Ali and His sons Hussein and Hasan

According to the BBC: “The division between Sunnis and Shi'as is the largest and oldest in the history of Islam. They both agree on the fundamentals of Islam and share the same Holy Book (The Qur'an), but there are differences mostly derived from their different historical experiences, political and social developments, as well as ethnic composition. These differences originate from the question of who would succeed the Prophet Muhammad as leader of the emerging Muslim community after his death. To understand them, we need to know a bit about the Prophet's life and political and spiritual legacy.” [Source: BBC]

Following the death of the Prophet in 632, the Muslim community failed to reach consensus on who should succeed him as the caliph. A majority of Muhammad's close followers supported the idea of an elected caliph, but a minority believed that leadership, or the imamate, should remain within the Prophet's family, passing first to Muhammad's cousin, son-in-law, and principal deputy, Ali ibn Abu Talib, and subsequently to Ali's sons and their male descendants. The majority, who believed they were following the sunna of the Prophet, became known as Sunni Muslims. To them, the caliph was the symbolic religious head of the community; however, caliphs would also rule as the secular leaders of a major empire for six centuries. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The first four caliphs — Abu Bakr, Omar, Osman, and Ali — were chosen by a consensus of Muslim leaders. Subsequently, however, the caliphate was converted by its holders into a hereditary office, the first two dynasties being the Umayyad, which ruled from Damascus, and the second being the Abbasid, which ruled from Baghdad. After the Mongols captured Baghdad and executed the Abbasid caliph in 1258, a period of more than 250 years followed when no one was recognized as caliph by all Sunni Muslims. During the sixteenth century, the Ottoman Dynasty resurrected the title, and gradually even Muslims outside the Ottoman Empire came to accept the Ottoman sultan as the symbolic leader — caliph — of Sunni Islam.*

The partisans of Ali — the Shiat Ali — evolved into a separate Islamic denomination that became known as the Shia. By the ninth century, however, the Shia Muslims split into numerous sects as a result of disagreements over which of several brothers was the legitimate leader, or imam , of the community. The major divisions occurred over the question of succession to the fourth, sixth, and twelfth imams. Consequently, the origins of almost all Shia sects can be traced to the followers of the fifth, seventh, or twelfth imam. By the fifteenth century, the sect known as the Twelve Imam Shia — a group that recognized Ali and eleven of his direct descendants as the legitimate successors to the Prophet — had emerged as the predominant Shia sect.*

In addition to the orthodox Twelve Imam Shia, several sects that revered the twelve imams but otherwise subscribed to heterodox beliefs and practices emerged between the ninth and twelfth centuries. One of these heterodox sects, the Nusayri, originated in the mid-ninth century among the followers of the religious teacher Muhammad ibn Nusayr an Namiri. The Nusayri became established in what is now northern Syria and southern Turkey during the tenth century when a Shia dynasty based in Aleppo ruled the region. Because of the special devotion of the Nusayri to Ali, Sunni Muslims historically and pejoratively referred to them as Alevi.*

Websites and Resources: Islam Islam.com islam.com ; Islamic City islamicity.com ; Islam 101 islam101.net ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/islam ; BBC article bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam ; Patheos Library – Islam patheos.com/Library/Islam ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts web.archive.org ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam britannica.com ; Islam at Project Gutenberg gutenberg.org ; Islam from UCB Libraries GovPubs web.archive.org ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary pbs.org frontline ; Discover Islam dislam.org ;

Shias, Sufis and Muslim Sects and Schools Divisions in Islam archive.org ; Four Sunni Schools of Thought masud.co.uk ; Wikipedia article on Shia Islam Wikipedia Shafaqna: International Shia News Agency shafaqna.com ; Roshd.org, a Shia Website roshd.org/eng ; The Shiapedia, an online Shia encyclopedia web.archive.org ; shiasource.com ; Imam Al-Khoei Foundation (Twelver) al-khoei.org ; Official Website of Nizari Ismaili (Ismaili) the.ismaili ; Official Website of Alavi Bohra (Ismaili) alavibohra.org ; The Institute of Ismaili Studies (Ismaili) web.archive.org ; Wikipedia article on Sufism Wikipedia ; Sufism in the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World oxfordislamicstudies.com ; Sufism, Sufis, and Sufi Orders – Sufism's Many Paths islam.uga.edu/Sufism ; Afterhours Sufism Stories inspirationalstories.com/sufism ; Risala Roohi Sharif, translations (English and Urdu) of "The Book of Soul", by Hazrat Sultan Bahu, a 17th century Sufi risala-roohi.tripod.com ; The Spiritual Life in Islam:Sufism thewaytotruth.org/sufism ; Sufism - an Inquiry sufismjournal.org

