How “Shia Islam” Originated

“Shia Islam” originated based on love for the family of the Prophet, not the hatred of some around him. Although some Shia individuals may have said some unbecoming remarks about the first two caliphs, their comments cannot be taken to represent the views of all Shia. In fact, Ali b. Abi Talib forbade his followers from verbally abusing those who fought him[21] and this principle is in line with the Book of Allah which commands, “Abuse yet not those whom they invoke besides God, lest they abuse God in transgression without knowledge; thus have We made fair-seeming to every people their deeds.”[22]

Nonetheless, despite the exhortations of the Ahlul Bayt, defamation and prosecution against the Shia occurred by those who opposed them. Perhaps it was a natural reaction to the conditions set by the Umayyah rule. For instance, Mu’awiyah b. Abu Sufyan bribed and forced all the leaders of the Friday Prayer (Salat al-Jumah) to curse Imam Ali, Hasan, Husayn, and Fatima al-Zahra – for over forty years. However, when Umar b. Abd al-Aziz came to power, he attempted to stop this practice, but it had become so firmly entrenched that his efforts were futile.

Moreover, asides from having to endure the continuous unjust slandering of the closest family members of the Prophet who are revered by Shia and non-Shia Muslims alike, the followers of Ahlul Bayt were severely tortured during the Umayyah and Abbasid time for their loyalty.

Abdullah b. Saba: Myth or Reality?

Over the centuries, a preposterous idea developed that the Shia doctrine originated from a Jewish man who hated Islam and infiltrated the Muslims to destroy them. His name is said to have been Abdullah b. Saba. However, some contemporary Sunni scholars, Shia scholars, Western authors, and a logical study of the background of this invented figure all concur that Abdullah b. Saba never even existed.

None of the important primary Sunni sources such as al-Baladri and Ibn Sa’d even mention Ibn Saba; only al-Tabari mentions him, but the accounts of Ibn Saba are given on the authority of two extremely unreliable men: Sayf b. Umar al-Tamimi and al-Sari b. Yahya. Sunni narrators, such as Ibn Hayyan, Ibn Uday, and Ibn Muin all confer that Sayf b. Umar al-Tamimi forged or mistook hadith. Similarly, in the following books: al-Tahdheeb, Mizan al-Itidal, and Tadhkirat al-Mawdhuat they mention two men referred to as al-Sari (al-Sari b. Ismail al-Hamdani al-Kufi and al-Sari b. Asim al-Hamdani) who lived during the time of al-Tabari (who is most likely the al-Sari mentioned earlier by al-Tabari), who were renowned for fabricating hadiths.[23]

However, a different al-Sari, whose hadiths were reliable lived much before them – he died in 167 AH, therefore al-Tabari, who was born in 224 AH could never have met him. Since all of the subsequent sources that discuss Ibn Saba refer back to the history of al-Tabari and the information given by al-Tabari was at best questionable, hence more than likely, the existence of Ibn Saba was concocted by the two dishonest men (Sayf b. Umar al-Tamimi and al-Sari b. Yahya).[24]

Nonetheless, whether true or fictional, the information that al-Tabari provides regarding Ibn Saba is worth examining.

According to al-Tabari, Ibn Saba was a Jewish man who came from Sana in Yemen. His mother’s name was Sawda, and he is said to have become a Muslim during the caliphate of Uthman. He traveled throughout the Muslim countries from Hijaz, Basra, Shaam, and Egypt, all the while propagating the notion that just like Prophet Isa will have a second coming, so too will Prophet Muhammad, citing c. 28:85 as a roundabout sort of evidence, “Indeed He who has revealed to you the Qur’an will surely restore you to the place of return. Say, ‘My Lord knows best him who brings guidance and him who is in manifest error.’”

