In the polemical writings of the Sunnis, it is asserted
that Sunni Islam is the "Orthodox Islam" whereas Shí'ism is
a "heretical sect" that began with the purpose of subverting
Islam from within. This idea is sometimes expressed by
saying that Shí'ism began as a political movement and later
on acquired religious emphasis.
This anti-Shí'a attitude is not limited to the writers of
the past centuries, even some Sunni writers of the present
century have the same views. Names like Abul Hasan 'Ali
Nadwi, Manzûr Ahmad Nu'mãni (both of India), Ihsãn Ilãhi
Zahír (of Pakistan), Muhibbu 'd-Dín al-Khatíb and Musa Jãr
Allãh (both from Middle East) come to mind.
It is not restricted to the circle of those that graduated
from religious seminaries and had not been in touch with the
so-called academic world. Ahmad Amin (of Egypt)
and Fazlur Rahman (of Pakistan) fall in this category.
Ahmad Amin, for example, writes:
"The truth is that Shí'ism is a refuge wherein which
everyone who wishes to destroy Islam on account of enmity
or envy takes shelter. As such, persons who wish to
introduce into Islam the teachings of their Jewish,
Christian or Zoroastrian ancestors achieve their nefarious
ends under the shelter of this faith."
Fazlur Rahman is an interesting case. After graduating
from the Universities of Punjab and Oxford, and teaching at
the Universities of Durham and McGill, he worked as the
Director of the Central Institute of Islamic Research in
Pakistan till 1968. He lost his position as the result of
the controversy arising from his view of the Qur'ãn. Then he
migrated to the United States and became Professor of
Islamic Studies at the University of Chicago. In his famous
book, Islam, used as a textbook for undergraduate
levels in Western universities, Dr. Fazlur Rahman presents
the following interpretation about the origin of Shí'ism:
"After 'Ali's assassination, the Shí'a (party) of 'Ali
in Kufa demanded that Caliphate be restored to the house
of the ill-fated Caliph. This legitimist claim on behalf
of the 'Ali's descendants is the beginning of the Shí'a
"This legitimism, i.e., the doctrine that headship of
the Muslim Community rightfully belongs to 'Ali and his
descendants, was the hallmark of the original Arab Shí'ism
which was purely political...
"Thus, we see that Shí'ism became, in the early history
of Islam, a cover for different forces of social and
political discontent...But with the shift from the Arab
hands to those of non-Arab origin, the original political
motivation developed into a religious sect with its own
dogma as its theological postulate...Upon this were
engrafted old oriental beliefs about Divine light and the
new metaphysical setting for this belief was provided by
Christian Gnostic Neoplatonic ideas."
He further comments: "This led to the formation of secret
sects, and just as Shí'ism served the purposes of the
politically ousted, so under its cloak the spiritually
displaced began to introduce their old ideas into Islam."
It is in this background that I find it extremely
difficult to understand how a learned scholar, from Shí'í
background, could echo somewhat similar ideas about the
origin of Shí'ism by writing:
"Most of these early discussions on the Imamate took at
first sight political form, but eventually the debate
encompassed the religious implications of salvation. This
is true of all Islamic concepts, since Islam as a
religious phenomenon was subsequent to Islam as a
"From the early days of the civil war in A.D. 656, some
Muslims not only thought about the question of leadership
in political terms, but also laid religious emphasis on
Referring to the support of shi'a of Kufa for the claim
of leaders for 'Alids, the learned author writes:
"This support for the leadership of the 'Alids, at
least in the beginning, did not imply any religious
underpinning...The claim of leadership of the 'Alids
became an exaggerated belief expressed in pious terms of
the traditions attributed to the Prophet, and only
gradually became part of the cardinal doctrine of the
Imamate, the pivot on which the complete Shí'ite creed
After explaining the failures and the martyrdom of the
religious leaders who rose against the authorities, he
"This marked the beginnings of the development of a
religious emphasis in the role of the 'Alid Imams..."
2. The Beginning of Islam
The Sunnis as well as the Shí'as believe that
Islam is primarily a religion whose teachings are not
limited to the spiritual realm of human life but also
encompass the political aspect of society. Inclusion of
political ideals in the religion of Islam does not mean that
Islam started or was basically a political movement. Look at
the life of Prophet Mohammad (s.a.w.). The Prophet's mission
began in Mecca. There is nothing in the pre-hijra
program of the Prophet that looks similar to a political
movement. It was primarily and fundamentally a religious
Only after the hijra, when the majority of the
people of Medina accepted Islam, the opportunity for
implementation of Islamic social order arose and so Prophet
Mohammad (s.a.w.) also assumed the position of the political
leader of the society. He signed agreements with other
tribes, sent ambassadors to kings and emperors, organized
armies and led Muslim forces, sat in judgement, appointed
governors, deputees, commanders, and judges, and he also
collected and distributed taxes. Nonetheless, Islam was
first a religious movement that later on encompassed
political aspects of society. So to say that "Islam as a
religious phenomenon was subsequent to Islam as a political
reality" is historically an incorrect statement.
