The Shi˓a were originally the "partisans" of ˓Ali, cousin of Muhammad's cousin and husband of the Prophet's daughter, Fatima. Today, however, the label designates a number of distinct groups that have arisen over the course of Islamic history and which are united by a belief that the leader (caliph or imam) of the Muslim community (umma) should be a member of the Prophet's family (ahl al-bayt). The Shi˓a include the Twelvers, second largest of all the Muslim sects (the largest being the Sunni). Other Shi˓a groups include the Zaydis, Khoja Isma˓ilis, and Bohra Isma˓ilis, who taken together, represent more than ten percent of the world Muslim population.
The First Fitna
The Shi˓a first formed an identifiable movement in Islamic history during the First Civil War (fitna), which tore the Muslim community apart between 656 and 661 c.e. According to Shi˓i doctrine, ˓Ali was meant to assume leadership of the community upon the Prophet's death in 632. Tradition holds that the Prophet designated his cousin as heir in a speech made at Ghadir Khumm on the way back from Muhammad's farewell pilgrimage, made shortly before his death. However, the jealousy and ambition of the Prophet's other principal Companions (Abu Bakr, ˓Umar, and ˓Uthman) prevented him from assuming that post. Abu Bakr was the first, serving as leader from 632 to 634. He was followed by ˓Umar (634–644), and finally by ˓Uthman (644–656).
Shi˓ism as a movement, however, burst into full view with the assassination of ˓Uthman and the ensuing civil war. ˓Uthman, a member of the aristocratic Umayyah clan of Quraysh, had converted to Islam early on, marrying the Prophet's daughters Ruqayyah and Umm Kulthum. As caliph, he appointed many of his relatives to lucrative governorships in the newly conquered provinces, and was consequently widely criticized for nepotism. Disgruntled Companions, based primarily in Egypt, conspired against him and succeeded in assassinating him in Medina in 656. At this point, ˓Ali was chosen as caliph, but soon met opposition from the Umayyah clan, the Prophet's widow ˓A˒isha, the prominent Companions Talhah and al-Zubayr, and others.
˓Uthman's enemies accused him of complicity in ˓Uthman's assassination, because he showed little interest in pursuing the conspirators and in fact had close ties with some of them, including his step-son Muhammad b. Abu Bakr. Protest against ˓Ali sparked a major war, pitting ˓Ali's supporters, who were centered in the garrison town of Kufa, in Iraq, against opposition forces based in Basra and Syria. In 656, ˓Ali's forces met those of ˓A˒isha and her co-generals, Talha and al-Zubayr, just outside Basra, in what came to be known as the Battle of the Camel, because ˓A˒isha joined the fray in an armored palanquin mounted on her camel, ˓Askar.
˓Ali's forces were victorious. Talhah and al-Zubayr were killed, and ˓A˒isha was captured and returned to Medina in shame. The tide turned against ˓Ali the following year, however, with the battle of Siffin in the Syrian desert. ˓Ali lost this battle after his deputy bungled arbitration with the agent of Mu˓awiya, the governor of Damascus. A large group of ˓Ali's supporters, angered that he had submitted to arbitration, left his cause. Known as the Kharijis "deserters," they became bitter enemies of ˓Ali.
˓Ali retreated to Kufa, but rallied sufficiently to defeat a Khariji army at Nahrawan in 658. In 661, ˓Ali fell to the blows of a Khariji assassin in Kufa. ˓Ali's supporters recognized his eldest son Hasan as their leader, but Hasan soon entered into a truce with Mu˓awiya and renounced his claim to the Caliphate. Thus, the First Civil War ended.
Shi˓a Under the Umayyads
The Muslim community was united under one regime, for Mu˓awiya became caliph of the entire community by default. The capital was moved to Damascus, and when Mu˓awiya designated his son Yazid as heir, the Umayyad dynasty (661–750) was established. Doctrinally, however, the Muslim community remained divided into three main groups, ˓Ali's supporters (the Shi˓a), enemies of ˓Ali who had originally supported him but renounced their allegiance at Siffin (the Kharijis), and the main body of his opponents, the Umayyads and their supporters.
Throughout Umayyad rule, the Shi˓a engaged in periodic uprisings against what they viewed as the illegitimate caliphs, revolting in the name of various members of ahl al-bayt. The most famous of these incidents is the revolt of Husayn, ˓Ali's second son, upon the death of Mu˓awiya and the accession of his son Yazid in the year 680. Husayn was summoned to Kufa to lead a revolt. He set out from Medina with a small contingent, but Umayyad forces halted him in the Iraqi desert, preventing him from reaching his supporters in Kufa. Rather than surrender, Husayn and his followers fought. Most were slaughtered, and Husayn's head was delivered to Yazid in Damascus. The martyrdom of Husayn and his followers is still retold and re-enacted by the Shi˓a on ˓Ashura, the tenth day of Muharram, which is the first month of the Islamic calendar.
