Shi’a Islam Background

Shi’a Islam (also called Shiite, or Shi’i) is the second largest division of Islam, constituting about 10-15% of all Muslims. The Sunni Muslims recognize the Four Caliphs as ‘rightly guided’, while Shi’a Muslims recognise Ali as the First Caliph and his descendants. Shi’as differ on how many Imams there have been. Some talk of Twelve and others of Fourteen. They also differ on who is the last Imam (Mahdi). Imamites say it was the Twelfth Imam, Muhammad al’Mahdi, the Zaydites say the Fifth, Zayd, and, the Isma’ilites say the Seventh Imam, Ismail. However, Shi’as agree that the Last Imam went into hiding and will return to bring in the end of the world.

Shi’a Beliefs

The five Shi’a principles of religion (usul ad din) are: belief in divide unity (tawhid); prophecy (nubuwwah); resurrection (maad); divine justice (adl); and the belief in the Imams as successors of the Prophet (imamah). The latter principle is not accepted by Sunnis.

Most Sunnis believe the Sharia (religious law of Islam) was codified and closed by the 10th century. Shi’a followers believe the Sharia is always open, subject to fresh reformulations of Sunna, hadith, (traditions of what Muhammad and his companions said and did) and Qur’an interpretations.

Like Sunni Islam, Shi’a Islam has developed several sects. Because of their belief that the leader of the Muslim community must be a blood relative of the prophet, disputes arose when two sons of an Imam (the title given to the Shi’a leader) both claimed to be the rightful successor. These disputes caused the Shi’a sect to further divide into three groups: Zaids, Ismai’ilis, and Ithna Asharis. The Twelver or Ithna-Ashari sect is the most important of these, as it predominates not only in Iraq but in the Shi’a world generally. Broadly speaking, the Twelvers are considered political quietists as opposed to the Zaydis who favor political activism, and the Ismailis who are identified with esoteric and gnostic religious doctrines.

Canonical schools in Islam, are called “Fiqh’s”; the only Fiqh’s in Shi’a Islam, are Usuli, Akhbari, and Shaykhi. These 3 all belong to the Ithna-Ashari or mainstream Shi’a Islam, which believes in the 12 Shi’a Imams; hence the name which means “Twelver’s”. The dominant Shi’a legal school is sometimes termed the Ja’fari Fiqh, after lmam Jaafar Sadiq (a.s.), the Sixth Infallible Imam of the world of Shiism. The term “Jaafari” is something of a pejorative term, just like “Wahhabiyyah” is; and one that is not used by Shi’as themselves. It is used by Sunnis, to derided Shi’as, just as “Wahhabiyyah” is used by Westerners and Shi’as, to deride Sunnis, but neither term is correct in and of itself.

A student assimilates from very early the ijtihad methodology as he assumes religious ranks: preacher, then mujtahid, hujjat Al-Islam [Proof of Islam], and then hujjat Al-Islam wa Al-Muslimeen until he becomes a Source or ayatollah, and thereafter the great ayatollah or ayatollah al-`uzma.

The 1964 Afghan Constitution, which was the basis of new 2003 constitution, stated: “Islam is the sacred religion of Afghanistan. Religious rites performed by the state shall be according to the provisions of the Hanafi school of jurisprudence.” This stipulation left Afghan Shi’a without proper representation. Thus in March 2003, Ayatollah Mohammad Asef Mohseni, leader of the predominantly Shi’a Harakat-e Islami-yi Afghanistan, proposed that, along with the Sunni Hanafi school of jurisprudence, the Shi’a Ja’fari school of jurisprudence be included in the new constitution as an official sect. Mohseni said he proposed two additional formulas if his proposal is not accepted: mentioning “Islam and the Islamic sects,” or just mentioning Islam without any mention of sects to ensure that Afghan Shi’a have their jurisprudence recognized and are allowed to “perform their religious duties according to it.”

The Ja’fari [Hafari] fiqh of the Imami Shi’as is in most cases indistinguishable from one or more of the four Sunni madhahib, except that “Muta’h” or temporary marriage is considered lawful by the Fiqh Jafari, whereas it is prohibited in all the Sunni schools. But the Shi’a are still viewed with great caution by the Ulema of the Sunni world. Although Sunni and Shi’a Muslims are historically ambivalent, this traditional enmity was dampened in Central Asia due to shared resistance to Russian and Soviet rule. Indeed, both Sunni and Shi’a delegations to the 1905 Third Congress of Muslims in Russia declared Ja’farite Shi’ism as a fifth legal school, equivalent to the Hanafi, Maliki, Hanbali, and Shafi’i madrasehs.

Shi’as do not believe in predestination. They accept the teachings of the Mu’tazilities, a group of Sunni scholars who were later declared heretical. The Mu’tazilities believed that God cannot be responsible for evil, and therefore, humans must have freewill and be independent of God’s authority in this life. A further belief of Shi’a Muslims concerns divine justice and the individual’s responsibility for his acts, which are judged by a just God. This contrasts with the Sunni view that God’s creation of man allows minimal possibility for the exercise of free will.

Two distinctive and frequently misunderstood Shi’a practices are mutah, temporary marriage, and taqiyyah, religious dissimulation.

Mutah, that is, marriage with a fixed termination contract subject to renewal, was practiced by Muslims as early as the formation of the first Muslim community at Medina. Banned by the second caliph, it has since been unacceptable to Sunnis, but Shi’as insist that if it were against Islamic law it would not have been practiced in early Islam. Mutah differs from permanent marriage because it does not require divorce proceedings for termination because the contractual parties have agreed on its span, which can be as short as an evening or as long as a lifetime. By making the mutah, a couple places the sexual act within the context of sharia; the act then is not considered adulterous and offspring are considered legitimate heirs of the man.

Taqiyyah is another practice condemned by the Sunni as cowardly and irreligious but encouraged by Shi’a Islam and also practiced by Alawis and Ismailis. A person resorts to taqiyyah when he either hides his religion or disavows certain religious practices to escape danger from opponents of his beliefs. Taqiyyah can also be practiced when not to do so would bring danger to the honor of the female members of a household or when a man could be made destitute as a result of his beliefs. Because of the persecution frequently experienced by Shi’a imams, particularly during the period of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, taqiyyah has been continually reinforced.

Shi’a practice differs from that of the Sunnis concerning both divorce and inheritance in that it is more favorable to women. The reason for this reputedly is the high esteem in which Fatima, the wife of Ali and the daughter of the Prophet, was held.

Twelvers / Ithna Ashari Islam

The Twelvers are by far the largest group of Shiite Muslims, because the Iranians are Twelvers. Perhaps eighty percent of the Shiis are Twelvers. Twelvers constitute ninety percent of the modern population of Iran and fifty-five to sixty percent of the population of Iraq. Twelver Shiites are the majority in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and also have substantial populations in Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Syria, India, Afghanistan and Bahrain.

