Home / All / Baseless Theories about the Origins of the Shīʿa

Baseless Theories about the Origins of the Shīʿa

There are many theories about the appearance of Shīʿa that are completely baseless. Some believe, for instance, that Shīʿa appeared as a result of political conflicts in the first century hijrī. Others have concluded that Shīʿa appeared as a result of theological debates, as did some other Islamic sects.

For a long time, theories have been developed to explain the appearance of the Shīʿa. Many of the theories were devised by non-Shīʿa scholars, or even anti-Shīʿa polemicists, and as a result are largely baseless. As documented history reveals, the Shīʿa are nothing more or less than Islam as taught by the Prophet and his Household. The Shīʿa, in this sense, have their roots in the Prophet’s lifetime, when he called those who supported ʿAlī his ‘shīʿa’ (lit. ‘followers’). These people, who believed that ʿAlī was the true successor of the Prophet, were some of his Companions. This Chapter is intended to clarify the truth about the appearance of Shīʿa.

There are many theories about the appearance of Shīʿa that are completely baseless. Some believe, for instance, that Shīʿa appeared as a result of political conflicts in the first century hijrī. Others have concluded that Shīʿa appeared as a result of theological debates, as did some other Islamic sects. These claims are made because they believe that Shi’ism is something other than Islam itself that only appeared after the Prophet’s demise. Therefore, they look for its root causes and attempt to devise theories to explain its appearance.

All of these theorists, however, ignore the fact that Shi’ism is nothing other than Islam as taught by the Prophet’s Household and that, in this sense, it appeared during the Prophet’s own lifetime. Even at that time, ʿAlī had some supporters and followers who were called his shīʿa and who followed ʿAlī as a result of the Prophet’s praise of him. Thus, these people loved ʿAlī and took him as their leader and model of good conduct after the Prophet. That is why we may claim that the Prophet was the first person to sow the seeds of Shi’ism, to ask people to follow ʿAlī and to call his followers Shīʿa.

There are forty aḥādīth bearing witness to the fact that the followers of ʿAlī are called his shīʿa. We will consider some of these traditions, which are all taken from Sunnī sources. Jābir b. ʿAbd Allāh reports that once ʿAlī came when Jābir was with the Prophet. On seeing ʿAlī, the Prophet said, pointing to ʿAlī, ‘By Him in whose hand is my soul, this man and his shīʿa will be saved on the Day of Judgment!’ Then he recited the verse: ‘Indeed those who have faith and do righteous deeds – it is they who are the best of creatures.’ (Q98:7). For this reason, whenever ʿAlī came to the Prophet’s Companions, they would say to one another, ‘there comes the best of creatures’ (al-Durr al-Manthūr 6/589). Ibn ʿAbbās reports that when the above verse was revealed to the Prophet, he said to ʿAlī, ‘this verse refers to you and your followers who will be pleased with God and God will be please with you on the Day of Judgment’ (al-Durr al-Manthūr 6/589). Ibn Ḥajar al-Haythamī reports in al-Ṣawāʿiq that Umm Salama said, ‘One night when the Prophet was at my home, his daughter suddenly entered, followed by ʿAlī. The Prophet said: ‘ʿAlī, you and your followers will be in paradise. You and your shīʿa will be in paradise’ (161). Ibn Athīr reports that once the Prophet once said to ʿAlī: ‘You will be received by God while you are pleased with God and He is pleased with you, but your enemies will go before God while they are angry and their hands are chained to their necks’ (4/16). Zamakhsharī reports in Rabīʿ al-Abrār that the Prophet once said to ʿAlī: ‘On the Day of Judgment, I will seek help from Allāh, you from me, your descendants from you and your followers from your descendants’ (808). According to Mughzilī, in Manāqib ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib, the Prophet once asked ʿAlī: ‘Will you not be pleased to be in paradise with me, while Ḥasan, Ḥusayn and our other descendants are standing behind us and our followers are standing on both sides?’ (Sawa‘iq, 161). He also quotes Anas b. Mālik who reports that the Prophet once declared, ‘Seventy thousands of my followers will enter paradise without being questioned’ and then looked at ʿAlī and added, ‘They will be your followers and you will be their the Imam’ (293).

All of these aḥādīth demonstrate that there were some people in the Prophet’s days that were called the shīʿa of ʿAlī and who were promised paradise by the Prophet. They also make it clear that the word ‘shīʿa’ was used by the Prophet himself to describe ʿAlī’s followers who took as their path nothing more or less than the Prophet’s Islam, which they believed could be best followed by following the example ʿAlī. Therefore, we can say with certainty that Shi’ism was neither the fruit of political conflicts at Saqīfah nor a result of theological debates. Rather, they were a group of people who believed that ʿAlī was second to the Prophet in piety and personal conduct and maintained this belief after the Prophet’s death, gradually multiplying into a large sect.

