Free Will and the Rise of Islamic Sectarianism

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Free Will and the Rise of Islamic Sectarianism


Free Will and Predestination in the Qur’an . The first major theological controversy in Islam, over free will and predestination, was particularly an issue during the period 661–750, when the Umayyad khalifahs (caliphs) ruled the Muslim empire from their capital at Damascus. The strictly theological portion of the debate revolved around the ArAbic term qadar, which refers to God’s Ability to predetermine events, including all human acts. This theological discussion, however, masked an underlying political controversy. Those who believed that God determined everything, leaving little or no room for human initiative, tended to be apologists for the Umayyad regime and resisted calls to reform the Umayyad state or correct abuses of power. Many of the partisans of free will, who were known as “Qadarites” (al-Qadariyyati), were opponents of the Umayyads and used this doctrine to justify their right to condemn official misdeeds and rise up against injustice.

Free Will and the Qur’an . At first glance, this controversy seems ill conceived. Many verses in the Qur’an affirm the freedom of human initiative and the moral, ethical, and theological importance of personal choice: “Whatever good befalls you, it is from Allah, and whatever evil befalls you it is from yourself (4: 79); “Whoever will, let him believe, and whoever will, let him disbelieve” (18: 29); “Whoever goes aright, it is only for the sake of his own soul that he goes aright, and whoever goes wrong, goes wrong to his own detriment. No soul can bear the burden of another” (17: 15). As the last verse implies, it would make no sense to punish human beings for their actions if they were not free to choose them. The choice between Islam and unbelief, or between good and evil, would have no theological or moral significance if a person could not make such a choice freely. The divine-human covenant would have no meaning if there were no freedom of choice; that is, if a court cannot punish a person for a crime that was not committed by choice, how could God do such a thing?

The Qur’an and Divine Omnipotence . Yet, as often as it affirms personal initiative, the Qur’an limits it by stressing divine omnipotence: “Whatever is in the heavens and the earth is [Allah’s]. All things are subservient to Him. He is the Originator of the heavens and the earth. When He decrees a thing, he merely says unto it, ‘Be!’ And it is” (2: 116–117); “They will not heed unless Allah wills it; He is the source of God-consciousness; He is the source of mercy” (74: 56); “You do not will, unless Allah wills; verily, Allah is the All-Knowing, the All-Wise” (76: 30); “No misfortune occurs on earth or to yourselves that has not been written down in a book before we bring it into being” (57: 22). The contradiction that is revealed in these two sets of verses can be found in Christianity and Judaism as well as Islam. These various verses on free will and divine omnipotence illustrate the paradox of theodicy, the problem of divine justice. In a monotheistic religion, where God is one and everything comes from Him, one might ask how injustice can arise in the world; what are the limits of humanity’s responsibility, and what pertains to God; and why a just God lets bad things happen to good people.

Free Will and Revolution . In the field of Islamic studies, theology cannot be studied apart from history. Theological disputes often conceal underlying political or social issues. To this day, Islamic activists continue to cast political disputes in theological terms, just as Muslims did during the first century of Islam. The death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 was followed by a violent era marked by the murders of three of the first four khalifahs, three major revolts by Muslims against a Muslim ruler, and the birth of the Sunni, Shi’ite, and Kharijite sects. At the same time, the territory under Muslim rule expanded as far as Afghanistan in the East and Morocco in the West. Because of these conquests, Islam became transformed from a religion made up largely of Arabs to a universal commonwealth, encompassing many of the countries and peoples of the world of classical antiquity. Although the history of dynasties and conquests in this period is well known, the details of the revolution of ideas that accompanied them remain obscure.

The Abbasids . Part of the problem is that history is written by the victors. The victors in this case were the Abbasids, who overthrew the Umayyads in 750 and moved the capital of the Muslim empire from Damascus to Baghdad. All of the best-known historical and doctrinal sources that deal with the Umayyad period were written after the Abbasid victory, and some of them were written under Abbasid patronage. For this reason, it is difficult to get a clear idea of the religious doctrines that were prevalent in the Umayyad period. Abbasid-era writers and those who followed them portrayed the Umayyads as illegitimate Arab “kings” rather than as legitimate Islamic khalifahs, and many Shi’ite and Kharijite activists were cast as extremists, terrorists, or both. Though the recent publication of Shi’ite and Kharijite works has changed such perceptions, this early period of Muslim history remains insufficiently understood.

Internal Disputes . One of the major problems of this period was Muslims branding other Muslims as unbelievers. During Muhammad’s lifetime, the line between believer and unbeliever was clearly drawn. All who acknowledged Muhammad as Prophet, followed the message of the Qur’an, and adhered to a minimum of Islamic practice were believers (mumiri); those who rejected Muhammad and the Qur’an and refused to acknowledge the din of Islam were unbelievers (kafir). In the decades after Muhammad’s death, however, Muslims began to accuse each other of unbelief because they “sinned” by not belonging to the correct political factions. In the words of the noted Hanbali jurist Ibn Taymiyyah (1263–1328): “The dispute over what belief and unbelief meant was the first internal dispute to occur among the Muslims. Because of this problem, the Muslim community was divided into sects and factions, which began to differ over the Sacred Book and the Sunnah and began to call one another unbelievers.”

