Shafqna: Shīʿa Islam: History and Doctrines / Ayatullāh Jaʿfar Subḥānī
The Human Geography of Shi’ism
The Shīʿa constitute a major group within the Muslim community. They have settled in different parts of the world. Due to their contribution to the establishment of Islamic civilization, they have closely cooperated with their Muslim brethren of other sects. The Shīʿa are the majority in some Muslim countries and minorities in others. Here we mention the names of countries where Shīʿa live: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Yemen, Egypt, United Arab Leaderates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Muscat, Oman, Tibet, China, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan and other former republics of the Soviet Union, Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Singapore, North Africa, Somalia, Argentina, Britain, Italy, Germany, France, Albania, United States and Canada.
In these countries, the Shīʿa have their mosques and religious centres. What we need to know is where Shi’ism was born before spreading to other parts of the world.
Hejaz, Birthplace of Shi’ism
Hejaz, what we known today as Mecca and Medina, is the birthplace of Shi’ism. From here, this school of thought grew like a tree with branches reaching across the globe.
The Prophet named followers of Imam ʿAlī as his shīʿa (lit. ‘followers’) and officially appointed him as his successor when he was returning from his last pilgrimage to Mecca.
On his way back from Mecca, the Prophet stood atop a stockpile of camel saddles and said in clear terms: ‘He of whomever I am The Master, ʿAlī is his Master’.
Khuṭaṭ al-Shām writes: ‘The Prophet spoke very highly of ʿAlī and his household for their affection and kindness. He was the first one to refer to followers of ʿAlī as shīʿa. Shi’ism was born in the Prophet’s lifetime and a group was called Shīʿa.’
After the passing of the Prophet, opportunists ignored his appointment of ʿAlī as his successor and drove a wedge between the Prophet and his ideals. These persons monopolised the Caliphate while Imam ʿAlī used to guide people with his words and writings.
What caused Imam ʿAlī to remain silent instead of contesting their actions was the apostasy of some tribes. These apostates were led by the false-prophet Musaylama and Ṭalīḥa b. Khulayd, and others. Some people followed them blindly and Islam was close to vanishing forever. In one of his letters, Imam ʿAlī highlights this issue as follows:
‘I swear by God that I never thought that after the the Prophet the Arabs would have seized his leadership. I could never believe that they would keep the people away from me. The only thing which annoyed me was the gathering of people around that… to whom people vowed allegiance. I did stay put. But I saw with my own eyes that a group of apostates were determined to destroy the religion of Muḥammad. That was when I feared that I would soon witness the annihilation of Islam should I not help Islam and its followers. Such tragic fate would have been much more difficult for me than liberating the caliphate because this world is short-lived just like a mirage which ends or clouds which disperse. Therefore, I rose up to find a solution for destroying evil and strengthening the foothold of religion.’ (Nahj al-Balāgha)
The Imam believed that safeguarding Islam and the defeat of its enemies required him to temporarily put aside the dispute about the Caliphate. The Imam opted for silence for a quarter of a century in a bid to spare Islam any threat. Suddenly, after ʿUthmān’s murder, the followers of the Prophet went to ʿAlī’s house and demanded that he lead them. They said that would not go unless he accepted their request.
The Imam felt obliged to counter the disintegration of Islamic nation. He said: ‘If any allegiance is to be made, it must be done openly in the presence of all people of Media at the Prophet’s mosque.’
History testifies that only few people refused to join ʿAlī who said: ‘Abandon them to their own fate.’
A Rift Amongst those who Pledged Allegiance
The first rift occurred when Ṭalḥa and Zubayr broke their promises. They led a division, financed by the Umayyads, to Basra. The Imam set out for Iraq to stop them. They were suppressed in Basra and the Imam settled in Kufa. Muslims from different Arab tribes gathered around Imam ʿAlī and were promoting his views. In those days, almost all the Shīʿa were Arabs except for Salmān. Shi’ism had not yet reached Iran. Furthermore, the enemies of the Arabs were not amongst the Shīʿa.
Traces of Shi’ism still exist in Hejaz and Shīʿa are living in Mecca, Medina, Hadramut, Najran, Ahsa, Qatif and Damam. In Iraq, the Shīʿa form the majority of population, although they have historically been denied their rights because of ruthless rulers.
Shi’ism in Iraq
The Umayyad regime sought to drive the Shīʿa out of Iraq and, to that end, they resorted to all manner of repression. However, the outcome was exactly the opposite to what they had intended: Iraq became the center of Shi’ism.
The martyrdom of Imam Ḥusayn and the burial of some of the Imams in this country attracted large numbers of Shīʿa from other paerts of the Muslim world. Thanks to the presence of these shrines, religious schools and seminaries were established and the Iraqi cities of Baghdad, Kufa and Najaf, where the presence of Shīʿa was most concentrated.
Moreover, the rise of sympathetic governments and emirates in Iraq at various points in history also helped to promote Shi’ism. The Buyids in Baghdad, the Banū Mazīd in Hilla, the Hamdanids in Mosul, and the governance of Khudābanda and his son, Abū Saʿīd, all contributed to the recognition of Iraq as the center of Shīʿa faith.
The Abbasid caliphs did not maintain good relations with the Shīʿī Imams and they killed most of them by poisoning. But even then, Shīʿa scholars rose to high positions in the Abbasid Court under the cover of taqiyya (religious dissimulation). The Abbasid rulers were well aware of the faithfulness of the Shīʿa to their the Imams but they gave them posts because of their intelligence and skills.
Some of Shīʿa ministers are as follows:
Abū Salama al-Hamadānī, a minister under the Caliph al-Saffāḥ.
Muḥammad b. Ashʿath al-Khuzāʾī, a minister under al-Manṣūr.
Jaʿfar b. Ashʿath Khuzāʾī, a minister under al-Mahdī.
ʿAlī b. Yaqṭīn, a minister under Hārūn al-Rashīd.
Faḍl b. Sahl, a minister under Maʾmun.
Ḥasan b. Sahl, a minister under Maʾmun.
