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Shiism: An Overview
PROLOGUE: EVENING IN HYDERABAD I didn't wish to play back-seat driver, but Hyder had an unsettling habit of looking back over his shoulder at me while chatting as we rode together on his motorcycle. The herd ahead was distracting me from his argument. "Oh." We swerved neatly around the animals, who were clearly accustomed to enjoying right of way as they moved slowly along the crowded street. I had a brief impression of blue-black flanks caked with ordure and mud; then we were clear. "They are a nuisance," he pronounced with a wave of the hand. Now we passed the Moazzam Jahi Market and were in the surging business center, with its money lenders and tinsmiths, its bookstalls and shops selling striped Eikot fabrics. Hindus, Muslims, Parsees, J ains-all hurried to finish their buying and make their way home. It was twilight by the time we reached the Salar Jung Bridge, nosing our cycle among the oxcarts and buses and rickshaws. Near the bridge's railing, fruit vendors reclined against their barrows. Below, a glimpse of the sluggish River Musi; downstream, the red stone of the nizam's High Court, with its bulbous cupolas in Victorian Indo-Saracenic style. On the farther shore the minarets and domes of the Old City displayed black banners marked with the name of Husain, the slain Imam. For this was the eve of the first of Muharram, season of mourning in Shiite Islam. Once across the bridge and within the Shiite quarter we went briefly from house to house, visiting the private chapels set up for Muharram by Hyder's friends in the courtyards of their homes. Here tazias, gilded wood models of






My host settled me comfortably in the shrine's portico among a small group of black-clad men and boys. The latter is reviled today as a tyrant who felt no shame at making a public display of his drinking and his immoral life-style. Husain's sister. Husain chose death instead. Anguished by the cries of Husain's children. his household taken captive. half brother and personal attendant of the Imam. he was subsequently poisoned at the caliph's order). and Iran. but the Shiites limited candidacy to the immediate family of Muhammad and his descendants. Hasan is nevertheless revered today as the second Imam after Ali. Husain accepted the call and set out from Mecca with only a small band of followers. He perished in the attempt. long a Shiite stronghold. sent messengers to Mecca to Ali's surviving son Husain (now known as the third Imam). 680 (the year6l in the hijri or Islamic calendar) and the battle of Karbala. he was intercepted and surrounded by forces loyal to Yazid. Both factions agreed that the caliphate should be restricted to members of the Quraysh. the tribe to which the Prophet belonged. which hoped to force the small band to surrender. regardless of any political recognition or lack thereof extended by the Muslim world at large. dealt the deathblow). the tenth of Muharram. flanked by a lams . intoned an opening prayer. apparently out of a desire to avoid civil war. the other espoused the cause of Ali ibn Abi Talib. Ali did not contest their election. Although he was deprived of the caliphate. cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet. Zaynab held the first majlis. Husain himself was killed (an Umayyad soldier known as Shemr.4 The Shiites Shiism: An Overview 5 the tombs of the martyred Imams.D. Then we came to our evening's goal. But Ali's son never made it to Kufa. 632 was the question of succession (al-khilafah. Shortly thereafter. focusing on the actions and historical figures that playa prominent role in Shiite devotions today. the Ahl al-Bayt (Ahl-e Bayt. guided by divine inspiration. Ali was blocked repeatedly from power: first the Prophet's companion Abu Bakr became caliph. This completed. The Shiites' hopes now focused on Hasan and Husain. including his personal bodyguard and the women and children of his household. to mourn for her . Husain's camp was overrun by the enemy. he did obtain the caliphate and ruled for some five years. What follows is only a sketch. The latter group referred to themselves as Shi' at Ali ("Alid partisans/supporters of Ali") or simply as al-Shi' ah. Despite his qualifications. dying in his brother's arms. Muawiya was a Qurayshi but also a member of the wealthy Umayyad clan. where Hyder was scheduled to preach. head down. according [0 Shiite sources. From the second to the tenth day of the month of Muharram the Imam Husain and his followers withstood siege by Yazid's army. At Muawiya' s death Alid partisans in the Iraqi city of Kufa. urging him to come to Kufa. Here Yazid gloated over the severed head of his rival. North Africa. Left unsettled at the death of the Prophet Muhammad in A. portrayed in later accounts as a personification of evil. he looked out at us and began his sermon. In Shiism the term Imam indicates those members of Ahl-e Bayt who are the true spiritual leaders of the Muslim community. Meanwhile the U rnayyad governor of Kufa h ad que lied the incipient rebellion there and by intimidation had prevented any Shiite attempts to rescue their leader at Karbala. galloped to the Euphrates