3. The Origin of Shí'ism
The origin of Shí'ism is not separate from the origin of
Islam since the Prophet himself sowed its seed by
proclaiming the wisãya (successorship) and
khilãfat (caliphate) of 'Ali bin Abí Tãlib in the first
open call to Islam that he made in Mecca.
Islam began when the Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him
and his progeny) became forty years old. Initially, the
mission was kept a secret. Then three years after the advent
of Islam, the Prophet was ordered to commence the open
declaration of his message. This was the occasion when
Almighty Allãh revealed the verse "And warn thy nearest
relations." (The Qur'ãn 26:214)
When this verse was revealed, the Prophet organized a
feast that is known in history as "Summoning the Family -
Da'wat dhu 'l-'Ashira". The Prophet invited about forty
men from the Banu Hãshim and asked 'Ali bin Abi Tãlib to
make arrangements for the dinner. After having served his
guests with food and drinks, but the Prophet wanted to speak
to them about Islam, Abu Lahab forestalled him and said,
"Your host has long since bewitched you." All the guests
dispersed before the Prophet could present his message to
The Prophet then invited them the next day. After the
feast, he spoke to them, saying:
O Sons of 'Abdu 'l-Muttalib! By Allãh, I do not know of
any person among the Arabs who has come to his people with
better than what I have brought to you. I have brought to
you the good of this world and the next, and I have been
commanded by the Lord to call you unto Him. Therefore, who
amongst you will support me in this matter so that he may
be my brother (akhhí), my successor (wasiyyí)
and my caliph (khalifatí) among you?
This was the first time that the Prophet openly and
publicly called the relations to accept him as the Messenger
and Prophet of Allãh; he also uses the words "akhí wa
wasiyyí wa khalífatí- my brother, my successor, my
caliph" for the person who will aid him in this mission. No
one answered him; they all held back except the youngest of
them - 'Ali bin Abí Tãlib. He stood up and said, "I will be
your helper, O Prophet of God."
The Prophet put his hand on the back of 'Ali's neck and
"Inna hadhã akhhí wa wasiyyí wa khalífatí fíkum,
fasma'û lahu wa atí'û - Verily this is my brother, my
successor, and my caliph amongst you; therefore, listen to
him and obey."
This was the first explicit statement because the
audience understood the appointment of 'Ali very clearly.
Some of them, including Abu Lahab, even joked with Abu Tãlib
that your nephew, Mohammad, has ordered you to listen to
your son and obey him! At the least, this shows that the
appointment of 'Ali bin Abí Tãlib was clear and explicit,
not just implied.
After that, the Prophet at various places emphasized the
issue of loving his Ahlul Bayt, seeking guidance from them,
and drew the attention of the people to the special status
that they had in the eyes of God and His Messenger.
Finally, just two months before his death, the Prophet
clearly appointed 'Ali in Ghadir Khumm as the leader
(religious as well as political) of the Muslims. He said, "Whomsoever's
Master I am, this 'Ali is his Master." He also said, "I am
leaving two precious things behind, as long as you hold on
to them both you will never go astray: the Book of Allãh and
A lot has been discussed and written on these events. The
reader may refer to the following works in English:
- A Study on the Question of Al-Wilaya by Sayyid
Mohammad Bãqir as-Sadr, translated by Dr. P. Haseltine.
(This treatise was first translated in India under the
appropriate title: "Shí'ism: the Natural Product of
- The Origin of Shí'a and Its Principles by Mohammad
Husayn Kãshiful Ghitã'.
- Imamate: the Vicegerency of the Prophet by Sayyid
Saeed Akhtar Rizvi.
- Origins and Early Development of Shí'a Islam by S.
Hussain M. Jafri.
- The Right Path by Syed 'Abdulhussein Sharafuddin
- "The Meaning & Origin of Shí'ism" by Sayyid Saeed
Akhtar Rizvi in The Right Path, vol.1 (Jan-Mar
1993) # 3.
Anyone who reads these materials will see that the
beginning of Islam and Shí'ism was at the same time and
that, just like Islam, Shí'ism was a religious movement that
also encompassed social and political aspects of society. As
Dr. Jafri writes,
"When we analyse different possible relations which the
religious beliefs and the political constitution in Islam
bear to one another, we find the claims and the doctrinal
trends of the supporters of 'Ali more inclined towards the
religious aspects than the political ones; thus it seems
paradoxical that the party whose claims were based chiefly
on spiritual and religious considerations, as we shall
examine in detail presently, should be traditionally
labelled as political in origin."
It is indeed unthinkable that the famous companions of
the Prophet like Salmãn al-Fãrsi and Abu Dharr al-Ghifãri
thought of 'Ali primarily as a political leader, and only
later on started thinking of him as a religious leader also.
