Shi'a


   Shi'a Islam is the only major schism in Islam. It is not a recent schism, however, for it dates back right to the foundations of Islam. Shi'ite historians believe that Shi'ism began shortly after the death of Muhammad, when the Caliphate, or secular leadership of Islam, was handed to Muhammad's father-in-law, Abu Bakr, rather than 'Ali, Muhammad's chosen successor. The Muslims who supported 'Ali called themselves the "Partisans of 'Ali" (Shi'a 'Ali ); these supporters, who were only four in number, are the root of Shi'a Islam. Western and Sunni historians date Shi'ism as a religion to the death of Husayn, the grandson of Muhammad, in the battle of Karbala. The celebration of this martyrdom by the Shi'a 'Ali represents for these historians the first clear instance of separate religious practice.

   However that may be, Shi'a Islam is a crucial part of the Islamic tapestry throughout the history of Islam. World history textbooks tend to blissfully ignore the Shi'ite adventure through history, but the minority Shi'ites have played a determining role in Islamic and world history. Most recently, Shi'ism has given rise to a new Islamic political theory called velayat-i faqih , or "rule by jurisprudence" (Westerners call it "Islamic Republicanism"). Velayat-i faqih is perhaps the most important Islamic innovation of our century; it may be very possible that by the end of the century, the bulk of the Islamic world will be practicing it in one form or another. Or maybe not. You're sitting at one of these great moments in history, in which an entirely new way of conducting human culture and human business has been invented in your lifetime. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 may turn out to be the most significant event in Islamic history for the last five centuries. Or it may not. The Revolution and the political theory it spawned, however, are continuing evidence of the crucial role that Shi'ism plays in the global community.

   But let us start at the beginning. Muhammad, the Messenger of God, is dead. The Islamic community is thrown into confusion for Muhammad has made no provision for Islamic rule, secular or spiritual, after his death. In a hastily convened assembly, the prominent members of the community unanimously select Abu Bakr to be the "Successor" (Caliph ) of Muhammad. Thus begins the Shi'ite journey through history.

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 2-27-97