Abū al-Faḍl Jaʿfar b. Maḥmūd, a minister under Muʿtazz and Muhtadī
Abū Shujāʿ Ẓahīr al-Dīn Muḥammad b. al-Ḥusayn al-Hamadānī, a minister under Muhtadī.
Abū al-Maʿālī Hibat al-Dīn b. Muḥammad b. al-Muṭṭalib, minister under al-Mustaẓhar.
Muʾayyid al-Dīn Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Karim al-Qummī, minister under al-Nāṣir, al-al-Ẓahir and al-Mustanṣir.
Abū Tālib Muḥammad b. Aḥmad al-Aqlamī al-Asadī, a minister under al-Mustaʿṣim; he was so competent in his post that he was reinstated after Hulagu sacked Baghdad and put an end to the Abbasid Caliphate, his son Abūl-Faḍl ʿIzz al-Dīn became minister after him.
Under the Abbasid rule, the Shīʿa held key posts in government as viziers, treasurers and court secretaries. In the Fourth and Fifth Centuries, the Shīʿa had become so powerful that Sharīf al-Raḍī and Sharīf al-Murtaḍā were given responsibility for the Talibids (descendents of Abū Ṭālib) in Baghdad. Moreover, Sharīf al-Murtaḍā was named chief justice. Sharīf al-Raḍī and his father served as the coordinator of Ḥajj affairs. This post was later given to Ḥisām al-Dīn Jaʿfar b. Abī Firās al-Shaybānī. The post of administration of Talibid affairs was later given to Tāwūs family. Sayyid Radī al-Dīn and Ghiyāth al-Dīn held this post for some time.
After Hulagu’s triumph, the management of Islamic endowments was turned over to Nasīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī. He was succeeded by his son Fakhr al-Dīn. He stopped allocating any share of endowment to the ruling establishment.
Currently, the majority of residents in southern Iraq are Shīʿa. The central cities of Najaf, Karbala, Babel, Samawah and Diwaniyah are all populated by Shīʿa. Only the north of Iraq is dominated by Sunnīs. Shīʿa also live in Mosul and Kirkuk. (Muẓaffar, Tārīkhal-Shīʿa)
Shi’ism in Yemen
The Prophet first dispatched Khālid b. Walīd to Yemen, but to no avail. Then, he sent ʿAlī there and recalled the first delegation.
Barāʾ b. ʿĀzib says: ‘When we arrived in Yemen, we first came across the Hamdān tribe. ʿAlī read the Prophet’s letter to them and all of them converted to Islam. ʿAlī notified the Prophet of the conversion to Islam of this large tribe. After the letter was read out, the Prophet prostrated and said: ‘Peace be upon Hamdan! Then the Yemenis converted to Islam in larger groups. Since the Yemenis converted to Islam as a result of Imam ʿAlī’s preaching, the Yemenis and particularly the Hamdān tribe were very fond of him. Imam ʿAlī’s kindness had penetrated into their flesh and soul. When people asked the Prophet to appoint someone to teach them Islamic instructions, he sent ʿAlī to them and said: ‘May God guide his heart and protect his tongue.’’ (Kanz al-ʿUmmāl)
The Imam stayed in Yemen for a long time and taught the people there the principles of Islam. He explained legal issues to them, to the surprise of every Yemeni scholar. That was when ʿAlī managed to conquer the hearts of Yemenis. Due to the Yemenis’ devotion to Imam ʿAlī, the Umayyad regimes embarked on a ruthless campaign against the Imamate of the Prophet’s household in Yemen. For example, when Busr Ibn Arṭaʾa was dispatched by Muʿāwiya to suppress the Yemenis, he did not even spare their children.
Imam ʿAlī himself also had special affection for the Hamdān tribe, as demonstrated by this rhyming couplet:
‘Were I the gatekeeper of Heaven, I would told the Hamdān: “Enter in peace!”’
Zaydism in Yemen
From the beginning of the Third Century, Yaḥyā b. Ḥusayn al-ʿAlawī moved from Iraq to Yemen and invited everyone to follow Zayd b. ʿAlī’s school of thought. They accepted and, until recently, the official religion of Yemen was Zaydism.
The rule of the Zaydiyya began with the arrival Yaḥyā b. Ḥusayn and lasted for many years. The last the Imam who ruled in Yemen was Ḥamīd al-Dīn Yaḥyā al-Mutawakkil ʿAlā Allāh. He was killed along with his two sons – Ḥasan and Muḥsin – as well as his grandson, Ḥusayn b. Ḥasan in 1948, following a conspiracy by some unfaithful ministers. The Imam Badr al-Dīn replaced his father, but he was unseated in a military coup shortly thereafter. That was when the reign of Zaydiyya reached its end and the miseries of the Yemenis started. The Zaydiyaa followers, some of whom are known as Houthis, are still in conflict with the central government today.
Shi’ism in Syria and Lebanon
In the first century of Islam, Shi’ism expanded to Syria and Lebanon, more precisely in Aleppo, Baalbek and Jamal. Abū Dharr, a companion of the Prophet, was the first to spread Shi’ism in these regions. It happened exactly when ʿUthmān sent him to exile from Medina to Syria. Abū Dharr began preaching in the Syrian cities without any fear and remained faithful to Imam ʿAlī until the last.
Damascus was the capital of the Umayyad dynasty for many years, but Shi’ism even found its way into there. The names of ʿAlī and Ḥusayn have been inscribed in the mosque where also stands a symbol of Ḥusayn. In different parts of the city, there are shrines belonging to Zaynab, the daughter of Imam ʿAlī and Ruqayya, the daughter of Imam Ḥusayn. Shīʿa pilgrims regularly visit these mausoleums and pay homage to them. That is the case while there is no trace of the Umayyads, but the grave of Muʿāwiya in an extremely poor state.
Shi’ism reached its apogee in Syria when the Hamdanid dynasty ruled in Syria and Iraq. Sayf al-Dawla rendered valuable services to Shi’ism and Abu Nawwāṣ has poems praising the Prophet’s Household. A selected couplet from his poems:
The right has been trampled and God’s religion has been harmed, for the share of the Prophet’s household is in the hands of others.
