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, an Arabic word which, by an ultimately fortunate ambiguity, combines the meanings of deputy and successor. Thus was founded the great historic institution of the caliphate, which provided the political frame of the Islamic community for centuries to come. The first four caliphs, known in Muslim historiography as the Rightly Guided, were chosen from among the companions of the Prophet. Thereafter the caliphate became hereditary in two successive dynasties.
From the first, there were some who felt that Abu Bakr was not the best candidate, others who went further and condemned him as a usurper. Many of these saw in Ali ibn Abi Talib, the kinsman of the Prophet, husband of his daughter Fatima and the father of his grand-children, the true and only rightful successor. As the polity and community of Islam grew rapidly through conquest and conversion, its people were subjected to increasing strains, and growing numbers of them began to feel that Islam had been deflected from its true path, and that the Muslims were being led back into the paganism and injustice from which the Prophet had been sent to save them. For those who held such views, the reigning caliphs appeared more and more as tyrants and usurpers, while for many, the claims of the kin of the Prophet, embodied first in Ali and then in his descendants, came to express their hopes and aspirations for the overthrow of the corrupt existing order and a return to pure, authentic, and original Islam.
These tensions reached a crisis in the year 656 AD, when the murder of Uthman, the third caliph in succession to the Prophet, by a group of mutinous Muslim soldiers started the first of a series of civil wars that divided and devastated the Islamic state and community.
The issues in the first civil war were defined by the killing of the caliph. For one side, Uthman was the legitimate ruler of the Islamic state; those who killed him were murderers, and should be punished according to the law. For the other side, Uthman was a usurper and a tyrant; those who killed him were executioners, carrying out a just and necessary task, and entitled to protection. By granting them that protection, Ali, who succeeded Uthman as the fourth caliph, was in effect condoning an act for which he had in no way been responsible. In the civil war that followed, Ali himself, after some initial victories, was murdered in 661 AD, and the caliphate became hereditary in the house of Umayya, to which Uthman had belonged.
In time, those who accepted the legitimacy of the early caliphs came to be known as Sunni, from “sunna,” an Arabic word meaning usage or custom, and applied particularly to the body of precedent constituted by the actions and utterances of the Prophet and his immediate successors. These, handed down by tradition, were regarded as legally and religiously binding in Sunni Islam. Those opponents who followed Ali and his descendants came to be known by another Arabic word, Shi’a, meaning party or following—at first as the Shi’a of Ali, and then simply as the Shi’a. The individual adherent of this cause was called a Shi’i, or in common English usage, Shi’ite.
The Sunnis and the Shi’ites were by no means the only schools in early Islamic history, but they are by far the most important, with Sunnism as the dominant, mainstream form of Islam, and Shi’ism as the most powerful and challenging of the alternatives. Sunnis and Shi’ites faced each other in all the early civil wars and struggles, and for some time the outcome of the struggle between them for leadership and domination of the Islamic world was far from certain. It was not until the high Middle Ages that the Sunnis were able to establish themselves as the prevailing form of Islam, while the Shi’ites, more and more, came to be a minority associated with deviant doctrines and political dissent.
In its origins the Shi’a of Ali was thus primarily political—the supporters of a candidate for office, or of a family with claims to dynastic legitimacy. But in a religion as political as Islam, in a polity as religious as the early caliphate, a political party quickly and easily becomes a religious sect. In the course of this transformation, certain events in their history were of decisive importance, and gave rise to some of the characteristic and recurring features of the Shi’a.
In their own perception, the Shi’a were the opposition in Islam, the defenders of the oppressed, the critics and opponents of privilege and power. The Sunni Muslims, broadly speaking, stood for the status quo—the maintenance of the existing political, social, and above all religious order. They even had a doctrinal basis for this. After the death of the Prophet and the completion of the revelation vouchsafed to him, God’s guidance, in Sunni belief, passed from the Prophet to the Muslim community as a whole. According to a much quoted saying of the Prophet, “God will not allow my people to agree on an error.” The notion of consensus, embodied in this dictum, was the guiding principle of Sunni theology and jurisprudence, including the political and constitutional provisions of the holy law. History therefore, for the Sunni, is of profound importance, since the experience of the Sunni community reveals the working out of God’s purpose for mankind. In another much quoted saying, the Prophet urges the believer “not to separate himself from the community.” This gives a special, even a theological value to precedent and tradition, and makes conformism and obedience basic commandments. Failure to observe these is a sin as well as a crime.
In principle, the Shi’ite philosophy is the exact opposite. After the death of the Prophet, and still more after the murder of Ali thirty years later, history in the Shi’ite view took a wrong turning, and the Muslim community has, so to speak, been living in sin ever since. For the Sunni, obedience to authority is a divine commandment. For the Shi’ite, obedience to the existing authority is a political necessity, to be given only as long as it cannot be avoided. The Shi’ite doctrine of taqiya, dissimulation, even permits, under duress, some measure of conformity in doctrine and practice against Shi’ite principles, but only if this is necessary in order to survive. For the Shi’ite, therefore, obedience is owed as long as it can be exacted, and no longer.
For Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims alike, the life of the Prophet is a model and example (Koran, 33, 21). But while Sunnis find their prophetic model in the Prophet in Medina, in the Prophet as ruler, commander, and judge, the Shi’a in contrast find their inspiration in the Prophet in Mecca—as leader and spokesman of the oppressed and downtrodden, against the pagan ruling oligarchy. It would be an oversimplification to classify the Sunnis as the quietists, the Shi’a as the activists of Islam. During most of their history, the Shi’a have practiced dissimulation and submission rather than open opposition, while the Sunnis have their own doctrine of limited obedience, expressed in the prophetic saying, “there is no obedience in sin.” This was usually interpreted as meaning that when the ruler commands something which is contrary to God’s law, the Muslim’s duty of obedience lapses. Some even go on to argue that it is replaced by a duty of disobedience.
But the circumstances in which this principle might be invoked were never precisely defined, and in practice most Sunni jurists, even while recognizing the evils of the existing order, continued to preach conformism and submission, generally quoting yet another principle, that “tyranny is better than anarchy.” The Shi’a, on the other hand, even while submitting, maintained their principled rejection of the Sunni order, and from time to time, more frequently in the early centuries than in the later, rose in revolt in an attempt to overthrow the existing order and replace it with another more in accord with God’s purpose as revealed in Islam.