Shi’ism as described by historians

Study the annals of history reveals that the term ‘shīʿa’, both during the Prophet’s life and after that, was used to denote the followers of Imam ʿAlī. Some examples of this usage follow. Masʿūdī (d. 345/956), describing events after the Prophet, writes: ‘When people’s vows of allegiance (bayʿa) to Abū Bakr were completed, ʿAlī and a number of his Shīʿa withdrew to his home’ (121). Nawbakhtī (d. 313/925) similarly notes that ‘the Shīʿa were followers of ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib who were known by this name during the Prophet’s life and after. Everybody described the Shīʿa as people who ignored other leaders and would only listen to ʿAlī’ (15). Abū al-Ḥasan Ashʿarī says: ‘The reason why they were called Shi’ism was that they followed ʿAlī and preferred him over other Prophet’s Companions’ (1/65). According to Shahristānī: ‘Shīʿa refers to those who followed ʿAlī exclusively and admitted his Imamate and succession because of the Prophet’s words about him’ (1/131). Ibn Ḥazm argues that ‘whoever believes that ʿAlī is the best Muslim after the Prophet and the best candidate for leading Muslims and that his descendants are also the best leaders of Muslims is called a Shīʿa. Shīʿa may disagree over other matters, but not on this, and if anyone rejects this fundamental belief, they will not be called Shīʿa (2/113). As all these statements show, there was a group of people who were called Shīʿa by the Prophet both in his days and later. People simply followed the model of the Prophet in calling them Shīʿa.

In light of the above, the defining characteristic of Shi’ism is following ʿAlī after the Prophet in terms of religious and political leadership. With all the Prophet’s words regarding Shīʿa and the aḥādīth that demonstrate that the Shīʿa had their origin in the Prophet’s own days, there is no need to contrive baseless theories to account for their existence. We may need to look for the origins of some Islamic sects, such as Sunnism, which was the fruit of following the Caliphs, or such as Muʿtazilism and Ashʿarism, which resulted from theological debates in the 2nd/8th and 3rd/9th centuries. Unlike these sects, Shi’ism was not a new thing that appeared after the Prophet’s death as a result of theological conflicts, such as to require an investigation into its origins. Shi’ism is different from the other sects and is nothing other than the original Islam that was introduced by the Prophet, plus the fact that after him, his Household is the only authority to follow and obey.

As Muḥammad Kurd ʿAlī writes in Khuṭāṭ al-Shām: ‘there were some Companions of the Prophet who were well-known for their close friendship with ʿAlī in the Prophet’s lifetime, such as Salmān al-Fārisī, Abū Dharr al-Ghifārī, ʿAmmār b. Yāsir, Ḥudhayfa b. Yamān, Khuzayma b. Thābit (also known as Dhu al-Shahādatayn), Abū Ayyūb al-Anṣārī, Khālid b. Saʿīd and Qays b. Saʿd b. ʿUbāda. He quotes Salmān al-Fārisī as saying: ‘We took the pledge of allegiance to Muḥammad for two reasons: the good of the Muslims and following ʿAlī.’ Also Abū Saʿīd al-Khudrī says, again according to Kurd ʿAlī: ‘the Prophet ordered the people to take care of five obligations. They took four and left the fifth. The four things that they took care of were prayer, zakāt, fasting and Ḥajj, and the fifth, which they ignored, was the wilāya of ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib.’ Upon asking whether the wilāya of ʿAlī was truly an obligation, Khudrī replied that it was as obligatory as the other four (Kurd ʿAlī, 5/251).

The Forerunners of the Shīʿa in the Time of the Prophet

A number of historians have composed books on the character of some of the Companions and the Successors. What follows is a brief survey of some of these books.

Sayyid ʿAlī Khan Madanī (d. 1120/1708) wrote a book entitled al-Darajāt al-Rāfīʿa fī Ṭaqabāt al-Shīʿa al-Imāmiyya. The first chapter of this book covers the Shīʿa of the Banū Hāshim and the second the non-Banū Hāshim, introducing twenty three and forty six Companions respectively. He then introduces the Shīʿa amongst the Successors.

