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, 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.

It was these revolts, and especially their almost invariable failure, that gave a distinctive quality to Shi’ite Islam. Certain recurring features may be seen especially in the participants, the tactics, the leadership, and the doctrines of these revolts. As challengers of the existing order, the Shi’a very naturally found their main support among those who saw themselves as oppressed by it, and Shi’ite writings lay great stress on their appeal to the wronged, the downtrodden, the deprived. While the Shi’a certainly had their own wealthy and learned families, their main following seems to have been among the artisans and workers in the cities and among peasants in the countryside. At certain periods, Shi’ite ideas had a considerable appeal for intellectuals. In most Muslim lands, the Shi’a were a minority. Even where they became a majority, with the exception of Iran, they remained in a subordinate position. A striking case is that of Iraq, where a Shi’ite majority has remained subject to a Sunni ascendancy—to borrow a word from Anglo-Irish history—that can be traced back from the present regime to the monarchy, the British Mandate, the Ottoman Empire, and beyond into the Middle Ages.

The one major political success gained by the Shi’a since the Middle Ages was the accession to power of the Shi’ite Safavid dynasty in Iran at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Until then, Iran, like most other Muslim countries, was predominantly Sunni. The Safavids and their supporters were fervent Shi’ites, and succeeded not only in imposing Shi’ism as the state doctrine of Iran, but also in winning the adherence of the majority of the population. In its initial phase, the Safavid movement belonged to a radical, extremist branch of the Shi’a, with millenarian overtones and far-reaching aspirations. These were contained by the surrounding Sunni powers in Turkey, central Asia, and India, and in due course were abandoned even in Iran. Before the sixteenth century, there were several other cases of Shi’ite leaders who succeeded in gaining power. But without exception, they failed to fulfill their promise. The great majority were ousted after a longer or shorter interval; the remainder, once established in power, forgot their earlier program, and conducted their affairs in ways not significantly different from those of the Sunnis whom they had overthrown.

The normal method of Shi’ite rebels was propaganda, followed by armed attack. In this too the career of the Prophet offered an example. Muhammad had begun by trying to win Mecca to his cause. Failing to do this, he had gone elsewhere, to Medina. There he had formed a new center of power, from which in time he was able to return as victor to Mecca and bring Islam to his native city. The Abbasid caliphs, whose origins were among the Shi’a, came to Baghdad via eastern Iran. The Fatimid caliphs, who began as leaders of a radical Shi’ite sect, came to Egypt via North Africa. More recently, the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in Iran via Neauphle-le-Château.

Most of the time, the Shi’ite preaching won only a limited response, while the armed insurrections that they launched were almost all suppressed by the vastly stronger armies of the Sunni state. From time to time there were some who found another way, which may be described either as tyrannicide or as terrorism; it was a method better suited to a movement whose numbers were few but whose followers were passionately devoted to their leaders. The killing of the caliph Uthman was the classical model of the removal of a ruler seen as unlawful and sinful. There were others after him.

The most famous of the terrorist groups was a small but important extremist Shi’ite sect, whose leaders were based in Iran and who established a branch in Syria during the twelfth century. Their method was to target and kill selected leaders, so as to terrorize others. They came to be known by the name of their Syrian branch, the Assassins (Arabic hashishiyya). The Crusaders brought stories of these dreaded sectaries back to Europe, where the word assassin acquired the generalized meaning of murderer, more particularly the dramatic murderer of a public figure. A medieval Persian poem, in praise of the Assassins, is revealing:

Brothers, when the time of triumph comes, with good fortune from both worlds as our companion, then by one single warrior on foot a king may be stricken with terror, though he own more than a hundred thousand horsemen.

Contrary to a widespread but erroneous belief, the Assassins were not primarily concerned with war against the Crusaders, and comparatively few Crusaders fell to their daggers. Their enemy was the Sunni establishment, and their purpose was to frighten, weaken, and finally overthrow it. Their victims were the princes and officers of the Sunni state, and the qadis and other dignitaries of the Sunni religious hierarchy. Their emissaries, with negligible exceptions, made no attempt to escape, but died in the accomplishment of their mission. This was indeed part of the mission, and added greatly to the terror which they struck.

Like all their predecessors, the Assassins failed. After a long, hard struggle their strongholds were captured, their leaders killed, and their followers gradually transformed into peaceful and law-abiding peasants, artisans, and merchants. They are mainly found today in India and Pakistan, with smaller communities in central Asia, Iran, Syria, and East Africa. They are known as Isma’ilis, and their religious head is the Aga Khan. The Isma’ilis, of whom there are several subsects, are a branch of the Shi’a. For some centuries in the Middle Ages, they were its most active and important branch, inspiring on the one hand the Fatimid caliphate which ruled in Egypt, on the other the dreaded Assassins of Iran and Syria, as well as a series of Muslim philosophers, theologians, and poets. But with the loss of their bases of power, they rapidly declined into one of the minor sects within the Shi’ite fold.

Their rise, efflorescence, and decline illustrate another characteristic aspect of Shi’ite history—the recurring tendency to split into rival and sometimes conflicting groups. In these conflicts among the Shi’a, as in the larger dispute between the Shi’a and the Sunni Muslims, the original issue was a political one—the question of leadership. All the Shi’a were at one in rejecting the Sunni caliph, but they often differed among themselves over his replacement. Virtually all agreed that the rightful ruler should be of the kin of the Prophet, through his daughter Fatima and his son-in-law Ali. But which? There were many claimants, each with his own following and disciples. The term which the Shi’a used for these claimants was “imam,” from an Arabic word whose root meaning is “in front of” or “before.” In Shi’ite usage it came to have an almost sacred significance. While the Sunni caliph was, theoretically at least, chosen by the faithful from among their own numbers, the Shi’ite imam was believed to be divinely appointed from among the descendants of the Prophet. The Sunni caliph held a religious office in the sense that it was established and regulated by holy law, but he was not a man of religion and had no legal power to modify or even interpret that law, which it was his primary duty to maintain and enforce.

