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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 3

      The Lives of the Imams and Early Divisions
          among the Shi'is

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 the results of modern critical scholarship.
In this chapter the traditional view will be examined and the results
of the research of modern scholars will be found in the next chapter.
The first part of the life of 'Ali has already been dealt with in the
previous chapter and what historical information is available
regarding the Twelfth Imam will be found in Chapter 8.
  Although a great number of histories of the Imams have been written
by the Shi'is of every generation, many of them are of little use in
constructing biographies of the Imams for they were written with a
different purpose than the conveying of biographical information. They
are largely anecdotal and apologetic in nature, seeking to prove
certain points about the Imams. Among the specific points that Shi'i
writers sought to prove about each Imam were: that their births were
miraculous, the baby Imam being born already circumcised and with his
umbilical cord already severed; that the spoke immediately on birth
(and sometimes from within their mother's womb) praising God; that
each was specifically designated by the preceding Imam (or in the case
of 'Ali by Muhammad); and that each performed miracles and was
possessed of supernatural knowledge. Most Shi'i writers consider that
the Imams were all martyred but this is evidently a late view since
some of the earliest works specifically refute this with regard to
some of the Imams.[1] Since most of the Imams do not appear in the
standard non-Shi'i histories either, the Imams have tended to become
quasi-legendary rather than historical figures.

The Imamate of 'Ali

The early life of the fourth Caliph and first Shi'i Imam, Abu'l-Hasan


'Ali ibn Abi Talib, known as Amiru'l-Mu'minin, and his actions under
the first three Caliphs have been recorded in the previous chapter.
The turbulent years of his brief ministry as Caliph will be considered
in this chapter.
  It can be said that 'Ali's succession to the Caliphate was approved
of and accepted by the vast majority of Muslims in Medina and also in
most of the provinces of the Empire. He was truly a Caliph chosen by a
consensus of all the Muslims. After the initial euphoria wore off,
however, it became clear that he was faced with grave internal
problems. During 'Uthman's Caliphate, all the important governorships
of the Muslim Empire had gone to members of the Umayyad family, and
now this family, led by its most able member, Mu'awiya, the Governor
of Syria, refused to accept 'Ali's Caliphate, urging vengeance for
'Uthman and implying that 'Ali was giving shelter to the murderers and
was therefore guilty of complicity. In another direction, Talha and
Zubayr, two of the most prominent companions of the Prophet, were
galled at the accession to the Caliphate of a younger man, and
realising that they would now never have a chance to accede to that
position withdrew to Mecca and linked up with 'A'isha, the daughter of
Abu Bakr and widow of the Prophet, who had a long-standing grudge
against 'Ali. These three proceeded to Basra and raised a rebellion,
again in the name of vengeance for 'Uthman, although all three were as
much responsible for the murder as anyone.
  At first, all went well for 'Ali. He was, after all, a great
military leader and was able to defeat the Basran rebels at the Battle
of al-Jamal (the camel). Zubayr and Talha were killed in the fighting
and 'A'isha captured and sent back to Medina with the honour due to
the widow of the Prophet.
  However, soon the tide of events began to turn against 'Ali. One of
the problems that beset him was his own forthright nature. He refused
to allow political expediency to dictate to him where he felt a matter
of principle was at stake. He set about immediately trying to put
right every aspect of the life of the community that he felt had
deviated from the intention of the Prophet. He pressed ahead with this
regardless of the fact he was making powerful and influential enemies
among many who had benefited under the previous Caliphs. These persons
went over to Mu'awiya who now came out in open revolt in Syria.
  It was at this point, in 36/656, after the Battle of the Camel, that
'Ali moved his headquarters from Medina to Kufa in Iraq. From this
time until the middle of the second Islamic century (mid-8th century
An) when Baghdad was built, Kufa was to remain the main centre of
Shi'ism in the Islamic world. However, Kufa's support for the Shi'i
cause was to prove a mixed blessing. The vacillating nature of the
Kufans was to cause


Shi'ism as many problems as it was to bring benefits.
  In 37/657 Mu'awiya marched towards Kufa. Reluctantly, 'Ali came
forward to meet him and battle was joined at Siffin. Of the two
armies, 'Ali's was filled with veteran companions of the Prophet,
particularly the Medinan Ansar, and pious readers of the Qur'an, while
Mu'awiya's side could only boast a handful of companions of the
Prophet and consisted for the most part of Arab tribes who had joined
Islam late and had been drawn to the frontier provinces by the
prospect of rich booty. Also, Mu'awiya was an expert intriguer and
gladly paved the way for a defection to his side with promises of
  The Battle of Siffin was prolonged, bloody and inconclusive. It
ended in a call for arbitration. But 'Ali, hampered by the fickle
nature of the Kufans, was unable to have the man of his choice
represent him, and, although accounts of the arbitration are confused,
it seems clear that 'Ali did not come out of it well. In the meantime,
a perverse fate dictated that 'Ali, who had been most reluctant to
submit to arbitration was now being blamed by part of his Kufan army
for having done so, 'judgement is God's alone', they chanted and
separated themselves from 'Ali's army, thus becoming known as the
Khawarij (Kharijites) or 'Seceders'.
  'Ali found himself hard pressed on all sides. The arbitration
process was clearly providing Mu'awiya with an opportunity to regroup
and strengthen his position. In Egypt 'Ali's governor was overthrown
through Mu'awiya's machinations and the province came under Syrian
control. Finally the Khawarij were committing atrocities close to
'Ali's capital and posed a serious threat.
  'Ali was forced to put aside plans for attacking Syria and advanced
against the Khawarij. They were routed at the Battle of Nahrawan. But
they had their revenge in that it is said to have been one of their
number, 'Abdu'r-Rahman ibn Muljam, who assassinated 'Ali, wounding him
in Kufa on 19 Ramadan 40/27 January 661. 'Ali died two days later.
To attempt to draw a portrait of the personal qualities of 'Ali is
indeed a difficult task, for he has assumed, even in the eyes of Sunni
Muslims, an almost legendary dimension as a paragon of virtues and a
fount of knowledge. His courage in battle, his magnanimity towards his
defeated opponents, his sincerity and straightforwardness, his
eloquence and his profound knowledge of the roots of Islam cannot be
questioned, for they are matters of historical record. He is also
attributed with having been the founder of the study of Arabic grammar
through his disciple, Abu'l-Aswad al-Du'ali, and the originator of the
correct method of reciting the Qur'an. His discourses and letters
(especially as compiled in the Nahj al-Balagha, which is considered by
many Muslims as second only to the Qur'an in importance) are
considered the earliest examples of Muslim writings on philosophy,
theology and ethics, while through disciples


such as Hasan al-Basri and Rabi' ibn Khaytham he is considered to have
given the initiative to Sufism in Islam. He was regarded even by such
persons as the second Caliph, 'Umar, as the 'best of judges' and his
judicial decisions are highly regarded both by Sunni and Shi'i experts
in jurisprudence. For Shi'is the brief period of his Caliphate is
looked upon as a Golden Age when the Muslim community was directed as
it always should be directed, by the divinely-chosen Imam.
  Although Najaf is the place where the Shrine of 'Ali is located,
there must remain some doubt as--to whether the remains of 'Ali are in
fact there, for some Traditions state that he was buried in Kufa and
others that he was buried in Medina, or that his burial-place is
unknown. However, the vast majority of Shi'is accept Najaf as the
place of 'Ali's burial, and in consequence a large town has grown
around this spot. The first building to have been erected over this
location was commissioned by the 'Abbasid Caliph Harun ar-Rashid.
Several further buildings were built and destroyed, at least one of
which was destroyed on the orders of the anti-Shi'i Caliph Mutawakkil.
The Buyid ruler 'Adudu'd-Dawla built a shrine in the 4th/10th century
that lasted until 755/1354 but the main part of the present structure
was built by the Safavid monarch, Shah Safi in about 1045/1635 and the
dome was gilded by Nadir Shah. In the course of the last 400 years,
Najaf has become the residence of some of the most eminent ulama of
the Shi'i world and the site of some of the most important religious

Hasan, The Second Imam

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


assassination and therefore must have assented to Hasan being
acclaimed Caliph in succession to his father a few days later, for
there is no record of any dissent to this in Kufa, nor indeed of any
dissent in Mecca and Medina.
  Of all the twelve Shi'i Imams, Hasan is the one who has been
disparaged most harshly by Western historians. He has been derided for
having given up the Caliphate to Mu'awiya without a fight. He has been
described as uxorious, unintelligent, incapable and a lover of luxury.
This harsh criticism is rejected by Shi'i historians. They point out
that Hasan's abdication was not an act of feeble cowardice but a
realistic and compassionate act. Following the assassination of 'Ali,
the Kufan army had rallied around Hasan to face the advancing Syrian
army led by Mu'awiya. But Mu'awiya's spreading of false reports, his
secret agents and liberal bribes had wreaked such havoc among Kufans
that Hasan had seen his army melt away. In this situation abdication
was the only realistic course of action open to Hasan and avoided
pointless bloodshed.
  In the correspondence between Mu'awiya and Hasan that led to the
abdication, it is interesting to note that Mu'awiya brushed aside
Hasan's objections that Mu'awiya had no precedence in Islam and indeed
was the son of the most prominent opponent of Islam by asserting that
the situation between him and Hasan now was the same as that between
Abu Bakr and 'Ali after the death of the Prophet, that Mu'awiya's
military strength, political abilities and age were of more importance
than Hasan's claim to religious precedence. In other words, as Shi'i
historians point out, political power was to become the arbitrator of
leadership in Islam rather than religious considerations.
  The Kufans, by their wavering, their disunity and their fickleness,
had let Hasan down badly, as they had his father 'Ali, and as they
were going to do with his brother Husayn some twelve years later. Part
of the Kufan army rebelled against Hasan, part of it went over to the
Syrians and the rest melted away. Even Hasan's own tent was plundered,
he himself wounded. Small wonder then that he felt he had no choice
but to abdicate.
  Mu'awiya needed Hasan's abdication to lend some plausibility and
justification to his own seizure of power; a mere military victory
would not have been enough. Therefore, he was happy to offer Hasan
generous terms including general amnesty for Hasan's followers, a
large financial settlement for Hasan himself, and, according to some
accounts, a further condition that the Caliphate would revert to Hasan
on Mu'awiya's death.
 Hasan, after his abdication in 41/661, retired to Medina and led a
quiet life. He refused to involve himself in any political activity--
which was a very pragmatic action, in that although delegations came
to him to offer


him their support if he would rise up, Mu'awiya had such a firm grip
on the Empire that any uprising would have been doomed to failure.
And, in any case, Hasan had given his word and signed an agreement.
  Hasan died in 49/669 at the early age of forty-six. It is stated by
the Shi'i historians and confirmed in some of the Sunni histories that
he was poisoned by his wife at the instigation of Mu'awiya. Certainly
nothing could have suited Mu'awiya's purposes more since it paved the
way for his plan to ensure the succession of his son, Yazid.
  Hasan was buried in Medina in al-Baqi' cemetery next to his mother,