The Problem of Succession . The problem of succession to the Prophet Muhammad remains unresolved. For Sun-nis and Kharijites, the Prophet never named a successor. For Shi’ites, the Prophet named his cousin and son-in-law ‘All ibn Abi Talib (circa 596–661) to succeed him. According to the Shi’ites, the Prophet’s Companions Abu Bakr (circa 570–634) and ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (592–644) staged a coup while ‘Ali was preparing Muhammad’s body for burial; they pressured the Muslims into accepting Abu Bakr as khalifah and agreeing to ‘Umar as his successor. In the Sunni and Kharijite versions, Abu Bakr was chosen by acclamation and only later appointed ‘Umar as his successor. There is even disagreement about the meaning of the term khalifah. Most Sunnis and Kharijites, following Abu Bakr, define the term as “successor to Muhammad.” But for the Umayyad khalifahs and their supporters, the term meant “deputy of God.” For Shi’ites, khalifah means both “deputy of God” and “successor to Muhammad,” but in a sense that leadership is an extension of the prophetic mission. Instead of khalifah, Shi’ites prefer to use the term imam (religious leader) and assert that the true leader of the Muslims is a designated member of the Prophet’s family.

‘Uthman . All Muslims agree that the issue of succession came to a head under the Khalifah ‘Uthman (ruled 644–656). An early convert to Islam and a highly respected companion of Muhammad, ‘Uthman married the Prophet’s daughters Ruqayyah and Umm Kulthum. Yet, he came from the clan of Banu Umayyah, the chief

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clan of the Quraysh tribe of Makkah, and was a nephew of Abu Sufyan (died circa 653), the leader of the pagan opposition to Muhammad. On becoming khalifah, ‘Uthman was faced with ruling a rapidly expanding Muslim state. To govern such an empire, he needed administrators who were experienced in the management of large numbers of men and large sums of money. He found many of these administrators within his own clan. Some of these officials were late converts to Islam and cared little about the teachings of their religion. ‘Uthman was accused of favoritism for appointing family members to high positions and moral laxity for refusing to punish officials such as the governor of Basrah, who was found drunk in his palace. In 656 a group of rebels surrounded ‘Uthman’s house in Madinah, and when he refused to accede to their demands, they killed him. After committing this deed, the rebels named ‘Ali the new khalifah.

Kharijism . Before his death, ‘Uthman had appointed his cousin Mu’awiyyah (circa 605–680), the son of Abu Sufyan, governor of Syria. After ‘Uthman’s murder, Mu’awiyyah took up ‘Uthman’s cause and demanded that the murderers be brought to justice. ‘Ali, who had taken no part in the crime, refused to punish those who committed it. Instead, he moved his capital from Madinah to the garrison city of Kufah in Iraq. ‘Ali’s refusal to punish the killers of ‘Uthman outraged those who were not personally loyal to ‘All. Some joined Mu’awiyyah in Damascus, while others rose against ‘Ali. At the end of 656, ‘Ali defeated an army led by the Prophet Muhammad’s widow ‘A’isha and the Prophet’s Companions Talhah and Zubayr. The following year, the armies of ‘Ali and Mu’awiyyah faced each other at Siffn, on the upper Euphrates River. A long standoff was eventually settled by arbitration in which it was decided that ‘Uthman had been killed unjustly. Although no decision was reached on the legitimacy of ‘Ali’s khilafah, the judgment of the arbitrators weakened ‘Ali’s position and strengthened Mu’awiyyah’s. Angered by the arbitration, a large group of ‘Ali’s supporters withdrew from his army; they became known as the Kharijites (al-Khawarij), the “Secessionists.” In July 658 ‘Aliattacked the Kharijites at Nahrawan in Iraq and killed many of them. In 661 a Kharijite assassin killed ‘Aliin revenge for this battle.

The Doctrine of Sin. In the conflict between Mu’awiyyah and ‘All, there was moral ambiguity on both sides. Dissatisfied with the arbitration at Siffin, the Kharijites proclaimed the slogan “Neither this one nor that one” and rejected the need for a khalifah altogether. The Kharijites, who were religiously pious and idealistic, opposed on ethical grounds the claims of both ‘Aliand Mu’awiyyah to the khilafah. Although they agreed with ‘Uthman’s removal and originally supported ‘Alias khalifah, they felt that ‘Alihad erred in accepting arbitration. Following the maxim “No judgment but that of God,” the Kharijites believed ‘Ali had disobeyed the divine command that had made him the leader of the Muslims. As for Mu’awiyyah, they felt that none of his claims was valid: his Umayyad family background was unsuited for the leadership of Islam, and he upheld the rights of ‘Uthman, whom they regarded as corrupt.

Doctrinal Differences . The Kharijites considered political “sins” such as those of ‘Uthman, ‘Ali, and Mu’awiyyah to be “grave sins,” equating them with sins such as adultery, murder, theft, and apostasy. Doctrinal differences among groups of Kharijites revolved around differences in the definition of sin and its punishments. The most extreme Kharijites felt that people who committed grave sins were unbelievers and that military action was required against them. None of these groups survived the Umayyad period. Moderate Kharijites adhered to more carefully thought-out doctrines. The Najdites (683–693) felt that a single instance of a common sin such as theft or adultery would not turn a person into an unbeliever; one who repeats such a sin, however, is an idolater (mushrik) and must be punished. The Ibadites (circa 684 – present) held that idolaters were only those who rejected God. Non-Kharijite Muslims were considered monotheists but not true believers. However, since they lived in the “domain of monotheism,” it was permissible for Kharijites to live among them and associate with them.

Kharijite Views on Choice . The Kharijite position on free will and predestination was ambiguous. Although freedom of choice is implied in their decision to oppose ‘Ali, predestination is implied in their belief that ‘Ali’s “sin” was his rejection of the destiny that Allah had determined for him. For the Kharijites, salvation or damnation was collective, rather than individual outcomes of human acts. Kharijite writings are full of references to “the people of the Garden” and “the people of the Fire,” implying that salvation depends on which group one belongs to: if one is a Kharijite, he or she is counted among “the people of the Garden”; if one is not a Kharijite, he or she is counted among “the people of the Fire” and will be punished eternally. The extremist followers of Ibn al-Azraq (died 685) believed that any Muslim who did not join their camp was an unbeliever and could be put to death. In their terrorist raids they spared Christians and Jews but put non-Kharijite Muslims to the sword.

