History of Shi'ism
By: Sayyid Mohammad Hossein Tabatabai
The origin and Growth of Shi'ism
Shi'ism began with a reference made for the first time to the partisans of Ali (shi'ah-i 'Ali), the first leader of the Household of the Prophet, during the lifetime of the Prophet himself. The course of the first manifestation and the later growth of Islam during the twenty-three years of prophecy brought about many conditions which necessitated the appearance of a group such as the Shi'ites among the companions of the Prophet.
The Holy Prophet during the first days of his prophecy, when according to the text of the Quran he was commanded to invite his closer relatives to come to his religion, told them clearly that whoever would be the first to accept his invitation would become his successor and inheritor. Ali was the first to step forth and embrace Islam. The Prophet accepted Ali's submission to the faith and thus fulfilled his promise.
From the Shi'ite point of view it appears as unlikely that the leader of a movement, during the first days of his activity, should introduce to strangers one of his associates as his successor and deputy but not introduce him to his completely loyal and devout aides and friends. Nor does it appear likely that such a leader should accept someone as his deputy and successor and introduce him to others as such, but then throughout his life and religious call deprive his deputy of his duties as deputy, disregard the respect due to his position as successor, and refuse to make any distinctions between him and others.
The Prophet, according to many unquestioned and completely authenticated hadiths, both Sunni and Shi'ite, clearly asserted that Ali was preserved from error and sin in his actions and sayings. Whatever he said and did was in perfect conformity with the teachings of religion and he was the most knowledgeable of men in matters pertaining to the Islamic sciences and injunctions.
During the period of prophecy Ali performed valuable services and made remarkable sacrifices. When the infidels of Mecca decided to kill the Prophet and surrounded his house, the Holy Prophet decided to emigrate to Medina. He said to Ali, "Will you sleep in my bed at night so that they will think that I am asleep and I will be secure from being pursued by them?" Ali accepted this dangerous assignment with open arms. This has been recounted in different histories and collections of hadith. (The emigration from Mecca to Medina marks the date of origin of the Islamic calendar, known as the hijrah.) Ali also served by fighting in the battles of Badr, Uhud, Khaybar, Khandaq, and Hunayn in which the victories achieved with his aid were such that if Ali had not been present the enemy would most likely have uprooted Islam and the Muslims, as is recounted in the usual histories, lives of the Prophet, and collections of hadith.
For Shi'ites, the central evidence of Ali's legitimacy as successor to the Prophet is the event of Ghadir Khumm when the Prophet chose Ali to the "general guardianship" (walayat-i 'ammah) of the people and made Ali, like himself, their "guardian" (wali).
It is obvious that because of such distinctive services and recognition, because of Ali's special virtues which were acclaimed by all, and because of the great love the Prophet showed for him, some of the companions of the Prophet who knew Ali well, and who were champions of virtue and truth, came to love him. They assembled around Ali and followed him to such an extent that many others began to consider their love for him excessive and a few perhaps also became jealous of him. Besides all these elements, we see in many sayings of the Prophet reference to the "shi'ah of Ali" and the "shi'ah of the Household of the Prophet."
The Cause of the Separation of the Shi'ite Minority from the Sunni Majority
The friends and followers of Ali believed that after death of the Prophet the caliphate and religious authority (marja'iyat-i 'ilmi) belonged to Ali. This belief came from their consideration of Ali's position and station in relation to the Prophet, his relation to the chosen among the companions, as well as his relation to Muslims in general. It was only the events that occurred during the few days of the Prophet's final illness that indicated that there was opposition to their view. Contrary to their expectation, at the very moment when the Prophet died and his body lay still unburied, while his household and a few companions were occupied with providing for his burial and funeral service, the friends and followers of Ali received news of the activity of another group who had gone to the mosque where the community was gathered faced with this sudden loss of their leader. This group, which was later to form the majority, set forth in great haste to select a caliph for the Muslims with the aim of ensuring the welfare of the community and solving its immediate problems. They did this without consulting the Household of the Prophet, his relatives or many of his friends, who were busy with the funeral, and without providing them with the least information. Thus Ali and his companions were presented with a fait accompli.
Ali and his friends - such as 'Abbas, Zubayr, Salman, Abu Dharr, Miqdad and 'Ammar - after finishing with the burial of the body of the Prophet became aware of the proceedings by which the caliph had been selected. They protested against the act of choosing the caliph by consultation or election, and also against those who were responsible for carrying it out. They even presented their own proofs and arguments, but the answer they received was that the welfare of the Muslims was at stake and the solution lay in what had been done.