Muḥammad Ḥusayn Kāshif al-Ghiṭāʾ (1294–1373/1877–1954) introduces some of the close companions of ʿAlī in Aṣl al-Shīʿa wa Uṣūlihā For example, he names Abū Dharr Al-Ghifārī, Miqdād b. Aswad al-Kindī, ʿAmmār b. Yāsir, Khuzayma Dhū al-Shaḥadatayn b. Tayhān, Kḥudhayfa b. Yamān, Zubayr, Faḍl b. ʿAbbās and his brother, ʿAbd Allāh, Hāshim b. ʿUtba al-Mirqāl, Abū Ayyūb al-Anṣārī, Abān b. Saʿīd b. al-ʿĀṣ, Khālid b. Saʿīd b. al-ʿĀṣ, Ubayy b. Kaʿb, Anas b. al-Ḥirth, and many others.

Sayyid ʿAbd al-Ḥusayn Sharaf al-Dīn identifies 200 persons as the first Shīʿa in Islamic history in his al-Fuṣūl al-Muhimma fī Taʾlīf al-Umma (179-90). In a similar way, Dr. Aḥmad al-Wāʾilī identifies, in Huwiyyat al-Tashayyuʿ, 130 of the Prophet’s Companions who were also the close followers of ʿAlī and concludes that it would have been impossible for such a great number of people to love and follow ʿAlī so intimately without the Prophet’s permission (34). I have likewise introduced some of Shīʿa pioneers and have investigated their lives and reasons for belonging to Shīʿa in a book entitled Islamic Personalities. (For more information, see also al-Istīʿāb fī Maʿrifat al-Aṣḥāb by Ibn ʿAbd al-Birr (d. 456/1063), Usud al-Ghāba fī Maʿrifat al-Ṣaḥāba by Ibn Athīr and al-Iṣāba fī Tamyīz al-Ṣaḥāba by Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī (d. 852/1448). )

Theories about the Origins of Shi’ism

As we have already explained, there are various unsupported theories about the appearance and origin of Shi’ism, all of which take Shi’ism to be something other than Islam, and which therefore look for its origins and causes with this assumption in mind. We have already stressed the point that Shi’ism is nothing other than the original Islam, but we are going to consider some of the theories propounded in more detail below:

Shi’ism originated at Saqīfa

The first theory to be scrutinized here consists in the claim that Shi’ism was the fruit of the gathering at Saqīfa. According to this theory, the Medinans met at Saqīfa after the Prophet’s death to choose a successor from amongst themselves. Abū Bakr, ʿUmar and Abū ʿʿUbayda came to the meeting and things ended up in favour of Abū Bakr. The Medinans were made up of two tribes, the Aws and Khazraj, who could not agree on a Caliph. The Aws feared that Saʿd b. ʿUbada would be chosen and this would give the upper hand to the Khazraj. Thus the Aws took the side of Abū Bakr, who left Saqīfa along with ʿUmar and Abū ʿUbayda for the mosque. There they asked people to support Abū Bakr, and all this was happening while Imam ʿAlī was washing the Prophet’s body to prepare it for burial. ʿAlī’s friends and followers were annoyed with the events of Saqīfa and withdrew to ʿAlī’s home in protest while some others began publicly protesting for the same reason. In view of this, some believe that Shi’ism emerged as the result of the gathering at Saqīfa.

This way of reasoning is thoroughly unacceptable because, as Ṭabarī and others suggest, Shi’ism could not have been formed in the span of a single day, rather the Shīʿa must have held these sort of beliefs and attitudes towards ʿAlī for a long time earlier.

According to Ṭabarī, after the decision at Saqīfa, ʿUmar went to ʿAlī’s home while Ṭalḥa, Zubayr and a number of Meccans were inside. ʿUmar called out, ‘I swear by God I will put this house to fire if you do not come out and give a pledge of allegiance to Abū Bakr.’ Zubayr came out while brandishing his sword but, being very angry, his feet slipped and some people snatched his sword (Tārīkh, 2/443).

According to Yaʿqūbī, a number of Meccans, including ʿAbbās b. ʿAbd al-MutTālib, Faḍl b. ʿAbbās, Zubayr, Khālid b. Saʿīd b. al-ʿĀṣ, Miqdād b. ʿAmr, Salmān al-Fārisī, Abū Dharr, ʿAmmār b. Yāsir, Barāʾ b. ʿĀzib, and Ubayy b. Kaʿb, were with ʿAlī (2/103).

Zubayr b. Bakkār points out in his Muwaffaqiyyāt that most Meccans and leaders of Medinans were certain that ʿAlī was the rightful Caliph so much so that after the allegiance (bayʿa) ceremony was over, some Medinans regretted it, scolded one another and decided to be allied with ʿAlī, but he did not accept their offer.

