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Religion Library: Shia Islam


Written by: Anna Akasoy

The traditional tribal leaders of the Arab Muslim soldiers first supported Ali, in whom they had seen a natural ally against Uthman, but later abandoned his cause. The support for the Shiites in Kufa was mostly popular and well established among the large numbers of those Muslim soldiers deployed in the garrison who were of south Arabian origin. According to some historians, their traditions of political leadership may have predisposed them toward the authority of the Alids (the dynasty descended from Ali), since in both cases charismatic leadership is based on genealogical distinction. Another community in Kufa was that of the mawali, non-Arab converts to Islam who worked in small businesses while the Arabs constituted the army. This milieu produced some of the more extreme features of Shiism. The connection between Shiism and Kufa had further consequences. Kufa and Basra were the two administrative centers during the Islamic expansion into Iran. Areas assigned to Kufa (Qom, Azerbaijan) would inherit the city's Shiite tendency.

Because of the early popularity of Shiism among non-Arab converts to Islam, it is not surprising that ideas which circulated in the pre-Islamic Near East influenced this branch of Islam, especially its marginal forms. The heterodox beliefs of 'extreme' Shiites (Arabic: ghulat) are often attributed to Gnostic ideas. This religious trend, which existed among ancient and late classical Jews and Christians, posits a radical dichotomy between the evil created world and the divine spiritual world. Humans are specks of divine light caught in the material sphere and need to acquire the secret knowledge of gnosis in order to be saved and return to their home sphere. This knowledge involves dismissing the laws. This correlates to the antinomianism of some Shiite sects. The Gnostic legacy can also be seen in the general assumption that the Imams have knowledge that grants salvation and—again among more extreme groups—in the deification of the Imams and the belief in transmigration of souls.

As Islam spread and the diversity of Muslims increased, the influences on Shiism also became more diverse. The Turkish invasions in the Middle East, which began with the employment of Central Asian slave soldiers in the early 9th century and continued with independent dynasties (most notably the Seljuks and the Ottomans, both staunch Sunnis), had an enormous impact. When they arrived in the Middle East, the Turks had only recently converted to Islam and often maintained elements of their nomad shamanism. The Shiite veneration of the descendants of Muhammad may have connected well with Central Asian beliefs in holy men. The Qizilbash, who provided the initial supporters and fighting force of the Safavids in the 16th century, combined these old legacies with Gnostic tendencies and thought of Muhammad, Ali, the Imams, and Shah Ismail as manifestations of the divine light.

Study Questions:
1.     What does Shiism share with other monotheistic religions?
2.     What roles did the citizens of Kufa play in the early development of Shiism?
3.     How did the influence of non-Arab converts to Shiism affect the development of faith?


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