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

by Moojan Momen

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Chapter 1


         An Outline of the Life of Muhammad and the
                     Early History of Islam

This chapter is intended to set the background for the emergence of
Shi'i Islam. It will consist mostly of a survey of the life of
Muhammad and a brief outline of the early history of Islam as well as
some of the fundamental elements of the teachings contained in the
Qur'an. The outline presented in this introductory chapter is intended
to be a presentation of what is held in common by both Shi'is and
Sunnis. The specifically Shi'i aspects of the history and teachings
will be presented in subsequent chapters.
  The emergence of Muhammad and the religion of Islam must be seen
against the background of the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century
AD. Whether nomads or settled in towns, the people of Arabia were
divided into tribes and the individual's loyalty was first and
foremost to the tribe or the clan within the tribe to which he
belonged. Honour marriage, social status and friendship were all
determined by one's tribe and one's position in the tribe. These
tribes were frequently at war with one another and feuds could go on
for generations with tribal honour demanding that blood revenge or
blood money should be obtained for each death caused by the conflict.
Bearing arms and fighting for one's tribe were the greatest marks of
honour for men. If one did not belong to a powerful tribe, then it was
necessary to obtain the protection of a powerful tribe, otherwise
one's life was at risk. Sometimes one tribe would ally itself with
another against its enemies.
  The majority of the inhabitants of the peninsula were engaged in
pastoral or agricultural pursuits, either as nomads or settled in one
of a small number of towns. The other important economic factor was
the presence of a trade route along the western side of the peninsula
linking India with Syria and Byzantium.
  Most of the tribes had a primitive form of worship and prayed to
deities in the form of idols made of stone and wood. Both Christianity
and Judaism had, however, made some inroads in the peninsula and a


number of Jewish tribes existed.
  Among the Arab tribes there were certain places that were regarded
as shrines and each had a sanctuary around it. Within the sanctuary,
usually at a particular time of the year, the tribes would gather and
put aside their feuding for a time while they celebrated a festival
related to that shrine. These festivals were important occasions for
trade, cultural activities such as poetry reading and for the
settlement of disputes and feuds. The custodians of these shrines thus
became prominent persons and were frequently used to settle blood
feuds by acting as arbitrators.
  One such shrine in Arabia was the Ka'ba in Mecca. The Ka'ba became
the repository for the idols of many of the tribes and a yearly
festival was held at 'Ukaz nearby. Muhammad himself came from the
family of the custodians of the Ka'ba. His ancestor, Qusayy, was said
to have seized the Ka'ba from its previous custodians and established
his tribe, Quraysh, as the most important tribal group in Mecca and
his family as the most important family among Quraysh. In his family
was vested the custodianship of the Ka'ba together with the
responsibility for providing with food and water the pilgrims who came
to the shrines.
  The sons and grandsons of Qusayy extended and increased the
influence of their family and of Mecca. They instituted two great
trade journeys, one in the winter to the Yemen in the south to trade
with the ships coming from India on the Monsoon winds and one in the
summer to the north to trade in Syria with the Byzantines. In order to
do this, they had to establish a number of treaties and alliances with
other tribes through whose territory they needed to pass. This process
greatly increased the importance of Mecca as the focal point of the
trade route.
  By the time of Muhammad's birth, Mecca was a very important centre
and the power of the Quraysh tribe paramount. Muhammad's own family
line, although retaining some of its ancestral privileges, had,
however, lost much of its power and influence to other clans within
Quraysh such as the Umayya and Makhzum families.
  Muhammad was born in AD 570 in Mecca. His father died a few months
before Muhammad was born and his mother died when he was six. He was
placed under the care of his grandfather and two years later, when
this grandfather died, Muhammad entered the household of his uncle Abu
Talib, the father of 'Ali and the head of the Banu Hashim family. Thus
'Ali was not only a cousin but also virtually a foster-brother of
Muhammad (although there was a considerable age difference between the
  As Muhammad grew up, he became known for his honesty and
reflective nature. He assisted his uncle in his trading ventures, but
the family was not a rich one and its fortunes were in decline. Later
a rich widow, Khadija, engaged Muhammad to manage her trading