It was this protest and criticism which separated from the majority the minority that were following Ali and made his followers known to society as the "partisans" or "shi'ah" of Ali. The caliphate of the time was anxious to guard against this appellation being given to the Shi'ite minority and thus to have Muslim society divided into sections comprised of a majority and a minority. The supporters of the caliph considered the caliphate to be a matter of the consensus of the community (ijma') and called those who objected the "opponents of allegiance." They claimed that the Shi'ah stood, therefore, opposed to Muslim society. Sometimes the Shi'ah were given other pejorative and degrading names.
Shi'ism was condemned from the first moment because of the political situation of the time and thus it could not accomplish anything through mere political protest. Ali, in order to safeguard the well-being of Islam and of the Muslims, and also because of lack of sufficient political and military power, did not endeavor to begin an uprising against the existing political order, which would have been of a bloody nature. Yet those who protested against the established caliphate refused to surrender to the majority in certain questions of faith and continued to hold that the succession to the Prophet and religious authority belonged by right to Ali. They believed that all spiritual and religious matters should be referred to him and invited people to become his followers.
The Two Problems of Succession and Authority in Religious Sciences
In accordance with the Islamic teachings which form its basis, Shi'ism believed that the most important question facing Islamic society was the elucidation and clarification of Islamic teachings and the tenets of the religious sciences. Only after such clarifications were made could the application of these teachings to the social order be considered. In other words, Shi'ism believed that, before all else, members of society should be able to gain a true vision of the world and of men based on the real nature of things. Only then could they know and perform their duties as human beings - in which lay their real welfare - even if the performance of these religious duties were to be against their desires. After carrying out this first step a religious government should preserve and execute real Islamic order in society in such a way that man would worship none other than God, would possess personal and social freedom to the extent possible, and would benefit from true personal and social justice.
These two ends could be accomplished only by a person who was inerrant and protected by God from having faults. Otherwise people could become rulers or religious authorities who would not be free from the possibility of distortion of thought or the committing of treachery in the duties placed upon their shoulders. Were this to happen, the just and freedom-giving rule of Islam could gradually be converted to dictatorial rule and a completely autocratic government. Moreover, the pure religious teachings could become, as can be seen in the case of certain other religions, the victims of change and distortion in the hands of selfish scholars given to the satisfaction of their carnal desires. As confirmed by the Holy Prophet, Ali followed perfectly and completely the Book of God and the tradition of the Prophet in both words and deeds. As Shi'ism sees it, if, as the majority say, only the Quraysh opposed the rightful caliphate of Ali, then that majority should have answered the Quraysh by asserting what was right. They should have quelled all opposition to the right cause in the same way that they fought against the group who refused to pay the religious tax (zakat). The majority should not have remained indifferent to what was right for fear of the opposition of the Quraysh.
What prevented the Shi'ah from accepting the elective method of choosing the caliphate by the people was the fear of the unwholesome consequences that might result from it: fear of possible corruption in Islamic government and of the destruction of the solid basis for the sublime religious sciences. As it happened, later events in Islamic history confirmed this fear (or prediction), with the result that the Shi'ites became ever firmer in their belief. During the earliest years, however, because of the small number of its followers, Shi'ism appeared outwardly to have been absorbed into the majority, although privately it continued to insist on acquiring the Islamic sciences from the Household of the Prophet and to invite people to its cause. At the same time, in order to preserve the power of Islam and safeguard its progress, Shi'ism did not display any open opposition to the rest of Islamic society. Members of the Shi'ite community even fought hand in hand with the Sunni majority in holy wars (jihad) and participated in public affairs. Ali himself guided the Sunni majority in the interest of the whole Islam whenever such action was necessary.
Divisions within shi'ism
Each religion possesses a certain number of primary principles which form its essential basis and other principles of secondary importance. When the followers of a religion differ as to the nature of the primary principles and their secondary aspects but preserve a common basis, the result is called division (inshi'ab) within that religion. Such divisions exist in all traditions and religions, and more particularly in the four "revealed" religions of Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Islam.
