The Shi’a

Nabbi Berri
Nabbi Berri; drawing by David Levine

The anger of the Shi’ite Muslims, of which so much has been heard of late, has a long history, going back to the beginnings of Islam and rooted in the very nature of Muslim religion and government. When the Prophet Muhammad died in the year 632 AD, he had founded a new religion. In doing this, he had also created a community, of which he was the leader and guide, and established a state, of which he was sovereign. He had begun his preaching in his birthplace, the oasis city of Mecca, and had won a number of disciples among its people. But the ruling oligarchy of Mecca rejected his message, and in 622 the Prophet and his disciples felt obliged, under growing pressure, to leave their homes and move to another oasis town, henceforth known as Medina.

The migration—in Arabic, hijra—of the Prophet and his companions marks the beginning of the Muslim era. In Medina the Prophet was welcomed by the townspeople, who made him their judge and eventually ruler. By this, his position, and in some measure even his teaching, were radically transformed. In Mecca he had been a critic and an opponent of authority, seeking to replace both the ruling hierarchy and its pagan beliefs, the one by the Muslims, the other by Islam. In Medina he himself was authority, and Islam was the dominant creed.

During the last ten years of his life Muhammad was the accepted ruler of the oasis and, increasingly, of the surrounding tribes, and as such performed the political, military, judicial, and other tasks associated with government. He was even able to extend the authority of the Muslim state in Medina over the surrounding desert tribes, and, before his death, to conquer his birthplace, Mecca, and incorporate it in the new Muslim polity. By his migration from Mecca to Medina, the Prophet was transformed from a rebel to a statesman; at the time of his death the state that he had founded was in the process of becoming an empire. His revelation, the Koran, reflects these changes. The earlier chapters, revealed in Mecca, are concerned with moral and religious issues. The later chapters, revealed in Medina, deal with law, taxation, warfare, and other public matters.

As Prophet, Muhammad could have no successor. He was in Muslim parlance “the seal of the Prophets,” and his book was the final and perfect form of God’s revelation to mankind. But as head of the new Islamic state he needed a successor—and quickly, if the state was not to collapse in anarchy and its people revert to paganism. A group of his closest and ablest companions took immediate action, and agreed on one of their number, Abu Bakr, who assumed the headship of the community and state. Monarchical titles were odious to the early Muslims, and Abu Bakr preferred to be known by the modest term khalifa,…

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