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.
The outcome of the ‘Abbasid Revolution of 747-750 CE was unambiguous: the ruling Umayyad dynasty was deposed from the caliphate, at that time the supreme political and religious authority in the Islamic empire, and in their place was installed a member of the ‘Abbasid family, which traced its origins back to the Prophet Muhammad’s uncle al-‘Abbas. As for the rest, there is considerable confusion, particularly over the basis of the ‘Abbasid family’s claim to be legitimate rulers of the empire. In order to make sense of this confusion, and to properly understand the events of 747-750, it is necessary to appreciate the nature of authority in Islam, and in particular the divide between Sunnis and Shi’a on this issue, as well as the particular political situation in the Middle-East in the 8th century.
The Muslim World Divided
The Sunnis and the Shi’a make up the wider nation of Muslims. The divide between the two is essentially political in origin, dating from the debate over who should succeed Muhammad as leader of the ummah(Islamic nation). The Shi’a are so named because they descend from the shi’at ‘Ali, the Party of ‘Ali, Muhammad’s nephew and son-in-law. This party proposed that the religious and political leader of the Muslims, whom they called the imam, should be a descendant of the Prophet. In time, mainstream Shi’ism would insist that the imam be descended from Muhammad through the line of ‘Ali and his wife Fatima, Muhammad’s daughter. At the time of the ‘Abbasid Revolution, however, there was not such a fixed Shi’i orthodoxy regarding the lineage of the imam. Indeed, to talk about Sunnis and Shi’a at this point at all is something of an anachronism, as there was by no means the clear split that one sees today. What is most important to remember is that in the mid-8th century there were several proto-Shi’i movements who stirred up rebellion against the Umayyad Caliphate in the name of a member of the noble family of the Prophet.
By the mid-8th Century, the Islamic world had reached a moment of spiritual crisis. The Umayyad Caliph, the successor to the Prophet Muhammad as leader of the Muslim community, ruled like an old-style Persian king, and there was general consensus that Muhammad’s vision, articulated in the Qur’an and his own life, was in abeyance.
In response, many Muslims proposed a new society run on a more explicitly Islamic form of piety. Whilst some looked to a newly-conceived religious law, the Shari’a, and others to Greek rationality, a third group, centred in modern day Iraq, proposed that the true Islam consisted in turning away from all else but God. In time, these renunciants were to be named “Sufis”, on account of the woollen cloaks that they donned.
The formative stage of Sufism
The early Sufism of the Basran school was characterised by asceticism, the rejection of the trappings of the material world. Soon, other forms of Sufi piety developed amongst the mystics of 8th and 9th century Iraq. Rabi’a, the greatest female Sufi, was the first to stress unconditional love of God, rejecting the concern of the Shari’a-minded for the rewards of Paradise in favour of direct vision of God in the here and now.
Also around this time were Junayd and Bayazid Bistami, who came to represent respectively the “sober” and “intoxicated” forms of mysticism, the former more closely adhering to the law, and the latter based upon the quest for a trance-like state of God consciousness, for which the repeated chanting of God’s name (dhikr) was employed. One disciple of Junayd’s who became particularly notorious in his own day, and a model for later Sufis, was Hallaj, who, on realising the Sufi’s goal of seeing no separation between himself and God, famously declared, “Ana al-Haqq!” (I am the Truth!), for which he was executed (pictured) by the authorities. This concluded the formative stage of Sufism.