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An Introduction to Shi'i Islam

by Moojan Momen

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Chapter 2

The Lives of the Imams

The Imamate of 'Ali

      The early life of the fourth Caliph and first Shi'i Imam, Abu'l-Hasan 'Ali ibn Abi Talib, known as Amiru'l-Mu'minin, and his actions under the first three Caliphs have been recorded in the previous chapter. The turbulent years of his brief ministry as Caliph will be considered in this chapter.

      It can be said that 'Ali's succession to the Caliphate was approved of and accepted by the vast majority of Muslims in Medina and also in most of the provinces of the Empire. He was truly a Caliph chosen by a consensus of all the Muslims. After the initial euphoria wore off, however, it became clear that he was faced with grave internal problems. During 'Uthman's Caliphate, all the important governorships of the Muslim Empire had gone to members of the Umayyad family, and now this family, led by its most able member, Mu'awiya, the Governor of Syria, refused to accept 'Ali's Caliphate, urging vengeance for 'Uthman and implying that 'Ali was giving shelter to the murderers and was therefore guilty of complicity. In another direction, Talha and Zubayr, two of the most prominent companions of the Prophet, were galled at the accession to the Caliphate of a younger man, and realising that they would now never have a chance to accede to that position withdrew to Mecca and linked up with 'A'isha, the daughter of Abu Bakr and widow of the Prophet, who had a long-standing grudge against 'Ali. These three proceeded to Basra and raised a rebellion, again in the name of vengeance for 'Uthman, although all three were as much responsible for the murder as anyone.

      At first, all went well for 'Ali. He was, after all, a great military leader and was able to defeat the Basran rebels at the Battle of al-Jamal (the camel). Zubayr and Talha were killed in the fighting and 'A'isha captured and sent back to Medina with the honour due to the widow of the Prophet.

      However, soon the tide of events began to turn against 'Ali. One of the problems that beset him was his own forthright nature. He refused to allow political expediency to dictate to him where he felt a matter of principle was at stake. He set about immediately trying to put right every aspect of the life of the community that he felt had deviated from the intention of the Prophet. He pressed ahead with this regardless of the fact he was making powerful and influential enemies among many who had benefited under the previous Caliphs. These persons went over to Mu'awiya who now came out in open revolt in Syria.

      It was at this point, in 36/656, after the Battle of the Camel, that 'Ali moved his headquarters from Medina to Kufa in Iraq. From this time until the middle of the second Islamic century (mid-8th century AH) when Baghdad was built, Kufa was to remain the main centre of Shi'ism in the Islamic world.

      In 37/657 Mu'awiya marched towards Kufa. Reluctantly, 'Ali came forward to meet him and battle was joined at Siffin. Of the two armies, 'Ali's was filled with veteran companions of the Prophet, particularly the Medinan Ansar, and pious readers of the Qur'an, while Mu'awiya's side could only boast a handful of companions of the Prophet and consisted for the most part of Arab tribes who had joined Islam late and had been drawn to the frontier provinces by the prospect of rich booty. Also, Mu'awiya was an expert intriguer and gladly paved the way for a defection to his side with promises of money.

      The Battle of Siffin was prolonged, bloody and inconclusive. It ended in a call for arbitration. But 'Ali, hampered by the fickle nature of the Kufans, was unable to have the man of his choice represent him, and, although accounts of the arbitration are confused, it seems clear that 'Ali did not come out of it well. In the meantime, a perverse fate dictated that 'Ali, who had been most reluctant to submit to arbitration was now being blamed by part of his Kufan army for having done so, 'judgement is God's alone', they chanted and separated themselves from 'Ali's army, thus becoming known as the Khawarij (Kharijites) or 'Seceders'.

      'Ali found himself hard pressed on all sides. The arbitration process was clearly providing Mu'awiya with an opportunity to regroup and strengthen his position. In Egypt 'Ali's governor was overthrown through Mu'awiya's machinations and the province came under Syrian control. Finally the Khawarij were committing atrocities close to 'Ali's capital and posed a serious threat.

