The Kaaba at al-Haram Mosque during the start of Hajj, Mecca, Saudi Arabia (Photo by Al Jazeera English, available at Wikimedia Commons).

January 14, 2009


Islam is the religion founded in the 7th century AD by Muhammad, a relatively minor member of the Quraysh Tribe of Arabs living near the city of Mecca. Around 610, at the age of about 40, Muhammad saw a vision in which an angel told him to recite God’s words to those around him to persuade them to behave and worship correctly. Muhammad recited God’s words on numerous occasions throughout his life, and these recitations were written down and codified by Muhammad’s companions into a book called the Qu’ran, or “recitation.” Although Muhammad made some converts to his way of worshiping and behaving (which heavily emphasized monotheism and violently rejected all forms of polytheism ), he antagonized the leaders of Mecca. In 622, therefore, he moved to the town of Yathrib (now called Medina, or “the city”) at the request of some of its leading figures. This event, the hijra(a word with complex connotations involving flight, seeking sanctuary, and, after Muhammad’shijra, abandoning a group of unbelievers to establish a more virtuous community) marked the start of a new era for Muslims, whose calendar counts from 622 (anno hejirae or AH) as the year one. 

Muhammad said that he was the Prophet of God, but denied having any divine characteristics himself—he was simply a man whom God had chosen to use as the means of revealing His will. He said that both the Old and the New Testaments were also legitimate transmissions of God’s will, and that he was the latest of a long line of prophets stretching back to Abraham, the founder of monotheism. He accepted that Jesus Christ was a true prophet, therefore, but denied that Christ was the Son of God or partook in any way of God’s divine essence. The denial of divine attributes for himself and for Christ was extremely important, for Muhammad believed that most interpretations of the Christian Holy Trinity were forms of polytheism (worshiping three holy beings rather than one) and therefore departures from the way of God established in the covenant with Abraham.

As the Prophet of God, Muhammad naturally was both the spiritual and the temporal leader of the community of Muslims, which spread rapidly through conquest and conversion during his life and after. When Muhammad died in 632, those who would later become considered Sunnis said his closest associates chose Abu Bakr, one of the earliest converts, as his successor (khalifa or caliph). Unlike Muhammad, Abu Bakr and all of his successors were simply leaders of the community, not prophets. The whole Muslim community recognized Abu Bakr and his two successors, Omar and Uthman, as legitimate. When Uthman was assassinated in 656, however, the community split. Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law Ali bin Abi Talib made good his claim to the succession (which he had originally made following Muhammad’s death), but one of Uthman’s powerful kin, Mu’awiya ibn Abi Sufyan, the Governor of Damascus, opposed him. Ali established his base at Kufa, near Najaf in Iraq, and consolidated his rule in Mesopotamia, but could not defeat Mu’awiya decisively in battle. Ali therefore agreed to submit the matter to arbitration instead of pursuing armed conflict among Muslims. This decision angered some of his followers (known as kharijites or “separatists” after their opposition to Ali over this issue), who argued that God alone could judge such matters and that any person or group who undertook such arbitration was claiming divine rights and thereby re-establishing a form of polytheism. This internal dissension, among other things, weakened Ali’s cause. He was assassinated by a Kharijite in 661 and most Muslims, including Ali’s elder son Hasan, accepted Mu’awiya as the fifth caliph.

The clash between Mu’awiya’s and Ali brought to the fore a fundamental dilemma of Islam: Muhammad had never clearly established who should rule the Muslim community after his death. Some Muslims believed that the succession could pass only to the most virtuous Muslim regardless of his ancestry. The Kharijites further believed that the caliph should be removed by the community if he ceased to behave virtuously. Others held that the caliphate could only pass to descendants of Muhammad, arguing that Muhammad and his descendants had all been endowed by God with spiritual attributes superior to those of ordinary men. This group, which would become the Partisans of Ali (Shi’at Ali or simply Shi’a), supported Ali over Mu’awiya and, when Ali was killed, backed his second son, Hussein. Hussein managed to raise a small army and challenge the forces of Mu’awiya’s successor, Yazid, to battle in 680 near the city of Karbala in Iraq. Yazid’s army triumphed and Hussein was killed. Even then, the dissension continued as the Shi’i refused to accept the legitimacy of the Umayyad Caliphs and instead maintained their own line of succession of religious leaders whom they called Imam (a word that means simply “prayer-leader” for Sunnis, but can have a drastically different significance for Shi’a). 

The Sunni-Shi’a split reflected not merely a disagreement about which individual should lead the community of Muslims, but also about the very nature of that leadership. The Umayyad rejection of the need for the ruler to have blood-ties to Muhammad required the development of other bases for legitimacy. The two bases most readily available to Sunni rulers were that they enjoyed the consensus support of the Muslim community (without ever clearly defining how that consensus was reached or measured) and that they were the most virtuous and pious leaders. Both arguments were naturally challenged by the Umayyads’ rivals, and when the dynasty fell in 750 to the Abbasids (750-1258) the obvious justification for the new regime was that the Umayyads had failed in piety and virtue and so lost the support of God and the community. Mainstream Sunni legitimacy therefore became closely aligned with worldly success.

Hussein’s martyrdom at the Battle of Karbala drove Shi’a theories of legitimacy in another direction. Thenceforth, Shi’a were at best tolerated and at worst persecuted by the Sunni regimes whose legitimacy they rejected. Shi’a heroes are therefore martyrs—Ali and Hussein first and foremost. Oppression drove the Shi’a to dissimulation (taqiya)—a Shi’a could (and in some circumstances should) conceal his faith to protect his life (or the Shi’a community in a hostile environment). This idea of dissimulation was extended to God—many early Shi’a felt that God had also concealed meanings within the overt text of the Qu’ran and that learned scholars could properly interpret these deeper meanings. The one best qualified to interpret God’s meaning was the Imam, who was held to be endowed with powers beyond those of ordinary men (a quality particularly attributed to religious scholars who were descendants of the Prophet). The Shi’a count Al-i as the first Imam, but disagree as to how many followed him. The majority of Shi’a believe that there were twelve Imams in all (they are thus called “Twelvers”); but smaller groups believed that the elder brother of the seventh Imam, Ismail, was the last (and so are known as Ismailis). In both cases, Shi’a believe that the last Imam (also known as the Mahdi) did not die, but disappeared, and that he will reappear heralding the day of judgment.