Shiism in the Course of History 1

Shiism in the Course of History 1

Scholars and researchers have expressed different views concerning the birth of Shiism and its first appearance. Others too have attempted to evaluate it, approaching it from the point of view of their respective ideological and intellectual predispositions. Some people believe that Shiism arose after the death of the Messenger of Allah, (PBUH&HP), and that its defining essence took shape when his Companions set about selecting his successor. Thus, the historian al-Ya'qubi writes: "A number of the Migrants and the Helpers refused to swear allegiance to Abu Bakr, inclined as they were to favor Imam Ali (PBUH).
al-'Abbas b. 'Abd al-Muttalib, al-Fadl b. al-'Abbas, al-Zubayr, Khalid b. Sa'id, al-Miqdad, Salman, Abu Dharr, 'Ammar, al-Bara'a, Ubayy b. Ka'b were part of this group."(1)

al-Mas'udi, also a famous historian, writes: "Salman al-Farisi was a Shi'i from the very outset, and 'Ammar b. Yasir was known as a Shi'i throughout his life. When 'Uthman was elected to the caliphate, he remarked: 'It is not the first time you have denied the caliphate to the one deserving it!' Abu Dharr was similarly an outstanding proponent of Shiism."(2)

Another group of scholars place the emergence of Shiism during the caliphate of Imam Ali (PBUH), while others suggest that it began to take root towards the end of the caliphate of 'Uthman. Still others regard Imam al-Sadiq, (PBUH), as the founder of Sh i'ism. Some people again imagine Shiism to be the result of a wish for revenge nurtured by the Iranians, so that its origins may be considered essentially political.
Then there are those who see in Shiism a contingent phenomenon in Islamic society and history, without any strong presence or substance. They imagine it to have gradually expanded in Islamic society as the result of certain social and political developments at a relatively advanced point in Islamic history, There are even those who assert this segment of the Islamic ummah to be the brainchild of an imaginary personality by the name of 'Abdullah b. Saba', basing on this assumption all their judgements concerning Shiism and concluding that Shiism is nothing more than an anomaly.(3)

Theories such as this amount to nothing more than obstinate calumnies, perpetrated to conceal the truth; or at the very best they spring from complete ignorance of the true culture of Shiism and its rich heritage.
Dr. Taha Husayn, a well-known Egyptian and therefore Sunni scholar, writes: "The fact that the historians make no mention of Ibn al-Sawda' i.e., 'Abdullah b. Saba' being present at the battle of Siffin together with his followers proves at the very least that the whole notion of a group of people led by him is a baseless fabrication. It is one of those inventions that acquired currency when the conflict between the Shi'is and other Islamic groups intensified. In order to underline their hostility, the enemies of the Shi'ah tried to insert a Jewish element into the origins of their sect. If the story of 'Abdullah b. Saba ' had any basis in historical fact, his cunning and guile could not have failed to show itself at the battle of Siffin.

"I can think of only one reason for his name not occurring in connection with that battle: that he was an entirely fictitious person, dreamed up by the enemies of the Shi'ah in order to vilify them."(4) Similarly, Dr. 'Ali al-Wardi, professor of history at Baghdad University, writes: "Did Ibn Saba' actually exist or was he an imaginary personalitya For those who wish to study the social history of Islam and draw the appropriate conclusions, this is an extremely important question. It is claimed that Ibn Saba' incited unrest, but no such person ever existed. The whole story is reminiscent of the claim made by the Quraysh at the beginning of the Prophet's mission, (PBUH&HP), that he received his teachings from a Christian slave by the name of Jabr and based his preaching on the instruction he received from him."(5)

Muhammad Kurd 'Ali, another Sunni scholar, writes: "Some of the well-known Companions who at the dawn of Islam followed Imam Ali, (PBUH), became known as the Shi'ah. What can be deduced from the written sources is that certain shortsighted people regarded Shiism as a collection of innovations and fabrications stitched together by a person known Abdullah b. Saba' or Ibn al-Sawda'. However, there can be no doubt that this view of things is pure superstition and fantasy, for this Abdullah b. Saba ' the Jew exists only in the world of the imagination. Any attempt to link the origins of Shiism to him must be regarded as a sign of pure ignorance."(6)