After Muhammad

Muhammad's letter to Muqawqis

By his death in 632, Muhammad enjoyed the loyalty of almost all of Arabia. The peninsula's tribes had tied themselves to the Prophet with various treaties but had not necessarily become Muslim. The Prophet expected others, particularly pagans, to submit but allowed Christians and Jews to keep their faith provided they paid a special tax as penalty for not submitting to Islam. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Saudi Arabia: A Country Study, U.S. Library of Congress, 1992 *]

For the first 30 years following the Prophet’s death, caliphs ruled the Islamic world from Yathrib, today known as Medina. Responding to threats from the Byzantine and Persian empires, the caliphs demanded allegiance from the Arab tribes. In a relatively short span of time, the Islamic empire expanded northward into present-day Spain, Pakistan, and the Middle East. However, maintaining unity proved to be a continual challenge. Following the death of the third caliph, Uthman, in 656, splits appeared in the burgeoning Islamic empire. The Umayyads (661–750) established a hereditary line of caliphs centered in Damascus. The Abbasids, claiming a different hereditary line, overthrew the Umayyads in 750 and moved the caliphate to Baghdad. Although the spiritual significance of Mecca and Medina remained constant, the political importance of Arabia in the Islamic world waned. [Source: Library of Congress, September 2006 **]

After Muhammad's death, his followers compiled those of his words regarded as coming directly from God into the Quran, the holy scriptures of Islam. Others of his sayings and teachings, recalled by those who had known him, became the hadith. The precedent of Muhammad's personal behavior is called the sunna. Together they form a comprehensive guide to the spiritual, ethical, and social life of the orthodox Sunni Muslim. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, Library of Congress, 1988]

Abu Bakr, Ali and the Breakway of the Shias (Shia)

Muhammad with Abu Bakr, Omar and Othman

After Muhammad's death the leaders of the Muslim community consensually chose Abu Bakr (died in 634), the Prophet's father-in-law and one of his earliest followers, to succeed him. Abu Bakr maintained the loyalty of the Arab tribes by force, and in the battles that followed the Prophet's death--which came to be known as the apostasy wars--it became essentially impossible for an Arab tribesman to retain traditional religious practices. Arabs who had previously converted to Judaism or Christianity were allowed to keep their faith, but those who followed the old polytheistic practices were forced to become Muslims. In this way Islam became the religion of most Arabs. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Saudi Arabia: A Country Study, U.S. Library of Congress, 1992 *]

After the Prophet's death, most Muslims acknowledged the authority of Abu Bakr but not all did. At that time some persons favored Ali, Muhammad's cousin and the husband of his daughter Fatima, but Ali and his supporters (the Shiat Ali, or Party of Ali) eventually recognized the community's choice. The next two caliphs (successors)--Umar, who succeeded in A.D.634, and Uthman, who took power in A.D.644--enjoyed the recognition of the entire community. When Ali finally succeeded to the caliphate in A.D.656, Muawiyah, governor of Syria, rebelled in the name of his murdered kinsman Uthman. After the ensuing civil war, Ali moved his capital to Iraq, where he was murdered shortly there after.

Ali's death ended the last of the so-called four orthodox caliphates and the period in which the entire community of Islam recognized a single caliph. Muawiyah proclaimed himself caliph from Damascus. The Shiat Ali refused to recognize him or his line, the Umayyad caliphs, and withdrew in the first great schism to establish the dissident sect, known as the Shias, supporting the claims of Ali's line to the caliphate based on descent from the Prophet. The larger faction, the Sunnis, adhered to the position that the caliph must be elected, and over the centuries they have represented themselves as the orthodox branch.

Leadership Claims After Muhammad’s Death

According to the BBC: “When the Prophet died in the early 7th century he left not only the religion of Islam but also a community of about one hundred thousand Muslims organised as an Islamic state on the Arabian Peninsula. It was the question of who should succeed the Prophet and lead the fledgling Islamic state that created the divide. [Source: BBC, August 19, 2009 |::|]

Abu Bakr and Muhammad

“The larger group of Muslims chose Abu Bakr, a close Companion of the Prophet, as the Caliph (politico-social leader) and he was accepted as such by much of the community which saw the succession in political and not spiritual terms. However another smaller group, which also included some of the senior Companions, believed that the Prophet's son-in-law and cousin, Ali, should be Caliph. They understood that the Prophet had appointed him as the sole interpreter of his legacy, in both political and spiritual terms. In the end Abu Bakr was appointed First Caliph. |::|

“Both Shi'as and Sunnis have good evidence to support their understanding of the succession. Sunnis argue that the Prophet chose Abu Bakr to lead the congregational prayers as he lay on his deathbed, thus suggesting that the Prophet was naming Abu Bakr as the next leader. The Shi'as' evidence is that Muhammad stood up in front of his Companions on the way back from his last Hajj, and proclaimed Ali the spiritual guide and master of all believers. Shi'a reports say he took Ali's hand and said that anyone who followed Muhammad should follow Ali. [Source: BBC, August 19, 2009 |::|]

