Table of Contents
Table of Contents
- Part One: BACKGROUND AND INTRODUCTION
- 1.1 INITIAL CONSIDERATIONS
- 1.2. METHOD AND SCOPE
- 1.3. WESTERN SCHOLARSHIP ON ISLAM
- 1.4. WESTERN SCHOLARSHIP ON SHI'A ISLAM
- 1.5. SUMMARY OF SHI'A ISLAM
- Part Two: SCHOLARLY INTERPRETATIONS OF SOME EARLY EVENTS OF SHI'ISM
- 2.1. INTRODUCTION
- 2.2. THE GHADIR KHUMM
- 2.3. THE PEN
- 2.4. THE SAQIFA BANU SA'IDA
- Part Three: SHI'I HISTORIOGRAPHY
- 3.1. INITIAL QUESTIONS
- 3.2. SHI'I HISTORY: REMEMBERED, RECOVERED, OR INVENTED?
- 3.3 CONCLUSIONS
- Part One: BACKGROUND AND INTRODUCTION
- 1.1 INITIAL CONSIDERATIONS
- 1.2. METHOD AND SCOPE
- 1.3. WESTERN SCHOLARSHIP ON ISLAM
- 1.4. WESTERN SCHOLARSHIP ON SHI'A ISLAM
- 1.5. SUMMARY OF SHI'A ISLAM
- Part Two: SCHOLARLY INTERPRETATIONS OF SOME EARLY EVENTS OF SHI'ISM
- 2.1. INTRODUCTION
- 2.2. THE GHADIR KHUMM
- 2.3. THE PEN
- 2.4. THE SAQIFA BANU SA'IDA
- Part Three: SHI'I HISTORIOGRAPHY
- 3.1. INITIAL QUESTIONS
- 3.2. SHI'I HISTORY: REMEMBERED, RECOVERED, OR INVENTED?
- 3.3 CONCLUSIONS
One: BACKGROUND AND INTRODUCTION
History is interpretation. It is not merely that, as the maxim says, the
victors are the ones who write the history books. Nor is it merely that the
victors actively choose to preserve certain aspects of history and let
other aspects fall away into the historical abyss of forgetfulness. More, happenings of far-reaching import, by the very fact of
their occurring, passively mold our understandings of their antecedent
influences. Borges declares that "every writes creates his own precursors." The events which occur as consequences of
historical trends retrospectively shape our understanding of those very
In this investigation I seek to analyze the historicity of one of these
happenings. The Shi'a party of Islam
occupies a unique place in Muslim history and historiography. Shi'ism claims
for itself a clearly distinguishable historical development. It claims that its
origins were clearly set in place by the prophet Muhammad and that its line of
subsequent development was equally unimpeachable. The opponents of Shi'ism,
particularly the Sunnis, declare that Shi'ism has misrepresented its origins
and has willfully fabricated many aspects of its historical development.
The question of the facticity of Shi'ism's historical claims cannot be
resolved. A millennium of Shi'i-Sunni agonistics demonstrates conclusively
that, given the available documents, no incontestable conclusions can be drawn.
Whether Shi'ism or Sunnism has the better recollection of history will remain
an open question. However, this initially-acknowledged inability to arrive at
any definitive conclusion need not preclude an historical investigation of the
question. Were history confined to examinations guaranteed to produce definite
results, historians would have little work, indeed. However, in many cases the
task of the historian is not to draw conclusions; Islamicist Bernard Lewis
writes that "the essential and distinctive feature of [historical] scholarly
research is, or should be, that it is not directed to predetermined results." The task of history, if honest about its
limitations, should be either to trace themes and trends to determine what
events most likely happened along with the hows and whys, or to attempt to
weigh the balance of an historical argument. This is what I will do with the
case of Shi'a Islam. My intentionally malapropian title reflects this--the idea
of "a" consensus is oxymoronic. The Oxford English Dictionary defines consensus
as "the collective unanimous opinion of a number of persons." Since there can be only one such opinion,
the proper usage would be "The Consensus of Western Scholarship." My
intent is that it is possible to arrive at a conclusion based on the available
sources and yet be clear about the role of interpretation and the factors of
ambiguity that bear upon the investigation, factors which I will present in
part three of this paper.
1.2. METHOD AND SCOPE
One aspect of the scope of this paper which required a great deal of
consideration was what historical period to examine. I have chosen to restrict
my investigation to events that occurred during and shortly after the life of
the Prophet. My initial impulse was to trace the lines of the first six Imams
as well as the events before 632 C.E. In so doing I would have covered the
history claimed by the vast majority of contemporary Shi'is, for the first six
Imams are accepted as authoritative by both the Isma'ilis ("Seveners") and the
Ithna 'Ashariya ("Twelvers"). However, even this limited scope would gloss over
a great deal of factionalization prior to the death of the sixth Imam; Moojan
Momen lists twenty-seven major divisions arising before the death of Ja'far
as-Sadiq alone. My scope thus will be to
examine the Shi'i claims up to and including the alleged rejection of 'Ali with
the election of Abu Bakr at the "porch of Banu Sa'ida."
The origins of Shi'ism are not simply shrouded in uncertainty because of the
passing of time or the loss of original documents. Rather, in light of the
millennium of Shi'a-Sunni debate, both factions have consciously defined their
own history to the exclusion of the other's. I do not mean to imply that they
have intentionally distorted history, for each faction has sincerely felt their
historiography to be correct. Nonetheless, the very fact that their respective
historiographies were created in self-conscious contradistinction to that of
their opponent renders both projects suspect in accuracy. Momen sums up the
problem: "In considering Shi'i history, especially in the early period, it is
necessary to differentiate between the traditional history as recorded by the
Shi'i writers and results of modern critical scholarship." Momen chose to present both the traditional
and the Western critical findings but in separate and clearly-defined chapters,
and only the latter does he choose to name "historical." I have chosen to restrict my sources to
non-Muslim works or, where using Muslim ones, to be careful to sift "fact" from
partisanship. Again, I do not in any way mean by this that partisanship is
mutually exclusive of fact or vice versa; the very word "fact," from L.
facere, "to make," has in its etymology the connotation of "fiction." Nonetheless, often there is a difference in
tenor and occasionally even in objectivity between Orientalist versus partisan
scholarship, and I must focus on the former.
Since this paper is an examination of Shi'i history through the eyes of
western scholarship, I found it necessary to survey the latter, as well. This I
have done in two initial sections where I outline the state of Western
scholarship on Islam and then on Shi'ism particularly. This discussion is
necessary to clarify what types of sources are available both for this paper
and for the study of Shi'ism as a whole. Following this I present a summary of
Shi'i history. For a paper such as this I must, of course, assume a familiarity
with at least the generals of Islamic history, so my intent in summarizing the
main events of Shi'ism is not to enlighten the reader. Rather, I found that a
summary of this history inserted before the body of the investigation was a
great help in locating the focus of this study, and the reader may find it
equally helpful. Following this I examine in as great a depth as possible,
using the English secondary sources, Shi'ism's foundational events of early
Islam. In concluding I will attempt to present whatever verdicts I can deduce
on the historical claims of Shi'ism. This attempt will be facilitated by
bringing to bear critical discussions of the meaning and function of
historiography in both Shi'ism and in the broader spectrum of Islam. Though I
admit up front that no conclusions about facticity can be reached, I do believe
that insights into the project of history in Shi'ism--how discrepancies between
Shi'i and Sunni histories are explained, how much stock the Shi'is themselves
place in their versions of history, to what extent the Shi'i historians did or
did not embellish or even invent aspects of their history, and the import of
history for Shi'ism's self-unfolding--can be gleaned from such an analysis.
WESTERN SCHOLARSHIP ON ISLAM
Until relatively recently, Western scholars have tended to overlook the study
of Islam. Though Islam has existed as a major chapter in human history for
almost fourteen hundred years, Westerners have only given it any serious and
objective attention for a century or so. Some Muslim scholars have tended to
see a willful rejection of Islam in this neglect, but in fact the main reason that Islam has
been overlooked by the scholarly community is much more prosaic.
For the most part, the eyes of Western scholars of religion didn't even begin
to turn eastwards until the mid-1800s. The seminal event, so to speak, was the
appearance of the first volumes of the series Sacred Books of the East,
edited by Max Müller, which Oxford Press began publishing in the 1870s. This monumental collection of translations
of non-Western religious texts marks the inception of active scholarly interest
in "Eastern" religions, especially Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. Orientalist
studies of Islam were not necessarily inspired by this new East-West
connection, but the shift in the spectrum of comparative religion can
nonetheless be dated from around this time. It would thus be improper to see the lack
of scholarly interest in Islam before the twentieth century as being motivated
by anything other than historical happenstance.
This is not to say that Islam has been neglected by the West; only that
responsible academic presentations of it were, before the twentieth century,
quite rare. Indeed, Islam began garnering attention from Christendom almost
from its birth. The Muslims began conducting raids against Byzantium shortly
after the Prophet's death, and Spain was invaded less than one hundred years
later. Both of these events made Islam a phenomenon Christianity could not
ignore, but rarely did Christians view Islam with a sympathetic eye. To many
mediaeval theologians, Muhammad was the "false prophet" and the
"Anti-Christ." Dante describes Muhammad's
and 'Ali's sufferings in hell in terms almost unrivaled in their horror in the
entire trilogy, and Voltaire's drama
"Mahomet" makes Muhammad commit the most horrifying atrocities. It wasn't until the time of the
Enlightenment that a few Europeans, most notably Thomas Carlyle, began to
express respect for Islam and its founder. Present-day Western attitudes about Islam,
though perhaps not always sympathetic, are at least less frequently
vituperative. For example, the Second Vatican Council, in its 1965
Declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions,
took pains to seek correspondences between Christianity and Islam and to
express respect for the latter.
WESTERN SCHOLARSHIP ON SHI'A ISLAM
The history of the study of Shi'a Islam within the spectrum of general Islamic
studies is analogous to that of the study of comparative religion in the
broader spectrum of the humanities. That
is, Shi'ism seems to have long suffered the fate of being written off as merely
tangential to other, more relevant topics. In 1924, E. G. Browne lamented in
the preface to volume IV of his A Literary History of Persia that there
was an inaccessibility of primary sources and a lack of a concise catalogue of
available Ithna 'Ashari works. The
twentieth century has witnessed a gradual advance in the amount of attention
paid to the study of Shi'ism and, though some scholars do still bemoan the
paucity of good Western scholarship on the topic, the topic in all fairness must be said to
be increasingly well-examined.
Literature on Shi'ism was first disseminated in the nineteenth century. This
consisted first of a few random lithographs, and then "an ever growing flood"
of works. These were published in the
main centres of Twelver Shi'ism in Iran, and likely few made it into western
hands. There was a brief flurry of excitement in the academic community when,
in 1842, Garcin de Tassy published in the Journal Asiatique the text and
translation of an "unknown chapter of the Qur'an." This "new" sura was republished the
following year in the same journal, complete with verse numberings and
vocalizations. This excitement proved to
be short-lived, though; discussions of these new suras garnered little
attention and did little to further Orientalist interest in Shi'ism. It wasn't
until 1874 that the first real academic research in any Western language
dedicated to Shi'ism was published, namely Ignaz Goldhizer's studies
Beiträge zur Literaturgeschichte der Shi'a und der sunnitischen
Polemik ("Contributions to the History of Literature of the Shi'a and Sunni
Polemic"), followed in 1901 by an article
by another German writer, Julius Wellhausen's widely-discussed study of the
Kharijites and the Shi'a entitled "The religio-political opposition parties in
early Islam." The next notable addition
to the corpus was E. G. Browne's four-volume collection mentioned above, A
Literary History of Persia, published between 1902 and 1924. Dwight M.