In contrast to all the opinions reviewed so far, one group of scholars believe Shiism to have been first expounded by none other than the Prophet himself, (PBUH&HP), and that it was established in conformity with his command. Hasan b. Musa al-Nawbakhti and Sa'd b. Abdullah write: "The party of Imam Ali (PBUH), was the first to emerge in the time of the Prophet, (PBUH&HP), and it became known as the Shi'ah (partisans) of Imam Ali. It was known that they favored, Imam Ali for the leadership of the community and that they were his devoted companions. al-Miqdad, Salman, Abu Dharr and 'Ammar belonged to this group, and they were the first to be called Shi'i. Use of the word Shi'ah was not new; it had been applied in the past to the followers of some prophets such as Nuh, Ibrahim, Musa, and 'Isa."(7)

This view is confirmed by numerous Shi'i scholars, and there are many traditions to the effect that the Prophet, (PBUH&HP), applied the name Shi'ah to the companions and followers of Imam Ali, (PBUH).
When discussing the occasion for the revelation of this verse, "Certainly those who believe in the One God and who do good deeds are in truth the best people in the world.",(8) Sunni exegetes (mufassirin) and traditionists (muhaddithin) report Jabir b. 'Abdullah to have said: "One day I came to the presence of the Prophet (PBUH&HP), Imam Ali entered the room, causing the Prophet to remark, 'My brother has come. I swear by God that this man and his Shi'ah (supporters) will be among the saved on the Day of Resurrection."(9)

al-Tabari, the well-known Sunni exegete and historian, also remarks in connection with the same verse that the Prophet used the word Shi'ah when referring to the supporters of Imam Ali.
There is then prophetic authority for designating the followers of Imam Ali, those who were particularly devoted to him, as Shi'ah.

We thus see that the word Shi'ah is essentially coterminous with Islam itself, for the Prophet himself used it If we sometimes use the designation Ja'fari Sh i'ism, this is on account of the exertions made by Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq to disseminate the culture of Islam and Sh i'ism. The struggles for power that were taking place in his lifetime afforded him a suitable opportunity to confront the political conditions of his environment. The various ideas that were gaining currency and the foreign elements such as analogical reasoning and preference that had entered Islamic jurisprudence caused him to embark on a program of teaching and reform.

Muhammad Fikri Abu 'l-Nasr, a well-known Egyptian Sunni author, has the following to say with respect to the essence of Shiism: "In its theological principles, Shiism has nothing to do with Abu 'l-Hasan al-Ash'ari, and in its detailed legal provisions nothing to do with any of the four Sunni schools of law. For the school established by the Imams of the Shi'ah is more ancient, and therefore more reliable and more deserving to be followed than the other schools. All Muslims followed their school for the first three centuries of Islam. The Shi'ah school of law is also more worth following because in it the gate of independent reasoning (ijtihad) will remain open until resurrection, and because its formation was totally uninfluenced by political factors and struggles."(10)

Continue in the next article: ()



1. al-Ya'qubi, al-Tarikh, Vol. II, p. 114.

2. al-Mas'udi, Murujal-Dhahab.

3. For more details concerning this mythical personality, see Murtada al-'Askari, 'Abdullah bin Saba '.

4. Taha Husayn, al-Fitnat al-Kubra, Vol. II, p.90.

5. Cited in Dr. Haykal, Hayat Muhammad, p. 136.

6. Kurd 'Ali, Khitat al-Sham, Vol. VI, p. 246.

7. al-Nawbakhti, al-Maqalat wa al-Firaq, p. 15.

8. (98:7)

9. Ibn Hajar, al-Sawa'iq, Chapter I; al-Khwarazmi, al-Manaqib, p. 66; al-Hamawini, Fara'id al-simtayn, Vol. I, Chapter 13; al-Qunduzi, Yanabi' al-Mawaddah, Chapter 56; Ibn al-Sabbagh, Fusul al-Muhimmah, p. 105; al-Ganji, Kifayat al-Talib, p. 118.

10. Cited in al-Muraja'at, p. 10.