Husayn, the Third Imam

After Hasan, his younger brother Husayn became the head of the House
of 'Ali and according to the Shi'is, the Third Imam. Abu 'Abdu'llah
Husayn ibn 'Ali, who is given by Shi'is the title Sayyid ash-Shuhada
(Prince of Martyrs), was born in Medina in 4626. The great love of the
Prophet for his two grandsons has been referred to in the previous
section and, according to some reports, 'Ali preferred Husayn to
  While his brother Hasan was alive Husayn played a secondary role,
but after the death of his brother he became the head of the family
and the focus of the aspirations of the Kufans, who were growing
increasingly restive under the stern Syrian rule. While Mu'awiya
ruled, however, Husayn made no move, considering himself bound, it is
said, by the terms of Hasan's treaty with Mu'awiya.
  The Umayyads had instituted the public cursing of 'Ali from the
pulpit, motivated, it is said, by a desire to provoke staunch Shi'i
elements into open revolt. The first to fall foul of this policy was
Hujr ibn 'Adi al-Kindi. He raised a revolt in Kufa in 51/671. The
revolt was easily overcome and Hujr with six of his companions were
executed in Damascus by Mu'awiya. These seven are regarded by Shi'is
as the first of their martyrs.
  Mu'awiya died in 60/680, but prior to his death he had arranged for
his son, Yazid, to succeed him. If the rule of Mu'awiya, the son of
the Prophet Muhammad's most powerful enemy in Mecca, had been
offensive to some pious Muslims, the accession of Yazid, a drunkard
who openly ridiculed and flouted the laws of Islam, was an outrage. In
Kufa the people began to stir once more and soon letters and
messengers were arriving in Medina urging Husayn to come to Kufa and
assume leadership there.
  Because of pressure from the Governor of Medina to declare
allegiance to Yazid, Husayn had moved from Medina to Mecca and it was
from there that he sent an emissary, his cousin Muslim ibn 'Aqil, to


Kufa to assess the situation. On Muslim's arrival in Kufa, large
meetings were held at which thousands pledged their support for
  Despite the enthusiastic reports sent by Muslim, Husayn was warned
by several persons against going to Kufa whose inhabitants had proved
so fickle in their support of his father and brother, but Husayn
decided to press on and left Mecca in the company of some fifty armed
men and a number of women and children.
  But the situation was changing rapidly in Kufa. Yazid, fully aware
of the situation, had instructed the energetic 'Ubaydu'llah ibn Ziyad
to take control of Kufa. 'Ubaydu'llah had instigated a reign of
terror, dealing harshly with any manifestations of revolt. He had
reinforced these measures by threatening the tribal leaders with death
if their tribes were found to be fomenting rebellion. These measures
had already resulted in Muslim being captured and executed and now
'Ubaydu'llah assigned military units to all the routes to Kufa from
the south in order to intercept Husayn.
  Although Husayn received warnings of the state of affairs in Kufa,
he pressed ahead, declining alternative proposals that would have
ensured his safety. A few of his supporters succeeded in slipping out
of Ku& and joining up with his forces but others were arrested and the
vast majority of Kufans were overtaken with either terror of
'Ubaydu'llah's sword or greed for 'Ubaydu'llah's money and forgot
their pledges of support for Husayn.
  It fell to al-Hurr at-Tamimi, the young commander of a military
detachment numbering one thousand, to intercept Husayn's party as it
approached Kufa. Al-Hurr's instructions were to prevent Husayn
approaching any town or village in Iraq and he explained this to
Husayn. The latter replied by showing him the sackful of letters from
the people of Kufa that he had received. Seeing that al-Hurr's men
were overcome with thirst, Husayn magnanimously offered them water
from his party's supplies and later al-Hurr and his men lined up
behind Husayn as he led them In prayer.
  Eventually after negotiations Husayn agreed to proceed in a
direction away from Kufa while al-Hurr sent for further instructions.
Husayn's party travelled on, shadowed by al-Hurr's detachment until
they reached the plain of Karbala. It was the second day of Muharram
in the year AH 61 (2 October 680). On the following day some four
thousand men under 'Umar ibn Sa'd arrived with instructions from
'Ubaydu'llah that they should not allow Husayn to leave until he had
signed a pledge of allegiance to Yazid. Ibn Sa'd's men surrounded
Husayn's party and even cut them off from the river which was their
only source of water.
  Husayn began negotiations with Ibn Sa'd pointing out that he had no
desire to initiate bloodshed and asking to be allowed to withdraw to 


Arabia. But ibn Sa'd refused to relent, having been promised by
'Ubaydu'llah the governorship of Rayy if he accomplished his mission.
Meanwhile the situation in Husayn's camp was becoming desperate due to
shortage of water.
  Then 'Ubaydu'llah sent his final orders through Shimr (or Shamir).
ibn Sa'd was either to attack Husayn immediately or hand over command
to Shimr. On the evening of 9 Muharram, ibn Sa'd drew up his forces
and advanced them towards Husayn's camp, ready for battle the next
day. That night, Husayn addressed his companions, asking them to
withdraw and leave him to face the enemy. They refused to desert him.
  And so there dawned the fateful day of 10 Muharram AD 61 (10 October
680), which is known as 'Ashura.[4] At dawn Husayn once more
approached the camp of the Umayyads and addressed them with such
emotive words that several were visibly moved and al-Hurr at-Tamimi,
who had first intercepted Husayn, threw in his lot with Husayn's tiny
band and was one of the first to fall when the fighting began.[5]
  Husayn's companions on that day are traditionally said to have
numbered 72 armed men (18 of the family of 'Ali and 54 supporters) and
the women and children. The fighting appears to have been of a
sporadic nature consisting of single combat and brief forays. The
steady fire maintained by the Umayyad archers on Husayn's camp took
its own toll. One by one Husayn's supporters fell and then the members
of his family until only he and his half-brother 'Abbas, the standard-
bearer on that day, were left of the fighting men. 'Abbas was killed
trying to obtain water for the thirsty women and children and the army
converged on the lone figure of Husayn.
  Carrying his infant son in his arms, Husayn pleaded for water for
the babe but an arrow lodged in the baby's throat killing him. As the
troops closed around him, Husayn fought valiantly until at last he was
struck a severe blow that caused him to fall face down on the ground.
Even then the soldiers hesitated to deal the final blow to the
grandson of the Prophet until Shimr ordered them on, and, according to
some accounts himself came forward and struck the blow that ended
Husayn's life.
  The Umayyad army looted the tents, decapitated the bodies of all
Husayn's companions and raised these on spears to lead their
procession back to Kufa. The women and children who had been taken
prisoner included 'Ali, the only surviving son of Husayn, who had been
too ill to participate in the fighting.
  At Kufa 'Ubaydu'llah convened a great assembly and ordered the head
of Husayn to be brought to him on a tray and also the captives. When
the head was placed before him, 'Ubaydu'llah struck the lips with his
cane and taunted the captives. Some of those witnessing this scene


were intensely moved and one of them spoke up saying: 'Remove your
cane from those lips, for, by God, many a time have I seen the lips of
the Prophet of God on those lips.'[6]
  Zaynab, the sister of Husayn, bore herself with dignity and answered
'Ubaydu'llah firmly and fearlessly. At first, 'Ubaydu'llah wanted to
put 'Ali to death also, but Zaynab protested, saying: 'O ibn Ziyad!
You have spilt enough of our blood', and then she put her arms around
'Ali's neck and said: 'By God! I will not be parted from him, and so
if you are going to kill him, then kill me with him.'[7] And so
'Ubaydu'llah imprisoned the captives and after a while sent them on to
Damascus with the head of Husayn.
  At Damascus Yazid gloated over the head of Husayn and insulted 'Ali
and Zaynab. Later, however, no doubt fearing that a popular outcry
night threaten his throne, Yazid sought to appease the captives and
released them, allowing them to return to Medina.
  Thus ended the tragedy of Karbala. It has been given here in detail,
because, of all the episodes of Islamic history, it has had a greater
impact than any on the Shi'a down the ages. A brief consideration must
be given to the question of Husayn's intentions and ambitions in
setting out for Kufa. Some historians have dismissed it as mere
political adventuring that went wrong, but, of course, Shi'i
historians disagree.
  Husayn had received plenty of warning of the collapse of the Shi'i
revolt in Kufa as he approached Iraq. Indeed, the Shi'i histories
record that at one of the staging-posts on the journey, after
receiving grim news from Kufa, Husayn addressed his companions and
told them of the death and destruction that awaited them ahead. Husayn
could, at this point, have retired to Medina or even have accepted the
offer which was made to him of refuge in the mountain strongholds of
the Tayy tribe. However, he refused these courses of action and even
addressed his companions urging them to leave him as he pressed on
towards Kufa and certain destruction.
  S. H. M. Jafri, a modern Shi'i historian, has written:

  . . . it is clear that Husayn was fully aware of the dangers he
  would encounter and that he had a certain strategy and plan in
  mind to bring about a revolution in the consciousness of the
  Muslim community. Furthermore, it is also very clear from the
  sources, as has been stated before, that Husayn did not try to
  organise or mobilise military support, which he easily could have
  done in the Hijaz, nor did he even try to exploit whatever
  physical strength was available to him . . . Is it conceivable
  that anyone striving for power would ask his supporters to abandon
  him? . . . What then did Husayn have in mind? Why was he still
  heading for Kufa?
    It is rather disappointing to note that Western scholarship on
  Islam, given too much to historicism, has placed all its attention
  on the discrete external aspects of the event of Karbala and has
  never tried to analyse the inner history and agonising conflict in
  Husayn's mind . . . A careful study and analysis of the