“Muslims who believe that Abu Bakr should have been the Prophet's successor have come to be known as Sunni Muslims. Those who believe Ali should have been the Prophet's successor are now known as Shi'a Muslims. It was only later that these terms came into use. Sunni means 'one who follows the Sunnah' (what the Prophet said, did, agreed to or condemned). Shi'a is a contraction of the phrase 'Shiat Ali', meaning 'partisans of Ali'. |::|

“The use of the word "successor" should not be confused to mean that those leaders that came after the Prophet Muhammad were also prophets - both Shi'a and Sunni agree that Muhammad was the final prophet. |::|


Shia is a reference to Ali supporters. Ali ibn Abi Talib (Caliph from 656-61) was the forth caliph. Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, he was the husband of Muhammad's favorite daughter Fatima and grew up in Muhammad’s household.

20120509-ali Medaillon_chiite.jpg
Ali Medallion
Shia point to the close lifetime association of Muhammad with Ali. When Ali was six years old, he was invited by the Prophet to live with him, and Shia believe Ali was the first person to make the declaration of faith in Islam. Ali also slept in Muhammad's bed on the night of the hijra, or migration from Mecca to Medina, when it was feared that the house would be attacked by unbelievers and the Prophet stabbed to death. He fought in all the battles Muhammad did except one, and the Prophet chose him to be the husband of his favorite daughter, Fatima. [Source: Library of Congress]

Ali seemed like the natural choice to be the first caliph. He was closest male relative of Muhammad and the first male convert to Islam. He was regarded as a good soldier, charismatic, and pious, and was known for the wisdom of his judgements. A saying of the Prophet goes: “Ali is special to me and I am special to him; he is the supporting friend of every believer” — but because he was still young and inexperienced Abu Bakr was picked as the first caliph.

When Ali became caliph he established his capital in Kufa, Iraq. He was supported but the people of Medina, Muslims who resented the Umayyads, and traditionalist Muslims, but he was not universally accepted. The Umayyad elite opposed him and his rise to caliph. The assassination, which brought him to power compromised his authority. A civil war broke out soon after Ali became caliph between his supporters and those of Muawiya, a relative of Othman.

Ali and the Early History of Shia and Sunnis

The group that supported Ali as caliph became Shia (derived from “shi’at “Ali” , “the party of Ali,”). They believe that Ali was Muhammad’s true successor because he was a blood relative of the prophet and was thus the only one capable of explaining Islam’s doctrines. They believed the caliph should be selected among his family members because they were more intimately acquainted with Muhammad’s thinking and lifestyle.

Those that opposed Ali became Sunnis. They believed that the caliph, or leader of the Islamic community should be selected among the most qualified of his followers. Sunnis believed the heirs of Abu Bakr, Omar and Othman were best suited for the task even though they were not blood relatives like Ali.

The split between Sunni and Shia sects was also politically motivated like Henry VIII's split from the Catholic Church, and was partly a disputes over the wealth of the early Caliphs. One reason the conflict between the sects has persisted to this day, some have suggested, is because the two groups were never allowed to fight it out until one group extinguished the other.

Civil Wars After Ali Becomes Caliph

Map of the First Fitna, Muslim Civil War within the Rashidun Caliphate which resulted in the overthrowing of the Rashidun caliphs and the establishment of the Umayyad dynasty. Green is the region under the control of the Rashidun (Ali ibn Abi Talib) Red is the Region under the control of Muawiyah I Blue is the Region under the control of Amr ibn al-As

The murder of Othman and ascendancy of Ali to Caliph in 656 triggered a five-year civil war that was the first series of civil wars and rebellions that were to go on for over a hundred years over the succession to the caliphate and dominate Islamic doctrine.

The civil war erupted at least in part because of resentment by Arab tribal leaders over control by Othman and his Umayyad governors and a rivalry with the Meccan mercantile aristocracy as result of the conquests.

In 656, Aisha, the Prophet’s wife, led a rebellion against Ali because he didn’t avenge Othman’s death. Her supporters were defeated by Ali’s supporters near Basra in the Battle of the Camel, so called because Aisha watched over the fighting from the back of a camel.

This battle triggered a face off between Ali’s Iraq-based supporters and the Meccan- and Syrian-based supporters of Muawiyyah ibn Abi Sufyan, an Othman relative and the Muslim military governor of Syria. Muawiyyah had promised to avenge Othman’s death and was supported by the wealthy Meccan clans and was regarded in Syria as an able leader.

In 657, an effort was made to arbitrate the dispute between Ali and Muawiyyah. Muawiyyah used the doctrine of per-destination to legitimize his rule. The decision went against Ali. Muawiyyah deposed him and was proclaimed the Caliph in Jerusalem.

