Islamic History, part 27: early Shiʿa traditions (632-c. 800)

Islamic History Series

So last time out we looked at the history we’ve already covered from the perspective of the emerging Shiʿa minority. Here we’ll take a (hopefully shorter) look at Shiʿism itself as it began to emerge over the first century and a half after Muhammad’s death. That will then take us back to the Sunni side of things, where we’ll look at the early development of Islamic law (a process in which a few Shiʿa imams played important roles), which will then take us into early Islamic philosophy, mysticism, the arts, and maybe someday actually back to the basic historical narrative.

Before we do that, though, I’d like to briefly explain what a terrible term “Sunni” is. Marshall Hodgson actually referred to Sunni Islam as Jamaʿi-Sunni Islam, and at that he only added the “Sunni” bit in protest. “Sunni” derives from the word sunnah, which means “path” or “flow” and refers to the life and teachings of Muhammad as the model for how a true Muslim should live his or her life. Maybe you already see the problem here; using the term “Sunni” to describe non-Shiʿa Muslims implies (or maybe it’s not even that subtle) that Shiʿa somehow ignore or reject Muhammad’s example, which of course they do not. The Shiʿa have their own traditions about the life of Muhammad that they revere just as much as Sunnis do. Hodgson argued that the term Jamaʿi (from jamaʿah, or “community”) more accurately reflected what really separates the two communities, which is that Shiʿis rely on the guidance of a leader or imam in legal/religious matters, while “Sunnis” rely on the consensus of learned scholars and the community as a whole. Needless to say, Hodgson’s attempt to rename the Sunni community didn’t take, and with this objection out of the way I’ll keep referring to it as “Sunni.”

A comparison is often made by Western writers between the Sunni-Shiʿa split and the Protestant Reformation. Sometimes this comparison is made by writers who aren’t able to understand anything that happens in the world without analogizing it to something that they already know, and sometimes it’s made by well-meaning writers who are trying to explain to their readers that, hey, we in the West don’t have any room to talk about somebody else’s inter-religious violence. Whatever the reason why this comparison keeps getting made, it’s not a particularly great one. The Sunni-Shiʿa schism happened just under 9 centuries before the Catholic-Protestant one, at a time when Islam was just beginning to organize itself, whereas Catholic Christianity was in a pretty developed form when the Protestant reformers began cropping up.

Also? This comparison really misrepresents the cause of the Sunni-Shiʿa divide. The Protestant movement was a religious movement, complete with a relatively sophisticated theological framework provided by Martin Luther, that became political when some European principalities embraced the freedom from Papal interference that came with the adoption of Protestantism. Shiʿism, by contrast, grew out of a resistance to the emerging political order that only gradually came to develop its own theological and philosophical ideas. In fact, it could be argued (has been argued) that the only cohesive “ideology” that you can hang on early Shiʿa movements is “we don’t like the people in power,” possibly with a side of “we think the people in power should be related to Muhammad somehow.” Even the Abbasid Revolution, which in the long sweep of history simply changed out one Sunni dynasty for another, could be seen in its contemporary context as a successful Shiʿa revolution that toppled the existing dynasty and replaced it with a dynasty descended from Muhammad’s uncle, Abbas. It was only after the Abbasids shed their revolutionary role and assumed the caliphate that the idea of descent from Ali became the marker of Shiʿism, which then took its name from the early shiʿat ʿAli, the partisans of Ali who pushed for him to succeed Muhammad and were disillusioned by the way things actually unfolded. To avoid confusing the issue, though, we’re just focusing on those pro-Ali folks and their particular efforts at political resistance.

By now we know the story of that political resistance, which really began when Muhammad died and the community struggled to figure out how to carry on without him. Recall that Abu Bakr’s accession to the newly created office of caliph came only after he and his supporters apparently managed to quash a movement to install Ali, who was Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, as the new leader. At the very least they had to go to Ali’s home in Medina and do…something, which depending on the source you read may have been something violent and may have caused the death of Ali’s wife (Muhammad’s daughter), Fatimah, before Abu Bakr’s succession could be confirmed. The resentment among Ali’s close followers presumably started here and grew as Ali was passed over twice more, then finally achieved the caliphate in 656 only to spend his entire truncated reign fighting rebellions. It reached the breaking point when Ali’s son, Husayn, was killed at Karbala by a caliphal army in 680.

