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Religion Library: Shia Islam


Written by: Anna Akasoy

In 656 Uthman was murdered by a group from Fustat, ancient Cairo. The event was traumatic for many reasons, but especially because he was killed while reading the Quran. Ali used the opportunity and had himself appointed as the next caliph, but soon faced resistance. Umayyad opposition was forming in Syria. Furthermore, Muhammad's widow Aisha and her two allies, Zubayr and Talha (both close companions of the Prophet), challenged Ali in the Battle of the Camel outside Basra in December 656. Ali emerged victorious from this confrontation, guaranteeing Aisha a place on the Shiites' list of villains. In the Shiite tradition, the unjust behavior of Ali's and later his son Husayn's enemies provided a blueprint for describing their later opponents.

The community divided over the rightfulness of Uthman's murder. Ali, who protected the murderers, was entrenched in the two garrison cities on the Euphrates: Kufa, which had rebelled against Uthman, and Basra. The Umayyad family with their leader Muawiya in Syria did not acknowledge Ali's election and demanded revenge for the third caliph's death. The armies of Ali and Muawiya met in 657 in the Battle of Siffin, and when Ali accepted arbitration with Muawiya, some of Ali's followers left in protest and formed the first clearly distinct sect within Islam, the Kharijites. A member of this community assassinated Ali in 661, and Muawiya assumed the caliphate as the first of the Syrian Umayyads. The period between 656 and 661 is known as the First Civil War or First Fitna in Islamic history. For the early Shiites, this was the only time since Muhammad's death that the right person has led the Muslim community.

In these early days, one's stance on succession probably depended on the individual candidates, but also on more general principles, i.e., whether or to what extent piety (as expressed in pious deeds such as early conversion) outweighed close genealogical ties with Muhammad. Furthermore, in all likelihood, support and opposition for leaders also depended on the benefits that people could expect from them. While the specific political strategies realized by individual Sunni or Shiite rulers continued to determine to what extent they were supported by members of their own as well as other branches of Islam, the general principles of legitimacy of rule and the importance of being related to Ali in particular became crucial to sectarian loyalties and the political language of Shiism.

While the early Muslims may have disagreed on various grounds about the succession of Muhammad, the traumatic events following Ali's caliphate deepened the rift within the community. Shiites commemorate these events every year in Muharram rituals. Ali's older son, Hasan, renounced the caliphate in 661 in favor of Muawiya and retired to Medina. In 680, Muawiya appointed his son Yazid as his successor. This controversial decision was criticized by his contemporaries as well as by later Muslims for a variety of reasons. Husayn, Hasan's brother, joined the critics, but his challenge of the Umayyads ended in a disaster.

Study Questions:
1.     What is the essential issue in the origination of the Shiite party?
2.     Why was Uthman a controversial candidate?
3.     What are the Muharram rituals?


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