood. Rejection, disobedience, or ignorance of any of the divinely invested imams constitutes infidelity equal to rejection of the Prophet. The great mass of the companions of Muammad had thus apostatized from Islam when they accepted the caliphate of Abū Bakr and ignored the Prophet's divinely inspired designation of ʿAlī as his legatee (waī), and the majority of the Muslim community continued to live in a state of apostasy. After ʿAlī, asan, and usayn, the line of legitimate imams had passed through usayn's descendants to Jaʿfar al-ādiq, the sixth imam. It would continue to be handed down by designation from father to son until the end of time. Although the imam was the only legitimate ruler of the Muslim community, his imamate did not depend on his actual reign or an active attempt to gain it. Imam Jaʿfar did not aspire to rule and forbade his followers from engaging in revolutionary activity on his behalf. He predicted that the imams would not regain their rightful position until the emergence of the Qāʾim (lit. "riser," i.e., the mahdī) from among them to rule the world.

The succession to Jaʿfar al-ādiq was disputed and led to a schism among the Imāmīyah. His eldest son and designated successor, Ismāʿīl, had died before him. A group of his followers considered the designation as irreversible, however, and either denied Ismāʿīl's death or recognized Ismāʿīl's son Muammad as the imam. They became the founders of the Ismāʿīlīyah. In the absence of a new designation, the majority of Jaʿfar's followers at first recognized his eldest surviving son, ʿAbd Allāh al-Afa. When ʿAbd Allāh died a few months later without sons, they turned to his brother Mūsā al-Kāim, the seventh imam of the Twelver Shīʿah. Some of them, however, continued to recognize ʿAbd Allāh as the rightful imam before Mūsā. They were known as the Faīyah and constituted a sizable sect in Kufa until the late fourth century ah (tenth century ce). Mūsā was arrested later in his life by Caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd and died in prison in Baghdad in 799. His death was denied by many of his followers, who considered his position as seventh imam to be of momentous significance and expected his return as the Mahdi. They did not recognize ʿAlī al-Riā, the eighth imam of the Twelver Shīʿah, although some of them considered him and his successors as lieutenants (khulafāʾ ) of the Mahdi until his return. They also formed a sizable sect known as the Wāqifah and competed with the group that was to become the Twelver Shīʿah. In the Sus region of southwestern Morocco they gained a following among Berber tribes that survived until the sixth century ah (twelfth century ce).

The Abbasid caliph al-Maʾmūn attempted to bring about a reconciliation between the ʿAlid and Abbasid branches of the family of the Prophet by appointing ʿAlī al-Riā as his successor in 817, but this move ended in failure. ʿAlī al-Riā died two years later, and the caliph was widely accused of having poisoned him. The succession after al-Riā down to the eleventh imam, asan al-ʿAskarī, produced only minor schisms, but the death of the latter in 874, apparently without a son, left his followers in disarray. The main body, henceforth known as the Twelver Shīʿah (the Ithnā ʿAsharīyah in Arabic), eventually came to affirm that a son had been born to him before his death but had been hidden. This son had become the twelfth imam and continued to live in concealment. Identified with the Qāʾim and the Mahdi, he was expected to reappear in glory to rule the world and make the cause of the Shīʿah triumphant. The time of his absence (ghaybah ) falls into two parts. In the age of the lesser ghaybah he was in regular contact with four successive agents (sg., wakīl or safīr ) who represented him among the community of his followers, communicating their questions and requests to him and his answers and instructions to them. In 941, the fourth intermediary died without appointing a successor, and the greater ghaybah began. During this ghaybah no one can claim to be in regular contact with the Hidden Imam. He continues to live unrecognized on earth, however, and may occasionally identify himself to one of his followers or otherwise intervene in the fortunes of his community.