The following of Jafar Sadik bifurcated into two branches – the Ismailis, the followers of Ismail, and the Musawite, the supporters of Musa Kazim, who later on came to be known as Twelvers, or Ithna Asharites. Canonical schools in Islam are called “Fiqh’s”. the only Fiqh’s in Shi’a Islam, are Usuli, Akhbari, and Shaykhi. These 3 all belong to the Ithna-Ashari or mainstream Shi’a Islam, which believes in the 12 Shi’a Imams; hence the name which means “Twelver’s”.

Those who believe that the third son was the rightful ruler of Islam are called the “Twelvers”, because they believe that there were 12 Imams. The last one is still alive, according to the Twelvers, and has been hiding in a cave for the last more than one thousand years. They hold that the twelfth Imam (Muhammad) who disappeared about 874 is still living. He will come out and resume his rule soon, the Twelvers say.

Modern Twelvers believe that, for his own protection, Mohammad al-Mahdi went into “occultation” (hiding). He is reported to have communicated to the faithful via intermediaries called Babs (Gates), the first of whom was Uthman al-Amri. When the last of the four gates died in 941 CE, the lesser occultation ended and the greater occultation began. The line of Twelver Imams came to an end.

About the time the lesser Occultation came to an end the Twelvers came to believe that the Twelfth Imam would return to earth in the last days as the Mahdi, and would establish a reign of justice and peace on earth. After his coming, they believe, Christ will return. Some from Iran claimed when Imam Khomeini was alive that he was in fact the “Disappearing Imam” who had come back to rule. Others said that he was the Mehdi or “Promised Messiah”.

The Twelvers are the largest Shiite group today, but they are not the only one, and historically they were often a very small, weak group. They emerged as a distinct Shii group mostly in the third Muslim century (the eighth century C.E.) after the death of the twelfth Imam. Twelver Shiism appears to have grown in size partly because it did not have a living Imam; many other descendants or alleged descendants of the Prophet called themselves the Imam, formented militarty revolt, and were killed. By not having a living Imam, Twelver Shiism was able to survive and grow, and other Shiis often were absorbed into it when their revolts were crushed and their Imams executed.

In law, the Twelvers do not accept hadiths, transmitted by enemies of the Imans such as ‘A’isha, and make use also of the sayings of the Imams. In addition to the Shi‘i regulations for the prayer call and ablutions, they admit the doctrine of taqiya or katman, the prophecy or even necessity of hiding one’s true beliefs among non-Shi’is…and they retain the peculiar institution of legal temporary marriage between a free man and woman for mut‘a (pleasure).

An integral part of the Shii doctrine of the Imam is that he is the legitimate political leader of Islam; just as the caliphs usurped Ali’s authority, modern governments, in the absence of the authority of the Imam, are not legitimate. Most Imams of the Twelver line, after Hossein’s martydom, did not make a claim to political leadership; rather, they acknowledged the authority of the caliphs, and urged their followers to do the same. Thus political quietism was a common option pursued by Twelver Shiis. Early Shii thinkers living after the occultation of the Imam felt leaderless. They felt a profound alienation from the world and generally adopted a quietest political policy.

Within Twelver Shi’a Islam there are three major legal schools, the Usuli, the Akhbari and the Shayki. Akhbaris constitute a very small group and are found primarily around Basra and in southern Iraq as well as around Khorramshahr in Iran. The dominant Usuli school is more liberal in its legal outlook and allows greater use of interpretation (ijtihad) in reaching legal decisions, and considers that one must obey a mujtahid (learned interpreter of the law) as well as an Imam.

Twelvers / Ithna Ashari Islamic Schools of Thought

The 17th Century Akhbari/Usuli controversy was directed towards establishing the ‘Ulama’ as regents of the Imam in social and political matters. Usuli [variants: Usooli] was a religious movement by Persian Shiite Muslims in 17th century Iran that was opposed to the Akhbari. The Usuli-Akhbari controversy resulted in the victory of rationalism and upheld the role of the ulama, but it would be wrong to assumed that all Akhbari `ulama’ were reactionary and all Usuli `ulama’ were progressive.

The dominant Usuli (from “usul-i-fiqh,” principles of jurisprudence) school is more liberal in its legal outlook than the Akhbari. It allows greater use of interpretation (ijtihad) in reaching legal decisions, and considers that one must obey a mujtahid (learned interpreter of the law) as well as an Imam. The Iranian religious center at Qom was the focal point of Usuli Shiism, and from the 1760s, the Usuli school began to win out in the strategic Shi`ite shrine centers of Najaf and Karbala in Iraq. By the establishment of the Qajar dynasty in 1785 (CE) the Usuli ulama had emerged as a force to be reckoned with across Iran, with it’s leadership emanating from the Atabat (Karbila and Najaf in Iraq).

Usuli Shiism produced the politically active caste of priests that is a distinctive feature of Iranian Shiism. Usuli rationalists insisted that the consensus of scholars and independent reasoning (ijtihad) can be a basis for activism. Usuli Shiism provided the religious legitimacy for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution of 1979 and the subsequent theocratic state. But the na’ib-i-amm concept — that the ulama acted in “general deputyship” in the absence of the Hidden Imam – expanded only slowly over time. Most ulama were politically inactive. The concept was developed to its logical conclusion in Ayat’ullah Khumayni’s construct that that government is rightfully administered by Islamic jurists in the absence of the Imam.

In mainstream Usuli Shiite jurisprudence it is illegitimate to continue following the controversial rulings of a dead jurisprudent. Laypersons must adopt a new, living jurisprudent in such circumstances. The practice of taqlid al-mayyit [following dead jurisprudents] is permited in the Akhbari school.

Akhbari (or communicators of tradition, akhbar being the Shi’i term for the Traditions) was a religious movement by Arab Shiite Muslims in 17th century Iraq that was opposed to the Usuli. Akhbari Shiism did not promote political control, and held that clerics should advise political leaders but not govern themselves. The shrine cities of Ottoman Iraq — Najaf (tomb of `Ali) and Karbala (tomb of Husayn) — were the center of Akhbari scholars. The Akhbari school restricted to the Qur’an and oral reports of the Prophet and the Imams. They held that, during the ghaiba (occultation) of the Twelfth Imam, religious scholars were not permitted to use reason (ijtihad) to apply law to a specific situation. They also insisted that laymen can equally emulate the 12 Imams — that is, Akhbaris supported in the ability of all believers to interpret the Traditions of the Imams.

This school crystallised into a separate movement following the writings of Mulla Muhammad Amin Astaraabadi (d. 1033/1623). Shaykh Yusuf al-Bahrani, a refugee from Afghan slaughter in Iran in 1724, rejected the legitimacy of holy war (jihad) during the occultation of the Imam. The school achieved its greatest influence during the late and post-Safavid periods but was crushed by the `Usuli Mujtahidin at the end of the Qajar era. Shaykh Murtada bin Muhammad Amin Ansari [b 1214/1799 , d 1281/1864] established conclusively the dominance of the Usuli position against the neo-Akhbari Traditionism.