  events of Karbala as a whole reveals the fact that from the very
  beginning Husayn was planning for a complete evolution in the
  religions consciousness of the Muslims. All of his actions show
  that he was aware of the fact that a victory achieved through
  military strength and might is always temporal [sic], because
  another stronger power can in course of time bring it down in
  ruins. But a victory achieved through suffering and sacrifice is
  everlasting and leaves permanent imprints on man's consciousness .
  . . The natural process of conflict and struggle between action
  and reaction was now at work. That is, Muhammad's progressive
  Islamic action had succeeded in suppressing Arab conservatism,
  embodied in heathen pre-Islamic practices and ways of thinking.
  But in less than thirty years' time this Arab conservatism
  revitalised itself as a forceful reaction to challenge Muhammad's
  action once again . . . The strength of this reaction, embodied in
  Yazid's character, was powerful enough to suppress or at least
  deface Muhammad's action. Islam was now, in the thinking of
  Husayn, in dire need of reactivation of Muhammad's action against
  the old Arabian reaction and thus required a complete shake-up . . 
   . . . . Husayn's acceptance of Yazid, with the latter's openly
  reactionary attitude against Islamic norms, would not have meant
  merely a political arrangement, as had been the case with Hasan
  and Mu'awiya, but an endorsement of Yazid's character and way of
  life as well . . . 
    . . . Husayn prepared his strategy . . . He realised that mere
  force of arms would not have saved Islamic action and
  consciousness. To him it needed a shaking and jolting of hearts
  and feelings. This, he decided, could only be achieved through
  sacrifice and sufferings. This should not be difficult to
  understand, especially for those who fully appreciate the heroic
  deeds and sacrifices of, for example, Socrates and Joan of Arc,
  both of whom embraced death for their ideals, and above all of the
  great sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the redemption of mankind.
    It is in this light that we should read Husayn's replies to
  those well-wishers who advised him not to go to Iraq. It also
  explains why Husayn took with him his women and children, though
  advised by ibn 'Abbas [his father's cousin] that should he insist
  on his project, at least he should not take his family with him.
  Aware of the extent of the brutal nature of the reactionary
  forces, Husayn knew that after killing him, the Umayyads would
  make his women and children captives and take them all the way
  from Kufa to Damascus. This caravan of captives of Muhammad's
  immediate family would publicise Husayn's message and would force
  the Muslims' hearts to ponder on the tragedy. It would make the
  Muslims think of the whole affair and would awaken their
  consciousness. This is exactly what happened. Husayn succeeded in
  his purpose. It is difficult today to evaluate exactly the impact
  of Husayn's action on Islamic morality and way of thinking,
  because it prevailed. Had Husayn not shaken and awakened Muslim
  consciousness by this method, who knows whether Yazid's way of
  life would have become standard behaviour in the Muslim community
  endorsed and accepted by the grandson of the Prophet. No doubt,
  even after Yazid kingship did prevail in Islam, and the character
  and behaviour personal lives of these kings was not very different
  from that of Yazid, but the change of thinking which prevailed
  after the sacrifice of Husayn always served as a line of
  distinction between Islamic norms and the personal character of
  the rulers.[8]

  It would be difficult to exaggerate the impact and importance of the
martyrdom of Husayn for Shi'is. Although it was the usurpation of


'Ali's rights that is looked upon by Shi'is as the event initiating
their movement and giving it intellectual justification, it was
Husayn's martyrdom that gave it its impetus and implanted its ideas
deep in the heart of the people. To this day it is the martyrdom of
Husayn that is the most fervently celebrated event in the Shi'i
calendar. During the first ten days of Muharram, the whole Shi'i world
is plunged into mourning. For details of the observances during this
time see pp. 240-43.
  Above all, the martyrdom of Husayn has given to Shi'i Islam a whole
ethos of sanctification through martyrdom. Although the Shi'is were
persecuted all through their early history and, according to their
traditions, every single one of the Imams suffered martyrdom, it is
above all the martyrdom of Husayn that has given this characteristic
to Shi'i Islam; a characteristic that recent events in Iran have
demonstrated to be as strong as ever.
  In his physical appearance, Husayn is said to have been very
handsome and strikingly like the Prophet himself. He was of medium
height with olive-brown skin and is said to have possessed great
serenity and charm.
  His body had more than thirty wounds from swords, lances and arrows
upon it and was then trampled under the hooves of the horses of ibn
Sa'd's troops. After the troops had left, some of the tribesmen from a
nearby village came and buried the bodies.
  In later years a shrine was built over this spot. The first shrine
was destroyed by the 'Abbasid Caliph Mutawakkil in 235/850 and the
site ploughed over. After the death of this Caliph, a shrine of some
sort was again erected but the bulk of the present shrine probably
dates from the time of 'Adudu'd-Dawla, the Buyid prince, 369/979. The
building was subjected to several further depredations including
having the dome burnt down in the 11th century and the whole town of
Karbala was sacked by the Wahhabis in 1801 and by the Ottoman army
under Najib Pasha in 1843. The last important restoration of the
shrine was carried out at the behest of Nasiru'd-Din Shah in the 1850s
when the dome was gilded and other important structural work carried
out. The enclosed are around the shrine is ca]led the Ha'ir and is
forbidden to non-believers.
  Apart from the Shrine of Husayn, Karbala contains the equally-
imposing Shrine of 'Abbas, the half-brother of Husayn, where 'Abbas
and the other members of the family of 'Ali are said to be buried. The
town of Karbala has, of course, become an important religious centre,
being both a point of pilgrimage and also a seat of learning with
numerous theological colleges.
  Until recent political changes made this impossible, it was
customary for important men in Iran to have their bodies brought to
Karbala to be buried there and enormous graveyards around the town
attest to this custom.

[Page 34 contains a chart.]


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

Abu Muhammad 'Ali ibn Husayn, known as Zaynu'l-'Abidin (the ornament
of the worshippers) and also by the titles as-Sajjad (the prostrator)
and az-Zaki (the pure), is regarded as the Fourth Imam by Twelver
Shi'is. He had been born in the year 38/658[9] in Medina. His father
was the Third Imam, Husayn, and, according to Shi'i tradition, his
mother was Shahrbanu, the daughter of Yazdigird, the last Sassanian
king of Iran.
  In the previous section it has already been related that 'Ali was
the only son of Husayn to survive the slaughter at Karbala because he
had been too weak and sick to fight. It has also been related that he
was sent a captive to Damascus and then freed by Yazid and allowed to
retire to Medina.
  Husayn's martyrdom in 61/680 had a profound effect on the Shi'a. In
Kufa, towards the end of the same year, a group of Shi'a began to meet
in order to discuss what they could do to atone for their failure to
come to Husayn's assistance. They elected as their leader Sulayman ibn
Surad to whom they gave the title Shaykhu'sh-Shi'a (the leader of the
Shi'a). Their movement, which became known as the Tawwabun (the
penitents) remained underground for four years. Then in 65/684 the
Tawwabun came into the open and 3,000 of them marched against an
Umayyad army of 30,000 and were killed.
  In 64/683, shortly before the Tawwabun uprising, Yazid the Umayyad
Caliph died. There followed the brief six-month reign of his sickly
son and then the Umayyads fell into disarray with factional fighting.
This created a chance for all those factions that had been opposed to
the Umayyads. In Kufa, the leaders of the different tribal factions
met and decided to invite 'Abdu'llah ibn Zubayr, who had already in
61/680 proclaimed his Caliphate in the Hijaz, to send his
representative to govern the city. Thus Iraq came under the rule of
ibn Zubayr. However, there also arrived in Kufa at this time Mukhtar
ath-Thaqafi who was advancing a propaganda among the Shi'is in favour
of Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya, the First Imam 'Ali's third 5011 by a
woman of the tribe of Hanifa (i.e. not by Fatima, the daughter of the
Prophet). The Tawwabun who were about to set off on the road to
martyrdom refused to ally themselves with Mukhtar, but after their
defeat Mukhtar's cause grew as there was no alternative leadership
among the Shi'a of Kufa. Eventually, in 66/686, Mukhtar was strong
enough to seize possession of Kufa.
  Whereas the Tawwabun and indeed Shi'ism itself had been primarily an
Arab movement up to this time, Mukhtar was the first to mobilise for
the Shi'i cause the large numbers of Iranians who, in the social


of the Islamic Empire, held an inferior status as Mawali (clients of
the Arab tribes). Mukhtar in his propaganda emphasised the role of ibn
al-Hanafiyya as the Mahdi (the rightly-guided one) who would deliver
the Muslims from oppression and restore justice. Mukhtar's uprising
was put down in 67/686 or 68/687 and Mukhtar himself killed, but the
propaganda on behalf of ibn al-Hanafiyya continued, and when the
latter died in 81/700 a group of his followers considered that he had
not died at all but had gone into occultation and would return.
Mukhtar and the supporters of ibn al-Hanafiyya were thus the first to
bring into prominence two key ideas that were' henceforth to be of
great importance in the development of Shi'i thought; the idea of
Mahdi and the concept of occultation and return.
  During these turbulent years, the Fourth Imam Zaynu'l-'Abidin kept
very much in the background, not involving himself in the politics and
upheavals of the period. So completely did he set himself apart from
an active role that neither 'Abdu'llah ibn Zubayr nor later al-Hajjaj,
when he defeated 'Abdu'llah, felt it necessary to place any
restriction on Zaynu'l-'Abidin's movements nor to extract from him any
pledge of obedience.
  From what is recorded of Zaynu'l-'Abidin's life, it would appear
that he led a very secluded pious life with only a handful of close
associates. It is recorded that he spent a great deal of time weeping
over the martyrs of Karbala. His name as-Sajjad (the prostrator) bore
witness to the numerous times that he prostrated himself before God
and it is said that the resulting calluses on his forehead needed to
be shaved down twice a year.
  Although he kept himself apart from the people and although much of
the support of the Shi'is was diverted to Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya,
there is no doubt that Zaynu'l-'Abidin was held in great respect by
all. Several leading jurists of the time, such as az-Zuhri and Sa'id
ibn al-Musayyib, were counted among his close associates. As for
followers and disciples, it is difficult to be sure of their number.
It seems fairly certain that there were hardly any until the collapse
of Mukhtar's revolt and the end of ibn Zubayr's Caliphate in 73/692.
There is, however, the famous story told that when Hisham, the son of
the Caliph 'Abdu'l-Malik came on pilgrimage to Mecca, he found that
because of the crowds, he was unable to approach the Ka'ba but, to his
annoyance, the crowd parted allowing another to approach with ease.
When he asked who it was for whom the crowd parted so respectfully
while he, the son of the Caliph, was ignored, he was told it was
Zaynu'l-'Abidin. It is also reported that the Caliph 'Abdu'l-Malik
brought Zaynu'l-'Abidin to Damascus and held him in prison briefly.
 According to various sources, Zaynu'l-'Abidin died in 94/712 or 95/


713 aged either fifty-seven or fifty-eight. He was buried in al-Baqi'
cemetery. According to Shi'i historians he was poisoned on the orders
of the reigning Caliph, Walid, or his brother Hisham.

