Islamic History, part 26: early Shiʿa history (661-c. 800)

Islamic History Series

For the most part, what we’ve covered until this point has been the history of Sunni Islam. The Rashidun, the Umayyads, the Abbasids, Spain and North Africa, early theology, all of these stories have belonged largely within the Sunni tradition. The irony there is that “Sunni Islam,” like most religious majorities (85-90% of Muslims are Sunnis of some disposition), defined itself far more slowly than the smaller movements that arose to challenge it, and generally defined itself only in opposition to them. The coalescence of an identifiable “Sunni” Islam is more about what it wasn’t than about what it was.

We’ve talked about one of those splinter groups, the Kharijites, in some detail, but we have yet to really cover the far more consequential early history of the Shiʿa except insofar as they were making trouble for the caliphs during these early centuries. But Shiʿism was doing much more than just periodically rebelling against the authorities; it was developing a fully-fledged philosophy and theology — several of them, in fact, as the number of distinct Shiʿa variants flourished — that was simultaneously opposed to what would become Sunnism but was still fundamentally Islamic. That development was led by a series of consequential historical figures who are crucial to Islamic history. Let’s dive in. This is going to take two posts to fully cover: this one will talk about the historical development of the Shiʿa (names and dates, etc.), while the next one will cover things like doctrine, sectarianism, and the like.

Having already covered Ali’s ill-fated caliphate in some detail, let’s pick up the story after his assassination by the Kharijites in 661. His enemy, Muʿawiyah, quickly seized the caliphate, but there remained a deeply loyal community of followers who had been loyal to Ali from the beginning, all the way back to the succession fight after Muhammad’s death, when they had believed that Ali was the only true successor to the Prophet and the only one who could lead the young community. These folks weren’t about to just accept that Muʿawiyah, who many of them saw (not without some justification) as the usurper par excellence, was now the leader of their community.

They turned instead to Hasan b. Ali (d. 670), Ali’s eldest son. He had been born in the year 3 AH, meaning the third year after Muhammad had relocated from Mecca to Medina, to Ali and his wife Fatimah, who was, as we know, Muhammad’s daughter. This made Hasan the oldest male descendent of the Prophet, which certainly had some currency within the early community. He followed his father in sort of grudgingly but genuinely accepting the first three caliphs, then fought at his father’s side in the major engagements of the First Fitnah.

Hasan was actually (albeit briefly) declared caliph by Ali’s core followers in Kufa, though most (but not all!) Sunni histories of the caliphate don’t bother to note that inconvenient fact. Muʿawiyah wasn’t about to let that slide, so he and his army marched on Kufa. Hasan started telling his followers how much he hated the idea of a schism in the community, and asking them to promise to follow his lead even if they didn’t agree with him, and oddly enough people started to suspect that Hasan was preparing to surrender to Muʿawiyah. Well, after a few minor engagements between the two armies, Hasan did agree to “cede” the caliphate to Muʿawiyah, provided that upon Muʿawiyah’s death the office would revert to Hasan or Hasan’s younger brother, Husayn b. Ali. He then retired to Medina, where he died in 670 at the age of only 45, 10 years before Muʿawiyah eventually died. Shiʿa tradition holds that he was poisoned by Muʿawiyah, and, you know, they might have a case here.

Hasan was succeeded as the leader of the “Alid” community by his brother Husayn, and we know what happened to him. As I said in that post:

The martyrdom of Husayn (as Shiʿa view it) ended the first part (but only the first part) of the Second Fitna, but more importantly it is probably the defining event in the formation of a Shiʿa sectarian consciousness. Those who had previously been Ali’s partisans (the shiʿat ʿAli), who believed in his claim to the Caliphate and the claim his sons held on that office, now began to feel that they were outside the Caliphal (Sunni, although at this point there was no such thing as “Sunni”) order. They saw Husayn’s death as a grave injustice to pile on top of all the injustices that Ali and his sons had been made to suffer since Muhammad’s death, and instead of fighting to regain position in the Caliphate they began to reject the Caliphate’s authority altogether. I think it’s fair to say that if Karbala doesn’t happen and Husayn dies peacefully of old age, the movement that eventually crystallized into what we know as Shiʿism never really gets started, or at least takes a much different historical course.