Donaldson, a Christian missionary who spent sixteen years in Mashhad, Iran,
produced the next major work in English. Though some Muslim scholars have
maligned this text (Seyyed Hosain Nasr claimed that Donaldson was "particularly
famous for [his] hatred of Islam), it
quickly achieved the status of being considered the foremost authoritative
textbook on Shi'ism, a place it held until quite recently.
Between 1933 and 1979 there were only scattered publications on Shi'a Islam,
most notably the highly-respected corpora of Henri Corbin and Louis Massignon,
published mostly in the 1950s and 1960s. Then, in 1979, a political event
occurred which was to have an unparalleled influence on the state of Islamic
studies in the West. The Shah of Iran, whom many Muslims considered to be a
puppet of Imperialism who was selling out the country, was overthrown and
replaced by Ayatollah Khomeini and a more religiously-fundamentalist
government. The revolution in Iran became a subject of immediate political
concern in the West, and, as well, was the impetus for an unprecedented
examination of Shi'ism by Western scholars. The vast majority of these studies
have focused on political science and sociology, but there was nonetheless a
corresponding resurgence in religious studies. Not only did this event made
Shi'ism a household word, but it also gave Westerners a new appreciation of
Shi'ism. Whereas before Shi'ism had usually been viewed as a small and
relatively unimportant sect of Islam, it was now seen as a major influence in
The new interest in Shi'a Islam prompted by the events of 1979 was not
necessarily a positive one. Though Shi'ism was now a topic of major academic
interest, this interest was often less than sympathetic, for the Iranian
revolution tended only to confirm Westerners' worst fears about Islam. In 1985,
the renowned Islamicist Alessandro Bausani wrote that, though Khomeini was to
be "thanked" for promoting awareness in Shi'ism, nonetheless presentations of
Shi'ism were still "often ill-informed and misleading." Three years later, Nasr opined that the
great increase in academic research into Shi'ism prompted by the revolution did
not necessarily provide an increase in understanding it, and Abdulaziz Sachedina, writing in the
same year, stated that he found "a general ignorance or misinformation" about
Shi'ism even among faculty members at the University of Jordan.
To conclude, academic attention to Shi'a Islam was sporadic at best until the
1950s. Then, works of certain scholars, most notably Corbin, began appearing
which gave new inspiration to the study of Shi'ism. At present, there is a
great deal of interest in the topic, largely due to the major recent political
events in Iran. Some scholars fear that this new interest is not a healthy one,
for they feel that Westerners may be getting a narrow view of Shi'a history
distorted by contextual politics. This by no means represents a consensus in
the academic community, though. Numerous high-quality, objective, and
academically-responsible books and articles have been published in the past
fifteen years, and the state of Shi'a studies in the West can fairly safely be
said to be, if not thriving, at least active.
The sources I have used to interrogate Shi'a history are almost entirely from
the above trajectory of twentieth-century Western scholarship, especially that
written in English and French. This includes the only four full-length studies
of Shi'a history done thus far: Donaldson's The Shi'ite [sic]
Religion, Halm's Shiism, Momen's An Introduction to Shi'i
Islam, and a lengthy chapter in Farhad Daftary's The Isma'ilis: Their
History and Doctrine, entitled "Origins and early development of
Shi'ism." The only other full-length
general introductions to Shi'ism, S. Husain M. Jafri's Origins and Early
Development of Shi'a Islam and 'Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba'i's
Shi'ite Islam, Halm describes as scholars writing in the guise of
objective academia whose works should be considered as primary, not secondary,
sources.[32 ]My reading of these two texts
supports this assessment. Though scholarly and well-written, neither author
distances himself enough from his personal religious affiliation to approach
the history critically. The many other books I have found useful do not present
general examinations of Shi'i history as do the above six works, but rather
focus on general aspects of Islamic history. I must point out, in concluding,
that no work in English has yet been produced which does comprehensively
examine in a detailed and critical manner the origins of Shi'ism.
SUMMARY OF SHI'A ISLAM
The word "Shi'a" just means "party," as in "political party." This is a
foreign term imposed on this branch by outside scholars; the Shi'is themselves
most often refer to themselves as al-khassa, "the Select," or, more simply, al-ta'ifa, "the
Group." But, to define Shi'ism simply as
a party of Islam would be seriously to demean its scope and import. Though this
paper will concentrate only on the events that occurred up to 632 C.E., I will
here briefly summarize the first few decades of Shi'a history for the sake of
better locating this topic in its history. (For a fuller exposition of some of
these events, see below, Part Two.)
The origins of Shi'a Islam are found, first, in statements the Prophet
Muhammad made about 'Ali in his life and then in the issue of succession
following Muhammad's death. There are a few indications that Muhammad may have
intended for his cousin and son-in-law 'Ali ibn Abi Talib to succeed him as the
leader of the Muslim community. Though a great many sayings of the Prophet were
later invented by the Shi'is to support their claims, there are nonetheless a few hadith (sayings
of Muhammad) accepted as canonical by both main branches of Islam that point to
some sort of unique status of 'Ali in Muhammad's eyes.
'Ali was only nine or eleven years old when he recognized the prophetic
station of Muhammad. This places him, after Muhammad's wife Khadija, as being
the first believer, followed by Abu Bakr and Zayd. The next significant event is preserved by
Tabari, the distinguished early Sunni historian. Tabari records that, three
years after the beginning of Muhammad's prophetic mission, the Prophet called
forty eminent guests to dinner and, in front of all, ordered the community to
listen to and obey the boy 'Ali. During Muhammad's lifetime, 'Ali undertook a
great many unique tasks, such as acting as his secretary in Medina, leading the
battles of Badr and Khaybar as standard-bearer, and caring for Muhammad's
family while he was on campaign. 'Ali was the only other adult male besides
Muhammad who was allowed to come and go freely in the Prophet's house. The
single most significant event, named eponymously after the place of its
occurrence, is the Ghadir Khumm. Both Shi'a and Sunni sources record that on
the way back from Mecca to Medina following Muhammad's final pilgrimage, he
stopped the caravan at a pool called Ghadir Khumm. The Prophet called
everyone's attention, stood up with 'Ali and raised 'Ali's hand, and clearly
stated "Of whomsoever I am Lord (mawla), then 'Ali is also his Lord."
While there is dispute as to the exact meaning of mawla in this context,
the event at least is recognized by both main branches of Muslims to signify a
unique importance of 'Ali in Muhammad's eyes.
Muhammad does not seem to have left his community with clear directions as to
how to choose a successor. Shi'a hadiths recount that, lying on his deathbed,
Muhammad asked for pen and paper with which to write his will and, supposedly,
name 'Ali as successor. His request was refused, and he died without leaving
any formal record of his wishes. The community was thus left with the
responsibility of trying to figure out how to choose a leader, and there was no
precedent for them to follow. Some thought that the successor should be chosen
in the manner of the earlier tribal custom; this would entail that the members
of the community would vote to select one of their own class, a person renowned
for his qualities of strength and virtue (muruwwa). Others felt that
only a member of Muhammad's immediate family, one who enjoyed blood-ties to the
holy Prophet, could have the necessary divinely-appointed authority to rule. It
is possible that some may have agitated for the installation of 'Ali, though it
is not known how strong his support was at this time. Still others pointed out that, since the
society inaugurated by Muhammad could not be bound by any earlier traditions,
there was no way of knowing how a successor should be chosen. In the end, it
was partly political maneuverings and largely contextual happenstance that
proved to be the deciding factors. Key figures of the Muslim community met
shortly after the Prophet's death at the hall (saqifa) of the Banu
Sa'ida clan and chose Abu Bakr, one of the earliest converts, to be the first
Two years later, in 634 C.E., Abu Bakr nominated 'Umar to succeed him, and
'Ali gave 'Umar his pledge of fidelity. 'Umar, as he lay dying from an
assassin's wound ten years later, appointed a six-member council to choose a
successor. 'Ali was offered the caliphate on the condition that he continue the
policies of his predecessors, which he refused to do, since what he was in
effect being asked to do was to keep the Qurayshi tribe in power at the expense
of other tribes. 'Uthman, the alternate
choice, accepted the caliphate. Though 'Ali expressed a certain hesitation in
offering 'Uthman his support, he made no
vocal objections to 'Uthman's appointment. When 'Uthman was murdered in 656
C.E., 'Ali was urged to take the caliphate and, though expressing reluctance,
he now accepted. Though discontent with his caliphate was not long in coming,
it is possible that he was initially supported by all sides.
'Ali's accession to the caliphate came to be regarded by the later Shi'a as a
long-overdue fulfillment of the Prophet's own wishes. Although certain significant events
occurred during 'Ali's reign, such as the first civil war, his caliphate is
highly regarded in the Shi'i tradition for other reasons, namely, that it was
the first time that the Prophet's wishes were finally implemented. 'Ali was
assassinated by a Khariji in 661 and his son Hasan declined to press his claims
for the caliphate. Instead, Hasan ceded power to the Qurayshi aristocrat
Mu'awiya, and thus the Umayyad period began, marking the end of the period of
the "rightly-guided Caliphs" in the eyes of the community. From this point, the
Sunnis and the Shi'is recognized different leaders--the Sunnis continued to
follow the Caliphs, but the Shi'is instead regarded the Imams, the offspring of
'Ali, as the true leaders, even though the Imams had no temporal power. Hasan
was poisoned in 669, most likely at the instigation of Mu'awiya.42
He was followed by his brother Husayn, the third Imam. Mu'awiya died in 680 and
partisans of 'Ali urged Husayn to travel to Iraq to lead a revolt against
Mu'awiya's successor Yazid and seek the caliphate. Husayn set out with about
seventy of his supporters, including his wives and children, but they were met
by a contingent of Yazid's forces and surrounded at a place called Karbala. The
men were killed and the women and children taken as slaves to Damascus. This
event, though of a type relatively commonplace in Middle Eastern history,
proved to have great ramifications. Julius Wellhausen expressed it well. He
wrote that "Husayn's murder
..opened up a new era for the Shia... There are such things
as events which have a tremendous effect, not so much through themselves and
their inevitable consequences as through the memories they leave in the minds
and hearts of men.
There were more Imams following Husayn--four for the Seveners, nine for the
Twelvers, and differing numbers for the lesser sects--but none had the same
impact on Shi'a history as did the Imamates of 'Ali, Hasan, and Husayn. The
remaining history of early Shi'ism can be seen either as the later Shi'is see
it--as a variety of factions splitting off from one clearly delineated
succession of Imams--or as Orientalists see it--as a great number of often
dissimilar groups forming and dissolving, sometimes even groups with no
relation to each other, sharing little or nothing in common other than a belief
that the progeny of Muhammad and/or his wives are the only rightful rulers.
