Bahá'í Library Online
. . . .
>>   Books
TAGS: Interfaith dialogue; Islam; Shiism
> add/edit tags

An Introduction to Shi'i Islam:
The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shi'ism

by Moojan Momen

previous chapter chapter 3 start page single page chapter 5 next chapter

Chapter 4

         Early History of Shi'i Islam, AD 632-1000

In the whole field of Islamic studies, Shi'i Islam has probably
received less than its fair share of attention and effort from Western
orientalists. However, in recent years, there have been some studies
in this very important field and the 1979 revolution in Iran has
undoubtedly focused attention on Shi'i Islam. In surveying the whole
of Shi'i history, it is without doubt the early period in which
modern, mainly Western, critical scholarship has presented a picture
which differs most markedly from that found in the books of the
traditional Muslim historians, whether Shi'i or Sunni.

   At the start, one problem that is conceived by modern scholars to
beset the study of Islam (whether Sunni or Shi'i) is the problem of
the historicity of the sources. For Muslims the ideal society was the
one in which the Prophet ruled over men with infallible wisdom and
judgement. For Shi'is this period is extended to the period of the
Imam 'Ali. This was an ideal 'Golden Age' which each generation
of Muslims tries to recreate. Therefore there is little concept of
change and development having occurred in Islamic theology,
jurisprudence or constitutional theory. If most Muslims in any age
were to have been asked in what way their theology differed from that
of the orthodox of an earlier period, their answer would be that there
is no difference. This, of course, is a fundamental difference
from Western insistence that all such matters are continuously in a
state of change and development. However, the result of this Muslim
conceptualisation of a static, unchanging Islam is that when later
Shi'i writers write of early periods and especially of the period of
the Prophet and the Imams, they unconsciously and retrospectively
impose their own views and formulations onto that earlier period.
Thus works that purport to examine the history or teachings of an
earlier period are in reality more a reflection of the period in which
they are written than true expositions of that earlier period. Also,
since we have very few Shi'i works surviving from much before the
4th/10th century, it is very difficult to examine the earliest period
and, to a great extent, reliance has been placed on the


works of opponents of Shi'ism from that early period.
  Modern historians have rejected much of the picture that the Muslim
historical works attempt to create. These early historical works,
whether written from the point of view of Twelver Shi'is, Isma'ilis,
Mu'tazilites or orthodox Sunnis, all present a picture of the Shi'is
as a single main body following a line of Imams from which, at
different times, groups have split off over the question of the
succession to the Imamate. This picture is thought by modern scholars
to have been retrospectively imposed over the facts of the history of
the early period by historians of the 3rd and 4th Islamic centuries
for doctrinal reasons. I Because of this it is very difficult to go
through the sources back to what the Imams and their followers
actually said and did.
  One writer has suggested that the traditional account of the
differences between the various Shi'i sects was, in fact, a
surreptitious method of conducting political debate during the later
'Abbasid period. By referring their arguments to events that allegedly
occurred in the past, those conducting this debate avoided the wrath
of the autocratic 'Abbasid government.[2]
  Having discarded the traditional account of early Shi'i history, it
is, of course, difficult to replace this with a complete alternative
picture. But by a close analysis of the earliest sources, some idea
has been built up by modern critical scholarship of the circumstances
in which Shi'ism arose.

The First Four Caliphs and the Umayyad Dynasty (AD 632-750)

Even the standard Shi'i sources admit that as a religious group the
Shi'a of 'Ali were an extremely small group. They were limited to four
persons initially and Western scholars have even cast doubt on this
number. However, it would be difficult to deny, on an objective
assessment of the source material, that 'Ali evidently felt that he
had some claim to the leadership on the death of the Prophet and had
been unfairly passed over in the election of Abu Bakr. Why else would
a man who had been in the forefront of the military and political
affairs of the Muslim community suddenly retire from all participation
in the affairs of the community? In a straight-forward election by
consensus, as would have occurred after the death of a tribal leader,
'Ali's youth would have precluded any realistic expectation of
election, while by Arab customs of inheritance, Muhammad's uncle, al-
'Abbas, would have inherited his position. Therefore 'Ali's retirement
from active public life seems to support the idea that he felt that he
had received some specific designation by Muhammad. This is all that
can be gleaned from the sources. Beyond that, it is a matter of
opinion whether one chooses to believe that 'Ali claimed for himself
the type of religio-political


leadership implied in the Shi'i concept of the Imamate or to believe
that this is a retrospective imposition by Shi'i historians. Probably
the vast majority of those who later flocked to 'Ali's side after he
had assumed the Caliphate were Shi'a of 'Ali only in the political
sense and not in the religious sense.
  Much confusion has arisen due to the use of the word Shi'i to
describe persons of very widely differing opinions. There has been a
tendency to imagine that when someone from the early period is
described as Shi'i this means that he held the same opinions as a
modern Shi'i. To demonstrate this more clearly, two terms should be
defined. Firstly, political Shi'ism: this indicates a belief that the
members of the house of Hashim are the people most worthy of holding
political authority in the Islamic community, but no belief in any
particular religious station for this family. Secondly, religious
Shi'ism: this indicates a belief that particular members of the house
of Hashim are in receipt of divine inspiration and are thus the
channel of God's guidance to men whether or not they hold defacto
political authority.

  Although during the lifetimes of 'Ali and Hasan, there were many who
could be numbered as political Shi'i, few can confidently be counted
as religious Shi'i. Even in the celebrated case of Hujr ibn 'Ad, al-
Kindi and his thirteen companions whom Shi'is count as the first of
their martyrs, it is difficult to see in the charges drawn up against
them any firm indication that they were partisans of 'Ali
in any but a political sense.
  The next indication of a religious aspect to the movement that is
described as Shi'i in the historical sources comes with the martyrdom
of Husayn. His action has been interpreted by Shi'i writers as an act
of self-sacrifice resulting from a desire to jolt the consciences of
the Muslims and to reactivate the ethos of the Islamic community as
created by Muhammad, an ethos which was in danger of being submerged
by the worldliness of the Umayyads.[4] Some Western writers, however,
have tended to look upon Husayn as an ill-fated adventurer who
misjudged the reliability of Kufan promises and over-estimated his own
inviolability as the grandson of the Prophet. But this rather cynical
view of Husayn belies some of the historical evidence such as Husayn's
refusal to take the safe option of turning back or turning aside to
the hills held by his supporters when apprised of the hopelessness of
his situation, and his refusal to compromise even when certain death
was the alternative.
  It is, however, with the advent of the Tawwabun (the penitents)
following the martyrdom of Husayn that the first unequivocally
religious manifestation of the Shi'i movement appeared. There can be
little doubt that the self-sacrifice of this band of men must be
ascribed to religious zeal for the house of 'Ali rather than any
political considerations.