As Ibn Abī al-Ḥadīd writes in his Sharḥ al-Nahj al-Balāgha: On returning to Medina, Abū Dharr (who was out of Medina when Saqīfa happened) reacted to the event by saying to people, ‘Did you follow your own whims and forget about the Prophet’s kin? Had you left the matter to the Prophet’s kin, there would have been no disagreements about allegiance’ (43). Salmān al-Fārisī also commented, ‘You chose the most senior in age but lost the mine of knowledge and perfection; if you had taken the latter, not even two of you would have disagreed on succession and you would have easily picked yourselves the sweet fruit of Caliphate’ (44).

Such objections and protests, only a few of which have been recorded in history, could not have been suddenly created in a single day or as the result of a single meeting. Rather, they imply that the love of ʿAlī was deeply rooted in the hearts of those people who strongly believed in him, and this is the true reason why they protested against the decision of Saqīfa. It was impossible for such people to express their love of ʿAlī at a time when his rival was in power without having kept that love for a while before that. Their support for ʿAlī was based on their view of his personality and built upon the Prophet’s words about him.

ʿAbd Allāh b. Sabaʾ

The second theory regarding the formation of Shi’ism is based on the activities of a Jewish convert to Islam named ʿAbd Allāh b. Sabaʾ. According to this theory, this man, who was converted to Islam in Yemen during the reign of ʿUthmān, travelled to different parts of the Muslim territory of that time, specially Damascus, Kufa, Basra and Egypt and proclaimed that the Prophet would come back as did Jesus and that ʿAlī was the Prophet’s successor since every prophet has a successor. He also claimed that ʿUthmān had usurped ʿAlī’s right to leadership and therefore people should fight against ʿUthmān to make sure justice is done. ʿAbd Allāh managed to attract some Muslims such as Abū Dharr, ʿAmmār, Muḥammad b. Ḥudhayfa, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. ʿUdays, Muḥammad b. Abī Bakr, Ṣaṣaʿ b. Ṣawḥān al-ʿAbdī and Mālik al-ʿĀshtar, with whom he surrounded ʿUthmān’s house. The supporters of this claim about Shi’ism believe that the sect was formed by b. Sabaʾ and his followers after the murder of ʿUthmān.

This claim, which can hardly be called a theory, finds its origin with Sayf b. ʿUmar al-Tamīmī, who was a notorious liar, as recorded by Ṭabarī’s history (3/378). A glance at the reporters of the document created by Tamīmī reveals that the narrators of the alleged ḥadīth are not reliable at all. Ṭabarī, starts his report by referring to a man named al-Sirrī, who reports via Shu‘ayb from Sayf b. ʿUmar. Al-Sirrī was probably either: 1) Al-Sirrī b. Ismāʿīl Hamadānī, who is called a liar by Yaḥyā b. Saʿīd and considered a reporter of baseless aḥādīth by others (Mīzān al-Iʿtidāl, 2/117); or 2) Al-Sirrī b. ʿĀṣim b. Sahl Hamadānī, who has been described as a liar and a forger of ḥadīth (Mīzān al-Iʿtidāl, 2/117; Lisān al-Mīzān, 3/12). Shu‘ayb refers to Shuʿayb b. Ibrāhīm al-Kūfī who, as Dhahabī explains, was the reporter of Sayf b. ʿUmar’s aḥādīth and otherwise an unknown person (Mīzān, 2/275; Lisān, 3/145). Ibn Ḥibbān argues that Sayf b. ʿUmar ascribed fabricated aḥādīth to truthful and honest people. He simply fabricated aḥādīth and was even suspected of disbelief; According to Ibn ʿUdayy, Sayf’s traditions were all unknown and nobody believed him. Ibn Muʿīn designates Sayf’s aḥādīth as weakly supported and of suspect content. Suyūṭī calls Sayf a fabricator (Mīzān, 1/438; Tahdhīb al-Tahdhīb, 4/295).

So much for this report’s authenticity! Would it be wise to rely solely on an unverified ḥadīth reported by Ṭabarī and believe that Shi’ism was created by such a person as ʿAbd Allāh b. Sabaʾ? Unfortunately, a number of historians have relied on this tradition without scrutinizing its authenticity and have attributed the Siege of ʿUthmān’s Residence and the Battle of the Camel to Ibn Sabaʾ (Ibn Kathīr, 7/246; Dhahabi, 2/139). Recent historians have even made a greater mistake, ascribing the appearance of Shi’ism to Ibn Sabaʾ (Rāshid Riḍā, 4). Aḥmad Amīn, in Fajr al-Islam, has claimed more strongly than anybody else that Ibn Sabaʾ is responsible for the appearance of Shi’ism, a claim that has similarly been mistakenly made by some other Egyptian and Syrian authors.