      'Ali was forced to put aside plans for attacking Syria and advanced against the Khawarij. They were routed at the Battle of Nahrawan. But they had their revenge in that it is said to have been one of their number, 'Abdu'r-Rahman ibn Muljam, who assassinated 'Ali, wounding him in Kufa on 19 Ramadan 40/27 January 661. 'Ali died two days later. To attempt to draw a portrait of the personal qualities of 'Ali is indeed a difficult task, for he has assumed, even in the eyes of Sunni Muslims, an almost legendary dimension as a paragon of virtues and a fount of knowledge. His courage in battle, his magnanimity towards his defeated opponents, his sincerity and straightforwardness, his eloquence and his profound knowledge of the roots of Islam cannot be questioned, for they are matters of historical record. He is also attributed with having been the founder of the study of Arabic grammar through his disciple, Abu'l-Aswad al-Du'ali, and the originator of the correct method of reciting the Qur'an. His discourses and letters (especially as compiled in the Nahj al-Balagha, which is considered by many Muslims as second only to the Qur'an in importance) are considered the earliest examples of Muslim writings on philosophy, theology and ethicsÉ

Hasan, The Second Imam

      Abu Muhammad Hasan ibn 'Ali, known as al-Mujtaba (the chosen) is considered by Shi'is to have become the Imam after the death of 'Ali. Hasan was born in the year AH 3 in Medina and was brought up in the household of the Prophet himself until the latter's death when Hasan was aged about 7. There can be no doubt that the Prophet had a fondness for his two grandchildren, Hasan and Husayn, whom he referred to as the 'chiefs of youths of paradise'[2] and about whom he had been widely quoted as saying 'he who-has-loved Hasan and Husayn has loved me and he who has hated them has hated me'.[3] Most of the companions of the Prophet still alive could remember how the Prophet used to caress and kiss these two grandchildren of his and how he had even interrupted his sermon on one occasion because Hasan had tripped and fallen.

      Hasan was thirty-seven years old when his father fell at the hands of the assassin at Kufa. It is known that many of the surviving companions of the Prophet, both of the Medinan Ansar and the Meccan Muhajirun, were in 'Ali's army. So they must have been in Kufa at the time of 'Ali's assassination and therefore must have assented to Hasan being acclaimed Caliph in succession to his father a few days later, for there is no record of any dissent to this in Kufa, nor indeed of any dissent in Mecca and Medina.

      Of all the twelve Shi'i Imams, Hasan is the one who has been disparaged most harshly by Western historians. He has been derided for having given up the Caliphate to Mu'awiya without a fight. He has been described as uxorious, unintelligent, incapable and a lover of luxury. This harsh criticism is rejected by Shi'i historians. They point out that Hasan's abdication was not an act of feeble cowardice but a realistic and compassionate act. Following the assassination of 'Ali, the Kufan army had rallied around Hasan to face the advancing Syrian army led by Mu'awiya. But Mu'awiya's spreading of false reports, his secret agents and liberal bribes had wreaked such havoc among Kufans that Hasan had seen his army melt away. In this situation abdication was the only realistic course of action open to Hasan and avoided pointless bloodshed.

      In the correspondence between Mu'awiya and Hasan that led to the abdication, it is interesting to note that Mu'awiya brushed aside Hasan's objections that Mu'awiya had no precedence in Islam and indeed was the son of the most prominent opponent of Islam by asserting that the situation between him and Hasan now was the same as that between Abu Bakr and 'Ali after the death of the Prophet, that Mu'awiya's military strength, political abilities and age were of more importance than Hasan's claim to religious precedence. In other words, as Shi'i historians point out, political power was to become the arbitrator of leadership in Islam rather than religious considerations.

      The Kufans, by their wavering, their disunity and their fickleness, had let Hasan down badly, as they had his father 'Ali, and as they were going to do with his brother Husayn some twelve years later. Part of the Kufan army rebelled against Hasan, part of it went over to the Syrians and the rest melted away. Even Hasan's own tent was plundered, he himself wounded. Small wonder then that he felt he had no choice but to abdicate.

      Mu'awiya needed Hasan's abdication to lend some plausibility and justification to his own seizure of power; a mere military victory would not have been enough. Therefore, he was happy to offer Hasan generous terms including general amnesty for Hasan's followers, a large financial settlement for Hasan himself, and, according to some accounts, a further condition that the Caliphate would revert to Hasan on Mu'awiya's death.

      Hasan, after his abdication in 41/661, retired to Medina and led a quiet life. He refused to involve himself in any political activity — which was a very pragmatic action, in that although delegations came to him to offer him their support if he would rise up, Mu'awiya had such a firm grip on the Empire that any uprising would have been doomed to failure. And, in any case, Hasan had given his word and signed an agreement.

      Hasan died in 49/669 at the early age of forty-six. It is stated by the Shi'i historians and confirmed in some of the Sunni histories that he was poisoned by his wife at the instigation of Mu'awiya. Certainly nothing could have suited Mu'awiya's purposes more since it paved the way for his plan to ensure the succession of his son, Yazid. Hasan was buried in Medina in al-Baqi' cemetery next to his mother, Fatima.