Communal Leadership . The earliest Kharijites went beyond rejecting ‘Ali and Mu’awiyyah. Seeing the majority of Muslims as sinful and corrupt, they withdrew from Islamic cities such as Kufah and Basrah and sought to create a purer version of Islam in the countryside. They believed that they were following the example of the Prophet Muhammad when he migrated from Makkah to Madinah to escape the pagan Arabs. As justification for this practice, they cited the following verse of the Qur’an: “Whoever migrates for the sake of Allah will find refuge and abundance in the earth; and whoever forsakes his home as a fugitive on behalf of Allah and His Messenger, and death overtakes him, his reward is incumbent on Allah” (4:100).

Kharijite Leaders . Believing that the Prophet Muhammad’s leadership could not be duplicated, the Kharijites refused to appoint a khalifah. Instead, they preferred the temporary leadership of a military commander (amir), who would also act as a religious leader (imam). Recent scholarship has shown that most of the early Kharijites came from Bedouin or Christian backgrounds. Perhaps echoing an egalitarianism born out of Bedouin or Christian ideals, they rejected the Umayyad claim that the leader of the Muslims should come from the noble tribe of Quraysh and the Shi’ite claim that the leader should come from the noble “house” of Muhammad. Instead, the leader of the Kharijites could come from any family or social class, including slaves. What was most important was that this person be the best of his community in piety, knowledge, and good works. In addition, the choice of leadership was a matter for the entire community to decide. The Kharijite imam was appointed by consensus of the community; if he proved unable to carry out his functions, the community was empowered to remove him.

Kharijism and Democracy . Although Kharijite doctrines may seem egalitarian and democratic, these early Muslim idealists did not adhere to modern conceptions of individual freedom. For the most part, groups, not individuals, came together to form Kharijite communities. The Kharijites strongly rejected the middle-of-the-road opinion that one’s status as believer or sinner was a private matter between the individual and God. On the contrary, the person who held such an opinion was likely to be considered a “grave sinner” because ethical neutrality allowed corruption to continue. The advantage of Kharijism was that its doctrines stressed social equality and focused attention on the highest moral and ethical principles of Islam. The disadvantage of this movement was that it perpetuated ancient, tribal notions of group solidarity and dangerously oversimplified complex ethical and theological issues. At its best, it pointed the way toward Islamic ideals; at its worst, it created dissension among Muslims and led to outbreaks of terrorism.

Shi’ism . Because they arose from the same political conflict, early Shi’ism and Kharijism shared much in common. Both groups started out as part of the political opposition to ‘Uthman, which later continued as opposition to the Umayyads. After 750, this opposition was extended to the Abbasid khalifahs as well. As a social movement, both groups claimed to represent the lower classes and disaffected elements of Muslim society, including non-Arab converts to Islam, the poor, and the pious who advocated poverty and service as religious virtues. Kharijism first took root in the ArAbian peninsula and nearby regions; later, it spread widely among the Berbers of North Africa. The Ibadite form of Kharijism remains today in Oman and parts of Tunisia and Algeria. Shi’ism was initially popular among South ArAbian immigrants in Iraq, who had a long tradition of charismatic leadership. Eventually, it spread among converts to Islam in Iraq and Iran. Like Kharijism, Shi’ism also took root among the Berbers of North Africa, who formed the backbone of the Fatimid movement in the tenth century. Doctrinally, the more extreme groups of Shi’ites and Kharijites shared a tendency to call their enemies unbelievers. A group of Shi’ites called “Rejecters” (al-Rowafid)in Sunni sources rejected the rule of Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, and ‘Uthman, claiming that all three khalifahs had usurped the rightful inheritance of ‘Ali. These “Rejecters” were the forerunners of present-day Imami and Ismaili Shntes.

‘Aliand Fatimah . The terms Shi’ism and Shi’ite come from the ArAbic word shiah, which means “party” or “faction.” A Shi’ite is one of the Shi’at ‘Ali (Party of ‘Ali), who believes that ‘Aliwas the true successor to the Prophet Muhammad. Shi’ites also believe that leadership is vested in the family of the Prophet Muhammad, who are called the “Prophet’s Household” (Ahlal-Bayt). Among the earliest Shi’ites, the Prophet’s household was understood to include all twenty-seven children of ‘Ali and even members of the Prophet’s clan of Banu Hashim. Since the ninth century, however, the Prophet’s household has been restricted to the descendants of Muhammad through his daughter Fatimah (died 633), ‘Ali’s first wife. ‘Ali and Fatimah had two sons, Hasan (624–669) and Husayn (626–680). After

Fatimah’s death, ‘Alimarried a woman from the tribe of Banu Hanifah. His son from this marriage, Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyyah (died 700), was also regarded as an Imam by some early Shntes.

Succession . The idea that succession is vested in the household of a charismatic leader is a custom that goes back to pre-Islamic ArAbia, but under the Shntes it was taken to unprecedented levels. In the creed of al-Shaykh al-Mufid (948–1022), an Imami Shnte theologian from Baghdad, ‘Ali is called “Commander of the Faithful, first of the Imams of the Believers, who are the rulers of the Muslims and the Deputies of God in religion after the Messenger of God.” ‘Aliis also “the ‘brother’ of the Messenger of God, his paternal cousin, the trustee of his affairs, and his son-in-law, who was married to Fatimah the Virtuous, Mistress of the Women of the Universe.” In this creed one can find many of the major tenets of Shnte doctrine: the idea that ‘Ali was the most qualified khalifah, or “Commander of the Faithful”; the designation of his successors, the Shnte Imams, as “Imams of the Believers”; the claim that the Imams, and not the Umayyad khalifahs, are “Deputies of God”; and the belief that the Imam is the official spokesman for Islam. The Shntes describe Fatimah in terms that are strikingly reminiscent of Christians’ characterizations of the Virgin Mary: like Mary, she is called “The Virtuous” (al-Batul; literally “The Virgin”) and “Mistress of the Women of the Universe,” a title that recalls the Qur’anic description of Mary as “chosen over all the women of the worlds” (3: 42).