  Although almost all Shi'i groups were agreed on the succession
passing from 'Ali to Hasan and thence to Husayn, 5 after the last-
named, there appears to have been something of a split. Certainly the
vast majority of those who have been referred to above as political
Shi'a went on to support Mukhtar who arose in the name of Muhammad ibn
al-Hanafiyya. The mass of the Shi'a of Kufa followed Mukhtar and,
indeed, it is doubtful whether Zaynu'l-'Abidin, the Imam of the
Twelver line, had any followers at all, at least until the collapse of
Mukhtar's revolt in Iraq and perhaps not until after the end of ibn
az-Zubayr's Caliphate in the Hijaz in 73/692.[6] Some Western
historians even doubt whether Zaynu'l-'Abidin put forward any claim to
religious leadership (i. e. the Imamate) at all.
  In the same way, Muhammad al-Baqir, the Fifth Imam of the Twelver
line, who was during his lifetime eclipsed by the support among the
Shi'a for Abu Hashim, the son of Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya, and the
increasing support for his own half-brother, Zayd, is represented by
some Western writers as having made no claims at all but rather as
having had claims retrospectively imposed upon him by later Shi'i
  The fact that Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya, who was a son of 'Ali by a
HanafI woman (i.e. not by Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet);
Muhammad an-Nafs az-Zakiyya, who was a descendant of Hasan; 'Abdu'llah
ibn Mu'awiya, who was not a descendant of 'Ali at all but of 'Ali's
brother, Ja'far; and the 'Abbasids, who were descendants of the uncle
of both Muhammad and 'Ali; were all able to lay claim to
Shi'i sympathy and to obtain considerable Shi'i support shows that
some at least of the Shi'is of that time placed no particular emphasis
on either descent from the Prophet through Fatima or even descent from
'Ali--any claimant from the house of Hashim would do. This is a clear
indication that political considerations such as the overthrow of
Umayyad-Syrian domination and the status of the mawali were dominant
over the religious issue of the station and identity of the Imam and
the rights of the house of 'Ali. Therefore any claimant who looked as
though he could be successful was able to obtain support. However,
despite the above evidence, there is equally no proof that a small
number of persons did not exist who may be considered as proto-
Twelvers and who looked to those who were to become
identified as the Twelver line of Imams for religious guidance.
  It is only with the Sixth Imam,Ja'far as-Sadiq (d. 148/765), that
there is any firm evidence that any form of religious leadership was
   * During this period, when non-Arabs wished to become Muslims, they
were made to become clients (mawla, plural mawali) of one of the Arab
tribes. This gave them an inferior social status and in some cases
made them liable to exploitation in direct contradiction of the Qur'an
and Sunna.


claimed by the Twelver Imams. As-Sadiq was a well-known and
influential figure in the Islamic world. His circle of students
included several who were later to go on to become prominent jurists
and Traditionists in their own right among non-Shi'i Muslims. It is
almost certain that as-Sadiq did not make an open claim to religious
leadership among his circle of students, but the existence of a number
of prominent religious figures such as Hisham ibn al-Hakam, 'Ali al-
Maythami and Muhammad ibn Nu'man, Mu'min at-Taq, who evidently looked
to as-Sadiq as Imam, as well as several other leading figures such as
Abu'l-Khattab, who held beliefs of a ghuluww (extremist)* nature
regarding him; all tends to indicate that as.-Sadiq
was a focus of religious speculation and leadership in his own time.
  The names of ghulat groups, especially in Kufa, increase
dramatically in number during as-Sadiq's lifetime. Indeed, from the
sources it would appear that a sizeable proportion of the population
of Iraq was involved in speculation of a ghuluww nature at this time.
It is therefore necessary to digress for a moment to consider the
origin of the ghulat.

The Ghulat

When the Arabs invaded the Fertile Crescent in the years following the
death of the Prophet, they encountered ancient civilisations with
sophisticated religious systems. The religion of Islam by comparison
was as yet simple and undeveloped. The Prophet himself was already
dead and so there was no one to whom the Muslims could turn for a
binding answer to the sophisticated religious questions being posed by
these ancient civilisations. There thus arose a ferment of discussion
around some of the concepts introduced by these older religious
  Initially the Arabs in their camp cities managed to avoid much
disturbing religious speculation but as assimilation increased and
more of the native population embraced Islam, more and more discussion
arose. This was probably particularly true of Iraq which was already
the seat of intense religious ferment
even before the Arab invasion. In Iraq the ancient Babylonian
religious systems, Zoroastrianism, Mazdakism, Manichaeism, Judaism and
various forms of Christianity
all contributed to a kaleidoscope of religious debate and speculation
probably unequalled in the ancient world. From this variegated
background ideas were injected into the Muslim community and
intensively discussed by groups of people interested in such matters.
These groups of people, discussing what the majority of Muslims would
consider heterodox concepts which they had imbibed from the religious
milieu of Iraq,
   For a fuller explanation of this term see Glossary and the
following pages.


became known to later generations of Muslims by the name ghulat or
extremists. Among the ideas that were injected into the debate were
such concepts as tanasukh (transmigration of souls), ghayba
(occultation), raj'a (return), hulul (descent of the Spirit of God
into man), imama (Imamate, divinely-inspired leadership and guidance),
tashbih (anthropomorphism with respect to God), tafwid (delegation of
God's powers to other than God), and bada--(alteration in God's will).
The ghulat were, however, in need of a priest-god figure onto which to
project their ideas of hulul, ghayba, etc., a role admirably suited to
the figure of 'Ali. In the rest of the discussion in this chapter the
term ghuluww will be used as a convenient label for theological
speculation based on the above doctrines.[*]
  The linking of ghuluww speculation to the Shi'a or party of 'Ali was
probably a historical and geographical accident. Syria and Iraq had
been rivals and antagonists from long before the Arab invasion. In the
period immediately before the Muslim onslaught, Syria representing
Byzantine Christianity gazed across a hostile frontier at Iraq
representing Zoroastrian Iran. Following the Arab invasion it did not
take long before the old rivalry resurfaced. When Mu'awiya made Syria
his base for a bid for the Caliphate, it was only natural for 'Ali to
go to Iraq and set up his headquarters there. When Mu'awiya,
representing the party (Shi'a) of 'Uthman (or 'Uthmaniyya), overcame
Hasan, representing the party (Shi'a) of 'Ali and Syria came to
dominate Iraq, it was only natural for the party of 'Ali to come to
represent Iraq's political aspirations and its desire to overthrow
eventually Syrian domination.
  Thus fortuitously there came together in Iraq the ghulat and the
Shi'a of 'Ali. The ghulat adopted the family of 'Ali as the embodiment
of their religious speculation but the Shi'a of 'Ali always looked on
the ghulat with a certain amount of suspicion and distaste. However,
one event above all others probably served as a catalyst to fuse
together the ghulat and the political Shi'a of 'Ali so that later
historians came to look upon them as one. This event was the martyrdom
of Husayn. The pathos of this event gave the family of 'Ali a cultic
significance and thus gave the Shi'a of 'Ali, which had previously
been primarily a political party, a thrust into a religious
orientation directing it firmly in the direction of the ghulat, while
at the same time giving those engaged in ghuluww speculation a hero-
martyr and a priestly family with which they could associate much of
their speculation. That the ghulat were only loosely attached to the
family of 'Ali is proved by the ease with which such figures as Abu
Mansur and Abu'l-Khattab felt they could transfer the Imamate from the
family of 'Ali onto themselves and their descendants.
   Although this type of speculation is now called ghuluww, i.e.
   * A number of Western scholars have attempted to attribute the
origin of these Shi'i-ghuluww ideas to Yemeni (South Arabian)
religious traditions.