Scholars of Jabal ʿĀmil
Muḥammad b. Makki (734-786), Known as Shahīd al-Awwal (‘The First Martyr’): He is a prominent figure in Shīʿa jurisprudence. He has authored many valuable books in this field, including al-Lumʿa al-Dimasqiyya, which is still studied to this day. This scholar is said to have written this book in a single week while he was imprisoned. The only source of reference available to him was al-Ḥillī’s Mukhtaṣar al-Nāfiʿ. This great figure was ultimately executed for his faithfulness to the Prophet’s household. He was stoned before being burnt and his ashes were thrown away into sea.
Zayn al-Dīn b. ʿAlī (911-966), Known as Shahīd al-Thānī (‘The Second Martyr’): He wrote al-Rawḍa al-Bahiyya, a commentary on the Lumʿa of Shahīd al-Awwal, and Masālik al-Afhām, a commentary on al-Ḥillī’s Sharāʾiʿ al-Islām. Like Shahīd al-Awwal, he was arrested for his beliefs. He was supposed to be taken alive to the Ottoman Sultan but his captor killed him and took his head instead, whereat the Sultan had the captor put to death as well.
Such crimes are not a rare occurrence; throughout history, the Shīʿa have faced similar acts of oppression. Many Shīʿa scholars have been killed merely for being Shīʿa. The book Shuhadāʾ al-Faḍīla of Amīnī provides details about the Shīʿa scholars who gave their lives in the service of Islam and Shi’ism.
In spite of this spate of killings, some still criticize Shīʿa for taqiyya. Without taqiyya as their shield, the Shīʿa would have wiped out completely. Nonetheless, despite all problems created by the Ottoman rulers and their representatives for Shīʿa in Syria, specifically under Aḥmad Pāshā Jazzār (the Ottoman governor in Damascus between 1195–1198), Jabal ʿĀmil remained the birthplace of Shi’ism and the flag-bearer of Shīʿa learning.
Shaykh Ḥurr al-ʿĀmilī has written a two-volume book entitled Amal al-Āmal fī ʿUlamāʾ Jabal ʿĀmil. In Lebanon, Baalbek is a city where Shi’ism took root as soon as Islam arrived there. Shi’ism grew in Lebanon under Hamdanid government.
Shi’ism in Egypt
Shi’ism was brought to Egypt along with Islam by a group of the Prophet’s Companions, including Miqdād, Abū Dharr, Abū Ayūb Anṣārī, Abū Rāfiʿ and ʿAmmār b. Yāsir (Khuṭaṭ al-Maqrīzī). These faithful allies of the Prophet had not forgotten about his household and they continued promoting Islam and teaching people about the Prophet’s household. When the Egyptians were fed up with the third Caliph’s ruthlessness and injustice, they went to Medina and killed ʿUthmān. Then they went to ʿAlī’s house to pledge allegiance to him. It shows that they knew who ʿAlī was.
When ʿAlī was in power, Qays b. Saʿd was appointed as the leader of Egypt. All Egyptians, except residents of a village called ‘Khurbatā’, pledged allegiance to him. (Ibn Athīr; Maqrīzī) This was the beginning of Shi’ism in Egypt. The Umayyad rulers tried to stem its growth, so when ʿAmr b. al-ʿĀs was assigned by Muʿāwiya the task of conquering Egypt, he arrested Muḥammad b. Abū Bakr, who represented Imam ʿAlī there, covered his body with donkey’s skin and set it afire in public. This heinous and brutal act caused outrage at the time. How can someone become so ruthless to commit such a crime?
However, despite the Umayyad’s best efforts, Shi’ism penetrated the hearts of the Egyptians and when the Ismaili Fatimid movement took power in Egypt in the Third Century, many people pledged alliance to them. Under this government, Shi’ism expanded across North Africa from Egypt to Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Libya.
The following traditions became customary under Fatimid rule:
Saying ‘Hayy ʿalā khayr al-ʿamal’ in the call to prayer.
Preference of ʿAlī above all other caliphs.
Sending salutations to the Prophet upon hearing his name.
Holding ʿĀshūrāʾ ceremonies to commemorate Imam Ḥusayn.
Celebrating ʿĪd al-Ghadīr marking the appointment of Imam ʿAlī as successor to the Prophet.
All these traditions spread across Egypt and its surrounding territories. However, Saladin sought to undermine the spread of Shi’ism. He committed crimes which could not be easily expressed here. He gained fame for recapturing Jersalem from the crusaders and this fame has covered-up his some of his crimes.
Imam Ḥusayn’s body and the mausoleum of his sister Zaynab are among highly visited places in Egypt.
Shi’ism in Iran
From 905 AH onwards, Shi’ism has been the official religion of Iran. However, it should be noted that Shi’ism entered Iran before the Safavid dynasty came to power. The important point is to know why the Persians so readily embraced Islam and the Prophet’s Household since the very beginning. In this regard, Orientalists have made some baseless allegations.
Persian Devotion to Shi’ism
The main reason for the Persians’ inclination to Shi’ism was Islam’s insistence on justice, equality, piety and moral values, and its condemnation of racism. These characteristics have attracted Persians and all other nations.
Persians’ Affection for the Prophet’s Household
Persians showed affection for the Prophet’s Household in reaction to the behaviour of the caliphs. When ʿAlī was Caliph, the Persians saw that any racist or discriminatory policy was repudiated. That is how he conquered their hearts and minds.
