Shi'a

Early and Medieval Shi'a


    Following the death of Hasan al-Askari in 874 AD / 260 AH, life was very hard for the Shi'ite faithful. Even at the death of Hasan, the Shi'a were a small group and divided into five different sects. Shi'a as a religious sect really does not appear until after the death of Husayn, at which point the penitent ceremonies associated with the death of Husayn are regarded as religious in nature by orthodox Muslims. They brand Shi'a Islam, along with several other variant Muslim sects, as Ghulat or extremists. In general this label was reserved for Muslims who either believed in some divinity in addition to God or believed that someone after Muhammad had assumed the role of prophet. Although the group was small, the Shi'ites were persecuted along with other ghulat groups.

   The 'Abassid dynasty (750-945 AD / 132-334 AH) originally began as a revolution in favor of Shi'ism. When the 'Abassids came to power, though, they turned to Sunni Islam and began themselves to persecute Shi'ites. It is during the 'Abassid persecutions that the last Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, goes into hiding permanently (874 AD / 260 AH). After the Occultation of the Twelfth Imam, the Shi'ites seem to be living in a religious community that the call the Imamiyya; Sunni Muslims called them Rafida or "Rejectors" (referring to the Shi'a rejection of Abu Bakr and the remaining Caliphs). The strongest Imamiyya communities were in Kufa and Qumm in Iraq; Qumm had become the central capital of Imamate theology and philosophy.

The Buyid Period

   In 945 AD / 334 AH, the Buyids seized control over Baghdad and the first Shi'ite state was established. Since the Caliph of Islam lived in Baghdad, this meant that the Caliph was being ruled by a Shi'ite. The Buyids ruled central Iraq until 1055 AD / 447 AH, when they were finally overthrown by the Seljuq Turks.

   In addition to the Buyids, another Shi'a dynasty, the Hamdanids, came to power in northern Iraq in 944 AD / 333 AH. They eventually extended their rule over Syria. The establishment of two Shi'ite dynasties, the first in history, had far-reaching consequences for Shi'a Islam. Because of these two dynasties, Shi'a began to spread all over the Middle East and the numbers of Shi'ites rose dramatically.

The Medieval Period

   The Shi'ite kingdoms came to an end with the rise of the Seljuqs as the regional power of the Middle East. The Seljuq Turks adopted Sunni Islam as their faith and subscribed to its harshest and least tolerant form, Hanfism. From the 11th to the 12th centuries (5th to 6th centuries AH), the Seljuqs ruled over Iran and Bagdhad. The Shi'ite communities, however, continued to thrive.

   In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (fifth and sixth centuries AH), Syria became a dominant battleground in the European Crusades against Islam. The last Syrian Shi'a dynasty had fallen in 1085 AD, and the Seljuqs brutally suppressed the Shi'ites. As a result, many Shi'ites joined the European Crusaders in their wars against Syrians and Seljuqs. These Shi'a were no small part of European victories.

   When the Mongols invaded the Islamic world in 1220 AD / 617 AH, their large-scale destruction of Islamic cities and governments threw Sunni Islam into total disarray. Surpirsingly, however, Shi'a Islam was largely unaffected by the Ilkhanate invasions. The Ilkhans were primarily shamanistic or Buddhists, and so they treated Sunni and Shi'a Muslims identically. This meant that the Shi'ites were considerably less persecuted under the non-Muslim Mongols than they had been under the rule of the Seljuq Turks.

   The Mongols, it seemed, were more sympathetic to Shi'a Islam than to Sunni Islam. The first Mongol ruler to convert to Islam was Ghazan, who ruled from 1295 to 1304 AD. He converted to Sunni Islam, but his brother and successor, Oljeitu, who ruled from 1304 to 1316, converted to Shi'a Islam and took the name Khudabundha as his Arabic name. From that point on, the Islamic territory became a Shi'ite state and Shi'ism was declared the state religion. Khudabunda's son, Abu Sa'id, however, was a deeply committed Sunni and the universal Shi'a state ended as soon as it began.

   The second wave of Mongol invasions occurred under Timur, the great conqueror who rivalled his ancestor, Genghis Khan. Timur invaded Iran and took over territory controlled by Shi'ites. Although Timur was a Sunni, he was very sympathetic to the Shi'ites and allowed Shi'ite nobility to retain their power and lands as long as they became his vassals. The Timurid period (14th-15th centuries AD / 8th-9th centuries AH), was a period of relative calm in Shi'ism that saw its dramatic growth throughout Iran.
Next
The Safavids


World Cultures

World Cultures Home Page


1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 2-27-97