in an attempt to bring water.D. within the very palace of Yazid. then Uthman. the shrine of Harrat Abbas. and claim the caliphate that was rightfully his by virtue of descent from the Prophet. They maintained that the Prophet himself. the "caliphate") to leadership of the growing Islamic community: to whom should power now devolve. the battle-standards carried in the Ashura procession. including Zaynab. Throughout the siege the defenders suffered from hunger and thirst. Finally. was marched through the desert to Damascus. Hasan was then forced into a pensioned retirement in Medina (where.' In the year 680 Muawiya died and was succeeded by his son Yazid. lead a Shiite revolt against Yazid. which had been brought from the battlefield for the caliph to dishonor with blows from a cane. moreover. Muawiya coerced the elder son Hasan into yielding him the caliphate. on Ashura. Here too. At Karbala. reminding everyone once more of the old tale. who had married the Prophet's own daughter Fatima. or lamentation assembly. Ali's ties by marriage and blood bound him more closely than anyone else to the family of Muhammad. governor of Damascus and Syria. in Persian and Urdu: the "people of the household"). Thereafter the caliphate passed to Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan. were erected. The train of prisoners. notorious for its late conversion to Islam and its obstinate hostility to Muhammad in the early days before the Prophet's final success in Mecca. of how Husain came to die at Karbala. THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND: BATTLE AND DEATH AT KARBALA Essential to any understanding of Shiite Islam is an acquaintance with the events of A. only to be murdered in 661. and how should a ruler's qualifications be determined? One party favored the process of election by a circle of councillors and community leaders. then he sat before the alam of Abbas and. southwest of what is today Baghdad. then Umar. the two sons of Ali and Fatima. Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas. At stake was a growing Islamic empire which already had conquered much of the Near East. had designated Ali as his successor. near the River Euphrates.

not (the Sunnis would say) out of lack of reverence for Ahl-e Bayt. "the mightiest sign of God. In the Shute world the ulama are characterized by a series of ranks and titles including hujjat at-islam." ." The latter site is of particular interest." in the Iranian world sometimes referred to as mullahs).. or the exercise of independent reasoning in applying the law to specific issues at hand. since the time of Muhammad there has been a succession of twelve Imams in Islamic history. The generalizations involved are considerable but still useful. another in the cemetery of Bab al-Saghir honoring sixteen of the warriors killed in the battle. (The above is of course no more than a rough shorthand distinction.IERARCHY OF RELIGIOUS SCHOLARS What has been described above is no more than an outline of the events of Karbala known to every devout Shiite. These are scholars trained in Islamic law.) Acting on this principle. which has as its foundations Quranic scripture and the voluminous biographical traditions concerning the attested actions and sayings of the Prophet and the Imams. whether personal or public. one qualified to engage in ijtihad. "the sign of God. if the Shiites can be described as partisans of Ali and his descendants (the Imams). Because of the Husain chapel located within. During this period of imprisonment Husain's four-year-old daughter Sakina died (in Hyderabadi iconography she is often represented by jasmine garlands intertwined with chains). it is not surprising that Damascus today has a number of shrines associated with the battle of Karbala. the twelfth Imam was taken into occultation by God: as a safeguard against murder he was divinely concealed from his enemies. At this point. since then Abu al-Qasim al-Khui (a long-time resident of Najaf who was placed under house arrest by Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Persian Gulf crisis and Iraqi Shiite uprising against Saddam) has become one of the most celebrated maraji': ~~merous Shiites in Hyderabad today take al-Khui as their exemplar. A scholar who is recognized by his peers as sufficiently learned in the law bears the title of mujtahid. Each in turn was persecuted by the reigning caliph. THE IMAMATE AND THE '. prevalent in Iran and Iraq as well as among the Shiites of India). at worst." and ayat Allah al-uzma. According to the Ithna-Ashari or "Twelver" denomination of Shiism (the most widely espoused form of Shiism today. this "Hidden Imam" has not been seen in the world since 941. This especially holds for those scholars who were on the government payroll. Sunnis extended recognition even to Umayyad rulers whom they knew to be brutal and corrupt. however. located as it is in the northeast comer of the Great Umayyad Mosque. including one on the city's southern outskirts consecrated to Sayyidah Zaynab." ayat Allah. in the year 874. as a shrine to the Syrian storm-god Hadad. I encountered numerous Iranian pilgrims at all three sites in a visit to Damascus in 1990. Given