So this was a pretty big deal. When people trace the origin of the Sunni-Shiʿa split to a “succession dispute” (i.e., to Ali), they’re not wrong, but it was really the death of Husayn that birthed Shiʿism.

Husayn’s martyrdom is also notable in that it marks, already at this early date, the first Shiʿa schism. A lot of early Shiʿi history involves sects splintering from each other and sorting themselves out into reasonably stable communities, which is perfectly understandable given the nature of Shiʿism and its relationship to political and religious authority. Any system of conferring legitimacy on a political leader can lead to splintering and internal conflict, and if you don’t believe me, ask the Merovingian King of France or the current Lancastrian King of England. Even elections, which rest on the social contract that people who voted for the loser will grudgingly acquiesce to life under the winner for at least one term, don’t really stem the innate desire to break away from people who don’t think like us or vote like us; search Twitter sometime for the phrase “not my president” if you’d like some anecdotal evidence. But when authority is determined by something as undefinable as “I’m the wisest of us” or “I’m the most pious of us,” as opposed to something relatively objective like “I won an election” or “my dad was king,” the potential for schism is much greater. Some rival is always going to be trying to convince your followers that he’s wiser or more pious than you are, and at the end of the day there’s no objective way to measure those things.

The Shiʿa weren’t as hung up on intangible qualifications for office as the Kharijites, who were so prone to splintering that they had a hard time ever really forming any sustained movement from which to splinter. But they did believe that the family of the Prophet, particularly (though not always!) his descendents through Ali and Fatima, had a special knowledge (ilm) of the Prophet’s revelation that made them uniquely qualified to lead the community. This was manifest as the nass, or the designation by the current imam of his successor, but it was believed that the nass merely ratified the true possessor of the ilm. Well, all it takes is two brothers disputing whose ilm is the greatest or which one of them received their father’s nass, and you’ve got the basis for a schism. And sure, in practice the major branches of Shiʿism simply recognized that the spark was passed from father to son just like the right to rule would be passed from a king to his son (except when they didn’t, of course), but here you also have to consider that the early Shiʿa had no stable political entity that they were ruling. When one prince challenges his brother’s right to the throne, instead of a schism there’s usually a civil war and the winner gets to be king. When one Shiʿa claimant (or his followers) challenged another claimant’s right to control what was for centuries basically an informal community of like-minded followers, the two claimants’ followers could (and usually did) just go their separate ways and that was that. This would become more complicated when Shiʿa imams started actually governing people and places, but we’re not there yet.

So back to the story. After Husayn’s death, many in the Alid community at Kufa gravitated to a rebel movement led by a man named al-Mukhtar al-Thaqafi, a long-time pro-Alid and anti-Umayyad agitator who was working on behalf, or at least with the tacit blessing, of Muhammad b. al-Hanafiyah, Ali’s son by his second wife. Muhammad doesn’t seem to have actively participated in the movement and in fact never left Mecca to join it (he did, however, leave Mecca in 692…to head to Damascus to personally pledge his loyalty to the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik), but he was hailed by Mukhtar and his followers as the “Mahdi.” At this point that term meant nothing more than “one who is rightly guided,” but it goes without saying that we’ll be seeing that term again later in a more apocalyptic context.

Mukhtar’s movement began to openly rebel against the Umayyads in 685 by taking control of Kufa. His followers included a whole lot of non-Arabs, who as we’ve seen were called mawali, who saw Mukhtar and his rebellion as their chance to achieve some egalitarian reform of the caliphate. Mukhtar and his followers held out for over a year against both the Umayyads, in the person of the new caliph Abd al-Malik, and against the powerful anti-caliph, Ibn al-Zubayr, but the latter, specifically his brother who was governing Basra on his behalf, finally ended the revolt and killed Mukhtar in 687. As noted above, Muhammad b. al-Hanafiyah completely disassociated himself with the revolt and paid homage to Abd al-Malik in person in 692, but when he died in 700 many of his followers contended that he he had not died, but had instead gone into “occultation” (we’ll see this concept again as well), from which he would one day return to bring justice to the world (here we see the idea of the “Mahdi” already taking on apocalyptic overtones). They became known as the Kaysani or Kaysani Shiʿa, after Mukhtar’s successor Kaysan, though they are also known as “Fourers” since they recognize four legitimate imams (Ali, Hasan, Husayn, and Muhammad b. al-Hanafiyah).

