Shi'a

'Ali

   The foundational figure in Shi'a history is 'Ali, the son-in-law and cousin of Muhammad. After the death of Muhammad, rival claims were put forth for the caliphate which was the office that was the supreme secular authority of Islam. In Shi'a history, Muhammad designated 'Ali as his successor, so that all the others who served in this capacity were illegitimate. The "Partisans of 'Ali," Shi'a 'Ali in the struggle to get 'Ali in the Caliphate and in the civil war that broke out when 'Ali was finally named Caliph gave the name to the religious schism that divided the Islamic world from the very beginning. Eventually the Shi'ites would develop a religious doctrine that differs in fundamental respects from orthodox, or Sunni Islam. Nevertheless, at the cornerstone of Shi'a history is the figure of 'Ali and his persecution by the illegitimate caliphs.

   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, the Quraysh, to declare himself an apostle. But the Meccan and Medinan leaders, with no members of Muhammed's house present, gave their allegiance to Abu Bakr as Caliph, or Successor to Muhammad and supreme head of Islam, and attempted through force of arms to coerce 'Ali into acknowledging Abu Bakr as well.

   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 and provinces would not accept this arrangement and rose up in rebellion; eventually, 'Ali would be forced to flee Medina and settle in Kufa in Iraq—as a result, 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—these dissenters called themselves the Kharjites; after defeating the Kharjites 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 there 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. This meant, of course, that the Shi'ite leaders could not legitimately assert themselves as Caliphs, so they invented a separate title. In Shi'ite history, 'Ali is the first Imam (although Sunni and Western historians do not believe that he assumed this title but rather that it was retroactive). A grand total of eleven Imams succeeded 'Ali (ten in non-Shi'ite histories), passing the Imamate down to their sons in hereditary succession. However, the most important Imam of Shi'a was Husayn, whose martyrdom at Karbala is the most important event in the Shi'a experience of history.

   

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 2-27-97