Husayn, the Third Imam

      After Hasan, his younger brother Husayn became the head of the House of 'Ali and according to the Shi'is, the Third Imam. Abu 'Abdu'llah Husayn ibn 'Ali, who is given by Shi'is the title Sayyid ash-Shuhada (Prince of Martyrs), was born in Medina in 4626. The great love of the Prophet for his two grandsons has been referred to in the previous section and, according to some reports, 'Ali preferred Husayn to Hasan.

      While his brother Hasan was alive Husayn played a secondary role, but after the death of his brother he became the head of the family and the focus of the aspirations of the Kufans, who were growing increasingly restive under the stern Syrian rule. While Mu'awiya ruled, however, Husayn made no move, considering himself bound, it is said, by the terms of Hasan's treaty with Mu'awiya.

      The Umayyads had instituted the public cursing of 'Ali from the pulpit, motivated, it is said, by a desire to provoke staunch Shi'i elements into open revolt. The first to fall foul of this policy was Hujr ibn 'Adi al-Kindi. He raised a revolt in Kufa in 51/671. The revolt was easily overcome and Hujr with six of his companions were executed in Damascus by Mu'awiya. These seven are regarded by Shi'is as the first of their martyrs.

      Mu'awiya died in 60/680, but prior to his death he had arranged for his son, Yazid, to succeed him. If the rule of Mu'awiya, the son of the Prophet Muhammad's most powerful enemy in Mecca, had been offensive to some pious Muslims, the accession of Yazid, a drunkard who openly ridiculed and flouted the laws of Islam, was an outrage. In Kufa the people began to stir once more and soon letters and messengers were arriving in Medina urging Husayn to come to Kufa and assume leadership there.

      Because of pressure from the Governor of Medina to declare allegiance to Yazid, Husayn had moved from Medina to Mecca and it was from there that he sent an emissary, his cousin Muslim ibn 'Aqil, to Kufa to assess the situation. On Muslim's arrival in Kufa, large meetings were held at which thousands pledged their support for Husayn.

      Despite the enthusiastic reports sent by Muslim, Husayn was warned by several persons against going to Kufa whose inhabitants had proved so fickle in their support of his father and brother, but Husayn decided to press on and left Mecca in the company of some fifty armed men and a number of women and children.

      But the situation was changing rapidly in Kufa. Yazid, fully aware of the situation, had instructed the energetic 'Ubaydu'llah ibn Ziyad to take control of Kufa. 'Ubaydu'llah had instigated a reign of terror, dealing harshly with any manifestations of revolt. He had reinforced these measures by threatening the tribal leaders with death if their tribes were found to be fomenting rebellion. These measures had already resulted in Muslim being captured and executed and now 'Ubaydu'llah assigned military units to all the routes to Kufa from the south in order to intercept Husayn.

      Although Husayn received warnings of the state of affairs in Kufa, he pressed ahead, declining alternative proposals that would have ensured his safety. A few of his supporters succeeded in slipping out of Kufa and joining up with his forces but others were arrested and the vast majority of Kufans were overtaken with either terror of 'Ubaydu'llah's sword or greed for 'Ubaydu'llah's money and forgot their pledges of support for Husayn.

      It fell to al-Hurr at-Tamimi, the young commander of a military detachment numbering one thousand, to intercept Husayn's party as it approached Kufa. Al-Hurr's instructions were to prevent Husayn approaching any town or village in Iraq and he explained this to Husayn. The latter replied by showing him the sackful of letters from the people of Kufa that he had received. Seeing that al-Hurr's men were overcome with thirst, Husayn magnanimously offered them water from his party's supplies and later al-Hurr and his men lined up behind Husayn as he led them in prayer.

      Eventually after negotiations Husayn agreed to proceed in a direction away from Kufa while al-Hurr sent for further instructions. Husayn's party travelled on, shadowed by al-Hurr's detachment until they reached the plain of Karbala. It was the second day of Muharram in the year AH 61 (2 October 680). On the following day some four thousand men under 'Umar ibn Sa'd arrived with instructions from 'Ubaydu'llah that they should not allow Husayn to leave until he had signed a pledge of allegiance to Yazid. Ibn Sa'd's men surrounded Husayn's party and even cut them off from the river which was their only source of water.

      Husayn began negotiations with Ibn Sa'd pointing out that he had no desire to initiate bloodshed and asking to be allowed to withdraw to Arabia. But ibn Sa'd refused to relent, having been promised by 'Ubaydu'llah the governorship of Rayy if he accomplished his mission. Meanwhile the situation in Husayn's camp was becoming desperate due to shortage of water.

      Then 'Ubaydu'llah sent his final orders through Shimr (or Shamir). ibn Sa'd was either to attack Husayn immediately or hand over command to Shimr. On the evening of 9 Muharram, ibn Sa'd drew up his forces and advanced them towards Husayn's camp, ready for battle the next day. That night, Husayn addressed his companions, asking them to withdraw and leave him to face the enemy. They refused to desert him.