There are, however, questions that we would do well to ask of this account. Would it be wise to admit that a Jewish convert, who had converted to Islam during the caliphate of ʿUthmān, was able to deceive the leading Meccans and Medinans into revolting against the Caliph and murdering him in his own house and that nobody stopped him? Those who have studied the biography of ʿUthmān know very well that the invasion against his house was the outcome of his thirteen-year reign as Caliph when he dismissed all Meccans and Medinans from their posts, replaced them with members of his own Umayyad clan and unfairly distributed the public treasury’s wealth among his relatives. He also appointed Umayyads and Tulaqāʾ (Ṭulaqāʾ: Lit. ‘those who were freed’ – referring to the Meccans who remained polytheists until the final capture of Mecca by the Muslims in the year 8/629, whereat they were taken prisoner. However, the Prophet granted them a general amnesty with the words: ‘Go! For you are freed (ṭulaqāʾ)!’ Most of them then converted to Islam. Henceforth, these late converts were known by this title and were generally and informally seen as less committed to the Islamic project than earlier converts to the cause) as governors of cities and regions. These included, among others, Walīd b. ʿUqba (Governor of Kufa), Muʿāwiya b. Abī Sufyān (Governor of Syria), ʿAbd Allāh b. Saʿd Abī Sarḥ (Governor of Egypt) and ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿĀmir b. Karīz (Governor of Basra). Even when people heavily complained against ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿUqba, ʿUthmān replaced him with Saʿīd b. al-ʿĀṣ, who was yet another member of the Umayyad clan. Thus, all the regions were ruled by Umayyads and Ṭulaqāʾ who were relatives of ʿUthmān. It was due to such misconduct that the Egyptians and Iraqis revolted against and killed him, not because of the propaganda of a new and virtually unknown convert to Islam.

A careful study of the history of the third Caliph’s life reveals that ʿUthmān never tolerated ant objections or protests but rather silenced the protesters by beating or banishing them. For instance, ʿUthmān sent Abū Dharr al-Ghifārī into exile and beat ʿAmmār b. Yāsir so severely that one of his ribs was broken. In view of such a situation, would it be reasonable to think that while ʿUthmān enjoyed such powerful and loyal governors a convert could freely move around in Iraq, Egypt and Syria and encourage people to rise up against the Caliph without the governors reacting to this?

The whole situation would seem even stranger if we believed that claim that some leading Meccan and Medinan figures were tricked into following Ibn Sabaʾ, who was a new convert. This is why some scholars have taken Ibn Sabaʾ, as described by Ṭabarī, to be a fictitious figure created by poets, one like those found in the story of Layla and Majnun.

We do not intend to claim here that there was no such person as ʿAbd Allāh b. Sabaʾ or that he was not without his faults, since he has been condemned and cursed in Shīʿī sources as well (see for instance Kashshī, Rijāl, 48; Ṭūsī, Rijāl, 76; Ḥillī, Khulāṣa, 236). Rather, we would suggest that it is impossible for a Jewish convert to Islam to gather an army of the Prophet’s Companions, deceive them into revolting against ʿUthmān and simply claim to help ʿAlī become Caliph. We might rather conjecture that the whole story was forged by anti-Shīʿa persons during Umayyad and Abbasid reigns as a pretext to persecute the Shīʿa.

Scholars who have investigated the possible fictitious origin of the person named ʿAbd Allāh b. Sabaʾ include Dr. Ṭaha Ḥusayn in his Fitnat al-Kubrā (104) and Amīnī in Al-Ghadīr. Furthermore, from a Sunnī perspective, this would go against the Companions’ infallibility, which is one of their central tenets. How could such great Companions have been deceived by this new convert and goaded into rebelling against the Caliph?

The Persian Connection

While the close followers of ʿAlī were almost all ʿAdnānī and Qaḥṭānī Arabs, some orientalists have suggested that Shi’ism was produced by Persian converts. These orientalists argue that since Persia had a hereditary monarchy before Islam, Persians applied the same principle to Islam after they converted and took ʿAlī and his descendants as the inheritors of the Prophet. Based on this system, every the Imam was the inheritor of the previous the Imam’s leadership.

