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Muslim Movements and Schisms


1. Shi'ism - Its Character and History.

Islam is divided into two great sects - the Sunnis and the Shi'ites. The former follow the sunnah, the "example" of Muhammad, and constitute the vast majority of the Muslims in the world. The Shi'ah (the "Party") are found mainly in Iran and its surrounding regions as well as in parts of Africa. The Sunnis believe that Muhammad's companions Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali (in that order) were, by democratic election, the four "rightly-guided" caliphs, that is, immediate successors of Muhammad. The Shi'ah believe that Muhammad's nephew, Ali was specifically designated as his successor and that divine guidance descended on them to guide the growing Muslim community and lead it in the path of Allah.

From this division regarding the lawful succession of the prophet of Islam come all the other points of separation between the Sunnis and the Shi'ah. Wherever Islam has been spoken of in this book it is always Sunni Islam that has been under consideration as the overwhelming majority of the Muslims are Sunnis. In this section we shall consider Shi'ite Islam as a separate movement within the Muslim world. A typical definition of this movement follows:

It is hard to tell exactly when Shi'ism began or when it can positively be distinguished as a separate sect; One has to go right back to the death of Muhammad, perhaps, to find the events that eventually gave rise to this movement which ultimately established itself as a distinct branch of Islam. Although Muhammad's nephew Ali had been one of the first to believe in his message and was a great champion of Muhammad's cause during his lifetime, he became a recluse after his death when Abu Bakr was nominated as Muhammad's successor by Umar and was duly accepted by the community of Muslims at Medina. There is evidence that Ali was unwilling to accept Abu Bakr's nomination ("he did not recognize Abu Bakr and refused to pay him homage for six months - Jafri, The Origins and Early Development of Shi'ite Islam, p.59), but on the whole it does appear that he tacitly approved of the caliphates of Abu Bakr and Umar. It was only after he was rejected in favour of the unloved Uthman that Ali became active again.

When Uthman was assassinated Ali was finally appointed Caliph, but his predecessor had already placed many of his clan, the Ummayads, in leading positions in the growing Muslim empire and at least one of them, Mu'awiyah, the governor of Syria at Damascus and son of Muhammad's long-standing enemy Abu Sufyan, considered himself powerful enough to challenge Ali for the control of the whole Muslim world. Ali found himself faced early in his caliphate with an insurrection led by a number of Muhammad's companions including his wife Ayishah (who had proved to be Ali's inveterate foe even during Muhammad's lifetime) which was ostensibly started to avenge the blood of Uthman. Ali had failed to bring the former caliph's murderers to justice and both Ayishah and Mu'awiyah used this as a cause against him and sought to displace him. Ayishah joined a force against him led by Muhammad's companions Talha and Zubayr which was defeated by the caliph at the "Battle of the Camel (al-Jamal)", but a further battle fought at a place called Siffin in Syria, although it was a huge confrontation, ended inconclusively without victory for either Ali or Mu'awiyah. The former agreed to submit his cause to arbitration, however, and when this went against him many of his followers deserted him. The remainder, however, formed the nucleus from which the Shi'ah were to rise.

Ali himself was later assassinated and although Mu'awiyah was almost certainly not involved in the deed, he took the opportunity to establish himself as Caliph, a position that was to be held by his clan, the Ummayads, for nearly a hundred years. Those who were isolated in the process formed the kernel of the group of Muslims that was eventually to create the establishment of a distinctly separate movement in Islam, namely the Shi'ah.

2. Ali and the Doctrine of the Twelve Imams.

The Shi'ah believe that Muhammad's nephew Ali (really his cousin, but much younger than him), who married his daughter Fatima, was his appointed successor and the first of the imams. They cite at least four occasions where Ali was especially singled out by Muhammad to act as his viceroy, namely as the standard-bearer at the battles of Badr, Khaybar and Taluk, and as his representative at his last pilgrimage. On this latter occasion Muhammad appointed Ali to declare the provisions of Surah 9 t the multitude, in particular the command that the pagan Arabs would be barred from performing the Hajj until they embraced Islam (Surah 9.28). Ali has become, for the Shi'ah, the great pontiff of Islam, the first of their twelve great divinely-inspired leaders.