Two: SCHOLARLY INTERPRETATIONS OF SOME EARLY EVENTS OF SHI'ISM
Shi'i history records hundreds of significant events from the time of the
Prophet indicating the future rule of the 'Alids. Indeed, the Shi'i scholar
Ayatollah Lutfollah Saafi Golpayegani lists 2,002 hadiths that he asserts
support the historical claims of the Twelvers, and in 91 of these hadiths
Muhammad specifically declares 'Ali to be the first Imam.44 Of
these numerous events, I have chosen to examine three in detail. I will look
first at the most famous event, and one recorded by both Sunni and Shi'i
sources, in which Muhammad allegedly declared 'Ali to be his successor: the
Ghadir Khumm. Then I will examine the time that Muhammad more explicitly
attempted officially to name 'Ali as his successor, namely the incident of the
"pen and paper" when he tried to write his will. Finally, I will present the
events surrounding the occasion to which, ultimately, the entire Shi'a-Sunni
split can be traced, i.e., the happenings at the "Saqifa Banu Sa'ida."
THE GHADIR KHUMM
Many sources preserve accounts of the day when Muhammad stopped his caravan at
a pool named Ghadir Khumm and announced
that 'Ali was to be his mawla. First, a traditional Shi'i account of the
A mere three months before his death, in the month of
Dhu'l-Hijja, Muhammad and as many as 124,000 of his followers were returning
from Mecca to Medina following his final pilgrimage. He stopped the caravan at
the Ghadir Khumm and ordered those who had gone on ahead to return, and waited
for those behind to catch up, for he had something very important to say. He
had received a new revelation from God. He climbed a pulpit which had been
formed from stacked camel saddles and, standing in the shade under two trees,
addressed his followers with words of religious obligation, community
responsibility, and the importance of his own family. "I was called and soon I
will answer," he said. "My departure from amongst you is near. I am about to
leave you with that which, if you ardently seize, you will never stray after my
death: The Book of God and the people of my house. They are inseparable." Then
he took 'Ali's hand and raised it high, such that all in the audience could
clearly see his motions. Muhammad asked, "Who is the master of all believers?"
The people replied, "God and his Prophet know." Then Muhammad uttered the
famous words, "He of whom I am the master (mawla), of him 'Ali is also
the master." He repeated this sentence
three or four times, and then said "Oh God, the one who is a friend of 'Ali, be
his friend, and the one who is 'Ali's enemy, be his
Shi'is have no doubt whatsoever about the authenticity of this verse, largely
because it is preserved in many of the classic Sunni collections of hadith, as
well as Shi'a ones. Hassan al-Amin writes in the Islamic Shi'ite
Encyclopaedia that "the authenticity of this story cannot be questioned,"
and cites as proof that "at-Tahari [sic] had written two volumes about it." Tabataba'i refers to the event at Ghadir
Khumm as "the central evidence of 'Ali's legitimacy as successor to the
Prophet," and his editor Seyyed Hossein Nasr adds that this hadith is "one of
the definitively established hadiths among Sunnis and Shi'ah," for "more than a
hundred of the companions have recounted it with different chains of
transmission and expressions." Syed
Abd-ul-Husain Sharafuddeen gives the most complete listing I've found in
English of these hadith in The Right Path, volume I, pages 192-219. He
also points out that Shi'a scholars of hadith list up to one hundred and five
hadith in which the Ghadir Khumm is mentioned. And, of even more significance,
the scholar Allama Zahabi, a Sunni, recorded eighty-nine hadiths, all passed
through Sunni chains of transmission, which detailed the event.
Further, Shi'is have no doubt about the meaning and import of this event.
First, it occurred shortly before Muhammad's death, and he himself drew
attention to this fact: "My departure from amongst you is near." This implies
that his message would concern instructions about the event of his death or
guidance for the times following it. Second, some Shi'i commentators propose
that Muhammad, by explicitly calling everyone around to listen, including those
who had gone ahead or those who lagged behind, may have intended, not just that
all members of the caravan hear him, but also that it would be remembered by
the most people. This care on the Prophet's part explains why the Ghadir Khumm
is preserved, not just in so many collections of hadith, but also with a
variety of isnads (chains of transmission). Third, the Shi'is further emphasized its
importance by institutionalizing remembrance of the Ghadir Khumm in a yearly
festival, the 'Id al-Ghadir, which is held on the eighteenth day of the month
of Dhu'l-Hijja. This is considered the
most holy of all Shi'i festivals, even more important than the tenth day of
Muharram, which commemorates Husayn's martyrdom. Under Nasiru'd-Din Shah this
event became a national holiday, and Sharafuddeen says that "hundreds of
thousands of Shiahs" from all over the world "flock to the sacred shrines." Indeed, he writes that
"Ever since the proclamation of Ghadeer by the messenger of
Allah it has been the practice of... speakers and orators everywhere to address
their coreligionists this day, narrating the circumstances of the proclamation,
describing its effects and consequences... Similarly, their past and present
poets have been composing poems commemorating the proclamation of Ghadeer."
Though minor details vary between all of these accounts, all agree on the
central statement "man kuntu mawlahu fa-'Ali mawlahu." The Shi'is do
allow that the real meaning of mawla in this context cannot be
ascertained with exactness--Haider Khan, editor of Sharafuddeen's
correspondence, writes that it can be translated as master, lord, or
guardian--but there is no doubt as to the general import of the word; all
definitions convey the meaning of "one more deserving and of superior
authority." Yet not all Muslims accept
this interpretation. Indeed, for the Sunnis to have preserved the hadith and
considered it authentic, there is no doubt that they do not consider
mawla to signify anything like "successor," though it is at first sight
odd that they accept it so easily; "curieusement, les Sunnites ne paraissent
pas contester" these statements, observes Daniel Gimaret.56 Writes
Shaikh Saleem al-Bashari, one-time head of Al-Azhar University and a Sunni,
"Our belief that the Sahabas (companions) were on the right side, forces us to
interpret the tradition of Ghadeer differently, no matter it has been
consecutively transmitted or otherwise [sic]." As examples of other ways to
interpret mawla, Shaikh Saleem cites the Qur'an 57:15, "hiya
mawlakum," where he says mawla means "fit," Qur'an 19:5, "khiftu
al-mawaliya," where mawaliya means "group," or "people," and other
verses. Shaikh Saleem concludes by agreeing that, while Muhammad's statements
at Ghadir Khumm do signify a distinguished place for 'Ali, they do not mean
"successor," but "supporter," or "friend." The reason that the Prophet made
this declaration was merely, Shaikh Saleem says, "in the nature of a will to
the nation to have a particularly good regard for 'Ali for the sake of the
Prophet." Sharafuddeen's response--that
Shaikh Saleem is overlooking the obviously great importance Muhammad attached
to his announcement, as demonstrated by the observations listed above--is
cogent but not, ultimately, provable.
There is, however, one aspect of this debate which, though Sharafuddeen
neglects to mention it, is in the Shi'is favour. According to Hans Wehr's
Arabic-English Dictionary, the word [ARABIC] has only the meanings
Shaikh Saleem lists when it is indefinite. When definite, [ARABIC], Wehr writes
that it does mean "the Lord, God."
In the phrase Muhammad uttered at the Ghadir Khumm, the word is contained in a
construct, mawla-hu, "his mawla," which renders it
grammatically definite. Thus, grammar upholds the claim that many Shi'is, even
if not Sharafuddeen, advance: Muhammad here did declare 'Ali to be the Lord of
the believers. "Lord" in this context obviously does not have the connotation
of divinity or Godhead, for Muslim theology would not support the notion of a
human being manifesting God. Rather, its meaning is certainly feudal,
signifying nobility and authority. Nonetheless, even this lesser meaning is
sufficient to indicate that 'Ali was appointed by Muhammad to a position of
authority not conferred upon other companions.
The above interchange between the Shi'i and the Sunni scholar exemplifies well
the debates between both branches of Islam regarding the event of the Ghadir
Khumm. As we see, though the literature in Arabic and Persian on this topic is
voluminous, still not enough information
is available to draw definitive conclusions. We can now look at Western
scholarship to see if it can shed any light on the matter. Again, my intent in
doing so is not meant to suggest that the scholarship done by Muslim scholars
is in any way insufficient, nor that Orientalist scholarship is superior.
Rather, other facets of the issue of facticity can be drawn by examining the
findings of scholars who do not have a personal stake in the issue.
Orientalists seem to have a fairly clear consensus on their estimation of the
importance of the events at Ghadir Khumm. While some historians of Shi'ism,
such as Momen in Shi'i Islam or Daftary in The Isma'ilis, only
refer to the even in passing, most scholars recognize the event as being of
central importance. For example, Donaldson in The Shi'ite Religion
hardly mentions the other Shi'a proof texts, yet discusses the Ghadir Khumm for
two full pages, and Joseph Eliash, in 'Ali b. Abi Talib in Ithna-'Ashari
Shi'i Belief, not only devotes an entire chapter to a presentation of this
event, but he doesn't even bother analyzing any of the others, such as the
incidents of the "pen and paper," or the Saqifa Banu Sa'ida. Even more telling, the first two editions
of the Encyclopaedia of Islam include detailed and relatively lengthy
discussions of the Ghadir Khumm, but make no mention, anywhere, of the "pen and
paper" or the Saqifa Banu Sa'ida.
Western scholarship, for the most part, upholds the Shi'i version of Ghadir
Khumm. The main point with which Orientalist scholars disagree is the same as
the point debated by the Sunnis; namely, that the word mawla does not
necessarily have the clear significance as "master" and hence "successor" that
the Shi'is claim it does. There is no disagreement about Muhammad actually
using the term. For one thing, Gimaret points out "Noter cependant qu'en
l'occurrence... les Imamites tirent argument de ce qu'aussitôt auparavant
le Prophèt avait declare--recourant a un terme de la même racine
WLY--être awla`bi-l-mu'minin min anfusihim,"63 roughly,
"the worthiest amongst the believers themselves." The statement to which
Gimaret is referring Muhammad uttered four years before, on return from the
expedition of Hudaybiyya. While some have speculated that the similarity of
these two hadiths may indicate that there was only one event which the hadith
scholars confused as two, the fact that both hadiths have been recorded with
more than one isnad, and are each found in both Sunni and Shi'i sources,
indicates that it is more likely that there were two distinct, though similar,
utterances. The relative certainty that
Muhammad did, in fact, call 'Ali both mawla and awla leads the
Orientalist scholars to agree, in toto, with Gimaret's conclusion about the
man kuntu statement: "Cette phrase enigmatique," he writes, "...n'est
pas contestee, quant a son authenticite." Rather, "ce qui est conteste,
evidemment, est l'interpretation que les Imamites en donnent." That is, it is
only the exact meaning of mawla and awla that is disputed, not
the fact of their utterance. This
critique of the Western scholars does not differ significantly from that of the
Sunnis. Thus, though Shi'is would respond (and have responded) that
Orientalists have been influenced and hence misled by Sunni interpretations of
history, the fact remains that, while the occurrence of the Ghadir Khumm is
almost certain, there is no absolute certainty that Muhammad was actually
declaring 'Ali to be his successor by these "enigmatique" statements;
"Lord" could conceivably just indicate a place of honour.