However, some modern historians, such as Muhammad Fareed Wajdi in his encyclopedia Dairat al-Marif, not only added more fiction to al-Tabari’s accounts, but also told a slightly different version. Wajdi maintained that Ibn Saba was a close follower of Imam Ali and admired him so much that he attributed divinity to him. According to this fable, when Imam Ali heard Ibn Saba’s claim he wanted to take his life, but at the advice of Abdullah b. Abbas he sent Ibn Saba to al-Madain instead. This reaction is incidentally in complete disagreement with what is known about the behavioral pattern of Imam Ali, who is recorded to have spared an enemy out of fear that he might be killing him out of anger rather than out of justice.

Al-Wajdi continues that while in al-Madain, Ibn Saba is said to have spread the first notion that Ali was a prophet and later that he was a deity.[25] Other contemporary authors, such as Ahmad Atayllah, declare that Ibn Saba wanted to weaken and destroy the caliphate of Uthman, thus he intentionally mixed some Jewish ideas with Islam to form the doctrines about the return of the Prophet (raja) and the knowledge of Imam Ali about the unseen (ilm al-ghayb, which by definition is that which is known by no one).[26]

By attributing these ideas to Ibn Saba, real or imaginary, these authors not only succeeded in discrediting the Shia and presenting the Shia ideology as nothing more than imported teachings from another religion (instead of a legitimate and integral part of the history of Islam), but they also shifted the blame for the assassination of Uthman to some unorthodox sectarian incident, rather than on the administrative policies of Uthman, which bred so much resentment that he was killed – not by followers of “Ibn Saba,” but by the companions of the Prophet.

The idea that someone with Ibn Saba’s heretical mentality convinced the Muslims, many of whom were companions and who had seen the Prophet firsthand, is ludicrous. Even more unrealistic is the idea that someone so powerful who was able to bring down the third caliphate, could have existed unmentioned at such a heavily scrutinized time, even well after he had passed away.

It is also unconceivable to believe that Uthman, who severely punished some of the companions of the Prophet, such as Ammar b. Yasir and Ibn Masud, over issues unrelated to Islamic doctrine, would overlook such a person, since he could have been a potential threat to topple his power structure.

Furthermore, even the scant narratives regarding Ibn Saba conflict with one another because some people said that he appeared during the time of Uthman, while others said that he appeared during the lifetime of Imam Ali, and still others said that he came on the scene after the death of Ali. Even more, some said that he just revered Imam Ali, while others said that his main goal was to turn popular opinion against Uthman.

For these reasons, the Shia scholars, who have studied this subject in depth; as well as many orientalists, such as Bernard Lewis, Wellhausen, Friedlander, and others all agree that Ibn Saba was nothing but a legend fabricated by those who came later on in history.

The myth of Ibn Saba did not develop out of a vacuum. At the time when stories about him first spread, the status quo was threatened by the fact that the beliefs of Shia Islam, which are based firmly on the Qur’an, the sunnah of the Prophet, and the appointment of successors by the Prophet. Inventing Ibn Saba and attributing the ideas of Shia Islam to him in a much-skewed fashion made the Shia appear more as a fringe group rather than as part of the Islamic core. As the Egyptian scholar Taha Husayn says in his book Al-Fitnah al-Kubra, “The opponents of the Shia exaggerated the issue of Ibn Saba in order to defame Ali and his followers. Ibn Saba was an imaginary figure (shakhsiyah wahmiyah), and the only source that mentioned him was Sayf b. Umar, and he was a man well known to be a liar.”[27]

More about Ibn Saba can be found in the book of Taha Husayn or in the thesis of Sayyid Murtadha al-Askari.[28]

[21] Nahjul Balaghah
[22] Holy Qur’an, 6:108
[23] Lisan al-Mizan, 3:12; al-Ghadir, 8:143
[24] Al-Ghadir, 9:218
[25] Wajdi, Muhammad Fareed; Dairat al-Marif al-Qarn al-Aishren, 5:17
[26] Atayllah, Ahmad; Al-Qamus al-Islami, 3:222
[27] Taha Husayn, Al-Fitnah al-Kubra, the chapter on Ibn Saba
[28] His work on Abdullah b. Saba is available in English under the title of Abdullah Ibn Saba and Other Myths and has been printed in two volumes.

When Power and Piety Collide by Sayed Moustafa al-Qazwini