When he was twenty-five, Muhammad married Khadija, who was
fifteen years his senior, and while she lived he took no other wives.
They had eight children, but only four daughters grew to adulthood.
Also in Muhammad's household lived his cousin, 'Ali, and his adopted
son, a freed slave named Zayd.
  It was when Muhammad was aged forty (i.e. in AD 610) that the first
revelation came to him. Muhammad himself has related that, one day,
while he was meditating on Mount Hira, near Mecca, as was his custom,
the Angel Gabriel appeared to him and instructed him three times to
read. Then the Sura of al-'Alaq was revealed: 'Recite in the name of
thy Lord who created man of congealed blood . . .'
  Muhammad fled in terror at this revelation, but his wife Khadija
comforted him and became the first believer.[1] His cousin 'Ali who
was only nine or ten years old at the time became the second to
believe and Zayd, the other member of his household, was next. That
from outside Muhammad's household to believe was Abu Bakr. A number of
others also gathered around Muhammad at this time although the details
of how these earliest of his followers became believers are not, for
the most part, available.
  Then after about four years came the moment when Muhammad made a
public announcement of his mission. Once at a gathering of his own
clan of the Hashim family alid once at a general meeting of Meccans on
Mount Safa, Muhammad proclaimed his mission and called on the people
to abandon idolatry and to worship the one true God. This public
announcement aroused the fiercest opposition from the Meccan notables,
for any abandonment of idol-worship threatened the position of the
Ka'ba as the foremost centre of idol-worship in Arabia which in turn
meant the destruction of Mecca as a commercial centre. Muhammad's
followers at this stage were mostly young men of no influence in the
community. Some were members of powerful clans but could exert no
influence because of their youth. Others were slaves. All of the
Meccan nobility combined against the new Prophet and only the
protection of Abu Talib (who stood by his nephew on account of kinship
and not because he was a believer) saved Muhammad from death while
several of his followers endured the cruellest tortures and many faced
abuse and insults.
  At this earliest stage, Muhammad appears to have taught a very
simple religious doctrine: that there is only one God who has sent
Muhammad as His messenger to mankind; that idol-worship is prohibited
as are various other practices such as the burying alive of baby
daughters; and that man must purify his thoughts and actions in
preparation for the Day of Judgement.
  So harsh did the persecution become that ordered a


group of his followers to migrate to Ethiopia and seek there the
protection of its Christian king. The Quraysh leaders even sent
emissaries to Ethiopia to try to persuade the king to return the
refugees but the king refused.
  The following year, a deputation of leading members of Quraysh from
the Umayya and Makhzum families called on Abu Ta-lib asking him to
restrain his nephew or alternatively to withdraw his protection but
Abu Talib refused. The Quraysh imposed a boycott on the members of the
Hashim and the related Muttalib families who supported Muhammad,
although the majority of them were not Muslims. The boycott lasted
three years but eventually it collapsed, mainly because it was not
achieving its purpose and Muhammad was continuing to preach his
  Although the boycott ended in 619, two events in that year caused
Muhammad great sorrow and plunged him into great danger. The first was
the death of Khadija who had been his main support and the second was
the death of Abu Talib, his uncle and protector. Leadership in the
house of Hashim now passed to Abu Lahab who was another uncle of
Muhammad but his inveterate enemy. Abu Lahab soon found a pretext for
withdrawing clan protection from Muhammad and this placed the latter
in great peril for he could now be killed with impunity (withdrawal of
clan protection meant that blood revenge or blood money would not be
exacted) and such a person could not expect to survive long. It was
now a priority for Muhammad to find a protector. He travelled to the
nearby town of Ta'if to seek the protection of the leading clan there
but he was ridiculed and rejected. Finally Muhammad was forced to
accept the protection of the chief of the Banu Nawfal and
suffered the humiliation of returning to Mecca under the protection of
a tribe that was not his own and a chief who was an idolator.
  It was just at this time when matters seemed at their bleakest for
the Prophet that an event occurred that was to be the key to his
eventual triumph. In 620, at the yearly pilgrimage season, Muhammad
met some six or seven men from the tribe of Khazraj of the town of
Yathrib and converted them to his teachings. The following year, five
of them returned and together with another seven received instruction
from Muhammad at secret meetings at a pass called 'Aqaba near Mecca.
They pledged that they would refrain from idolatry, murder of their
off-spring, adultery, theft and calumny and would obey the Prophet.
Their pledge did not, however, include a promise to take up arms on
behalf of the Prophet. When it was time for them to return to Yathrib,
Muhammad sent one of his Meccan disciples with them.
  In Yathrib Muhammad's message achieved some measure of success so
that the following year, AD 622, 72 men and 3 women came to Mecca