      And so there dawned the fateful day of 10 Muharram AD 61 (10 October 680), which is known as 'Ashura.[4] At dawn Husayn once more approached the camp of the Umayyads and addressed them with such emotive words that several were visibly moved and al-Hurr at-Tamimi, who had first intercepted Husayn, threw in his lot with Husayn's tiny band and was one of the first to fall when the fighting began.[5]

      Husayn's companions on that day are traditionally said to have numbered 72 armed men (18 of the family of 'Ali and 54 supporters) and the women and children. The fighting appears to have been of a sporadic nature consisting of single combat and brief forays. The steady fire maintained by the Umayyad archers on Husayn's camp took its own toll. One by one Husayn's supporters fell and then the members of his family until only he and his half-brother 'Abbas, the standard-bearer on that day, were left of the fighting men. 'Abbas was killed trying to obtain water for the thirsty women and children and the army converged on the lone figure of Husayn.

      Carrying his infant son in his arms, Husayn pleaded for water for the babe but an arrow lodged in the baby's throat killing him. As the troops closed around him, Husayn fought valiantly until at last he was struck a severe blow that caused him to fall face down on the ground. Even then the soldiers hesitated to deal the final blow to the grandson of the Prophet until Shimr ordered them on, and, according to some accounts himself came forward and struck the blow that ended Husayn's life.

      The Umayyad army looted the tents, decapitated the bodies of all Husayn's companions and raised these on spears to lead their procession back to Kufa. The women and children who had been taken prisoner included 'Ali, the only surviving son of Husayn, who had been too ill to participate in the fighting.

      At Kufa 'Ubaydu'llah convened a great assembly and ordered the head of Husayn to be brought to him on a tray and also the captives. When the head was placed before him, 'Ubaydu'llah struck the lips with his cane and taunted the captives. Some of those witnessing this scene were intensely moved and one of them spoke up saying: 'Remove your cane from those lips, for, by God, many a time have I seen the lips of the Prophet of God on those lips.'[6]

      Zaynab, the sister of Husayn, bore herself with dignity and answered 'Ubaydu'llah firmly and fearlessly. At first, 'Ubaydu'llah wanted to put 'Ali to death also, but Zaynab protested, saying: 'O ibn Ziyad! You have spilt enough of our blood', and then she put her arms around 'Ali's neck and said: 'By God! I will not be parted from him, and so if you are going to kill him, then kill me with him.'[7] And so 'Ubaydu'llah imprisoned the captives and after a while sent them on to Damascus with the head of Husayn.

      At Damascus Yazid gloated over the head of Husayn and insulted 'Ali and Zaynab. Later, however, no doubt fearing that a popular outcry night threaten his throne, Yazid sought to appease the captives and released them, allowing them to return to Medina.

      Thus ended the tragedy of Karbala. It has been given here in detail, because, of all the episodes of Islamic history, it has had a greater impact than any on the Shi'a down the ages. A brief consideration must be given to the question of Husayn's intentions and ambitions in setting out for Kufa. Some historians have dismissed it as mere political adventuring that went wrong, but, of course, Shi'i historians disagree.

      Husayn had received plenty of warning of the collapse of the Shi'i revolt in Kufa as he approached Iraq. Indeed, the Shi'i histories record that at one of the staging-posts on the journey, after receiving grim news from Kufa, Husayn addressed his companions and told them of the death and destruction that awaited them ahead. Husayn could, at this point, have retired to Medina or even have accepted the offer which was made to him of refuge in the mountain strongholds of the Tayy tribe. However, he refused these courses of action and even addressed his companions urging them to leave him as he pressed on towards Kufa and certain destruction.

      [Husayn's] 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.

      A careful study and analysis of the events of Karbala as a whole reveals the fact that from the very beginning Husayn was planning for a complete evolution in the religions consciousness of the Muslims. All of his actions show that he was aware of the fact that a victory achieved through military strength and might is always temporal, because another stronger power can in course of time bring it down in ruins. But a victory achieved through suffering and sacrifice is everlasting and leaves permanent imprints on man's consciousness.

      . . . Husayn prepared his strategy . . . He realised that mere force of arms would not have saved Islamic action and consciousness. To him it needed a shaking and jolting of hearts and feelings. This, he decided, could only be achieved through sacrifice and sufferings. This should not be difficult to understand, especially for those who fully appreciate the heroic deeds and sacrifices of, for example, Socrates and Joan of Arc, both of whom embraced death for their ideals, and above all of the great sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the redemption of mankind.