Shi'ism did not undergo any divisions during the imamate of the first three Imams: Ali, Hasan, and Husayn. But after the martyrdom of Husayn, the majority of the Shi'ites accepted the imamate of Ali ibn Husayn al-Sajjad, while a minority known as the Kisaniyah believed that the third son of Ali, Muhammad ibn Hanafiyah, was the fourth Imam as well as the promised Mahdi, and that he had gone into occultation in the Radwa mountains and one day would reappear. After the death of Imam al-Sajjad the majority of the Shi'ites accepted as Imam his son, Muhammad al-Baqir, while a minority followed Zayd al-Shahid, another son of Imam al-Sajjad, and became known as Zaydis. Following Imam Muhammad al-Baqir, the Shi'ites accepted his son Ja'far al-Sadiq as Imam and after the death of Imam Ja'far the majority followed his son Imam Musa al-Kazim as the seventh Imam. However, one group followed the older son of the sixth Imam, Isma'il, who had died while his father was still alive, and when this latter group separated from the majority of Shi'ites it became known as Isma'ilis. Others accepted as Imam either 'Abdollah al-Aftah or Muhammad, both sons of the sixth Imam. Finally, another party stopped with the sixth Imam himself and considered him as the last Imam. In the same way, after the martyrdom of Imam Musa al-Kazim the majority followed his son, Ali al-Rida, as the eight Imam. However, some stopped with the seventh Imam and became known as the Waqifiyah.
From the eighth Imam to the twelfth, whom the majority of the Shi'ites believe to be the promised Mahdi, no division of any importance took place within Shi'ism. Even if certain events occurred in the form of division, they lasted but a few days and dissolved by themselves. For example, Ja'far, the son of the tenth Imam, claimed to be Imam after the death of his brother, the eleventh Imam. A group of people followed him but scattered in a few days and Ja'far himself did not follow his claim any further. Further more, there are differences between Shi'ites in theological and juridical matters which must not be considered as division in religious schools. Also the Babi and Baha'i sects, which like the Batinis (the Qaramitah) differ in both the principles (usul) and branches (furu') of Islam from the Muslims, should in any sense be considered as branches of Shi'ism.
The sects which separated from the majority of Shi'ites all dissolved within a short period, except two: the Zaydi and the Isma'ili which continue to exist until now. To this day communities of these branches are active in various parts of the world such as the Yemen, India, and Syria. Therefore, we shall limit our discussion to these two branches along with the majority of Shi'ites who are Twelvers.
Zaydism and Its Branches
The Zaydis are the followers of Zayd al-Shahid, the son of Imam al-Sajjad. Zayd rebelled in 121/737 against the Umayyad caliph Hisham 'Abd al-Malik and a group paid allegiance to him. A battle ensued in Kufa between Zayd and the army of the caliph in which Zayd was killed.
The followers of Zayd regard him as the fifth Imam of the Household of the Prophet. After him his son, Yahya ibn Zayd, who rebelled against the caliph Walid ibn Yazid and was also killed, took his place. After Yahya, Muhammad ibn 'Abdallah and Ibrahim ibn 'Abdallah, who revolted against the Abbasid caliph Mansur al-Dawaniqi and were also killed, were chosen as Imams.
Henceforth for some time there was disorder in Zaydi ranks until Nasir al-Utrush, a descendant of the brother of Zayd, arose in Khurasan. Being pursued by the governmental authorities in that region, he fled to Mazandaran, becoming himself Imam. For some time his descendants continued to rule as Imams in that area.
According to Zaydi belief any descendant of Fatimah (the daughter of the Prophet) who begins an uprising in the name of defending the truth may become Imam if he is learned in the religious sciences, ethically pure, courageous and generous. Yet for some time after Utrush and his descendants there was no Imam who could bring about an insurrection with the sword until recently when, about sixty years ago, Imam Yahya revolted in the Yemen, which had been part of the Ottoman Empire, made it independent, and began to rule there as Imam. His descendants continued to rule in that region as Imams until very recently.
At the beginning the Zaydis, like Zayd himself, considered the first two caliphs, Abu Bakr and Umar, as their Imams. But after a while some of them began to delete the name of the first two caliphs from the list of Imams and placed Ali as the first Imam.
From what is known of Zaydi beliefs it can be said that in the principles of Islam (usul) they follow a path close to that of the Mu'tazilites, while in the branches or derivative institutions of the law (furu') they apply the jurisprudence of Abu Hanifah, the founder of one of the four Sunni schools of law. They also differ among themselves concerning certain problems.
