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Religion Library: Shia Islam


Written by: Anna Akasoy

The simplest explanation for the beginnings of Shiism is the disagreement concerning the succession of Muhammad, with the Shiat Ali ('Party of Ali', whence Shiites) supporting the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law Ali. Since Islam had emerged as both a religious and a political movement, conflicts about leadership also concerned both aspects, although in certain situations one was probably more pronounced or significant than the other. The difficulty of defining the religious and political dimensions of Shiism can be traced back to its origins and presents a persistent problem. Independent of this difficulty, the events between the death of Muhammad in 632 and that of his grandson Husayn in 680 were crucial for the formation of Shiism as a political force, and equally critical for key features of its religious outlook, in particular its salvation history.

Due to the lack of evidence and the bias of later sources, it remains unclear whether the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, had chosen a successor or established principles of determining one. While Shiite tradition maintains that he appointed Ali at Ghadir Khumm, Sunnis claim that Muhammad did not choose a successor. Events in the first decades of Islamic history suggest that even if Muhammad had expressed views on these matters, disagreement prevailed among his followers. Those who decided to follow another prophet remained a minority and were defeated in the ridda ('apostasy') wars (632-633). 

There was also a broad consensus (the below-mentioned Kharijites being the only exception) that Muhammad's successor should belong to the same tribe, the Quraysh. The main forces in the young Muslim community were the early Meccan converts to Islam, their helpers (Arabic: ansar) in Medina, and the old Meccan elites who accepted Islam only following military defeat. Apart from leadership, the conquests and the shape of the Islamic polity were among the main problems to negotiate.

When Muhammad died, a public gathering took place in the course of which Abu Bakr, the Prophet's father-in-law and close companion, was elected on the spot and by public acclamation as the first caliph. Abu Bakr appointed his successor, Umar, who succeeded him upon his death in 634. While the supporters of Ali disagreed with the choice of the first and the second caliphs, the conflict escalated when Uthman became the third caliph in 644.

According to later historiography, Uthman was a controversial candidate because of his ancestry (among other reasons). He belonged to the descendants of Abd Shams, who had been the leading group in Mecca. Some of them had led the opposition against Muhammad. Abu Sufyan, the father of the future Umayyad caliph Muawiya, was one of their leaders. Abu Sufyan and his sons waited until the last moment before they converted to Islam. Furthermore, Uthman was accused of not taking religious principles very seriously and of giving benefits to his Umayyad relatives instead of privileging, as Umar had done, the early converts. Another controversial decision was to centralize the growing Islamic Empire.


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