      It is in this light that we should read Husayn's replies to those well-wishers who advised him not to go to Iraq. It also explains why Husayn took with him his women and children, though advised by ibn 'Abbas [his father's cousin] that should he insist on his project, at least he should not take his family with him. Aware of the extent of the brutal nature of the reactionary forces, Husayn knew that after killing him, the Umayyads would make his women and children captives and take them all the way from Kufa to Damascus. This caravan of captives of Muhammad's immediate family would publicise Husayn's message and would force the Muslims' hearts to ponder on the tragedy. It would make the Muslims think of the whole affair and would awaken their consciousness. This is exactly what happened. Husayn succeeded in his purpose. It is difficult today to evaluate exactly the impact of Husayn's action on Islamic morality and way of thinking, because it prevailed. Had Husayn not shaken and awakened Muslim consciousness by this method, who knows whether Yazid's way of life would have become standard behaviour in the Muslim community endorsed and accepted by the grandson of the Prophet. No doubt, even after Yazid kingship did prevail in Islam, and the character and behaviour personal lives of these kings was not very different from that of Yazid, but the change of thinking which prevailed after the sacrifice of Husayn always served as a line of distinction between Islamic norms and the personal character of the rulers.[8]

      It would be difficult to exaggerate the impact and importance of the martyrdom of Husayn for Shi'is. Although it was the usurpation of 'Ali's rights that is looked upon by Shi'is as the event initiating their movement and giving it intellectual justification, it was Husayn's martyrdom that gave it its impetus and implanted its ideas deep in the heart of the people. To this day it is the martyrdom of Husayn that is the most fervently celebrated event in the Shi'i calendar. During the first ten days of Muharram, the whole Shi'i world is plunged into mourning. For details of the observances during this time see pp. 240-43.

      Above all, the martyrdom of Husayn has given to Shi'i Islam a whole ethos of sanctification through martyrdom. Although the Shi'is were persecuted all through their early history and, according to their traditions, every single one of the Imams suffered martyrdom, it is above all the martyrdom of Husayn that has given this characteristic to Shi'i Islam; a characteristic that recent events in Iran have demonstrated to be as strong as ever.

      In later years a shrine was built over this spot. The first shrine was destroyed by the 'Abbasid Caliph Mutawakkil in 235/850 and the site ploughed over. After the death of this Caliph, a shrine of some sort was again erected but the bulk of the present shrine probably dates from the time of 'Adudu'd-Dawla, the Buyid prince, 369/979. The building was subjected to several further depredations including having the dome burnt down in the 11th century and the whole town of Karbala was sacked by the Wahhabis in 1801 and by the Ottoman army under Najib Pasha in 1843. The last important restoration of the shrine was carried out at the behest of Nasiru'd-Din Shah in the 1850s when the dome was gilded and other important structural work carried out. The enclosed are around the shrine is called the Ha'ir and is forbidden to non-believers.

      Until recent political changes made this impossible, it was customary for important men in Iran to have their bodies brought to Karbala to be buried there and enormous graveyards around the town attest to this custom.

'Ali, Zaynu'l-'Abidin, the Fourth Imam

      Abu Muhammad 'Ali ibn Husayn, known as Zaynu'l-'Abidin (the ornament of the worshippers) and also by the titles as-Sajjad (the prostrator) and az-Zaki (the pure), is regarded as the Fourth Imam by Twelver Shi'is. He had been born in the year 38/658[9] in Medina. His father was the Third Imam, Husayn, and, according to Shi'i tradition, his mother was Shahrbanu, the daughter of Yazdigird, the last Sassanian king of Iran.

      From what is recorded of Zaynu'l-'Abidin's life, it would appear that he led a very secluded pious life with only a handful of close associates. It is recorded that he spent a great deal of time weeping over the martyrs of Karbala. His name as-Sajjad (the prostrator) bore witness to the numerous times that he prostrated himself before God and it is said that the resulting calluses on his forehead needed to be shaved down twice a year.

      Although he kept himself apart from the people and although much of the support of the Shi'is was diverted to Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya, there is no doubt that Zaynu'l-'Abidin was held in great respect by all.

      According to various sources, Zaynu'l-'Abidin died in 94/712 or 95/ 713 aged either fifty-seven or fifty-eight. He was buried in al-Baqi' cemetery. According to Shi'i historians he was poisoned on the orders of the reigning Caliph, Walid, or his brother Hisham.

Muhammad al-Baqir, the Fifth Imam

      Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn 'Ali, known as al-Baqir ('the splitter-open' i.e. of knowledge; also said to mean 'the ample' in knowledge) was born in 57/676. His mother, Fatima, was a daughter of the Second Imam Hasan. Thus, al-Baqir joined in himself the two lines of descent from Fatima and 'Ali. He was about thirty-seven years of age when his father died.