The Light of Muhammad . A major tenet of Shnte theology is the mystical doctrine of the “Light of Muhammad,” which teaches that Allah created Muhammad and ‘Ali from a single light before the creation of Adam. After the death of the Prophet, the Light of Muhammad was transmitted by the Holy Spirit to the Shnte Imams and formed the basis of their religious authority. In some versions, the Light of Muhammad comes to the Imams through ‘Ali alone. In an account related by al-Shaykh al-Mufid, ‘Ali was holding the Prophet’s head in his lap as he lay dying; when Muhammad breathed his final breath, ‘Alicaught the Prophet’s breath in his right hand and rubbed it over his face, thus taking the Muhammadan Light upon himself. In other versions of the Muhammadan Light legend, this mystical light was transmitted through Muhammad’s blood to his daughter Fatimah, who passed it on through herself to her sons, Hasan and Husayn.

The Imamate . There is considerable dispute over when the Shnte doctrine of the Imamate was first formulated. Most Shnte scholars ascribe this doctrine to the fifth and sixth Imams, Muhammad al-Baqir (died 735) and Ja’far al-Sadiq (circa 702–765). The importance of these two figures is attested by the fact that the majority of Shnte traditions are attributed to them. In addition, the political and doctrinal legacy of Ja’far al-Sadiq is key to the differences between Imami and Ismaili Shi’ism, and he lent his name to the Imami school of law, which is called Ja’fari. For both Imami and Ismaili Shntes, the Imam is the “Proof of God” to humanity and the “Sign of God” (Ayat Allah) on earth. All political order and sovereignty belongs to him. Obedience to the Imam is obligatory for all Muslims. In religious matters, the Imam is the sole authorized interpreter of the Qur’an. Other scholars may interpret the Qur’an only by his permission. To be accorded this status, the Imam must possess five qualities:

His Imamate must be conferred on him by his predecessor.
He must be immune from sin and error.
He must be the best of humankind.
He must have extensive general and religious knowledge.
He must give spiritual guidance on all matters relating to the Qur’an and the Sunnah.

According to Imami Shnte sources, Ja’far al-Sadiq considered himself and his descendants to be heirs to the prophets. From his father, Muhammad al-Baqir, Ja’far is said to have inherited the “Scrolls of Comprehensive Knowledge,” twelve scrolls that contain secret messages from the Archangel Jibril. Another tradition mentions the “Scripture of Fatimah,” a copy of the Qur’an that originally belonged to Fatimah and included references to the Shnte Imams that were deleted from the Qur’an by the khalifah ‘Uthman. Ja’far was also said to have possessed the Red Casket (al-Jafr al-Ahmar)which contained the weapons of the Prophet Muhammad, and the White Casket (al-Jafr al-Abyad), which held the original copies of the Torah of Moses, the Gospel of Jesus, and the Psalms of David. (The English word cipher came from this use of the ArAbic word jafr.)

Justice and Leadership . The Shnte doctrine of the Imamate is built on the twin foundations of justice (’adl) and leadership (imamah). If an Islamic society is to be legitimate, it must be built on the same foundations as the society governed by the Prophet in Madinah. For this reason, the principles of justice and leadership cannot derive their authority from a purely human source. For Shntes, justice is equivalent to the divine command in the Qur’an. Leadership belongs to the Imam, who is chosen by God to carry out his mandates. In order to be chosen by God, Imams, like prophets, must be endowed with special attributes. The most important of these attributes is knowledge. Religious knowledge, of which the Qur’an is the epitome, must be transmitted personally, on a one-to-one basis. For Shntes, the Imamate is a mirror of prophethood. The authority of the Imam depends on the knowledge of the divine command that is taught to him by his predecessor. This knowledge is perfected by the charismatic “Light of Muhammad,” which the Imam inherits from his predecessor. When an Imam designates his successor, he confirms that the knowledge he has passed on is authentically divine in origin.

The Doctrine of Choice . In addition to accepting the Five Pillars of Islam like every other Muslim, Shntes must also accept the “Five Pillars of Shnsm.” The first pillar, justice, refers to the social aspect of Shnsm. In theological terms, justice comes from God, and injustice comes from man. This formulation was a common way of expressing the divine origin of the Qadarite doctrine of free will, but in Shnsm, as in Kharijism, justice also has a human dimension: besides requiring that the Imams act justly, this pillar encourages ordinary Shntes to practice justice as well. This requirement is expressed in the concept of service (khid-mati), which is fundamental to both Imami and Ismaili Shnsm and which has led Shntes historically to identify with the exploited, the poor, and the disadvantaged.

Divine Oneness . The second pillar of Shnsm is divine oneness. Although this doctrine is fundamental to Islam, among Shntes it is understood to mean that God is simple and abstract, beyond likeness or number. A Shnte tradition ascribed to ‘Ali defines this concept:

To say that God is one has four meanings: two of them are false and two are correct. As for the two false meanings, one is that a person should say “God is one” and be thinking of number and counting. This is false because that which has no second cannot enter into the category of number. Do you not see that those who say that God is the third of a trinity fall into this infidelity? Another meaning is to say, “So-and-so is one of his people,” namely, a species of this genus or a member of this species. This meaning is also false when applied to God, because it implies likening something to God, whereas God is above all likeness. As to the two meanings that are correct when applied to God, one is that it should be said that “God is one” in the sense that there is no likeness to him among things. And one is to say that “God is one” in the sense that there is no multiplicity or division conceivable in Him, neither outwardly, nor in the mind, nor in the imagination. God alone possesses such a unity.