Muhammad al-Baqir, the Fifth Imam

Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn 'Ali, known as al-Baqir ('the splitter-open'
i.e. of knowledge; also said to mean 'the ample' in knowledge) was
born in 57/676. His mother, Fatima, was a daughter of the Second Imam
Hasan. Thus, al-Baqir joined in himself the two lines of descent from
Fatima and 'Ali. He was about thirty-seven years of age when his
father died.
  Like his father, Muhammad al-Baqir was politically quiescent and
refrained from openly putting forward any claim. As during his
father's time with ibn al-Hanafiyya, there was a rival claimant for
the allegiance of the Shi'is during al-Baqir's time. This was al-
Baqir's half-brother Zayd, who advocated a more politically active
role for the Imam and was prepared to accommodate to a certain extent
the view-point of the majority of Muslims by acknowledging the
Caliphates of Abu Bakr and 'Umar and by accepting their legal
  It is reported that the Caliph Hisham summoned al-Baqir and his son
Ja'far to Damascus and debated with them concerning the question of
whether 'Ali, the First Imam, possessed knowledge of the unseen ('ilm
al-ghayb). Hisham is said to have been defeated in argument and to
have sent al-Baqir home.
 Pressed by the rival claim of Zayd, al-Baqir emphasised the doctrine
of nass (specific designation of an Imam by the preceding Imam, see p.
153). However, al-Baqir's supporters and disciples were in a minority
compared with those of Zayd and of Abu Hashim, the son of ibn al-
Hanafiyya.  A further important development during this period, as
seen in the Shi'i sources, was the beginning of an independent stance
by the Shi'is on matters of law and ritual practices. The Shi'is began
to rely only on the guidance of their Imams on these matters and to
reject the rulings of 'Umar and other Traditionists on whom the rest
of the Muslim world was becoming dependent.
  As with the other Imams, Shi'is claim al-Baqir as a martyr but there
is no concurrence as to the manner of his death, some saying he was
poisoned by Hisham, others that it was Ibrahim ibn Walid who arranged
his death. There is also a wide discrepancy regarding the date of
death with variations from 114/732 to 126/743. Most sources appear to
settle for 117/735 but this would preclude one historian's account of
how al-Baqir warned Zayd against his open revolt which occurred in


He was about fifty-seven years old at the time of his death and lies
buried at al-Baqi' cemetery in Medina.

Ja'far as-Sadiq, the Sixth Imam

Abu 'Abdu'llah Ja'far ibn Muhammad known by the title as-Sadiq (the
truthful) was the eldest son of Muhammad al-Baqir, while his mother
was a great-granddaughter of the first Caliph, Abu Bakr. His date of
birth is variously given as 80/699, 83/702 or 86/705. He was therefore
about thirty-seven years old when his father died.
 Apart from the First Imam 'Ali, no other Imam of the Twelver line
achieved as great a renown in the Muslim world for piety and learning
as Ja'far as-Sadiq did in his own lifetime. Many of those who sat in
as-Sadiq's circle of students later went on to become renowned
scholars and jurists. Abu Hanifa, the founder of the Hanafi School of
Law in Sunni Islam, is said to have been one of his students, and
Malik ibn Anas, the founder of the Maliki School of Law, was also
evidently closely associated with as-Sadiq and transmitted Traditions
from him. However, it must not be imagined that more than a few of the
thousands of students who are reported to have studied under as-Sadiq
were Shi'is or accepted his claim to the Imamate. Indeed, it cannot be
certain that he openly advanced such a claim.
  During as-Sadiq's Imamate there were stirring events throughout the
Muslim world. The Shi'a of this time appear to have been desperately
looking for any 'Alid (descendant of 'Ali--see Glossary) who could
establish his authority and take over the Caliphate. Thus they
supported, in turn: Zayd's revolt in 122/740; the rebellion of
'Abdu'llah ibn Mu'awiya (a descendant of Ja'far, 'Ali's brother) in
127/744; the 'Abbasid rising beginning in 129/747, which received a
great deal of Shi'i support, at least while the real purpose of the
rising was concealed under the claim to be acting for 'one who shall
be chosen from the family of the Prophet'; and the revolt of Muhammad
an-Nafs az-Zakiyya (the pure soul) in 145/762 against the 'Abbasids.
Throughout all these turbulent events, as-Sadiq followed the policy of
his father and grandfather and remained politically quietist. Even
when Abu Salama, the political leader of the 'Abbasid revolt,
reportedly offered him the Caliphate, as-Sadiq declined it.
  The Imamate of as-Sadiq may be said to consist of two parts. During
the first part, while the Umayyads were in power, as-Sadiq taught
quietly in Medina and succeeded in establishing his considerable
reputation during this phase he was relatively free from molestation
by the authorities. Once the 'Abbasids came to power, and particularly
during the reign of the second 'Abbasid Caliph, al-Mansur, as-Sadiq


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

Musa al-Kazim, the Seventh Imam

The Seventh Imam of the Twelver Shi'is was Abu'l-Hasan Musa ibn Ja'far
known as al-Kazim (the forbearing). He was born in 128/745 (or
according to other accounts 120/737 or 129/746) on the road between
Mecca and Medina. His mother was a Berber slave called Hamida. He was
about twenty years of age at the time of his father's death.
  The first years of his Imamate were concerned with a dispute over
the succession to the Imamate. It appears that most of the followers
of as-Sadiq were expecting the latter's eldest son, Isma'il, whose
mother was a granddaughter of Zaynu'l-'Abidin, the Fourth Imam, to
succeed to the Imamate. Then Isma'il died during his father's lifetime
and Musa's followers claimed that as-Sadiq had then designated Musa,
but there was some confusion among the ranks of Shi'a. Although for
later generations, the most important group that split off at this
time were those who considered the Imamate transferred from Isma'il to
Muhammad, Isma'il's son (i.e. the Isma'ilis), it would appear from the
reports that Musa was most strongly challenged by the claim of
'Abdu'llah al-Aftah, the oldest surviving son of as-Sadiq. A number of
influential followers of as-Sadiq are recorded to have at first
followed 'Abdu'llah and then later changed their allegiance to Musa.
  Throughout the whole of his life, Musa was faced with hostility and
harassment from the 'Abbasid Caliphs. During the Caliphate of al-
Mansur which overlapped with the first ten years of Musa's Imamate,
the opposition was not so intense, but then came the ten years of the


Caliphate of al-Mahdi. Spies were planted in Medina to watch for any
sign of disloyalty emanating from Musa, and at least once during this
period he was arrested, brought to Baghdad and imprisoned for a while.
It was, however, during the Caliphate of Harun ar-Rashid that the
persecution of 'Alids reached a climax. This Caliph is reported to
have had hundreds of 'Alids killed. On one occasion Musa was arrested
and brought to Baghdad. The Caliph was determined on his execution but
then set him free as a result, it is said, of a dream.
  In the last half of Musa's lifetime, many of the Shi'is who had
split off from him at the beginning of his ministry returned their
allegiance to him. New followers were gained and important new centres
established in Egypt and north-west Africa.
  The cause of Musa's final arrest and murder is said to have been the
result of the plotting of Harun ar-Rashid's vizier Yahya ibn Khalid of
the Barmaki family. When Harun put his son and heir Amin into the
charge of Ja'far ibn Muhammad of the al-Ash'ath family, Yahya grew
fearful that when Harun died, the influence of the Barmaki family
would come to an end, and so he began to plot against Ja'far ibn
Muhammad. Ja'far was secretly a Shi'i and a believer in the Imamate of
Musa and so Yahya began to feed information to Harun about the fact
that Ja'far considered Musa to be the real sovereign and sent him the
khums (see p. 179). These reports were designed to raise the wrath of
the jealous and easily-influenced Caliph and to that end a relative of
Musa's was suborned into giving further evidence about the influence
of Musa and how money came to him from all parts of the Empire.
  That year, 177/793, when Rashid went on pilgrimage, he caused Musa
to be arrested and sent him to Basra and then to Baghdad. There, Musa
was kept in prison and eventually killed by poisoning. This occurred
in the year 183/799.
  Since there were rumours among the Shi'a that Musa, the Seventh
Imam, would also be the last Imam and would not die but would be the
Mahdi, Harun made a public display of Musa's body in Baghdad (this was
also to show people there were no marks on his body and that he had
not met a violent death). Musa al-Kazim was buried in the cemetery of
the Quraysh.
  In later years the Shrine of Musa al-Kazim and of his grandson, the
Ninth Imam Muhammad at-Taqi, became the centre of a separate suburb of
Baghdad called Kazimayn (the two Kazims) and a shrine has stood over
the site of these graves since the time of the Buyid dynasty. The
present magnificent shrine dates from the early 16th century when it
was built by Shah Isma'il, the Safavid ruler of Iran. The domes were
tiled with gold in 1796 by Agha Muhammad Shah, the first of the Qajar
dynasty of Iran. They were later retiled by Nasiru'd-Din


Shah in the 1850s and most recently in the last decade by the Iraqi

'Ali ar-Rida, the Eighth Imam

Abu'l-Hasan 'Ali ibn Musa, known as ar-Rida (the approved or
acceptable) was born in Medina in 148/765. Various names are given to
his mother in the historical sources but what is certain is that she
was a slave. He was thirty-five years old when his father died.
  It was during the Imamate of ar-Rida that the Caliph Harun ar-Rashid
died and the Empire was split between his two sons: Amin, who was born
of an Arab mother and controlled Iraq and the West with his Arab
vizier al-Fadl ibn Rabi'; and Ma'mun, who was born of a Persian mother
and controlled Iran and the East with his Iranian vizier, al-Fadl ibn
Sahl. Amin attempted to interfere with the arrangements for the
succession that had been agreed upon and soon there was a civil war in
which Amin was defeated and Ma'mun's army under the Iranian General,
Tahir occupied Baghdad. Ma'mun, however, remained for the time being
in Marv in Khurasan.
  It was at this point that Ma'mun suddenly and somewhat unexpectedly
summoned 'Ali ar-Rida from Medina to join him at Marv. On ar-Rida's
arrival he was appointed, somewhat reluctantly it is said, to be
Ma'mun's heir-apparent.
  There has been much conjecture as to what caused Ma'mun to adopt
this course of action. Some have suggested that the revolts in the
West of the Empire some of them under a Shi'i banner led by Zaydi
Imams--were becoming serious and this was a political move designed to
give Ma'mun the support of a body of the Shi'a and a respite. Some
have suggested that it was the work of his powerful vizier, al-Fadl
ibn Sahl, who had Shi'i proclivities.
  It was while ar-Rida was in Marv that his sister, Fatima, known as
Ma'suma (the immaculate) set out from Medina to see him. She died at
Qumm en route and it is her shrine which is the religious focus of the
city of Qumm. Qumm had been founded as a Shi'i town when, in 94/712,
Ahwas ibn Sa'd al-Ash'ari had fled from Kufa as a result of the
persecutions of Shi'is being carried out by the Umayyad Governor, al-
Hajjaj. The present imposing shrine was constructed mainly by Shah
Bigum, the daughter of Shah Isma'il, in 925/1519 and additions were
made throughout the Safavid and Qajar eras. Gold tiles were placed on
the roof by the Qajar monarch Fath 'Ali Shah. A number of the most
important theological colleges in the Shi'i world have grown up around
this shrine.
  Whatever may have been the cause of Ma'mun's nomination of ar-Rida


(which occurred in the year 201/816 there can be no doubt that it
caused a great stir. Everywhere the black standards and uniforms of
the 'Abbasids were changed to the green of the 'Alids. In Iraq, the
'Abbasid family rebelled and set up a rival Caliph.
  In order to quell these rebellions, Ma'mun set out with his court
and army towards Iraq. At Tus, on the way to Iraq, 'Ali ar-Rida
suddenly took sick and died. The year was 203/818. The suddenness of
his death has caused most writers to state that he was poisoned and
the Shi'i writers accuse the Caliph Ma'mun of doing this out of
jealousy for the affection with which the people held ar-Ri,da, but
there were other parties, especially the deposed 'Abbasids, who had
reason to hate ar-Rida.
 'Ali ar-Rida was buried near the tomb of Harun ar-Rashid near Tus. A
tomb was built over the grave but this was destroyed and the present
building dates from the early 14th century AD when the Mongol Sultan
Muhammad Oljeitu converted to Shi'ism and rebuilt the shrine. Most of
the elaborate decorative work dates from Safavid and Qajar times and
gold tiles were placed on the roof by Shah 'Abbas I (completed in
1016/1607). In AD 1673 an earthquake destroyed the dome of the
building and this was repaired by the Safavid Shah Sulayman. The city
of Tus was forgotten and a new city called Mashhad (place of
martyrdom) grew around the shrine. Shi'i pilgrims flock to this site
and there is a prescribed ritual for the pilgrimage. Adjacent to the
shrine itself is another magnificent building which is the Mosque of
Gawhar-Shad, the wife of Shah-Rukh (see p. 98). This building,
completed in 797/1394, is one of the finest in Iran. A number of
theological colleges have been built around the shrine, the most
famous of which is that of Mirza Ja'far Khan.