Isma'ilism and Its Branches
Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq had a son named Isma'il who was the oldest of his children. Isma'il died during the lifetime of his father who summoned witnesses to his death, including the governor of Medina. Concerning this question , some believed that Isma'il did not die but went into occultation, that he would appear again and would be the promised Mahdi. They further believed that the summoning of witnesses on the part of the Imam for Isma'il's death was a way of hiding the truth in fear of al-Mansur, the Abbasid caliph. Another group believed that the true Imam was Isma'il whose death meant the imamate was transferred to his son Muhammad. A third group also held that although he died during the lifetime of his father he was the Imam and that the imamate passed after him to Muhammad ibn Isma'il and his descendants. The first two groups soon became extinct, while the third branch continues to exist to this day and has undergone a certain amount of division.
The Isma'ilis have a philosophy in many ways similar to that of the Sabaeans (star worshippers) combined with elements of Hindu gnosis. In the sciences and decrees of Islam they believe that each exterior reality (zahir) has an inner aspect (batin) and each element of revelation (tanzil) a hermeneutic and esoteric exegesis (ta'wil).
The Isma'ilis believe that the earth can never exist without Proof (hujjah) of God. The Proof is two kinds: "speaker" (natiq) and "silent one" (samit). The speaker is a prophet and the silent one is an Imam or Guardian (wali) who is the inheritor, or executor of the testament (wasi) of a prophet. In any case the Proof of God is the perfect theophany of the Divinity.
The principle of the Proof of God revolves constantly around the number seven. A prophet (nabi), who is sent by God, has the function of prophecy (nubuwwat), of bringing a Divine Law or Shari'ah. A prophet, who is the perfect manifestation of God, has the esoteric power of initiating men into the divine Mysteries (walayat). After him there are seven executors of his testament (wasayat) and the power of esoteric initiation into the Divine Mysteries (walayat). The seventh in the succession possesses those two powers and also the additional power of prophecy (nubuwwat). The cycle of seven executors (wasis) is then repeated with the seventh a prophet.
The Isma'ilis say that Adam was sent as a prophet with the power of prophecy and of esoteric guidance and he had seven executors of whom the seventh was Noah, who had the three functions of nubuwwat, wasayat, and walayat. Abraham was the seventh executor (wasi) of Noah, Moses the seventh executor of Abraham, Jesus the seventh executor of Moses, Muhammad the seventh executor of Jesus, and Muhammad ibn Isma'il the seventh executor of Muhammad.
They consider the wasis of the Prophet to be: Ali, Husayn ibn Ali (they do not consider Imam Hasan among the Imams), Ali ibn Husayn al-Sajjad, Muhammad al-Baqir, Ja'far al-Sadiq, Isma'il ibn Ja'far, and Muhammad ibn Isma'il. After this series there are seven descendants of Muhammad ibn Isma'il whose names are hidden and secret. After them there are the first seven rulers of the Fatimid caliphate of Egypt the first of whom, 'Ubaydallah al-Mahdi, was the founder of the Fatimid dynasty. The Isma'ilis also believe that in addition to the Proof of God there are always present on earth twelve "chiefs" (naqib) who are the companions and elite followers of the Proof. Some of the branches of the Batinis, however, like the Druzes, believe six of the "chiefs" to be from the Imams and six from others.
In the year 278/891, a few years before the appearance of Ubaydallah al-Mahdi in North Africa, there appeared in Kufa an unknown person from Khuzistan (in southern Persia) who never revealed his name and identity. He would fast during the day and worship at night and made a living from his own labor. In addition he invited people to join the Isma'ili cause and was able to assemble a large number of people about him. From among them he chose twelve "chiefs" (naqib) and then he set out for Damascus. Having left Kufa he was never heard of again.
This unknown man was replaced by Ahmad, known as the Qaramite, who began to propagate Batini teachings in Iraq. As the historians have recorded, he instituted two daily prayers in place of the five of Islam, removed the necessity of ablution after sexual intercourse, and made the drinking of wine permissible. Contemporary with these events, other Batini leaders rose to invite people to join their cause and assembled a group of followers.
The Batinis had no respect for the lives and possessions of those who were outside their group. For this reason they began uprisings in the cities of Iraq, Bahrain, the Yemen, and Syria, spilling the blood of people and looting their wealth. Many times they stopped the caravans of those who were making the pilgrimage to Mecca, killing tens of thousands of pilgrims and plundering their provisions and camels.