Although the title Amirul-Mu'minin ("Commander of the Faithful") has been applied by the Sunnis to all the caliphs of Islam who have represented the Muslim world down the centuries, the Shi'ah apply this title to Ali alone. Although they regard the three campaigns mentioned earlier and the appointment of Ali as Muhammad's envoy at the last pilgrimage before his death as important evidences in favour of their assertion that Ali was the real successor of the Prophet of Islam, they rely ultimately on another incident, which is said to have also occurred during the last pilgrimage, to justify their assertions with conviction. It centres on an action Muhammad allegedly took at a place called Ghadir Khumm on their way back to Medina:

Muhammad is said to have appointed Ali to the walayati-ummah, the "general governorship" of the Muslim community, and to have designated him their new wali, that is, their guardian. Sunni Muslims naturally deny that this story has historical validity and do not believe that Muhammad ever actually appointed a successor. They do, however, point to a last illness of their prophet at Medina, when he designated Abu Bakr to lead the prayers in his place, as a sign that this man was the one really intended to be the first caliph of Islam. (Abu Bakr was duly appointed as such on the death of Muhammad a few days later and was acknowledged by the Muslims as their rightful leader). A typical perspective of the Shi'ah view of the events said to have taken place at Ghadir, however, is found in this quote from a Shi'ite author:

Unlike the Sunnis who believed that the caliph should be elected by the democratic choice of the Muslim community (Ali was duly so-elected on the death of Uthman), the Shi'ah held that the election of the leader of the Muslims (an imam rather than a khalifah) belongs to Allah alone, vests in Ali and his offspoing, and that these imams are infallible men endowed with perfect divine illumination and guidance to lead the Muslim community. The great Muslim scholar Ibn Khaldun defined the appointment and character of the imam as follows:

The Imam does not receive prophetic revelations, that is, he does not enjoy wahy (revelation), but is endowed with lutf (illumination) so that he can correctly interpret the revelations already given and guide the community.

The Shi'ite concept of the divinely-inspired Imam deveoped to the point where it was believed that each Imam, in turn, was God's vicegerent on earth, one endowed with a full knowledge not only of true religion but also of the true interpretation of the Qur'an.

After Ali the immediate Imams, in order were his sons (and thus Muhammad's grandsons) Hassan and Husain, and thereafter, in order of descent from Husain, Ali (generally known Zaynal-Abidin), Muhammad al-Baqir and Ja'far as-Sadiq. The last of these six leaders became the real generator of Shi'ism in the form in which it has developed during the centuries. Before him it was believed that the Imam should be both the spiritual and secular leader of the Muslim community and that he should rise in rebellion and endeavour to become the ruler of the Muslim world. The Ummayad and Abbasid caliphs naturally saw these men as serious pretenders to their thrones and sought to put them to death. Husain was killed during an insurrection against the rule of Yazid, Mu'awiyah's son (we shall say more of his death shortly), and his immediate successors were both assassinated. It was Ja'far as-Sadiq who finally taught that church and state in Islam could be separated and that the Shi'ites could submit to their Imam as spiritual leader alone, thus solving the constant problem for the Shi'ites of submitting to an Imam who did not enjoy control over the Muslim community.

Nonetheless the Abbasid caliphs remained very suspicious of the Shi'ah Imams and Ja'far himself, as well as the following five Imams (Musa Kazim, ar-Rida, Muhammad Taki, Ali Naki and Hassan al-Askari), are all said to have been poisoned and thus assassinated as well. Only the twelfth Imam, Muhammad, is said to have escaped and gone into a prolonged occultation. The Shi'ah believe that he guides the world to this day and will again manifest himself in good time when circumstances will enable him to gain control of the Muslim world. With him the twelve Imams, the Ithna Ashariyya, cease. Although there have been many divisions within Shi'ite Islam (the most famous being the Zaydites, who gave their allegiance to Zayd instead of his half-brother Muhammad al-Baqir, and the Ismailis, who believe that there were only seven Imams up to Musa Kazim's older son Ismail), the aforegoing account of the Imamate, its development as well as its doctrines, represents the mainspring of Shi'ite thought and belief.

3. The Martyrdom of Husain and the Ta'ziah.

It has often been said that the ultimate figurehead of Shi'ism is not Muhammad but his grandson Husain. This is especially true in respect of the effect of Husain's death on the growing Shi'ite branch of Islam. It was also this event that gave Shi'ism its impetus.