Responding to this claim, I would firstly like to point to the fact that in previous ages, prophethood was apparently inherited. The Qur’an says: ‘Or do they envy the people for what Allāh has given them out of His grace? We have certainly given the progeny of Abraham the Book and wisdom, and We have given them a great sovereignty’ (Q4:54). When Abraham was made An Imam, he asked God to make his descendants the Imams also, which was accepted by God on condition that they be good and just people. God says: ‘And when his Lord tested Abraham with certain words, and he fulfilled them, He said, “I am making you the Imam of mankind.” Saʿīd he, “And from among my descendants?” He said, “My pledge does not extend to the unjust.”’ (Q2:124). In fact, all the Prophets’ successors were from their descendants. This system was also practiced in the pagan Arab community of the Prophet’s time, where tribes did not disintegrate on the death of their leaders because they were succeeded by strangers. The system of hereditary leadership, therefore, was not peculiar to Persians but similarly applied in other communities. Thus, if this hereditary system had been the cause of Persians’ inclination towards Shīʿa, the same interest would have appeared in other communities.

The second point is that, as mentioned earlier, Shi’ism was born in Medina during the Prophet’s lifetime and before many Persians even converted into Islam. When Imam ʿAlī became Caliph, he had to lead three battles against different groups with an army mostly comprised of Arabs drawn from Yemen and Hijaz. History tells us that the pillars of ʿAlī’s army were from the tribes of Quraysh, Aws, Khazraj and Yemeni tribes such as Madhhij, Hamdān, Ṭayyʾ, Kinda, Tamīm, and Muḍarr. His army commanders were such purely Arab people as ʿAmmār b. Yāsir, Hāshim al-Mirqāl, Mālik al-ʿĀshtar, Ṣaʿṣaʿ b. Ṣawḥān, Zayd b. Ṣawḥān and the like. It was with their assistance that Imam ʿAlī combatted the various rebellions he faced; Persians were never a considerable presence in ʿAlī’s army. Moreover, the Shīʿa are not only Persians: many Arabs are also Shīʿa.

How orientalists reject this theory

Whereas orientalist Reinhart Dozy proposed the idea of a Persian origin for Shi’ism, many other orientalists have rejected this suggestion and stressed its Arab character; Wellhausen notes: ‘all Iraqis, especially the residents of Kufa, were Shīʿa during the reign of Muʿāwiya, and so were their tribal leaders’ (al-Khawārij wa al-Shīʿa, 113). Meanwhile, Goldziher writes: ‘it would be wrong to think that Shi’ism was the brainchild of Persians. This would be a misinterpretation of history because all Alawite movements started in Arabia’ (al-ʿAqīda wa al-Sharīʿa, 204). According to Adam Mitz: ‘Shi’ism was never a Persian reaction against the influence of Islam. Most of Arabia, including Mecca, Sanaa, Oman, Ḥijr and Saʿda, was full of Shīʿa, while Persians, except the residents of Qumm, were mostly Sunnī. Iṣfahānīs even went to the point of considering Muʿāwiya a prophet’ (al-Ḥaḍāra al-Islāmiyya, 102).

In addition to the above orientalists, two Egyptian authors have also supported the fact that Shi’ism was not a Persian phenomenon; Aḥmad Amīn, who is usually hostile to Shi’ism, notes in Fajr al-Islam: ‘Shi’ism started before Persians were converted to Islam, but Shīʿa acquired a new hue by incorporating some Persian elements’ (176). Whereas Amīn’s first sentence is right, his second sentence is not, because the only meaning of Shīʿa is the acceptance of the original Islam and following all teachings of the Prophet. Shaykh Muḥammad Abū Zaḥrāʾ similarly believes that Shi’ism is not a Persian phenomenon but that Persians acquired it from Arabs. Some scholars who supported the Prophet’s Household and were persecuted by the Umayyad and Abbasid rulers fled to the regions of Fars and Khorasan and propagated Shi’ism there, especially before the end of the Umayyad dynasty and after the followers of Zayd b. ʿAlī fled to Persia (al-Jundī, 545).

There are also other clear factors that indicate Shi’ism was not born in Persia. Many of the greatest Sunnī scholars of the early Islamic centuries, such as Bukhārī, Muslim, Tirmidhī, Nasāʾī, Ibn Māja, Hākim Nīsābūri, Bayhaqī and others were ethnically Persian. In fact, Persians were mostly converted to Sunnī Islam at first and, except for some scattered groups, remained staunchly Sunnī for centuries. Shi’ism was introduced into Iran through the migration of the Arab Ashʿarī tribe to Qumm and Kashan around the end of the first/seventh century, while Islam had been introduced in the year 17/636. All of these arguments prove that Shi’ism can be considered as a sect originating not in Persia but Arabia and was never anything more or less than the original and authentic Islam of the Prophet.

