Islam -- The Straight Path: Islam Interpreted by Muslims by Kenneth W. Morgan
Kenneth W. Morgan is Professor of history and comparative religions at Colgate University. Published by The Ronald Press Company, New York 1958. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Chapter 5: Shi‘a, by Mahmood Shehabi
(Mahmood Shehabi is Professor of Jurisprudence in the Faculty of Law and Professor of Eastern Philosophy in the Faculty of Theology, University of Tehran, Tehran, Iran)
The word Shi‘a, meaning following, has come to be accepted as the designation for those Muslims who are followers of Ali -- who was second only to Muhammad. They are followers of God’s revelation in the Qur’an, of Muhammad who was the last of the prophets, and of Ali who was the Prophet’s choice for his successor.
Interest in religion is created naturally in every man by God whose divine revelation has been given so that man may know what to do in order to achieve the perfection which is ordained for him, and may be happy and at ease when he goes to the Other World. Thus religion is a set of rules, regulations, and plans which God has set up to guide man’s life in such a way that he will become happy in both worlds. The religious man is one who submits himself to God’s rules and obeys them.
Among mankind there have been those who have had a purity of spirit, a joyous heart, a strong soul, a powerful mind, and a close tie to the supernatural world which have enabled them to maintain a continuous relationship with the Almighty Power. These souls have been blessedly received by God and have reached the most sublime height that man can attain; inspired by Angels and guided by revelation, they have been linked to the source of creation, elevated by God and appointed to give guidance to men. These men who have been chosen by God are the prophets. They receive revelation and inspiration which enables them to recognize righteousness and wickedness and to guide men along the right path which brings them to happiness and perfection.
The believer eventually comes to the conclusion that there is a need for prophets who have been appointed by Almighty God, the Omniscient. After the believers have seen evidence of the right of the prophet to prophesy they heartily accept the religion which is revealed to them and follow it in order to achieve happiness and perfection. Miracles furnish evidence of the right to prophesy. All true prophets have been the instruments for miracles, and all people are convinced by miracles. A miracle is the performance of a supernatural deed which is related to the claim of the right to prophesy, a deed which ordinary people cannot perform.
It has been stated in Islamic classics that there were many prophets in many different religions -- as many as 124,000 prophets have been mentioned, but the number of true prophets and the number of religions is not a matter of discussion here. It should be noted, however, that the Qur’an mentions all the previous prophets with great respect, especially Moses and Jesus. It also tells of the miracles they performed, for example Moses’ stick which could be turned into a snake and Jesus’ miracles when he cured the blind and gave life to the dead, and many others. The Qur’an has not only told of these miracles; it has accepted them. But those ugly and unacceptable deeds which are attributed to some of the prophets in the Old Testament are not to be found in the Qur’an, for it portrays the prophets as those whose deeds were holy, whose actions never involved them in anything unpleasant. In several places in the Qur’an it has been clearly stated that previous prophets, especially Moses and Jesus, had predicted the coming of the Prophet Muhammad.
The Qur’an is not particularly directed to special persons but is addressed to all people of every time or place or race. All are invited to accept the Qur’an as a guidebook of life and to behave according to its commands.
The most important of all the Qur’an’s characteristics is that the Qur’an is a miracle in itself, an everlasting miracle. It should be so. For, as is stated in the Qur’an and by Muhammad, Islam is the most complete religion, Muhammad is the last prophet, and the Qur’an is the most thorough of all holy books. In truth, the Qur’an is peerless among all holy books in its answer to the most important questions facing mankind -- where did man come from, where is he going, and what should he do?
In proving the existence of God and explaining the genesis of all things, the Qur’an has furnished the most reasonable and most mystical proofs. It offers the clearest explanations m such a way that it can be understood by both the learned and the layman. It has been acknowledged as one of the wonders of the world by all mankind.
In explaining the Day of Resurrection and the World to Come, and in describing the stages of the Second World, the Qur’an has made the point clear to us in a simple, straightforward, and intelligent way, and has unveiled the secret. Happiness and unhappiness in this life, and death and the everlasting life, have been explained in such a way that there is no other explanation that is equal to it.