Division Emerges and Grows

According to the BBC: “Ali did not initially pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr. A few months later, and according to both Sunni and Shi'a belief, Ali changed his mind and accepted Abu Bakr, in order to safeguard the cohesion of the new Islamic State. “The Second Caliph, Umar ibn al-Khattab, was appointed by Abu Bakr on his death, followed by the third Caliph, Uthman ibn 'Affan, who was chosen from six candidates nominated by Umar. [Source: BBC, August 19, 2009 |::|]

20120509-ali Hazrat_Ali_slays_Marhab.JPG
Ali slays Marhab
“Ali was eventually chosen as the fourth Caliph following the murder of Uthman. He moved the capital of the Islamic state from Medina to Kufa in Iraq. However, his Caliphate was opposed by Aisha, the favoured wife of the Prophet and daughter of Abu Bakr, who accused Ali of being lax in bringing Uthman's killers to justice. In 656 CE this dispute led to the Battle of the Camel in Basra in Southern Iraq, where Aisha was defeated. Aisha later apologised to Ali but the clash had already created a divide in the community. |::|

“Islam's dominion had already spread to Syria by the time of Ali's caliphate. The governor of Damascus, Mu'awiya, angry with Ali for not bringing the killers of his kinsman Uthman to justice, challenged Ali for the caliphate. The famous Battle of Siffin in 657 demonstrates the religious fervour of the time when Mu'awiya's soldiers flagged the ends of their spears with verses from the Qur'an. [Source: BBC, August 19, 2009 |::|]

“Ali and his supporters felt morally unable to fight their Muslim brothers and the Battle of Siffin proved indecisive. Ali and Mu'awiya agreed to settle the dispute with outside arbitrators. However this solution of human arbitration was unacceptable to a group of Ali's followers who used the slogan "Rule belongs only to Allah", justified by the Qur'anic verse: “The decision is for Allah only. He telleth the truth and He is the Best of Deciders” — Qur'an

“This group, known as the Kharijites, formed their own sect that opposed all contenders for the caliphate. In 661 the Kharijites killed Ali while he was praying in the mosque of Kufa, Iraq. In the years that followed, the Kharijites were defeated in a series of uprisings. Around 500,000 descendents of the Kharijites survive to this day in North Africa, Oman and Zanzibar as a sub-sect of Islam known as the Ibadiyah. |::|

Ali’s Death

Ali's coffin from the Book of Omens

Ali was murdered by a knife-carrying assassin on his way to a mosque in Kufa, near Najaf in Iraq in A.D. 661. The assassination was carried out by a member of the Kharajites, a group that had originally supported Ali but seceded from Ali’s camp when Muawiyyah declared himself caliph. The assassination is a focus of Shia reverence and grief.

For some Muslims Ali became a more important religious figure than even Muhammad and some claimed he was an incarnation of the divine, like Jesus, a scandalous idea to many Muslims. No fewer than seven places in the Middle East and Central Asia say they contain the tomb of Ali. One of them is in the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan.

Ali’s supporters acclaimed his son Hasan as the next Caliph but Hasan made a deal with Muawiyyah (Mu'awiya) and retired to Medina. Hasan died in Medina in 669. Muawiyyah (Caliph from 661-80) became the recognized caliph after Hasan’s retirement. He moved the capital from Kufa to Damascus, Syria and established the Umayyad dynasty (A.D. c.670-750 CE). The name is derived from Bani Umayyah, My'awiyah's clan within Muhammad's Quraysh tribe. Muawiyyah was the son of Abu Sufyan, an old enemy of Muhammad, and was the Governor of Syria.

After Ali’s death, Muawiyyah managed to restore unity to the Muslim empire. He was a good Muslim and able leader and kept order with an effective administration system and a strong government. . Unlike his predecessors who maintained a high level of egalitarianism in the Islamic state, Mu'awiya's Caliphate was monarchical. This set the tone for the fledgling Ummayad dynasty.

Yazid and the Battle of Karabala

Yazd I (Caliph from 680-683) succeeded his father Muawiyyah as caliph. There was great resistance to the establishment of a dynasty. A civil war broke out that lasted from 680 to 692. According to the BBC: “About the same time, Hussein, Ali's youngest son from his marriage to Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, and the third Shi'a Imam, was invited by the people of Kufa in Iraq to become their leader. Hussein set off for Kufa from his home in Medina with his followers and family, but was met by Yazid's forces in Karbala before reaching his destination. [Source: BBC, August 19, 2009 |::|]

“Despite being hopelessly outnumbered, Hussein and his small number of companions refused to pay allegiance to Yazid and were killed in the ensuing battle. Hussein is said to have fought heroically and to have sacrificed his life for the survival of Shi'a Islam. |::|

“The Battle of Karbala is one of the most significant events in Shi'a history, from which Shi'a Islam draws its strong theme of martyrdom. It is central to Shi'a identity even today and is commemorated every year on the Day of Ashura. Millions of pilgrims visit the Imam Hussein mosque and shrine in Karbala and many Shi'a communities participate in symbolic acts of self- flagellation. |::|

Hussein and the Battle of Karbala

Battle of Karbala
Shia considered the Umayyads to be usurpers. In 680 some of them called on Hussein (Husayn), the second son of Ali and the grandson of Muhammad, and his half brother Abbas to come to Kufah, Iraq to lead them instead of Yazid I.