Here we list reasons which made Imam ʿAlī so attractive to them:
Fadl> b. Abī Qurra narrates from Imam al-Sādiq: ‘When the three caliphs were ruling, non-Arab Muslims met Imam ʿAlī and said: ‘We are unhappy with Arab governors. The prophet of Islam granted us equal rights and distributed state wealth equally. He even authorized non-Arabs like Salmān, Bilāl and Ṣuhayb to marry Arab women, but this group prevents everything’. Imam ʿAlī went into a meeting with Arab governors. The latter said they will never accept equality between Arabs and non-Arabs. Imam ʿAlī left the meeting angrily said: ‘They put you non-Arabs on equal footing with Jews and Christians. They let their sons marry your daughters, but they do not let their daughters marry your sons. They don’t give you anything in return for what they receive from you. Go for trade and commerce. I hear the Prophet saying: ‘Daily income is comprised of ten sections, nine of which are in trade.’ (Kāfī)
In his Ghārāt, Abū Isḥāq al-Thaqafī narrates from ʿAbbād b. ʿAbd Allāh al-Asadī, saying: ‘One Friday, I was listening to ʿAlī’s sermon. Ibn Ṣawḥān was sitting next to the pulpit. Ashʿath b. Qays arrived. He forced his way towards Imam ʿAlī, saying: ‘You hold these non-Arabs in high respect!’ Imam ʿAlī replied: ‘What can prevent me from doing so? They are worshipping God while others are reveling in this worldly life. Would you advise me forsake them and join the wrongdoers? I swear by He who created mankind I heard the Prophet saying that non-Arabs will bring you you back to Islam just as you beat them in the cave to accept Islam.’ Mughīra b. Shuʿba says Imam ʿAlī was kinder to non-Arabs than to Arabs while ʿUmar was severe with them.
Ibn Shahr Āshūb says: ‘When Iranian prisoners were taken to Medina, the second Caliph wanted them to become slaves for Arabs and their wives to be sold. Imam ʿAlī quoted the Prophet as saying that ‘cultural sensibilities must be respected even though they may not share your views. Persians are to be respected. They have surrendered to us and agreed to convert to Islam.’ Then Imam ʿAlī said: ‘O God! You see that they pardoned and I pardoned also.’ ʿUmar was left alone and he said his decision about Persians was to be undone. (Manāqib)
Ṣadūq narrates that one day Imam al-Sādiq was told that people say non-Arabs lack any dignity. The Imam dismissed such a view and said: ‘Converting to Islam voluntarily is much better than pretending to be Muslim just out of fear. Hypocrites pretended to follow Islam for fear, but non-Arabs accepted it voluntarily.’ (Maʿānī al-Akhbār)
Faḍl b. Shādhān (260 AH) says that ʿUmar never let Arabs marry non-Arab women. (Īḍāḥ)
Shaykh al-Mufīd says Salmān al-Fārsī once entered a gathering that the Prophet was addressing. Everyone respected him because of his age and his devotion to the Prophet. ʿUmar entered and saw Salmān there. He asked: ‘Why have you let him sit there?’ This question infuriated the Prophet. He took the podium and said: ‘All human beings, from Adam until now, are like the teeth of a comb. Arabs are not superior to non-Arabs. Nor are whites to blacks. The only point is piety. Salmān is an ocean of virtue and an enduring treasure. Salmān is one of us. He is a source of wisdom, reason and logic.’ (Ikhtiṣāṣ)
Thaqafī has recounted in his Ghārāt that an Arab and a non-Arab woman went to Imam ʿAlī when wealth was being distributed. The Imam gave each 25 dirhams each plus an equal amount of wheat. The Arab woman objected, saying she is Arab and deserved more. The Imam replied: ‘I see no superiority for the children of Ismāʿīl to the children of Isḥāq.’
Shaykh al-Mufīd has quoted prominent persons like Rabīʿa and ʿAmmāra saying: ‘When a group of aristocrats stopped supporting the Imam and turned to Muʿāwiya in the hope of getting more share of wealth, someone told the Imam: ‘Give this group a bigger share to dissuade them from allying with Muʿāwiya.’. The Imam replied: ‘Are you ordering me to resort to injustice in order to triumph over others?! I swear by God I will never do so as long as I am alive, the nights and days follow each other and the stars in the sky rise and set. Even if it was my own wealth I would distribute equally, not to mention God’s wealth.’ (Amālī)
These were just examples of how the Imam treated non-Arabs. Such philanthropic behaviors have attracted non-Arabs and that is why they stood with the Prophet’s Household.
Two incorrect analyses of the Persians’ tendency to Shi’ism
Zamkhashri writes in Rabīʿ al-Abrār: ‘Iranian prisoners were taken to Medina. Among them were three daughters of Yazdegerd. The prisoners were sold. The second Caliph intended to sell Yazdegerd’s daughters. The Imam said: ‘The king’s daughters should not be meted out the same treatment as others.’ The Caliph said: ‘What should be done then? We have to set prices on them and sell them to anyone who can afford it. After pricing, the Imam bought all three of them. He gave one to ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿUmar, one to his own son Imam Ḥusayn and the third one to Muḥammad b. Abū Bakr. After some time, all three of them had children. ʿAbd Allāh’s son was Sālim. Ḥusayn’s was Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn and Muḥammad’s was al-Qāsim. All three were cousins.’
Some may imagine that the Persians show devotion for the Prophet’s household just due to Ḥusayn’s marriage with the daughter of Iran’s former King, Yazdegerd. I do not think that a researcher could offer such an analysis because:
First, this story is not authentic and some researchers have cast doubt on its veracity. In his book on Imam ʿAlī b. al-Ḥusayn, Jaʿfar Shahīdī lists reasons to discount such a story.
Second, if Ḥusayn b. ʿAlī was the only one to have married the daughter of Iran’s king such an analysis could have been acceptable, but the sons of the Caliph are also reported to have married the Iranian king’s daughters. So why don’t the Persians show any devotion to them?
Still more unfounded is Aḥmad Amīn’s theory, which he presents in Fajr al-Islām. He says: ‘Since the Arab combatants plundered the Iranian throne and put an end to its rule, the Persians decided to take their revenge under cover of devotion to the Prophet’s household. Therefore, they incorporated Jewish, Christian and Zoroastrian beliefs into Islam. The Persians also took advantage of devotion to the Prophet’s household for their country’s independence and therefore they were not obedient to the central government.’
This baseless theory has been spread by American writer Theodore Lothrop Stoddard in The New World of Islam, which has been translated into Arabic by Shakīb Arsalān. Rāshid Riḍa and Muḥib al-Dīn al-Khaṭīb have also promoted this idea.
Since their conversion to Islam, the Persians have been at the forefront of service to this religion. Moreover, many of the most prominent ḥadīth collectors, historians and scholars were all Persians and there is no difference between Iranian Shīʿa and Sunnīs in this regard. Across many centuries, Persians have served Islam and Muslims. Let’s keep in mind that the compilers of the six main books of Sunnī traditions and four main books of Shīʿa ones all had Persian backgrounds.