Concerning the duties and responsibilities related to living in this world, one must say that Islam and its rules of conduct are the most comprehensive guides for all aspects of the daily life of the individual and his social relations. The Qur’an is so thorough and complete that it is a miracle in this respect. Islam, with its comprehensive point of view, has no equal when compared with other heavenly inspired rules or manmade regulations. All of the affairs of society are regulated in such a way that they protect the piety of the body and spirit and promote the progress and happiness of the individual in both lives -- here and hereafter. The rules are stated so clearly that they are adaptable to every life situation and to any place. Insofar as the world is able to follow the pattern of Islam, man can achieve his ordained perfection and happiness by obeying the rules revealed through the Prophet. The following verse from the Qur’an is good evidence of the comprehensive nature of the Islamic rules of conduct, "It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces to the East and the West; but righteous is he who believeth in Allah and the Last Day and the angels and the Scripture and the Prophets; and giveth his wealth, in spite of his love for it, to kinsfolk and to orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask, and to set slaves free; and observeth proper worship and payeth the poor-due. And those who keep their treaty when they make one, and the patient in tribulation and adversity and time of stress. Such are they who are sincere. Such are the God-fearing" (Surah II, 177).
The Prophet of Islam
More details are known about the life of Muhammad than about any other prophet. Friends and foes alike agree that the Prophet of Islam was superior to all others, even before his call at the age of forty. He was the most pious of his people and all virtues were to be found in him. In truth, although differing good qualities might be found in other individuals, Muhammad alone possessed all good qualities. Because from the very beginning his life was outstanding, the details have been preserved and narrated by others.
In the time of the Prophet the people of Mecca and of Arabia were known as the meanest of all in behavior. One need only recall their gods. They made statues of stone and wood, and then worshiped them by asking for material things. Robbery, murder, plunder, burying their newborn daughters alive, fighting over tribal affairs, doing cruel deeds to weak and harmless people -- these were among their daily practices. Women were used for making money in an immoral way, and they had no rights at all. Immoral deeds were so much a part of their life that they boasted of their behavior.
In such a situation the Prophet of Islam arose to guide the people. Before accepting his call and inviting people to his faith, Muhammad delayed in order to assist his uncle Abu Talib, who had several children. He took responsibility for the upbringing of Ali, one of his cousins. After Muhammad received his call from God to invite people to his faith, the first woman who was converted was his wife Khadijah, and the first man who believed in him was his cousin Ali.
When Muhammad gathered all his relatives in one place to tell them of his call, he said to them, "God has appointed me to teach you the right path of living so that you may reach the ordained objectives of perfection and happiness. I was chosen to teach you so that you will gain your happiness in this world and become fortunate in the World to Come where eventually everyone will go." Then he continued, "The one from among you who precedes the others in thoroughly believing in God and puts into action God’s Will will be my successor." In that meeting only Ali accepted the call to follow; the others were silent. Some of them even joked about Ali’s conversion. Three times Muhammad repeated his call, but only Ali accepted it. The rest stood by quietly.
After issuing his private invitation which only Ali accepted, Muhammad made his call public to all the people of Mecca. For thirteen years there he used regularly to recite some of the verses of the Qur’an, patiently, kindly, and with great tolerance, and he invited the people to do good to one another and to worship God if they wished to realize happiness. But the people of Mecca had been brought up in fighting; pride, selfishness, prejudice, boasting, and ignorance were characteristic of them. Whenever the elder members of Muhammad’s clan were tired of ridiculing him they asked the younger ones to stand in his way, to call him bad names, to throw stones at him and even to hurt him physically. Muhammad patiently bore all these troubles and continued to give kindly advice to all of them. His only assistant was Ali, who never left Muhammad alone, who went shoulder to shoulder with him everywhere, and it was he who kept the children from hurting the Prophet.
In the first thirteen years only a few people of Mecca had been converted, but Muhammad’s fame had begun to spread beyond the city of Mecca and he was invited to join his followers in Medina. The leaders of the Meccan tribes, when they saw that the number of Muhammad’s followers was increasing both in Mecca and in other cities, decided to murder him. They devised a plan whereby fifty men selected from different tribes would gather on a certain night and attack Muhammad’s house. Through revelation Muhammad learned of their plan. He discussed the situation with Ali and they finally decided that someone else should sleep in Muhammad’s bed that night while Muhammad himself set out for Medina under cover of darkness. Ali -- honest, faithful, trustworthy, and a devoted disciple of Muhammad -- offered to be the victim of the assassins’ attack. He volunteered to sleep in Muhammad’s bed so the assassins would think that Muhammad was there and when they attacked Ali would be killed and Muhammad would have time to reach Medina.
According to their plan, Ali slept in Muhammad’s house and the Prophet left Mecca with Abu Bakr, whom he met on the way. The plotters entered the house and at the suggestion of one of them decided to wait around the bed until dawn and then assassinate the Prophet. Ali, who was listening to their words, kept silent so they would not become suspicious and pursue Muhammad. At dawn, when they drew their swords, Ali arose and the plotters were taken aback. What could they do? Ali’s courage and self-sacrifice had robbed them of their opportunity.