Hussein left Medina with a small army and some women and children. They marched for three days in the Iraqi desert and were surrounded by Umayyad soldiers outside of Karbala. When the promised popular support from Kufah failed to materialize, they were left alone, it is said, with a sword in one hand and a Qur’an in the other. to face an army of 4,000 men.

Hussein and Abbas and their followers were massacred. According to legend, the followers were put to death one by one as Hussein resolved to die rather than acknowledge Yazid I as the leader of Islam. Hussein was reportedly the last one to die, dying with his infant son in his hands.

Before he was decapitated Hussein witnessed the murder of his wife and children and apologized to his horse. In some versions of the story his head was kicked around like a soccer ball. But rather than the nip the Shia movement at the bud Hussein’s defeat it gave the movement a martyr. In Shia eyes, Hussein was a just and humane man who stood up an all-powerful oppressor. Hussein’s death is remembers with the solemn, masochistic festival of Ashura (See Shia).

Impact of the Death of Ali and Hussein

The Battle of Karbala is one of the defining moments of Muslim history. The death of Hussein split Islam and inspired the Shia faith, and marked the beginning of the Sunni sect and the relegation of Shia to second class status. Hussein is remembered for his sacrifice and devotion. Shia believe that he and the other victims of the Battle of Karbala became martyrs who went immediately to Paradise. Hussein is regarded as the Third Imam of Shia Islam. Images of him often depict him as a bearded warrior astride a white horse.

Hussein's body without head
The Sunnis placed the unity of the Muslim community above all else and were willing to accept the political authority necessary to maintain it. The Shia believed that supporting a legitimate ruler (Ali) had precedence over maintaining peace within the Muslim community. A third group also emerged: the Kharijites, or Seceders, who advocated the right of the Community to elect its own leaders and throw them out if they were accused of committing sins.

Divisions between Sunnis, Shia and other groups were reinforced and deepened by repeated suppression of armed revolts. Over time a division that was essentially political in nature developed theology, laws and beliefs that distinguished one group from the other, always with the understanding the Sunni view was the view of the majority and Shia were the minority, with the implication that were cultish and on the fringe.

There has been some assertions that the Sunnis were largely Arab and the Shia were primarily Persian. That is not necessarily true. There are many Shia Arabs in Iraq and Lebanon and elsewhere. Shia Islam did not become the state religion of Iran until the 16th century.

The death of Ali and Hussein also resulted in a lot of soul searching about what Islam was supposed to be. In many these issues have not been resolved and discussion of them continues today. Among the question that are still debated are: Does being a Muslim mean total submission to God and adherence to Muslim law? Is there a place for free will, rationalism and individuality? Is Islam something that is ultimately to be embraced by all of mankind or can it exist as a community with other religions? On top of that, who is to rule over Muslims? How are these leaders to be chosen? What qualities do they need to possess? And how is change and poor leadership to be handled?

Sunni Expansion and Leadership

head of Hussein
According to the BBC: “As Islam expanded from the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula into the complex and urban societies of the once Roman and Persian empires, Muslims encountered new ethical dilemmas that demanded the authority of religious answers. Sunni Islam responded with the emergence of four popular schools of thought on religious jurisprudence (fiqh). These were set down in the 7th and 8th centuries CE by the scholars of the Hanbali, Hanafi, Maliki and Shaafii schools. Their teachings were formulated to find Islamic solutions to all sorts of moral and religious questions in any society, regardless of time or place and are still used to this day. [Source: BBC, August 19, 2009 |::|]

“The Ummayad dynasty was followed by the Abbasid dynasty (c. 758-1258 CE). In these times the Caliphs, in contrast to the first four, were temporal leaders only, deferring to religious scholars (or uleama) for religious issues. |::|

“Sunni Islam continued through the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties to the powerful Mughal and Ottoman empires of the 15th to 20th centuries. It spread east through central Asia and the Indian sub-continent as far as the Indonesian archipelago, and west towards Africa and the periphery of Europe. The Sunnis emerged as the most populous group and today they make up around 85% of the one billion Muslims worldwide. |::|