After the death of Ali his son Hassan proclaimed himself Caliph but later agreed to abdicate in favour of the Ummayad ruler Mu'awiyah on the condition that the caliphate returned to him on Mu'awiyah's death. Hassan predeceased Mu'awiyah, however, and the latter named his son Yazid, an irreligious young man, as his successor. Husain, the younger of the twins, was thereafter persuaded by the Muslims at Kufa in Iraq to stage an insurrection and he left Medina with a band of followers to join the nucleus of what was later to become the Shi'ite community at Kufa. The small band of just over seventy men, however, was intercepted at Karbala and mercilessly put to the sword on the 10th of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic year.

Although the death of Husain appears to have been the natural result of an ill-advised political rebellion, Shi'ite Muslims have transformed it into an agonising martyrdom, claiming that Husain knew only too well what was to befall him but sought, through his sufferings, to set an example for his followers so that they too might become purified by enduring all manner of persecution for their faith. "The fall of Husain, a quite mediocre person, excites the Shi'as to the point of delirium". (Lammens, Islam: Beliefs and Institutions, p.144). One of the Shi'ah says:

Redemption through suffering has thus become one of the major tenets of Shi'ite Islam, although it is not redemption through the vicarious atonement wrought through the sufferings of another, as in Christianity. Each of the Shi'ah must redeem himself through his willingness to undergo various deprivations and sufferings in emulation of Husain who made the supreme sacrifice. The sufferings of the other Imams, whether before or after Husain, are only seen as typical of the sufferings of this one man who is at the heart of the Shi'ite worship and piety. Even the sufferings of Muhammad himself are said to be only symbolic of the sufferings of Husain.

Although the Shi'ite concept of redemption through pious suffering differs in many ways from the Christian doctrine of salvation through the sufferings of Jesus Christ (the Shi'ite Muslims must imitate Husain to be redeemed, the Christian is redeemed by union with Christ in his sufferings and death), the very concept draws Shi'ite Islam towards the Gospel. This applies in particular to the Ta'ziah ("consolation") celebrations on the 10th of Muharram.

The Ta'ziah celebrations are mainly twofold in expression; the one being the ta'ziah majlis, a "passion-play" reenacting the tragedy at Karbala, and the other being a procession of floats commemorating the tombs of the "martyrs" who died with Husain. The latter ceremony has been widely adopted by Sunni Muslims in the countries of central Asia as well. (It is also practiced by Sunni Muslims in Durban, South Africa, and remains a popular ceremony, though it is frowned upon by orthodox Muslims). For the Shi'ah, however, the Muharram celebrations are perhaps the most important in their annual religious observances.

Furthermore a visit to the tomb of Husain at Karbala (such a visit is known as a ziyarah) is as important to the Shi'ah - if not superior to - a pilgrimage to Mecca. If Abdul Qadir al-Jilani has displaced Muhammad in the eyes of the "Sufi-worshipping public" as Rahman has put it, Husain has likewise become the most prominent figure in the worship and convictions of the Shi'ite Muslims.

4. Some of the Tenets of Shi'ite Islam.

Apart from the major difference regarding the authority of the Caliphate/Imamate, the Shi'ah also have a number of tenets distinguishing them from the Sunnis. Like the Mu'tazilah of old (of whom we will hear more in the last section), the Shi'ah believe in a created Qur'an "and not uncreated and eternal as taught by the Asha'ira and officially accepted by Sunni Islam" (Jafri, The Origins and Early Development of Shi'a Islam, p.312).

The Shi'ah appear to be closer to the Qur'an in teaching, however, that only three periods of prayer should be observed each day. They do not deny the need for seventeen raka'at every day but, whereas the Sunnis spread these over five periods in pursuance of the hadith we have already mentioned, the Shi'ah perform them during their morning, afternoon and evening prayers.

The Shi'ah also believe that many passages of the Qur'an have a hidden meaning not readily apparent to the reader. Only the twelve Imams, they say, had a perfect knowledge of the book and its esoteric (ta'wil) interpretation.