There is some confusion as to the present adherence to the Akhbari school. Many sources claims that Iraqi Shi‘ism is Akhbari while Iranian Shi‘ism is Usuli. Other reports characterized Abdul Majid al-Khoei, who was killed by a rampaging mob soon after he returned to Iraq from emigration in London, and as Akhbari. This may overstate matters, though “some residual influence of the Akhbari position still persists not only in Iran but to a much greater degree among the Shi’i ulama of Iraq, India, Pakistan and Bahrain and among their followers.”

Other sources report that both Iraqi and Iranian are Shi’ia are Usulis, and that Iraq is fully part of the marja‘ (source or religious leader) system. Thus, Grand Ayatullah as-Sayyid Ali al-Hussaini as-Seestani is Marja Taghlid (source of emulation). Sharia is updated, interpreted and relayed by a Mojtahed (supreme religious leader) or a Marja Taghlid (source of emulation). According to this view, Akhbaris are today a small group which only survives in any numbers in Bahrain, where the majority of Shiites are Akhbaris. They are also found around Basra in southern Iraq as well as around Khorramshahr in Iran. Akhbari Shi‘ism also has a few adherents in other Gulf regions.

After the defeat of the Akhbaris, the primary doctrinal challenge to Usuli jurisprudecne came from the Shaykhi school. This movement was founded on the teachings of Shaykh Ahmad-i-Ahsa’i (d. 1825 C.E.) and his successor Siyyid Kazim-i-Rashti (d. 1844 C.E.). Whereas the Akhbari school differed from the `Usulis principally in matters of furu`, the Shaykhi School, founded by Shaykh Ahmad ibn Zaynu’d-Din al-Ahsa’i (d. 1241/1826), differed principally in usul. There is evidence that Shaykh Najafi made attempts to marginalize their role. There remains a strong Shaykhi movement in Pakistan.

Seveners / Ismaili Islam

Ismailis are Shi’a Muslims who claim that Ismail, the eldest son of Imam Jaffar, was the rightful ruler of all Muslims. They are also known as the “Seveners”, because Imam Jaffar was the seventh and, according to them, the last Imam. An important Shi‘i Muslim community, the Ismailis as an entity emerged in 765 from a disagreement over the successor to the sixth imam, Ja‘far al-Sadiq. According to the Ismailis, starting from Ali, the eldest son has always inherited the right to rule. Shi’a Twelvers, those who accept the first Twelve Imams, believe that Jafar, the Sixth Imam, passed over his eldest son, Ismail, in favor of Ismail’s brother Musa al Kazim. Ismailis, however, believe that Jafar appointed Ismail to be the Seventh Imam–hence Ismailis are often called Seveners.

Ismaili Shi’a doctrine closely resembled Twelver Shi’a Islam with regard to observance of the sharia but also included a system of philosophy and science coordinated with religion that proved the divine origin of the Imamate and the rights of the Fatimids to it. Ubaid Allah al Mahdi, the founder of the Fatimid Dynasty, came to North Africa in the early tenth century and actively promoted the Ismaili faith. The Fatimid rulers proclaimed themselves true caliphs.

Little is known of the early history of the sect, but it was firmly established by the end of the ninth century. From 969 to 1171, an Ismaili dynasty, the Fatimids, ruled as caliphs in Egypt. The Fatimids, unlike the Tulinids and the Ikhshidids, wanted independence, not autonomy, from Baghdad. In addition, as heads of a great religious movement, the Ismaili Shi’a Islam, they also challenged the Sunni Abbasids for the caliphate itself. The name of the dynasty is derived from Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad and the wife of Ali, the fourth caliph and the founder of Shi’a Islam. The leader of the movement, who first established the dynasty in Tunisia in 906, claimed descent from Fatima.

Under the Fatimids, Egypt became the center of a vast empire, which at its peak comprised North Africa, Sicily, Palestine, Syria, the Red Sea coast of Africa, Yemen, and the Hijaz in Arabia, including the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Control of the holy cities conferred enormous prestige on a Muslim sovereign and the power to use the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca to his advantage. Cairo was the seat of the Shi’a caliph, who was the head of a religion as well as the sovereign of an empire. The Fatimids established Al Azhar in Cairo as an intellectual center where scholars and teachers elaborated the doctrines of the Ismaili Shi’a faith.

The first century of Fatimid rule represents a high point for medieval Egypt. The administration was reorganized and expanded. It functioned with admirable efficiency: tax farming was abolished, and strict probity and regularity in the assessment and collection of taxes was enforced. The revenues of Egypt were high and were then augmented by the tribute of subject provinces. This period was also an age of great commercial expansion and industrial production. The Fatimids fostered both agriculture and industry and developed an important export trade. Realizing the importance of trade both for the prosperity of Egypt and for the extension of Fatimid influence, the Fatimids developed a wide network of commercial relations, notably with Europe and India, two areas with which Egypt had previously had almost no contact.

Egyptian ships sailed to Sicily and Spain. Egyptian fleets controlled the eastern Mediterranean, and the Fatimids established close relations with the Italian city states, particularly Amalfi and Pisa. The two great harbors of Alexandria in Egypt and Tripoli in present-day Lebanon became centers of world trade. In the east, the Fatimids gradually extended their sovereignty over the ports and outlets of the Red Sea for trade with India and Southeast Asia and tried to win influence on the shores of the Indian Ocean. In lands far beyond the reach of Fatimid arms, the Ismaili missionary and the Egyptian merchant went side-by-side.

In the end, however, the Fatimid bid for world power failed. A weakened and shrunken empire was unable to resist the crusaders, who in July 1099 captured Jerusalem from the Fatimid garrison after a siege of five weeks.

Ismailis accept many Shi’a doctrines, such as the esoteric nature of truth and the inspiration of the Imams. Although holding their Imams to be of divine origin, as the Shi’a do, Ismailis have a dual Imamate. They believe the succession of visible Imams has continued to the present. There are, however, two imams, the visible and the hidden, the speaker and the silent. The identity of the hidden imam is not known to the community but it is believed he will return to lead the faithful. Ismailis generally follow the religious practice of the Shi’a Twelvers in prayers, fasts, and Quranic prescriptions, but in their conservatism they resemble Sunnis on some points. For example, they do not observe the tenth of Muharram in the impassioned way of the Shi’a.

Ismaili beliefs are complex and syncretic, combining elements from the philosophies of Plotinus, Pythagoras, Aristotle, gnosticism, and the Manichaeans, as well as components of Judaism, Christianity, and Eastern religions. Ismaili conceptions of the Imamat differ greatly from those of other Muslims and their tenets are unique. Their beliefs about the creation of the world are idiosyncratic, as is their historical ecumenism, tolerance of religious differences, and religious hierarchy. There is a division of theology into exoteric (including the conservative Shariah) and esoteric (including the mystical exegesis of the Quran which leads to haqiqa, the ultimate realty). These beliefs and practices are veiled in secrecy and Ismaili place particular emphasis on taqiya meaning to shield or guard, the practice that permits the believer to deny publicly his Shi’a membership for self-protection, as long as he continues to believe and worship in private. Taqiya is permissible in most Shi’a, and some Sunni, sects.