Abu Tahir al-Qaramati, one of the Qaramite leaders who in 311/923 had conquered Basra and did not neglect to kill and plunder, set out with a large number of Batinis for Mecca in 317/929. After overcoming the brief resistance of government troops he entered the city and massacred the population as well as the newly arrived pilgrims. Even within the Masjid al-haram (the mosque containing the Ka'bah) and within the Holy Ka'bah itself, there flowed streams of blood. He divided the covering of the Ka'bah between his disciples. He tore away the door of the Ka'bah and took the black stone from its place back to the Yemen. For twenty-two years the black stone was in Qaramite hands. As a result of these actions the majority of Muslims turned completely away from the Batinis and considered them outside the pale of Islam. Even 'Ubaydallah al-Mahdi, the Fatimid ruler, who had risen in those days in North Africa and considered himself the promised Mahdi, abhorred them.
According to the view of historians the distinguishing characteristic of the Batini school is that it interprets the external aspects of Islam in an esoteric manner and considers the externals of the Shari'ah to be only for simple-minded people of little intelligence who are deprived of spiritual perfection. Yet occasionally the Batini Imams did order certain regulations and laws to be practiced and followed.
The Nizaris, Musta'lis, Druzes and Muqanna'ah
The Nizaris. Ubaydallah al-Mahdi, who rose in North Africa in 292/904 and as an Isma'ili declared his imamate and established Fatimid rule, is the founder of the dynasty whose descendants made Cairo the center of their caliphate. For seven generations this sultanate and Isma'ili imamate continued without any divisions. At the death of the seventh Imam, al-Mustansir bi'llah Mu'idd ibn Ali, his sons, Nizar and al-Musta'li, began to dispute over the caliphate and imamate. After long disputes and bloody battle al-Musta'li was victorious. He captured his brother Nizar and placed him in prison, where he died.
Following this dispute those who accepted the Fatimids divided into two groups: the Nizaris and the Musta'lis. The Nizaris are the followers of Hasan al-Sabbah, who was one of the close associates of al-Mustansir. After Nizar's death, because of his support of Nizar, Hasan al-Sabbah was expelled from Egypt by al-Musta'li. He came to Persia and after a short while appeared in the Fort of Alamut near Qazwin. He conquered Alamut and several surrounding forts. There he established his rule and also began to invite people to the Isma'ili cause.
After the death of Hasan in 518/1124 Buzurg Umid Rudbari and after him his son, Kiya Muhammad, continued to rule following the methods and ways of Hasan al-Sabbah. After Kiya Muhammad, his son Hasan 'AlaDhikrihi'l-Salam, the fourth ruler of Alamut, changed the ways of Hasan al-Sabbah, who had been Nizari, and became Batini. Henceforth the Isma'ili forts continued as Batini. Four other rulers, Muhammad ibn Ala Dhikruhi'l-Salam, Jala al-Din Hasan, 'Ala' al-Din, and Rukn al-Din Khurshah, became Sultan and Imam one after another until Hulagu, the Mongol conqueror, invaded Persia. He captured Isma'ili forts and put all the Isma'ilis to death, leveling their forts to the ground.
Centuries later, in 1255/1839, the Aqa Khan of Mahalat in Persia, who belonged to the Nizaris, rebelled against Muhammad Shah Qajar in Kerman, but he was defeated and fled to Bombay. There he propagated his Batini-Nizari cause which continues to this day. The Nizaris are today called the Aqa Khanids.
The Musta'lis. The Musta'lis were the followers of al-Musta'li. Their imamate continued during Fatimid rule in Egypt until it was brought to an end in the year 567/1171. Shortly thereafter, the Bohra sect, following the same school, appeared in India and survives to this day.
The Druzes. The Druzes, who live in the Druze mountains in Syria (and also in Lebanon), were originally followers of the Fatimid caliphs. But as a result of the missionary activity of Nashtakin, the Druzes joined the Batini sect. The Druzes stop with the sixth Fatimid caliph al-Hakim bi'llah, whom others believe to have been killed, and claim that he is in occultation. He has ascended to heaven and will appear once again to the world.
The Muqanna'ah. The Muqanna'ah were at first disciples of 'Ata' al-Marwi known as Muqanna', who according to historical sources was a follower of Abu Muslim of Khurasan. After the death of Abu Muslim, Muqanna' claimed that Abu Muslim's soul had become incarnated in him. Soon he claimed to be a prophet and later a divinity. Finally, in the year 162/777 he was surrounded in the fort of Kabash in Transoxiana. When he became certain that he would be captured and killed, he threw himself into a fire along with some of his disciples and burned to death. His followers soon adopted Isma'ilism and the ways of the Batinis.