In summary, the Encyclopaedia Islamica, with the most complete
presentation of the Ghadir Khumm I've found in a Western source, writes that it
is "certain that Muhammad did speak in this place and utter the famous
sentence." Though Shi'is believe that this sentence effected an express
appointment of 'Ali, Sunnis "consider that he was simply exhorting his hearers
to hold his cousin and son-in-law ['Ali] in high esteem and affection." Based on the above evidence alone, neither
Muhammad's final intention nor the significance of "Lord" can be determined.
There is, however, one last insight that may cast a certain doubt on the
Ghadir Khumm. To the fourth Imam, 'Ali Zayn al-'/bidin, is attributed a very
important text, al-Sahifah al-Kamilah al-Sajjadiyyah. Indeed, some
educated Shi'is have considered this to be the third most important text in
Islam, following the Qur'an and, presumably, 'Ali's Najh al-Balaghah. This text, if the attribution is genuine
and the text inspired, would have to have been written during al-/bidin's
imamate, circa 713-734 C.E. Eliash has discovered, after examining two
different editions of this text, that it makes no mention of Ghadir Khumm.
"Consequently," he writes, "the absence of any mention of Ghadir Khumm
in the Sahifah necessarily casts doubt on the validity of the
established Shi'i concept of Ghadir Khumm, to say nothing of its
celebration before the days of the fourth Imam." Coming from a text that is not only Shi'i,
but was written by the Imam himself, this absence is doubly damning. Not having
read the Sahifah to which Eliash refers, though, I must point out that
the balance of the evidence weighs against his doubt. One could postulate far
more reasons for the absence of a mention of Ghadir Khumm in the Sahifah
than one can explain away one of the most well-authenticated of all hadiths
in both Sunni and Shi'i sources, including even Bukhari and at-Tabari. It is
more likely that Eliash is misreading or misinterpreting the Sahifah
than it is that over a millennium of often hostile Sunni research has failed to
notice that which Eliash alone notices in 1966. The authenticity of Ghadir
Khumm stands. Its interpretation, which is open to dispute, I will examine more
The crux of the Shi'i-Sunni split rests on the issue of designation. Sunnism,
reflecting the belief that, according to a saying of the Prophet, "[the]
community will never agree on an error,"
derives legitimation of law and practice from community consensus,
ijma'. Shi'ism, on the other hand,
observes nass, literally "condition" or "arrangement." Nass is
the notion that the Prophet specifically designated 'Ali as his successor, and,
in later Shi'ism, that each Imam not only designates his successor but, before
death, channels divine wisdom and even infallibility from himself to his
successor. As the Encyclopaedia of
Islam summarizes, "The Shi'ites have never been able to understand, how the
caliphate, which implied the quality of imam (the right to lead the Salat),
could be conferred by election."
The event of the Ghadir Khumm clearly indicates that Muhammad recognized a
distinct and significant place for 'Ali in the community, for there are no
records of him having made similar statements about others of the companions.
However, his statements do not designate 'Ali as successor in as clear a
fashion as could be hoped, even by the Shi'is. This is more than simply a
problem internal to Shi'i history and self-validation; anti-Shi'a factions of
Islam have used the lack of apparent designation not just to dispute the
facticity of Shi'ism's origins but also as a weapon against all later
developments of Shi'ism. Shahrastani details how al-Nazzam, an
early ninth-century Mu'tazilite philosopher, calls into question the soundness
of Shi'ism's claims to inherited legitimacy. al-Nazzam, he
writes, "declare... qu'il n'est pas d'imamat sans designation express et
nominale se deroulant de façon ouverte et publique." The Ghadir Khumm was not such an open and
public designation--the Shi'is must claim legitimation on more than this. And
they do. The incident in which, they believe, Muhammad did intend explicitly to
confer the authority of 'Ali by nass is the so-called "pen and paper"
(also referred to occasionally as the "ink and paper").
First, the (Sunni) account:
Narrated 'Ubaidullah bin 'Abdullah: Ibn 'Abbas said, "When
the ailment of the Prophet became worse, he said, 'Bring for me (writing) paper
and I will write for you a statement after which you will not go astray.' But
'Umar said, 'The Prophet is seriously ill, and we have got Allah's Book with us
and that is sufficient for us.' But the companions of the Prophet differed
about this and there was a hue and cry. On that the Prophet said to them, 'Go
away (and leave me alone). It is not right that you should quarrel in front of
me." Ibn 'Abbas came out saying, "It was most unfortunate (a great disaster)
that Allah's Apostle was prevented from writing that statement for them because
of their disagreement and noise."
The tenth century Shi'i scholar Shaikh al-Mufid fleshes out the episode by
reporting that, after hearing Muhammad's request for pen and paper, 'Umar
ordered the man who had left to fetch them to "come back, [because] the Prophet
is delirious." The man complied.
There is, of course, nothing that can be ascertained with
certainty from a lack-of-a-statement. However, Shi'is believe it to be clear
that Muhammad's intention was to inscribe the name of 'Ali, or by some similar
means to formalize the nass. Indeed, Sharafuddeen feels it to be so
clear that he says: "That the Prophet... made a will in favour of Ali is a fact
which cannot be denied with any stretch of the imagination." Some of the reasons for this certainty,
explains his editor Khan, are that Muhammad cared too much for his wives and
followers to leave them without a firm source of guidance, and that "it is
against all reason that the Prophet... commanded all his adherents to make a
will, but he himself did not make any will." The fourteenth century divine Hasan b.
Yusuf b. 'Ali b. al-Mutahhar al-Hilli argues the same point using logic. Either
Muhammad appointed a successor, or he didn't, begins al-Hilli. The second
option is false for two reasons. One, it is incumbent upon the Prophet of God
to appoint a guardian for God's religion. Two, Muhammad's compassion was so
great that he would not have left his community abandoned. Now, given that
Muhammad did appoint a successor, al-Hilli points out that it surely would have
been a choice between 'Ali and Abu Bakr. The second option must be false, for
Abu Bakr never mentioned having been appointed, and he even said that 'Ali, not
he, was the best man in the community. Hence, Muhammad appointed 'Ali as his
successor. A final note in favor of the
authenticity of the "pen and paper" event is that it is included in three of
the most canonical, and Sunni, works in Islam: the Sahih of Bukhari, the
Sahih of Muslim, and the Tarikh of at-Tabari.80
Of the three significant events I am focusing on, this is the most ambiguous
and poorly documented. Momen describes it as a "highly controversial
episode." First, though, I must dispel an
objection to the incident that immediately comes to mind. Muhammad was said to
be illiterate. The Qur'an in two places declares Muhammad to be "unlettered"
(ummi). What need would an
unlettered man, prophet or not, have with pen and paper? I think this is not an
important objection for two reasons. One, "unlettered" need not mean completely
incapable of writing. Simply to write Ali would surely have been in his power.
Two, it is possible that he was not even wholly illiterate to begin with. "It
is not very unlikely," claims Donaldson, "that Muhammad could write."
There are, however, more serious objections to this report. First, and most
simply, all we have is a report that the Prophet asked for writing materials;
there is no concurrent mention, in any of the early sources, that he was at all
specific about that which he wished to write, and to say that he wished to
designate 'Ali at this time is pure speculation. Second, though the inclusion
of the event in Muslim history is from sources deemed sound, as mentioned
immediately above, it was mentioned very rarely. While both the Ghadir Khumm
and the Saqifa Banu Sa'ida incidents are to be found in dozens, perhaps over a
hundred, early sources, the "pen and paper" is found in fewer than ten.
Examining Western studies it is, as I mentioned above, not mentioned even once
in the entirety of the first two volumes of the Encyclopaedia Islamica,
and some of the most complete accounts of Muslim history make no mention of
it. Third, while lack-of-evidence doesn't
disprove its occurrence, the above objection of al-Hilli, if inverted, does
subject it to serious doubt--al-Hilli says that Abu Bakr could not have been
appointed because "if [Abu Bakr] was the one appointed, then he would have
mentioned it, and would have claimed it at the time when the people
acknowledged him [at the Saqifa Banu Sa'ida], or after it, or before it... But
he did not claim it, hence he was not the one appointed." If one substitutes the name 'Ali for Abu
Bakr above, the argument carries exactly the same validity, and one would have
to conclude that 'Ali "was not the one appointed." Indeed, I am not the only
one to notice this--the Sunni historian at-Tabari made exactly the same
observation, but in regard to a different proof text. The Qur'an, verses
5:55-56, reads "Verily your protector is God and His apostle, and those who
believe, who observe prayer, and pay the alms of obligation and who bow in
worship." Twelver Shi'is, explains
Eliash, have used this verse "as a clear reference in the Qur'an to the
designation of 'Ali as Imam by God." Tabari explains that 'Ali was one of the
most knowledgeable people in the community in the Qur'an. Thus, if this verse
truly did refer to 'Ali, then "he would have would have used it in his
arguments" to legitimize his Imamate. That he didn't indicates that this
supposed proof text must not have the meaning Shi'is ascribe to it. Fourth, the anonymous translator and editor
of the Sahih Bukhari quoted above casts doubt on the soundness of the
particular hadith quoted above: "It is apparent from this Hadith," he or she
says, "that Ibn 'Abbas had witnessed the event and came out saying this
statement [about Muhammad asking for pen and paper]. The truth is not so, for
Ibn 'Abbas used to say this statement on narrating the Hadith and he had not
witnessed the event personally."
The balance of evidence for regarding Muhammad's request for pen and paper as
an indication that he was appointing 'Ali is, on the whole, negative.
THE SAQIFA BANU SA'IDA
I have above traced two pivotal events: the alleged nomination of 'Ali as
successor, and the event of formalizing, or failing to formalize, his
nomination. Now the final, and capstone, event: who actually did succeed
Muhammad, and how this successor was chosen. As the reader knows, or has
realized by now, 'Ali's automatic successorship was not recognized by the
community. Instead, an election of sorts was held immediately following the
Prophet's death, an election in which Abu Bakr, not 'Ali, was chosen. While the
above two incidents provide evidence for Shi'ism's claims, it is this final
event which necessitated such defenses.
Shi'i and Sunni sources are in almost full agreement about the details of the
Saqifa Banu Sa'ida, save the specific of whether or not 'Ali and/or his
supporters were present (see below). Where they mainly differ is, not in the
historical accounts of the event, but in interpreting the trends and attitudes
surrounding the incident. In brief, when
Muhammad died, his daughter Fatima, her husband, who was 'Ali, and the rest of
the Prophet's family were busy preparing his body for burial. Unbeknownst to
them, while they were thus occupied, there were two meetings happening
elsewhere in the city. One group consisted of those Muslims who had made the
original emigration from Mecca to Medina with Muhammad, the muhajirun.
This included 'Umar, Abu Bakr, and Abu 'Ubayda. The other meeting, which was
being held at the porch, or saqifa, of the Banu Sa'ida tribe, consisted
of those Muslims who joined the religion after the hijra, the ansar. Abu
Bakr and the other muhajirun either learned about this meeting or
stumbled upon it by accident. What they discovered came as an unwelcome
surprise. The ansar, probably worried about losing whatever status they
had in the community (due to political reasons we need not address), were
devising plans to preempt the process of appointing a successor to Muhammad by
installing a native Medinan, Sa'd ibn 'Ubada, as head of the Muslim community.