The Ismailis who number 15 million, are divided into several main branches. One, who call themselves Bohras, have their headquarters in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India. Another branch — known as Khojas — are headed by the Agha Khan and concentrated in Gujarât State, India.

Alawi Islam

There are an estimated 5 to 12 million Alevis in Turkey. They are followers of a belief system that incorporates aspects of both Shi’a and Sunni Islam and draws on the traditions of other religions found in Anatolia as well. The Turkish Government considers Alevism a heterodox Muslim sect; however, some Turkish Alevis and radical Sunnis maintained Alevis were not Muslims. Many Alevis alleged discrimination in the Turkish Government’s failure to include any of their doctrines or beliefs in religious instruction classes. Alevis also charged that there was a Sunni bias in the Diyanet since the directorate viewed Alevis as a cultural rather than a religious group and did not fund their activities. During a September 2003 visit to Germany, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan told reporters that “Alevism is not a religion” and said Alevi Cem houses are “culture houses” rather than “temples.”

The Alawis, who number about 1,350,000 in Syria and Lebanon, constitute Syria’s largest religious minority. Historically they have been called Nusayris, Nusairis, Namiriya or Ansariyya. They live chiefly along the coast in Al Ladhiqiyah Province, where they form over 60 percent of the rural population; the city of Latakia itself is largely Sunni.

The Alawi sect, which integrates doctrines from other religions — in particular from Christianity — arose from a split within the Ismailite sect. The Alawis appear to be descendants of people who lived in this region at the time of Alexander the Great. When Christianity flourished in the Fertile Crescent, the Alawis, isolated in their little communities, clung to their own preIslamic religion. After hundreds of years of Ismaili influence, the Alawis moved closer to Islam. However, contacts with the Byzantines and the Crusaders added Christian elements to the Alawis’ new creeds and practices. For example, Alawis celebrate Christmas, Easter, and Epiphany.

For several centuries, the Alawis enjoyed autonomy within the Ottoman Empire, but, in the mid-nineteenth century, the Ottomans imposed direct rule. Regarding the Alawis as infidels, the Ottomans consistently persecuted them and imposed heavy taxation. During the French Mandate, the Alawis briefly gained territorial autonomy, but direct rule was reimposed in 1936.

For centuries, the Alawis constituted Syria’s most repressed and exploited minority. Most were indentured servants and tenant farmers or sharecroppers working for Sunni landowners. However, after Alawi President Assad and his retinue came to power in 1970, the well being of the Alawis improved considerably.

Split by sectional rivalries, the Alawis have no single, powerful ruling family, but since independence many individual Alawis have attained power and prestige as military officers. Although they are settled cultivators, Alawis gather into kin groups much like those of pastoral nomads. The four Alawi confederations, each divided into tribes, are Kalbiyah, Khaiyatin, Haddadin, and Matawirah.

Alawis claim they are Muslims, but conservative Sunnis do not always recognize them as such. Like Ismaili Shi’as, Alawis believe in a system of divine incarnation. Unlike Ismailis, Alawis regard Ali as the incarnation of the deity in the divine triad. As such, Ali is the “Meaning;” Muhammad, whom Ali created of his own light, is the “Name;” and Salman the Persian is the “Gate.” Alawi catechesis is expressed in the formula: “I turn to the Gate; I bow before the Name; I adore the Meaning.” An Alawi prays in a manner patterned after the shahada: “I testify that there is no God but Ali.”

According to Alawi belief, all persons at first were stars in the world of light but fell from the firmament through disobedience. Faithful Alawis believe they must be transformed seven times before returning to take a place among the stars, where Ali is the prince. If blameworthy, they are sometimes reborn as Christians, among whom they remain until atonement is complete. Infidels are reborn as animals.

Because many of the tenets of the faith are secret, Alawis have refused to discuss their faith with outsiders. Only an elect few learn the religion after a lengthy process of initiation; youths are initiated into the secrets of the faith in stages. Their prayer book, the source of religious instruction, is the Kitab al Majmu, believed to be derived from Ismaili writings. Alawis study the Quran and recognize the five pillars of Islam, which they interpret in a wholly allegorical sense to fit community tenets.

Alawis do not set aside a particular building for worship. In the past, Sunni government officials forced them to build mosques, but these were invariably abandoned. Only the men take part in worship.

Alawis are sometimes pejoratively referred to as Mutazila, but they are distinct from this early Islamic sect. The Mu`tazilites were people following the Mu`tazila religious sect that emerged at the last period of the Ummayad dynasty. It became popular in the reign of the Abbasids. The name, Mutazila or Mutazalite means the Withdrawers or Secessionists. The Mutazila come from the Khawarij, who make takfir of the main body of believers. Some then split from their original allegiance and set up a further correctness — Mutazili “those who decided to go alone”. The Khawariji were the very first sect to split away from the main body of the Muslims. The mutazila allowed for civil disobedience, but not for open rebellion as had the Kharijites. The Mutazila argued for the metaphorical nature of the Koran and the supremacy of reason over the text.

Musta‘lis [Bohras or Bohri] with Tayyibi Ismailism

Among the Shi’as of India the Ithna-Asharis are in the majority while the Khojas and Bohras of Western and Central India belong to the two internal divisions of the Isma`ili group of Muslims – the Nizaris [Khojas] with Satpanth Ismailism and the the Musta‘lis [Bohras or Bohri] with Tayyibi Ismailism.

Most bohras are Daudi [Dawoodi] Ismailis.The Bohras have their headquarters in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India. The bohras are am ethnic group in India and Pakistan, originally a hindu caste — Bohri Muslims were originally Brahmins. They are under the leadership of a Da’i Mutlaq, or “Absolute Preacher.” The religious hierarchy of the Daudi Bohras is similar to that of the Fatimids, and is headed by the da’i mutlaq who is appointed by the preceeding da’i in office. The da’i also appoints two others to the ranks of madhun and mukasir, the two subsidiary offices. These positions are followed by the ranks of sheikh and mullah, which is filled by hundreds of bohras. The sect was formed in the 11th Century C.E. when the Mustalis accepted the imamate of al-Mustali. They remained in Egypt until the fall of the Fatimid dynasty in 1171. From there the sect moved to Yemen where it split, with some remaining in Yemen and others moving to India where they became known as Bohras.

A community of up to one million devout Shi’a, the Daudi Bohras shatter stereotypes about traditionalist Islam. Bohras accept most aspects of modernity, and support the concept of a pluralist civil society. The Bohras have used modernity as a tool to reinvigorate their core traditions. The Bohra clergy has succeeded in establishing a communal identity that is both universally Islamic and unique to the denomination.

Though highly Islamised as compared to the Isma’ili sects like the Khojas, the Bohras have retained much from the native Indian culture. The Dawoodi Bohras are a Shi’a Isma’ili sect numbering over a million today. The breeding ground for this dissident sect was non-Arab territories of what was once Babylonia, Assyria and a few areas of Persia, besides Yemen in the south of Arabian peninsula. The Bohras are of Indian origin, conversion in India having taken place in the twelfth and thirteen centuries.