The Shnte definition of divine oneness shares much in common with that of the Mu’tazila, a theological movement of non-Shnte rationalists.

Prophecy and Eschatology . The remaining pillars of Shnsm are primarily concerned with the Imamate. Prophecy, the third pillar of Shnsm, describes how the Imamate continues and completes the prophetic mission. The designation of the Imam by his predecessor imitates Moses’ designation of Joshua as his successor and John the Baptist’s proclamation of the coming of Jesus. Moses also provides the example of a “speaking,” or active, prophet who is accompanied by a “silent,” or latent, prophet, his brother Aaron. Likewise, each “Speaking Imam” is accompanied by a “Silent Imam,” his designated successor. The fourth pillar of Shnsm, eschatology, links the fate of the believer after death to one’s acceptance of the Imam. In Shnsm, recognition of the Imam is a prerequisite for salvation. Sunni and Kharijite Muslims, who do not recognize the Shnte Imam, are “grave sinners” and will not enter paradise.

The Imamate . As a theological doctrine, the fifth pillar of Shnsm, the Imamate, is Qadarite because it stresses freedom of choice. In Shnte theology the choice of the Imamate over other models of Islamic leadership depends on humanity’s being endowed with two essential attributes. These are reason (’aqt) and choice (ikhtiyar). Since God does not will injustice, He cannot punish a person for committing a sin unless the person is endowed with reason. In Shnsm, children, the ignorant, and the intellectually challenged are not held accountable for their actions. Reason entails the Ability to make a considered choice between alternatives. Free choice, however, is not exactly the same as free will. Shnsm depends too much on the influence of the divine will to allow humans to completely determine their own affairs. To use a well-known analogy created by the Sufi poet Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207–1273), human destiny is played out on a sort of polo field, where the soul is the horse; reason is the rider; choice is the polo stick; and the game is governed by the law of cause and effect. God predetermines the nature of what the player brings to the match: geographical location, social status, access to education, level of intelligence, and personality are all determined before one begins the match of life. The player makes choices that have moral and practical consequences: such as whether to follow sin or virtue, whether to act selfishly or altruistically, and whether to acknowledge or reject the Imam. By the end of the match, the totality of one’s choices has led the player to either salvation or damnation. Looking

back on the course of his life, the player may feel that his destiny was predetermined. But in fact, much of what he calls “destiny” was determined by how he played the game.

Shi’ite Sectarianism . Because Shnsm developed as a movement of political opposition that drew many of its adherents from non-Arab converts to Islam, much of its early history was affected by the beliefs and aspirations of people who were not yet fully acculturated to Islamic teachings and who still retained elements of their previous Christian, Jewish, or Manichaean belief systems. Shnsm did not develop as a mature set of doctrines until the end of the ninth century, more than two hundred years after the death of ‘Ali. In this period, Shnsm was associated with a variety of extremist doctrines. During ‘Ali’s lifetime, a follower named ‘Abd Allah ibn Saba’, a Jewish convert to Islam, believed that ‘Ali was the awaited messiah. Ibn Saba’ proclaimed ‘Ali’s divinity and said that the Imam had not died but was alive in the clouds and would return to fill the earth with justice. Another extremist sect, the Ulyaniyyah (circa 800), claimed that ‘Ali was God and Muhammad his messenger. Sometimes called “The Blamers,” this group blamed the Prophet Muhammad for concealing ‘Ali’s true nature out of jealousy.

The Kaysaniyyah . Other Shi’ite sects put forth candidates for leadership who were not descended from ‘Ali and Fatimah. The most important of these sects was the Kaysaniyyah, founded by the anti-Umayyad rebel Mukhtar al-Thaqafi (died 687). This movement claimed that after the death of Husayn, the Imamate passed to ‘Ali’s third son, Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyyah. Drawing on non-Arab aspirations for equality with Arab Muslims, Mukhtar proclaimed Ibn al-Hanafiyyah the “Guided One” (Mahdi) who would deliver newly converted Muslims from oppression. Although this movement was powerful enough to take over the city of Kufah in 686, it fell apart because its Mahdi, Ibn al-Hanafiyyah, refused to support it. Although the Kaysaniyyah movement died out fairly quickly, Kaysaniyyah concepts such as that of the Mahdi remained influential. A later group held that Ibn al-Hanafiyyah had not died but was in a state of concealment on a mountain near Madinah. They believed that the Mahdi would eventually return to restore justice among Muslims. Another group, the Hashimiyyah, claimed that Ibn al-Hanafiyyah had passed on the Imam-ate to his son Abu Hashim (died 717). After Abu Hashim’s death, a group called the Abbasiyyah claimed that the Imamate had passed to the descendants of the Prophet’s cousin ‘Abd Allah al-’Abbas (619–686). This group started the revolt against the Umayyads that led to the establishment of the Abbasid khilafah.

Zaydi Shi’ism . After the death of ‘Ali, the most important event in the history of Shnsm was the martyrdom of Husayn at Karbala’ in southern Iraq, which took place on 10 October 680 and is commemorated in the Islamic world as Ashura. The last stand of Husayn and his seventy-two companions against five thousand Umayyad troops is one of the most important paradigms of Shi’ism and symbolizes the responsibility of Shi’ites to fight injustice whatever the cost. The memory of this event, which is commemorated in highly emotional festivals that include parades and staged pageants, reminds Shi’ites of the cost of failing to honor their commitment to the Imam and encourages bravery in the face of overwhelming odds.