Intellectual currents

The absence of the imam strengthened the position of the scholars (ʿulamāʾ) in the Shīʿī community as transmitters and guardians of the teaching of the imams. They now undertook to gather, examine, and systematize this teaching. For the most part, the first transmitters of the statements of the imams had been Kufans, while the compilation and sifting of the traditions into more comprehensive collections was the work of the school of Qom in northwestern Iran. Some Kufan Shīʿī families had settled early in this town, and it became a bastion of Imāmī Shiism, adhering to the imamate of ʿAlī al-Riā and his descendants in the ninth century even though the Imāmīyah had been eclipsed in Kufa by the predominance of the Zaydīyah, Wāqifah, and Faīyah. The traditionist school of Qom reached its peak in the works of Abū Jaʿfar al-Kulaynī of Rayy (d. 941) and Ibn Bābawayhi al-adūq of Qom (d. 991/2).

A rival school in Baghdad progressively adopted the rationalist theology of the Muʿtazilah, who espoused human free will and an anti-anthropomorphist, abstract concept of God in sharp conflict with the predominant theology of Sunnī Islam. The Baghdad school rejected Muʿtazilī doctrine, however, where it clashed with the basic Imāmī beliefs about the imamate; thus it repudiated the Muʿtazilī thesis of the unconditional, eternal punishment of the unrepentant sinner in the hereafter, affirming the effectiveness of the intercession of the imams for sinners among their faithful followers. In fact, faith in the power of the imams' intercessions was a vital motive for the visits to their shrines that have always been a major aspect of popular Shīʿī piety. Twelver Shīʿī theologians also maintained, against the Muʿtazilī position, that the opponents of the imams occupied the status of infidels and that the imamate was, like prophecy, a rational necessity, not merely a revealed legal requirement. The leading figures of the theological school of Baghdad were Shaykh al-Mufīd (d. 1022) and Sharif al-Murtaā ʿAlam al-Hudā (d. 1044). Their student, Shaykh Abū Jaʿfar al-ūsī (d. 1067), became the most important early systematizer of Twelver Shīʿī law; his work has remained fundamental for all later developments.

The Twelver Shīʿah today constitute the great majority of the Shīʿah and are often referred to simply by the latter name. Most of the people of Iran and southern Iraq are Twelvers. There are sizable Twelver Shīʿī communities in Bahrein, in al-aā and Qaif in eastern Saudi Arabia, in southern Lebanon, in Aleppo in northern Syria, and in parts of Afghanistan. On the Indian subcontinent Twelver Shīʿah are widespread, especially in Punjab, Delhi, and Baroda, as well as in the Deccan, where the first Shīʿī missionaries appeared in the fifteenth century, and where the majority of the Qubshāhīs of Golconda and the ʿAdil-shāhīs of Bijapur were Shīʿī. In recent years, a considerable number of Pakistani families have also joined the Twelvers.

Extremist Sects

On the fringe of the Imāmīyah and the Twelver Shīʿah there arose numerous minor sects of varying nature classed generically as ghulāt ("extremists") and frequently excommunicated by the mainstream. Common grounds for the charge of extremism were deification of the imams and antinomianism.

Imāmī ghulāt

The most prominent figure among the early Imāmī ghulāt in Kufa was Abū al-Khaāb al-Asadī, who was excommunicated by imam Jaʿfar and killed together with seventy of his followers, the Khaābīyah, about 755. The Khaābīyah recognized Abū al-Khaāb as a prophet sent by Jaʿfar, whom they viewed as God. Al-Mufaal ibn ʿUmar al-Juʿfī, who is sometimes described as the head of an offshoot of the Khaābīyah, but who became a trusted agent of Imam Mūsā al-Kāzīm, appears to have played a major role in the transmission of gnostic teaching about the preexistence and transmigration of souls and the cyclical history earlier associated with the Kaysānī ʿAbd Allāh ibn al-ārith.

The heresiographers speak of two complementary currents among the ghulāt in the second half of the eighth century. The Mukhammisah (Pentadists) believed in a divine pentad consisting of Muammad, ʿAlī, Fāimah, asan, and usayn. The five were united in meaning (maʿnā ) but distinct in name (ism ) and had manifested themselves throughout history in the form of prophets and imams. The Mufawwiah (Delegationists) taught that the Eternal One, whose name is unknowable, had delegated the creation of the world to the divine pentad. At the beginning of the ghaybah, the ghulāt of this tradition coalesced into two rival sects, the Isāqīyah and the Nuayrīyah. The Isāqīyah was founded by the Basran Isāq al-Amar (d. 899), who disputed the position of the second safīr of the twelfth imam. The sect spread from Iraq to Aleppo and the Syrian coast. In Syria it was wiped out by its Nuayrī rivals in the thirteenth century and disappeared in Iraq about the same time.