Muhammad at-Taqi, the Ninth Imam

Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn 'Ali, known by the titles at-Taqi (the God-
fearing) and al-Jawad (the generous), was born in 195/810. There are
differences as to the identity of his mother but most sources seem to
state that she was a Nubian slave. Muhammad at-Taqi's father 'Ali ar-
Rida had been married to Ma'mun's daughter but no children resulted
from that marriage.
  Muhammad at-Taqi was born in Medina and remained there when his
father went to join Ma'mun in far-off Marv. He was only seven years
old when his father died and he succeeded to the Imamate. His youth
became a cause of controversy among the Shi'a, some asking how such a
boy could have the necessary knowledge to be the Imam. Shi'i writers
have countered such suggestions by relating numerous stories about his
extraordinary knowledge at a young age and by referring to the fact


the Qur'an states that Jesus was given his mission while still a
child.  The Caliph Ma'mun had changed his colour from the 'Alid green
back to the 'Abbasid black shortly after arriving in Baghdad but he
maintained his friendly attitude towards the Shi'is and the 'Alids and
Muhammad at-Taqi was to benefit greatly from this.
  Muhammad at-Taqi had apparently come to Baghdad shortly after his
father's death and had been warmly received by Ma'mun who was greatly
impressed with the boy. Ma'mun decided to give his daughter Umm al-
Fadl in marriage to at-Taqi Members of the 'Abbasid family were
opposed to this but it is related that Muhammad at-Taqi proved his
worth in public debate with one of the leading scholars of Baghdad. A
magnificent wedding was arranged. It has been suggested that a revolt
in the important Shi'i centre of Qumm, which began in 210/825 and
flared up again in 214/829 and 216/831, caused Ma'mun to arrange this
wedding in order to placate Shi'i sentiment.[12] But it would appear
that Ma'mun had little to fear from this revolt.
  After eight years in Baghdad, Muhammad at-Taqi and his bride retired
to Medina. Some of the histories report that Umm al-Fadl was not
altogether happy as at-Taqi's wife and wrote to her father complaining
but the Caliph defended at-Taqi.
  Ma'mun died in 218/833 and was succeeded by his brother, Mu'tasim.
Muhammad at-Taqi was summoned back to Baghdad in 220/835 and he died
there in that same year. Since most Shi'i writers have felt it
necessary to demonstrate that all the Imams were martyred, they have
attributed at-Taqi's death to poisoning by his wife, Umm al-Fadl, on
the instigation of Mu'tasim. However, there is little evidence of this
and Shi'i writers differ among themselves as to how the poisoning was
accomplished. Moreover, early Shi'i writers, such as Shaykh al-Mufid
have declined to give credence to the story of the poisoning.[13]
  Muhammad at-Taqi was buried in the cemetery of the Quraysh at
Baghdad, close to his grandfather. The grave is now contained in the
double shrine of Kazimayn.

'Ali al-Hadi, the Tenth Imam

Abu'l-Hasan 'Alii ibn Muhammad, who is known by the titles al-Hadi
(the guided) and an-Naqi (the distinguished), was born in 212/827 or
214/829 in Medina. His mother was a Moroccan slave called Samana. He
was seven years old when his father died. Once again the Shi'is were
faced with the problem of a child Imam.
  During the remaining years of the Caliphate of Mu'tasim and the
five-year Caliphate of Wathiq, al-Hadi and the Shi'is were relatively
free and unmolested. All this was to change, however, with the
Caliphate of


Mutawakkil which began in 232/847. During this reign, both Shi'is and
Mu'tazilis (see Glossary) came under an intense persecution.  In
233/848 Mutawakkil summoned al-Hadi to Samarra, the new 'Abbasid
capital north of Baghdad. Although received hospitably and given a
house in which to live, al-Hadi was in reality a prisoner of the
Caliph. The quarter of the city where al-Hadi lived was known as al-
'Askar since it was chiefly occupied by the army ('askar) and,
therefore al-Hadi and his son Hasan are both referred to as 'Askari or
together as 'Askariyayn (the two 'Askaris). Al-Hadi lived in Samarra
for twenty years, always under the observation of the Caliph's spies.
It is reported that at least once Mutawakkil attempted to kill al-Hadi
but was frustrated by a miracle. Al-Hadi continued to live in Samarra
after the death of Mutawakkil in 247/861 and during the brief reign of
Muntasir and the four-year reign of Musta'in until his death in
254/868 during the Caliphate of Mu'tazz. Real power was, by this time,
in the hands of the Turkish Generals of the Caliphs and so it is
difficult to see what advantage there would have been to the Caliph in
poisoning the Imam as most Shi'i histories claim. Shaykh al-Mufid,
among the early Shi'i writers, does not state that the Imam was
  'Ali al-Hadi and his son Hasan al-'Askari are buried in the twin
shrines called 'Askariyayn in Samarra. The first substantial building
over this site was constructed by Nasiru'd-Dawla the Hamdanid ruler of
Mosul in 333/944. The building was enlarged and ornamentation added by
the Buyids and Safavids and the dome was gilded by Nasiru'd-Din Shah
Qajar in about 1868.

Hasan al-'Askari, the Eleventh Imam

The Eleventh Imam was Abu Muhammad Hasan ibn 'Ali, known as al-'Askari
on account of his almost life-long detention in Samarra. He was born
in 232/846 (or 230/844 or 231/845) in Medina and was therefore only
two years of age when his father was summoned to Samarra. His mother
was a slave who is named as Hadith.
  Hasan al-'Askari was twenty-two years old when his father gave him a
slave-girl who is usually called Narjis or Saqil and who is named as
the mother of Muhammad, the Twelfth Imam.
  The period of Hasan's Imamate was brief, only six years. During this
time he was under intense pressure from the 'Abbasids and access to
him for his followers was restricted. He therefore tended to use
agents to communicate with the Shi'is who followed him.
  Hasan al-'Askari died on either 1 or 8 Rabi' al-Awwal 260 (25
December 873 or 1 January 874). The Shi'i histories maintain that he
was poisoned by the Caliph Mu'tamid.


Muhammad al-Mahdi, the Twelfth Imam

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


The traditional accounts of the history of the Shi'a are mostly a
recital of the various sects that split off from the main body of the
Shi'a at different times, starting from the time of 'Ali. It is
difficult to determine how many of these sects really existed as
historical entities and how many are inventions of later writers. What
is certain is that even if these sects did exist, the majority died
out within a century. A few have survived to the present day and a
brief description of the later developments of these sects is given
  In considering the traditional account of these sects, it would be
useful to examine briefly a number of general terms used about them as
these terms crop up frequently in the following accounts:
a. Ghulat (the extremists) and Ghuluww (extremism): those sects which
hold either the opinion that any particular person is God or that any
person is a prophet after Muhammad, are called by this title. Certain
other doctrines such as tanasukh (transmigration of souls), hulul
(descent of God or the Spirit of God into a person) and tashbih
(anthropomorphism with respect to God) are also usually ascribed to
these groups. They are generally considered to be outside the pale of
b. Waqifa or Waqifiyya (those who hesitate or stop). This term is
applied to any group who deny or hesitate over the death of a
particular Imam and, therefore, stop at that Imam and refuse to
recognise any further Imams. Most often it refers specifically to the
group considering Musa al-Kazim to be the last Imam.
c. Qat'iyya (those who are certain). This term applies to those who
are certain of a death of a particular Imam and therefore go on to the
next Imam.


During the Caliphate of 'Ali

1. The Saba'iyya

'Abdu'llah ibn Saba al-Himyari, a semi-legendary figure known as ibn
as-Sawda, is generally considered to have started the tendency to
ghuluww (extremism in matters of doctrine). He is said to have been a
Jew converted to Islam. He is described as a devoted follower of 'Ali
and during 'Uthman's Caliphate travelled from place to place agitating
in 'Ali's favour. Indeed, he is considered by some Sunni writers as
the originator of Shi'ism itself, although on account of his extremism
this is considered by Shi'is as a mere During 'Ali's
Caliphate, however, he was banished by 'Ali to Mada'in on account of
his saying to 'Ali: 'Thou art God.' According to manly accounts
moreover, 'Ali even caused some of the followers of ibn Saba to be
  After the assassination of 'Ali, 'Abdu'llah ibn Saba is said to have
stated that he had not died at all. He was alive in the clouds and
would return to fill the earth with justice.[17] If these reports are
true, the Saba'iyya would be, within the traditional schema, the first
group of Waqifiyya[18] and the first to have introduced the doctrines
of ghayba (occultation or concealment) and raj'a (return).[19]
However, the doctrine for which Ibn-Saba is best remembered and which
caused Muslim writers to account him as one of the ghulat is his
attribution of divinity to Ali (and according to some sources, his own
claim to be the prophet of  Groups who were active at a later period
but who are considered to have been derived from the Saba'iyya are:
a. 'Ulyaniyya or 'Alya'iyya named after 'Ulyan (or 'Alya) ibn Dhira'
as-Sadusi (or ad-Dawsi or al-Asdi) who appear to have been active
around AD 800 and are also called adh-Dhammiyya (the blamers) because
they stated that 'Ali was God with Muhammad as his Apostle and that
Muhammad was to be blamed in that he was sent to call the people to
'Ali but called them to himself. Others of this group assigned
divinity to both Muhammad and 'Ali.
b. Ishaqiyya or Hamrawiyya named after Ishaq ibn Muhammad an-Nakha'i
al-Ahmar of Kufa, who died in 186/802. This group evidently had close
links with the previous group as Ishaq is named as the leading
dogmatist of the previous group by some writers.[20] They stressed
that both Muhammad and 'Ali were divine and shared in the prophethood.
c. Muhammadiyya or Mimiyya. This sect are a counterpart to the
'Ulyaniyya and stressed the divinity of Muhammad. Their leading
champion was al-Fayyad. d. Ahl-i Haqq ('Ali Ilahis, 'Aliyu'llahis).
The 'Ulyaniyya are


traditionally linked to a Shi'i sect that has survived to the present
day, the 'Aliyu'llahis as the Ahl-i Haqq are often erroneously called.
The historical connection is however tenuous and the Ahl-i Haqq sect
appear to have originated among the tribes in the Qara-Quyunlu Empire
in the 15th century. There is no uniform set of beliefs among the Ahl-
i Haqq. Rather they form a loose network of groups each with its own
beliefs. The twelve Imams of the Twelver line are revered but are not
central to their beliefs. Their organisation and rituals are not
unlike those of the Sufi orders. They are most numerous among the
Kurds in west Iran and among the Turkomans and Kurds in north Iraq
(especially around Sulaymaniyya and Kirkuk) and south-east Turkey.

