Schisms and Sects

Disagreements among Shiites arose mostly concerning the line of succession of the imamate as well as, for many, the nature of the Hidden Imam, i.e., whether or to what extent he was present in this world rather than in a completely removed sphere. Views also differed regarding the possibility or need for political action.

The three most significant branches within Shiism are labeled with numbers—Imami Shiites are Twelvers, Ismailis are Seveners, and Zaydis are Fivers. Even though these numbers refer to the point in the line of Imams where they disagree with other branches of Shiism, the rift did not take place in the immediate aftermath of that respective Imam's death, but developed over a longer period and was then projected back. The inner division of Shiism developed in a manner not unlike majority Sunnism and minority Shiism in Islam: The majority community, Twelver Shiism, became visible only after what turned out to be minority communities had emerged.

Zaydis, Fivers
The Zaydis were in fact the first distinct group that can be described as Shiite, although it is likely that, as with other religio-political movements, the development into a coherent sect took place over a longer period. The Zaydis are named after Zayd ibn Ali, a half-brother of a grandson of Husayn, who started a rebellion in 739-740. The genealogical criteria for the imamate of the Zaydis are much less strict than those of other Shiites, but they are complemented by a condition peculiar to this branch. Legitimacy of rule depended on political action, which in practice meant rebellion. With this emphasis on improving the here-and-now, there was little space for the Hidden Imam in Zaydism. The imamate is a much more ordinary and continuous form of rule, and the Zaydi Imams are not believed to have any superhuman powers. Zaydism spread mostly in tribal areas and has been inconsistent in its political claims; Zaydi rebels did not always claim the imamate. The only dynastic rule established by Zaydis is that of the Qasimi Imams in Yemen (1598-1851).

Imamis, Twelvers
A crucial event in the formation of different Shiite sects was the death of the eleventh Imam, Hasan al-Askari, in 874. The period following his death is referred to as al-hayra, perplexity. No suitable successor was identified and claims arose that the Imam had a child by the name of Muhammad who had gone into Occultation (ghayba), a safe sphere which has been variably identified as belonging to this world or a removed metaphysical realm. After an unsuccessful attempt to establish an institution of safirs, i.e., individuals who established a link to the Hidden Imam, the contact to his followers was interrupted in 941 and the Imam withdrew into the Greater Occultation. Those who followed the line of Imams that ended with Hasan's son Muhammad, and who until then had been simply known as Imamis, turned into Twelver Shiites. The line of Imams came to an end, as far as their presence in this world is concerned, and the principles of quietism and messianic hopes crystallized. The vast majority of Shi'is historically and presently belong to this branch of Shia Islam.

Ismailis, Seveners
The Seveners or Ismailis are the second significant group within Shiism and comprise several branches. Two of these are well-known in the West: knowledge of the medieval so-called "Assassins" and their leader, the "old man of the mountain," existed since the attacks on Crusaders and their appearance in Marco Polo's report. The group owes its grim reputation as reflected in the name, which was a pejorative label, to attacks on high-ranking Sunni leaders during which the attackers sacrificed their lives, allegedly under the influence of drugs. Related to this branch is the line of Aga Khans, the spiritual leaders of the Ismailis in the modern era who also act as international patrons.

The movement derives its name from Ismail, the son of the sixth Imam Jafar al-Sadiq, who died before his father. According to the Twelvers, the succession then passed to Jafar's younger son, Musa al-Kadhim. Seveners/Ismailis, however, recognize Ismail's son Muhammad (d. ca. 800) as the seventh Imam. Although modern scholars disagree on the circumstances, the Ismaili movement emerged as a secret opposition against the ruling Abbasids. Hence, it is not surprising that its origins lie to a great extent in the dark and remain controversial among historians. Little is known about some of the most crucial figures. The historiography of Ismailism faces the additional difficulty that later divisions may often have been projected back in time.

The movement can be traced back to a certain Abdallah the Elder in late 9th-century Khuzistan in western Iran. Groups of followers were established in Kufa and Syria and via missionaries in various places of the Islamic world, most prominently in Yemen and then North Africa. Followers were recruited among Shiites who were looking for a new leader after the death of the eleventh Imam, Hasan al-Askari, who had died without an obvious successor. The movement offered its followers an Imam who was not far removed, but about to return and in the meantime present via his hujja (Arabic: proof). In 899, the movement split into the Carmathians, who continued to wait for the seventh Imam to return, and the Fatimids, who later claimed that the Mahdi had appeared in 910 and who went on to establish an empire in Egypt. The Carmathians gained notoriety in Islamic history when they took the black stone from the Kaaba in 930 and held it until 951. After the 14th century, all trace of them is lost.

Apart from these main branches of Shiism, alternative groups that were regarded by many medieval writers as radicals existed since the early days, but were excluded by mainstream Shiites in the 8th century. Known as ghulat (Arabic: extremists), their distinctive features comprised an adaptation of old Middle Eastern cosmologies that went along with a deification of Imams, mostly Ali. Elements of this heterodox Shiism have survived in Turkey among the Alevis who were also under the influence of the Sufi order of the Bektaşis. The Alevis abandoned the former name Kızılbaş (= Qizilbash; see below), which had become derogatory because of the community's reputation as heretics. In isolated regions of west Iran the Ahl-i haqq ('People of the truth') practice heterodox forms of Shiism with polytheistic elements. Another branch of Shiism with a controversial standing are the Nusayris/Alawis from whom the Syrian political and military elite is recruited and which constitutes approximately 11 percent of the population. The leaders of the country, most notably former president Hafiz al-Assad (1930-2000), have repeatedly made efforts to improve their Islamic credentials. Elements of their beliefs include a deification of Ali, metempsychosis, and antinomianism.

There are also other religious movements that had their roots in Shiism and developed into independent religions. The Druze broke away from the Fatimids in the 1020s, following the missionary Akhram who declared that the Fatimid caliph Hakim was a manifestation of God and that Muhammad's law was abolished. The Baha'i Faith also has its roots in Shiism.

Study Questions:
1.     What are the three most significant branches of Shiism and how do they differ?
2.     What is the Greater Occultation and how has it impacted the development of Shiism?
3.     What are some other religious movements that evolved from Shiite thought?

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