Nuayrīyah and ʿAlawīyūn

The Nuayrīyah took their name from Muammad ibn Nuayr al-Namīrī, a companion of the ninth and tenth imams. They became a fully constituted sect under his successors, especially al-usayn ibn amdān al-Khaībī (d. 957 or 969), who carried the sect's teaching to northern Syria and was buried in Aleppo. It was extinguished in Iraq after the Mongol invasion but has survived to the present in Syria, especially in Latakia and the Jabal al-Anārīyah region to the east and in the regions of Alexandretta and Cilicia (Adana and Tarsus). In modern times the Nuayrīyah are commonly referred to as ʿAlawīs or Alawites.

The name ʿAlawī (Turk., Alevi ) is frequently also applied to other extremist Shīʿī communities in Anatolia. Similar groups in Iran are often pejoratively called ʿAlī-Ilāhī ("ʿAlī deifiers"). Such groups generally have their roots in the late Mongol age (fourteenth and fifteenth centuries) and represent a mixture of popular extremist Shiism and Sufism. Strong pro-ʿAlid sentiments on a popular level were already widespread among Türkmen tribes during the great Turkish expansion into Iran and western Asia in the Seljuk period. These sentiments were reinforced during the Mongol period by the Sufism spread by some of the great religious orders that were themselves moving toward Shīʿī beliefs. In the fifteenth century the Kizilbash Türkmen federation and religious order adopted such extremist Shīʿī doctrine under the leadership of the Safavids, who now claimed ʿAlid descent. After the foundation of the Safavid state, however, the rulers furthered orthodox Twelver Shiism as the official religion and gradually divested themselves of the religious veneration and backing of the Kizilbash. Under the Ottomans, the Bektāshi dervish order, which became closely associated with the Janissaries, embraced a similar mixture of ūfī and extremist Shīʿī beliefs.

A major sect among the so-called ʿAlī-Ilāhīs are the Ahl-i aqq ("people of the truth"), whose origins apparently go back to the fifteenth century and whose main centers are in the Kurdish regions of western Iran and eastern Iraq and in Azerbaijan. They represent a syncretism of popular ūfī rites, legends, and folklore superimposed on an extremist Shīʿī foundation. While ʿAlī is recognized as one of the seven avatars of the divinity, he is completely overshadowed by the figure of Sultan Seāk (Isāq).


In modern times Shaykh Amad al-Ahsaʾī (d. 1826), the author of a Twelver Shīʿī theosophical doctrine, has been charged with extremist views and excommunicated by the mujtahid s in Iran. He was specifically accused of denying the physical resurrection and the physical nature of the ascension of the prophet Muammad. He thus became the founder of the Shaykhī sect, which, besides espousing his theosophical teaching, also opposes the authority of the mujtahid s, in accordance with the Akhbārī position. The sect is scattered throughout Iran and Iraq, with its center in Kirman. Out of it also developed the Bābī and, indirectly, the Bahāʾī religions, but these fall outside the pale of Shiism.

The IsmĀʿĪlĪyah

An offshoot of the Imāmīyah, the Ismāʿīlīyah first became historically important after the middle of the ninth century as a secret revolutionary movement promising the impending advent of Muammad ibn Ismāʿīl, grandson of Jaʿfar al-ādiq, as the Mahdi. The movement soon split into two. One of its branches recognized the hidden leaders of the movement as imams descended from Muammad ibn Ismāʿīl. With backing of this branch, the leaders rose to rule as the Fatimid caliphate (9091171). The other branch, commonly known as the Qarāmiah, broke with the leadership and refused to recognize the imamate of the Fatimid caliphs. Their most conspicuous success was the establishment of a Qarmaī state in eastern Arabia that lasted from 899 until 1076.