Differences Between Twelve-Imam Shi'ism and Isma'ilism and Zaydism
The majority of the Shi'ites, from whom the previously mentioned groups have branched out, are Twelve-Imam Shi'ites, also called the Imamites. As has already been mentioned, the Shi'ites came into being because of criticism and protest concerning two basic problems of Islam, without having any objections to the religious ways which through the instructions of the Prophet had become prevalent among their contemporary Muslims. These two problems concerned Islamic government and authority in the religious sciences, both of which the Shi'ites considered to be the particular right of the Household of the Prophet.
The Shi'ites asserted that the Islamic caliphate, of which esoteric guidance and spiritual leadership are inseparable elements, belongs to Ali and his descendants. They also believed that according to the specification of the Prophet the Imams of the Household of the Prophet are twelve in number. Shi'ism held, moreover, that the external teachings of the Quran, which are the injunctions and regulations of the Shari'ah and include the principles of a complete spiritual life, are valid and applicable for everyone at all times, and are not to be abrogated until the Day of Judgment. These injunctions and regulations must be learned through the guidance of the Household of the Prophet.
From a consideration of these points it becomes clear that the difference between Twelve-Imam Shi'ism and Zaydism is that the Zaydis usually do not consider the imamate to belong solely to the Household of the Prophet and do not limit the number of Imams to twelve. Also they do not follow the jurisprudence of the Household of the Prophet as do the Twelve-Imam Shi'ites.
The difference between the Twelve-Imam Shi'ism and Isma'ilism lies in that for the latter the imamate revolves around the number seven and prophecy does not terminate with the Holy Prophet Muhammad. Also for them, change and transformation in the injunctions of the Shari'ah are admissible, as is even rejection of the duty of following Shari'ah, especially among the Batinis. In contrast, the Twelve-Imam Shi'ites consider the Prophet to be the "seal of prophecy" and believe him to have twelve successors and executors of his will. They hold the external aspect of the Shari'ah to be valid and impossible to abrogate. They affirm that the Quran has both an exoteric and an esoteric aspect.
Summary of the History of Twelve-Imam Shi'ism
As has become clear form the previous pages, the majority of Shi'ites are Twelvers. They were originally the same group of friends and supporters of Ali who, after the death of the Prophet, in order to defend the right of the Household of the Prophet in the question of the caliphate and religious authority, began to criticize and protest against prevalent views and separated from the majority of the people.
During the caliphate of the "rightly-guided caliphs" (11/632-35/656) the Shi'ites were under a certain amount of pressure which became much greater during the Umayyad Caliphate (40/661-132/750) when they were no longer protected in any way against destruction of their lives and property. Yet the greater the pressure placed upon them, the firmer they became in their belief. They especially benefited from their being oppressed in spreading their beliefs and teachings.
From the middle of the 2nd/8th century when the Abbasid caliphs established their dynasty, Shi'ism was able to gain a mew life as a result of the languid and weak state prevailing at that time. Soon, however, conditions became difficult once again and until the end of the 3rd/9th century became ever more stringent.
At the beginning of the 4th/10th century, with the rise of the influential Buyids, who were Shi'ites, Shi'ism gained power and became more or less free to carry out its activities. It began to carry out scientific and scholarly debates and continued in this manner until the end of the 5th/11th century. At the beginning of the 7th/13th century when the Mongol invasion began, as a result of the general involvement in war and chaos and the continuation of the Crusades, the different Islamic governments did not put too great a pressure upon the Shi'ites. Moreover, the conversion to Shi'ism of some Mongol rulers in Persia and the rule of the Sadat-i Mar'ashi (who were Shi'ites) in Mazandaran were instrumental in the spread of the power and territory of Shi'ism. They made the presence of large concentrations of Shi'ite population in Persia and other Muslim lands felt more than ever before. This situation continued through the 9th/15th century.
At the beginning of the 10th/16th century, as a result of the rise of the Safavids, Shi'ism became the official religion of the vast territories of Persia and continues in this position to the present day. In other regions of the world also there are tens of millions of Shi'ites.
The Growth and Spread of Shi'ism Shi'ism in the 2rd/8th Century: During the latter part of the first third of the 2nd/8th century, following a series of revolutions and bloody wars throughout the Islamic world which were due to the injustice, repressions, and wrongdoings of the Umayyads, there began an anti-Umayyad movement in the name of the Household of the Prophet in Khurasan in Persia. The leader of this movement was the Persian general, Abu Muslim Marwazi, who rebelled against Umayyad rule and advance his cause step by step until he was able to overthrow the Umayyad government.