The Umayyad rulers did their utmost to eclipse Shi’ism. The Abbasid caliphs also sought to stop its spread. But in spite of this opposition, Shi’ism made headway over the centuries and Shīʿa governments of various kinds appeared across the globe. Some of them are as follows:
The Idrisids in Morocco (194-305 AH)
The Alids in Daylam (205-304 AH)
The Buyids in Iraq and Persia (321-447 AH)
The Hamdanids in Syria and Iraq (293-392 AH)
The Fatimids in Egypt (296-567)
The Safawids in Iran (905-1133 AH)
The Zands in Iran (1148-1193 AH)
The Qajars in Iran (1200-1344 AH)
There were also Shīʿa governments and principalities in India as well. A separate book will be needed to speak about the founders of these kingdoms. Muḥammad Al-Jawād Mughniyya’s al-Shīʿa wa al-Tashayyuʿ has more details about Shīʿa governments.
Shīʿa Centres of Learning
Islam is a religion of science and learning. It always seeks to promote mankind from ignorance to the highest level of enlightenment and perfection. That is why Islam has always encouraged people to learn to read and write. Islam seeks to persuade mankind to study nature. It is hardly surprising then, that the Shīʿa set up schools and universities, some of which are as follows:
The School of Medina
Medina was the first center of Shīʿa learning. A group of Companions who were faithful to Imam ʿAlī, including Ibn ʿAbbās, Salmān, Abū Dharr and Abū Rāfiʿ managed to spread his teachings. Then came the companions of Imam Sajjād like Saʿīd b. Musayyib, Qāsim b. Muḥammad b. Abū Bakr and Abū Khālid Kābūli. They established the School of Medina during the lifetime of Imam al-Bāqir and Imam al-Sādiq. People from everywhere came to this school for learning. The school of Imam al-Bāqir and Imam al-Sādiq was a big educational center where many people studied.
The School of Kufa
As we mentioned earlier, Imam ʿAlī made Kufa as his capital after he left Medina. A group of individuals thirsty for knowledge were taught by him in Kufa.
In his Ṭabaqāt al-Kubrā, Ibn Saʿd names some of Imam ʿAlī’s students who settled in Kufa and promoted his teachings there. In the face of the insistence of Abū al-ʿAbbās al-Saffāḥ, Imam al-Sādiq even left Medina and spent two years living in Kufa.
Imam al-Sādiq found the political conditions appropriate for promoting the teachings of the Prophet’s Household. The Umayyad government has just been overthrown and the Abbasids had not yet consolidated their grip on the Muslim world. The Imam had a good chance to render this service.
Ḥasan b. ʿAlī describes Kufa University as follows: ‘I saw 900 ḥadīth narrators in the Mosque of Kufa. All of them narrate from Jaʿfar b. Muḥammad.’ Najāshī describes the narrator himself as a prominent author with many books (Najāshī). The School of Kufa also trained prominent jurists like Abān b. Taghlib (d. 141AH), Muḥammad b. Muslim al-Ṭaʾifī (d. 150 AH) and Zurāra b. Aʿyyan (d. 150 AH). Shīʿa jurists authored as many as 6,600 books in Kufa, 400 of which are about principles of aḥādīth. (Wasāʾilal-Shīʿa)
The School of Kufa was not limited to ḥadīth, exegesis and jurisprudence though. Other branches of Islamic science were also taught there. Prominent authors like Hishām b. Muḥammad al-Kalbī, who has authored more than 200 books, Ibn Abī ʿUmayr, who penned 194 books, Ibn Duʾāl, with 100 books, and the alchemist Jābir b. Hayyān and Ibn Shadhān with 280 books are all graduates of this school.
The School of Qumm and Rayy
When the Persians embraced Islam most of them became Sunnīs. However, certain spots in Iran had a strong Shīʿa presence. Qumm, Rayy, Kāshān and parts of Khurasan were populated by Ashʿarīs who had left Yemen and Kufa to settle in Qumm and were all Shīʿa. That was how Shi’ism spread in Iran. The School of Kufa was also blossoming and even though the Abbasid caliphs did not stop persecuting the Shīʿa, its teaching still made headway. After Ibrāhīm b. Hāshim al-Kūfī, a student of Yūnus b. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān, himself a disciple of Imam al-Riḍā, moved to Qumm, this center gradually became more prominent because those studying there heard aḥādīth from both Qumm and Kufa. The sympathetic Buyid government also aided this blossoming and the first group of ḥadīth compilers graduated from these schools. Some of them are:
ʿAlī b. Ibrāhīm al-Qummī (d. 307 AH).
Muḥammad b. Yaʿqūb al-Kulaynī (d. 329 AH), the compuler of al-Kāfī.
ʿAlī b. Ḥusayn b. Bābuwayh (d. 329 AH), the father of Shaykh al-Ṣadūq.
Jaʿfar b. Muḥammad b. Qūlawayh (285-368), a student of Kulaynī and Mufīd.
Muḥammad b. ʿAlī b. Bābuwayh, known as Shaykh al-Ṣadūq (306-381), the author of many books of traditions, law and theology.
These prominent figures were all graduates of the School of Qumm and Rayy. Ḥusayn b. Rūh, one of the Four Representatives of Imam al-Mahdī during the Lesser Occultation, sent his Taʾdīb to jurists in Qumm and said: ‘Please give your opinions on this book. If anything is wrong, please inform us.’ In response, they said: ‘This book is fully authentic.’ (Shaykh al-Ṭūsī, Ghayba) This report and others reveal the importance of this school at the time.
The School of Baghdad
When the Buyids ruled Baghdad and the surrounding regions, a fourth school was established for the Shīʿa in Baghdad. Some of the great personalities to graduate from this school are:
Shaykh al-Mufīd (336-413): He was a great Shīʿa figure of his own time. Both friends and opponents have both acknowledged his level of knowledge, sagacity and piety. He was the most prominent teacher of theology in his age. He used to debate with theologians of all schools. He taught at the Barāthā Mosque and authored nearly 200 books.