    After the Martyrdom of Husayn

    2. The Kaysaniyya

The Kaysaniyya began (see p. 35) as a movement started by Mukhtar ibn
Abu 'Ubayd ath-Thaqafi claiming to represent Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya
(the son of 'Ali by a Hanafi woman). The name is thought to be derived
from Kaysan, the leader of th Mawali under Mukhtar.
  Mukhtar himself is said to have taught that the Imamate was
transferred to Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya after Husayn. Doctrinally the
Kaysaniyya stood halfway between the later Zaydi and Twelver positions
concerning the nature of the Imamate in that while denying nass
(designation) and emphasising that the Imam's claim is based on his
personal qualifications, they also stressed the innate supernatural
knowledge of the Imam. Mukhtar is said to have introduced the doctrine
of bada (changeability of God's will) when he was defeated in a battle
that he had prophesied he would win.
The Kaysaniyya survived the defeat and death of Mukhtar but after the
death of ibn al-Hanafiyya himself they split up into a number of

a. Karibiyya, named after Abu Karib ad-Darir; this group held to the
doctrines of ghayba (concealment) and raj'a (return). They considered
that ibn al-Hanafiyya had not died but was concealed on Mount Rawda
(some seven days' journey from Medina) and would return to fill the
earth with justice. Because they believed that prior
to the return of the Imam, the drawing of swords was forbidden, they
fought with sticks and were therefore called the Khashabiyya. Two of
the most famous of Arab poets belonged to this sect, Sayyid al-Himyari
and Kuthayyir.

b. Hashimiyya, who held that ibn al-Hanafiyya did die and that he
taught all of his knowledge to his son, Abu Hashim, to whom the
Imamate passed. This sect is said to have introduced the allegorical


interpretation of the Qur'an and the idea that beneath the zahir
(exoteric) there is a batin (esoteric meaning).
Abu Hashim died in Humayma (Palestine) in about 98/717. Upon his death
several further factions arose.

c. 'Abbasiyya. The 'Abbasids originally claimed that Abu Hashim passed
the Imamate on to Muhammad ibn 'Ali (the great-grandson of 'Abbas, the
uncle of the Prophet) at his death-bed in Humayma and that the Imamate
was transferred to the descendants of 'Abbas. Thus initially the
'Abbasid propaganda was in reality a branch of the Hashimiyya. Later,
once the 'Abbasids had overthrown the Umayyads and assumed the
Caliphate, they changed the basis of their claim to the Caliphate
by stating that 'Abbas was the rightful successor to the Prophet.

d. Rawandiyya. Despite this change of emphasis by the 'Abbasids
following their overthrow of the Umayyads, there remained a sect
called the Rawandiyya who believed in the Imamate of the 'Abbasids and
it is even said that some of them believed in the divinity of al-
Mansur, the second 'Abbasid Caliph. However, the 'Abbasids, wishing to
secure a more orthodox basis for their Caliphate, found such
a heterodox movement extremely embarrassing and al-Mansur is even
reported to have had some of the sect killed.

e. Rizamiyya or Muslimiyya. There is also recorded a group called in
one source the Rizamiyya after Rizam ibn Razm.[21] What appears to
have been an almost identical sect is called Muslimiyya in another
source.[22] This sect considered Abu Muslim, the 'Abbasid General, as
having inherited the Imamate from 'Abdu'llah as-Saffah, the first
'Abbasid Caliph, and some of the heresiographers include this
group among the ghulat on account of their believing in Abu Muslim's
divinity or claiming that he was greater in rank than Gabriel. In any
case, this sect did not believe Abu Muslim had died but rather that he
was in concealment and would return to fill the earth with justice.
One writer calls the sect Barkukiyya and asserts that they were to be
found in Herat and Marv and that they believed that the man who was
killed by al-Mansur was not Abu Muslim but a devil who took on his
shape.[23] What appears to be the same sect is called in other sources
the Khurramiyya, Khurramdiniyya and Ishaqiyya. They were active in
Khurasan and Transoxania and are linked in several sources with
Zoroastrianism and Mazdakism (the Ishaqiyya, for example, were held to
believe that Abu Muslim was in fact a prophet sent by Zoroaster to
revive his religion).

A group of this sect under the leadership of Hashim ibn Hakim al-
Muqanna' (the veiled one) arose in revolt in 159/775 during the reign
of the Caliph al-Mahdi. They believed that God had existed in the form
of all the prophets from Adam to Muhammad and then in 'Ali and his
sons and finally in Abu Muslim from whom it had
passed to al-Muqanna'.[24]


This group were called Muqanniyya or Mubayyada and are considered part
of a wider belief in the descent of the spirit of God into the form of
a man which is called Hululiyya.

f. Al-Kaysaniyya al-Khullas or Mukhtariyya. This group considered the
Imamate to be passed down among Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya's
descendants: from Abu Hashim to his brother, 'Ali, and to 'Ali's son,
Hasan, and to Hasan's son, 'Ali. The mothers of this succession of
Imams were also descendants of ibn al-Hanafiyya.

g. Bayaniyya. The followers of Bayan ibn Sam'an at-Tamimi who
maintained that the divinity passed from 'Ali to his sons and then
through Abu Hashim to Bayan. Among the beliefs attributed to this
group are anthropomorphism with respect to God. Bayan's relationship
with the Fifth Imam, Muhammad al-Baqir, appears to have varied quite
markedly. At one time he is reported to have been advancing claims of
a ghuluww nature with respect to al-Baqir; at another time he is
reported to have sent a message summoning al-Baqir to accept his
prophethood. Bayan was put to death by Khalid ibn 'Abdu'llah al-Qasri,
Hisham's governor in Iraq.

After the Imamate of Zaynu'l-'Abidin

3. The Zaydiyya

Zayd, the son of the Fourth Imam, Zaynu'l-'Abidin, asserted a claim to
the Imamate on the basis that it belonged to any descendant of 'Ali
and Fatima who is learned, pious and comes forward openly to claim the
Imamate (i.e. raises a revolt). Zayd is said to have studied under
Wasil ibn 'Ata, the reputed founder of the Mu'tazila (see p. 77ff.),
and so the Zaydiyya came to incorporate Mu'tazili theology and a large
number of this school joined the movement. In order to widen the basis
of his support yet further, some Zaydis propounded the doctrine of
Imamat al-Mafdul--that it was possible for a man of lesser excellence
to be appointed Imam during the lifetime of a man of greater
excellence. Through this doctrine, they justified the Caliphates of
Abu Bakr and 'Umar stating that these were matters of expediency
while 'Ali was of greater excellence. A corollary of this was the
acceptance that the companions of the Prophet were not blame-worthy or
sinful in rejecting 'Ali (an important point for the Traditionists who
depended on the authority of these companions for the transmission of
the Traditions).
  Zayd and his half-brother, the Fifth Imam Muhammad al-Baqir, came to
open disagreement over several points of doctrine. Initially, Zayd's
activist approach attracted many of the Shi'is, but later as Zayd
compromised more and more with the Traditionists many of the Shi'a
turned their backs on him and returned to al-Baqir.


 Zayd raised his revolt in Safar 122/January 740 but was unsuccessful
and was killed in Kufa by the Caliph Hisham. Zayd's son, Yahya, then
fled to Khurasan and started a revolt there but was overcome and
killed in 125/743.
  Since the Zaydis recognised no designation for the Imamate nor any
strict hereditary principle (beyond the fact that the Imam must be of
the descendants of Hasan and Husayn), a number of other revolts are
held to be Zaydi rebellions. The first of these was that of Muhammad
ibn 'Abdu'llah, An-Nafs az-Zakiyya (the pure soul) who was descended
from Hasan. He claimed the Imamate and rose in rebellion against the
'Abbasid Caliphal-Mansur. He was killed in 145/762. After his death, a
number of his followers, called the Muhammadiyya, said that he had not
been killed but was in concealment and would return to fill the earth
with justice. Those who accepted the death of an-Nafs az-Zakiyya
transferred the Imamate to Muhammad ibn al-Qasim, one of the
descendants of the Imam Husayn, who lived in Talaqan. He was arrested
on the orders of the Caliph Mu'tasim in 219/834 and died in prison,
although some of his followers in Daylam and Tabaristan (north Iran)
continued to await his return. An even later revolt which is
considered to be in the line of Zaydiyya is that of Yahya ibn 'Umar
who was of Husaynid descent. He arose in rebellion during the
Caliphate of Musta'in and was killed in 250/864. The same year, Hasan
ibn Zayd succeeded in founding a Zaydi state in Tabaristan in north
Iran. A few decades later in 301/913, Hasan ibn 'Ali al-Utrush, Nasir
al-Haqq, a Zaydi Imam, made his way to Daylam and Gilan in north Iran
where the people had resisted the adoption of Islam. Here he was
successful in converting the people to Zaydi Shi'ism and a succession
of 'Alid Zayd rulers ruled over them until about 424/1032. In 288/901
another Zaydi state was established in Yemen, centred on Sa'da and, in
more modern times, in San'a. This state, although over-run on numerous
occasions during its history, managed to retain its Zaydi identity and
on the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War,
the Zaydi Imam, Yahya al-Mutawakkil, succeeded in bringing the area
under his control and establishing a Zaydi state which survived until
a revolution in 1962. Thus this sect has survived to the present day.
In its early history it was, however, recorded as having divided into
a number of sub-groups:
a. Jarudiyya. This group of the Zaydiyya named after Abu'l-Jarud Ziyad
ibn Abi Ziyad, was opposed to the approval of the companions of the
Prophet. They held that although there was no specific designation of
'Ali by the Prophet, there was
a sufficient description given so that all should have recognised him.
They therefore considered the companions sinful in failing to
recognise 'Ali. They also denied the


legitimacy of Abu Bakr and 'Umar. This sect was active during the late
Umayyad and early 'Abbasid period and its views predominated among the
later Zaydis.
b. Sulaymaniyya or Jarriyya. This group, led by Sulayman ibn Jarir,
held that the Imamate should be a matter to be decided by
consultation. They felt that the companions, including Abu Bakr and
'Umar, had been in error in failing to follow 'Ali but this did not
amount to sin. 'Uthman, however, was attacked for the innovations that
he introduced.
c. Butriyya or Salihiyya. These two groups, named respectively after
Kathir an-Nawa al-Abtar and Hasan ibn Salih, seem to have held
identical doctrines. They agreed with the Jaririyya on the matter of
Abu Bakr and 'Umar and suspended judgement with respect to 'Uthman. It
is stated by one author that they followed the Mu'tazila in theology
and the Hanafi school in most questions of law, though in some matters
they agreed with ash-Shafi'i and the Shi'is.