Although this movement originated from a profound Shi'ite background and came into being more or less with the claim of wanting to avenge the blood of the Household of the Prophet, and although people were even asked secretly to give allegiance to a qualified member of the family of the Prophet, it did not rise directly as a result of the instructions of the Imams. This is witnessed by the fact that when Abu Muslim offered the caliphate to the sixth Imam in Medina he rejected it completely saying "You are not one of my men and the time is not my time."
Finally the Abbasids gained the caliphate in the name of the family of the Prophet and at the beginning showed some kindness to people in general and to descendants of the Prophet in particular. In the name of avenging the martyrdom of the family of the Prophet, they massacred the Umayyads, going to the extent of opening their graves and burning whatever they found in them. But soon they began to follow unjust ways of the Umayyads and did not abstain in any way from injustice and irresponsible action. Abu Hanifah, the founder of one of the four Sunni schools of law, was imprisoned by al-Mansur and whipped. The sixth Imam died from poisoning after much torture and pain. The descendants of the Holy Prophet were sometimes beheaded in groups, buried alive, or even placed within walls of government buildings under construction.
Harun al-Rashid, the Abbasid caliph, during whose reign the Islamic empire reached the apogee of its expansion and power, occasionally would look at the sun and address it in these words: "Shine wherever thou wilt, thou shalt never be able to leave my kingdom." On the other hand his armies were advancing in the East and West, on the other hand a few steps from the palace of the caliph, and without his knowledge, officials had decided on their own to collect tolls from people who wanted to cross the Baghdad bridge. Even one day when the caliph himself wanted to cross the bridge he was stopped and asked to pay the toll.
A singer, by chanting two lascivious verses, incited the passions of the Abbasid caliph, Amin, who awarded him three million dirhams. The chanter in joy threw himself at the feet of the caliph saying, "Oh, leader of the faithful! You give me all this money?" The caliph answered, "It does not matter. We receive money from an unknown part of the country."
The bewildering amount of wealth that was pouring every year from all corners of the Islamic world into the public treasury in the capital helped creating luxury and a mundane atmosphere. Much of it in fact was often spent for the pleasures and iniquities of the caliph of the time. The number of beautiful slave girls in the court of some of the caliphs exceeded thousands. By the dissolution of Umayyad rule and the establishment of the Abbasids, Shi'ism did not benefit in any way. Its repressive and unjust opponents merely changed their name.
Shi'ism in the 3rd/9th Century: At the beginning of the 3rd/9th century Shi'ism was able to breathe once again. This more favorable condition was first of all due to the fact that many scientific and philosophical books were translated from Greek, Syriac, and other languages into Arabic, and people eagerly studied the intellectual and rational sciences. Moreover, al-Ma'mun, the Abbasid caliph from 198/813 to 218/833, had Mu'tazilite leanings and since in his religious views he favored intellectual demonstration, he was more inclined to give complete freedom to the discussion and propagation of different religious views. Shi'ite theologians and scholars took full advantage of this freedom and did their utmost to further scholarly activities and propagate Shi'ite teachings. Also, al-Ma'mun, following demands of the political forces at the time, had made the eight Shi'ite Imam his successor, as is recounted in most standard histories. As a result, the descendants of the Holy Prophet and their friends were to a certain extent free from pressures from the government and enjoyed some degrees of liberty. Yet before long the cutting edge of the sword once again turned towards the Shi'ites and the forgotten ways of the past came upon them again. This was particularly true in the case of al-Mutawakkil (233/847-247/861) who held a special enmity towards Ali and the Shi'ites. By his order the tomb of the third Imam in Karbala was completely demolished.
Shi'ism in the 4th/10th Century: In the 4th/10th century certain conditions again prevailed which aided greatly the spread and strengthening of Shi'ism. Among them were the weaknesses that appeared in the central Abbasid government and administration and the appearance of the Buyid rulers. The Buyids, who were Shi'ite had the greatest influence not only in the provinces of Persia but also in the capital of the caliphate in Baghdad, and even upon the caliph himself. This new strength of considerable proportions enabled the Shi'ites to stand up before their opponents who previously had tried to crush them by relying upon the power of the caliphate. It also made it possible for the Shi'ites to propagate their religious views openly.