Druze

The Druze religion is a tenth-century offshoot of Islam, but Muslims view Druzes as heretical for accepting the divinity of Hakim, the third Fatimid caliph of Egypt. The group takes its names from Muhammad Bin Ismail ad Darazi, an Iranian mystic. Druzes regard Jethro, father-in-law of Moses, as their chief prophet and make annual pilgrimages to his tomb in lower Galilee. They also revere Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, the three most important prophets of Islam.

The Druze have always kept their doctrine and ritual of secret to avoid persecution. Only those who demonstrate extreme piety and devotion and the correct demeanor are initiated into the mysteries. The initiated (uqqal; sing., aqil) are a very small minority and may include women. Most Druzes are juhhal, ignorant ones. Apparently the religion is complex, involving neo-Platonic thought, Sufi mysticism, and Iranian religious traditions.

Endogamy and monogamy are the rule among the Druzes. Until recently, most girls were married between the ages of 12 and 15, and most men at the age of 16 or 17. Women are veiled in public, but, in contrast to Muslim Arab custom, they can and do participate in the councils of elders.

The Druze community, at 3 percent of the population Syria’s third largest religious minority, is the overwhelming majority in the Jabal al Arab, a rugged and mountainous region in southwestern Syria.

Khoja [Nizaris] Satpanth Ismailism

Among the Shi’as of India the Ithna-Asharis are in the majority while the Khojas and Bohras of Western and Central India belong to the two internal divisions of the Isma`ili group of Muslims – the Nizaris [Khojas] with Satpanth Ismailism and the the Musta‘lis [Bohras or Bohri] with Tayyibi Ismailism.

The Khojas are headed by the Agha Khan, who has followers in Pakistan, India, Iran, Yemen, and East Africa. The present Aga Khan, Prince Karim, is the 49th direct descendant in a male line down from Ali. His great-grandfather, Hasan Ali Shah, was given the title of Aga Khan by the Sultan of Persia. The Ismaili followers of the Aga Khan professedly believe that the Qur’an was time bound and was not meant to be a Universal message for all times. The Aga Khan has officially declared himself, before his followers, as the “Mazhar of Allah on earth”. The word “mazhar” means “copy” or “manifest”.

The followers of the Agha Khan maintain Allah made the Caliphate hereditary office and not an office “by election” or “nomination”. They note that Allah promised Hazrat Ibrahim that his progeny would rule the nations, and the Prophet Muhammad was descended from Prophet Ibrahim’s elder son Ismail’s line. The Quran outlined the inheritance laws in detail and the legacy passes to the children, related by blood, and not outsiders. Hazrat Ali a.s. was Prophet Muhammad’s cousin, Abdul Muttalib was the shared Grandfather to both Prophet Muhammad and Hazrat Ali, and moreover, Prophet Muhammad gave his daughter Fatima a.s., to his favorite and chosen, Hazrat Ali in marriage. Their children, Hazrat Hassan and Hazrat Hussein carried the pure blood of Prophet Muhammad in their veins. The present Living Imam, Imam e Zaman, Prince of Peace for Islam, Mowlana Shah Karim Aga Khan (prayers of peace), is the 49th in the direct line.

The Khojas are concentrated in Gujarât State, India. Khojas were originally Hindus of the trading class converted by Pir Sadruddin [Pir Sadr Al-Dine] in Sind in the later 14th Century (CE). From Sind, the conversion spread into Kutch, then into Kathiawar and through Gujarat to Bombay. Pir Sadr Al-Dine is credited with the conversion of the Khojas from the Hindu caste of the Lohanas. He laid the foundation of the communal organization, built the first assembly and prayer halls (Jamaat Khanahs) and appointed the community leaders (Mukhis). Khojas live chiefly in lower Sind, Cutch, Gujarat, Bombay and in wide diaspora, particularly in East and South Africa, Arabia, Sri Lanka and Myanmar (Burma).

The Khojas appeared in Eastern Turkestan in the 16th century as leaders of two sects of Nakshbandiye Sufi order – the White mountaineers and the Black mountaineers. The khojas soon assumed informal temporal power. Any political decision in the Mogol khanate of the 17th century could not be accepted without approval of the khojas. China seized Eastern Turkestan in 1759.

Zanzibar attracted Indians from Kutch and Kathiawad, and Khojas emigrated in hundreds by dhows in the 19th century.

Satpanth, really Sat Panth, i.e. the “True Path (to Salvation)”, is the name of a sect of Islam, forming a kind of transition from ordinary Islamic doctrine of the Shi ‘ite type, to Hinduism. The majority of the Khoja community gives preponderance to Islamic elements at the expense of the Hinduistic, while in the Imam-shahi branches certain groups may pursue just the opposite course of drifting back to Hinduism.

The Nizari sect began when Hasan Ibn al-Sabbah refused to recognize al-Musta’li as the new caliph in 1094. He support al-Musta’li’s brother Nizar, who soon disappeared under obscure circumstances in 1095. Musta’liyah Isma’ilis were centered in Cairo while the Nizaris, consolidated their positions in Iran and Syria. Hasan-i Sabbah established his mountains stronghold at Alamut, intending to to destroy the Abbasid Caliphate by murdering its most powerful members. The group followed in the steps of the Kharijites, elaborating an ideology directed against Muslim rulers that they regarded as impious usurpers. The Nizaris [Misaris] gained prominence during the Crusades when a society of Misaris, called Assassins, harassed both the Crusaders and Saladin (Salah ad Din al Ayyubi) at the time of the crusades of the eleventh century. They became famous in the 12th Century for their seizing of Crusader forts and assassinating Christian leaders. The sect was thought to be active possibly continued through the 14th century as a group of bandits on the Afghanistan Silk Road.

Accoring to one account, the Hashshashin (Assassins) received their name from their use of hashish. Other writers suggest that assassin simply means ‘followers of Al-Hassan’ (or Hasan-i Sabbah, the Sheikh of Alamut, known as “The Old Man of the Mountain”). Their own name for the sect was ad-dawa al-jadida which means “the new doctrine” and they called themselves fedayeen from the Arabic fida’i which means “one who is ready to sacrifice his life for the cause.”

Zaydi Islam

Zaydis (also: Zaidi, Zaiddiyah, or in the West Fivers) are the most moderate of the Shi’a groups and the nearest to the Sunnis in their theology. They say that they are a “fifth school” of Islam (in addition to the four Sunni orthodox schools). This Shi`ite sect is named after Zayd b. Ali, grandson of Husayn. The Zaydi sect was formed by the followers of Zayd b. Ali, who led an unsuccessful rebellion against the Umayyad caliph Hisham in 740.

According to Zaydi political theory, Ali, Hasan and Husayn are the first three rightful Imams; after them, the imamate is open to whomever of their descendants establishes himself through armed rebellion. Shi’a regard Imam Ali Zayn al-Abidin as the fourth imam. While most Shi’as take Muhammed Al-Baqir to be the next Imam, Zayadis take Al-Baqir’s brother Zayd as imam.