Sharīf al-Murtaḍā (355-436): He was the second major Shīʿa figure in the Fifth Century. Thaʿālabī describes him as follows: ‘He is the foremost in learning, courtesy, knowledge, greatness and politeness.’ Ibn Khalikān says: ‘He was a without peer in theology, literature and poetry.’ Najāshī, one of his students, says: ‘He had such a mastery of Islamic sicence that nobody could beat him.’ He studied under Shaykh al-Mufīd and his books include al-Intiṣār, Tanzīh al-Anbiyāʾ and Jamāl al-ʿIlm wa al-ʿAmal.
Sharīf al-Raḍī (359-406) was another prominent scholar of this time in multiple fields of learning. Like his brother, Sharīf al-Murtaḍā, he studied under Shaykh al-Mufīd. His books include Khaṣāʾiṣ al-Aʾimma, Maʿānī al-Qurʾān and Ḥaqāʾiq al-Taʾwīl.
Shaykh al-Ṭūsī (385-460): He was the head of the sect and a seminal figure. He studied under both Shaykh al-Mufīd and Sharīf al-Murtaḍā. His books, including Tahdhīb and Istibsār, are references for scholars and jurists even today.
They are more than a few graduates from the School of Baghdad. Tens of theologians studied at this university. This school reached its apogee under the Buyids. However, the arrival of the Seljuks in Baghdad fanned the flames of division between Shīʿas and Sunnīs. The houses of Shīʿas in the Karkh quarter of Baghdad were set ablaze; Shaykh al-Ṭūsī’s residence was invaded and his books were burnt. Even the Shaykh’s chair was set ablaze.
The School of Najaf
The Seljuk invasion of Baghdad and the attacks against the Shīʿa, including Shaykh al-Ṭūsī, left innocents dead and books destroyed. After that, the Shaykh left Baghdad for Najaf where he established another school near a cemetery. Before Shaykh al-Ṭūsī’s departure from Baghdad, there was some Islamic learning taking place in Najaf, but on a much more basic level. Najāshī says: ‘He has a book titled ʿAmal al-Ṣulṭān. He authorized me to unveil it in Najaf in 400 AH.’ (Najāshī)
Shaykh al-Ṭūsī founded the School of Najaf. Over the past ten centuries, this school has been a center for training theologians, ḥadīth scholars, exegetes, philosophers and belletrists. To learn more about this school, Māḍī al-Najaf wa Hāḍirhā by Shaykh Jaʿfar Āl Būya is the best reference work.
The School of Hilla
Although Najaf was the center of learning and shone like a star in the firmament of knowledge and literature, the nearby city of Hilla was another important intellectual centre for the Shīʿa. Its prominent graduates include:
Muḥaqqiq al-Ḥillī: Najm al-Dīn Abū al-Qāsim Jaʿfar b. Saʿīd. His student, Ibn Dāwūd describes him as follows: ‘He was a great scholar and without equal, an expert in expression and argument.’ He died in 676 AH. (Ibn Dāwūd, Rijāl). One of his memorable works is Sharāʾiʿ al-Islām, which has been printed in four volumes. He summarized this work into al-Mukhtaṣar al-Nāfiʿ. His commentary on this work is unique.
ʿAllāma al-Ḥillī: His name was Jamāl al-Dīn Ḥasan b. Yūsuf b. Muṭahhar (648-726). He learnt jurisprudence from Muḥaqqiq al-Ḥillī, and philosophy and mathematics from Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī. He was famous for his intelligence as was recognized as a theologian even while he was still young. The most important two of his books are as follows:
Tadhkirat al-Fuqahāʾ: Eighteen volumes of this book have already been printed and the rest are being prepared.
Muntahā al-Matlab fī Taḥqīq al-Madhhab: It is a fourteen-volume book of jurisprudence which deals with all the chapters of law until that of Jihād.
Fakhr al-Muhaqqiqīn: His name is Muḥammad b. Ḥasan b. Yūsuf (682-771). He is ʿAllāma al-Ḥillī’s son and student. ʿAllāma al-Ḥillī clearly felt a great deal of affection for him as he mentions him in his books and has left a testament to his son at the end of his Qawāʿid. His students include Muḥammad b. Makkī known as Shahīd al-Awwal. Other prominent graduates of this school are Ibn Ṭāwūs, Ibn Warrām, Ibn Namā and Ibn Abī al-Fawāris.
The Fatimid dynasty was founded in the Second Century and grew to encompass the lands between the Atlantic Ocean and the Red Sea. There was a persistent rivalry between the Fatimids of North Africa and the Abbasids of Baghdad.
Muʿizz al-Dīn, the Fatimid Caliph, was a enlightened ruler who was very fond of knowledge and literature. He made Cairo his capital and established al-Azhar University there. He encouraged the spread of Shi’ism in his domain; all mosques were obliged to add the formula ‘ḥayy ʿalā khayr al-ʿamal’ (‘hasten to the best of deeds’ – which was not used by Sunni Muslims) in their calls to prayer. Black clothing, the colour of the Abbasids, was prohibited. Muslims in general, and Egyptians in particular, owe a great deal of their culture and learning to the Fatimids. It was, after all, the Fatimids who founded al-Azhar University. Sadly, its role was undermined when Saladin toppled the Fatimids. However, it is worthwhile studying the history of the Fatimids to learn about their contributions to science and learning.
The author of Mukhtaṣar Tārīkh al-ʿArab writes: ‘The Fatimid government was always supportive of intellectual development and afforded respect for its scholars. Under the Fatimid rule, faculties and libraries were established and many books on science, technique and astronomy were transferred there. Students were provided with generous facilities for education. The Fatimid caliphs held debates on mathematics, logic, jurisprudence and medicine. Teachers of these disciplines, attired specially, were received by the Caliphs.’ According to history, ‘The Caliph used to spend forty-three million dirhams every year on the faculties of education and even invited teachers from Asia and Spain to address the House of Knowledge to promote the reputation of the university.’