The Kaysani introduced a controversial idea into the Alid movement, specifically the notion that a descendent of Ali who was not descended from the Prophet via Fatima could possess the ilm and be the imam. This is an idea that would be modified and then adopted, kind of, by the Abbasid movement, which may have looked an awful lot like a Kaysani rebellion in its murky early form, before the Abbasids won the caliphate and explicitly disavowed any Shiʿa affiliation. The Abbasids came from the family of the Prophet too, they just weren’t descendents of Ali. For some Alids, however, the imamate of Muhammad b. al-Hanafiyah wasn’t ever going to be legitimate (indeed the Kaysani would later be thought of as ghulat, or religious extremists, for suggesting that descent from Ali, rather than from the Prophet, was the real channel for the ilm), and so they went a different direction and you had the aforementioned schism.

These Alids instead followed Husayn’s son, Ali, who was given the honorary title Zayn al-Abidin (“Adornment of the Servants or Worshipers (of God)” for his exceptional piety. Zayn al-Abidin and his son, Muhammad, known as Al-Baqir or “The One Who Splits Open” (short for Baqir al-ilm, “the one who splits knowledge open”) essentially removed themselves from political life entirely. Zayn al-Abidin had been with his father at Karbala but luckily for him he was ill and missed the fighting. After his father’s death he was taken to Damascus for, ah, let’s say “safe-keeping,” but he was later allowed to live freely in Medina and seems to have devoted himself to a pious, or more accurately ascetic, existence. We’re told that he was universally respected, not just by his Alid supporters but by virtually everyone in Medina, for his piety and his knowledge of the history and emerging theology of the faith. He died in either 712 or 713; according to Shiʿa tradition he was poisoned either at the command or on behalf of the Caliph Al-Walid I.

Al-Baqir was similarly withdrawn from earthly concerns like politics, but his succession to the imamate was not without challenge, and here we have another schism. Al-Baqir’s half-brother, Zayd b. Ali, took a more activist view of things and went to Kufa in 739 to proclaim himself the true imam and to raise a new rebellion against the Umayyads. He died fighting the Umayyads in 740, so you can see how well his rebellion went. Zayd’s followers then took after his son, Yahya, who went east to search for more followers but died in fighting with Umayyad forces in 743. They then turned to Muhammad al-Nafs al-Zakiyah, a grandson of Hasan, who led a large Alid revolt against the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mansur in 762 and died fighting the Abbasid army there in 763. The Zaydi branch of the Shiʿa (maybe you’ve heard of them?) trace their origins to Zayd b. Ali and can thus justifiably claim to be the oldest extant branch of the Shiʿa, since the other modern branches hadn’t branched as yet. Various Zaydi dynasties have at times ruled parts of Morocco, central Arabia, Andalusia, the southern Caspian Sea region known as Tabaristan, and Yemen, but we should probably take those dynasties up when they naturally appear in the narrative.

Anyway, Al-Baqir mostly stayed out of politics except insofar as he stressed the importance of nass as a way of discrediting Zayd’s splinter movement. He was, like his father, considered a leading religious scholar by the entire Medina community, not just his followers, but thanks to the degradation of the Umayyads’ hold on power he seems to have actually been able to recruit new followers without drawing a harsh response from Damascus. It should be noted, however, that Al-Baqir likely had far fewer followers at this point than either Zayd or Abu Hashim (d. 716), who was Muhammad b. al-Hanafiyah’s son and thus the chosen leader (whether he wanted to be or not) of the Kaysani community. Al-Baqir is a major figure today mostly because the two main Shiʿa branches that can be traced back to him (the Imami/Twelvers and the Ismailis) eventually dwarfed both the Kaysani and the Zaydi. It was during Al-Baqir’s imamate that the idea of the imam as the ultimate religious and legal authority for his followers really took shape. Al-Baqir probably died around 733, though there’s at least one historical account that has him alive to scold Zayd for his planned rebellion in 739, so it’s not totally cut and dried. Shiʿa tradition holds that he, too, was poisoned on behalf of the Umayyads, but you really have to take these accusations with a grain of salt. It’s likely that more than one of the Shiʿa imams really were murdered by the Caliphal authorities, but the idea that they all were could be stretching things too far.