to pledge their allegiance to Muhammad. Since these represented
prominent members of both Aws and Khazraj, the two major rival tribes
of Yathrib, and they now promised to protect Muhammad with arms if
necessary, Muhammad decided to move to Yathrib. First of all he
instructed his followers to leave for Yathrib until the time came when
only Muhammad, 'Ali, Zayd and Abu Bakr were left in Mecca. The Meccan
leaders were alarmed at the departure of the Muslims, both frightened
at the thought of what Muhammad might do next and dismayed at the
disregard shown by the Muslims for the ties of kinship. Some forty of
the Meccan notables gathered in the council chamber of the town and
decided that Muhammad must be killed. That night, however, Muhammad
slipped away from the town with Abu Bakr and hid in a nearby cave.
'Ali slept that night in the Prophet's bed in order to fool the
assassins who were keeping watch. In the morning, the attackers were
furious when they discovered that their prey had evaded them and for a
time, 'Ali's life was in danger. Despite a thorough search for him and
the placing of a reward upon his head, Muhammad slipped through the
net of the Meccans and reached Yathrib, which was henceforward called
Madinat an-Nabi, the City of the Prophet, or just Medina for short.
This move of the Prophet from Mecca to Medina signalled the turnabout
in his fortunes. That year, AD 622, the year of the Hijra (Hegira) or
Emigration, is the starting point of the Islamic calendar.
  When Muhammad first arrived in Medina, his followers were still a
minority among the inhabitants but Muhammad himself had been invited
there as an arbitrator between the feuding tribes of Aws and Khazraj
and therefore his personal prestige was high. His role in the first
few years of his presence in Medina was mainly a political one. He was
a builder of bridges between the rival factions in the town. In the
first year he set up a confederation of all the groups who lived in
Medina. This alliance involved a commitment to fight together against
outside enemies, not to make a separate peace with the enemy and not
to give refuge to anyone who had committed a crime or an act of
aggression or had stirred up dissension. The treaty of alliance made
the city of Medina a sanctuary and Muhammad the arbitrator in any
disagreements. The Jewish tribes of Medina were included in the
alliance with full rights. In order to strengthen ties between his own
followers, Muhammad caused each of those who had come with him from
Mecca, the Muhajirun (the emigrants), to adopt one of his followers in
Medina, the Ansar (the helpers), as blood-brothers.
  The next few years saw Muhammad engaged in two conflicts, an
external conflict with the Meccans and an internal conflict with his
opponents within Medina. Inside Medina, there was a faction who in
Muslim histories are called the Munafiqun (the dissemblers) who had