During the Umayyad period, Syria was their base of operations. After their overthrow by the Abbasids and the rise of the Buyids in Iraq and the Hamadanids in Mosul and Aleppo, the Shīʿa also managed to centres of learning in Jabal Amil and Aleppo to train students. Among the graduates of Aleppo scientific center are the family of Ibn Zuhra, who have left numerous intellectual and jurisprudential works. Jabal Amil experienced many turns of fortune throughout history. Under the rule of the Ottoman governor Jazzār Pāshā, it suffered a serious blow.
Other Centres of Learning
Shīʿa intellectual centres are not limited to what we mentioned above. Numerous centres were opened in what are today Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, particularly in the cities of Herat and Mumbai. A sort of intellectual enthusiasm spread over Southeast Asia in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. Those willing to learn more can read books on these countries as well as Yemen and Oman.
From the advent of the Safavids in Iran (905 AH), many Iranian cities saw the establishment of intellectual centres. The main cities for such centres were Isfahan, Tehran, Tabriz, Qazvin, Zanjan, Shiraz, Ahvaz and Khorasan. In 1340 AH, the senior cleric Ayat Allāh ʿAbd al-Karīm Yazdī Hāʾirī (1274-1355) established a center of learning in Qumm and managed to attract students from both inside and outside of Iran. Over the past ninety years, hundreds of theologians, ḥadīth collectors and exegetes have been trained in this school. At present, more than 40,000 students of different nationalities are studying there. Following Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, its progress picked up speed and is currently a unique Shīʿa school in the world.
Statistics About Shi’ism
Since many statistics centres are controlled by people who are unsympathetic to Islam or Shi’ism, many of the figures released about Islamic sects are unreliable and they could not be considered as official data. What could be said for certain is that Shi’ism has fifty-one sub-sects, including the Zaydī and Ismāʿīlī branches. However, the majority of Shīʿa are Twelvers.
Sources on Shīʿa Jurisprudence and Theology
Like other Islamic schools of thought, the Shīʿa depend on the Qur’an and the Sunna of the Prophet. In addition to this, the Shīʿa rely on the traditions narrated by the Imams who were the keepers of the Prophet’s knowledge. Moreover, one need not be a prophet to be divinely educated. A similar case is that of Khidr, whom God describes as follows: ‘They found one of Our servants whom We had granted a mercy from Ourselves, and taught him a knowledge from Our own.’ (Q18:65)
Khidr was not a prophet, but he possessed divinely-inspited knowledge. The prophet Moses depended on Khidr’s knowledge and was divinely commanded to learn from him. So why can the infallible Shīʿa Imams, who succeeded the Prophet, not be like Khidr?
Therefore, scholars, jurists and theologians enjoy four categories of knowledge: the Qur’an, the Prophet’s Sunna, traditions from the Shīʿa Imams, and wisdom. They also trust any issue upon which Muslim scholars, particularly Shīʿa, have reached a consensus.
Undoubtedly, the Qur’an has many details which need to be explained. Since the Prophet did not live long enough to interpret everything, he assigned the task to his Household. Not just anyone can interpret the Qur’an – they must have a sufficient level of knowledge first. Throughout their life, the infallible Shīʿa Imams trained jurists and theologians who have, in turn, written books for the future generations. Here are the most important of them:
Uṣūl Arbami’a: notebooks of traditions compiled by 400 companions of Imam al-Bāqir, Imam al-Sādiq, Imam al-Kāẓim and Imam al-Riḍā.
Al-Maḥāsin: compiled by Aḥmad b. Muḥammad b. Khālid al-Barqī, (d. 272 AH).
Al-Jāmiʿ: compiled by Aḥmad b. Muḥammad b. Abī Naṣr Bazanṭī, (d. 221 AH).
Nawādir al-Ḥikma: compiled by Muḥammad b. Aḥmad b. Yaḥyā b. ʿImrān al-Ashʿarī (d. c. 293 AH).
There is also a second category of companions of the Shīʿī Imams who have compiled traditions:
Kulaynī, author of al-Kāfī, (d. 329 AH). This book was written over the course of 20 years (Najāshī) and contains some 16,200 narrations. ‘The narrations in Kāfī are more numerous than those in the six major works compiled by Sunnīs.’ says Shahīd. (Luʾluʾ al-Baḥrayn)
Muḥammad b. ʿAlī b. al-Ḥusayn, known as Ṣadūq (306-381 AH). He is the author of al-Faqīh which contains 5,963 aḥādīth.
Muḥammad b. Ḥasan Ṭūsī (385-460 AH), author of Tahdhīb al-Aḥkām, and al-Istibṣār with 13,590 aḥādīth and 5,511 aḥādīth respectively. (Mustadrak)
These aḥādīth were compiled throughout the fourth and fifth centuries. There also collections of aḥādīth after the tenth century.
Wasāʾil al-Shīʿa, compiled by Muḥammad b. Ḥasan Ḥurr al-ʿĀmilī (d. 1104 AH): This book has been printed in 30 volumes. It has previous editions too.
al-Wāfī, compiled by Muḥammad b. Murtaḍā Fayḍ al-Kāshānī (1007-1091 AH); It has been published in 26 volumes.
Biḥār al-Anwār, authored by Muḥammad Bāqir al-Majlisī (1038-1110 AH), printed in 110 sections: It is one of the most comprehensive collections of aḥādīth.
These three authors have rendered valuable services to the Shīʿa tradition. However, compilation of aḥādīth reached its peak in the Fourteenth Century:
al-Mustadarak ʿalā Wasāʾil al-Shīʿa, compiled by traditionist Nūrī (1254-1320 AH): This book has collected aḥādīth which Shaykh Ḥurr al-ʿĀmilī did not include in Wasāʾil. However, like other books of aḥādīth, this one also needs to be scrutinized for authenticity.
Jāmiʿ Aḥadīth al-Shīʿa, compiled under supervision of the late Ayat Allāh Burujurdī (1292-1380 AH), this book collects more than 50,000 aḥādīth and is a valuable book of Shīʿa traditions.
We have briefly reviewed the history of Shi’ism, its major figures and their geographical distribution. Now, one can see that Shīʿa is no minor or underground movement. In fact, the Shīʿa are present in almost all countries of the world and they have served the cause of Islam and Muslims greatly over the past fourteen centuries.