So the core question that led to the development of Shiʿa Islam was a fairly simple one: who had a right to rule the community of believers that had been assembled by Muhammad and in response to the message he preached? The fact is that no coherent answer to this question emerged until the Umayyads seized the caliphate in 661, and their answer to it was so unsatisfactory that it couldn’t possibly prevent alternatives from developing in scattered localities throughout the empire. Think about it:

  • Abu Bakr’s accession was engineered by a quick-thinking Umar b. al-Khattab in order to fend off the very immediate possibility that the community would simply break up upon Muhammad’s death
  • Umar’s accession was designated by Abu Bakr
  • Uthman came to power thanks to a vote by an ad hoc committee put together in a rush by Umar (who was on his death bed thanks to a Persian assassin) for the purpose of choosing his successor
  • Ali finally became caliph because the rebels who assassinated Uthman and controlled Medina threatened to start killing civilians if he didn’t accept the office
  • Muʿawiyah rebelled and then became caliph almost by default when Ali was assassinated
  • Muʿawiyah’s Umayyad successors based their legitimacy essentially on the fact that, “hey, we are the ruling dynasty, so God must want it that way ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

This is about as haphazard a series of successions (three of the first four caliphs were assassinated!) as you can find, and they were followed by a dynasty that never bothered to articulate a real justification for its reign. So groups started attacking the question of political legitimacy and coming to other conclusions. We’ve already talked about the Kharijites, who argued that the most pious member of the community should be its leader, and while they never got anywhere with that it was at least an attempt to figure out why a particular person should rule.

One idea that came to have a lot of cache involved the concept of ʿilm, or knowledge, specifically the knowledge to discern right from wrong and thus uphold Muhammad’s example. Various communities naturally turned to those who had known Muhammad personally and their immediate descendents, under the belief that these men would possess an ʿilm that other believers would have to learn from them. The rebellion of Ibn al-Zubayr during the Second Fitna, for example, was driven by his follower’s belief in his grasp of ʿilm as the son of one of Muhammad’s closest companions. Ali’s followers, who were mostly concentrated in Kufa initially, contended that nobody could have as tight a grasp on ʿilm as Muhammad’s own son-in-law and his sons, most of whom were descended from Muhammad via Fatimah. These descendents came to be known as Ahl al-Bayt, or “People of the House,” styling the “House of Muhammad” as you might style the “House of Tudor.” The Abbasids, as we’ve seen, would modify this claim to justify their own right to rule, maintaining the importance of a familial connection to Muhammad but losing the bit about descent from Muhammad.

The leaders of these contrarian movements, Alid or otherwise, usually came to be known as imams, which funny enough means “leader.” For Sunnis, an imam is usually the man who leads the community prayer in a mosque, but as this was (theoretically) one of the caliph’s duties, and as the caliph was obviously a leader in many other ways, you will sometimes find the office referred to as “imam-caliph” or “caliph-imam.” Shiʿa, on the other hand, as it became clear over the years that the caliphate was out of their grasp, came to believe that the true “caliphate” had existed only when Ali held the office, and it had become defunct upon his death. They began to reject the legitimacy of even the first three caliphs, and most adopted the practice of Tabarra, or “disassociation,” which came to mean the outright cursing of those first three caliphs, along with the Umayyads (and especially Muʿawiyah) for the way they denied Ali his rightful place at the head of the community. They started to refer to the leaders of their various communities as the Imam, giving the term a singular meaning. Of course, later on, when the (Ismaʿili Shiʿa) Fatimid Dynasty got the opportunity to establish its own caliphate, its leaders didn’t hesitate to start using that title again.