extremism, this is only really a statement by later Muslim writers who
compared this speculation with the fully-evolved orthodox position. It
does not necessarily follow that the holding of these opinions was
considered extreme at that time. As one writer has put it:

  . . . there is no reason to be shocked when the Ghulat looked to
  others than Muhammad's descendants as messianic figures--one might
  equally say the extremist is the one who exalts persons purely on
  account of their birth. Nor is there anything more extreme in
  expecting a man to return whom others regard as dead-as some of
  the early Ghulat did-than in the expectation of the so-called
  moderate Shi'a that a man will return whom others doubt was ever
  born [i.e.  the Twelfth Imam].[7]

The major factor that caused groups to be labelled as ghulat by later
writers was their attribution of either divinity to anyone other than
God or prophethood to anyone after Muhammad.[8] However, as the same
writer has pointed out, the idea that Muhammad was the last prophet
from God is not explicitly stated in the Qur'an and was almost
certainly a doctrine developed quite late in the evolution of orthodox
Muslim theology.[9] Thus there is nothing to indicate that ghulat
speculation was considered extremist or immoderate by the Muslims in
the 2nd century (AD 718-815). One indication of the widespread
acceptability of ghuluww views is the fact that it is embarrassingly
difficult for Shi'i writers to find eminent religious figures of this
period who can be claimed to be Shi'i but who are not tainted by some
degree of ghuluww heterodoxy. For example, of Hisham ibn al-Hakam, and
Muhammad ibn Nu'man, Mu'min at-Taq, the two leading Shi'i theologians
of as-Sadiq's time, the first is credited with believing that God has
a finite three-dimensional body, that He does not know things before
they come into being, that He does change His decisions (bada-) and
that parts of the Qur'an have been suppressed and corrupted, while the
latter is accused of anthropomorphism towards God--all of these
opinions being contrary to the positions later adopted by the Twelver
Shi'i theologians. It would seem, therefore, that the ghuluww
doctrines were in fact the doctrine of the majority of the Shi'a at
this time, including the followers of as-Sadiq. The many Traditions
ascribed to as-Sadiq specifically refuting ghuluww views may well be
later inventions, for it is doubtful whether men such as Hisham ibn
al-Hakam would go against the explicit teachings of their Imam.
  If Ja'far as-Sadiq did try to make any doctrinal modifications to
what the Shi'a were thinking at this time, it was probably in the
sphere of belief in the Imams as incarnations of the Divinity that he
exerted his efforts. Both the fact that he expelled Abu'l-Khattab who
made this claim about him from among his supporters
and also the fact that this particular belief, characteristic of the
ghulat, appears to have died out among the


Shi'a in the generations succeeding as-Sadiq (so that it is not in the
list of Shi'i beliefs compiled by al-Khayyat and al-Ash'ari in the
3rd/9th-10th century) indicate that this may have been one area in
which as-Sadiq and perhaps his son Musa al-Kazim exerted their
influence and succeeded in having this doctrine put aside by their
followers. Indeed, it is probable that the very appellation ghulat
dates from after as-Sadiq. For before that time belief in the descent
and incarnation of the Divinity was in the mainstream of ideological
speculation, but from the time of as-Sadiq this particular belief was
gradually classed as being extreme and hence labelled ghuluww, a label
which was then retrospectively applied to earlier generations because,
of course, no one would admit that in those earlier generations such
belief had been well accepted and mainstream. The other beliefs
characteristic of the ghulat, however, remained within the mainstream
of Shi'ism for the time being. It must be noted that Shi'i scholars
would maintain that modem critical scholarship has produced very
little evidence that, regardless of what their followers may have been
thinking, the Imams themselves said and thought anything different to
what is ascribed to them by present-day Shi'is.

Other Shi'i Groups

While the ghulat were having a significant influence on the
development of Shi'ism from one direction during the lifetime of as-
Sadiq, another important influence was the political developments of
the period. The 'Abbasid revolution had profound implications for the
Shi'i movement. The 'Abbasid movement arose from a Shi'i base. Whether
true or not the 'Abbasids claimed that Abu Hashim, the son of Muhammad
ibn al-Hanafiyya, had transferred his Imamate to the 'Abbasid family.
The followers of ibn al-Hanafiyya, the Kaysaniyya, were apparently the
first of the Shi'a to set up an organised propaganda and the 'Abbasids
were able to take over their network of missionaries and agents. The
propaganda of the 'Abbasids was skilfully worked so as to attract the
widest possible Shi'i support. The call of the 'Abbasid agents was for
the people to rise in the name of 'ar-Rida min Ahl al-Bayt'--one who
shall be chosen from the family of the Prophet. To the masses this, of
course implied an 'Alid and the deception no doubt contributed to the
success of the 'Abbasid uprising. For many of the Kaysaniyya and the
Zaydiyya, the success of the 'Abbasid revolt was the fulfilment of
their aspirations. The overthrow of the Umayyads, the shift of the
centre of power from Syria to Iraq, and the improvement in the social
position of the mawali, were sufficient to satisfy many
of the political Shi'a even if the 'Abbasid family were not exactly
what they had in mind as 'ar-Rida min Ahl al-Bayt'.

While ghuluww doctrines may have been the main source of theology for
the Shi'a in this period, the 'Abbasid revolution was probably the
factor that gave the impetus to the creation of the most fundamental
and distinctive doctrine of the religious Shi'is, the doctrine of the
Imamate. For the 'Abbasids also, initially at least, claimed a
religious type of Imamate. At first they claimed it on the basis of
their designation by Abu Hashim, the son of Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya.
This ensured the support of large sections of the Shi'a who were
inclined to the Zaydi-Kaysani concept of the Imamate. Later, during
the Caliphate of al Mahdi when the 'Abbasids wanted to widen the basis
of their support, they began to assert that their ancestor al-'Abbas,
the uncle of the Prophet, should in fact have been regarded as the
true successor to the Prophet and they therefore based their claims on
that. The presence of a rival branch of the Hashimite clan claiming
both Caliphate and Imamate and being successful in establishing their
authority must have caused a considerable crisis in the Shi'i
community and presented it with a formidable challenge.
  It is clear that large numbers of those who had previously been
Shi'i (particularly those in the Zaydi and Kaysani camps) rejoined the
mainstream of Islam after the 'Abbasid revolution. Iraq, the
population of which had previously been predominantly Shi'i (at least
in the political sense), now became a bastion of orthodoxy. Nowhere is
this made more clear than in considering the lives of such persons as
Abu Hanifa, the founder of one of the four main schools of Sunni law,
and Sufyan ath-Thawri, a prominent jurist. These two citizens of Kufa
had very clear Shi'i leanings in their early life. They are both
reported to have studied under as-Sadiq; they supported Zayd ibn
'Ali's revolt against the Umayyads; and later, in the period
immediately after the 'Abbasid revolt, they are reported to have been
against the 'Abbasids and to have supported the revolt of Muhammad an-
Nafs az-Zakiyya, the Hasanid claimant. And yet despite these clear
early manifestations of Shi'i leanings, these men went on to become
leading members of the Ahl al-hadith (the Traditionists), the group
out of which Sunni orthodoxy evolved.[*] The Hijaz is reported to have
been predominantly Shi'i before the 'Abbasid revolution and yet one
hundred years later there is little Shi'i activity
there. This drawing away of support to rival claimants no
   * The entrance of large numbers of Shi'is into the ranks of the'
orthodox 'Ahl al-hadith at this crucial stage in the development of
Sunni doctrine no doubt
accounts for the fact, observed by Hodgson ('How did the early Shi'a .
. .', p. 4), that Sunni Islam came more than half-way towards
accommodating the Shi'i viewpoint. This can clearly be seen in the
'canonical' collections of hadith that
were made at this time. The other time that Shi'i thought came to have
a great influence on Sunni Islam was in the 8th/14th century through
the vehicle of Sufism. It may be argued that at the present time,
through the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the ideology of Ayatu'llah
Khumayni, Shi'ism is once more having a major impact on the Sunni