Zaidi see Zayd as the fifth Imam because of the rebellion he led against the Umayyad dynasty, which he believed was corrupt. Muhammad al-Baqir did not engage in political action, whereas Zayd preached that a true Imam must fight against corrupt rulers.

Not all Zaidis believe that Zaid is the true Imam. Zaidis known as Wastis believes in Twelver Imams. They are part of Shi’a Ithna Ashiri. Most of them settled in India, Pakistan. The biggest group of Zaidis having their belive on Twelve Shi’a Imams is known as Saadat-e-Bahra. Saadat means descendents of Imam Husayn bin Ali and Bahra means twelve in Hindi and Urdu Languages.

The first Zaydi state was established in Tabaristan (northern Iran) in 864; it lasted until the death of its leader at the hand of the Samanids in 928. Forty years later the state was revived in Gilan (north-western Iran) and survived under Hasanid leaders until the 12th century.

In Yemen, a Zaydi state was established in 893 by a Hasanid who had originally been invited to mediate between quarrelling Yemeni tribes. A succession of occupations by foreign dynasties beginning in the tenth century occasionally forced the Zaydi imamate to retreat northwards; however, the imamate survived until the death of its last imam in 1962.

Yemen is a country with deep Muslim traditions, but is often most mentioned for its relatively large Zaydi Shi’i group, even if this represents a minority in the country as a total. The Zaydi order of Shi’a Islam represents approximately 25 percent t of the total population. Yemen’s north is the center of Zaydism. Zaydism is known for putting less importance on the position of the Imam, than among the Twelver (Iran), perhaps because the Zaydis have enjoyed far more political and religious freedom than the other.

In the rugged mountains of northern Yemen live some four hundred Zaydi tribes with a total of some five million members. For over one thousand years they have been the dominant community in the Yemen, often fighting against the Sunni Shafi’i tribes and the smaller Isma’ili and Twelver Shi’a communities.

Zaidi beliefs are moderate compared to other Shi’a sects. The Zaidis do not believe in the infallibility of the Imams, nor that they receive divine guidance. Zaidis also do not believe that the Imamate must pass from father to son, but believe it can be held by any descendant of Ali. They also reject the Twelver notion of a hidden Imam, and like the Ismailis believe in a living imam, or even imams.

In matters of law or fiqh, the Zaidis are actually closest to the Sunni Shafie school.

Kharijite Islam

The Kharijites [Kharidjites, in Arabic Khawarij, singular Khariji, meaning “those that seceded”] were members of the earliest sect in Islam that left the followers of Ali [cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad]. The third Caliph, Uthman, was killed by mutineers in 656 AD, and a struggle for succession ensued between Ali, and Mu’awiya, governor of Damascus. The Kharijites left the followers of Ali [the Shi’a] because of Shi’a willingness to allow human arbitration of Ali’s dispute with Mu’awiya in 657, rather than divine judgment. The Kharijites believed that the Imam should be elected for his moral qualities. The Kharijites considered that Ali made a mistake in looking for a compromise with Mu’awiya. For this reason they are not considered as properly Shiite by some commentators. Ali defeated their rebellion, but the Kharijites survived and an adherent of the movement murdered Ali in 661.

Kharijites rejected primogeniture succession of the Quraysh, the tribe of Muhammad, and assert that leadership of Islam, the caliphate, should be designated by an imam elected by the community from candidates who possess spiritual and personal qualities.

The Kharijite theology was a radical fundamentalism, with uncompromised observance of the Quran in defiance of corrupt authorities. Kharijites considered moderate Muslims to be “hypocrites” and “unbelievers” who could be killed with impunity. The Khawarij made takfir — declaring a person to be Kafir — of the main body of believers. The Kharijite held that only the most pious members of the community could be entrusted with political power.

The most prominent quality of the Kharijite movement was opposition to the caliph’s representatives and particularly to Muawiyah, who became caliph after Ali. Although the Kharijites were known to some Muslims as bandits and assassins, they developed certain ideal notions of justice and piety. The Prophet Muhammad had been sent to bring righteousness to the world and to teach the Arabs to pray and to distribute their wealth and power fairly. According to the Kharijites, whoever was lax in following the Prophet’s directives should be opposed, ostracized, or killed.

The Kharijites Islamic sect in late 7th and early 8th century AD was concentrated in today’s southern Iraq. Kharijite uprisings continued under the Umayyads in Iraq, Iran, and Arabia. The apogee of Kharijites influence came between 690 and 730, when their main city, Basra, emerged as a center of Islamic learning. Finally, under the Abbasids, Kharijism was suppressed in Iraq.

Modern Kharijites are sometimes called Ibadites after Abu Allah ibn Ibad (ca. 660-ca. 715), a moderate Kharijite who spent considerable time in Basra, Iraq. Ibad’s followers founded communities in parts of Africa and southern Arabia.

In the eighth century, some Kharijites began to moderate their position. Leaders arose who suppressed the fanatical political element in Kharijite belief and discouraged their followers from taking up arms against Islam’s official leader. Kharijite leaders emphasized instead the special benefits that Kharijites might receive from living in a small community that held high standards for personal conduct and spiritual values.

The Kharijite movement continued to be significant on the Persian Gulf coast in the ninth through the eleventh century. It continued to play an important political role in eastern Arabia, North Africa, and eastern Africa. Over time the views of the movement moderated and adherents became less antagonistic to the rest of Islam. Eventually, the Kharijite insistence on the primacy of religion in political life moved into the mainstream of Islamic thought.

The Kharijites Islamic sect survived into the twentieth century in the more moderate form of Ibadi Islam. Ibadites refer themselves back to the Kharijites but reject their aggressive methods. There is a Kharidjite majority in Oman and, there are significant Kharidjite minorities in Algeria (in the Mzab, more than 100,000). Some 40,000 Berber-speaking Ibadi people living on Jerba [Djerba] Island in Tunisia still kept to austere Kharidjite beliefs in the mid-1980s.

Ibadi leadership is vested in an imam, who is regarded as the sole legitimate leader and combines religious and political authority. The imam is elected by a council of prominent laymen or shaykhs. Adherence to Ibadism accounts in part for Oman’s historical isolation. Considered a heretical form of Islam by the majority Sunni Muslims, Ibadis were not inclined to integrate with their neighbors.

The term Kharijites became a designation for Muslims who refused to compromise with those who differed from them. The uncompromising fanaticism of the original Kharijites was indicative of the fervor with which the tribal Arabs had accepted the missionary ideology of Islam. It was this fervor that made it possible for Arab armies to conquer so much territory in the seventh century. This same spirit helped the Al Saud succeed at the end of the eighteenth century and again at the beginning of the twentieth. Some observers compare today’s radical Salafis with the ancient Khawarij terrorist sect, since they pioneered the political killing of Muslims considered heretic.