      Like his father, Muhammad al-Baqir was politically quiescent and refrained from openly putting forward any claim. As during his father's time with ibn al-Hanafiyya, there was a rival claimant for the allegiance of the Shi'is during al-Baqir's time. This was al-Baqir's half-brother Zayd, who advocated a more politically active role for the Imam and was prepared to accommodate to a certain extent the view-point of the majority of Muslims by acknowledging the Caliphates of Abu Bakr and 'Umar and by accepting their legal practices.

      As with the other Imams, Shi'is claim al-Baqir as a martyr but there is no concurrence as to the manner of his death, some saying he was poisoned by Hisham, others that it was Ibrahim ibn Walid who arranged his death He was about fifty-seven years old at the time of his death and lies buried at al-Baqi' cemetery in Medina.

Ja'far as-Sadiq, the Sixth Imam

      Abu 'Abdu'llah Ja'far ibn Muhammad known by the title as-Sadiq (the truthful) was the eldest son of Muhammad al-Baqir, while his mother was a great-granddaughter of the first Caliph, Abu Bakr. His date of birth is variously given as 80/699, 83/702 or 86/705. He was therefore about thirty-seven years old when his father died. Apart from the First Imam 'Ali, no other Imam of the Twelver line achieved as great a renown in the Muslim world for piety and learning as Ja'far as-Sadiq did in his own lifetime. Many of those who sat in as-Sadiq's circle of students later went on to become renowned scholars and jurists. Abu Hanifa, the founder of the Hanafi School of Law in Sunni Islam, is said to have been one of his students, and Malik ibn Anas, the founder of the Maliki School of Law, was also evidently closely associated with as-Sadiq and transmitted Traditions from him. However, it must not be imagined that more than a few of the thousands of students who are reported to have studied under as-Sadiq were Shi'is or accepted his claim to the Imamate. Indeed, it cannot be certain that he openly advanced such a claim.

      The Imamate of as-Sadiq may be said to consist of two parts. During the first part, while the Umayyads were in power, as-Sadiq taught quietly in Medina and succeeded in establishing his considerable reputation during this phase he was relatively free from molestation by the authorities. Once the 'Abbasids came to power, and particularly during the reign of the second 'Abbasid Caliph, al-Mansur, as-Sadiq began to be harassed. On several occasions he was summoned to Kufa and held in prison, and Shi'i histories describe several attempts by al-Mansur to kill him. Husain Jafri has suggested that it was under as-Sadiq that the doctrine of nass (designation of the Imam by the preceding Imam, see p. 153) as an essential pre-requisite for the Imamate, and the doctrine of 'ilm (the special knowledge of the Imam, see p. 153) were fully developed.[11] This may well have been so, for there was certainly a profusion of claims and counter-claims at this time and it was the doctrine of nass that both distinguished the Twelver line from other 'Alid claimants and also provided the justification for the quietist line taken by these Imams. The doctrine of taqiyya (religious dissimulation) was also developed at this time. It served to protect the followers of as-Sadiq at a time when al-Mansur was conducting a brutally repressive campaign against 'Alids and their supporters. Most authorities agree that as-Sadiq died in 148/765. As usual, Shi'i historians have attributed his death to poisoning, on this occasion by the Caliph al-Mansur.

Musa al-Kazim, the Seventh Imam

      The Seventh Imam of the Twelver Shi'is was Abu'l-Hasan Musa ibn Ja'far known as al-Kazim (the forbearing). He was born in 128/745 (or according to other accounts 120/737 or 129/746) on the road between Mecca and Medina. His mother was a Berber slave called Hamida. He was about twenty years of age at the time of his father's death.

      Throughout the whole of his life, Musa was faced with hostility and harassment from the 'Abbasid Caliphs. During the Caliphate of al-Mansur which overlapped with the first ten years of Musa's Imamate, the opposition was not so intense, but then came the ten years of the Caliphate of al-Mahdi. Spies were planted in Medina to watch for any sign of disloyalty emanating from Musa, and at least once during this period he was arrested, brought to Baghdad and imprisoned for a while. It was, however, during the Caliphate of Harun ar-Rashid that the persecution of 'Alids reached a climax. This Caliph is reported to have had hundreds of 'Alids killed. On one occasion Musa was arrested and brought to Baghdad. The Caliph was determined on his execution but then set him free as a result, it is said, of a dream.

      In the last half of Musa's lifetime, many of the Shi'is who had split off from him at the beginning of his ministry returned their allegiance to him. New followers were gained and important new centres established in Egypt and north-west Africa.

      Since there were rumours among the Shi'a that Musa, the Seventh Imam, would also be the last Imam and would not die but would be the Mahdi, Harun made a public display of Musa's body in Baghdad (this was also to show people there were no marks on his body and that he had not met a violent death). Musa al-Kazim was buried in the cemetery of the Quraysh.