doubt gave impetus to the remaining Shi'is to formulate and
consolidate some of their doctrines, especially with regard to the
Imamate. It was undoubtedly a critical time for the Shi'a and this may
be why so many of the most important Shi'i hadith are referred back to
as-Sadiq who was the Imam during this period.
  The first steps towards the separation of the Shi'is into a
distinctive sect within Islam appears to have occurred under Muhammad
al-Baqir and Ja'far as-Sadiq, the Fifth and Sixth Imams. The former is
credited with initiating a distinctively Shi'i system of jurisprudence
and developments under the latter were even more far-reaching. As-
Sadiq came to prominence in a generation that had seen a plethora
of Shi'i revolts under a number of 'Alid-Shi'i claimants to the
Imamate and Caliphate. The increasing unrest against Umayyad rule made
it relatively easy for an 'Alid to put forward a claim and gather
followers. As-Sadiq appears to have wished to set himself and his
party apart from this trend. He did this by effectively depoliticising
the institution of the Imamate through the doctrines of designation
(nass) and knowledge ('ilm). By making the Imamate dependent only on
designation by the previous Imam and by making the Imam the recipient
of an esoteric, all-encompassing knowledge, the question of whether
the Imam held political power became irrelevant and so there was no
need to initiate an armed struggle to bring it about. The process of
depoliticising the Imamate was, of course, taken even further one
century later when the Imam was occulted. Then the Imamate became a
matter for theological debate rather than being of any political
or even juridical significance.
  In summary, then, Shi'ism during the first one hundred and fifty
years of Islam started as a principally political movement focused on
the house of 'Ali, centred in Iraq, and antagonistic to Umayyad-Syrian
domination. It was neither an organised nor a uniform movement and
would perhaps be better described as a sentiment than a movement. From
time to time this mist of sentiment would condense around a central
figure who laid claim to leadership but most of the time it remained
rather vague in its aims and varied from group to group and locality
to locality. Towards the end of this period Shi'ism as a mainly
political movement became attached to the type of theological
speculation known under the label of ghuluww, which thus formed a
religious wing to the movement. Individual Shi'is would be attracted
either in the direction of political involvement (the Zaydi-Kaysani
group who apparently were the most organised and carried out an active
propaganda) or of religious speculation (the ghulat). Many of the
numerous sects recorded by the Muslim heresiographers were probably
more akin to schools of thought centred on the opinions of prominent
individuals. The numbers of these sects may have been increased by a
desire on the part of the


heresiographers to make the facts fit a purported saying of Muhammad
that there would be seventy-three sects in Islam,
  As to the religious doctrines held by these early Shi'a, it would
seem that, apart from those who were only political Shi'a, the
majority subscribe to such doctrines as anthropomorphism,
transmigration of souls, descent of the divine spirit into men,
occultation and return, alteration of the Divine will, etc., i.e.
those beliefs typifying the ghulat, together with an emerging concept
of the Imamate, although there were varying opinions about the
identity of the Imam. Most of these doctrines are of course held to be
heretical by the final fully-developed Twelver theology and so it is
of great interest to follow how such a revolution in thinking occurred
in this group. Whether there existed up to the time of as-Sadiq any
Shi'is who could be truly held to be proto-Twelvers * (in the sense
that they accepted each in turn of the Twelver line of Imams and did
not subscribe to ghuluww doctrines) is open to serious doubt. If they
existed at all (which presupposes that the Twelver line of Imams did
in fact lay claim to being Imams), they were only a tiny handful among
the large numbers who had Shi'i sympathies and there is almost no
objective evidence that they existed at all.

The 'Abbasid Period (132/750-334/945)

Although, as noted above, the 'Abbasid Revolution began as a
manifestation of Shi'ism, it quickly took an anti-Shi'i turn. Once in
power, the 'Abbasids realised that many of the Shi'a would not accept
them as legitimate rulers and so they turned towards the Ahl al-hadith
(the proto-Sunnis) for their religious support and began to persecute
the Shi'is. The series of Zaydi revolts, particularly by 'Alids of the
Hasanid line, which had begun towards the end of the Umayyad era,
continued into the 'Abbasid period with the revolt of Yahya al-Mahd in
175/791 in Daylam (north Iran) and the more successful rebellion of
his brother, Idris, who succeeded in setting up a Shi'i state in the
Maghrib (northwest Africa) in 172/788.
  The Husaynid (Twelver) line also achieved some political importance
during as-Sadiq's lifetime although disputes about the succession
after his death weakened them once more.
  During the civil war between Harun ar-Rashid's two sons, al-Amm and
al-Ma'mun, several Shi'i factions took advantage of the 'Abbasid
weakness to come out in open revolt. Most of these Shi'i revolts were
Hasanid-Zaydi rebellions but a number of Husaynids also joined and
soon a large area of Hijaz, Yemen and Iraq was under Shi'i control.
  * True Twelvers could not of course exist until 260/874 when the
Twelfth Imam went into occultation.

[Page 72 contains a map.]