Methodological Notes for Writing on Shīʿa Faith and History
We have recommendations for non-Shīʿa authors who intend to write about Shi’ism.
Shi’ism is not born out of temporary policies formulated following the departure of the Prophet. It is as pure as Islam and is no different from it. Islam and Shi’ism are like both sides of the same coin. Shi’ism is enshrined in Islam and lies within the framework of following the Prophet’s household.
There are certainly issues in the School of Shi’ism which may look inaccurate and new for the Sunnīs. Badāʾ, the infallibility of the Imams, the birth of Imam al-Mahdī and his longevity are cases in point. In these cases, authors should study Shīʿa reasoning without any prejudice they will see that whatever the Shīʿa say has the backing of the Qur’an and Prophetic traditions.
Shi’ism is not merely a historical phenomenon. To this day it is a lively, vibrant tradition with its own followers, universities and libraries. Anyone who intends to write any book on Shi’ism will have to communicate with Shīʿa scholars and benefit from their guidelines. The books written by Orientalists are often unreliable because they take a hypercritical approach to Islam.
However, there are extremist figures in every Islamic sect. These extremists habitually misinterpret everything and therefore their books and attitudes should not set any criteria for judgment. We see some contemporary authors accusing the Shīʿa of having distorting the Qur’an and they refer to Faṣl al-Khiṭāb written by the traditionist Nūrī. However, this book is a collection of undocumented aḥādīth mainly extracted from the Sunnī books. Shīʿa scholars have already discredited it.
A Sunnī graduate of al-Azhar, al-Furqān, has written a book distorting the Qur’an. Even al-Azhar scholars have rejected the authenticity of this book whose copies are still available everywhere. Basically, we clear all Islamic acts of such charges and consider such moves as a conspiracy by enemies of Islam to cause division amongst Muslims.
Instead, to become familiar with the genuine beliefs of the Shīʿa, an author must refer to their books. However, nothing could be achieved by referring collections of aḥādīth, some of which are unreliable and undocumented, in insolation. The authenticity of a book does not mean the accuracy of each and every ḥadīth in the book. Unfortunately, this principle has been ignored by most authors.
Authors must take into account the fact that the collections of Shīʿa aḥādīth are totally different from the books of narrations of Sunnī scholars. The Sunnīs consider Bukhārī and Muslim the most reliable sources of traditions while the only truly one-hundred-percent reliable source for Shīʿa Muslims is the Qur’an. Whatever one may see in the books of aḥādīth does not necessarily reflect the Shīʿa faith.
There is clear difference between faith and practices. Faith is unchangeable and followers accept it intrinsically because they rule out any possibility of diversion. But as far as the practices are concerned, followers may accept them on the basis of a practical consensus. Faith can only be derived from the Qur’an and the authentic, successively-transmitted traditions (i.e. traditions that are so widely narrated byt so many reliable sources that they could not have possibly been fabricated).
We mentioned earlier that taqiyya is an Islamic principle, but this issue is sometimes twisted by those who say that Shīʿa books could not be relied upon because they might be hiding their true beliefs. These doubts have been cast by Pakistani author Iḥsān Ilāhī Ẓāhir and it shows that they have not properly understood the practice of taqiyya because taqiyya is a personal issue and it is applied anytime the life and properties of humans are in danger. This principle never allows Shīʿa scholars to write their books based on the principle of taqiyya in a bid to protect their life and properties. I assure all authors that no Shīʿa scholar has every authored any book based on taqiyya. All books written by the Shīʿa scholars are authentic representations of their own views.
Sunnī scholars regard Bukhārī and Muslim’s books as the most authentic after the Qur’an. However, scholars should consult aḥādīth from these so-called authentic books and make their own judgments.
Abū Zaḥrāʾ, a senior scholar in al-Azhar, enumerates the reasons for the spread of Shi’ism as follows:
They do not believe in closing the gate of ijtihād. That is why all social, economic and psychological problems are studied very closely before fatwas are passed in line with Islamic principles.
There are lots of quotes on Shīʿa jurisprudence. Theologians will have the chance to express themselves as long as they do not go far from the principles of ijtihād.
Twelvers are seen across the globe, stretching from China to Europe. It is like a stream running across different lands. It gets the color of any territory it flows into without losing its freshness.
There are lots of Shīʿa jurists who are determined to resolve the problems. It is a God-given benediction for the Shīʿa to have such responsible scholars. (al-Shīʿa wa al-Tashayyuʿ)
Some opportunists accuse Shīʿa of trying to alter the words of the Qur’an while they have never read the history of Shi’ism; they do not know any statements from the Shīʿī Imams, nor do they know about the Book of Fāṭima, which they mistake for the Qur’an. These opportunists even do not know the meaning of muṣḥaf. God says in the Qur’an: ‘When the scrolls are unrolled.’ (Q81:10) The Book of Fāṭima is just a collection of what has been dictated by her father and written down by her husband ʿAlī. Some aḥādīth say the Book of Fāṭima is about future events. Imam al-Sādiq describes the Book of Fāṭima as follows: ‘There is not even a single word from the Qur’an in it. They are all the Prophet’s narrations dictated by him’. Kulaynī says: ‘Manṣūr asked the jurists of Medina a question about Zakāt and Imam al-Sādiq was the only one to respond. When asked to explain what his reference was, he said Fāṭima’s book.’ (Kāfī)
The Imam always refers to the Book of Fāṭima as book to avoid any mistake. There is nothing ambiguous and opportunists may be only trying to take advantage of muṣḥaf as a pretext. In that case, the Shīʿa should also say the Sunnīs refer to the Book of ʿĀʾisha. Suyūṭī quotes Hamīda bt. Abī Yūnus as saying: ‘My father was eighty when he read in the Book of ʿĀʾisha that God and His angels send their salutations to the Prophet and believers must always send blessings upon the Prophet.’ (al-Itqān)
With these points, we finish review of the origins of Shi’ism and the contributions of its followers to Islamic civilization. We accomplished our task and it is now up to the reader to draw their own conclusions.
We ask God to bestow practical unity on the Islamic society as He has granted them belief in Dvine Unity. He has the best answers. Peace be upon the Prophet and his pure progeny.
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