In his academic work, Islamic Messianism, the
learned scholar counts the civil war as the beginning of
"religious Shí'ism": "From the early days of the civil war
in A.D. 656, some Muslims not only thought about the
question of leadership in political terms, but also laid
religious emphasis on it."
But in his article that was presented in a community
gathering and published by one of the religious centers, he
places the beginning of Shí'ism from the time of Ghadir
Khumm. He writes, "The proclamation by the Prophet on that
occasion gave rise to the tension between the ideal
leadership promoted through the wilaya of Ali ibn Abi
Talib and the real one precipitated by human forces to
suppress the purposes of Allãh on earth."
This dichotomy between "the academician" and "the
believer" is indeed disturbing. May Almighty Allãh grant all
workers of the faith the confidence to stand for their faith
in all gatherings, of insiders as well as outsiders (fis
sirri wa 'l-'alãniyya).
4. The Name "Shí'a"
A follower of Islam is known as "Muslim" whereas a Muslim
who believes in Imam 'Ali as the immediate successor and
caliph of Prophet Mohammad (s.a.w.) is known as "Shí'a". The
term "Shí'a" is a short form of Shí'atu 'Ali -
follower of 'Ali".
Muslims take great pride in being affiliated to Prophet
Ibrãhím (a.s.), and rightly so. It is also a known fact
among Muslims that Prophet Ibrãhím was himself named as a
"Muslim" by Almighty Allãh.
"Ibrãhim was neither a Jew nor a Christian but he was a
sincere 'Muslim' (one who submits to Allãh), and he was not
one of the polytheists." (3:67)
What the people do not notice is that Almighty Allãh has
named Prophet Ibrãhím as a "Shí'a" also; of course, not "Shí'a
of 'Ali" but "Shí'a of Nûh". He says:
"Peace and salutation be to Nûh in the worlds...and most
surely among his followers ('shí'a') is Ibrãhím..."
So those who call themselves as "Muslims" and "Shí'as"
are actually following the tradition established by Almighty
Allãh in being called as "followers" of pious believers just
as Prophet Ibrãhím has been described as a follower of
* * *
 These writers represent
the Salafi/Wahhãbi camp, and their anti-Shí'a works have
been distributed world-wide with the courtesy of the petro-dollars
of certain Middle-Eastern countries, especially after the
Sunni masses started getting inspiration by the revolution
of Iran which was led by Shí'a 'ulamã'.
 Fajru 'l-Islãm, p. 33 as
quoted and then refuted by Mohammad Husayn Kãshiful 'l-Ghitã',
Aslu 'sh-Shí'a wa Usûluhã (Qum: Mu'assasa al-Imam 'Ali,
1415) p. 140, 142; also see the latter's English
translation, The Shí'a Origin and Faith (Karachi: Islamic
 Fazlur Rahman, Islam
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976) p. 171-172.
 Ibid, p. 173.
 Abdulaziz Abdulhussein
Sachedina, Islamic Messianism: The Idea of Mahdi in Twelver
Shí'ism (Albany: State University of New York, 1981) p. 4.
Dr. Sachedina studied at the Universities of Aligarh
(India), Mashhad (Iran) and Toronto. Islamic Messianism is a
revised version of his doctoral thesis presented to the
University of Toronto in 1976.
 Ibid, p. 5.
 Ibid, p. 6.
 Ibid, p. 18.
 For references of this
event and discussion on this event, see the chapter
"Self-Censorship in Muslim History".
 For further discussion
on the event of Ghadír Khumm, see the chapter "Ghadír Khumm
& the Orientalists" below. For authenticity of this version
of the hadíth (that is, "Book of Allãh and my progeny" as
opposed to "Book of Allãh and my sunnah"), see the Sunni
author, Hasan bin 'Ali as-Saqqãf, "The Book of Allãh and
What Else?" The Right Path, vol. 6 (# 3 & 4 Oct-Dec 1997) p.
 To this list we may
also add The Succession to Mohammad by Wilferd Madelung
published in 1997. This is the first study by a Western
scholar of high stature who acknowledges that the caliphate
of Abu Bakr was not unanimous, and that it was challenged by
'Ali bin Abi Tãlib and his followers. This is a new
breakthrough in Western/non-Muslim scholarship which till
now stated as a matter of fact that the Shí'a-Sunni dispute
started only after the civil war, that is after the murder
of 'Uthmãn bin 'Affãn and during the battle between Imam
'Ali and Mu'ãwiya.
 S. Hussain M. Jafri,
Origins and Early Development of Shí'a Islam (London:
Longmans, 1979) p. 2.
 Islamic Messianism, p.
 Sachedina, "Wilaya of
Imam Ali and its Theological-Juridical Implications for the
Islamic Political Thought" in Ghadir (Toronto: Islamic Shí'a
Ithna-'Asheri Jamaat & NASIMCO, 1990) p. 54.