The hereditary nature of caliphate

Earlier in this Chapter, we noted that hereditary nature of the Imamate was one of the reasons that led orientalists to argue that Shi’ism was originally a Persian phenomenon, despite that fact that Sunnī Caliphate after the murder of ʿUthmān was also of a hereditary nature for several centuries thereafter. When Muʿāwiya II died in 64/684, the Marwanid Dynasty took over and remained in power until 132/749, with power being transferred along hereditary lines. The Marwanid Umayyads were followed by the Abbasids, who followed a similar logic of hereditary succession until 656/1258, when they were overthrown by the Mongol ruler, Hulagu. The Ottomans, who held sway until the modern era, likewise passed power to their own descendants. Therefore, the hereditary nature of the Imamate does not necessarily imply a Persian origin for Shi’ism. And, if indeed the Persians believed that the Imamate belonged to Imam ʿAlī and his descendants, then this was because of the form of succession that existed in prophethood, where there was a sort of hereditary logic, though not in the conventional sense; for instance, a younger brother would become the Imam while there existed an older brother, as was the case with the Imam Mūsā b. Jaʿfar – he became the Imam after the death of his father, even though he had an older brother named ʿAbd Allāh.

A glance at the human geography of Iran after the spread of Islam

Those who claim that Shi’ism was originally a Persian phenomenon must be unaware of the religious history of Iran before the 10th/16th Century. Before the advent of the Safavid Dynasty, Shi’ism in Iran was prevalent in but a few cities such as Rayy, Qumm, Kashan and Sabzevar. It was only from the early 10th/16th century that Shi’ism spread across Iran. Muqaddasi, in Aḥsan al-Taqāsīm (in the year 375/985), describes the human geography of Iran as follows:

Khorasan belongs to the Muʿtazila and Shīʿa, but the followers of Abū Ḥanīfa make up the majority there, except in Chach, where the majority are Shafiʿī. In Rihab, (Today a region in Azerbaijan, but this name once applied to most of Armenia as well. ) all have a good religion but follow Ibn Ḥanbal. Most residents of Arbeel and western mountains of Iran are also Ḥanbalī. In Rayy, the Ḥanafīs are in the majority, although there are also many Ḥanbalīs. The residents of Qumm are Shīʿa, but those of Dinavar follow Sufyān al-Thawrī. Khuzestan enjoys a multitude of different sects. Most of Ahwaz, Ramhormoz and Dawraq follow Ibn Ḥanbal, but there are also many Ḥanafīs and Mālikīs in Ahwaz. Most residents of Fars follow Muʿāwiya. Most people in Kerman are Shafiʿī and in Sindh there are many followers of the four Sunnī schools. The inhabitants of Multan are Shīʿa, for they recite the words ‘ḥayya ʿalā khayr al-ʿamal’ (‘Hurry to the best of deeds!’) and recite the words of the iqāma before prayers, but there are many Ḥanafī scholars in its villages. (119)

Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, the famous traveller, provides us with an informative anecdote about the religious customs of Iraqis and Persians. Ibn Baṭṭūṭa reports that the ruler of Iraq, Khudābanda (r. 1304–1316), became friends with a rāfiḍī scholar, who encouraged him to convert to Islam. As a result, his army accepted Islam as their religion, too. This rāfiḍī scholar made Shi’ism so attractive that Khudābanda encouraged his subjects to convert to Shi’ism too. While some cities accepted his order, the people of Baghdad answered: ‘We will not hear nor obey,’ and threatened his envoy. The response of the cities of Shiraz and Isfahan was the same as that of Baghdad (219-20).

According to Qāḍī Ayyādh, in his preface to Tartīb al-Madārik, the Imam Mālik’s religious beliefs entered Khorasan and went beyond Iraq through Yaḥyā b. Yaḥyā al-Tamīmī and others, and for several years Mālikī the Imams issued fatwas there. Thereafter, the Mālikī persuasion spread to Qazvin and some mountainous parts of Iran such as Hamadan and Kermanshahr, where most residents were followers of either the Ḥanafī or Shafiʿī schools (1/53). Renowned orientalist Carl Brockelmann goes on to explain that when the Safavid Shah, Ismāʿīl I, captured Tabriz, one-third of this city’s population were Shīʿa and two-thirds were Sunnī (1/140).

Ibn Athīr presents an account in al-Kāmil fī al-Tārīkh that further helps to undermine the alleged Persian origin of Shi’ism. According to him, when Sultan Maḥmūd, contrary to the actions of his father, who had destroyed the mausoleum of Imam al-Riḍā, rebuilt the monument, the residents of Tus persecuted its pilgrims. Maḥmūd apparently dreamt of Imam ʿAlī asking him: ‘how long is this situation going to continue?’ In this way, the Sultan found out that Imam ʿAlī was unhappy with the destruction of his descendant’s tomb (5/139).