      In later years the Shrine of Musa al-Kazim and of his grandson, the Ninth Imam Muhammad at-Taqi, became the centre of a separate suburb of Baghdad called Kazimayn (the two Kazims) and a shrine has stood over the site of these graves since the time of the Buyid dynasty. The present magnificent shrine dates from the early 16th century when it was built by Shah Isma'il, the Safavid ruler of Iran. The domes were tiled with gold in 1796 by Agha Muhammad Shah, the first of the Qajar dynasty of Iran. They were later retiled by Nasiru'd-Din Shah in the 1850s and most recently in the last decade by the Iraqi government.

'Ali ar-Rida, the Eighth Imam

      Abu'l-Hasan 'Ali ibn Musa, known as ar-Rida (the approved or acceptable) was born in Medina in 148/765. Various names are given to his mother in the historical sources but what is certain is that she was a slave. He was thirty-five years old when his father died.

      It was during the Imamate of ar-Rida that the Caliph Harun ar-Rashid died and the Empire was split between his two sons: Amin, who was born of an Arab mother and controlled Iraq and the West with his Arab vizier al-Fadl ibn Rabi'; and Ma'mun, who was born of a Persian mother and controlled Iran and the East with his Iranian vizier, al-Fadl ibn Sahl. Amin attempted to interfere with the arrangements for the succession that had been agreed upon and soon there was a civil war in which Amin was defeated and Ma'mun's army under the Iranian General, Tahir occupied Baghdad. Ma'mun, however, remained for the time being in Marv in Khurasan.

      It was at this point that Ma'mun suddenly and somewhat unexpectedly summoned 'Ali ar-Rida from Medina to join him at Marv. On ar-Rida's arrival he was appointed, somewhat reluctantly it is said, to be Ma'mun's heir-apparent.

      Whatever may have been the cause of Ma'mun's nomination of ar-Rida (which occurred in the year 201/816 there can be no doubt that it caused a great stir. Everywhere the black standards and uniforms of the 'Abbasids were changed to the green of the 'Alids. In Iraq, the 'Abbasid family rebelled and set up a rival Caliph.

      In order to quell these rebellions, Ma'mun set out with his court and army towards Iraq. At Tus, on the way to Iraq, 'Ali ar-Rida suddenly took sick and died. The year was 203/818. The suddenness of his death has caused most writers to state that he was poisoned and the Shi'i writers accuse the Caliph Ma'mun of doing this out of jealousy for the affection with which the people held ar-Rida, but there were other parties, especially the deposed 'Abbasids, who had reason to hate ar-Rida.

      'Ali ar-Rida was buried near the tomb of Harun ar-Rashid near Tus. A tomb was built over the grave but this was destroyed and the present building dates from the early 14th century AD when the Mongol Sultan Muhammad Oljeitu converted to Shi'ism and rebuilt the shrine. Most of the elaborate decorative work dates from Safavid and Qajar times and gold tiles were placed on the roof by Shah 'Abbas I (completed in 1016/1607). In AD 1673 an earthquake destroyed the dome of the building and this was repaired by the Safavid Shah Sulayman. The city of Tus was forgotten and a new city called Mashhad (place of martyrdom) grew around the shrine. Shi'i pilgrims flock to this site and there is a prescribed ritual for the pilgrimage. Adjacent to the shrine itself is another magnificent building which is the Mosque of Gawhar-Shad, the wife of Shah-Rukh (see p. 98). This building, completed in 797/1394, is one of the finest in Iran. A number of theological colleges have been built around the shrine, the most famous of which is that of Mirza Ja'far Khan.

Muhammad at-Taqi, the Ninth Imam

      Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn 'Ali, known by the titles at-Taqi (the God-fearing) and al-Jawad (the generous), was born in 195/810. There are differences as to the identity of his mother but most sources seem to state that she was a Nubian slave. Muhammad at-Taqi's father 'Ali ar-Rida had been married to Ma'mun's daughter but no children resulted from that marriage.

      Muhammad at-Taqi was born in Medina and remained there when his father went to join Ma'mun in far-off Marv. He was only seven years old when his father died and he succeeded to the Imamate. His youth became a cause of controversy among the Shi'a, some asking how such a boy could have the necessary knowledge to be the Imam. Shi'i writers have countered such suggestions by relating numerous stories about his extraordinary knowledge at a young age and by referring to the fact that the Qur'an states that Jesus was given his mission while still a child. The Caliph Ma'mun had changed his colour from the 'Alid green back to the 'Abbasid black shortly after arriving in Baghdad but he maintained his friendly attitude towards the Shi'is and the 'Alids and Muhammad at-Taqi was to benefit greatly from this.