A modern Shi'ah writer puts this in his own words: "The whole of the Quran possesses the sense of ta'wil, of esoteric meaning, which cannot be comprehended directly through human thought alone. Only the prophets and the pure among the saints of God who are free from the dross of human imperfection can contemplate these meanings while living on the present plane of existence" (Nasr, Shi'ite Islam, p.99). One cannot help feeling that this doctrine is an expedient developed to accomodate the Shi'ite tendency to read its tenets and beliefs in the Qur'an and to justify the many occasions where texts with a plain meaning are forced to yield obscure meanings not at all suggested by the original sense, and that purely to suit Shi'ite fancies. One writer in consequence defines the Shi'ah as "unsurpassed in Islam as falsifiers of history" (Hurgronje, Mohammedanism, p.17).

Another peculiar Shi'ite concept is that of "dissimulation" (taqiyah), that is, the hiding of one's faith in times of risk and danger. This practice was apparently first advocated by some of the Imams who had "declared it to be an incumbent act on their followers, so as not to press for the establishment of the 'Alid rule and the overthrow of the illegitimate caliphate" (Sachedina, Islamic Messianism, p.29). To the Shi'ah this was regarded as nothing more than an inoffensive and prudent concealment of one's allegiance, but Sunni writers have understandably attacked it as hypocritical and cowardly. One finds that Shi'ah writers today strive to exonerate their religion from such charges. Two examples of such efforts follow:

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that these are weak arguments employed purely as a token defence of an obviously vulnerable doctrine. Indeed the distinctive tenets of Shi'ism very often compare most unfavourably with Sunni Islam and there can be little doubt that Shi'ism is ultimately a defection from the original Islam of Muhammad, his companions, and the doctors of Sunni law.

5. The Occultation of the Twelfth Imam.

The great hope of the Shi'ah is the return of Muhammad ibn al-Askari, the celebrated twelfth Imam who allegedly went into hiding and will remain concealed until the world is ripe for a revolution to instal Shi'ite Islam as the major world religion and power. It is said that Muhammad, the twelfth Imam, was sent into hiding for no less than sixty-eight years (from 874 to 941 AD) in what was known as the ghaybatul-sughra (the "Lesser Occultation") and that he was finally translated out of his natural physical existence into a complete concealment in which he will remain until he returns, known as the ghaybatul-kubra (the "Greater Occultation"). A typical way in which the Shi'ah read "esoteric" (ta'wil) meanings into the Qur'an is their interpretation of the words "that which is left you by God is best for you" (Surah 11.86), which ostensibly apply to God's laws, to mean the hidden Imam who remains until the end of the world! This meaning seems to be wishful in the extreme as there is no evidence elsewhere in the Qur'an or in the Hadith to back up the return of the twelfth Imam.

Nonetheless the Shi'ah universally declare their belief in the reappearance (zuhur) and return of al-Qa'imul-Mahdi ("the one who will rise, the guided one") who, they believe will bring about peace, justice and security.

During his lesser occultation the twelfth Imam is said to have communicated with the Shi'ah through four representatives, each one known as a safir. Today he guides the leaders of the Shi'ah through indirect inspiration, the now famous ayatollahs (ayat-Allah - "sign of Allah") being regarded as the chief sources of his guidance.

It is true that many Sunni Muslims also believe that a mahdi will arise towards the end of time, but many discount this as there is no mention of such a person in either the Qur'an or the Sahihs of al-Bukhari and Muslim. The Shi'ah, however, all believe that the hidden Muhammad ibn al-Askari will be the Imam Mahdi. What is most significant, on the other hand, is the possibility that the eleventh Imam, al-Hassan al-Askari, actually had no son at all!

There was much dispute as to whether a son had been born to al-Askari and as he could not be found it became expedient to claim that he had gone into concealment. The usual explanation of the mysterious disappearance of this unknown leader is given in this account:

An investigation satisfied the Abbasid caliph at the time (al-Mutamid), however, that al-Askari had left no offspring. The doctrine of a lesser and greater ghaybah appears to have been a pious figment invented to explain the sudden and unexpected cessation of the Imamate.

There does not appear to be much in Shi'ism to commend it over and against Sunni Islam. It is, nonetheless, a major branch of Islam and one which is increasingly making its presence felt.

Muhammad and the Religion of Islam: Table of Contents

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