During the Imamates of Muhammad al-Baqir and Ja'far as-Sadiq

This period was a very turbulent one both in the Islamic world in
general, with the overthrow of the Umayyads and establishment of the
'Abbasid Caliphate, and in the Shi'i community. We have already noted
the 'Abbasid movement which grew out of the Kaysaniyya during this
time and the rebellions of Zayd and an-Nafs az-Zakiyya. A number of
other groups were also active during this period.

4. The Janahiyya

In 127/744 'Abdu'llah ibn Mu'awiya rose in revolt against the last
Umayyad Caliph. 'Abdu'llah was a descendant of Ja'far ibn Abu Talib,
the brother of the Imam 'Ali. Ja'far was known as Dhu'l-Janahayn (the
possessor of two wings). 'Abdu'llah is accused of holding a number of
extreme opinions: the incarnation of God in a succession of Prophets
and Imams passing eventually through Muhammad ibn Hanafiyya
and Abu Hashim to 'Abdu'llah ibn Mu'awiya; transmigration of souls;
and the allegorical interpretation of the Qur'an. 'Abdu'llah was
forced to flee from Kufa and established his rule over the province of
Fars until defeated by Abu Muslim. Some of his followers asserted that
he had not died but was concealed in the mountains of Isfahan and
would appear again.

5. The Mughiriyya

The followers of Mughira ibn Sa'id al-'Ijli are sometimes accounted


among the ghulat of the Imamiyya and sometimes among the Zaydiyya. In
fact it would appear that Mughira changed his allegiance over the
years several times. Initially he was a follower of Muhammad al-Baqir
but the latter repudiated him and anathematised him on account of his
assertion of al-Baqir's divinity. Mughira believed in anthropomorphism
with respect to God. After al-Baqir's death, Mughira claimed the
Imamate and even prophethood for himself. However, he told his
followers to await the return of al-Baqir who would raise the dead.
Mughira was put to death in 119/737 by Khalid ibn 'Abdu'llah al-Qasri,
on the same day as Bayan ibn Sam'an (see above) according to some
writers.[25] Indeed, Bayan and Mughira were closely linked in many
ways including their ghuluww tendencies with respect to al-Baqir.
After Mughira's death his followers attached themselves to Muhammad
an-Nafs az-Zakiyya.

6. The Mansuriyya or Kisfiyya

A third group linked to the Bayaniyya and the Mughiriyya were the
followers of Abu Mansur al-'Ijli. Abu Mansur also initially claimed to
be a follower of al-Baqir but was repudiated by the latter on account
of ghuluww tendencies. Later Abu Mansur claimed the Imamate had passed
to him. The name Kisfiyya arose because Abu Mansur believed himself to
be the piece (kisf) of heaven falling down which is mentioned in
Qur'an (52:44). He maintained that the first thing created by God was
Jesus and then after him 'Ali. He held to an allegorical
interpretation of the Qur'an which among other things meant that those
things forbidden in the Qur'an were nothing but allegory for the names
of certain evil men. Thus his followers are accused of all manner of
immorality and sin. It is also said that they killed their enemies by
strangling or breaking the skull with wooden clubs.
  After Abu Mansur's death, leadership of the group passed to his son,
Husayn, although some of the Mansuriyya went over to the supporters of
an-Nafs az-Zakiyya.

7. The Khattabiyya

Abu'l-Khattab Muhammad ibn Abu Zaynab al-Asadi al-Ajda' was yet
another figure who was at first connected with the main line of
Twelver Imams. At first he claimed to be the representative of Imam
Ja'far as Sadiq and to have been taught by him knowledge of the
Greatest Name of God. But he was repudiated and anathematised by as-
Sadiq. Then Abu'l-Khattab claimed the Imamate for himself while
elevating as-Sadiq to the level of prophethood and divinity. Central
to Abdu'l-Khattab's


Khattab's doctrines appears to have been an allegorical interpretation
of the Qur'an. His followers also believed that they would not die but
would be lifted up to heaven. They are accused of having disregarded
all religious observances and regarded everything as lawful. Abu'l-
Khattab was executed in Kufa in 138/755. His followers, who appear to
have been numerous, split among several leaders: 
a. Bazighiyya. The followers of Bazigh ibn Musa, the weaver, who
followed Abu'l-Khattab's doctrines and claimed that a man who had
reached perfection should not be said to have died and that the best
of his followers were superior to the angels.
b. Mu'ammariyya. The followers of Mu'ammar ibn Khaytham, the corn
dealer, who claimed prophethood in succession to Abu'l-Khattab and
asserted that the present world would never come to an end but that
both paradise and hell were to be experienced here.
c. 'Umayriyya or 'Ijliyya. The followers of 'Umayr ibn Bayan al-'Ijli,
the straw dealer of Kufa.
d. Mufaddaliyya. The followers of Mufaddal as-Sayrafi who is said to
have believed in the lordship of as-Sadiq but repudiated the
apostleship or prophethood of Abu'l-Khattab.
e. Ghurabiyya. The followers of this group, who in one source are
accounted as part of the Khattabiyya, are said to have held that since
Muhammad and 'Ali were as indistinguishable from each other as one
raven (ghurab) is from another, when the angel Gabriel was sent with
the divine revelation from God for 'Ali, he gave it by mistake to
Muhammad. One Muslim writer has commented on the beliefs of this sect
that even were it to be accepted that Gabriel could not distinguish
between an eleven-year-old boy and a forty-year-old man, can it really
be accepted that God would not have corrected the error?[26]
  In many of the sources, the Khattabiyya are closely linked with the
emergence of the Isma'ilis. Mufaddal ibn 'Umar al-Ju'fi, a member of
this sect, is said to have been closely associated with and perhaps
even a teacher of Isma'il ibn Ja'far and is accused of having led
Isma'il astray in several Traditions attributed to the Imam Ja'far as-
Sadiq.[27] Some Isma'ili doctrines are said to have been derived from
the Khattabiyya. A group of the Khattabiyya are said to have
transferred their allegiance directly to Muhammad ibn Isma'ili after
the death of Abu'l-Khattab. Even in some Isma'ili books, Abu'l-Khattab
is accounted as one of the founders of the Isma'iliyya.[28] In other
Isma'ili books, however, Abu'l-Khattab is condemned as a heretic.

8. The Baqiriyya

This is one of the sects known under the more general name Waqifiyya


--those who hesitate over the death of a particular Imam in
contradistinction to the Qat'iyya--those who are certain about the
death of the Imam. In the case of the Baqiriyya, they believed the
Imamate ceased with al-Baqir and that he was in concealment and would

After the Imamate of Ja'far as-Sadiq

The death of Ja'far as-Sadiq marks an important turning-point in the
history of the Shi'a, for it is at this point that one of the most
important fragmentations of the Shi'i community occurred according to
the traditional histories. Apart from the line of what would become
the Ithna-'Ashariyya or Twelver sect (who appear at this time to have
been called the Qat'iyya or the ones who were certain about the
death of the previous Imam and went on to the next Imam) and the
ghulat sects of the Khattabiyya, Mughiriyya, etc. mentioned in the
previous section, the following sects must also be noted:

9. The Ja'fariyya or Nawusiyya

These are the Waqifiyya with respect to as-Sadiq, believing that the
latter did not die but is concealed and will return as the Mahdi.
Nawus of Basra was a prominent exponent of this idea. There was also a
group to whom no particular name
appears to have been assigned who believed that after as-Sadiq the
Imamate ceased.

10. The Aftahiyya or Fatahiyya

These maintained that after the Third Imam, Husayn, the succession
should always be through the eldest surviving son of the previous
Imam. The eldest surviving son of as-Sadiq was 'Abdu'llah al-Aftah
(the flat-footed or flat-headed). It is claimed that al-Aftah
disagreed with his father during his lifetime over matters of doctrine
and was inclined to the opinion of the Murji'ites.[29] However,
according to one tradition, al-Aftah survived his father by only
seventy days leaving no sons and according to another tradition he was
found to be lacking in knowledge by the learned ones among the Shi'a.
Therefore, although there was a great deal of support for his claim to
the Imamate initially, it fell away rapidly. Some of his followers
felt that the Imamate finished with him, while others believed that he
had a son who was living in concealment but who was the Mahdi. Most of
them turned to the Imam Musa al Kazim; but some, however, continued
to regard al-Aftah as the rightful Imam before Musa.


11. The Shumaytiyya or Sumaytiyya

The followers of Yahya ibn Abi Shumayt (or Sumayt) who asserted the
Imamate of as-Sadiq's fourth son, Muhammad, known as ad-Dibaj (the
handsome). According to at least one account this Muhammad believed in
a Zaydi type of Imamate and came forward against the Caliph Ma'mun in
199/814. He was defeated but Ma'mun treated him considerately and made
him part of his court in Khurasan.[30] This sect believed in the
Imamate remaining in the family of Muhammad ad-Dibaj and that the
Mahdi would come from among them.

