Islam






imam


   Islam at its very origins divides into two major sects; this division arose not out of any doctrinal or interpretive question, but over the question of who should succeed Muhammed the prophet as both the secular and spiritual leader of Islam. It is this quetion that lies at the heart of the split between Shi'a and Sunni Islam, though Shi'a has developed into an intellectually and spiritually different religion than the majority Sunni sect. The secular leader of Islam was designated Caliph, or successor to the prophet. But there was also the question of spiritual leadership, and the Shi'a, who never recognized Abu Bakr or his successors as Caliphs, instead recognized 'Ali and his descendants as the Imams, or spiritual leaders, of Islam.

   Upon Muhammed's death, a hastily collected group of prominent Muslim leaders elected Muhammed's father in law, Abu Bakr, to be the secular head of Islam. However, 'Ali, Muhammed's son-in-law and cousin, was not part of this committee nor were other members of Muhammed's immediate family, and many believed that Muhammed had designated 'Ali as a successor, for the Traditions had Muhammed naming him as both his brother and his successor. 'Ali had been raised with Muhammed and was the second person (after Muhammed's wife Khadija) to recognize Muhammed's role as a prophet; he was the first of Muhammed's tribe to declare himself an apostle (rasul ). But the Meccan and Medinan leaders, with no members of Muhammed's house present, gave their allegiance to Abu Bakr as CalipH and attempted through force of arms to coerce 'Ali into acknowledging Abu Bakr as well. However, during the Caliphates of Abu Bakr and his successor, 'Umar, not only did 'Ali not advance any claims to the Caliphate, he even participated in the government of 'Umar. It was not until the Caliphate passed to 'Uthman, who ruled somewhat degenerately and was a member of the Umayya family, which had fiercely fought against Muhammed during his lifetime, that 'Ali was provoked into accepting the Caliphate. 'Uthman placed members of his family in charge of various provinces and they ruled disgracefully; various rebel factions, seeing their grievances unredressed, attacked 'Uthman's house and assassinated him. The prominent families of Medina and other areas persuaded 'Ali to become Caliph, which he did in 656; 'Ali had become the fourth Caliph of Islam and the first Imam of Shi'a Islam.

   However, the Umayyads in charge of the various governments would not accept this arrangement and rose up in rebellion; eventually, 'Ali would be forced to flee Medina and settle in Kufa in Iraq—central Iraq would become the center of Shi'a Islam for several hundred years. 'Ali would eventually have to contend with dissension in his own army while fighting the Umayyads; after defeating these dissenters in battle, he would be assassinated a few years later by one of them in revenge for this defeat.

   From this point onwards, authority was divided in the Islamic world. The Umayyads continued to pass the Caliphate down through the ages among their family; but their now existed in Iraq a separate Islamic community that did not recognize the authority of the Umayyad Caliphs. Rather they recognized only the successors to 'Ali as authorities, and they gave these successors the title Imam, or spiritual leader of Islam, both to differentiate their leaders from the more worldly and secular Umayyads and because Abu Muhammed Hasan ibn 'Ali, the second Imam, ceded the Caliphate to the Umayyads. A grand total of ten Imams succeeded 'Ali, passing the Imamate down to their sons in hereditary succession. However, the eleventh Imam, Hasan al-Askari, died without a son, and the Shi'ites were thrown into disarray. Shi'a Islam divided into several different sects, the most important of which was the Qat'iyya ("those who are certain"). The Qat'iyya believed that Hasan al-Askari did indeed have a son, Muhammed al-Mahdi; one of the Qat'iyya sects believed that Muhammed al-Mahdi, the twelfth Imam, had hidden himself and remained in hiding. This sect was called Ithna-'Ashari (Twelver) or Imami (Imam) Shi'a, and was the form of Shi'a that eventually came to exclusively represent Shi'ism.

   The Imamate is the central aspect of Shi'ite Islam. At no time in human history has the world been bereft of an Imam who serves as both a guide (Hadi ) to humans and a Proof of God (Hujjat Allah ) and a Sign of God (Ayyat Allah ). The Imams span history from Adam to the present day; the Imams, according to Shi'ites, were a light created before the creation—this light was the instrument of creation. The Imam has secret knowledge of God and creation; the most important of these secrets is "The Greatest Name of God." The Imams are designated or appointed by God (mansus ), they are free from all sin or fault (ma'shum ), and they are the most perfect of humans (afdal an-nas ). But above all, the Imam is the one who teaches human beings the mystical truths of the universe; it is throught the Imam that the esoteric, mystical aspects of God are transmitted to human beings.

   However, in Twelver Shi'a, the twelfth Imam, Muhammed al-Mahdi, hid himself way as a boy when his father, the Imam Hasan al-Askari, died in 874 A.D.. This, in Shi'a, is called the doctrine of "occultation" (ghayba ). He hid himself in a well within a cave because of the threats to his life by his enemies, and remained in communication with the "four agents," each succeeding the other, until 941. This period, in which the Hidden Imam was in contact with the rest of humanity through these agents who passed on the Imam's messages to the world, is called the Lesser Occultation. However, starting in 941, the Hidden Imam ceased communicating to humanity through these agents; this period in which the Hidden Imam, still alive and on earth, cuts of all communication with humanity is known as the Greater Occulation. However, at some point, Muhammed al-Mahdi, will return and reveal himself to humanity and appear again (zuhur ). With him will return from the dead all his enemies, and the Imam will lead the forces of righteousness against the forces of evil in one last battle after which will follow the Day of Judgement. At that point will return Jesus Christ and all the saints, prophets, and Imams of history; this, in Shi'a, is called the doctrine of Return (raj'a ).

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1995, Richard Hooker
Updated 2-20-97