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Religion Library: Shia Islam

Historical Perspectives

Written by: Anna Akasoy

While the origins of Shiism may lie in Muhammad's death, for its development as a distinctive branch or sect within Islam and mutually exclusive with other branches it is necessary to consider what is usually labeled the formative period of Islam, i.e., the second and third centuries of its history. It was only then that the crucial concept of the Imam was developed and that political and religious aspects of Shiism were combined in a more coherent and elaborate form.

The later part of this period is marked by internal disagreements among the Shiites not unlike the conflicts following Muhammad's death. Shiites disagreed over the line of succession of the Imams, but following the death of the eleventh Imam, Hasan al-Askari in 874, opinions also varied concerning the nature of the Imam and whether he was part of this world or removed in an upper sphere. As in studies of the emergence of Islam, modern historians have to rely on later documents, which often reflect negotiated narratives or interpretations imposed by the most powerful fraction. This is the case, for example, with the Fatimids who presented themselves as the only true Ismailis and other representatives of this branch of Shiism as having left this path.

The shape of Shiism differs thus depending on doctrinal inclinations, the point in history, as well as the geographical region. What varies with these parameters is the balance between religious and political elements. There are myriad answers to the question about what it means to be a Shiite or why people want to present themselves as such. While for some, Shiism means an intellectual or spiritual disposition, for others it means the support of a political party. For many it simply means being a Muslim with a high regard for the Prophet's descendants. The general perception of Shiism is determined by its current shape, mostly in Iran, but also by political factions in Lebanon and Iraq. Simple definitions of what Shiism is and where it began do not offer satisfactory explanations of the "Shiite dimension" of these phenomena, political developments, and conflicts.

Given the significance of Iran as the only country with both a clear majority of Shiites and in which Shiite clergy determine political matters, it is sometimes wrongly assumed that Shiism emerged as a specifically Iranian branch of Islam. While it may be the case that Shiism, outside Iran, has held attractions for the less privileged (for economic reasons or as an ethnic community), and that certain ideas of the ancient Middle East have greatly influenced minority movements within all of Islam, one should also keep in mind that it was only in the 16th century, when Iran fell under Safavid rule, that large numbers converted (by force) to Shiism.

Study Questions:
1.     Where does Shiite salvation history begin?
2.     Why is it important to understand that the separation between Shiites and Sunnis takes place over an extended period of time?
3.     What are some of the different interpretations of the meaning of Shiism?


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