this history. and as a Christian basilica of lohn the Baptist. It is believed that as a child. it may be of interest to compare the attitudes of Sunni and Shiite ulama toward their own ideal role in society (as it should be) and toward the political rulers who govern the world as it is. each deprived of his rightful worldly rank and (with the exception of the twelfth) eventually murdered. as are Bab al-Saghir and the shrine of Zaynab. the Umayyad Mosque is the object of Shiite visitation today. "the one guided by God. but in his absence leadership of the Shiite community has devolved upon the ulama (plural of the Arabic term alim." who will usher in the end of time and final ludgment.C. "learned one.6 The Shiites Shiism: An Overview 7 brother. but out of a pragmatic wish to avoid the chaos and social strife that would have ensued in any attempt to install the Imams by force. and a third known as Mashhad Ra's al-Husayn. then. Until his death in 1989 Ruhollah Khomeini served as the maria' al-taqlid for many Shiites throughout the world. anyone lacking such expertise-the vast majority of believers-is commanded to select a recognized living mujtahid as his marja' al-taqlid or "reference model ~or imitation" and to follow such a cleric's example in ordering the moral affairs of his life. From a comparative historical perspective. although the Sunnis lack as stratified a hierarchy of religious-legal authorities. True. "the shrine of Husain's head. as a Roman temple of Jupiter. The site occupied by the mosque has been the focus of veneration since the ninth century B. According to Twelver theologians. that role was always limited and at times narrowly subordinated to the wishes of the regime in power." Yet he remains alive and will ultimately return as the Mahdi. the Sunnis in tum can be regarded as those Muslims (the vast majority) who upheld the legitimacy of the reigning caliphs. The ulama play an important role too in Sunni Islam. "argument in defense of Islam. rests with the Hidden Imam. when he entered the "Great Occultation. issuing [atwas (learned religious opinions) . True worldly authority. Few Shiites are considered educated enough in the legal and scriptural tradition to attempt ijtihad.. such employees would be expected by their masters to scan Scripture for evidence to back the latest government edict. The collective self-image of the Sunni ulama can be said to have evolved in response to the fact that these scholars had an active and cooperative role to play in supporting the governing caliphs and in helping administer the Islamic state.

Sunni ulama never insisted on the necessity of the moral superiority or spiritual infallibility of the caliph. coupled wah spiritual authority among a persecuted and excluded minority-has s~ited the Shiite ulama well when they have been out of power. the ulama-government entente can be seen at work in a staunchly Sunni country such as Egypt. although not mirrored in any worldly government. is necessarily flawed and unjust in its denial of the rightful claims of Ahl-e Bayt. the ulama.. And they say that the imamate is not an administrativeissue which may be dependent on choice by the commonmasses. The uiama retrospectively assigned taqiyab as a motive to Ali and then elevated it into a guiding principle for any Shiite living under a tyrannous government too powerful to be safely resisted: one may give an external show of acquiescence while preserving silent resistance in one's interior. Such a quietist stance-silent opposition to worldly powers. or because of "necessary dissimulation" (taqiyah). and it is a pillar of the faith . and his elevated moral rank is reflected in some fashion onto those religious leaders whom he guides.8 The Shiites Shiism: An Overview 9 which lent Islamic legitimization to patently corrupt rulers.' . The Shiites agree on the necessity of stipulation and designation. have the responsibility of publicly debating the proper course to be taken. and the certainty of the sinless infallibility (ismah) of the prophets and of the Imams? This passage neatly summarizes Shiite notions of communal leadership. The question of human sinlessness and infallibility (ismah) is one of the principal doctrinal issues distinguishing Shiism from Sunnism. This concept affects both the Shiite ulama's self-image and how they have defined their relations with worldly powers. in his survey of religious sects entitled Kitab al-milal wa-al-nihal. nor may the Imam be appointed by their election. and this designation can only be conferred on one who is a sinless descendant of the Prophet. securely salaried and supported by the government. but through nass. Infallibility then in Sunni Islam is collective and is found in the Muslim community as a whole. this they have achieved by portraying the Iranian nation as a righteous minority menaced by powerful external enemies who seek to deprive it of . oversee the religious education and guidance of the Muslim population at large. "the consensus of the community. "The book of religious communities and creeds.such a government to the extent necessary for survival. that sufficed. The Imam's appointment takes place not through any process