The Imamate

Among Shi’as the term imam traditionally has been used only for Ali and his eleven descendants. None of the twelve Imams, with the exception of Ali, ever ruled an Islamic government. During their lifetimes, their followers hoped that they would assume the rulership of the Islamic community, a rule that was believed to have been wrongfully usurped. Because the Sunni caliphs were cognizant of this hope, the Imams generally were persecuted during the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties. Therefore, the Imams tried to be as unobtrusive as possible and to live as far as was reasonable from the successive capitals of the Islamic empire.

The Imamate began with Ali, who is also accepted by Sunni Muslims as the fourth of the “rightly guided caliphs” to succeed the Prophet. Shi’as revere Ali as the First Imam, and his descendants, beginning with his sons Hasan and Husayn, continue the line of the Imams until the twelfth, who is believed to have ascended into a supernatural state to return to earth on Judgment Day. Shi’as point to the close lifetime association of the Prophet with Ali. When Ali was six years old, he was invited by the Prophet to live with him, and Shi’as believe Ali was the first person to make the declaration of faith in Islam. Ali also slept in the Prophet’s bed on the night of the hijra or migration from Mecca to Medina when it was feared that the house would be attacked by unbelievers and the Prophet stabbed to death. He fought in all the battles the Prophet did except one, and the Prophet chose him to be the husband of his favorite daughter, Fatima.

The Sunni-Shi’a division of Islam originated as a succession dispute shortly after the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632 A.D. Shi’a believe that the proper successor of Muhammad was Ali. The word “Shi’a” means partisan or faction of Ali. Ali was elected to be the fourth Muslim ruler or caliph, but was later overthrown and assassinated. Shi’a Muslims believe that the first three caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman were usurpers, and that Ali was the first true Imam.

Shi’a venerate Ali only second to Muhammad, considering him the first Imam and the true caliph. Ali was buried in the Iraqi city of Najaf, which established an early connection between Iraq and Shiism and became a shrine city that continues to be a destination for Shi’a pilgrims.

In 661 A.D. Mu’awiya, the governor of Syria, named himself caliph and made the caliphate hereditary in his own family, the Umayyads, who the Shi’a rejected as usurpers of Ali and his sons’ rights to the caliphate. In the year AD 661, Imam Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law and the fourth caliph of Islam, was assassinated in southern Iraq in a struggle over who would rule the faithful. Ali was buried in Najaf, and his tomb is housed in a mosque in the city’s center.

Nineteen years after Ali’s death, his two sons were killed in battle and subsequently buried in nearby Karbala. Their battlefield deaths made martyrdom one of the most important tenets of Shiism. Shi’a attempts to challenge the Umayyad leaders resulted in the death of Ali’s son and the third Shi’a Imam, Husayn, at the Battle of Karbala in 680. The city of Karbala has become a Shi’a shrine city.

Husayn’s death is commemorated annually in the Ashura ceremony, and is seen as a symbol of the persecution and oppression experienced by the Shi’a community. Celebration of Ashura can also be a form of Shi’a political dissent. Male participants in the Ashura rituals beat their chests and chant in an action called lahtom. Some use swords to lacerate their heads to symbolize the beheading of Husayn, or use chains to beat their backs to evoke the suffering of Husayn.

Shi’a may place a piece of stone or clay, known as a turba, from the shrine of an Imam or other Shi’a figure on the ground so that their forehead touches the stone when they prostrate themselves in prayer. The possession of such a disc is a sign of Shi’a identity.

Jaafari [Jafari] Faith means the Religion according to lmam Jaafar Sadiq (a.s.), the Sixth Infallible Imam of the world of Shiism. Ascription of the Shiite Religion to Imam Jaafar ben Muhammad A]-Sadiq (a.s.) was due to the fact that this noble Imam lived longer than all other Infallible Imams and, thus, he has had more time and opportunity for action. Because of the conditions of his time, the role of imam Sadeq (a.s.) in reviving true, genuine Islamic teachings, formation of numerous education centers and training of faithful men was exceptional to the point that the Shiite religion by ascription to him has been named the “Jaafari Faith”. The infirmity and confusion of the Caliphate due to the clashes between the Abbasid, and the Omayyad dynasties, in particular, afforded wider opportunities to the Imam to teach, instruct, discuss and train the faithful and sincere forces and to establish lbeologic Centers and promulgate the Islamic truths.

During the eighth century the Caliph Mamun, son and successor to Harun ar Rashid, was favorably disposed toward the descendants of Ali and their followers. He invited the Eighth Imam, Reza (A.D. 765-816), to come from Medina (in the Arabian Peninsula) to his court at Marv (Mary in the present-day Soviet Union). While Reza was residing at Marv, Mamun designated him as his successor in an apparent effort to avoid conflict among Muslims. Reza’s sister Fatima journeyed from Medina to be with her brother, but took ill and died at Qom, in present-day Iran. A major shrine developed around her tomb and over the centuries Qom has become a major Shi’a pilgrimage and theological center.

Mamun took Reza on his military campaign to retake Baghdad from political rivals. On this trip Reza died unexpectedly in Khorasan. Reza was the only Imam to reside or die in what in now Iran. A major shrine, and eventually the city of Mashhad, grew up around his tomb, which has become the most important pilgrimage center in Iran. Several important theological schools are located in Mashhad, associated with the shrine to the Eighth Imam.

Reza’s sudden death was a shock to his followers, many of whom believed that Mamun, out of jealousy for Reza’s increasing popularity, had the Imam poisoned. Mamun’s suspected treachery against Imam Reza and his family tended to reinforce a feeling already prevalent among his followers that the Sunni rulers were untrustworthy.

The Twelfth Imam is believed to have been only five years old when the Imamate descended upon him in A.D.874 at the death of his father. Because his followers feared he might be assassinated, the Twelfth Imam was hidden from public view and was seen only by a few of his closest deputies. Sunnis claim that he never existed or that he died while still a child. Shi’as believe that the Twelfth Imam never died, but disappeared from earth in about A.D. 939. Since that time, the greater occultation of the Twelfth Imam has been in force and will last until God commands the Twelfth Imam to manifest himself on earth again as the Mahdi or Messiah. Shi’as believe that during the occultation of the Twelfth Imam, he is spiritually present–some believe that he is materially present as well–and he is besought to reappear in various invocations and prayers. His name is mentioned in wedding invitations, and his birthday is one of the most jubilant of all Shi’a religious observances.

The Shi’a doctrine of the Imamate was not fully elaborated until the tenth century. Other dogmas were developed still later. A characteristic of Shi’a Islam is the continual exposition and reinterpretation of doctrine.

Shi’a Muslims hold the fundamental beliefs of other Muslims. But, in addition to these tenets, the distinctive institution of Shi’a Islam is the Imamate — a much more exalted position than the Sunni imam, who is primarily a prayer leader. In contrast to Sunni Muslims, who view the caliph only as a temporal leader and who lack a hereditary view of Muslim leadership, Shi’a Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad designated Ali to be his successor as Imam, exercising both spiritual and temporal leadership. Such an Imam must have knowledge, both in a general and a religious sense, and spiritual guidance or walayat, the ability to interpret the inner mysteries of the Quran and the sharia. Only those who have walayat are free from error and sin and have been chosen by God through the Prophet. Each Imam in turn designated his successor–through twelve Imams–each holding the same powers.