entered the Medinan confederation but only reluctantly and were now
working to destroy it and to bring Muhammad's power and influence to
an end. Their leader was 'Abdu'llah ibn Ubayy who had had great
influence in Medina prior to Muhammad's arrival. The Jews of Medina,
who had at first welcomed the arrival of a prophet who taught
monotheism, later began to resent the growth of his power and also the
trading losses that they were incurring due to Meccan enmity. They
were reluctant when asked to contribute to the public purse and urged
others not to do so either for they saw no obligation on their part to
participate in Muhammad's conflict with the Meccans. It has been
suggested that due to the increasing hostility of the Jews, some
sixteen months after his arrival in Medina, Muhammad changed the
direction in which prayer was to be said from Jerusalem to the Ka'ba
in Mecca.
  The war with the Meccans began as a series of skirmishes and raids
upon their caravans. The first real battle was at Badr in 623. The
Meccans came out in force to protect a caravan of theirs led by Abu
Sufyan of the Umayya family. Although the caravan reached Mecca
safely, the Meccans pressed forward aggressively. At Badr, the forces
of the Prophet defeated them decisively and many of the leading men of
Mecca were killed on that day.
  In AD 625, after further raids and hostilities, a Meccan army
marched on Medina. Muhammad's forces advanced to Mount Uhud where they
awaited the Meccans. A measure of the strength of the Munafiqun in
Medina may be made from the fact that, at this critical juncture
'Abdu'llah ibn Ubayy deserted the Medinan army and almost one-third of
the army went with him back to Medina. At first the Battle of Uhud
went well for the Medinans and the Meccans were on the point of defeat
when a portion of the Medinan army broke ranks in search of booty and
this exposed their flank. The flow of the battle was reversed and the
Medinans were forced to retreat although the victors themselves had
been so badly mauled that they were unable to press home their
advantage and withdrew.
  Muhammad's prestige was now at a low ebb; the Munafiqun were
jubilant and openly encouraged the Jews to revolt. One tribe of Jews
had already provoked Muhammad into expelling it from Medina prior to
the Battle of Uhud and now another tribe were encouraged to resist the
order to leave and barricaded themselves into their quarter of the
town. Eventually, the Munafiqun having failed to come to their aid,
this Jewish tribe was forced to capitulate and also left Medina. The
Muhajirun were given their houses.
 In AD 627 there occurred the final effort of the Meccans to break the
growing power of Muhammad. Allying themselves to the Jewish tribes
that had been expelled from Medina and to several other tribes, an


of 10,000 was put into the field. Muhammad could only muster 3,000 men
and, because of the activities of the Munafiqun, he could not even be
sure of all of these. On the advice of Salman, a Persian convert,
however, Muhammad caused a trench to be dug around the town. This
novel form of defence discomfited the attackers and after an
inconclusive siege they withdrew. During the siege, the last major
tribe of Jews left in Medina broke ranks and began negotiations with
the Meccans, exposing one of the flanks of the town. After the siege
was over, Muhammad turned his attention to this treacherous tribe.
They eventually agreed to surrender themselves and Muhammad set as
judge over them the chief of one of the clans of the Aws tribe. They
were expecting to receive leniency from that quarter because in former
days they had been allies of Aws. But the stem chief of the Aws
decreed the death of all male members of the tribe. Their women and
children were sold into slavery.
  Over the next few years, a series of raids and skirmishes increased
Muhammad's prestige among the nomadic tribes of the area. Then in AH 6
(AD 628) Muhammad decided to set out for Mecca on pilgrimage. He
departed from Medina during one of the months set aside for
pilgrimages and each of his companions was armed only with a sword. At
Hudaybiyya the path of the pilgrims was blocked by the Meccans, who
were wary of allowing Muhammad into their town although this was the
traditional month of truce and pilgrimage. Eventually, after
negotiations, a ten-year truce was agreed under which Muhammad would
leave the area but would return the following year and perform the
  Later in the same year, Muhammad launched an attack on a large
settlement of Jews at Khaybar who had been active in opposing him and
were even trying to set up an alliance to attack Medina. The fortified
settlements at this oasis were taken one after another. During that
year a number of other expeditions consolidated Muhammad's position.
In February 629, seven years after the emigration, Muhammad returned
to Mecca in fulfilment of the previous year's treaty. Most of the
Meccans left town, but a few such as his uncle, al-'Abbas, who until
this time had been sitting on the fence neither supporting nor
opposing his nephew, now extended to him a warm welcome.
  An expedition sent by Muhammad to the hr north faced disaster when
it came across a vastly superior Byzantine army. It was saved from
total annihilation by the skilful leadership of Khalid ibn Walid who
in later years was to lead the Muslim armies to important victories.  
In late 629, the truce agreed at Hudaybiyya was broken through an
attack by some of the allies of the Meccans upon some of the allies of
the Medinans in Mecca. The Meccans came to the assistance of their
allies and so Muhammad decided to raise an army and put an end to the