The first identifiable sect of Islam was the Kharijite sect, one that remains relatively unknown among non-Islamic people. Zachery Brasier wrote in List Verse: “After Muhammad died, a string of caliphs followed him, but there was constant discussion and debate about how the religion should actually proceed. When an assassin killed the third caliph, Uthman, the Muslim community split between two factions, each fighting for control of the community and doctrine. The main debate was over who should be the next caliph. Eventually those two factions would form the Shi’ite and Sunni sects. During that time, a third group organized as a sect of Islam, separate from the other two factions. The chief doctrine of the Kharijites was the idea that anybody could be a caliph. [Source: Zachery Brasier, List Verse, April 8, 2016]

Arabia was the site for some of the conflicts on which the sectarian divisions of Islam are based, namely Shiasm (from Shiat Ali or "party of Ali"). One Shia denomination, the Kharijite movement, began in events surrounding the assassination of Uthman, the third caliph, and the transfer of authority to Ali, the fourth caliph. Those who believed Ali should have been the legitimate successor to the Prophet refused to accept the authority of Uthman. Muawiyah in Syria challenged Ali's election as caliph, leading to a war between the two and their supporters. Muawiyah and Ali eventually agreed to an arbitrator, and the fighting stopped. Part of Ali's army, however, objected to the compromise, claiming Muawiyah's family were insincere Muslims. So strong was their protest against compromise that they left Ali's camp (the term khariji literally means "the ones who leave") and fought a battle with their former colleagues the next year. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Saudi Arabia: A Country Study, U.S. Library of Congress, 1992 *]

The Kharijite movement continued to be significant on the Persian Gulf coast in the ninth through the eleventh century and survived in the twentieth century in the more moderate form of Ibadi Islam. The uncompromising fanaticism of the original Kharijites was, however, indicative of the fervor with which the tribal Arabs had accepted the missionary ideology of Islam. It was this fervor that made it possible for Arab armies to conquer so much territory in the seventh century. This same spirit helped the Al Saud succeed at the end of the eighteenth century and again at the beginning of the twentieth.*

Battle of Karbala

Kharijite Beliefs

The most prominent quality of the Kharijite movement was opposition to the caliph's representatives and particularly to Muawiyah, who became caliph after Ali. Although the Kharijites were known to some Muslims as bandits and assassins, they developed certain ideal notions of justice and piety. The Prophet Muhammad had been sent to bring righteousness to the world and to teach the Arabs to pray and to distribute their wealth and power fairly. According to the Kharijites, whoever was lax in following the Prophet's directives should be opposed, ostracized, or killed.*

Zachery Brasier wrote in List Verse: ““While the rest of the Muslims argued over whether the caliph should descend from Muhammad or not, the Kharijites believed that anybody could be a caliph, as long as they received revelation from Allah. They held a democratic view of the caliphate, rejecting the idea that the caliphate should descend through family lines. Along with their views on the caliphate, the Kharijites held an extremely puritanical view of Islam. According to them, any major sin committed by a Muslim disqualified that person as a Muslim. [Source: Zachery Brasier, List Verse, April 8, 2016]

“As they spread their beliefs, the Kharijites also evolved into a violent organization, conducting killings and terrorism against Muslims who did not agree with them. Over time, they split into various sects, some of which still exist in much less extreme forms. However, some scholars of Islam believe that although ISIS is not a literal descendant of the Kharijite movement, it bears many ideological similarities to the earlier sect.”

Origin of the Shia

The more orthodox Shia sect originated in circumstances similar to those of the Kharijite movement. Shia believed that Ali should have led the Muslim community immediately after the Prophet. They were frustrated three times, however, when the larger Muslim community selected first Abu Bakr, next Umar (died in 644), and then Uthman as caliph. When Ali finally became caliph in 656, the Shia refused to accept claims to the caliphate from other Muslim leaders such as Muawiyah. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Saudi Arabia: A Country Study, U.S. Library of Congress, 1992 *]

The dispute between Ali and Muawiyah was never resolved. Muawiyah returned to Syria while Ali remained in Iraq, where he was assassinated by a Kharijite follower in 660. Muawiyah assumed the caliphate, and Ali's supporters transferred their loyalty to his two sons, Hasan and Husayn. Whereas Hasan more or less declined to challenge Muawiyah, Husayn was less definitive. When Muawiyah's son, Yazid, succeeded his father, Husayn refused to recognize his authority and set out for Iraq to raise support. He was intercepted by a force loyal to Yazid. When Husayn refused to surrender, his entire party, including women and children, was killed at Karbala in southeastern Iraq.*

Battle of Karbala

The killing of Husayn provided the central ethos for the emergence of the Shia as a distinct sect. Eventually, the Shia would split into several separate denominations based on disputes over who of Ali's direct male descendants should be the true spiritual leader. The majority came to recognize a line of twelve leaders, or Imams, beginning with Ali and ending with Muhammad al Muntazar (Muhammad, the awaited one). These Shia, who are often referred to as "Twelvers," claimed that the Twelfth Imam did not die but disappeared in 874. They believe that he will return as the "rightly guided leader," or Mahdi, and usher in a new, more perfect order.*