The Fatimid branch was rent by a schism during the caliphate of al-ākim (9961021), whose divinity was proclaimed by a group of enthusiastic followers. The sect arising from this deviation is known as the Druze. After the death of the caliph al-Mustanir in 1094 the Persian Ismāʿīlī communities recognized his eldest son, Nizār, who did not succeed to the caliphate, as their imam. Known as the Nizārīyah, they established their headquarters, and later the seat of their imams, in the mountain stronghold of Alamūt in the Elburz mountains. In Syria, where they also occupied some mountain fortresses, they became known to the Crusaders as ashīshīyīn ("hashish addicts"), a name that was then deformed to "Assassins." The main line of Nizārī imams has continued down to the Aga Khans in modern times. A second line, which split off soon after the Mongol conquest of Alamūt in 1256, came to an end in 1796. The branch continuing to recognize the Fatimid caliphs was further split after the death of al-Amir in 1130. The majority of the Ismāʿīlīyah in Yemen and India now recognized as their imam al-ayyib, the caliph's infant son, about whose fate nothing is known. In his absence the spiritual leadership of these sectarians, known as ayyibīyah, became vested in their dāʿī mulaq. As the line of these spiritual leaders became divided in 1591, the ayyibīyah split into two communities, the Dāʾūdīyah and the Sulaymānīyah. That part of the Ismāʿīlī community adhering to the Fatimid caliphate until its fall disintegrated thereafter.

The ZaydĪyah

Retaining the politically militant and religiously moderate attitude predominant among the early Kufan Shīʿah, the Zaydīyah developed a doctrine of the imamate distinctly at variance with Imāmī beliefs. They neither accepted a hereditary line of imams nor considered the imam as divinely protected from sin and error. Rather they held that any descendant of asan or usayn qualified by religious learning could claim the imamate by armed rising against the illegitimate rulers and would then be entitled to the allegiance and backing of the faithful. Thus there were often long periods without legitimate Zaydī imams. The list of recognized Zaydī imams itself has never been entirely fixed although there is general agreement on many of them. In the absence of any claimant possessing the high qualifications of religious learning, the Zaydīyah often supported ʿAlid rulers as mere dāʿī s ("summoners," i.e., imams with restricted competence). Although they, like the Imāmīyah, generally affirmed that ʿAlī, asan, and usayn had been invested as imams by Muammad's designation (na ), they maintained that the designation had been obscure so that its meaning could be discovered only by investigation. Thus they minimized the offense of the companions of the Prophet and the Muslim community in ignoring that designation and in backing the early caliphs. In theology, the Zaydīyah from the tenth century on mostly accepted Muʿtazilī doctrine.

For more than a century after the revolt of Zayd, the Zaydī movement remained based in Kufa near the center of Abbasid power, where various ʿAlid rebellions backed by it were quickly suppressed. In the second half of the ninth century, however, two Zaydī reigns were founded in remote regions protected by mountain ranges. In abaristān (modern Mazandarān) on the southern coast of the Caspian Sea, the Hasanid asan ibn Zayd rose to power in 864. This first Zaydī state lapsed in 900 but was restored in 914 by the Husaynid imam al-Nāir al-Urūsh, who had converted to Islam many of the natives of Daylam and Gīlān living west of abaristān. He was also the founder of a legal school doctrine to which his converts adhered, although the older Zaydī community in the region followed the legal doctrine of the asanid imam al-Qāsim ibn Ibrāhīm (d. 860). The two communities, known as the Nairīyah and the Qāsimīyah, were often at odds, and, although eventually recognizing each other's doctrine as equally valid, for long periods supported different ʿAlid imams or dāʿī s. They survived until the sixteenth century, when the Caspian Zaydīyah converted to Twelver Shiism under pressure from the Safavid shah ahmāsp.

In Yemen the imam Yayā al-Hādī ila al-aqq, a grandson of al-Qāsim ibn Ibrāhīm, established Zaydī rule in 897. He introduced the legal and theological doctrine of his grandfather, which he elaborated and modified in his own writings. The unity of the Zaydī community in Yemen was rent in the eleventh century by the rise of two heterodox sects, the Muarrifīyah and the usaynīyah. The former was opposed to some aspects of the Muʿtazilī doctrine espoused by the Caspian Zaydī imams and elaborated a distinctive theory of nature that it attributed to al-Hādī and his sons. The usaynīyah denied the death of the imam al-usayn al-Mahdī in 1013 and expected his return as the Mahdi. Both sects disappeared by the fourteenth century. Relations with the Caspian community were intermittently close for some centuries, and much of its religious literature was transferred to Yemen in the twelfth century. Only exceptionally, however, was an imam ruling in either region able to extend his control to the other. The Zaydī community in Yemen, living mostly in the northern highlands, has survived to the present, although the last imam, Muammad al-Badr, was overthrown by the revolution of 1962.

