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An Introduction to Shi'i Islam

by Moojan Momen

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Chapter 1


The Question of the Succession to Muhammad

      The succession to Muhammad is clearly the key question in Shi'i Islam and the principal factor separating Shi'is from the Sunni majority. The question is not only who was the successor of Muhammad but also the nature of the role of this successor, for it is on both these points that Shi'is and Sunnis disagree.

      On the death of Muhammad, an ad hoc assemblage of a number of the notables in Islam elected, by general consensus, Abu Bakr to be the Caliph or successor to Muhammad. This was envisaged as being a temporal appointment designed to continue the position of Muhammad as the head of the city of Medina and of a confederacy of tribes, which was the emerging Muslim state. A conspicuous absentee at this meeting of election was 'Ali, the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law. There were a number of persons who considered that in view of a number of statements made by Muhammad in his lifetime, 'Ali should have occupied the leading position — not only as temporal head (Caliph) but also as spiritual head (Imam).

      In order to understand the personality of 'Ali and his position it is necessary to return to the very beginning of Islamic history and trace, firstly, 'Ali's part in it and, secondly, the close relationship between the Prophet and 'Ali. Thirdly, it is also necessary to examine those Traditions, many accepted by both Sunnis and Shi'is, that are considered by Shi'is to mean that 'Ali was the rightful successor of Muhammad.

      The Prophet was brought up in the house of Abu Talib, 'Ali's father and thus Muhammad was very close to his young cousin from the time of the latter's birth. Indeed, the two may be regarded as foster-brothers, despite the difference in age between them.

      Over the ensuing years 'Ali was constantly at Muhammad's side. When the night came for the flight from Mecca to Medina, it was 'Ali who took on the dangerous task of sleeping in the Prophet's bed and thus fooling the assassins that had been sent to murder the Prophet. After Muhammad's successful escape, 'Ali remained in Mecca long enough to settle the Prophet's debts and then together with some of the Muslim women he too slipped away to Medina.

      During the Medinan period 'Ali acted as Muhammad's secretary and deputy. Whenever there were important documents to be written, such as the treaty of Hudaybiyya, it was 'Ali who wrote them. The Prophet's daughter, Fatima, was given in marriage to 'Ali and the children of this marriage, Hasan and Husayn, were the only grandchildren of the Prophet to survive into adult life.

      'Ali was one of the most courageous and able men in the Muslim army. He was appointed the standard-bearer at the battles of both Badr and Khaybar. When the Prophet left to go on his longest expedition, to Tabuk, 'Ali was left in charge at Medina. According to some accounts, 'Ali felt insulted to be left with the women and children while, according to others, rumours were spread that 'Ali had been left behind because it was feared he would bring misfortune to the expedition. In any case, 'Ali went to the Prophet voicing his discontent at being left behind. It was at this time, according to numerous Sunni and Shi'i Traditionists, that the famous Hadith of Manzilat Harun (position of Aaron) was revealed. According to this Tradition, Muhammad said to 'Ali: 'Are you not content to be with respect to me as Aaron was to Moses, except that after me there shall be no other Prophet.'[7] The implication was that 'Ali was to be Muhammad's chief assistant in his lifetime and his successor after him.

      'Ali's many personal qualities are amply attested to in various histories and collections of Traditions. Among the statements regarding 'Ali and his family made by the Prophet and accepted as authentic by both Sunnis and Shi'is are the following:

  1. There is no youth braver than 'Ali.[9]
  2. No-one but a believer loves 'Ali and no-one but a hypocrite hates 'Ali.[10]
  3. I am from 'Ali and 'Ali is from me.[11]
  4. The truth circulates with him ('Ali) wherever he goes.[12]
  5. I am the City of Knowledge and 'Ali is its Gate (Bab).[13]
  6. On one occasion the Prophet was about to eat some poultry and he said: 'O God! Send me the man you love most among mankind to eat this bird with me.' And 'Ali came and ate with him.[14]
  7. The Prophet said in reply to someone who had complained about 'Ali: 'What do you think of one who loves God and his Prophet and who in turn is loved by God and his Prophet?' Also: 'The most loved of women to the Prophet of God is Fatima and the most loved of men is 'Ali.'[15]
  8. On one occasion, the Prophet called 'Ali and began whispering to him. After a time those present began saying: 'He has been a long time whispering to his cousin.' Later, the Prophet said: 'It was not I that was whispering to him but God.'[16]
  9. The Prophet took the hand of Hasan and Husayn and said: 'Whoever loves me and loves these two and loves their mother and father, will be with me in my station on the Day of Resurrection.'[17]
  10. The Prophet said: 'Hasan and Husayn are the chiefs of the youths of paradise.'[18]
      It was during the last year of the Prophet's life that, according to Shi'is, he confirmed 'Ali's position as his successor. The occasion was the Farewell Pilgrimage when the Prophet performed the pilgrimage to Mecca for the last time. Having completed the rites of the Pilgrimage, the Prophet set out on the return journey to Medina, accompanied by a large concourse of the Muslims, including all of his leading disciples. At a place called Ghadir Khumm, Muhammad caused the caravan to be stopped and from an improvised pulpit delivered an address. Once again, the principal Sunni and Shi'i sources show no disagreement over the facts of the episode. The following is the account given in Ibn Hanbal, a Sunni collection of Hadith:

We were with the Apostle of God in his journey and we stopped at Ghadir Khumm. We performed the obligatory prayer together and a place was swept for the Apostle under two trees and he performed the mid-day prayer. And then he took 'Ali by the hand and said to the people: 'Do you not acknowledge that I have a greater claim on each of the believers than they have on themselves?' And they replied: 'Yes!' And he took 'Ali's hand and said: 'Of whomsoever I am Lord [Mawla], then 'Ali is also his Lord. O God! Be Thou the supporter of whoever supports 'Ali and the enemy of whoever opposes him.' And 'Umar met him ['Ali] after this and said to him: 'Congratulations, O son of Abu Talib! Now morning and evening [i.e. forever] you are the master of every believing man and woman.'[19]

      Finally there is the highly controversial episode in the last days of Muhammad's life which is usually called the Episode of Pen and Paper. Muhammad, while in his terminal illness and only days before his death called for pen and paper. The following is the account related by al-Bukhari, the Sunni Traditionist, on the authority of Ibn 'Abbas:

When the Prophet's illness became serious, he said: 'Bring me writing materials that I may write for you something, after which you will not be led into error.' 'Umar said: 'The illness has overwhelmed the Prophet. We have the Book God and that is enough for us.' Then the people differed about this and spoke many words. And he [the Prophet] said: 'Leave me! There ought not to be quarrelling in my presence.' And Ibn 'Abbas went out saying: 'The greatest of all calamities is what intervened between the Apostle and his writing.'[20]

      Shi'is claim that what Muhammad wished to write down was the confirmation of 'Ali's successorship. Sunnis have advanced various alternative explanations. Shi'is also claim that the Prophet died with his head in 'Ali's lap. Some Sunni Traditions support this while others state that the Prophet's head was on the lap of his wife, 'A'isha.

      To 'Ali was given a number of privileges not accorded to the other companions of the Prophet. Apart from the fact that the Prophet's daughter was given to 'Ali in marriage, when many others including Abu Bakr and 'Umar had been suitors, 'Ali was the only man allowed to come and go as he pleased in the Prophet's house. At one stage the Prophet ordered all the doors of the various houses opening onto the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina to be blocked off, except for the doors from his own house and from that of 'Ali.[21]

The Events at the Saqifa

      If, as the Shi'is assert, Muhammad had clearly indicated his desire that 'Ali should be his successor, how did it come about that Abu Bakr was elected the first Caliph? This is a very complex matter and central to the whole issue is what occurred at the Saqifa (Portico) of the Banu Sa'ida, a branch of Khazraj tribe of Medina. The facts of what happened are, in broad terms, agreed by the most reliable of both Sunni and Shi'i writers.[37] When Muhammad died, his daughter, Fatima, her husband, 'Ali, and the rest of the family of Hashim, gathered around the body preparing it for burial. Unbeknown to them, two other groups were gathering in the city. One group consisted of Abu Bakr, 'Umar, Abu 'Ubayda and other prominent Meccans (the Muhajirun) and the second of the most important of the Medinans (the Ansar). The second group was gathering in the portico of the Banu Sa'ida. It was reported to Abu Bakr that the Ansar were contemplating pledging their loyalty to Sa'd ibn 'Ubada, chief of the Khazraj. And so Abu Bakr and his group hurried to the Saqifa. One of the Ansar spoke first saying that as the Ansar had been the ones who supported and gave victory to Islam and since the Meccans were only guests in Medina, the leader of the community should be from the Ansar. Abu Bakr replied to this very diplomatically. He began by praising the virtues of the Ansar, but then he went on to point out that the Muhajirun (the Meccans) were the first people in Islam and were closer in kinship to the Prophet. The Arabs would accept leadership only from Quraysh and so Quraysh should be the rulers and the Ansar their ministers. One of the Ansar proposed: 'Let there be one ruler from us and one ruler from you. For we do not begrudge you this matter but we fear to have ruling over us a people whose fathers and brothers we have killed (in fighting between Mecca and Medina before the conquest of Mecca by Muhammad).'[38] And so the argument went back and forth until Abu Bakr proposed: 'Give your allegiance to one of these two men: Abu 'Ubayda or 'Umar. ' And 'Umar replied: 'While you are still alive? No! It is not for anyone to hold you back from the position in which the Apostle placed you. So stretch out your hand.' And Abu Bakr stretched out his hand and 'Umar gave him his allegiance. One by one, slowly at first, and then rushing forward in a mass, the others did likewise.