Meccan threat. It was in early 630 that Muhammad arrived before Mecca
with a large army. The Meccans had been unable to raise a significant
force. The chief of the Umayya family came to proffer Muhammad his
allegiance and the rest of the Meccans soon submitted, although a
handful did fight to the bitter end. Muhammad thus entered Mecca in
triumph only eight years after fleeing it in danger of his life. His
first act was to enter the Ka'ba with 'Ali and destroy the idols
therein (see Fig. 1). Shortly afterwards, at Hunayn, Muhammad defeated
two tribes who had united against him.
  The following year, the ninth year of the Hegira, is known as the
'Year of Delegations' for it was in that year that deputations came
from all over Arabia tendering their submission to Muhammad. From
Yemen in the south and Bahrain in the cast they came. It must have
been especially pleasing to Muhammad to see the submission of the town
of Ta'if that had rejected him so contemptuously years before. To each
of these places Muhammad sent one of his close disciples to teach them
Islam. Even the Christian tribes of the north came to acknowledge
Muhammad's suzerainty and to pay the poll-tax which Islam decreed for
non-Muslim subjects.
  That year Muhammad decided not to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca
but entrusted to 'Ali the task of warning those who were still
polytheists that they would 110 longer be allowed access to the Ka'ba.
The following year Muhammad performed what came to be known as the
'Farewell Pilgrimage' to Mecca. This pilgrimage became the model for
all subsequent pilgrimages to Mecca.
  Shortly after his return to Medina, in the summer of 632, Muhammad
fell ill, and after a few weeks of ill-health he died.
  As we have already noted, during the Meccan phase of his ministry,
Muhammad taught a very simple religious ethic centred on the need to
put aside idol-worship and turn to the one true God. Later in Medina
these teachings were expanded. Three fundamental tenets remained at
the core of the religion:

1. Belief in one God and rejection of all idols;
2. Belief in Muhammad as the messenger of God
3. Belief in the Day of Judgement.  But to these were added a number
of obligatory ritual observances: 
1. Obligatory Prayer, five times a day;
2. Fasting for the month of Ramadan;
3. Paying of alms;
4. Pilgrimage to the Ka'ba;
5. Jihad, or Holy War against idolators.
  To these were added a number of laws regulating social transactions
such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc. as well as a moral and