The muhajirun quickly hurried to the Saqifa Banu Sa'ida to be able to
have their say before it was too late. Abu Bakr took the floor and, speaking
diplomatically, named a variety of reasons why one of the muhajirun
should be appointed successor. After a
fair amount of debate, 'Umar came forward and openly shook Abu Bakr's hand,
which was the clear and unmistakable sign for the oath of allegiance,
bay'a. One by one, almost all present came forward and swore fealty to
Abu Bakr. A few, however, didn't. Instead, they left the proceedings and went
to 'Ali's house to tell him what had happened. When those remaining at the
Saqifa heard that a crowd was gathering at 'Ali's home, they went to confront
them and, presumably, to seek to secure 'Ali's bay'a as well. In this
hope they were disappointed, for 'Ali refused to recognize Abu Bakr as leader.
In fact, some accounts even report a brief fist- or sword-fight between 'Umar
and 'Ali, which only the angry appearance of Fatima quelled. With Fatima's
rebuff the crowd dispersed. Eventually, 'Ali did give in and swore allegiance
to Abu Bakr.
While most histories concur with the above, there are a few telling
differences. One, it is not certain that
'Ali was not a part of the proceedings. While Shi'i accounts tend to portray
him as oblivious of plottings occurring behind his back, while he was engaged
in the more caring and pious task of washing the Prophet's body, Sunni sources
are not so clear that he wasn't involved in the proceedings. If this is the
case, then the confrontation between 'Ali and 'Umar could have occurred a day
or two later, instead of immediately after the meeting. Related to this is the
second uncertainty. That is, there is not agreement on when 'Ali gave the
bay'a. Some sources say that he promised allegiance to Abu Bakr on the
very day of (or, elsewhere, four days after) the Saqifa Banu Sa'ida, which
could imply, not necessarily coercion, but acquiescence or even agreement with
the community's choice of a leader. The
Shi'i texts, however, are careful to make it plain that it took 'Ali six full
months before he was resigned to giving in to the community's decision, and
then only because the recent death of Fatima left the community helpless and in
need of unity. Not only this, but the
Shi'is have often cited a remark, supposedly made by Abu Bakr at this time,
that "The oath of allegiance to me was a sudden slip [or, lapse]," a sentiment that 'Umar himself is said to
have conceded. Three, the Shi'i and the
Sunni sources disagree as to whether 'Ali even had support at this time.
Mahmood Shehabi writes that "driven by selfishness, ambition, and a great
desire for power,... Abu Bakr, Umar, and Abu Ubaydah, with glib tongues and
skillful speeches, weakened the position of their rivals." There were some present who said "there is
one [man] whose right no one would dispute if he should seek this authority.
That man is 'Ali ibn Abi Talib," and the
pro-Shi'a historian Ya'qubi records that one of the ansar did briefly
advance 'Ali's claims during the discussions in the Saqifa.98 If Abu
Bakr et al. convinced the audience, even if it was done out of "a great desire
for power" and with "glib tongues," or if 'Ali's claims were advanced at this
gathering, then the community's final choice could not really be said to be
unfair. However, one tactic used by Shi'i sources to lend weight to their
claims is to insist that 'Ali's claims were not put forward, and that the
choice of Abu Bakr was thus made by only a limited, perhaps even a minority,
portion of the community. Sharafuddeen states that "Historical records and
traditions show that there was not a single member of the Prophet's Ahlul Bait
[relatives of 'Ali; literally, 'family of the house'] present in the Saqeefa.
They were all in the house of Ali." If this were true, it would automatically
render the proceedings of the Saqifa Banu Sa'ida void, for "how can it be
called consensus of national opinion when none of these persons... was
Western scholarship has not yet been able to mediate between these opposing
presentations of the events of the Saqifa Banu Sa'ida. Orientalism has not
analyzed the exact details of the proceedings in ways differing significantly
from the partisan scholarship, for no new textual evidence has come to light.
Instead, it has tended to focus more on general trends in the political
climate, for this is an area open to continual reinterpretation. The issue
which I will examine through the eyes of Occidental scholarship, then, is to
what extent 'Ali had a personal following at this time, which in turn will
provide clues as to whether or not contemporary members of the community had
heard the same proofs supporting 'Ali's nomination by Muhammad that later
Momen writes off such an investigation peremptorily: "It is impossible to
assess," he says, "how strong the party that looked to 'Ali at this time
was." One thing that does seem to have
been clear to all was that 'Ali held a special and esteemed place in the
community. However, it is not so clear that, as Daftary claims, "a number of
pious Muslims... zealously maintained that the succession to the Prophet was
the legitimate right of 'Ali." Indeed,
Marshall Hodgson opines frankly that "it is hard to suppose that anyone thought
of 'Ali as the logical candidate" at this time. What seems most likely is that, while 'Ali
certainly had personal support, there was not yet a shi'at 'Ali, there
was no "party" proper. Montgomery Watt shares this opinion. He points out that,
while there was a group of close friends and followers of 'Ali who did think of
themselves as the shi'at 'Ali (though he doesn't specify, I think it
clear from his text that he means after 632 C.E.), there is nonetheless nothing
to suggest that this body of supporters thought of him as having any special
charisma or unique claim to authoritative leadership. That is, while there likely were some who
had preferences that 'Ali lead the community, the notions of divinely-inspired
and guided nass and of the usurpation of God's plans were quite likely
later developments. There are a few clues that lead me to conclude this. First,
if Muhammad's and by extension God's wishes were so clear, it is hard to
comprehend how so many of the pious, devoted, and highly respected early
believers, including not only 'Umar and Abu Bakr, but also Talha and Zubayr
and even '/'isha herself could have violated those wishes. Certainly, these of
all people would be the ones most intimately familiar with and probably most
respectful of Muhammad's intentions. Second, it seems possible that 'Ali did
not harbour strong resentments. Shahrastani may have written that some Shi'is
regarded the companions of the Prophet with asperity (aprete), for,
"seul, 'Umar aurait voulu tenir la chose secrète et fait prevaloir la
candidature d'Abu Bakr au jour de la Saqifa," but Etan Kohlberg points out that many
Shi'is still held positive attitudes towards the companions, and adds that we
must not overlook significant details like the fact that 'Ali named one of his
own sons 'Umar. Thus, while there
certainly were elements in early Islam that did condemn 'Umar and Abu Bakr,
such as the Kharijites, it is likely that 'Ali and his followers accepted Abu
This confused issue seems to be best settled by Watt's conclusion. Rather than
explaining the community attitudes of the time by saying that there was no
clear support for 'Ali on the one hand, or that there was a cohesive shi'at
'Ali on the other, Watt sees there as being, not a "movement" in support of
'Ali, but "rather a trend of thought, a frame of mind, or even a largely
unconscious attitude." I think it is
indubitable that, following the death of the man who, not only was regarded as
being the Prophet of God's Word, but was a highly charismatic and politically
adept leader as well, the community would have been painfully aware of their
lack of political and religious guidance. Certainly they would have been
struggling to fill this lack, and the search for a new leader would have been
an understandable reaction to Muhammad's death. Whatever new leader was chosen
would naturally, even if unconsciously, have been compared to his predecessor
by the community. Since no one could replace the Prophet of God, Abu Bakr,
though "an ideal choice," in Hugh Kennedy's words, could not help but suffer unfavorable
comparisons. The disaffected and many of those dissatisfied with Abu Bakr
logically turned to 'Ali, the acknowledged mawla of Muhammad, in seeking
an improvement. This general sentiment could perhaps account for the "vague and
[in]determinate... trend of thought"
that Watt sees as the nascent and as-yet inchoate "movement" that, by the first
civil war, would grow into the party of 'Ali.
There are a few issues surrounding the Saqifa Banu Sa'ida that neither the
millennium-old Shi'i-Sunni polemic nor the recent investigations by Occidental
scholars have been able to agree upon. Namely, whether 'Ali and/or some of his
supporters were at the meetings, whether they advanced a claim for 'Ali's
leadership at this time, and what 'Ali's reaction to the outcome of the meeting
was. One thing, though, can be postulated--it seems clear that an injustice was
done to 'Ali. The events of the Ghadir Khumm were familiar to all. It was
evident that Muhammad held 'Ali in at least a high esteem, for every meaning of
mawla connotes, if not necessarily ruling authority, then at least a
certain intimacy, as in "friend" or "companion." And if merely the latter, 'Ali still held
a place of unique eminence in Muhammad's eyes. There were, after all, numerous
Companions (sahaba) of the Prophet, all of whom presumably would be his
companions (mawla). Yet Muhammad is not said to have made similar
statements about the other companions; just 'Ali. Thus, even those in the
community who did not recognize 'Ali as their Lord (al-mawla) had to
have been aware that he was a personage of significance. That being the case,
it is notable that 'Ali was not given more of a say in the proceedings at the
Saqifa Banu Sa'ida. Even if he had been there and his claims had been advanced,
the existence of contrary reports renders it probable that his input had been
limited. This is not mere speculation. Not only were Abu Bakr and 'Umar
reported as saying that Abu Bakr's election was a slip, but it has also been reported by the
meticulous and reliable ninth century historian al-Baladhuri that, in
retrospect, 'Umar admitted the whole affair to have been a falta, which
Momen defines as "an affair concluded in haste and without reflection." I thus think it safe to conclude partially
in favour of the Shi'a view of these events: 'Ali was likely not granted as
full a participation in the proceedings as he deserved, and Abu Bakr's
leadership was not fully accepted by all. The Sunni claim that 'Ali was present
and had no objections and fully supported Abu Bakr is doubtful.
In the above pages I have sought to examine as fully as possible, without
diving into the original texts, the historicity of three foundational events
for Shi'ism. First, Shi'is claim that Muhammad designated 'Ali as his successor
on the day of the Ghadir Khumm, while Sunnis declare Muhammad's speech to
indicate nothing more than a recognition of 'Ali's high standing in the
community and a wish that he continue to be honoured after Muhammad's death.
Two, Shi'is believe that Muhammad tried to formalize his selection by writing a
will naming 'Ali, but Sunnis deny that the event occurred. Three, Shi'is assert
that 'Ali was unjustly overlooked at the election process of the Saqifa Banu
Sa'ida, presumably because the muhajirun knew that their only chance to
grab and usurp power would be by circumventing Muhammad's planned transfer of
leadership and doing so in a less than fully open and public manner. Sunnis
instead aver that 'Ali was present, accepted Abu Bakr as leader, and gave him
the oath of bay'a. Through my comprehensive examination I have concluded
the following. While no conclusions can be stated with certainty, it seems to
me most likely that: 1) Muhammad did, in fact, proclaim a unique and especial
status for 'Ali, which is most soundly evidenced by the Ghadir Khumm. The best
translation of this station is "Lord," a status clearly higher than simple
"companion." 2) The evidence for the "pen and paper" is too fragile to use it
as a justification for Shi'ism's claims. 3) The proceedings of the Saqifa Banu
Sa'ida seem to have been conducted in haste and secretly, which likely had the
purpose, and certainly had the effect, of excluding certain claimants for
power, most notably the family of 'Ali.
