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Religion Library: Shia Islam

Schisms and Sects

Written by: Anna Akasoy

Ismailis, Seveners
The Seveners or Ismailis are the second significant group within Shiism and comprise several branches. Two of these are well-known in the West: knowledge of the medieval so-called "Assassins" and their leader, the "old man of the mountain," existed since the attacks on Crusaders and their appearance in Marco Polo's report. The group owes its grim reputation as reflected in the name, which was a pejorative label, to attacks on high-ranking Sunni leaders during which the attackers sacrificed their lives, allegedly under the influence of drugs. Related to this branch is the line of Aga Khans, the spiritual leaders of the Ismailis in the modern era who also act as international patrons.

The movement derives its name from Ismail, the son of the sixth Imam Jafar al-Sadiq, who died before his father. According to the Twelvers, the succession then passed to Jafar's younger son, Musa al-Kadhim. Seveners/Ismailis, however, recognize Ismail's son Muhammad (d. ca. 800) as the seventh Imam. Although modern scholars disagree on the circumstances, the Ismaili movement emerged as a secret opposition against the ruling Abbasids. Hence, it is not surprising that its origins lie to a great extent in the dark and remain controversial among historians. Little is known about some of the most crucial figures. The historiography of Ismailism faces the additional difficulty that later divisions may often have been projected back in time.

The movement can be traced back to a certain Abdallah the Elder in late 9th-century Khuzistan in western Iran. Groups of followers were established in Kufa and Syria and via missionaries in various places of the Islamic world, most prominently in Yemen and then North Africa. Followers were recruited among Shiites who were looking for a new leader after the death of the eleventh Imam, Hasan al-Askari, who had died without an obvious successor. The movement offered its followers an Imam who was not far removed, but about to return and in the meantime present via his hujja (Arabic: proof). In 899, the movement split into the Carmathians, who continued to wait for the seventh Imam to return, and the Fatimids, who later claimed that the Mahdi had appeared in 910 and who went on to establish an empire in Egypt. The Carmathians gained notoriety in Islamic history when they took the black stone from the Kaaba in 930 and held it until 951. After the 14th century, all trace of them is lost.

Apart from these main branches of Shiism, alternative groups that were regarded by many medieval writers as radicals existed since the early days, but were excluded by mainstream Shiites in the 8th century. Known as ghulat (Arabic: extremists), their distinctive features comprised an adaptation of old Middle Eastern cosmologies that went along with a deification of Imams, mostly Ali. Elements of this heterodox Shiism have survived in Turkey among the Alevis who were also under the influence of the Sufi order of the Bektaşis. The Alevis abandoned the former name Kızılbaş (= Qizilbash; see below), which had become derogatory because of the community's reputation as heretics. In isolated regions of west Iran the Ahl-i haqq ('People of the truth') practice heterodox forms of Shiism with polytheistic elements. Another branch of Shiism with a controversial standing are the Nusayris/Alawis from whom the Syrian political and military elite is recruited and which constitutes approximately 11 percent of the population. The leaders of the country, most notably former president Hafiz al-Assad (1930-2000), have repeatedly made efforts to improve their Islamic credentials. Elements of their beliefs include a deification of Ali, metempsychosis, and antinomianism.

There are also other religious movements that had their roots in Shiism and developed into independent religions. The Druze broke away from the Fatimids in the 1020s, following the missionary Akhram who declared that the Fatimid caliph Hakim was a manifestation of God and that Muhammad's law was abolished. The Baha'i Faith also has its roots in Shiism.

Study Questions:
1.     What are the three most significant branches of Shiism and how do they differ?
2.     What is the Greater Occultation and how has it impacted the development of Shiism?
3.     What are some other religious movements that evolved from Shiite thought?


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