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Religion Library: Shia Islam

Sacred Narratives

Written by: Anna Akasoy

In the modern world these historical narratives play an important role in political language. Examples can be found during the Iranian revolution when Reza Shah and his supporters were presented as Yazid, Muawiya, or Umayyads and the revolutionaries as martyrs of Karbala. Likewise, the events of the 7th century—the struggle for the leadership of the Islamic community and in particular the martyrdom of Muhammad's grandson, Husayn, and his supporters in Karbala—are exploited in propaganda. Fatima is an important identification figure for women in their personal lives as well as when they are active in public life.

Other sacred narratives concern the Imams, the forms of religious guidance during the Occultation, and the arrival of the Mahdi. Both Sunnis and Shiites believe that God does not leave the world without guidance. According to both, Islam has therefore always existed, even though previous revelations have been distorted by Jews and Christians. Following the general tendency of applying the same patterns to the sacred histories of all Abrahamic faiths, Ismailis assume that the biblical prophets Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus were 'speaker-prophets' who conveyed the outer truth of religion, although they do not count in the line of Imams that starts with Ali. Like Muhammad, these prophet-Imams of the Ismailis also had companions to whom they taught the inner secrets of the revelation. According to this tradition, Shem was Noah's companion, Ishmael was Abraham's, Aaron was Moses', and Simon Peter accompanied Jesus.

The Shiite doctrine of the Imamate developed, as outlined above, only after the twelfth Imam went into the Greater Occultation. While during their lifetimes the later Imams were already considered blessed with divinely granted knowledge, later Shiites believed that they were also holy and faultless. The martyrdom of the Imams is another distinctive feature. Shiite historiography claims that except for the last one, every Imam was killed. While in some cases such claims are supported by sources composed by other parties, in others events may have been reinterpreted to fit the pattern. Thus, Twelver Shiite tradition alone holds that Hasan would have eventually claimed the caliphate, but was poisoned by the Umayyads.

Other narratives too, which often had roots in earlier years, reflect the development of religious authority after the Great Occultation. Thus in the earliest days of Islam, the superior religious authority was incorporated by the caliphs, who were also the political leaders. In Sunni Islam, religious scholars assumed this role in the course of the formative period. While similar developments took place in Shiism—as is obvious from the important position scholars have occupied in Iran since 1979—the divine guidance that holds the world together is primarily manifested in the Imams who are considered a 'proof' (hujja) of the divine truth. It was also in the hands of the Imams to choose their successors since common people cannot be relied upon, as events in early Islamic history have shown. Not unlike their Sunni counterparts, however, and while the apocalyptic Imam Mahdi is still absent, Shiite scholars assumed over centuries the position of those who uphold the principles of the religion.

Study Questions:
1.     What is the importance of Fatima in the narratives of Shiite faith?
2.     What role to the Imams play in Shiite salvation history?
3.     How do the caliphs contribute to the development of belief?


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