While the Sunni caliph exercised religious but not spiritual authority, the Shi’ite imam was accorded a spiritual status by his followers, who saw in him the continuing embodiment of God’s guidance to the believers. As one imam pretender after another followed the path of insurrection and defeat, they acquired, in the perception of their followers, an almost Christ-like quality, with the related themes of betrayal and suffering, passion and martyrdom, and even, ultimately, return.

From an early date two motifs become characteristic of insurrectionary Shi’ism—concealment and return. The imam is not really defeated and dead; he has been hidden away by God. And in God’s good time he will return and establish the Kingdom of God on earth. In a much quoted dictum, also attributed to the Prophet, “one of my descendants will arise and fill the world with justice and equity as it is now filled with injustice and tyranny.” This kind of messianism is not unknown in Sunni Islam, where similar conditions produced similar results, but it is wholly characteristic of the Shi’a, for whom it forms a central theme.

After many early disagreements about the imamate, most of the Shi’a agreed on a sequence of twelve imams. These consist of Ali, his sons Hasan and Husayn, and the latter’s descendants down to the twelfth imam, known as Muhammad al-Mahdi, who disappeared in about the year 873 AD. Some branches of the Shi’a have recognized other imams, notably some of the Isma’ilis, whose line of imams has continued to the present day. But the great majority of the Shi’a are known as Twelvers, because of their acceptance of the twelve imams. They believe that the twelfth imam went into concealment and it is he who will return, as mahdi, at the end of time.

While, therefore, there will be no more imams in this special sense for the Twelver Shi’a, the word “imam” has continued to be used, rather loosely, by both Sunnis and Shi’ites, for other religious teachers and leaders, and even for the local officiant who leads prayers in the mosque. There may therefore at times be some uncertainty whether the term “imam” is being used in this lesser sense, or whether it implies a more far-reaching, indeed an eschatological claim. The imam Khomeini has been asked about this, more than once, and has so far given no clear answer.

The great age of the Shi’a, whether as an intellectual force challenging existing orthodoxies, or as an insurrectionary movement seeking to overthrow the existing order, had ended by the thirteenth century. Since then, its one great success was the takeover of Iran in the sixteenth century, and that was in time limited to one country and modified even there.

The Shi’a have remained a minority in the Islamic world as a whole, as well as in most Muslim countries. In the African continent, among Arab and black Muslims alike, Shi’ism is little known. It is represented only by Indian and Pakistani immigrants in East Africa. Shi’ites are equally scarce in Southeast Asia. As one might expect, the largest Shi’ite populations are in the countries around or near Iran—in the Indian subcontinent, in Afghanistan and central Asia, in Iraq and the Gulf. The Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, which until its annexation by the Russian empire was an Iranian province, is overwhelmingly Shi’ite. In Syria there are no Twelver Shi’a, but three of the other branches of the Shi’a are represented—the Druse, the Isma’ilis, and the Alawis, also known as the Nusayris, to which President Asad and many of his closest associates belong. There are also Isma’ili and other non-Twelver Shi’a in Yemen. The Shi’a of Lebanon, for long known as the Matawila, are the only important group of Twelver Shi’a west of Iraq and the gulf province of Saudi Arabia. For a long time, the Lebanese Shi’a, consisting mostly of impoverished peasants, have been the forgotten men, both within the Lebanese political system and within the larger Shi’ite community. They are changing all that now.

Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims share the same basic beliefs in the unity of God, the apostolate of Muhammad, the finality and perfection of the Koranic revelation, and the principles and obligations of the holy law. Apart from the crucial issue of the imamate, there are no major theological differences between them, and only relatively minor differences of ritual and law—though the latter, in such social matters as marriage and inheritance, may at times acquire a disproportionate significance. There is thus no meaning to the parallels that are sometimes drawn between the Sunni-Shi’a cleavage in Islam and the schisms and heresies that have riven the world of Christendom. The original difference in Islam was political, concerning candidates for office. But in the course of the centuries, as the two main groups grew apart, other differences arose, the most important of which were psychological and emotional—the differences of mood and direction resulting from their greatly different experience. This is true not only of the differences between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, but also of the many disagreements that arose among the Shi’a themselves, dividing them into innumerable schools and sects. Here too the differences were in origin political—about which of several claimants was the rightful imam, the rightful head of Shi’ite and ultimately of all Islam. And here again, in the course of time, other differences—in belief and practice, in tactics and strategy—were added.

One of the most important of these is a recurring tension between what some have called the moderates and extremists, others, more accurately, the pragmatists and radicals. Differences of this kind underlie the original parting of the Twelver and other Shi’ites; they reappear within each of the two camps, and continue in a multiplicity of splits and sectarian groups. Broadly speaking, the pragmatists were those who recognized existing political facts and were willing to make what they saw as the necessary accommodations. When the Sunni order was too strong to be shaken, this meant resigning themselves to the role of a kind of loyal opposition. When they were able to seize power, it meant accepting the compromises that the continued exercise of power necessarily entailed. And at every stage, both in opposition and in government, the pragmatists were attacked by new groups of radical Islamic purists who saw them as betrayers of the true cause, and as imitators of the impious regimes which it was their primary task to destroy and replace. The same conflicts between pragmatists and radicals can be seen at the present day—in Iran, between those who are satisfied with Shi’ism in one country and with an Iranian foreign policy and those dedicated to the universal Islamic revolution; in Lebanon, between those committed to specific objectives within the Lebanese political system and those who share the Iranian radical dream.

This Issue

August 15, 1985