One important trend that began to manifest itself in this early period was the distinction between “mainstream” Shiʿism and “radical” Shiʿism. By “mainstream” I mostly mean the early manifestations of the two major strains of Shiʿism that have survived to the present day, the Imami (Twelver) and Ismaʿili branches. As we’ve already seen, these two branches held the first six imams in common and only began to diverge after the death of the Sixth Imam, Jaʿfar al-Sadiq. This line of imams, with the exception of Husayn b. Ali, tended to stay out of politics, and their followers, who believed that Ali and his descendents were the rightful rulers of the community but who were also bound to follow their imam’s lead, tended to do likewise. They were respected (by Sunni and Shiʿa alike) religious scholars, generally occupied with collecting Hadith, or sayings of the Prophet and his companions. Also included in this group are the Zaydis, who apart from their belief in the Alid imamate were hard to distinguish from Muʿtazili Sunnis (they never adopted the practice of cursing the first three caliphs, for example, instead simply rejecting their legitimacy for the office).

Radicals, who are often referred to by the Arabic term ghulat (“extremists”), tended to embrace beliefs that placed them well outside the mainstream in terms of Islamic theology. There are a few things that can get your religious offshoot immediately drummed out of Islam. Anything that smacks of polytheism (shirk in Arabic) is the biggest no-no, but there are others including anthropomorphizing God (in any way, but especially at the extreme level, like asserting that God has ever been incarnated as a human being), belief in the transmigration of souls (so reincarnation is out), or the belief that some Shiʿa (and later Sufi) groups held that obeying shariʿah (Islamic Law) was not obligatory for “true believers.” Our friends the Kaysani, for example, held ghulat beliefs like the idea that Ali and his sons (Hasan, Husayn, and Muhammad b. al-Hanafiyah) had supernatural powers (which made them more important than Muhammad), as well as some dualist/ascetic cosmological views.

It was these ghulat groups that first began to identify their leaders as the “Mahdi” who would usher in the end of the world, a practice that eventually made its way into the Ismaʿili and Twelver communities as well (Sunnis believe in the idea of a Mahdi but reject the notion that he’s already been here). The Twelver-Ismaʿili Shiʿa also joined the more radical groups in adopting the idea of nass (“designation” of an heir) as the method by which the imamate was transferred from one imam to the next, as opposed to the Zaydis, for example, who believed the imam should be elected by the community. Nass and ʿilm (and the idea of the living Mahdi to a lesser extent) became the core principles of a Shiʿa doctrine that began to emerge under the guidance of Jaʿfar al-Sadiq and, before that, his father, Muhammad al-Baqir. This is where we see the emergence of Shiʿism as a religious sect rather than just a loose revolutionary principle.

However, it’s important not to get too wrapped up in “mainstream” vs. “radical” Shiʿism at this very early point in their history. For one thing, this is a distinction that only really came to be recognized centuries later, so we’re looking back anachronistically when we categorize these early Shiʿis in this way. For another thing, the fact is that most of what we know about, say, Twelver Shiʿi doctrine comes from a much later period after it had undoubtedly developed and changed. There is evidence to suggest that even the early Twelvers-Ismaʿilis held beliefs that would have gotten them classified as ghulat today, including anthopomorphism and a belief that the written/compiled Qurʾan had been altered by human hands in order to suppress passages that would have made it clear that Ali was meant to succeed Muhammad. It was only later, under what clearly seems to be the influence of Muʿtazilism (with a hearty extra dose of neo-Platonism for the Ismaʿilis), that these radical elements gave way to a more moderate theology.

Before we close this out and move on to talk about the early developments in Islamic law, we should also say something about geography. The earliest center of real Alid loyalty was Kufa, in modern Iraq, where Ali had established his caliphal capital and where Husayn had attempted to start a revolution against the Umayyads. But the earliest imams, starting with Hasan, had made their homes in Medina, where they practiced their religious scholarship, and they also had proponents in Mecca. From Kufa, Alid loyalties spread throughout Iraq, even to Baghdad despite its status as the Abbasid capital. Later, Alid/Shiʿi sympathies would take root in central Iran, around the cities of Qom and Rayy, and eastern Iran (Khurasan), in cities like Bukhara and Samarqand (in modern Uzbekistan). Early Shiʿism remained a minority position in all of these places (except Kufa), but these were the centers where it developed.

Next: Early Islamic (Sunni) Law and the emergence of the legal schools

Further Reading:

Hodgson’s Venture of Islam, vol 1 is essential for the intellectual/doctrinal development of the religion

Moojan Momen, An Introduction to Shiʿi Islam

Khalid Blankinship, “The Early Creed,” in Tim Winter (ed.), Classical Islamic Theology

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