Four years after Husayn's death, a faction among the Kufan Shi˓a arose in revolt. This group became known as al-Tawwabun (the penitents), a name that reflected their dedication to the cause of Husayn and their regret they had failed to come to his aid. In 686, Mukhtar al-Thaqafi led an initially successful revolt in the name of Muhammad b. al-Hanafiyya, a son of ˓Ali, holding Kufa in 686–687. In 740, Zayd, a grandson of Husayn, led a new revolt in southern Iraq, but was defeated and killed. ˓Abd Allah b. Mu˓awiya, a great-grandson of Muhammad's cousin Ja˓far, led yet another insurrection (744–747).
Shi˓a and the Abbasids
The Abbasid revolution that toppled the Umayyads in 750 began, in part, as a Shi˓a movement, adopting the slogan alrida min al al-bayt "the acceptable candidate from the family of the Prophet." Upon victory, a descendant of the Prophet's uncle ˓Abbas assumed rule as caliph. In a clear pro-Shi˓a move, the new dynasty established their capital in Iraq, first at Wasit, then at Baghdad, which was founded in 761.
The Abbasids, however, soon turned on their Shi˓a allies, and eventually took over the Umayyads's role as illegitimate rulers and the nemesis of Shi˓a aspirations. Muhammad al-Nafs al-Zakiyya, "the Pure Soul," led a Shi˓ite revolt against the Abbasids as early as 762, and the Abbasid period would witness countless more revolts in the name of various descendants of ˓Ali. Attempts at reconciliation were short-lived, the most notable being al-Ma˒mun's appointment of ˓Ali al-Rida, the eighth Imam of the Twelver Shi˓a line, as his successor in 816.
Shi˓a and Sunni: A Comparison
An untenable distinction is often made between the Sunni caliph, seen as a purely political authority, and the Shi˓a imam, seen as a religious authority. In the early period, the titles imam and caliph referred, at least potentially, to the same office and authority. The goal behind the Shi˓a revolts against the Umayyads and Abbasids was to depose what was considered to be the illegitimate leader of the community and to replace him with a legitimate one. Both for the Shi˓a and their opponents, the Shi˓ite Imam was always a potential counter-caliph. Whether chosen from the descendants of ˓Ali or from another line, the caliph was held to be both a religious and political authority even by the Sunni, and was called imam as well as sahib hadha al-amr ("the one in charge").
In the first Islamic century, there can hardly have been any other identifiable religious authorities; jurists, theologians, and others did not gain influence until later. An indication of the caliphs' religious authority is the fact that their decisions often became enshrined in Islamic law. An example of this can be found in the "Conditions of ˓Umar," restrictions on the ahl al-dhimma imposed by the second caliph, ˓Umar b. al-Khattab (or possibly the Umayyad ˓Umar b. ˓Abd al-˓Aziz). These "Conditions" provide the basis for many of the laws that govern the status of Jews and Christians in Islam.
Another popular misconception is that Sunnism is the original form of Islam, from which the Shi˓a deviated. In the beginning, the opponents of the Shi˓a were not Sunnis, properly speaking, but adherents to what might be termed Umayyad Islam. Sunni Islam is a compromise position between Shi˓ite and Umayyad Islam, and could only have come into existence some time after the advent of the Abbasids. This may be seen succinctly in the Sunni phrase al-khulafa˓ al-rashidun (lit. the "rightly guided caliphs"), which indicates approval of all the first four caliphs. The Umayyads revered the first three caliphs, but ˓Ali was anathema to them. They reportedly instituted a practice of cursing him from the pulpit in Friday prayer. The Shi˓a, however, revered ˓Ali but detested or disapproved of the first three caliphs. The Sunni approval of all four could only have developed at a much later date, as an attempt to reconcile the two opposing positions.
Rival Factions within the Shi˓a Community
Conflict over leadership of the Muslim community and over succession among rival Shi˓i claimants to the imamate gave rise to theological doctrines and concepts that would remain important throughout Islamic history. In the course of the eighth century the Shi˓a developed the doctrines of the imam's ˓isma, meaning "infallibility" or "divine protection from sin," and nass, the explicit and divinely sanctioned designation of the imam by his predecessor. The ghulat (extremists) developed more exaggerated forms of reverence for various claimants to the imamate, including beliefs that the imam did not die but went into occultation (ghayba) or that he would return (raj˓a) as a messianic figure (mahdi) before the apocalypse. Others claimed that the imam shared in prophetic authority, had status equal to that of the Prophet, possessed divine qualities, or manifested divinity through divine infusion (hulul). Some of these extreme concepts, particularly occultation, would become standard doctrine in the main divisions of the Shi˓a in later centuries.
A second set of issues had to do with the status of the Prophet's Companions. In order to bolster the legitimacy of ˓Ali, the Shi˓ites used hadith reports and historical accounts concerning the first three caliphs, ˓A˒isha, and many other Companions to impugn their characters, casting them as sinners, incompetent leaders, or outright unbelievers. The Sunnis, used similar accounts to uphold the view that the Companions were all exemplary. The Shi˓ite position, while certainly exaggerated over time, readily admits the seriousness of the conflicts that wracked the early Muslim community, while Sunni historiography has often endeavored to cover them up or explain them away.
A seventeenth-century fresco depicting Iman Shah Zaid is represented in the volume two color insert.
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