Though crude (and amusing), it might be clearest to summarize by expressing my
findings on the Shi'a-Sunni debate as a score:
Shí'ís Sunnís My conclusions
favor the claims
Ghadír Khumm 1 0 Shí'ís
Pen and paper 0 1 Sunnís
Saqífa Banú Sa'ida 1 0 Shí'ís
Three: SHI'I HISTORIOGRAPHY
I have analyzed exhaustively the Orientalist scholarship available to me that
relates to these three key events in Shi'a history, and have weighed it against
the Shi'i versions of history as contained in a few publications of Shi'i
scholarship. My conclusions are that most (or, as analysed above,
2/3) of the claims Shi'ism makes about its foundational events are
validated by critical historical analysis. Though we cannot declare Shi'ism's
view of history to be infallible, neither can we declare the oppositional
history of the Sunnis to be entirely correct. Yet neither have we reached the
aporia which, at the beginning of this examination, I forewarned was possible.
That is, even though no final judgements can be made, even though the
Shi'i/Sunni debate about historical facticity can not be decisively
adjudicated, neither are we left in a state of analytical limbo. Conclusions
can be drawn.
Chief among these conclusions are two: One, Muhammad clearly designated a
place of uniqueness and some sort of authority for 'Ali, a designation which
was not fully honoured and perhaps was not even explored by the community
following Muhammad's death. Two, though an injustice does seem to have been
done to the Shi'as, this does not fully validate their claims. The origins of
Shi'ism are not nearly as unambiguous as Shi'i texts would have us believe, and
the claim that 'Ali and the Imams are unquestionably the legitimate successors
of the Prophet is not manifestly supported by the historical evidence. We are
thus left with some questions that must be addressed before this investigation
is closed. Are the Shi'is aware that their claims of authority are not
unimpeachable? Do they realize that the historical evidence does not
automatically accord with their presentations of history? Did they manipulate
evidence to legitimate their claims, or do they sincerely and genuinely believe
their interpretation of history to be patently correct and the Sunni detractors
to be simply, though fully, mistaken? If some of the historical events of
Shi'ism are found to have occurred otherwise than as presented by Shi'is, then
are we to discard these claims and rewrite this history?
SHI'I HISTORY: REMEMBERED, RECOVERED, OR INVENTED?
Bernard Lewis has drawn a typology of the development of histories which can
fruitfully address the above questions. He has subdivided the ways in which
autonomous communities, especially ones organized around a religious
commonality, have preserved and developed historiography into three main
divisions: remembered history, recovered history, and invented
Remembered history, writes Lewis, consists of statements about the past,
"rather than history in the strict sense." It is the collective memory of a
community. Examples are that the Americans view the Fourth of July and the
French view July 14 to be dates on which dramatic historical events occurred,
and both cultures have built elaborate celebratory themes around these dates.
In actuality, relatively little happened on these specific dates; they merely
serve as a focus for collective cultural mythology. Recovered history is the history of
events, people, and movements that have been forgotten or rejected by the
communal memory and then, later, recovered through academic scholarship. As an
example I suggest the comparatively recent knowledge of Egyptian culture by
virtue of finding the Rosetta Stone and our subsequent new abilities to
decipher these ancient writings and thereby "discover" ancient Egypt. While
such scholarship often is able to reconstruct ancient or even recent events
through finding new evidence or new analytical tools, a certain degree of
interpretation always comes into play. This is most pronounced in invented
history, which is history created or modified for a purpose, history designed
to fit an agenda. Invented history can consist of either slight, yet
intentional, modifications to historical accounts, or actual rewriting. I think
the most obvious example of this in modern times is the peculiar brand of
revisionism known as "holocaust denial," where a great body of evidence is
deliberately, even if perhaps unconsciously, manipulated not just to portray
events in a new light but even to create whole new fictitious chapters of
history. All three of these divisions can be found in varying degrees in every
religious, cultural, or political community.
At first sight, it would seem that Western scholarship is almost unanimous in
its appraisal of Shi'i presentations of history--scholarship discards it as
highly unreliable and even at times fictitious. I'll cite a few examples to
exemplify this consensus and, more important, to set the stage and provide a
counterweight for my concluding observations. Momen: One problem that has beset
the study of Shi'ism "is the problem of the historicity of the sources...
Modern historians have rejected much of the picture that the Muslim historical
works attempt to create... This picture is thought by modern scholars to have
been retrospectively imposed [by Shi'is] over the facts of the history of the
early period... for doctrinal reasons."
Lewis: "There has been a great controversy in recent years about whether early
Islamic historiography is really historiography and whether the events recorded
in these historical writings ever happened." Watt: "Shi'ite propagandists from the
later ninth century onwards presented a version of events... which supported
their doctrinal and political views, but which is now held by occidental
scholars to be at variance with what actually happened." Watt, again: "Shi'i apologists made
assertions about early events which critical history cannot accept as true...
[it is] an important historical fact that such assertions were made and widely
believed. Wilfred Cantwell Smith: "The
Arab writing of history has been functioning... less as a genuine inquiry than
as a psychological defence" designed to fulfill "emotional needs."
Though I have only cited five quotations, they exemplify well the almost
unanimous opinion of Orientalism. In terms of the above typology of
historiography, this opinion seems best to fit the third--Shi'i history is
invented. My close examination of the scholarship available leaves me
disinclined to agree with this assessment. I would rather summarize Shi'i
history by describing it as a "remembered" history with a high degree of
selective interpretation. I see it as a history that, wherever primary sources
allow for arbitrary interpretations of events or where primary sources are
simply lacking, has glossed over inconsistencies or stretched interpretations
of ambiguous events for the purpose of creating a coherent and cohesive
historical trajectory. While this tendency is universal amongst religious
communities, a few elements of Islamic history make the trend particularly
noticeable in Shi'ism. One, the primary sources are neither numerous enough nor
specific enough to allow for unambiguous interpretations. (E.g., what was a
mawla, did Muhammad try to write a will naming 'Ali, and did 'Ali object
to Abu Bakr's nomination or uphold it?) Two, Shi'i history has been concerned
chiefly with a struggle for legitimating authority, and not just political
authority, but authority conferred by God himself. This fight for legitimation
has been the central and motivational theme of all Shi'i history. Three, the
Shi'i fight for legitimacy was not done in the abstract, but was always pitted
against a very real opposition, namely the incompatible claims of authority by
the Sunnis. These factors have given Shi'ism a compelling impetus for producing
interpretations of history that uphold its claims.
There is, as I mentioned, somewhat of an etymological and philosophical
affinity between "fact" and "fiction." Now I must clarify this. The "modern"
Western world has in this century begun examining with a highly critical eye
the interrelations of rationality and subjectivity. One of its findings has
been that the relationship between the "signifier" and the "signified" is much
more tenuous than thinkers from Aristotle through to Descartes would have liked
to have believed. The objective world is in a very real way the creation of the
linguistic subject. Postmodern thinkers
have been quick to embrace this and related concepts, often to buttress
deconstructionist or post-structuralist agendas. History is one discipline
whose validity is most impugned. I will use Mark Taylor, a self-described
postmodernist, as spokesperson for postmodern attitudes towards history. He
observes that history "is a relatively recent invention." As regards critical history, this
is true. Taylor then goes on to undermine its factual objectivity. "There is
more 'imagination' and 'fairy tale' in history than most people are willing
to acknowledge," he declares. In fact, history is "the work of creative
imagination." This appears to be an
assertion that history is fiction. However, he follows this by stating that "to
say that history is an 'imaginative construction' is not to imply that it is
'unreal.'" Yet neither would Taylor be satisfied by calling history a
factual endeavor. His point is that writing off history as fiction or
certifying history's findings as fact would both be facile. "The careful
examination of history subverts the sharp distinction between historical fact
and fiction." It is with the aid of this
postmodernist historiographical methodology that I will judge the accuracy or
fictiveness of Shi'i history.
There are some elements of Shi'i history that are clearly and indisputably
later additions to and forced moldings of history. For example, the largest
branch of Shi'ism believes that Muhammad was followed by twelve divinely guided
Imams, and this is such a central tenet that this branch of Shi'ism is known as
the Ithna 'Ashariyya, or "Twelvers."
However, aside from a few statements the Prophet made about the number twelve,
there was no indication during the first eleven imamates that the line would
end, and, moreover, there was not always even a certainty whether there was an
Imam or who among competing claimants should be regarded as such; hence
"twelver" is a later interpolation. As events unfolded over the course of a
millennium, Shi'is understandably found it crucial to portray the diversity of
events as elements in a continuum of linear development. It was necessary, for
example, to ground the disappearance of the twelfth Imam in prophecies made by
the Prophet that there would only be twelve Imams for, if even one
aspect of the tradition was shown to be unplanned and unpredicted, then
ultimately the authenticity of the entire tradition would be undermined. Just
as I know that I must write this paper in a coherent way--each paragraph must
logically follow the previous one and the entire paper must reflect the
development and exposition of clearly-defined themes, else the reliability of
the entire paper and my accountability as a scholar will be weakened--so must
the variety and ambiguity of random events in history be interpreted to make
them fit neatly into a coherent trajectory of historical development.
It is not the nature of history that requires selective preservation and
interpretation of events, of course, but rather a community's self-definition.
Like all religions, Shi'ism sees itself as a unique and well-defined community
sharing common goals. As such, it must also have a well-defined common history.
This explains why Shi'ism has been very concerned with presenting its history
as coherent and systematized, and has been quite vigorous in defending its
tradition. The power of history to reflect a community's self-image and to codify and make coherent the
historical trajectory that has produced the community does render its validity
suspect. If history can be such a powerful tool when applied selectively, one
is inclined to wonder just how judiciously the Shi'is have applied it; must
Western scholarship reject the Shi'i historical tradition in toto? I think the
answer is no, and this is where the insights of a "postmodern" methodology
Statements such as Taylor's that history is an arena where fact and fiction
commingle must be used with caution. If embraced ingenuously, real violence can
be done to history. One could not unquestioningly validate Shi'ism's version
of, say, the incident of the "pen and paper" without also validating the
holocaust revisionism of David Irving and Robert Faurisson. One must tread with
care to keep historiographical deconstruction from degenerating into mere
historical solipsism. Nonetheless, an awareness of the degree to which
interpretation colours our understanding of history offers insights which can
give sanction to a great deal of "remembered" and, to a small extent, even to
With these factors in mind, I can offer my verdict on Shi'i historiography as
reached through examining the above three key events.
1) Shi'ism has not necessarily invented the events which found its authority.
Though a few incidents are poorly documented and perhaps did not occur at all,
there are enough events that are sufficiently well- documented to
validate its position.
2) Shi'ism has clearly remembered its history in a selective way. Where
episodes are of ambiguous meaning, such as the intended significance of
mawla or that the trajectory of the imamate was prophesied by Muhammad
to consist of twelve Imams, the Shi'is have retrospectively applied
later definitions of what they believe Shi'ism to be. This was surely not a
conscious distortion, though. Lewis points out that every generation of a
religious community will have a slightly different view of its character and
background. So, as each generation writes its histories, these temporally
contextual self-images naturally will affect the presentation of history. As Momen summarizes, "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 were written than true expositions of
that earlier period." However, I believe
that, while this approach to history certainly will produce less accurate
results than will analytical and unbiased critical scholarship, it remains an
understandable and excusable aspect of any community's self-defined tradition.