code enjoining chastity, honesty, tolerance, forgiveness, etc. These
in brief were the teachings enshrined in the Qur'an and promulgated by
Muhammad. They were to become the foundations of the Islamic
  The major social achievement of Muhammad's ministry was the welding
together of a hundred or more disparate and feuding tribes into one
nation, a union that overrode the ties of kinship and the enmity of
blood-feuds. So united was this people that the might of neither
Byzantium nor Persia could stand before it. So powerful was the
impetus given to this nation by Islam that within one generation It
had conquered territory stretching from Tunisia to the borders of
India and within a few generations this backward and primitive people
became the centre of civilisation in the Western world and remained
thus for almost four hundred years.
  As to Muhammad's personal life, he led a simple existence. Although
by the end of his life he was a powerful and rich ruler, he contented
himself with plain clothing, simple food and austere surroundings. His
judgement was renowned both in dealing with his adversaries and in
settling disputes between individuals and clans. In his political
dealings he never used force where negotiations would suffice nor did
he initiate aggression but only moved against those who had already
demonstrated their hostile intentions. He was a gentle man, to whom
the sight of human suffering caused sorrow and pain and he would
grieve if ever his followers went beyond what was immediately
necessary in the process of fighting and killing. The few executions
that were carried out on his orders were of men who had continually
striven to undermine his position over a long period of time despite
many warnings or who had professed Islam and then betrayed their
fellow believers. To other enemies he was often magnanimous in victory
to such an extent that his own followers sometimes complained that he
treated his enemies better than he treated his followers.
  The fact that Muhammad took more than a dozen wives has at times
occasioned critical comment in the West. But a number of facts should
be realised in connection with this. Muhammad at first took only one
wife, Khadija, and he was happy with her and took no other wife until
she died after twenty-five years of marriage. Muhammad himself was
fifty years of age by this time. It should not be imagined that
Muhammad's later marriages were out of sexual desire. They were
contracted mostly for political or humanitarian reasons. These later
wives were either widows of followers of his who had been killed in
battle and had been left without a protector, or they belonged to
important families or clans whom it was necessary to honour in order
to strengthen alliances. Many were of advanced years and only one had
not been married previously--'A'isha, the daughter of his close
companion, Abu Bakr, whom the Prophet


wished to honour. Indeed, that his later marriages were not due to a
voluptuous nature is indicated by the fact that although his first
wife, Khadija, bore a total of eight children, only one more child was
born to Muhammad after Khadija's death.
  After the death of the Prophet, an ad hoc assembly of Muslims chose
Abu Bakr to be the leader of the Islamic community, the Khalifa
(Caliph). Abu Bakr's Caliphate only lasted two years (AD 632-4) during
which the most important event was the suppression of a revolt of many
Arab tribes who had apostasised from Islam immediately upon the
Prophet's death.
  Abu Bakr appointed as his successor 'Umar. During 'Umar's Caliphate
(AD 634-44) the Muslim armies achieved the most remarkable victories
against both the Persian and Byzantine Empires. The succession to
'Umar was decided by a council of six appointed by the Caliph. This
council made 'Uthman of the Umayya family Caliph. 'Uthman ruled for
twelve years (Al 644-56) but became very unpopular towards the end of
his life. He was assassinated in 656 and 'Ali was acclaimed Caliph.
But Mu'awiya of the Umayya family rose in revolt. 'Ali's assassination
in 661 paved the way for Mu'awiya to become Caliph.
  Mu'awiya moved the capital of the Islamic Empire to Damascus and
instituted the Umayyad dynasty. This dynasty held sway until AH 132/AD
750[*] with a total of fourteen rulers. They are generally considered
by many Muslim historians to have been corrupt, irreligious and
treacherous. Only 'Umar II (AD 717-20) is generally regarded in a
favourable light.
  The revolt of Abu Muslim in Khurasan overturned the Umayyad dynasty
and put into power the 'Abbasid Caliphs, who were descended from the
Prophet's uncle al-'Abbas (Spain remained in the hands of the
Umayyads, however). The 'Abbasids made Kufa in Iraq their capital, but
later in 763 they began the construction of a new capital, Baghdad.
The 'Abbasids wielded real power for about 150 years but thereafter
came increasingly under the control of their Turkish mercenaries and
then under the power of a succession of dynasties that controlled
Baghdad, the seat of the Caliphate.
  The Islamic lands were split up with different dynasties controlling
the various parts. For a brief period, one ruler might control a large
part of the Islamic lands but only with the rise of the Ottoman Empire
and the conquests of Selim the Grim in the early 16th century did most
of the Islamic lands (excluding Iran, India and Central Asia) come
under a lengthy period of stable unified rule. The Ottoman Empire was
broken up at the end of the First World War and the Ottoman Caliphate
terminated in 1924.
  * Henceforth dates will be given as Hijri dates first, followed by
Gregorian dates, thus: 132/750.
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