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Religion Library: Islam

Schisms and Sects

Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka

Shrine of the Husavn ibn 'Ali, Grandson of Muhammad. Source: Public DomainThe Shi'a is the smaller of the two groups, currently representing about 15 percent of the world's Muslims. At the time of Muhammad's death, they were known as the shi'at Ali, or the partisans of Ali. Ali finally became caliph in 656, but was assassinated in 661. When Ali died, the Shi'a thought that Ali's son, Hasan ibn Ali should become caliph, but Ali's enemy Mu'awiyah became caliph instead. After Hasan died, the Shi'a supported his brother Husayn ibn Ali. Husayn and his family were massacred at Karbala in what is now modern Iraq by an Iraqi governor, a tragedy that became the defining moment for the Shi'a. It plays a critical role in Shi'i identity, ritual, and politics. It also won Muslims to the Shi'a cause, especially Muslims disaffected with the Umayyads, and non-Arab Muslims wanting to free themselves from Arab dominance.

The Shi'a prefer the title of imam to the title of caliph. In Sunni Islam, humans are in a direct relationship with God, and the caliph became simply the political leader of the Arab states that emerged after Muhammad's death. A Sunni imam is a prayer leader, but not an intercessor. On the other hand, the Shi'a believe that Islam includes intercession. The rightful successors of Muhammad, the imams, are both the religious and political authoritative leaders of the community, directly descended from the Prophet and divinely inspired. They intercede with God on behalf of Muslims.

Use title "imam"Use title "caliph"
Imam is intercessorImam means "prayer leader" (not "intercessor")
Iman is descendant of MuhammadImam is not a descendant
Imam is a religious and political leaderCaliph is only a political leader

In the view of the Shi'a, Ali was the first imam, Hasan was the second imam, and Husayn was the third imam. After the death of the fourth imam, Zayn al-Abidin in 713, Shiites disagreed on succession, with a small minority supporting his son Zayd as the fifth imam. They are known as the Zaydis, or the Fivers. The majority recognized Muhammad al-Baqir as the fifth imam, but suffered another split over the succession to the sixth imam, Jafar al-Sadiq. One group acknowledged Jafar's previously deceased son Ismail as the seventh imam, while another acknowledged Jafar's living son Musa al-Kazim as the seventh, and five more after him. The first group is known as the Seveners, or the Ismailis, and the second is known as the Twelvers, or the Ithna Ashari. Both groups believe in a Hidden Imam, Ismail in the case of the Seveners, and the twelfth imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, in the case of the Twelvers. Both groups believe that the Hidden Imam will return as a savior to restore peace and justice to the earth.

Shi’a recognized succession of Muhammad
First imam: Ali ibn Abi Talib
Second imam: Hasan ibn Ali
Third imam: Husayn ibn Ali
Fourth imam: Zayn al-Abidin
Fifth Imam: "Fivers"
(Zaydis) recognize Zayd
Fifth Imam: Majority recognize
Muhammad al-Baqir (son of Zayn)
 Sixth imam: Jafar al-Sadiq
 "Seveners" (Ismailis) recognize: Ismael (dead son of Jafar)"Twelvers" (Ithna Ashari) recognize: Musa al-Kazim

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