Zayd ibn ’Ali . One of the few survivors of the massacre at Karbala’ was Husayn’s son ‘Ali Zayn al-’Abidin (died 717), who lived the remainder of his life in Madinah and did not take part in political disputes. His son Zayd ibn ‘Ali died in 740 during a short-lived revolt against the Umayyads. Zayd asserted his claim to the Imamate on the grounds that the Imamate belonged to any descendant of ‘Ali and Fatimah who was learned and pious and raised his sword in defense of justice. Unlike other Shi’ite groups, the Zaydis, the followers of Zayd ibn ‘Ali, did not reject Abu Bakr and Umar. Although they felt that ‘Ali was better suited for the khilafah, they accepted what they called the “Imamate of the Second-Best” because ‘Ali himself had not chosen to oppose Abu Bakr and ‘Umar. In their theological doctrines, the Zaydis shared much in common with non-Shi’ite rationalists, such as the Mu’tazila. Zayd ibn ‘Ali is said to have been a pupil of one of the founders of the Mu’tazila, Wasil ibn ‘Ata’ (699–748).

Revolt . After the Abbasids took power, Zaydi Shnsm provided an opportunity for the descendants of ‘Ali and Fatimah’s son Hasan to assert their claims to the Imamate. Since the Zaydis recognized no hereditary succession to the Imamate, any descendant of ‘Ali and Fatimah could assert his claim to leadership by raising a revolt. The most significant revolt led by a descendant of Hasan was that of Muhammad al-Nafs al-Zakiyyah (died 762), who in 758 staged an abortive rising against the Abbasids in Madinah. After escaping from this defeat, his brother Idris (died 791) proclaimed an Imamate in the western part of North Africa. This Imamate resulted in the creation of the Idrisid state, the first independent Muslim state in Morocco. Over the next 150 years, the Idrisid Imams taught a distinctive brand of Shnsm based on the excellence of Hasan and his descendants. This doctrine, known in Morocco as Sharif-ism, was purely political and did not include the theological and eschatological doctrines of the Imamate. Sharifism remains the ideological basis of the Moroccan monarchy. Although the present king of Morocco is not a descendant of Idris, he traces his ancestry to Hasan. At the beginning of the tenth century, a Zaydi Imamate was also established in Yemen, where the sect continues to survive.

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Imami Shi’ism . Today, the Imami Shi’ites are the most significant Shi’ite group. They first appeared on the political scene in the ninth century, when Islamic sources began to mention “People of the Imamate” (Ahl al-Imamah). Also called “Twelvers” (Ithna ‘Ashariyyati), Imami Shi’ites believe that the leadership of the Muslim community is vested in twelve Imams. These Imams are ‘Ali, Hasan, Husayn, ‘Ali Zayn al-’Abidin (died 717), Muhammad al-Baqir (died 735), Jafar al-Sadiq (circa 702–765), Musa al-Kazim (745–799), ‘Ali al-Rida (765–818), Muhammad al-Jawad (died 835), ‘Ali al-Hadi (died 868), Hasan al-Askari (died 874), and Muhammad al-Mahdi (circa 824 – ?). Adapting a concept that was first used by the Kaysaniyyah, Imami Shi’ites believe that the twelfth Imam is Mohammad al-Mahdi, the “Guided One” who will return at the end of time to inaugurate a final age of justice on earth. At present, however, the Mahdi is believed to exist in a state of absence or “occultation” (ghaybah). During the “Short Occultation,” which occurred between 874 and 962, the twelfth Imam is said to have communicated with his followers through four scholars who were leaders of the Imami community. In the “Complete Occultation,” which has lasted from 962 until the present, the Imam communicates to selected followers by inspiration.

The Ulama’ . Until the return of Muhammad al-Mahdi, the religious scholars (Ulama’)of the Imami community are to take the Imam’s place as his trustees. These scholars retain the right, in the name of the Imam, to interpret matters of dogma, theology, and law. Rather than engage in independent reasoning, Imami Shi’ites follow the decisions of their scholars in all matters pertaining to religion. The scholars of the Imami community follow the decisions of the Imams. Rather than relying on their own reasoning, they are expected to follow the teachings of the Imams whenever possible. This requirement led the Imami Shi’ites to develop their own body of hadiths (hadith walawi), which consists of traditions of the Imams. In time, this reliance on tradition led to the development of scholarly institutions that were much like those created by Sunni Muslims.

Ismaili Shi’ism . Ismaili Shi’ism was born out of a conflict among Shntes that involved the succession to Ja’far al-Sadiq. The thirty-year Imamate of Ja’far (735–765) marked a watershed in the development of Shnte thought. During this period, the doctrine of the Imamate and much of Shnte law and theology attained their present form. According to the Ismailis, Ja’far al-Sadiq designated his eldest son, Ismail al-Mubarak (died circa 754), his successor. When Ismail died eleven years before his father, the question of further succession was left unresolved. For Ismailis, the succession after Ja’far should have gone to Ismail’s son Muhammad (died circa 796). Ismaili Shi’ites call Muhammad “The Hidden One” (al-Maktum) because he and his descendants are believed to have gone into hiding for five generations. Ismailis are also called “Seveners” because they consider Muhammad al-Maktum to be the seventh Imam. Ismaili Shi’ites trace the descent of their Imams through Fatimah alone, because only Fatimah carried the blood of the Prophet Muhammad. For this reason, ‘Ali is not counted as the first Imam. Instead, his son Hasan is the first Imam, while ‘Ali is called the “Foundation” of the Imamate.