fact that al-Ma'mun chose 'Ali ar-Rida to marry his daughter and
become the heir-apparent to the Caliphate has been taken by some to
indicate that, at his time, the Husaynid line of Imams was considered
the leading line among the 'Alid. It might equally well imply,
however, that al-Ma'mun considered them the most moderate, pliable and
quietist group and therefore the most likely to be won over
to an alliance with the 'Abbasids and thus split the Shi'i rebellion
that was gaining ground in the west of the Empire.
  'Ali ar-Rida died or was poisoned in 203/818 leaving only a young
son, Muhammad at-Taqi. With this, the Twelver line of Imams plunges
back into obscurity and henceforth until the time of the Twelfth Imam
plays little role in the wider Muslim community.
  What then can be said about their followers--the proto-Twelvers?
Although it is clear that there was a group of persons, successors to
Hisham ibn al-Hakam and his generation, who followed these Imams,
their numbers cannot have been substantial as there is almost no
mention of them (as distinct from other groups of Shi'a) in
contemporary sources. It is only from about AD 880 onwards, i.e. after
the Occultation of the Twelfth Imam, that contemporary references to
them begin to occur. It is also to this later period that the earliest
surviving Twelver Shi'i works are dated.
  Only a very tentative picture can be built up of the Twelver
community in about the year 880. It appears that they referred to
themselves at this time as the Imamiyya while their opponents called
them the Rafida (the Rejectors). The term Rafida is said to relate to
those who rejected Zayd ibn 'Ali when be began to compromise Shi'i
tenets (in an effort to win support from non-Shi'i Muslims). More
probably it refers to the rejection by these Shi'is of Abu Bakr, 'Umar
and most of the companions of the Prophet. This latter rejection was
of fundamental importance since it implied a rejection of the whole
body of hadith, transmitted by these companions, on which the
structure of what was gradually evolving to be Sunni Islam was based.
It was probably this point which was decisive in causing the Twelver
Shi'is to separate into a distinct sect set apart from what was
evolving into the Sunni community.
  The Imamiyya were strong in Iraq and especially in Kufa and the
Karkh or West Bank quarter of Baghdad. Other important communities
included Qumm, which by 300/912 had overtaken even Kufa as the centre
of Imami scholarship, Rayy, Kashan and Khurasan. During the lifetimes
of the last few Imams, it would appear that the proto-Twelvers had
developed an elaborate network of agents (wakil, plural wukala). This
system of agents, the Wikala, was not, as with other similar Shi'i
networks, principally for the purpose of fomenting


revolt but rather to facilitate communication and to collect the khums
and zakat (see p. 179). It has been suggested, however, that some of
the Shi'i revolts that occurred in 250-1/864-5 in Kufa, Rayy and
Tabaristan were linked to the Tenth Imam, 'Ali al-Hadi. It is not
clear to what extent these communities were in contact with the
communities of other Shi'i sects such as the Zaydiyya, who became
established in northern Iran and Yemen at the end of the third
century, and the Idrisids in Morocco.

Beliefs of the Shi'a

As may be expected, Shi'i writers present the Shi'is of this period as
believing in the same doctrines as later Shi'is, but the objective
evidence belies this. The opponents of the Shi'is, such writers as the
Mu'tazili al-Kayyat and al-Ashari, writing in the period
269-300/882-912, state that the majority of the Shi'a at that time
held to such doctrines as anthropomorphism with respect to God, bada-
(alteration in the Will of God), that God wills every act of sin and
disobedience, and that the Qur'an has been altered. 10 These two
writers do mention a small number of Imami Shi'a who were by this time
adhering to doctrines derived from the Mu'tazila (i.e. close to the
final Shi'i position) but from their statements it is clear that the
majority held the same views as the ghulat of the previous century
(with the exception that belief in divine incarnation had now been
  Indeed, it may be surmised from the paucity of Shi'i books of any
description surviving from before about 330/941 that the large number
of books that are known (from bibliographical works such as Shaykhu't-
Ta'ifa's Fihrist) to have been written by Shi'is all revealed such
glaring differences in matters of doctrine (matters such as the
ghuluww beliefs discussed above and the Occultation of the Twelfth
Imam) from later Shi'i orthodoxy that they were considered unsuitable
for onward transmission and thus became lost, whereas numerous Sunni
works exist from the mid-md century/8th century onwards.
  Thus the community that was eventually to become the Twelver Shi'is
was at this time holding views almost diametrically opposed to their
eventual position. These proto-Twelver Shi'is do not even appear to
have agreed as yet on the number and identity of the Imams or on the
fact of the Occultation. As late as 342/953 Muhammad an-Nu'mani states
that most of the Shi'is of his generation were uncertain as to the
identity of the Imam and had doubts as to his occultation.[11] And a
few years later ibn Babuya writes that he found the Shi'is of Naysabur
(Nishapur in Khurasan) perplexed about the Occultation of the Twelfth
Imam.[12] In the earliest extant Shi'i works, which date from this


there is no reference to the Imams being twelve in number or to the
  The crystallisation of the doctrine of Ghayba (Occultation) occurred
in about 300/912. Prior to that date Shi'i books make no reference to
this doctrine. A short while later, however, books appear with all
twelve Imams listed and the Occultation stated as a fact. As late as
342/953 thirteen years after the start of the Greater Occultation, an-
Nu'mani is undecided as to whether the first Ghayba
or the second (i.e. Lesser or Greater Occultation, see p. 165) will be
the longer.[15]
  The exact significance of the Occultation of the Twelfth Imam is not
hard to discern. By the 4th/10th century the Islamic world had seen
numerous Shi'i revolts headed by various 'Alids (or persons claiming
to represent 'Alids) who laid claim to the Imamate. Most important of
all was the Isma'ili Fatimid movement that had succeeded in
establishing a state in Egypt under a person who was claimed to be a
living Imam and whose missionaries were penetrating the 'Abbasid
realms. Any living Imam was bound to be the centre of Messianic
fervour and therefore a potential political rival to the temporal
authorities under which the Twelvers lived. On the other hand, the
Twelver tradition had already, under the Imam Ja'far
as-Sadiq, established its theory of the Imamate which included the
necessity of the perpetual existence of a living Imam to guide
mankind. The problem was neatly resolved by occulting the Imam and
thus effectively depoliticising him while not violating the principle
that the Imam must always exist.

The Buyid Period (334/945-447/1055)

Political Developments

In 334/945 the Buyid (or Buwayhid) dynasty overcame Baghdad and the
'Abbasid Caliphate came under a Shi'i overlord. Although Buyids were
clearly Shi'i and have been called Twelver, it is probable that they
were Shi'is of the Zaydi sect initially. The fact that they came from
Daylam, an Iranian province along the southern coast of the Caspian,
makes it all the more likely that they began as Zaydis, for that area
of Iran had resisted the advances of Islam until finally converted by
the Zaydi missionary Hasan an-Nasir al-Utrush in the late 3rd/9th
century. There is also evidence, however, that the Buyids had Twelver
sympathies; thus, for example, under the Buyids, extensive building
was carried out in Kazimayn at the shrines of the Seventh and Ninth
Imams (these two Imams are not accepted by the Zaydis). Since the
Buyids were not descendants of 'Ali, Zaydi Shi'ism would have required
the Buyids, once in power, to install an 'Alid as Imam
and for all to obey him. It may