3) The above criticisms of Shi'i historiography are in no way to be seen as
critical of Shi'ism. Each and every observation can be applied, with equal
validity, to the historiography of, not just Shi'ism's opponents the Sunnis,
but to every autonomous religious, political, or cultural community. Thus, the
fact that the historical findings of Orientalism often differ from the
perceived history of Shi'ism does not thereby repudiate Shi'a Islam. Its
history serves a vital role for the community. Researches such as this are, or
should be, undertaken merely for the sake of arriving at better understandings
of historical events and processes for those who wish to know, not to deny
Shi'ism its memories and traditions.
4) Finally, though in saying this I approach the dangerous slopes of
historical solipsism, the above observations on the nature of historical
scholarship apply, not just to Sunnis equally as well as to Shi'is, but to the
project of occidental analytical scholarship as well. That is, though critical
analysis has much better methodologies at its disposal and far fewer
preconceptions and agendas hindering it, nonetheless it remains vulnerable to
the same criticisms it applies to the objects of its study. It remains
susceptible to unconscious biases and faulty sources. This latter point has
been made quite often by Shi'is themselves. Where we western scholars challenge
the history of Shi'ism, it is possible that we have sometimes fallen prey to
the disinformation campaigns of the heresiographers. Indeed, some western
scholars themselves have frankly acknowledged this; Hodgson himself sees that
"Islamists, both Muslim and Western, have had a way of absorbing the point of
view of orthodox Islam," by which he certainly means the point of view of the
Sunnis.127 Thus, when Shi'is declare our sources to be as fallible
as we sometimes reject theirs as being, ultimately we have no definitive way of
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1 Jorge Luis
Borges, Labyrinths (New
York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1964), p. xi.
2 A few terms should be introduced here for the benefit of the
reader with little familiarity with Arabic. "Shi'a" is the (uninflected)
noun, "Shi'i" is the (nisba) adjective, and "Shi'ism" is the
English term for the whole of this branch of Islam. In places these terms are
somewhat interchangeable, and I chose arbitrarily. Also, I have used the phrase
"Shi'a studies" though perhaps it is not always the most felicitous. It is
meant to signify studies on Shi'ism, not necessarily studies by Shi'is. Where
necessary I will be more explicit in distinguishing between the two.
As another note, the variance between the diacritical system used in the
footnotes and in the body of the text was unavoidable.
3 Bernard Lewis, History: Remembered Recovered, Invented
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), p. 54.
4 Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. "Consensus." Accessed from the
Internet (Linkname: OED Logo Oxford English Dictionary; URL:
5 Moojan Momen, An Introduction to Shi'i Islam (Oxford:
George Ronald, 1985), pp. 45-54. Cf. also Muhammad b. 'Abd al-Karim
Shahrastani, Livre des religions et des sectes, vol. 1, trans. Daniel
Gimaret and Guy Monnot (Peeters: Unesco, 1986), pp. 435-566.
6 I will use the terms Shi'ism and Sunnism throughout this paper,
but this is simply out of convenience. Speaking objectively, neither the term
Shi'ism nor Sunnism can really be applied until at least the third century
A.H.; the only proper way to refer to the future Shi'is is with the term
'Alids, "followers of 'Ali." This, of course, is precisely the issue I am
examining, for Shi'is claim that their party can be traced back to the
time of the Prophet himself.
7 Momen, Shi'i Islam, p. 23.
8 The former he entitles "The Lives of the Imams and Early Divisions
among the Shi'is," ibid. pp. 23-60, and the latter is "Early History of Shi'i
Islam," ibid. pp. 61-85.
9 "Fiction" is from Latin fictió, from fictus,
past participle of fingere, to form, which, though a different word from
"facéré," has a similar meaning.
10 Cf. below, p. 5 and pp. 7f.
11 Eric J. Sharpe, Comparative Religion: A History (Open
Court, La Salle, Illinois, 1986), p. 37.
12 Cf. Sharpe, Comparative Religion, chapter 7, "Religion,
Comparative and Absolute," pp. 144-173.
13 Udo Schaefer, "Muhammad and the West," in The Light Shineth in
Darkness: Five Studies in Revelation after Christ (George Ronald, Oxford,
1979), p. 136.
14 Cf. Inferno, Canto 28, vs. 10-12.
15 Schaefer, The Light Shineth, p. 136.
16 Kenneth Cragg, The Call of the Minaret (Oxford University
Press, New York, 1964), p. 186.
17 Schaefer, The Light Shineth, p. 135, n. 481.
18 Though I do not quote from it here, I would like to point out to
the reader the most complete survey of this topic available. It is Etan
Kohlberg's "Western Studies of Shi'a Islam," in Martin Kramer, ed., Shi'ism,
Resistance, and Revolution (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1987), pp.
31-46, also found under the same title in Belief and Law in Imami
Shi'ism (Hampshire, U.K.: Variorum, 1991), article II.
19 Dwight M. Donaldson, The Shi'ite [sic] Religion: A
History of Islam in Persia and Irak [sic] (Luzac and Company, London,
1933), p. vii. Cf. also Joseph Eliash, 'Ali b. Abi Talib in Ithna-'Ashari
Shi'i Belief (Doctoral thesis, University of London, 1966), p. 14.
20 Cf. Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, The Divine Guide in Early
Shi'ism, trans. David Streight (Albany: State University of New York Press,
1994), p. 2f.
21 Heinz Halm, Shiism (Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh,
1991), p. 3.
22 Garcin de Tassy, quoted in Amir-Moezzi, The Divine Guide,
23 Amir-Moezzi, The Divine Guide, p. 80. Though it was
initially suspected to be a Shi'i sura, this has been disproved. See my "The
Shi'i Qur'an: An Examination of Western Scholarship," (Unpublished paper, The
University of Toronto, 1995), pp. 15-19.
24 Amir-Moezzi, The Divine Guide, p. 1.
25 Halm, Shiism, p. 3.
26 'Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba'i, Shi'ah Dar Islam,
trans. Seyyed Hossein Nasr as Shi'ite Islam (State University of New
York Press, Albany, 1975), p. 17 and n. 14.
27 Halm considers Momen's An Introduction to Shi'i Islam to
have surpassed Donaldson's in usefulness. (Halm, Shiism, p. 3).
28 Alessandro Bausani, in Forward to Momen, Shi'i Islam, p.
29 Seyyed Hossein Nasr, et al, eds. Shi'ism: Doctrines, Thought,
and Spirituality (State University of New York Press, New York, 1988), p.
30 Abdulaziz A. Sachedina, The Just Ruler in Shi'ite Islam: The
Comprehensive Authority of the Jurist in Imamate Jurisprudence (Oxford
University Press, New York, 1988), p. viii.
31 Daftary, Farhad, "Origins and early development of
Shi'ism," in The Isma'ilis: Their History and Doctrines (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 32-90.
32 Halm, Shiism, p. 4.
33 Momen, Shi'i Islam, p. xv.
34 Halm, Shiism, p. 2.
35 See my "The Shi'i Qur'an."
36 Some sources name both 'Ali and Abu Bakr as being first; Momen
reconciles the discrepancy by pointing out that what is likely meant is that,
while 'Ali was first believer, Abu Bakr was the first adult to follow Muhammad.
Momen, Shi'i Islam, p. 325, note 2.
37 Donaldson claims that it appears that 'Ali seriously considered
pressing his claims even at this early stage, (Donaldson, The Shi'ite
Religion, p. 12) but Momen counters that, though 'Ali was urged to do so,
he refused. (Momen, Shi'i Islam, p. 18).
38 Hugh Kennedy, The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates
(Longman, London, 1986), p. 70.
39 Donaldson, The Shi'ite Religion, p. 21.
40 Momen, Shi'i Islam, p. 22. It must be pointed out that
some scholars disagree with this statement. Cf. Halm, Shiism, p. 8:
"'Ali's Caliphate was disputed from the very beginning."
41 Halm, Shiism, p. 8.
42 Momen, Shi'i Islam, p. 28.
43 Quoted in Halm, Shiism, p. 15.
44 Ayatollah Lutfollah Saafi Golpayegani, "A Reply to 'Belief of
Mahdism in Shia Imamia': A response to Sachedina's Islamic Messianism,"
trans. Dr. Hasan Najafi and ed. K. Najafi. (Toronto: I.H.A., no impress date),
45 Wehr gives, as possible meanings for ghadir, pond, pool,
puddle; stream, brook, creek, river. Hans Wehr, Arabic-English
Dictionary (Ithaca, NY: Spoken Language Services, 1976), s.v.
46 The following account is culled from four Shi'i sources:
Tabataba'i, Shi'ite Islam, pp. 68f., notes 6-9; Mohammad Amir Haider
Khan, ed. The Right Path, vol. I [A collection of letters between the
Shi'a Syed Abd-al-Husain Sharafuddeen and the Sunni Shaikh Saleem al-Bashari.]
(Karachi: Peermahomed Ebrahim Trust, 1959), pp. 191-214; Hassan al-Amin,
Islamic Shi'ite Encyclopedia, vol. 1 (Beirut: SLIM Press, 1970), pp.
250f.; and Mahmood Shehabi, "Shi'a," in Kenneth W. Morgan, ed., Islam, the
Straight Path: Islam interpreted by Muslims (New York: Ronald Press Co.,
1958), pp. 180-223.
48 al-Amin, Islamic Shi'ite Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 215.
49 Tabataba'i, Shi'ite Islam, p. 40, and p. 68, note 7,
50 Khan, The Right Path, vol. I, p. 207.
51 Cf. Khan, The Right Path, vol. I, p. 198ff.
52 Though al-Amini writes that the Ghadir Khumm did occur on 18
Dhu'l-Hijja (Eliash, 'Ali b. Abi Talib, p. 144), it is probable that
this date was chosen, not because it is certain that the event occurred on this
day, but because some Shi'i scholars concluded that it was most probably on
this day that 'Ali succeeded 'Uthman to the caliphate. Eliash, ibid., p. 135,
53 The festival was first institutionalized by Mu'izzu'd-Dawla in
Baghdad in 962. Interestingly, the Sunnis promptly retaliated by creating
festivals of their own, namely in commemoration of Abu Bakr's stay in the cave
and the death of Mus'ab ibn al-Zubayr, the defeater of Mukhtar. Cf. Eliash,
'Ali b. Abi Talib, pp. 137ff., note 7, and Momen, Shi'i Islam, p.
54 Quoted in Khan, The Right Path, vol. I, p. 206.
55 Khan, The Right Path, vol. I, p. 194, note 2. Wehr adds
that mawla can also mean protector, patron; client; charge; friend;
companion, associate. With the definite article, al-mawla, it can also
signify Lord or God. Wehr, Arabic-English Dictionary, s.v.
maulan. (Cf. note 58.) This term has had a number of different technical
meanings specific to different periods of Islamic history, but, since these
other meanings apply to events after 632, they are not relevant here.
56 Gimaret, trans. Shahrastani's Livre des religions, p. 479,
note 16. I translate "Curiously, the Sunnis don't seem to dispute" this
57 Quoted in Khan, The Right Path, vol. I, p. 209f.
58 Cf. above, note 55. This point needs to be clarified. Wehr's is
the only dictionary that explicitly lists this meaning of mawla. J. G.