Al-Baqir’s successor, and the sixth imam according to the Ismaili and Twelver branches, was his son, Jaʿfar b. Muhammad, known by the honorific Al-Sadiq (“the truthful”), who like his father and grandfather kept himself removed from politics but who did as much as anybody to formalize early Shiʿism for future generations. Jaʿfar al-Sadiq was so respected that he seems to have influenced the founders of two of the four major schools of Sunni law (Abu Hanifa and Malik b. Anas, who we’ll say more about soon), to say nothing of the impact he had on Shiʿi law. Despite his commitment to avoiding politics, he was routinely subjected to harassment, especially after the Abbasids took over the caliphate, and it was under Jaʿfar that the doctrine of taqiyah, or “pious dissimulation,” was formulated. Contrary to popular Western notions today, this is not a license to lie for the hell of it but rather a very specific response to the plight of a small sect living in fear of the much larger orthodox community around it, and it said that Shiʿa who had real cause to fear for their lives or well-being if they were identified as Shiʿa by the authorities were permitted to pass as Sunni until they were out of danger. Jaʿfar also formalized the idea of nass as the vehicle by which the imamate would be passed from one imam to his successor. In theory this should have made the Alids less susceptible to schism.

It’s ironic, then, that the most important Shiʿa schism took place immediately after Jaʿfar’s death, in 765 (again allegedly having been poisoned by the authorities). A group of his followers believed that he had given the nass to his eldest son, Ismaʿil, who seems to have died about 5 years earlier than his father although there are conflicting sources on this. They argued that Jaʿfar, as imam, was infallible in the matter of designating his successor (they stressed this because designating an heir who dies before you do doesn’t seem to be a sign of infallibility at first glance) and that therefore either Ismaʿil was not really dead, just in hiding, or else that the imamate must then pass to his son, Muhammad, who lived a good long time before dying in 809. The Ismaʿili branch of Shiʿism, whose imams ruled Egypt for a time and a branch of which founded the Assassin order, traces its origins to those who insisted that the imamate was rightfully Ismaʿil’s. Many of them believed that the line of imams ended with Muhammad b. Ismaʿil, but in the mid-9th century a movement began that insisted that the line had continued through Muhammad b. Ismaʿil’s descendents (as we’ll see, whether or not these claimants actually descended from Muhammad b. Ismaʿil was less important than the fact that they were able to convince people that they did). We’ll get into their story down the road.

However, a larger group of Jaʿfar’s followers argued that he had, after Ismaʿil’s death, declared that the imamate should always pass to the oldest surviving son of the imam. At the time of his death that was Ismaʿil’s full brother, Abdullah, but Abdullah died only a couple of months after Jaʿfar, so the leadership of the community fell to another of Jaʿfar’s sons, Musa. He led his followers for over three decades, under the honorific Al-Kazim (“the forbearing”), and seems to have been respected in the Medina community for his piety and knowledge just as his predecessors were. Musa, despite also mostly shunning politics, was frequently imprisoned as part of an overall Abbasid effort to suppress the Alids, who were really a greater threat to Abbasid legitimacy (which was based on their kinship to Muhammad but was obviously weaker in that regard than the claim of people who were direct descendents of the Prophet) than they had been to Umayyad legitimacy (which relied more on a sense that “eh, we’re in charge; what are you gonna do about it?” than on any kind of blood tie to Muhammad). Musa died in 799, again under highly suspicious circumstances, during his third imprisonment and during the reign of Harun al-Rashid. The line of Twelver imams, of the branch of Shiʿism that predominates in Iran today, stems from him. Again, we’ll get into that story later on.

Next: Early Shiʿi ideas and doctrine

Further Reading:

There have, for obvious reasons, been innumerable scholarly works devoted to the study of the Shiʿa and their various branches. I stuck with two general works:

Shiʿism, by Heinz Halm

An Introduction to Shiʿi Islam, by Moojan Momen

For much greater detail than I went into here or than either Halm or Momen get into, you might try Syed Husain Mohammad Jafri‘s The Origins and Early Development of Shiʿa Islam

As always, I never write one of these without checking my work against Marshall Hodgson’s The Venture of Islam.

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