The Shia minority in Saudi Arabia, like the Shia in southern Iraq, traces its origin to the days of Ali. A second Shia group, the Ismailis, or the Seveners, follow a line of Imams that originally challenged the Seventh Iman and supported a younger brother, Ismail. The Ismaili line of leaders has been continuous down to the present day. The current Imam, Sadr ad Din Agha Khan, who is active in international humanitarian efforts, is a direct descendant of Ali.*

Although present-day Saudi Arabia has no indigenous Ismaili communities, an important Ismaili center existed between the ninth and eleventh centuries in Al Hufuf, in eastern Arabia. The Ismailis of Al Hufuf were strong enough in 930 to sack the major cities of Iraq, and they were fanatical enough to attack Mecca and remove the sacred stone of the Kaaba, the central shrine of the Islamic pilgrimage. The pilgrimage was suspended for several years and resumed only after the stone was replaced, following the caliph's agreement to pay the Ismailis a ransom.*

Shi'a Expansion and Leadership

According to the BBC: “Meanwhile, the leadership of the Shi'a community continued with 'Imams' believed to be divinely appointed from the Prophet's Family. Unlike the Sunni Caliphs, the Shi'a Imams generally lived in the shadow of the state and were independent of it. The largest sect of Shi'a Islam is known as The Twelvers, because of their belief that twelve divinely appointed Imams descended from the Prophet in the line of Ali and Hussein, led the community until the 9th century CE. [Source: BBC, August 19, 2009 |::|]

“Muhammad al-Muntazar al-Mahdi was the Twelfth Imam. The Shi'a believe that as a young boy, he was hidden in a cave under his father's house in Samarra to avoid persecution. He disappeared from view, and according to Shi'a belief, has been hidden by God until he returns at the end of time. This is what Shi'as call the Major Occultation. The Shi'a believe this Twelfth Imam, or Mahdi or Messiah, is not dead and will return to revive the true message of Islam. His disappearance marked the end of the leadership of the direct descendants of the Prophet. (Note: While the information provided is the position of the largest Shi'a subdivision, that of The Twelvers, other Shi'a groups, such as the Ismailis, hold differing views.) |::|

“In the absence of the Mahdi, the rightful successor to the Prophet, the Shi'a community was led, as it is today, by living scholars usually known by the honourable title Ayatollah, who act as the representatives of the Hidden Imam on earth. Shi'a Muslims have always maintained that the Prophet's family are the rightful leaders of the Islamic world. |::|

Development of Shia Islam and the Safavids

declaration of Shi'ism as the state religion of Iran by Shah Ismail of the Safavid dynasty

Shia Islam grew formally in the 10th and 11th century under the Fatamid dynasty in Egypt and in Assassin city states in Iran, the first powerful Shia states. The theology of the sect also developed around this time. Shia sharia law was created in the 13th and 14th centuries and was based only on the Qur’an and hadiths that has been passed down by the Prophet’s family. It allowed things like temporary marriage.

Shia Islam reached new heights under the Safavids (1502-1736) — fanatical Iran-based Shia who fought with Sunni Ottomans for over a century and influenced the culture of the Moguls in India. They established the great city of Isfahan, created an empire that covered much of the Middle East and Central Asia and cultivated a sense Iranian nationalism. At its height the Safavid empire (1502-1736) embraced the modern states of Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Afghanistan and parts of Syria, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Pakistan.

The Safavids claimed descent from Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and the inspiration of Shia Islam. They broke from the Sunni Muslims and made Shia Islam the state religion. The Safavids are named after Sheikh Safi-eddin Arbebili, a widely revered 14th century Sufi philosopher.

Like their rivals, the Ottomans and Moghuls, the Safavids established an absolute monarchy that maintained power with a sophisticated bureaucracy influenced by the Mongol military state and a legal system based on Muslim law. One of their great challenges was to reconcile Islamic egalitarianism with the autocratic rule. This was achieved initially through brutality and violence and later through appeasement.

Rise of the Safavids

Safavids originated in what is now Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijani region of northwest Iran. The began as a Sufi order that converted to Twelver Shia Islam and emerged as a major power by taking control of northwest Iran and raiding Christian areas in Georgia and the Caucasus. Many of the warriors in the Safavid armies were Turks.

Safavid Flag
Shah Ismail (ruled 1501-1524), the founder of the Safavid Dynasty, was a descendant of Sheikh Safi-eddin He was regarded as a great poet, statements and leader. Writing under the name Khatai, he composed works as a members of hf his own circle of court poets.