Implied in the Shi’a principle of the imamah is that imams, are imbued with a redemptive quality as a result of their sufferings and martyrdoms. And, although imams are not divine, they are sinless and infallible in matters of faith and morals, principle very similar to the notion of papal infallibility in the Roman Catholic Church. That man needs an intermediary with God is an Iranian idea that long predates Islam, as is the idea of a savior or messiah (Mahdi) who will come to redeem man and cleanse the world. To expect that the Mahdi, who is the last (twelfth) Imam, really will one is a religious virtue (intizar).

The Shiia Mahdi – The Hidden Imam

The Awaited Mahdi is absolutely central to the belief system of the twelve Imami’ah Shi’as, and constitutes one of the core principles of their religion. The idea of the “Return” is not of itself an original doctrine. Probably this belief came over into Islam through Judaic Christian influences. The prophet Elias, removed to heaven to reappear at the end of time to reestablish the rule of justice on the earth, is evidently the prototype of the removed and “invisible Imams” who are to reappear as Mahdis bringing salvation to the world.

The belief in an ultimate fulfilment of the Mahdi hope is of prime dogmatic significance in Shi’itic Islam. It forms the backbone of the Shi’ite system and is completely identical with the return (raja’) of the hidden Imam into the visible world, and who as the new law-giver is to take up the work of the prophet and to restore the rights of his family. He alone can fill the world with right and justice. Even during his bodily absence the hidden Imam is the genuine “leader of the time” and not without the power to manifest his will to believers. He is the object of extravagant paeans on the part of the faithful, who not only praise and natter him as a potentate among the living, but also apply to him the superhuman epithets commensurate with belief in him as the hidden Imam. According to them he surpasses even the high intellect of the spheres in spiritual greatness; he is the source of all knowledge and the goal of all longing. The Shi’itic poets are firmly convinced that such praises reach the hidden throne of the sublime personality of the Imam.”

A remarkable proof of the active force attached in Slu’itio circles to the belief in the hidden Imam is furnished by events in Persia, where, upon the introduction of a new constitution, “the consent and approval of the Imam of the time” was invoked. The authority of this invisible power was thus recognized as supreme in religious and political affairs. Every innovation must submit to the approval of his authority, even though this be only a matter of form. Thus the revolutionary party in Persia declared in an “appeal to the public,” issued in October, 1908, for the restoration of parliamentary government after the coup d’etat of Shah Mohammed’ Ali, as follows: “You are perhaps not aware of the clear and undisputed decision of the ‘Ulema of the holy city of Nejef, according to which everyone who opposes the constitution is to be compared to him who draws the sword against the Imam of the Time (i. e., against the hidden Imam) — May Allah grant you the joy of his return!”

Shiia look for the Signs of the Reappearance (Qiyam) of the (Imam) who undertakes the Office (al-Qa’im). The series of Imams most widely recognized at the present time among the Shi’ites is that set up by the sect of the so-called “Twelvers” (or Imamites). According to them ‘All’s rank as Imam was directly inherited by “visible” Imams, up to the eleventh, whose son, Muhammed Abu-1Kasim (born in Baghdad 872), was removed from the earth when scarcely eight years old, and since then lives hidden from the sight of men, in order to appear at the end of time as the Imam Mahdl, the saviour, to free the world from injustice and to set up the kingdom of peace and justice. This is the so-called “hidden Imam,” who has lived on ever since his disappearance, and whose reappearance is daily awaited by the faithful Shi’ite. This belief in a hidden Imam is to be found in all branches of Shi’ism. Each one of the parties believe in the continued existence and ultimate appearance of that Imam who in the special order of Imams is regarded as the last.

Muhammad al Mahdi (the guided) is the 12th and last Imam of the Twelver Shi’i, and is also known as Muhammad al Muntazar (the awaited). Little can be said of him with certainty, and the non-Twelver Muslims question whether there was an historical person associated with the name. Jafar, the brother of the Eleventh Imam, denied the existence of any child and claimed the Imamate for himself. Twelver Shi’i believe he was born to a Byzantine slave, and that his birth was kept quiet by his father, the Eleventh Imam, Hassan al Askari, because of the persecution of the Shi’is at that time. The 10th and 11th Imams were both under house arrest and communicated with their followers through a network of wikala (agents), a time that subsequently came to be known as the Lesser Occultation.

For the seventy years after the martyrdom of his father when he was aged six, he communicated with his adherents through a succession of four assistants, each known as the Bab (Gate). As he lay dying in AD 941, the fourth Bab disclosed a letter from the Hidden Imam stating that there should fifth Bab, and that thenceforth the Mahdi would be unseen [ghaybah]. Thus began the Greater Occultation, which would end with the reappearnce of the Mahdi as champion of the faithful in the events leading to the Judgement Day. Titles of the 12th Imam include: Hujjat, Khalaf Salih (the righteous offspring), Sahib az Zaman (Master of the Age), Sahib al Amr (Master of Command), al Qa’im (the one to arise), Bagiyyat Allah (remnant of Allah) and Imam al Muntazar (the awaited Imam).

The “Return” is one of the decisive factors in the Imam theory of all subdivisions of the Shi’ites; they differ only in regard to the person and order of the hidden and returning Imam. From the very beginning, those who set their hopes on ‘All and his successors, held the firm conviction that the Imam who had disappeared would eventually return. This belief was attached in the first place to ‘All himself by a group of adherents who were followers of ‘ Abdallah ibn Saba. They regarded him even during his lifetime as a supernatural being and, refusing to believe in his death, were convinced (in a docetic manner) of his ultimate return. This is the oldest testimony to the extravagant ‘All cult and indeed the first manifestation of Shrite schism. The next person to be regarded as a vanishing Imam who would some day return, was ‘All’s son, Mohammed ibn al-Hanafiyya, whose adherents were convinced of his continued existence, and his reappearance.

Just as many Jewish theologians and mystics have endeavored to compute the exact time of the appearance of the Messiah (based largely on the book of Daniel), so Sufis and Shi’ites have calculated by means of cabalistic use, verses of the Koran and numerical combinations of letters of the alphabet, the exact time of the reappearunce of the hidden Imam. Treatises dealing with such calculations are enumerated in the bibliographies of the older Shi’itic literature. Tendencies in the Turkish world, from which in many circles the confident hope is held in the advent of the true Mahdi (fixed for 1355, i. e., 1936), who will subject the whole world to Islam, and with whom the “golden age” will be inaugurated.

But just as in Judaism the “calculators of the end of time” as they are called, encountered severest reproaches, so the orthodox authorities of the moderate Shi’ites have branded “the time determiners” as liars, and have found in utterances of the Imams the condemnation of such speculations. The disillusionment resulting from the failure of such computations easily shows the dejection which such definite promises brought about.

Contents courtesy of GlobalSecurity.org and Wikipedia. Any errors are mine alone.