As recorded by historians, during this century most of the Arabian peninsula was Shi'ite with the exception of some of the big cities. Even some of the major cities like Hajar, Uman, and Sa'dah were Shi'ite. In Basra, which had always been a Sunni city and competed with Kufa which was considered a Shi'ite center, there appeared a notable group of Shi'ites. Also in Tripoli, Nablus, Tiberias, Aleppo, Nayshapur, and Herat there were many Shi'ites, while Ahwaz and the coast of the Persian Gulf on the Persian side were also Shi'ite.
At the beginning of this century Nasir Utrush, after many years of propagation of his religious mission in northern Persia, gained power in Tabaristan and established a kingdom which continued for several generations after him. Before Utrush, Hasan ibn Zayd al-'Alawi had reigned from many years in Tabaristan. Also in this period the Fatimids, who were Isma'ili, conquered Egypt and organized a caliphate which lasted for over two centuries (296/908-567/1171). Often disputation and fighting occurred in major cities like Baghdad, Cairo and Nayshapur between Shi'ites and Sunnis, in some of which the Shi'ites would gain the upper hand and come out victorious.
Shi'ism from the 5th/11th to the 9th/15th Centuries: From the 5th/11th to the 9th/15th centuries Shi'ism continued to expand as it had done in the 4th/10th century. Many kings and rulers who were Shi'ite appeared in different parts of the Islamic world and propagated Shi'ism. Toward the end of the 5th/11th century the missionary activity of Isma'ilism took root in the fort of Alamut and for nearly a century and a half the Isma'ilis lived in complete independence in the central regions of Persia. Also the Sadat-i Mar'ashi, who were descendants of the Holy Prophet, ruled for many years in Mazandaran (Tabaristan). Shah Muhammad Khudabandah, one of the well-known Mongol rulers, became Shi'ite and his descendants ruled for many years in Persia and were instrumental in spreading Shi'ism. Mention must also be made of the kings of the Aq Qoyunlu and Qara Qoyunlu dynasties who ruled in Tabriz and whose domain extended to Fars and Kerman, as well as of the Fatimid government which was ruling in Egypt.
Of course religious freedom and the possibility of exerting religious power by the populace differed under different rulers. For example, with the termination of Fatimid rule and coming to power of the Ayyubids the scene changed completely and the Shi'ite population of Egypt and Syria lost its religious independence. Many of the Shi'ites of Syria were killed during this period merely on the accusation of following Shi'ism. One of these was Shahid-i awwal (the First Martyr) Muhammad ibn Makki, one of the great figures in Shi'ite jurisprudence, who was killed in Damascus in 786/1384. Also Shaykh al-ishraq Shihab al-Din Suhrawardi was killed in Aleppo on the accusation that he was cultivating Batini teachings and philosophy. Altogether during this period Shi'ism was growing from the point of view of numbers, even though its religious power and freedom depended upon local conditions and the rulers of the time. During this period, however, Shi'ism never became the official religion of any Muslim state.
Shi'ism in the 10th/16th and 11th/17th Centuries: In the 10th/16th century Isma'il, who was of the household of Shaykh Safi al-Din Ardibili (d. 735/1334), a Sufi master and also a Shi'ite, began a revolt in Ardibil, with three hundred Sufis who were disciples of his forefathers, with the aim of establishing an independent and powerful Shi'ite country. In this way he began the conquest of Persia and overcame the local feudal princes. After a series of bloody wars with local rulers and also the Ottomans who held the title of caliph, he succeeded in forming Persia piece by piece into a country and in making Shi'ism the official religion in his kingdom.
After the death of Shah Isma'il other Safavid kings reigned in Persia until the 12th/18th century and each continued to recognize Shi'ism as the official religion of the country and further to strengthen its hold upon this land. At the height of their power, during the reign of Shah 'Abbas, the Safavids were able to increase the territorial expansion and the population of Persia to twice its present size. As for other Muslim lands, the Shi'ite population continued the same as before and increased only through the natural growth of population.
Shi'ism from the 12th/18th to the 14th/20th Centuries: During the past three centuries Shi'ism has followed its natural rate of growth as before. At the present moment, during the latter part of the 14th/20th century, Shi'ism is recognized as the official religion in Iran, and in the Yemen and Iraq the majority population is Shi'ite. In nearly all lands where there are Muslims one can find a certain number of Shi'ites. It has been said that altogether in the world today there are about eighty to ninety million Shi'ites.