Hava's Arabic-English Dictionary, s.v. [ARABIC], lists only "lord,
master," both lower case; E. W. Lane's Arabic-English Lexicon, s.v.
[ARABIC], first lists "synonym of "[ARABIC]," and follows it with the English
meanings "a lord or chief," again lower case; and Munir Ba'albaki's Modern
English-Arabic Dictionary, s.v. "lord," lists as translations first
sayyid and second mawla. Thus, Wehr is alone in explicitly
stating that al-mawla means "the Lord, God," in upper case, and hence it
must be pointed out that he could be incorrect. However, I think it more likely
that he is correct, and that the other three dictionaries merely fail to
mention said meaning. I draw this conclusion from the fact that
al-sayyid is one of the ninety-nine names of Muhammad, and mawla,
as a derivative of the name of God al-waliyyu, also indicates a divine
meaning. Hence, I believe "the Lord, God" to be an accurate translation of
59 A common Sufi interpretation is that 'Ali's Lordship is
spiritual, not political. While this interpretation is possible and valid, it
is a speculation which the meanings of mawla do not necessarily
60 The most extensive collection of Shi'i scholarship done to date
is by Mujtahid Ayatu'llah 'Abd al-Husayn al-Amini al-Najafi, entitled [ARABIC],
which I translate The (Event of) Ghadir in the Book, Tradition, and
Literature. This work comprises a full eleven volumes, totaling several
61 Donaldson, The Shi'ite Religion, p. 4f., and Eliash,
'Ali b. Abi Talib, p. 134-154.
62 Encyclopaedia Islamica, 1913 sqq. ed. and 1960 ed.,
searching under "'Ali ibn. Abi Talib," "Shi'a," "Muhammad," "pen," "ink,"
"saqifa," "Banu Sa'ida," and "Sa'ida."
63 Gimaret, trans. Shahrastani's Livre des religions, p. 479,
note 16. I translate: "Note, however, that in this occurrence [of the Ghadir
Khumm] the Imamiyyas draw their argument from that which the Prophet had
declared immediately prior--resorting to a term with the same root of WLY
[[ARABIC], the root of both mawla and awla] to be the worthiest
of all the believers."
64 Cf. Eliash, 'Ali b. Abi Talib, p. 153 and Donaldson,
The Shi'ite Religion, p. 2.
65 Gimaret, trans. Shahrastani's Livre des religions, p. 479,
note 16. I translate: "The authenticity of this enigmatic phrase isn't
contested. That which is contested, evidently, is the interpretation that the
Imamiyyas have given it."
66 Encyclopaedia Islamica, 2nd ed., s.v. Ghadir Khumm, p.
993. Italics added.
67 Eliash, 'Ali b. Abi Talib, p. 141 and p. 142, note 19.
68 Eliash, 'Ali b. Abi Talib, p. 142.
69 See section 3.2, below.
70 John L. Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 84.
71 Literally "agreement," form IV masdar, from form I, "to gather."
72 Cf. Momen, Shi'i Islam, p. 153ff., "The Conferment of the
Imamate by Designation or Covenant."
73 Encyclopaedia Islamica, 1913 sqq. ed., s.v. "'Ali b. Abi
Talib," p. 284.
74 Muhammad Ben 'Abd al-Karîm Shahrastâni, Les
dissidences de l'islam, trans. Jean-Claude Vadet (Paris: Librairie
Orientaliste Paul Geuthner S.A., 1984), p. 146. I translate "[al-Nazzam]
declare[d] that there is no such thing as the imamate without an express and
clearly-appointed designation displayed in an open and public fashion." (I am
using this statement of Shahrastani's without implying thereby that al-Nazzam
was either pro- or anti-Shi'a. Though Shahrastani claims that al-Nazzam had
"tendences pro-rafidites," Gimaret demonstrates that "l'attribution a [Nazzam]
des positions imamites traditionelles (la designation de l'imam par nass
et ta'yin, et que'Ali a fait l'objet d'un nass zahir...)
paraît être une pure invention de [Shahrastani]." Gimaret, trans.
Shahrastani's Livre des religions, 210, and 211, note 50. I quote
Shahrastani's al-Nazzam to cite the objection in the general, not to draw
conclusions about al-Nazzam's views. For a full explanation of certain Muslim
views of al-Nazzam, written by a Muslim, see Abu-Mansur 'Abd-al-Kahir ibn-Tahir
al-Baghdadi, Moslem Schisms and Sects, trans. Kate Chambers Seelye
(New York: Ams Press, Inc., 1966), pp. 135ff.
75 The following account is taken from al-Bukhari's "genuine"
(sahih) collection of hadiths, accessed from the Internet (Linkname:
Hadith Bukhari (English Translation); URL:
http://www.isnet.org/cgi-bin/hadith/bukhari), trans. and ed. anonymous, Volume
1, Book 3, Number 114.
76 Quoted in al-Amin, Islamic Shi'ite Encyclopedia, vol. 1,
77 Quoted in Khan, The Right Path, vol. II, p. 25.
78 Khan, The Right Path, vol. II, p 33, note.
79 Quoted in Eliash, 'Ali b. Abi Talib, p. 84ff.
80 See Tabataba'i, Shi'ite Islam, page 69, note 11, for more,
and full, references.
81 Momen, Shi'i Islam, p. 15.
82 7:157 and 62:2.
83 Donaldson, The Shi'ite Religion, p. 46.
84 E.g. Daftary, The Isma'ilis; Philip K. Hitti, History
of the Arabs: From the Earliest Times to the Present (London: The MacMillan
Press Ltd., 1970); Marshall G. S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam. vol. 1: The
Classical Age of Islam (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1974);
and W. Montgomery Watt, The Formative Period in Islamic Thought
(Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1973).
85 al-Hilli, quoted in Eliash, 'Ali b. Abi Talib, p. 85.
86 Eliash quotes from Rodwell's interpretation, citing it as verse
5:60, and he only mentions that part of the verse cited above. (Eliash, 'Ali
b. Abi Talib, p. 21). This is unfortunate. First, he uses a translation
with nonstandard numbering. The standard Cairene redaction numbers this as
verses 5:55-56. Two, he leaves off the most important segment. The Qur'an
continues "... As to those who turn to Allah, His Messenger, and the
believers,--it is the party of Allah that must certainly triumph." (5:56,
revised Yusuf Ali translation) The key term here for Shi'is is [ARABIC],
"party" of God, which they interpret to be a clear prefigurement of the
shi'at 'Ali, "party" of 'Ali.
87 Eliash, 'Ali b. Abi Talib, p. 92, and Tabari, quoted in
ibid., p. 152, respectively.
88 Comment on Sahih Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 3, Number 114. (See note
75.) The author of this statement says nothing more than this, and so I do not
understand clearly what exactly his or her point is.
89 The following account is culled from Momen, Shi'i Islam,
pp. 18ff.; Donaldson, The Shi'ite Religion, pp. 10-13; and al-Amin,
Islamic Shi'ite Encyclopedia, vol. 3, pp. 42-45.
90 Though I only mention the muhajirun and the ansar,
there was actually a number of competing claimant groups. al-Amin describes
five of these. Cf. al-Amin, Islamic Shi'ite Encyclopedia, vol. 3, pp.
91 S. Husain M. Jafri, Origins and Early Development of Shi'a
Islam (Librairie du Liban, London, 1979), pp. 37-57, presents a full review
of the facts of the event as well as a discussion of various reportages of it.
In sum, he finds that, but for minor details, all accounts of the event agree.
Cf. also Momen, Shi'i Islam, p. 18.
92 Momen, Shi'i Islam, p. 20.
93 Sharafuddeen, 63. Cf. also Donaldson, The Shi'ite Religion,
94 Quoted in Sharafuddeen, vol. 2, p. 61.
95 al-Amin, Islamic Shi'ite Encyclopedia, vol. 3, p. 44.
96 Shehabi, "Shi'a," p. 189.
97 Quoted in Donaldson, The Shi'ite Religion, p. 12.
98 Donaldson, The Shi'ite Religion, p. 12.
99 Sharafuddeen, vol. 2, 62.
100 Momen, Shi'i Islam, pp. 19f.
101 Daftary, The Isma'ilis, p. 37.
102 Marshall G. S. Hodgson, "How did the Early Shi'a Become
Sectarian?" (Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 75, 1955,
pp. 1-13), p. 2.
103 Montgomery W. Watt, The Majesty that was Islam (London:
Sidgwick and Jackson, 1974), p. 68. The Encyclopaedia Islamica expresses
a clearly-defined opinion on this: "There was... a Shi'at 'Ali... at the
very latest immediately after the death of the Prophet." Encyclopaedia
Islamica, 2nd. ed., s.v. "Shi'a," p. 350.
104 Shahrastani, in Vadet, trans. Shahrastâni's, Les
dissidences de l'islam, p. 146. I translate "Alone, 'Umar had wanted to
keep things secret in order to make Abu Bakr's candidacy prevail on the day of
the Saqifa." The reader may wonder why I am using three different translations
of Shahrastani. I do not have the original available to me, and have to juggle
the translations to find the most appropriate quotes to fit my context.
105 Etan Kohlberg, "Some Imami Shi'i views on the Sahaba", in
Belief and Law in Imami Shi'ism (Hampshire, U.K.: Variorum, 1991,
article IX), p. 146.
106 W. Montgomery Watt, "The Rafidites: A Preliminary Study"
(Oriens, vol. 16, 1993, pp. 110-121), p. 112.
107 Kennedy, The Prophet, p. 52.
108 Watt, "The Rafidites," p. 112.
109 See above, note. 55.
110 See above, p. 28.
111 Momen, Shi'i Islam, p. 199.
112 This typology and the following exposition of it is drawn from
Lewis, History: Remembered, Recovered, Invented, pp. 11ff.
113 Lewis, History, p. 50.
114 Momen, Shi'i Islam, pp. 61ff.
115 Bernard Lewis, "The Shi'a in Islamic History," in Martin Kramer,
ed. Shi'ism, Resistance, and Revolution (Boulder, Colorado: Westview
Press, 1987), p. 24.
116 Watt, The Majesty that was Islam, p. 66.
117 Montgomery W. Watt, "The Significance of the Early Stages of
Imami Shi'ism," in Nikki R. Keddie, ed. Religion and Politics: Shi'ism from
Quietism to Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), p. 21.
118 Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Islam in Modern History
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), p. 120.
119 Cf. any study of linguistic theory from the death of Ferdinand
Saussure (1857-1913) to the present.
120 Mark C. Taylor, Erring: A Postmodern A/theology (Chicago:
The University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 54.
121 Taylor, Erring, p. 66. Italics in original.
122 Taylor, Erring, p. 67.
123 See above, p. 9.
124 Cf. G. E. von Grunebaum, "Self-Image and Approach to History,"
in Bernard Lewis and P. M. Holt, eds., Historians of the Middle East
(London: Oxford University Press, 1962), pp. 457-483.
125 Bernard Lewis, "The Shi'a in Islamic History," p. 24.
126 Momen, Shi'i Islam, p. 61.
127 Hodgson, "How did the Early Shi'a Become Sectarian?," p. 5.