      It is possible to speculate as to the reasons why Abu Bakr was elected to the leadership. Certainly clan rivalry played a great part. Within Quraysh there was a certain amount of envy and enmity towards the prestige enjoyed by the house of Hashim. Thus 'Umar is reported to have said to 'Ali's cousin at a later date: 'The people did not like having the Prophethood and Caliphate joined together in your house.'[40] Abu Bakr, however, came from a relatively insignificant clan which had no pretensions to power. The Ansar had been contemplating choosing the chief of Khazraj as their leader and so when Abu Bakr came forward as a candidate, the Aws tribe who had been the great rival of Khazraj in Medina were only too eager to have this alternative. Khazraj themselves were not totally united and several leading men of that tribe were among the first to pay obedience to Abu Bakr, presumably having some grudge against their chief. And so, all in all, Abu Bakr was an expedient choice for the majority, although it cannot be denied that he enjoyed considerable prestige in the community anyway.

      With respect to the above speech by Abu Bakr at the Saqifa, in which he refuted the claims of the Ansar to the leadership and advanced the claims of Quraysh, Shi'i historians have pointed out that with respect to each of the points which Abu Bakr mentioned, 'Ali was superior to Abu Bakr. Thus if Quraysh were closer in kinship to the Prophet than the Ansar, then 'Ali was closer than Abu Bakr. If Quraysh were first to accept Islam, then 'Ali was the first of them to do this. If Quraysh were more entitled to leadership among the Arabs than the Ansar on account of their nobility, then 'Ali and the house of Hashim were the most noble clan within Quraysh. And 'Ali's services to Islam and his close personal companionship with the Prophet, were at least equal, if not superior, to Abu Bakr's. Moreover, if selection of the leader was to have been by consensus, then why was the house of Hashim, the house of the Prophet, not consulted? The best that can be said of the affair at the Saqifa is that, in the words of 'Umar, it was a falta, which means an affair concluded in haste and without reflection.[41]

      Both Sunni and Shi'i sources are agreed that after allegiance had been given to Abu Bakr at the Saqifa and at the mosque, 'Umar with a crowd of armed men marched to 'Ali's house demanding that he also pledge his allegiance to Abu Bakr. It is even indicated that a threat was made to bum down 'Ali's house if he refused. Words were exchanged, and according to some accounts, even blows, until Fatima, 'Ali's wife and the daughter of the Prophet, appeared and put the attackers to shame by threatening to make a personal public appeal.

      Both Sunni and Shi'i sources agree that 'Ali was urged by such persons as his uncle al-'Abbas, and even Abu Sufyan of the house of Umayya, to set himself up as an alternative leader and to have allegiance paid to him. Abu Sufyan even offered to fill Medina with armed men to enforce 'Ali's leadership.[42] It is impossible to assess, however, how strong the party that looked to 'Ali at this time was. But 'Ali refused to split the community, particularly when, shortly after Abu Bakr assumed the Caliphate, a large number of the Arabs apostatised from Islam and a campaign had to be waged against them. Under the Caliphates of 'Umar and of 'Uthman also, 'Ali did not advance his claim.

      There is disagreement between Sunni and Shi'i historians as to 'Ali's attitude to the Caliphate of Abu Bakr and later to those of 'Umar and 'Uthman. Sunni historians are anxious to portray 'Ali as having been loyal to the leadership of the first three Caliphates and indeed a trusted adviser in their councils. Some of these sources even state that 'Ali gave his allegiance to Abu Bakr on the day of the Saqifa. The Shi'i historians, of course, completely reject this view. They portray 'Ali as feeling deeply hurt that his rights had been usurped in this underhand manner and only refraining from open rejection of Abu Bakr in order to avoid dissension and strife at a critical time. Shi'i sources maintain that 'Ali did not in fact give his allegiance to the new Caliph until after Fatima's death, which occurred six months after the death of the Prophet.

