When did Shiaism Come About?

Historians vary as to when the term “Shia” came into being. Some Sunni sources say that “Shia Islam” emerged at the time of the death of the Prophet, while others say that it took form afterwards. Some Sunni historians also differ as to the influence of Shia Islam, with some citing a fringe band following a legendary figure named Abdullah b. Saba. However, the Shia say otherwise and affirm that the concept of “Shia” was entitled as the “Shia of Ali” by the Prophet during his lifetime, and that it was a real force in Islamic history that took form and was shaped by the Qur’an and the sunnah.

Interpreters of the Qur’an assert that when the following verse was revealed to the Prophet, “Verily, those who believe and do good deeds: they are the best of creation,” the Prophet then turned and pointed to Ali and said, “This man and his Shia (followers) are the best of creation.”[1]

As the Muslim community expanded, the Prophet continued to refer to some of the Muslims as the “Shia of Ali.” Al-Suyuti, a Sunni scholar narrates on the authority of Jabir b. Abdullah al-Ansari:

We were sitting with the Prophet when Ali came. The Prophet said, “By the One who has my soul in His hands, verily this man (he pointed to Ali) and his friends (shia) will be the successful ones on the Day of Judgment.”[2] & [3]

This hadith is related in several similar versions in the books of hadith compiled by Sunni scholars. In addition, some Sunni scholars have recorded that during the time of the Prophet, some of the companions were distinguished from others as being the “Shia of Ali.” They included Abu Dharr al-Ghifari, Ammar b. Yasir, al-Miqdaad b. al-Aswad, and Salman al-Farsi. Therefore, saying that the term Shia emerged after the death of the Prophet is incorrect, since the first person to introduce the concept of “Shia” was the Prophet himself during his own lifetime.

One of the key differences between the Shia and non-Shia interpretations of Islam is the right to succession after the death of the Prophet, thus the misconception that Shiaism emerged after the death of the Prophet is understandable. Early Sunni historians, such as Ibn Khaldun and al-Yaqubi, as well as contemporary academics, such as Egyptian scholars Dr. Hasan Ibrahim and Dr. Ahmad Amin, have expressed the following viewpoints on the successorship of the Prophet. Ibn Khaldun and al-Yaqubi contend that the Shia began as a group of companions who were the friends of Ali b. Abi Talib, and hence supported the claim that the chosen family members of the Prophet, known as Ahlul Bayt have the right of leadership.[4] Al-Yaqubi also specifies a group of companions who refused to pay allegiance to Abu Bakr as being: Salman al-Farsi, Abu Dharr al-Ghifari, al-Miqdaad b. al-Aswad, and al-Abbas b. Abdul Muttalib.[5] Dr. Hasan Ibrahim[6] and Dr. Ahmad Amin[7] focus on the same concept, with Dr. Amin contending that Ali was seen as having the right to leadership on account of his nearness to the Prophet and his own personal merits.

However, Dr. Amin then advances the idea that although Shiaism began with the straightforward disagreement of the first three appointed caliphs, elements from Judaism, Christianity, and the Magians (the religion of the ancient Persians) caused it to deviate. He argues that since the Persians were forced to convert, they left the biggest footprints of their heritage on Shia Islam. However, this argument is not warranted.

To begin with, the majority of the new converts including the Persians followed the Sunni interpretation of Islam. Another important point is that it was not until the fifteenth century AD that Persia became a Shia nation. It is known that all of the Twelve Imams of the Shia are full-blooded Arabs from Quraysh (as the hadith from the Prophet said they would be), and the Shia, like the rest of the Muslims, are a mixture of Arab and non-Arab people. Muslims who come from non-Arab cultures enrich Islam as a whole in their own unique ways; thus, that influence is not limited to Shiaism, and many of the great scholars and narrators of the Sunni tradition, such as al-Bukhari come from non-Arab countries. Hence, the argument that Shiaism developed because of the influence of non-Islamic ideas, is in essence nothing more than a faulty attempt to marginalize the role of Shiaism in the Islamic history.

Some Sunni sources speculate Shia Islam emerged in the time between the death of the Prophet and the martyrdom of Imam Husayn in Karbala. Sunni historian Ibn Hazm suggested that Shiaism could have come about during the time of Uthman, while another Sunni historian, al-Nawbakhti and others say that Shiaism took form during the caliphate of Ali b. Abi Talib, specifically during the Battle of the Camel in Basra.[8] Still, a few others maintain that while the spiritual side of Shiaism developed after the death of the Prophet, the political dimension of Shiaism was born after the martyrdom of Imam Husayn.

In contrast, the majority of the Shia scholars hold that Shiaism first appeared in Mecca during the early stage of the prophethood of the last Messenger when Allah revealed the verse, “And warn your relatives of nearest kin.”[9] After this verse was revealed, the Holy Prophet invited forty members of his tribe (Bani Hashim) for a meal with him in the house of his uncle Abu Talib and then he informed them about his prophethood and asked who would support him. None responded except for Ali b. Abi Talib. The Holy Prophet repeated the question three times, but still none responded except Ali. At that time, the Holy Prophet put his hand on the shoulder of Ali and declared, “This is my brother, my legatee, and my successor (khalifah) over you, so listen to him and obey him.” The invited relatives laughed and teased the father of Ali because the Prophet had ordered him to obey his son.[10] Therefore, according to the Shia, all Muslims were ordered to follow Ali b. Abi Talib after the Holy Prophet; therefore, the subtle divide between those who did so willingly, and those who did not, marked the first definition
of Shia.

[1] Holy Qur’an, 98:7
[2] Al-Suyuti, Al-Durr al-Manthur, 6:376
[3] Inna hadha wa shiatuhu la-hum al-faizun yawm al-qiyamah.
[4] Tarikh Ibn Khaldun, 3:364
[5] Tarikh al-Yaqubi, 2:104
[6] Dr. Hasan Ibrahim, Tarikh al-Islam, 1:371
[7] Dr. Ahmad Amin, Fajr al-Islam, 266
[8] Firaq al-Shiah, p.16; Ibn al-Nadeem, Al-Fihrist, p.175
[9] Holy Qur’an, 26:214
[10] Ihqaq al-Haqq, 4:62; Tarikh al-Tabari, 2:117; Musnad Ahmad b. Hanbal, 1:159; Tarikh Abul Fida, 1:116; Nadhm Durar al-Simtayn, p.82; Kifayat al-Talib, p.205; Tarikh Madinat Dimishq, 1:87, hadith 139 & 143; Al-Hasakani, Shawahid al-Tanzil, 1:420; Muhammad b. Jarir al-Tabari, Jami al-Bayan, 19:131; Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti, Al-Durr al-Manthur, 5:97; Tafseer b. Kathir, 3:350; Al-Baghdadi, Tafseer al-Khazin, 3:371; Al-Alusi al-Baghdadi, Ruh al-Maani, 19:122; Al-Tantawi, Tafseer al-Jawahir, 13:103; Al-Hakim al-Naysaburi, Al-Mustadrak ala al-Sahihayn, 3:135. Other historical sources, such as Sirat al-Halabi, say that the Holy Prophet added, “And he will be my minister (wazir) and inheritor (warith).”

When Power and Piety Collide by Sayed Moustafa al-Qazwini

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