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Religion Library: Shia Islam


Written by: Anna Akasoy

A crucial figure in this context was Jafar al-Sadiq (d. 765), the sixth imam of the Twelver Shiites. During his lifetime, he was probably simply a religious authority respected by Muslims of different religio-political tendencies. The fact that this scholar had (proto-) Sunni disciples suggests that he may not even have committed to a sectarian view. The pivotal role of Jafar al-Sadiq—not least because of the role assigned to him by contemporary and later Shiites—has been pointed out by historian Marshall Hodgson (1922-1968) and elaborated by later scholars. Hodgson identified three distinctive developments among Shiites at the time of Jafar al-Sadiq that led to the formation of Shiism as a sect.

The first one was the idea of personal designation (Arabic: nass) of an Imam by his predecessor, as Muhammad had appointed Ali. As is obvious from the emergence of different Islamic sects as well as from political conflicts, principles of succession were frequently a bone of contention. Much of the anti-Umayyad propaganda focused on the fact that when the first Umayyad caliph, Muawiya, supposedly appointed his son, Yazid, they were establishing a dynasty of kings. Some of the political conflicts within dynasties—such as the Abbasids or the Buyids—were partly rooted in the multiple possibilities of succession within a family. These contested principles of succession also determined some of the differences among the early Shiites. While some leaders of rebellions, among whom one can include the Abbasids, were rather remotely connected to Muhammad, Jafar al-Sadiq was distinguished both by his indirect relationship to Muhammad via Ali, from whom he was descended, and a direct relationship via the female line of Fatima (Muhammad's daughter, and Ali's wife). The establishment of the formal designation of successors granted Shiites continuity over time and as a religious community, independent of their political fortunes.

The second factor that, according to Hodgson, contributed to the development of Shiism as a separate branch was the focus on knowledge and the Imams as religious authorities, which made them independent of political success and allowed them to maintain their position as quietists, i.e., political neutrals. The third aspect was the establishment of doctrinal boundaries, which led to the exclusion of the more extreme views later associated with the ghulat. This prevented Shiism from turning into a marginal movement. Yet, according to Hodgson, many ideas of these more radical followers of Ali eventually determined Shiite religious thought.

Minority branches of Shiism have their own founding figures. While the early missionaries and Imams of the Ismaili Fatimids may have been crucial for the establishment of the first Shiite state, the legal scholar al-Qadi al-Numan (d. 974), for example, developed many of the underlying intellectual principles.

Study Questions:
1.     Explain the important of Husayn in the development of Shiite thought.
2.     Who are the Imams?
3.     What is the importance of Jafar al-Sadiq?


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