In 1500, 16-year-old Ismail became the leader of the Safavids after his father was murdered by regional military commanders. His first order of business was to avenge his father’s death. In 1501, he conquered Tabriz. Within a decade he had captured all of Iran. Shah Ismail forged relations with Hungary and Germany, and entered into negotiations regarding a military alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor Karl V.

Safavids and Shia Islam

Ismail declared Twelver Shitte Islam to be the state religion and based his legitimacy on dubious claim to be a descendant of the Shia imams. This was a major development in Islam. Before that time most Shia had been Arabs and the previous Shia dynasties had been made been ruled by Arabs. Although few Iranians were Shia when the Safavids took power, most of them were Shia by the 17th century and remain so to this day.

The creation of a Shia state caused great tensions between Shia and Sunnis and led to not only intolerance, repression, persecution directed at Sunnis but to an ethnic cleansing campaign. Sunnis were executed and deported, administrators were forced to a vow condemning the first three Sunni caliphs. Before that time Shia and Sunnis had gotten along reasonably well and Twelver Shia Islam was regarded as fringe, mystical sect. Twelver Shia Islam went through great changes. It had been previously practiced quietly in homes and emphasized mystical experiences. Under the Safavids, the sect became more doctrinal and institutionalized and less tolerant of dissent and mysticism. Individual soul searching and discovery and Sufi acts of devotion were replaced with mass rituals in which throngs of men collectively beat themselves and moaned and cried and denounced Sunnis and mystics.

Shia in Iraq

Safavid map
Jon Lee Anderson wrote in The New Yorker: “The oppression of the Shia in Iraq extends back at least to 1638, when an Ottoman sultan captured Baghdad. Shiism had been established as the state religion of neighboring Persia in the sixteenth century, and the Sunni Ottomans and the Shia had fought over the Mesopotamian provinces for a hundred years. The Ottomans maintained control until the First World War, and even though more than half the population embraced Shiism, Sunnis were politically dominant. The British upheld this tradition soon after they established the state of Iraq, in 1920. They installed a Sunni Hashemite king, Faisal. Following the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958, political power remained in Sunni hands, with few exceptions, until Saddam Hussein was toppled in April.” [Source: Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker, February 2, 2004 ~]

“Despite the long history of hostility between the Sunni and the Shia, sectarianism has not been the central organizing force of Iraqi society in modern times. Until recently, most Iraqis would probably have identified themselves first by nationality or tribe, or by whether they live in an urban or a rural community, or by some ideological position that is not necessarily religious. But sectarian divisions were reinforced during Saddam's regime, because the Baathists persecuted political groups that were Shia, even if secondarily, and because the Shia suffered most during Saddam's war with their co-religionists in Iran. In the nineteen-eighties, Saddam executed thousands of Shia. Several hundred thousand more were accused of being ethnic "Persians" and were forcibly expelled to Iran.~

There have been worries that Iraqi Shia would turn out to be like the hard-line Shia in Iran. “The first George Bush had this in mind in 1991, when he didn't intervene to stop Saddam's slaughter of Shia who rebelled after the Gulf War...Religion, in its institutional form, became even more important in the weeks following the fall of Saddam. There was a sudden vacuum of authority, and it was often filled by Shia organizations that could handle practical matters while the Americans were muddling around, trying to get their bearings. Forces loyal to the radical young Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr quickly seized control of the huge slum in northeastern Baghdad known as Saddam City. They established vigilante control of the streets, took over hospitals, and renamed the place Sadr City, in honor of Moqtada's father, an ayatollah who was murdered, apparently on Saddam's orders, several years ago. ...The Mahdi Army, or God's Army, a young, ragtag, largely untrained group, further bolstered Sadr's power in parts of southern Iraq. And Hakim's Badr fighters moved in. They occupied several towns northeast of Baghdad, and battled Saddam loyalists for the town of Baquba. A contingent of American marines arrived in the area several weeks later and skirmished briefly with the Badr forces before they relinquished control of Baquba. Keeping a low profile, they remained in several other key towns along the border, in Baghdad, and in numerous communities in the south.” ~

Shi'a Today

According to the BBC: “There are significant differences between scholars of Shi'a Islam on the role and power of these representatives. A minority believe the role of the representative is absolute, generally known as Wilayat Faqih. The majority of Shi'a scholars, however, believe their power is relative and confined to religious and spiritual matters. |::| [Source: BBC, August 19, 2009 |::|]

“Although the Shi'a have never ruled the majority of Muslims, they have had their moments of glory. The 9th century Fatimid Ismaili dynasty in Egypt and North Africa, when Cairo's prestigious Al-Azhar University was founded and the 16th century CE Safavid Dynasty which engulfed the former Persian Empire and made Shi'a Islam the official religion. |::|

“Significant numbers of Shi'as are now found in many countries including Iraq, Pakistan, Albania and Yemen. They make up 90% of the population of Iran which is the political face of Shi'a Islam today.

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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