The Fatimids . Ismaili Shi’ism became prominent in Islamic history during the period of the Fatimid khilafah (909–1171), which ruled over much of North Africa and the Middle East from its capital at Cairo in Egypt. The official name of the Fatimid movement was “Mission of the Truth” (Da’wat al-Haqq). The Fatimid Imams operated through agents or missionaries, who were sent throughout Muslim lands to propagate Ismaili teachings. The head of the Ismaili mission was the Fatimid khalifah, who was Imam, successor to the Prophet Muhammad, and true repository of knowledge and wisdom. His mouthpiece was the Chief Missionary, who was the most accomplished Ismaili scholar of his time. The Fatimid mission was organized into geographical units called “islands,” which were under the command of high-ranking missionaries called “Witnesses.” Major Ismaili “islands” included Iraq, Yemen, Sind (now part of Pakistan), and parts of Iran and Central Asia. Regional and local missions were headed by missionaries of lesser rank. The foot soldiers of the Ismaili movement were missionaries known as “Breakers.” Their job was to “break down” the resistance of pupils to Ismaili teachings.

Ismaili Doctrines . Fatimid theology was based on the notion of outer (zahir)and inner (batin)doctrines. The outer aspect of Fatimid doctrine consisted of a distinctive Ismaili school of law. Ismaili law was similar to Sunni schools of law, such as the Hanafi and the Maliki, which stressed ray, the logic-based opinion of jurists. In Fatimid Cairo, classes on Ismaili law were held regularly at the al-Azhar masjid (mosque) and were open to all comers, including women and Sunni Muslims. The inner aspect of Ismaili doctrine consisted of the disciplines of theology and philosophy. These were taught in the palace of the Imam in Cairo, and lessons were open only to Ismaili initiates, who were called “Saints.”

Inner Truth . According to Ismaili doctrine, the Qur’an includes an inner truth that forms the essential core of divine revelation. This inner truth comes directly from God and can be found in all religions. Part of this truth consists of the doctrines of the Divine Soul and Universal Intellect, concepts that were acquired from the Neoplatonic philosophies of late antiquity. God is identified with the Universal Intellect, which creates and maintains the world through the Divine Soul. Creation emanates from the Divine Soul in a hierarchical manner; descending from man and angelic beings down through the higher animals, lower animals, plants, and minerals. This hierarchical chain of being is replicated by a hierarchy of Islamic knowledge that emanates from God, to the Prophet Muhammad, the Imams, and the Ismaili missionaries, until it reaches ordinary believers. The task of the Ismaili initiate is to use his intellect to ascend in the opposite direction: he must progress up the hierarchy of knowledge and the hierarchy of leadership until he attains the rank most suited to the level of his knowledge and intelligence.

Religious Doctrine as a Tool of State Policy . The Sunni conception of Islamic knowledge assumes that from the time of the Prophet Muhammad there were groups of pious Muslims who devoted themselves exclusively to the study of the Qur’an and hadiths. Known as the “Righteous Ancestors” (al-Salaf al-Salih) these men and women included the “Companions of the Prophet Muhammad,” the “Followers” of the Companions, and the “Followers of the Followers.” These three generations of “Righteous Ancestors” witnessed the revelation of the Qur’an, the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the breakup of the Muslim community into sects, and the establishment of the Umayyad khilafah. The traditions that they disseminated in oral and written form compose the majority of the Sunnah.

Interpreting Traditions . Unfortunately, much of this model is a myth. There is no doubt that such pious people existed and that they studied and taught Qur’an and Sunnah, but recent historical research has demonstrated that these “Righteous Ancestors” were often divided as to how their traditions should be interpreted and how the term Sunnah should be understood. Paradoxically, the term “Sunnah of the Messenger of God” appeared first among the Shi’ites and Kharijites and not among the Sunnis.

Clearly, the normative model of the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad was much less important to Islamic thought in this early period than it was in later generations. Subsequent changes in the concept of the Sunnah had much to do with changes in political ideology after the Abbasids replaced the Umayyads in the mid eighth century.

The Umayyads’ Politics of Predestination . For the

Umayyad khalifahs (ruled 662–750), “following the Sunnah” meant following their orders. The official title of the Umayyad khalifah was “Deputy of God and Imam of the Muslims.” This title indicates that the khalifah claimed authority over matters of both state and religion. The khali-fah’s authority even extended to power over nature: references to at least three khalifahs in the works of Umayyad-era poets mention their power to bring sustenance to the land. Mu’awiyyah (ruled 661–680), the founder of the Umayyad dynasty, is reported to have said, “The earth belongs to God, and I am the Deputy of God.” Opposition to the Umayyads was considered unbelief. After putting down a political revolt against the Umayyads in 704, the Umayyad governor of Iraq spared the lives of only those rebels who confessed to being unbelievers and reconverted to Islam. In a letter to his provincial governors, the Umayyad khalifah al-Walid II (ruled 743–744) claimed that history has only two eras: the prophetic era and the era of the khilafah. For the Umayyads, the khalifahs, as God’s deputies, were appointed by God to administer the legacy of the prophets. They presided over the implementation of the Sunnah, the legal system, the requirements of religion, and rights pertaining to God and humanity. Whoever obeyed the khalifah would flourish, and whoever disobeyed the khalifah would be punished in this world and the next.

Divine Right . The Umayyads believed that they ruled over the Muslims by divine right. Consequently, their theological doctrines denied the concept of free will and stressed God’s predetermination of human actions. The Umayyads used the doctrine of predestination to claim that their opponents were unbelievers: since God made the Umayyads

khalifahs, it was His will that they should rule over the Muslims; thus, to reject the Umayyad khalifah is to reject God’s will, and rejection of God’s will is unbelief. The Umayyads did not stop at claiming legitimacy by divine right; they also claimed that since they were deputies of God, each of their decisions was, in effect, a divine decree. This claim put their opponents in a difficult theological situation. To say that the Umayyads’ decisions were bad implied either that God’s will was imperfect or that God created evil by creating leaders of Islam who disseminated false doctrines. The easiest solution to this dilemma was to say that God creates good, but human beings create evil. Blaming the sins of the Umayyad khalifahs on their own faults and weaknesses prevented the possibility of blaming God for allowing Umayyad injustices to occur. In this way, a theological principle was used to refute a major tenet of Umayyad political doctrine.