be for this reason that after they came to power the Buyids tended
towards Twelver Shi'ism which with its occulted Imam was more
attractive to them politically. The Buyids did not terminate the
'Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, probably because there was no one
available who could command the same respect, and they found it useful
politically to have a Caliph in Baghdad whom they could manipulate and
through whom they could control their subjects.
  Almost simultaneous with the rise of the Buyids was the growth in
power of another Shi'i dynasty, the Hamdanids. The Hamdanids began as
amirs of Mosul and northern Iraq under the 'Abbasids in 293/905-6.
From this base they gradually extended their power and in 333/944
(i.e. only one year before the Buyid capture of Baghdad), they moved
into northern Syria capturing Aleppo, Antakya and Hums. The head of
the western branch of the dynasty at this time was 'Ali ibn
'Abdu'llah, Sayfu'd-Dawla, who made Aleppo his capital. In view of the
fact that most of Sayfu'd-Dawla's reign was occupied in campaigning
against the Byzantines, it is remarkable that he was able to gather
around himself, at his court, some of the most famous names of Islamic
culture, the philosopher al-Farabi, the poet al-Mutanabbi and Abu'l-
Faraj al-Isbahani, the compiler of a vast treasury of Arab verse
and stories. After Sayfu'd-Dawla's death in 356/967, the dynasty went
into decline with internal strife and external attacks from the
Byzantines until it finally ended in 394/1003. The exact nature of the
Shi'ism of the Hamdanids is not entirely clear. It would appear most
probable that they were Nusayris (see p. 58). But since this sect also
acknowledges all twelve Imams of the Twelver line, Twelver Shi'is seem
to have found the Hamdanid areas congenial and Aleppo soon became an
important Twelver centre.
  To Shi'is in the mid-4th/10th century it must have seemed that
everything was going their way. Almost the whole of the Muslim world
was under the control of Shi'is of one sect or another. In Iraq and
Iran the Buyids held sway. The Shi'i Hamdanid dynasty controlled
Syria. In Egypt and much of north Africa, Shi'is of the Isma'ili
branch, the Fatimids, were extending their influence, while in north-
west Africa the Idrisids maintained an 'Alid state of sorts until
overcome by the
Fatimids. Zaydi Shi'is controlled parts of northern Iran and the

Doctrinal Developments and the Ulama

It has already been briefly stated that the doctrines held by the
majority of the Shi'a up to the beginning of the third century were
almost diametrically opposed to the final doctrinal position of
Twelver Shi'ism. It was at this time, when great changes were
occurring in the political


fortunes of the Shi'a, that a correspondingly great change appears to
have occurred among them in the matter of doctrine.
  This great change, when it came, seems to have been very sudden and
abrupt -indeed, almost within one lifetime. Its seeds had, however
undoubtedly been sown long before. Even among the band of as-Sadiq's
followers there is reported to have been a theologian with Mu'tazili
leanings, Abu'l-Hasan ibn A'yan known as Zurara. This small stream of
Mu'tazili thinking survived among the Imami Shi'a side-by-side with
the mainstream theology which, as has been argued earlier, was based
on the earlier ghuluww speculation. One hundred and fifty years later
(c. 269-300/882-912), al-Khayyat and al-Ash'ari were able to report a
Mu'tazili-based school among the Imami (i.e. Twelver) Shi'is but still
in a minority, while the majority, as these writers state, still
adhered to the ghuluww-based doctrines. This Mu'tazili-based school
was undoubtedly the group centred on the Nawbakhti family in Baghdad.
It was among this group that the new ideas were formulated and
developed. These two groups (the ghulat and non-ghulat followers of
the Imams) were, however, even at this stage showing signs of
separating into distinct sects in that they appear to have been paying
their khums and zakat to two different sets of agents both claiming to
represent the Hidden Imam. 16 (For a further consideration of the
period of the Lesser Occultation see pp. 162--5.)
  The change of doctrine that occurred among the Imami Shi'a involved
an almost complete volte-face on most issues. From believing in
anthropomorphism with respect to God, the Imamiyya came to accept the
Mu'tazili view that all those verses in the Qur'an which seem to imply
that God has a physical body should be interpreted figuratively. From
believing that God does change His mind over matters that He has
decreed (the classic case quoted being that Isma'ili was at first
designated as-Sadiq's successor and this was changed to Musa al-
Kazim), the Imami theologians came to re-interpret the term bada--so
as to render it virtually identical to the concept of abrogation of
one verse of the Qur'an by a later verse (naskh), which is accepted by
all Muslims. From believing that God creates and determines all men's
actions, even acts of sin and disobedience, the Twelvers came
to accept that men determine and are responsible for their own
actions. From believing that the Qur'an has been tampered with and
altered so as to exclude evidence of 'Ali's succession, they came to
believe that the present version of the Qur'an is complete and
unaltered. From a belief that God has delegated certain
of his functions such as creation to intermediaries such as the Imams,
they came to believe that only God performs these functions. In only
two key areas did the Twelvers, after this great revolution in their
thinking, differ from the fundamental tenets of the Mu'tazilites:
firstly in their


conception of the Imamate and secondly in their rejection of both
wa'id, the unconditional and permanent punishment of the believing
sinner, and its associated doctrine of the intermediate position
(between belief and unbelief) of the believing sinner. Their rejection
of wa'id was in reality a consequence of the doctrine of the Imamate.
So important did the Imamate appear that it seemed inconceivable that
a true believer in the Imam would suffer eternal punishment no matter
what his sin had been.
  The change in Twelver theology from the ghuluww-based views to
Mu'tazili-based doctrines appears to have occurred in two stages. The
first and more important stage consisted of the rejection of the
ghuluww doctrines and will be considered here. This stage undoubtedly
occurred under the influence of Mu'tazili thought but
it was in the second stage that Mu'tazili kalam (speculative theology)
became the basis of Shi'i theology and this will be considered later
in this chapter.
  The first stage in the change in doctrine seems to have begun in
Qumm in the last half of the 3rd/9th century. Qumm had been a Shi'i
town from the 2nd/8th century. It was under the rule of the Shi'i
family of Sa'd ibn Malik al-Ash'ari from 125/742 to 278/891 and a
growing number of Shi'i ulama took up residence there. Here Ahmad ibn
Muhammad ibn 'Isa al Ash'ari, who is described as the Shaykh
of Qumm, took the lead in opposing the views of the ghulat. From about
255/869 he succeeded in expelling from Qumm a number of Shi'is who are
said to have held ghuluww views.[17] Up to this time Baghdad had been
the centre of Twelver scholarship with the residence there of the
deputies of the Imams. But with this, Qumm increased in importance
until eventually it overtook Baghdad with such figures as Sa'd ibn
'Abdu'llah al-Ash'ari (d. 300/912), Ja'far ibn Quluya (d. 369/979) and
Muhammad ibn Babuya (d. 381/991) being the most significant figures in
Shi'i Islam in their own time and being regarded as the exponents of
what the rest of the Shi'i world gradually came to accept as
  The life of ibn Babuya (ibn Babawayh) probably marks the end of this
first stage of change. ibn Babuya was a noted Traditionist of Qumm who
in his writings was very antagonistic to the discipline of kala-m,
speculative theology, which was the main tool of the Mu'tazilites.
From ibn Babuya's writings, it is clear that the first stage of the
great change was coming to an end during his lifetime. Large parts of
his works are devoted to refuting anthropomorphism in a vigorous and
thorough manner, 18 thus indicating that the argument was still fresh
in his day. His own views regarding determinism (that God determines
all men's actions) varied from his early works to his later writings.
In his early works he denies that man has the power to choose his own
acts and asserts that these are predetermined through God's
foreknowledge of


them.[19] In his later works, however, ibn Babuya has shifted his
ground and writes of God's will as His commanding and forbidding
rather than predestination.[20] Apart from his early determinist
views, ibn Babuya has clearly accepted all the other main Mu'tazili-
based doctrines and only differs in his methodology from later writers
such as Shaykh al-Mufid in that he prefers to base his theology on
Traditions rather than reason.
  From the date of the expulsions in Qumm, the statements of al-
Khayyat and al-Ash'ari and a study of ibn Babuya's works, it would
appear that the first stage of the great change in thinking in Qumm
occurred between 260/873 and 360/970, but probably at different times
and at different rates in other centres.
  After ibn Babuya there came the second stage in the great change in
Shi'i theology that occurred during this period: the adoption of
Mu'tazili kalam. This occurred in Baghdad under the influence of three
notable figures who were each both jurists and theologians and who
were so prominent that each became considered the leader of the
Twelver Shi'is in his own day.

