The term ‘Shi’a’ means ‘follower’, and now refers, conventionally, to the group of Muslims who, after the death of the Holy Prophet, believed that the function of leadership in the Islamic community was the prerogative of ‘Ali and his successors, regarded as ma’sum. According to the historical record, the Prophet repeatedly spoke, throughout his life, and on different matters, about the virtues of ‘Ali, of his nobility, and also of his leadership qualities, second only to the Prophet’s own. These sterling tributes and commendations of ‘Ali resulted, according to well-attested narrations, in the formation of a group around ‘Ali, in the very lifetime of the Prophet; a group that became known as Shi’at ‘Ali, ‘the followers of ‘Ali’. This group, after the death of the Prophet, remained true to their earlier conviction; they could not have favoured anyone above the person they believed to have been designated by the Prophet of God as his successor. Thus it was that in his lifetime and after his death a group became known as the Shi’a. This fact has been amply recorded by writers of different perspectives.
One writer, Nawbakhti (d.310 ah) writes as follows: ‘The word “Shi’a” is a term referring to those who, in the time of the Prophet of God and after him, regarded ‘Ali as the [rightful] Imam and caliph, breaking away from others and attaching themselves to
Abu’l-hasan al-Ash’ari says: ‘The reason why this group is called “Shi’a” is because they were followers of ‘Ali, giving him precedence over the other companions.’
Al-Shahrastani writes: ‘The word “Shi’a” refers to those who followed ‘Ali in particular, believing that he had been designated as heir, Imam and caliph [by the Prophet].’
Therefore, the history of this group is embedded in the history of Islam itself, its commencement not being separable from the origins of the religion itself; Islam and Shi’ism manifest themselves concurrently. In Article 86, we will show how the Prophet, from the first days of his open preaching, gathered together his clan, the Banu Hashim, declaring to them that ‘Ali was his heir and successor; and afterwards, on various occasions, especially at the day of Ghadir, formally proclaimed ‘Ali to be his successor.
Shi’ism, then, was neither the result of the conspiracy of the people of Saqifa, nor did it come about through the events associated with the murder of ‘Uthman; it has nothing to do with such phenomena or any other such imaginary causes: rather, it was the Prophet himself who, under divine guidance, and by means of repeated declarations, planted the seed of Shi’ism in the hearts of his companions, and gradually cultivated this seed, such that a group of eminent companions, such as Salman al-Farisi and Abu Dharr al-Ghiffari, became the ‘Shi’at ‘Ali’ or partisans of ‘Ali. Qur’anic commentators relate from the Prophet that those signified by this verse are ‘Ali and his Shi’a:
Verily, those who believe and do good works are the best of created beings. (Sura al-Bayyina, XCIX:7)
In historical accounts, mention is made of the names of the followers of ‘Ali, those among the companions who asserted their conviction that he was the true caliph after the death of the Prophet; we shall not recount all of their names in this short
Throughout the history of Islam, the Shi’a, side by side with the other Muslim madhhabs, performed their duty of spreading Islam, playing, indeed, a major part in its expansion. They have established different branches of learning, founded important states and dynasties, produced distinguished personalities in the domains of science, philosophy, literature and politics, thereby contributing greatly to Islamic culture and society. Today they are represented in most parts of the world.
Ayatollah Jafar Sobhani, Doctrines of Shii Islam, A Compendium of Imami Beliefs and Practices, Translated and Edited by Reza Shah-Kazemi, published by I.B.Tauris Publishers, london • new york 2003.
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