Shiism is (after Sunnism) the second largest branch of Islam, with Shi’a Muslims numbering at least 200 million people worldwide. Shi’a Islam is the state religion of Iran, and there are large Shi’i populations in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Pakistan. Despite that, the history of Shi’ism remains widely misunderstood and, what’s worse, often misrepresented.
The history of Shi’ism goes back to the earliest decades of Islam. The Shi’a (as followers of Shi’ism are collectively known) take their name from the Arabic expression shi’at Ali, “Ali’s faction”, referring to the supporters of Ali ibn Abi Talib (d. 661, pictured), the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. This faction wanted Ali to lead the Muslim community after the Prophet’s death in 632 CE, believing that God had ordained the Prophet’s family members as the rightful leaders of the faithful. It is this belief that sets the Shi’a apart from Sunni Muslims: put simply, the Shi’a believe that the Ahl al-Bayt, the “People of the Household”, i.e. the Prophet’s descendants, are part of the divine plan.
Unfortunately for the supporters of Ali’s claim, however, Ali was beaten to the position of Caliph (Arabic Khalifa, successor of the Prophet) by no less than three other claimants, none of whom were blood relations of Muhammad. The first three Caliphs – Abu Bakr, ‘Umar ibn Khattab, and ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan – together with ‘Ali, the fourth Caliph, are collectively known by Sunnis as the “Rightly-Guided Caliphs”. For the Shi’a, however, there was nothing rightly-guided about the first three Caliphs, who they claimed had taken what was rightfully ‘Ali’s.
Battle of Karbala
This disappointment soon became a familiar pattern within the history of Shi’ism. ‘Ali was Caliph for just six years before he was murdered in 661, at which point leadership passed to Mu’awiya ibn Abi Sufyan, the first of the Umayyad Caliphs and a hated figure in the eyes of the Sunnis. Mu’awiya was succeeded by his son, Yazid. Meanwhile ‘Ali’s son Husayn refused to give up his family’s claim, but was brutally killed along with many of his followers by Yazid’s army at the infamous Battle of Karbala in 680, an event that is still commemorated every year by the Shi’a on the festival of ‘Ashura, a day of mourning for Husayn and his family. (Pictured – a nineteenth century depiction of the Battle of Karbala by Abbas Al-Musavi, stored at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Click to enlarge).
Those early decades may have confined the Shi’a to eternal minority status, at least in the context of the wider Muslim community, yet Karbala was by no means the end of the Shi’a as prominent theological and political players within Islam. Though they had been denied the Caliphate, Husayn’s descendants were recognised by the Shi’a as their rightful imams, divinely appointed spiritual leaders who were said to be infallible and to know the Qur’an’s hidden meaning.
The largest community of Shi’a believe that there were twelve imams, and so are known as the Twelvers. According to this view, the twelfth and final imam Muhammad ibn al-Hassan went into occultation in 872 and is still alive. He will return as the Mahdi, the bringer of the End Times in Islamic eschatology. It is this branch of Shi’ism that is found in Iran today.
After Ali and Husayn, perhaps the most important imam in the history of the Shi’a was the sixth, Ja’far al-Sadiq (d.765), who is credited with codifying Shi’i theology, practice and law. Ja’far also inadvertently contributed to a split in the Shi’a community. When his first son and the seemingly designated heir Ismail predeceased him, many assumed that the imamate should automatically pass on Ja’far’s death to his next son, Musa al-Kazim. This group later became the Twelvers.
Others, however, argued that Ismail had in fact not died before his father, and had simply gone into hiding to escape ‘Abbasid persecution. This group became the Ismailis, who follow the line of Ismail’s son Muhammad. The Ismailis would later leave a prominent mark on Islamic history in the form of the Fatimid Caliphate, an Ismaili empire that at various times from 909 to 1171 included the whole of North Africa, the Levant and parts of the western coast of the Arabian Peninsula.
Far from being a marginal presence or a mere heterodox movement within the early history of Islam, then, Shi’ism played a vital role in defining the Islamic World of later centuries.