   The first of these was Abu 'Abdu'llah Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn an-
Nu'man known as ibn al-Mu'allim or more commonly as al-Shaykh al-Mufid
(d. 413/1022). He moved the doctrine of Twelver Shi'ism more towards
the camp of Mu'tazili theology by rejecting ibn Babuya's insistence
that Traditions should be the basis of doctrine and maintaining that
theology should be based on reason and revelation jointly. In his
writings al-Mufid tends to argue from reason and then uses a Tradition
or Qur'anic reference as additional evidence. He set forth his
doctrinal differences with ibn Babuya in Tashih al-I'tiqad, a
correction to the latter's best-known dogmatic work.
  After al-Mufid came Abu'l-Qasim 'Ali ibn al-Husayn al-Musawi known
as ash-Sharif al-Murtada or 'Alamu'l-Huda (d. 436/1044). Whereas al-
Mufid's ideas had been closer to the moderate Baghdadi school of
Mu'tazili thought, 'Alamu'l-Huda took Shi'i thought closer to the more
radically rationalist Basran school of Mu'tazilism. Thus while al-
Mufid used reason to defend and justify doctrine, for 'Alamu'l-Huda
reason was itself the starting point of theology. For example, while
al-Mufid restricted God's attributes only to those found in the Qur'an
and the Traditions, 'Alamu'l-Huda allowed other attributes derived
from reason It was to be 'Alamu'l-Huda's formulation of theology,
based on the Basran school of Mu'tazilism, that would become the basis
of Shi'i theology during the following centuries.[21]
  The third of this trio of prominent figures of the 4th-5th Islamic
centuries was Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn al-Hasan ibn 'Ali at-Tusi, known
as Shaykhu't-Ta'ifa (d. 460/1067). Shaykhu't-Ta'ifa is best


known for his fundamental contributions to Shi'i law. So authoritative
was he in this field that for a hundred years his works were
considered definitive. In theology he followed closely the approach of
his teacher 'Alamu'l-Huda.
  It is not at all clear what factors caused this rapid and far-
reaching change in doctrine among the Twelver Shi'is. Several events
that occurred during this period may have had an influence in
precipitating it. Firstly, with the rise to power and influence of the
Nawbakhti family in the court of the 'Abbasids, opportunities arose
for Shi'is to be appointed to influential positions in the government.
This process reached its peak under the Caliph al-Muqtadir
(295/908-320/932). To the Shi'is who were thus achieving status and
influence in society, ghulat-based views, such as anthropomorphism,
etc. would have been something of an embarrassment, and they
undoubtedly would have encouraged any movement that brought the ideas
of the Shi'a more into line with the mainstream of Islam.
  Secondly, to the emerging Twelver Shi'is, the advent of the Shi'i
Buyid dynasty meant a great change in their circumstances. For the
first time they could come out into the open and debate their
doctrines publicly without resorting to dissimulation. This
circumstance must have caused the Twelvers to examine carefully their
doctrines before having them exposed to public scrutiny and may well
have contributed to the change in doctrine. Since, up to this time,
the Shi'is had kept their opinions secret, it is probable that there
grew up over time a great deal of local variation in doctrine and
practice. The bringing out of their doctrine into the open no doubt
led to an eradication of these local variations as well as creating
pressure to bring their doctrines more closely into line with the
Sunni majority.
  One further factor that may have influenced the Twelver Shi'is
greatly in this period was the emergence of Isma'ili Shi'ism and, in
particular, the establishment of the Fatimid state in Egypt. It is
known that the Isma'ili propagandists were active throughout the
Muslim world at this time and the emergence of an Isma'ili doctrine
together with its own state may well have pushed the Twelvers into
reformulating their own doctrines.
  At the same time that most aspects of Twelver theology, under the
Shi'i scholars of the Buyid period, were evolving from a Traditionist
basis to a rationalist one, the doctrine of the Imamate was moving in
the opposite direction. The Nawbakhtis had, while affirming the
sinlessness of the Imams, denied that they could perform
miracles. ibn Babuya and the Traditionists of Qumm rejected the
Nawbakhti's argument on this point but had allowed that it was
possible for the Prophet and the Imams to err through distraction in
matters of performing religious ritual.


Indeed, ibn Babuya accuses his opponents on this point of being
ghulat. Al-Mufid in turn accuses the Traditionists of Qumm of taqsir
(falling short, i.e. failing to give the Imams and the Prophet their
due). All subsequent Shi'i writers have agreed with al-MufId on this
point and have denied the possibility of any error in the words and
actions of the Prophet and the Imams.
  With regard to the question of the text of the Qur'an, it has
already been noted that the early Shi'is believed that the Qur'an had
been altered and parts of it had been suppressed. The Nawbakhtis are
said to have adhered to this view although it went against their usual
position of agreeing with Mu'tazili thought. The compiler of the
earliest, authoritative collection of Twelver Traditions, al-Kulayni,
seems to have given some substance to this view in several of the
Traditions that he relates.[22] ibn Babuya, however, takes the
position that the text of the Qur'an is complete and unaltered. Al-
Mufid appears to have wavered somewhat on this point during his
lifetime. He seems to have accepted the fact that parts of the Qur'an
had been excised by the enemies of the Imams in some of his early
writings, although he refused even then to state that anything had
been added. In his later writings, however, al-Mufid has reinterpreted
the concept of omissions from the text of the Qur'an to mean that the
text of the Qur'an is complete (although he does allow that the order
needs to be changed) but that what has been omitted is the
authoritative interpretation of the text by 'Ali. In this
manner, al-Mufid and most subsequent Shi'i writers were able to fall
into line with the rest of the Islamic world in accepting the text of
the Qur'an as contained in the recension of 'Uthman.
  Apart from the field of doctrinal theology, the trio of al-Mufid,
'Alamu'l-Huda and Shaykhu't-Ta'ifa also initiated important
developments in defining the principles of Shi'i jurisprudence and
establishing the theoretical basis for the status and functioning of
the doctors of law (the fuqaha). However, the steps taken
by them were only preliminary and the full development of these fields
was left to later generations (see Chapter 10).
  The state of the Muslim world differed markedly during the lifetime
of Shayku't-Ta'ifa from what has been described above for the middle
of the 4th/10th century. By the middle of the 5th/11th century the
power of the Shi'i dynasties was on the wane. The staunchly Sunni
Seljuq Turks were advancing from the east and by 1055 had overcome the
Buyids and occupied Baghdad. The Hamdanid dynasty in Syria had fallen
and the Fatimids in Egypt were losing influence. Sunni Islam was
slowly but surely re-establishing its control over the
Muslim world.
  The intellectual centre of Twelver Shi'ism moved from place to place
during the period under consideration in this chapter. From the middle


of the 3rd/9th century, Baghdad was undoubtedly the centre of Twelver
Shi'ism, being both the residence of the four ambassadors of the
Hidden Imam (see pp. 162ff.) and the seat of the influential Nawbakhti
family. By the early part of the 4th/10th century the centre of Shi'i
activities had shifted to the Traditionist school of Qumm. After the
death of ibn Babuya, Baghdad once again became the centre of Twelver
scholarship. This continued until the close of the period when shortly
after the Seljuq capture of Baghdad Shaykhu't-Ta'ifa was forced to
leave that city. He settled in Najaf thus establishing it as the
centre of the Shi'i world.