Murjiah Neutralists . Although most Sunni Muslims in the Umayyad period supported the Umayyad khalifahs, a significant number of scholars belonged to a group known as the Murjiah. The term murjiah comes from two ArAbic roots: arjaa, meaning “to postpone” or “to defer,” and arja, meaning “to give hope.” In doctrinal discussions, both roots are linked to the Qur’anic verse “And there are others who await Allah’s decree, whether He will punish them or forgive them” (9: 106). Politically, the Murjiah were “fence sitters”: Muslims who refused to commit clearly to the Umayyads, the Kharijites, or the Shi’ites. In addition, they avoided passing judgment on the ethical merits of ‘Uthman and ‘Ali, “postponing” the matter for God to decide. Theologically, the Murjiah were religious scholars who separated faith from works. They believed that as long as a person had faith, he or she could “hope” for God’s mercy, no matter how many sins he or she had committed. Kharijites and Shi’ites condemned the Murjiah as political obstructionists. By refusing to criticize Uthman and by refusing to judge the Umayyad rulers on the basis of their actions alone, they allegedly harmed Islam by acquiescing to the Umayyad regime and doing nothing to eliminate corruption and injustice.

Historical Perspective . Recent scholarship has shown this negative opinion to be unfair. The views held by people who were identified as Murjiah were spread over every facet of Islamic opinion, including those critical of the Umayyad regime. Later Muslim historians often disagreed over who should be included among the Murjiah. Many of the Murjiah were upholders of the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad and tried to create a unity among Muslims that would overcome sectarian divisions. A significant number of the Murjiah were noted jurists. Some jurists—such as al-Awza’i (died 773), the most prominent judge of Damascus during the later Umayyad period—were supporters of the Umayyads; others—such as Abu Hanifah, founder of the Hanafi madhhab—were politically neutral; still others—such as Sufyan al-Thawri (715–777), an influential jurist from Kufah who associated with early Sufis—were opponents of the Umayyads.

Murjiite Doctrine . Murjiite political doctrine recognized the khilafahs of both ‘Uthman and ‘Ali. Al-Fiqh al-Akbar (The Great Book of Law), a work attributed to Abu Hanifah, states, “We refer to God the decision about ‘Uthman and ‘All.” A later work, called Wasiyyat Abu Hanifah (Testament of Abu Hanifah), goes farther and claims that the order of the first four khalifahs matches the order of their excellence; since ‘Uthman came before ‘Ali, ‘Uthman was more suited to be khalifah than ‘Ali. Murjiite theological doctrine asserted that faith and works are separate moral issues. Al-Fiqh al-Akbar states, “We do not declare anyone an unbeliever through sin, nor do we exclude anyone from faith.” Faith is not divisible into parts nor does it decrease or increase. It is an all-or-nothing proposition: one either has faith or does not have it, and believers are not to be compared to each other because of it. For Abu Hanifah, it is the faith that makes a person a Muslim. There is no halfway house between faith and unbelief. Muslims may differ, however, with respect to acts. The person who neglects to perform required acts such as prayer may be considered a bad Muslim. But as long as one has faith, one is still a Muslim. Muqatil ibn Sulay-man (died 767), a noted Murjiite commentator on the Qur’an, summarized this principle by saying, “Where there is faith, sin does no harm.”

Hasan al-Basri . A Sunni Muslim who took a middle stance between the Murjiites and their opponents and occupied a middle position on the subjects of free will and predestination was Hasan al-Basri (died 728). The son of a Persian captive who converted to Islam, Hasan settled in Basrah and won a great reputation for his strength of character, piety, learning, and eloquence. At times, he supported the Umayyads and was befriended by the Umayyad governor of Iraq. At other times, he opposed their decisions and was forced to go into hiding. He disagreed with the Kharijites by claiming that the grave sinner could be a believer. But unlike the Murjiites, he felt that the sinner should be held accountable for his actions; accordingly, he called the grave sinner a “hypocrite.” He refused to judge between ‘Uthman and ‘Ali; yet, he rejected the Umayyad doctrine of predestination. A person once said to him of the Umayyads, “These princes shed the blood of Muslims and seize their goods; they do such-and-such and say: ‘Our acts occur only according to God’s will/” Hasan replied, “The enemies of God lie.” Like the Qadarites, Hasan al-Basri believed that human beings have the ability to choose between good and evil on their own. But he tempered this view with the belief that God determined the outlines of a person’s fate and allowed misfortunes to happen to people in order to test them. He used to say, “God created creation and the creatures, and they proceeded as He created them; if a person supposes that by acting on his own he can increase his sustenance, let him by acting on his own increase the span of his life, alter his color, or add to his limbs or his fingers.”


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Farhad Daftary, The Isma’ilis: Their History and Doctrines (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

Heinz Halm, The Fatimids and Their Traditions of Learning (London: I. B. Tauris and The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 1997).

Marshall G. S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, 3 volumes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974).

Moojan Momen, An Introduction to Shi’i Islam (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1985).

Al-Shaykh al-Mufid, Kitab al-Irshad: The Book of Guidance into the Lives of the Twelve Imams, translated by I. K. A. Howard (Horsham: Balagha Books / London: Muhammadi Trust, 1981).

W. Montgomery Watt, The Formative Period of Islamic Thought (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1973).

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Free Will and the Rise of Islamic Sectarianism

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