of collective election. In these circumstances the Shiite ulama have felt themselves challenged to preserve their traditional worldview of persecution and excl usion. But from a Sunni perspective such compromises have seemed justifiable: stable government engenders a stable social order. this was either because of "tyrannous injustice" (zulm) of the kind which befell Husain at the hands o~ Yazi~. who see themselves as custodians of his spiritual legacy. and if in fact they are not presently rulers. The hidden sovereignty of the occulted Imam. Rather the imamate is an issue of ancient lineage. As for worldly perfection: this resided if anywhere in the principle of ijma". The consensus they eventually arrive at will be shielded from error because of divine guidance. as was the case with All." When moral and doctrinal issues arise. "designation" by his spiritual predecessor alone." said the following of the Shiites: The Shiites are those who with exclusive devotionhave become partisans of Ali (may God be pleased with him). He is characterized by ismah-sinlessness and infallibility-a claim never put forward by the Sunni ulama for the caliph. however when the ulama suddenly find themselves to be the overt and manifest' wielders of governmental authority. If an Imam was denied his rightful place in the political realm. Any government other than that of the twelfth Imam. A problem arises. in one's heart. the ulama. hence the Imam is catapulted in rank above the caliph. The same pattern continues today: even with the abolition of the caliphate in 1924.. Such has been the case since the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran. These concepts of the imamate evolved within a community which saw itself as persecuted and excluded from power. as learned representatives of the community. but a mullah may cooperate with . The twelfthcentury Sunni author al-Shahrastani. If his administration made possible the practice of Islam. Unlike the Sunni caliph. this is because of tyrannous injustice (zulm) on the part of someone else. the first Imam: he made a show of initially accepting his exclusion from the throne and pretended to support the first three caliphs because of the necessity of avoiding civil war. while treasuring resistance in his heart. by right of designation and inheritance-whether this came about in secret or by public proclamation.They believe that Ali's descendants retain the right to be leaders of the community. The concepts of nass and isman betray a mistrust of the "common masses"-the people and their representatives-who might err in the selection of a Muslim leader just as they once erred in their early neglect of the Ahl-e Bayt's political claims. in which the ulama. They state their belief in his claim to both the imamate and caliphate. Accustomed as they were to some share of authority and to the experience of the world's inevitable imperfection. the Shiite Imam is (at least in theory) not only a worldly ruler but the highest spiritual authority. or because of necessary dissimulation (laqiyah) on the part of the Imams. the living sinless descendant of the Prophet. is manifested in the Imam 's deputie~.

the Arab tribes living in and around Mecca.10 The Shiites its proper place in the world. the Prophet's family and its defenders are threatened with violence and expropriation: thus the paradigm is preserved. then." Essentials of Islam Common to the Shiite and Sunni Traditions TAWHID: GO~'S ONENESS. as in the past. and Muhammad is the messenger of God. and ruins in the desert wastes." as Muslim historians term the pre. subjoin an additional assertion. it may be good for us to pause here and examine aspects of the Islamic faith adhered to by Shiite and Sunni Muslims alike. More will be said in a later section concerning Shiite devotion to the Imams).Islamic era) can be characterized as animist: spirits (jinn or "genies") were believed to reside in and around rock formations. nevertheless the two traditions share in common numerous religious beliefs and essential insights concerning the nature of divinity and God's relations with humanity. To begin. which summarizes the universal Islamic belief in tawhid or God's absolute Oneness. trees. however." a statement reflecting the exalted status of the Prophet's household and the Imams in Shiite popular piety. let us examine the first part of the shahadah. Karbala. "And Ali is the beloved friend of God. For although the historical events of the seventh century-Ali's caliphate." (Shiites. Allah. Reverence was paid as well to numerous astral deities. Once more. The religion of the Arab Jahiliyah ("the period of ignorance. The message of tawhid enunciated by the Prophet can best be appreciated by glancing at the audience to whom it was first directed. the imamate of Husain-generated a Shiite theology which differs from Sunnism in important ways. All Muslims subscribe to a common shahadah (testimony of faith): "No god is there save God. and 2 . TAWHID EXAMINED IN THE LIGHT OF ANCIENT ARAB BELIEFS Having reviewed some of the distinguishing events central to Shiite sacred history. including a creator-God.

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