See Also

Aga Khan; ʿAlawīyūn; Assassins; Druze; Ghaybah; Imamate; ʿImah; Qarāmiah; Shaykhīyah.


Scholarly literature on Shiism is still limited and uneven. There is no comprehensive survey of Shiism in its full range. In the wider context of schisms in Islam, the development of the various branches of Shiism is outlined by Henri Laoust in Les schismes dans l'Islam (Paris, 1965). There are brief chapters on Twelver Shiism, the Zaydīyah, and Ismāʿīlīyah in Islam, edited by C. F. Beckingham, volume 2 of Religion in the Middle East, edited by Arthur J. Arberry (Cambridge, 1969).

The origins and early history of the Shīʿah and the Khārijīs in the Umayyad age was classically described, chiefly on the basis of the early Kufan historian Abū Mikhnaf, in Julius Wellhausen's Die religiös-politischen Oppositionsparteien im alten Islam (Göttingen, 1901), translated by R. C. Ostle and S. M. Walker as The Religio-Political Factions in Early Islam (Amsterdam, 1975). A recent study, taking into account later Shīʿī sources, is S. Husain M. Jafri's Origins and Early Development of Shīʿa Islam (London, 1979).

Twelver Shiism is treated in Dwight Donaldson's The Shiʿite Religion (London, 1933) and, from a Shīʿī perspective, in ʿAllāmah Sayyid Muammad usayn abaabāʾī's Shiʾite Islam, translated from the Persian by Seyyed Hossein Nasr (Albany, 1975). abaabāʾī has also gathered significant Twelver Shīʿī texts, sermons, and sayings of imams in A Shiʿite Anthology, translated with explanatory notes by William C. Chittick (Albany, N.Y., 1981). The papers of the 1968 Colloque de Strasbourg, published as Le Shïisme imâmite (Paris, 1970), offer scholarly contributions on various aspects of the history of Twelver Shiism. John Norman Hollister's The Shiʿa of India (London, 1953) deals with the Twelvers, Ismāʿīlīyah, Bohoras, and Khojas on the Indian subcontinent. A well-informed survey of the role of Shiism in Iran, especially in recent history, is provided by Yann Richard's Le Shiʿisme en Iran (Paris, 1980).

On contemporary Shīʿī ghulāt sects, much material has been gathered in Klaus Müller's Kulturhistorische Studien zur Genese pseudo-islamischer Sektengebilde in Vorderasien (Wiesbaden, 1967), whose conclusions about the genesis of these sects are, however, open to question.

A sketch of the history of the Ismāʿīlīyah is given by W. Ivanow in Brief Survey of the Evolution of Ismaʿilism (Leiden, 1952). The genesis of Ismāʿīli gnostic doctrine has been reexamined in H. Halm's Kosmologie und Heilslehre der frühen Ismāʿīlīya (Wiesbaden, 1978).

Cornelis van Arendonk's De Opkomst van het Zaidietische Imamaat in Yemen (Leiden, 1919), translated into French by Jacques Ryckmans as Les débuts de l'imamat Zaidite au Yémen (Leiden, 1960), offers a history of the Zaydīyah until the foundation of the Zaydī state in Yemen. I have studied the development of Zaydī doctrine up to the twelfth century in Der Imam al-Qāsim ibn Ibrāhīm und die Glaubenslehre der Zaiditen (Berlin, 1965).

New Sources

Dinault, David. The Shiites: Ritual and Popular Piety in a Muslim Community. New York, 1992.

Kohlberg, Etan. Belief and Law in Imām; Shī'īsm. Aldershot, U.K., 1991.

Kohlberg, Etan, ed. Shi'ism. Aldershot, U.K., 2003.

Wilferd Madelung (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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