The Popular Religion

During the Buyid era there were some important developments in popular
religion for Shi'ism. Under the Buyid Mu'izzu'd-Dawla two great Shi'i
commemorations were instituted in 351/962 in Baghdad: firstly the
martyrdom of the Imam Husayn on 10 Muharram and secondly the festival
of Ghadir Khumm commemorating the Prophet's nomination of 'Ali as his
successor at Ghadir Khumm (see p. 15) on 18 Dhu'l-Hijja.[*] It was
also during this period that public mourning ceremonies for the Imam
Husayn were initiated, shrines were built for the Imams and the custom
of pilgrimages to these shrines established. Shi'i propaganda was
carried out by manaqib-khans, poets who would recite in praise of 'Ali
and his family. These recitations would introduce such Shi'i concepts
as the succession of 'Ali, the necessity for an Imam, the
infallibility of the Imam, the miracles of the Imams and the justice
of God.
  The hundred-year period during which the Buyids were in control of
Baghdad and Iran, the Hamdanids ruled over Northern Syria and the
Fatimids controlled Egypt, Southern Syria and the Hijaz, has been
called 'the Shi'i century'. However, Shi'i domination was only
political during this time and Shi'ism, despite being given a free
hand, was unable to make any substantial inroads on the Muslim masses.
This is particularly true of the Islamic cities that were increasingly
the focus of life. At no time during this period was the majority of
any important city of the Muslim world Shi'i with the exception of
Kufa and possibly of Rayy. Shi'ism was somewhat more successful among
the rural population but even this was mostly true of the inaccessible
areas or fringes of the Muslim world--such areas as Daylam in
northern Iran, the tribes on the fringes of the Arabian desert in Iraq
and Syria and the more remote areas in western Iran. The ruling Shi'i
dynasties also reflected this tendency,
   * In retaliation the Sunnis instituted two commemorations--that of
Abu Bakr's stay in the cave with the Prophet, and the death of Mus'ab
ibn az-Zubayr who had defeated Mukhtar. These four festivals became
the usual occasions for Sunni-Shi'i conflict.


being originally from those fringe areas. Thus Shi'i domination was
only superficial in the Islamic heartlands and easily brushed aside at
the end of this

Geographical Spread

It is difficult to assess the exact strength of Shi'ism at the close
of the Buyid period or even its geographical spread. A number of towns
and cities may be named as important Shi'i centres but, with the
exception of Qumm, Kufa and possibly Kashan and Rayy, Shi'is were only
a minority in these places. In general terms, in Iran, Khurasan was
predominantly and staunchly Sunni although with important Shi'i
centres in the east of the area in such places as Nishapur and
Sabzivar; Shiraz, Isfahan and south-eastern Iran were also Sunni;
however, an area resembling an inverted triangle with its base on the
south Caspian littoral and its apex at Kashan and including Qumm, Rayy
and all of Daylam (modern Gilan), Tabaristan (modern Mazandaran) and
Gurgan was predominantly Shi'i. Western Iran was a mixture
of Sunni cities such as Hamadan with many of the tribes in the
mountains being extremist Shi'is (ghulat). Northern Iraq and
Adharbayjan were Sunni while much of southern Iraq with the exception
of the city of Basra was Shi'i. Baghdad was divided into Karkh, the
quarter on the West Bank of the Tigris which was Shi'i and
the larger East Bank city which was Sunni. In Syria most of the tribal
groups on the fringes of the desert were Shi'i with Isma'ilis and
extremist Shi'is being most numerous among them. The cities such as
Damascus, however, remained Sunni. In Egypt, despite its long period
of Isma'ili government, the people remained Sunni and Twelver Shi'ism
was limited to a very small number. In the Hijaz and Yemen Shi'ism was
still important although in the Hijaz it was being absorbed into
orthodox Sunnism. In the Gulf area Isma'ili Qarmatis were strong but
Twelver Shi'is were also to be found in some numbers.
  One approach to discovering which were the important Twelver Shi'i
areas of this time is to study the place of origin of the Twelver
Shi'i ulama of that period--the premiss being that the stronger and
more important the Shi'i community, the greater number of ulama it
produced. Table I, which is derived from the Fihrist of Shaykhu't-
Ta'ifa[23] represents the Twelver Shi'i ulama of the first four
centuries of the Islamic era.
  The situation in the lifetime of Shaykhu't-Ta'ifa himself had
changed somewhat. Table 2, which is derived from the biographical
dictionary of Agha Buzurg Tihrani,[24] one of the most meticulous of
modern Shi'i scholars, relates to ulama who died during the fifth
Islamic century (AD 1009-1105). It can be seen from this table that
Kufa had declined markedly in importance by the time of Shaykhu't-
Ta'ifa while the


Iranian cities had increased in importance. This table confirms that
Khurasan, which is usually regarded as having been staunchly Sunni,
did nevertheless have a significant Shi'i community.

       Table 1: Geographical origins of Twelver Shi'i ulama
       of the first four Islamic centuries (to AD 1008)

Kufa                       147 Ahvaz                               6
Qumm (and Barqrud)          43 Qazvin                              4
Basra                       22 Daylam and Tabaristan (north Iran)  4
Baghdad                     18 Isfahan                             4
Rayy (and Kulayn, Iran)     15 Sijistan (South Afghanistan)        3
Wasit (Iraq)                12 Aleppo                              3
Mada'in (Iraq)               8 Damascus                            3
Khurasan                     7 Gurgan                              3

     Table 2: Geographical origins of Twelver Shi'i ulama who died    
   during the fifth Islamic century (AD 1009-1105)

Nishapur (Khurasan)         21 Basra                               8
Qumm                        16 Tripoli (Syria)                     7
Khurasan (except Nishapur)  14 Isfahan                             6
Qazvin                      14 Damascus                            4
Rayy (Iran)                 13 Kufa                                3
Baghdad                     12 Egypt                               2
Daylam & Tabaristan (north
  Iran)                     11 Hamadan                             2
Gurgan (north Iran)         11 Kashan                              2
Aleppo                       9 Egypt                               2

[Page 85 contains a map.]
previous chapter chapter 3 start page single page chapter 5 next chapter
Back to:   Books
Home Site Map Forum Links Copyright About Contact
. .