      Ma'mun died in 218/833 and was succeeded by his brother, Mu'tasim. Muhammad at-Taqi was summoned back to Baghdad in 220/835 and he died there in that same year. Since most Shi'i writers have felt it necessary to demonstrate that all the Imams were martyred, they have attributed at-Taqi's death to poisoning by his wife, Umm al-Fadl, on the instigation of Mu'tasim. However, there is little evidence of this and Shi'i writers differ among themselves as to how the poisoning was accomplished. Moreover, early Shi'i writers, such as Shaykh al-Mufid have declined to give credence to the story of the poisoning.[13]

      Muhammad at-Taqi was buried in the cemetery of the Quraysh at Baghdad, close to his grandfather. The grave is now contained in the double shrine of Kazimayn.

'Ali al-Hadi, the Tenth Imam

      Abu'l-Hasan 'Ali ibn Muhammad, who is known by the titles al-Hadi (the guided) and an-Naqi (the distinguished), was born in 212/827 or 214/829 in Medina. His mother was a Moroccan slave called Samana. He was seven years old when his father died. Once again the Shi'is were faced with the problem of a child Imam.

      During the remaining years of the Caliphate of Mu'tasim and the five-year Caliphate of Wathiq, al-Hadi and the Shi'is were relatively free and unmolested. All this was to change, however, with the Caliphate of Mutawakkil which began in 232/847. During this reign, both Shi'is and Mu'tazilis (see Glossary) came under an intense persecution. In 233/848 Mutawakkil summoned al-Hadi to Samarra, the new 'Abbasid capital north of Baghdad. Although received hospitably and given a house in which to live, al-Hadi was in reality a prisoner of the Caliph. The quarter of the city where al-Hadi lived was known as al-'Askar since it was chiefly occupied by the army ('askar) and, therefore al-Hadi and his son Hasan are both referred to as 'Askari or together as 'Askariyayn (the two 'Askaris). Al-Hadi lived in Samarra for twenty years, always under the observation of the Caliph's spies. It is reported that at least once Mutawakkil attempted to kill al-Hadi but was frustrated by a miracle. Al-Hadi continued to live in Samarra after the death of Mutawakkil in 247/861 and during the brief reign of Muntasir and the four-year reign of Musta'in until his death in 254/868 during the Caliphate of Mu'tazz. Real power was, by this time, in the hands of the Turkish Generals of the Caliphs and so it is difficult to see what advantage there would have been to the Caliph in poisoning the Imam as most Shi'i histories claim. Shaykh al-Mufid, among the early Shi'i writers, does not state that the Imam was poisoned.[14]

      'Ali al-Hadi and his son Hasan al-'Askari are buried in the twin shrines called 'Askariyayn in Samarra. The first substantial building over this site was constructed by Nasiru'd-Dawla the Hamdanid ruler of Mosul in 333/944. The building was enlarged and ornamentation added by the Buyids and Safavids and the dome was gilded by Nasiru'd-Din Shah Qajar in about 1868.

Hasan al-'Askari, the Eleventh Imam

      The Eleventh Imam was Abu Muhammad Hasan ibn 'Ali, known as al-'Askari on account of his almost life-long detention in Samarra. He was born in 232/846 (or 230/844 or 231/845) in Medina and was therefore only two years of age when his father was summoned to Samarra. His mother was a slave who is named as Hadith.

      Hasan al-'Askari was twenty-two years old when his father gave him a slave-girl who is usually called Narjis or Saqil and who is named as the mother of Muhammad, the Twelfth Imam.

      The period of Hasan's Imamate was brief, only six years. During this time he was under intense pressure from the 'Abbasids and access to him for his followers was restricted. He therefore tended to use agents to communicate with the Shi'is who followed him.

      Hasan al-'Askari died on either 1 or 8 Rabi' al-Awwal 260 (25 December 873 or 1 January 874). The Shi'i histories maintain that he was poisoned by the Caliph Mu'tamid.

Muhammad al-Mahdi, the Twelfth Imam

      Abu'l-Qasim Muhammad ibn Hasan, known as al-Mahdi (the guided), al-Muntazar (the awaited), al-Hujja (the proof), al-Qa'im (the one who will arise), Baqiyatu'llah (the remnant of God), is identified as the Twelfth Imam. After the death of Hasan al-'Askari there was a great deal of confusion among the Shi'a, with some saying that al-'Askari had had no son and others asserting that he had (see pp. 59-60). Those who were to go on to become the main body of the Twelver Shi'a believed that Hasan's son Muhammad had gone into occultation. Further details of the Twelfth Imam can be found in Chapter 8.

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