12. The Isma'iliyya or Sab'iyya

There seems general agreement among the Shi'i sources that, at first,
as-Sadiq had intended his eldest son Isma'il to succeed him. But then
Isma'il died and this had disturbing implications for both the
question of the nature of the Imamate and for the doctrine of
designation (nass). Apart from the groups mentioned above who believed
that Isma'il's death annulled his Imamate and who therefore
transferred their allegiance to other members of as-Sadiq's family,
there were a number who denied that it was possible to annul
designation. These split into several groups:

a. Pure Isma'iliyya. These held that Isma'il did not in fact die but
was concealed by as-Sadiq out of fear for his safety and that he will
return as the Mahdi.

b. Mubarakiyya. The followers of Mubarak, a servant or mawla of
Muhammad ibn Isma'il, who maintained that since the Imamate was
designated to Isma'il and since after Hasan and Husayn the Imamate
could not pass between brothers but only to sons, the Imam after as-
Sadiq should be Muhammad, the son of Isma'il, but these then stop with
Muhammad's Imamate.

c. Fatimid Isma'ilis, Qaramita (Carmathians), Batiniyya and
Ta'limiyya. The Fatimid Isma'ilis believed that following on from
Muhammad ibn Isma'il there were several hidden Imams and that from
these came the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt (297/909--567/1171).
Simultaneous to the rise of the Fatimid dynasty, there were groups of
Isma'ilis active along the southern shores of the Persian Gulf who did
not recognise the Fatimids as their Imams. These were called Qaramita
(Carmathians). Because of their belief that there is a hidden meaning
(ba-tin) behind every literal or external meaning (zahir) of all
revealed scripture, the Isma'ilis were often called Batiniyya. Another
sub-group of the Isma'ilis were the Druse, who had deified the Fatimid
Caliph al-Hakim and broken off from the main body of the Isma'ilis
forming a distinct group in Syria that has survived to the present


  The Fatimid Isma'ilis split in 487/1094 into two major divisions,
the Nizari and the Musta'lian in favour of two opposing claimants to
the Imamate. The majority of the Musta'lian branch continued to
recognise the Caliphs in Egypt until 526/1132 and then their Imam and
Caliph Abu'l-Qasim Tayyib went into occultation and this branch has
had no revealed Imam ever since. Leadership of the movement was
transferred to the Yemen under a series of Da'i Mutlaqs (missionaries
in charge of the movement). There was a further split in 999/1590 with
one line of da'is, the Sulaymani, remaining in Yemen with a few
followers in India, and another line, the Da'udi, resident in India
claiming the majority of Indian Musta'lian followers who are called
Bohras. Musta'lian Isma'ilis are predominantly to be found in the
Indian province of Gujarat but also in south Arabia, the Persian Gulf,
East Africa and Burma, numbering several hundred thousand in all.
  The other main division of the Isma'ilis, the Nizaris, became
centred on Alamut in Iran under Hasan as-Sabbah. Initially Hasan's
successors regarded themselves as da'is of an occulted Imam, but the
fourth da'i proclaimed himself Imam, claiming to be in fact a
descendant of Nizar who had been ousted from the Fatimid Caliphate in
487/1094. The Nizaris became famous in history as the Assassins. They
are also called Ta'limis because of their doctrine that the Imam is
the dispenser of divinely-ordained teaching (ta'lim). Their centre at
Alamut was destroyed by Hulagu Khan in 654/1256 and after this the
Nizari Imams went into hiding, changing their residence from place to
place in Iran. It is only in the 19th century that the Nizari Imams
re-emerge as historical figures in the form of the first Agha Khan
who in 1840 fled from Iran to India where Nizari missionary efforts
over many centuries had created a large community. The Agha Khan
established himself in Bombay, which has remained the centre of the
Nizaris in India. The Agha Khan's successors have become international
figures. The community is most numerous in India (where they are
called Khojas) but there are also important communities in East
Africa, Pakistan, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia, numbering
several millions in all.

After the Death of Musa al-Kazim

After Musa the main line of Shi'is who eventually went on to become
the Twelvers turned to Musa's son, 'Ali ar-Rida, and were again called
the Qat'iyya (those who were certain of the death of Musa). But a
number of other groups arose:

13. The Musawiyya or Mamtura
These denied or were uncertain of the death of Musa and therefore did


not accept the continuation of the Imamate beyond Musa, and are again
called by the general name of Waqifiyya. Some of them believed that he
had not died but escaped from prison and was now in concealment;
others considered he had died and was raised again to life and is in
concealment; yet others believed he was raised to heaven like Jesus
and will return. All these groups believe in the return of Musa as the
Imam Mahdi to fill the earth with justice. By their enemies these
people were called the Mamtura (the rained-upon).[3]

14. The Bajaliyya

Ibn Warsand al-Bajali took the Musawiyya doctrine to Morocco and Spain
in the first part of the 3rd/9th century. He and his descendants had
some success in propagating this doctrine among the people of this
area and some of the Idrisid amirs were also converted. The sect
probably eventually died out in the 6th/12th century with the advent
of the Almohad movement.

15. The Bashiriyya

The followers of Muhammad ibn Bashir of Kufa maintained that Musa was
not imprisoned and did not die. He was in concealment and had
appointed ibn Bashir as his representative and given him his seal.
Therefore, all the followers of Musa had now to obey ibn Bashir for he
was the Imam and the Imamate would remain with him and his successors
until the return of Musa as the Mahdi. 'Ali ar-Rida and others who
claimed the Imamate after Musa were of base birth and were falsely
claiming descent from Musa. Only the five daily prayers and fasting
were obligatory and the validity of all other religious laws were
denied. The Bashiriyya were said to have believed in the
transmigration of souls, holding that there has only ever
been one Imam whose soul goes from one body to the next. They also
held to the doctrine of tafwid (see p. 66). They believed in holding
all goods in common. After ibn Bashir, leadership of this group fell
to his son, Sami'.

After the Imamate of 'Ali ar-Rida

The main line of Twelver Shi'ism continued after 'Ali ar-Rida with his
son, Muhammad at-Taqi, but as the latter was only seven years old
there were groups who dissented from this:

16. The Ahmadiyya

This group believed that 'Ali's father, Musa, had decreed that after


the Imamate should go to Musa's next son, Ahmad (it is he who is said
to be buried in the shrine of Shah Chiragh in Shiraz).

17. The Mu'allifa

This group adopted a position of being Waqifiyya over the death of
Musa and awaiting his return.

18. The Muhadditha

These are stated to have been a group of Murj'ites and others from the
main stream of Islam who came to believe in the Imamate of Musa and
'Ali (in the hope of political favour it is said) but after 'Ali's
death returned to their former belief. Similarly some of the Zaydiyya
are said to have attached themselves to 'Ali but returned to their
former beliefs when he died.

After the Imamate of 'Ali al-Hadi

19. The Namiriyya, Nusayriyya, 'Alawiyya

This group began as followers of Muhammad ibn Nusayr an-Namiri. There
is considerable variation in the sources regarding the teachings of
this man. Some state that he was a follower of the teachings of Abu'l-
Khattab; some say that he considered 'Ali al-Hadi, the Tenth Imam, to
be God and that he, ibn Nusayr was his prophet; some state that he
considered 'Ali al-Hadi to be the Imam and 'Ali's son
Muhammad who died in 249/863 was the Mahdi while he proclaimed himself
in 245/859 to be the Bab (Gate) to 'Ali al-Hadi. The later writers of
the sect relate his claims regarding the Mahdi to the son of Hasan al-
'Askari, the Eleventh Imam, and thus acknowledge all twelve Imams of
the Twelver line. The man who is mostly responsible for the
establishment of the sect was Husayn ibn Hamdan al-Khasibi (d. 346/957
or 358/968). Under the patronage of the Hamdanid dynasty, he greatly
extended the influence of the sect at Aleppo. After the fall of the
Shi'i dynasties of Aleppo, the sect faced great persecution over the
centuries at the hands successively of the Crusaders, the Mamluks and
the Ottomans. They were also rent by civil wars between their various
clans. After the First World War the French attempted to set up a
separate 'Alawi state centred on Lattakia but later this was
abandoned. At present the 'Alawis are politically dominant in Syria
under President Hafiz al-Assad. The 'Alawi community now numbers
several millions living in a band of land stretching from Lattakia in
Syria to Antakya (Antioch) in Turkey.


20. The Muhammadiyya

During the lifetime of 'Ali al-Hadi, one of his sons, Muhammad, died.
However, a group of 'Ali's followers maintained that 'Ali had
designated Muhammad as the next Imam and that the latter had not died
but this had been a ruse to put off their enemies. Muhammad was now
concealed and would return as the Mahdi.

21. The Pure Jafariyya

These maintained that 'Ali al-Hadi had in fact nominated his son,
Ja'far, as the next Imam.

After the Death of Hasan al-'Askari

After the death of Hasan al-'Askari, the Shi'is were thrown into
confusion and fragmented into a large number of groups. According to
al-Mas'udi, the Shi'i broke up into twenty sects at this time,[32]
Sa'd al Qummi describes fifteen sects;33 and an-Nawbakhti, fourteen
sects.[34] These sects may be divided into the following broad

a. The Waqifiyya at Hasan al-'Askari

These stopped at the Imamate at Hasan al-'Askari who was considered
the Mahdi. Some of these thought that he had not died but had gone
into occultation while another group thought he had died but had been
raised to life again. Both of these groups considered that al-'Askari
had left no son. A third group stopped at al-'Askari because although
they acknowledged his death and recognised that the earth could not be
without an Imam, they could not be sure who was al-'Askari's

b. The Cessation of the Imamate

These considered that just as prophecy had ceased with Muhammad, so it
was possible for the Imamate to have ceased with al-'Askari who had
neither son nor successor. One group maintained that there could be no
Mahdi, while another held that the Mahdi would arise from among the
descendants of the Imams in the last days.

c. The Muhammadiyya

These maintained that al-Hadi had designated his son Muhammad, who
predeceased him, as the Imam (since neither Hasan al-'Askari, because


of his childlessness, nor Ja'far, because of his immorality, fulfilled
the conditions required for the Imamate). One group maintained
Muhammad had not died but was the Mahdi in concealment.

d. The Ja'fariyya

These considered that al-'Askari had died without a son and that the
Imamate belonged to his brother Ja'far. One group of this faction
considered that since al-Askari died without issue, the Imamate must
belong to Ja'far; another group held that al-'Askari had formally
designated Ja'far; another group that as al-Askari had died without
issue, he had not fulfilled the condition for the Imamate and thus the
true Imam after al-Hadi was Ja'far (see number 21 above); yet another
group claimed that the Tenth Imam had designated his son Muhammad as
Imam but as Muhammad predeceased him, the Imamate was transferred to
Ja'far through an intermediary, a slave called Nafis (this group is
called the Nafisiyya).

e. The Qat'iyya

This is the group who as with the previous Imams was certain of the
death of the previous Imam, al-'Askari, and went on to al-'Askari's
son as the next Imam. One group considered that his name was Muhammad
and that he was of mature years at the death of al-'Askari; another
that his name was 'Ali; another that his name was Muhammad but that he
had been born eight months after the Imam's death; and finally there
was the group who held that al-'Askari had had a son, he was four
years of age at the time of the death of his father, he had gone into
occultation until the last days and it was forbidden to seek him out.
  This last-described group, the fifteenth sect described by Sa'd al-
Qummi, was, of course, the one that went on to become the orthodox
Ithna-'Ashari (Twelver) or Imami sect of Shi'i Islam. The other
groupings died out within one hundred years or so. The reason that a
fairly lengthy description of all these various Shi'i groupings
(most of which became rapidly extinct) has been given is that this was
the milieu out of which Twelver Shi'ism emerged in the early 4th/10th
century. Many of the doctrines and concepts first used by these groups
were to become incorporated into Twelver Shi'ism (e.g. the Mahdi,
occultation and return, esoteric exegesis, etc.; see next chapter).
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