      Conflict between the Prophet's family and the new Caliph began from the day after the death of the Prophet. Fatima laid claim to the estate of Fadak, which had been the personal property of the Prophet and had come to him out of the booty of the expedition to Khaybar. Abu Bakr refused this claim, stating that the property belonged to the whole community, the Prophet having said: 'No one shall inherit from me, but what I leave is for alms.'

      During the brief two-year period of Abu Bakr's Caliphate, whatever initial support there may have been for 'Ali's candidature melted away in the face of 'Ali's own refusal to advance a claim. However, despite this, there was a handful of men who steadfastly refused to give their allegiance to Abu Bakr or to anyone other than 'Ali. Four of these men, 'Ammar, Miqdad, Abu Dharr and Salman were acclaimed by Shi'is as the first four of their number and, according to many Traditions, these four were shortly joined by another three.

      Shi'i historians scornfully point out that whereas the theoretical justification for the choice of Abu Bakr as Caliph was that this was the consensus of the Muslims, even this claim cannot be made for 'Umar's succession to Abu Bakr. Abu Bakr, on his death-bed, appointed 'Umar as his successor and secured his succession by obtaining pledges of support for 'Umar from several prominent persons. Once again, 'Ali was passed over and was not even consulted.

      Under 'Umar's Caliphate, 'Ali remained withdrawn from public affairs but still refusing to encourage sedition by advancing an alterative claim. The Sunni historians once again minimise the disagreements,[43] whereas the Shi'is show 'Ali openly disagreeing with some of 'Umar's decisions and publicly showing his contempt for the Caliph on several occasions.[44]

      'Umar appointed a council of six men to decide the leadership after him. Although the council included 'Ali, it was weighted in such a way as to make it unlikely that he would be elected. Two of the members of the council, Sa'd and 'Abdu'r-Rahman who were cousins, were naturally inclined to support 'Uthman, who was 'Abdu'r-Rahman's brother-in-law, and moreover, under 'Umar's terms for setting up a council, the casting vote was to be given to 'Abdu'r-Rahman.

      The most commonly quoted Traditions state that the result of the deliberations of the council in 644 was that 'Abdu'r-Rahman offered the Caliphate to 'Ali on the condition that he should rule in accordance with the Qur'an, the example of the Prophet and the precedents established by the first two Caliphs. 'Abdu'r-Rahman must have known of 'Ali's disagreement with some of the policies of the first two Caliphs and so it was inevitable that 'Ali would refuse to bind himself to follow their precedents. 'Abdu'r-Rahman then offered the Caliphate to 'Uthman on the same condition and he accepted.

      Even those historians who are staunchly Sunni can scarcely disguise the fact that 'Uthman's Caliphate was something of a disaster for Islam. in place of the strict piety, simplicity and probity that had characterised the leadership of the community under Muhammad and the first two Caliphs, 'Uthman's leadership was marked by nepotism and a love of wealth and luxury. He was a weak-minded man who allowed his relative, Marwan, to dominate him and to run the affairs of the community. 'Uthman was of the house of Umayya and soon members of this family were placed in the highest positions in the community, despite the fact that, in former days, this family had been the most implacable and the most powerful of the enemies of the Prophet in Mecca and had led the Meccans against the Prophet once he was established in Medina.

      Soon there was disaffection in the provinces of the rapidly expanding Muslim empire. 'Ali was placed in a difficult position. The rebel delegations appealed to him to support their protests and he certainly sympathised with their grievances. But 'Ali, also, was not one to foment discord or to support rebellion. 'Uthman appealed to him to placate the rebels and 'Ali did his best to mediate, urging the Caliph, at the same time, to alter his policies. However, in the end, after the rebels found themselves betrayed by the Caliph, 'Uthman's house was attacked and he was killed.

      Immediately after the murder of 'Uthman, a crowd surrounded 'Ali urging him to accept the Caliphate. 'Ali was at first reluctant to accept, given the circumstances, but he was urged to do so from all sides. The Muhajirun, the Ansar and the delegations from the provinces were all urging acceptance upon him. So eventually he consented. The year was 656; it was 24 years since the death of the Prophet of Islam; after almost a quarter of a century in the wilderness, 'Ali had come to the position that he had considered rightfully his all along.

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