Further proof that Sunnī Islam predominated in Iran before the Safavids is the account of what transpired between the Abbasid Caliph Maʾmūn and his chief justice, Yaḥyā b. Aktham. When the former decided to write a book on the vices of Muʿāwiya, Ibn Aktham discouraged him by reminding him that the residents of Khorasan would not tolerate such words about their Caliph (Bayhaqī, 1/108).

By now, it must be clear that the theory of the Persian origins of Shi’ism, like the other two theories, lacks any firm basis and that Shi’ism only became widespread in Iran many centuries after its appearance in Hijaz and Iraq.

The Battle of the Camel

The fourth idea about the appearance of Shi’ism we will consider is the claim that it emerged as a result of the Battle of the Camel. This idea is based on a misinterpretation of Ibn al-Nadīm’s words. He writes in his Fihrist: ‘when ʿAlī prepared to fight against Ṭalḥa and Zubayr in order to return them to the path of Allāh, ʿAlī’s followers were called Shīʿa and the Imam himself called them his ‘partisans’ (shīʿa), ‘elect’ (aṣfiyāʾ),’ ‘allies’ (awliyāʾ), ‘Shurṭat al-Khamīs,’ and sometimes ‘companions’ (aṣḥāb)’ (263). Wellhausen, influenced by this report, claims that Muslims were divided into two parties after the murder of ʿUthmān: the party of ʿAlī and that of Muʿāwiya, and because a party is called ‘shīʿa’ in Arabic, the Party of ʿAlī were arrayed against the Party of Muʿāwiya. Then, when Muʿāwiya’s control covered most of the Islamic territories, the word ‘shīʿa’ came to be solely associated with the followers of ʿAlī.

Criticizing Wellhausen’s theory, it is worth noting here that, most of the four groups mentioned (above) by Ibn al-Nadīm consisted of faithful Companions of the Prophet such as Salmān al-Fārisī, Miqdād al-Kindī, Abū Dharr al-Ghifārī, ʿAmmār b. Yāsir, Abū ʿUmra, Abū Saʿīd al-Khudrī and Jābir b. ʿAbd Allāh al-Anṣārī. Far from having converted to Shi’ism at the Battle of the Camel, these men had followed and obeyed ʿAlī since the early days of Islam; we might say that it was during the Battle of the Camel that the existence of the Shīʿa became clearly visible, whereby the true Shīʿa were fully prepared to sacrifice their own lives and achieve martyrdom fighting for ʿAlī. But not all of ʿAlī’s troops were shared the conviction of those mentioned above: some of them only thought ʿAlī was the Fourth Caliph. In general, the Shīʿa experienced more freedom and less restrictions in the period of ʿAlī’s rule, as they were subject to intense persecution after ʿAlī was martyred.

The Battle of Ṣiffīn

The fifth theory has it that Shi’ism first appeared at the Battle of Ṣiffīn. On one side were ʿAlī and his followers, who supported him according to the teachings of the Qur’an and the Prophet’s tradition and were called his ‘shīʿa’, while on the other side were the rebels who had revolted against ʿAlī and came to be called ‘khawārij’ (Fayyāḍ, 37). This rather tenuous theory is based on a misreading of a few sentences in Ṭabarī’s Tārīkh, which actually demonstrate that the Shīʿa existed before the Battle of Ṣiffīn: ‘When ʿAlī entered Kufa and the Khawārij left him and his Shīʿa joined him, they said: “We owe you a second oath of allegiance: we are friends of your friends and enemies of your enemies”’ (4/46). The clause ‘his Shīʿa joined him’ suggests that Shīʿa denoted ʿAlī’s followers who supported him even prior to the Battle of Ṣiffīn and merely stressed their support during that battle.

There are two other theories about the appearance of Shi’ism which are barely worthy of consideration. One is that Shi’ism was the result of the Buyid Dynasty’s patronage, while the second has it that Shi’ism was the product of the Safavid Dynasty in Iran. The first theory must be rejected since the Buyid dynasty ruled from Baghdad in the 4th/10th and 5th/11th centuries, while Shi’ism is definitely known to have appeared long before that, both in the realms of politics and of religious beliefs. The second theory, too, should be easily refuted because, as everyone knows, the Safavids were helped by Shīʿa, and not the other way round.

The article was written by Ayatollah Jafar Sobhani and first published in Shafaqna.

About Ali Teymoori

Check Also

Book: Islamic Economics and COVID-19

This book is a timely exploration of an unprecedented, cataclysmic pandemic episode. It examines certain critical aspects of socio-scientific theory across a variety of diverse themes, and through an epistemic lens...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Google Analytics Alternative