At Medina a new period in the rise of Islam began. One after another Ali and Muhammad’s other followers left Mecca and joined the Prophet in Medina. During the short period of ten years from the day Muhammad entered Medina until his death, tribe after tribe became aware of the truth of Islam and put their faith in it. During this time there were several battles in which the Muslims were attacked by the unbelievers, who were superior in numbers and arms, but the forces of Muhammad were victorious. Ali’s bravery, self-sacrifice, resourcefulness, experience, and faith were the determining factors in these battles. It was Ali who led the men to victory and who deserves above all other followers the credit for their success.
In the short time that Muhammad was at Medina he achieved miraculous results in converting the people to Islam. Deep-rooted evil customs disappeared and virtue and good morals took their place. Brotherhood, equality, and justice replaced murder, selfishness, anarchy, and cruelty. The people believed in God, desired to follow Muhammad, and conformed to the regulations of religion to such an extent that inwardly and outwardly the basis of every action was righteousness. Thousands of people in Arabia heard the words of the Prophet and observed his behavior, put their trust in him, received the revelation, and obeyed his commands. They were completely made over; as they changed from disbelievers to followers their character changed inwardly and their actions showed outwardly that they had submitted, they had become Muslims. This is one of the most extraordinary happenings in history.
What other leader ever built up such an organization, established such order, was so successful in such a short time, or converted as many people as the Prophet did? He had no money, no arms, no military experience; he had no formal schooling, and he lived in an environment of anarchy and cruelty under an aggressive and hostile government. Even his own tribe was bitter in its enmity. Yet under such circumstances, without using force, he changed the behavior of a people who were prejudiced, cruel, and aggressive. Those people were changed so that they cultivated good morals and became sincere individuals who offered their lives gladly to further the glory of Islam. His only tools for change were good morals, eloquent words, honorable and natural rules of conduct, good and truthful behavior, kindness, and helpfulness.
In the month of Dhu‘l Hijja in the tenth year of the Hijrah -- just three months before his death -- Muhammad, returning to Medina from his last pilgrimage to Mecca, stopped at a place called Ghadir-Khumm and asked all the people who were in his company -- it is reported that the number of his companions was as high as 120,000 -- to gather around him. He even ordered those who had gone on ahead to return, and he waited for those at the end of the caravan to catch up. Muhammad had something very important to say that day as they stood in the hot midday sun. He went up to a pulpit which had been made of camel saddles and, as usual, spoke to them eloquently. He reminded them of their religious obligations and heaven-sent regulations and spoke to them about the Qur’an and his own family. Finally he raised Ali until the audience could see him and recognize him. Then Muhammad asked, "Who is the master of all believers?" The people replied, "God and his Prophet know." Muhammad continued, "God is my Master, and I am the master of all believers. Therefore, whosoever I am the master of, Ali is his master." He repeated this sentence three or four times and went on, "Oh God, the one who is a friend of Ali, be his friend, and the one who is Ali’s enemy, be his enemy.
That day in those words the Prophet explained the greatness of Ali and indicated who his successor would be. There was no doubt as to what Muhammad intended for he gathered the people in the bright sun and gave them news of his impending death and then made Ali the main topic of his speech. He made Ali the new master of the people, and in relation to God he raised Ali’s status to the level of his own. Without doubt the Prophet had Ali in mind as his successor.
When the Prophet died he left a people who had learned to worship God, who had spiritual knowledge, cleanness of heart, a desire to seek justice, a wish to serve the people, the spirit of self-sacrifice; they were doers of good. The Prophet left as a legacy to his people the Qur’an, the Tradition (Sunnah), and his family (Itrat). The Qur’an is God’s revealed book which includes facts about creation, the Day of Resurrection, and regulations governing man’s life. The Tradition is made up of the sayings and deeds of the Prophet and his family.
The family of the Prophet included the children by his first wife Khadijah, and also by some of his other wives. His son Abraham, who died young, died by chance during an eclipse and ignorant people believed that this natural event was caused by Abraham’s death. If he had not been a truthful man, the Prophet might have used this happening to his own advantage, but instead he became angry and said openly that such thoughts were not right, for the sun and the moon are also creatures of God and it is by His order that they move as they do. No one’s death can have any effect on them nor change them from their course.
The Prophet had a daughter, Fatimah, by his wife Khadijah. Because he loved and honored her very much he married her to Ali, his most trusted disciple. Muhammad was also very fond of their two children, his grandchildren Hasan and Husain. He used to honor them on every occasion, at the mosque and at home, and called them his children and the best youth of Heaven. To hurt Hasan or Husain, or Fatimah their mother, or Ali their father, was considered a defiance of God and of Muhammad.
The Prophet recommended his family to people in private and in public. For instance, at the Ghadir-Khumm meeting he said as guidance to the people, "Oh people, I will die, but I leave two things for you so that if you follow them you will never be misled -- they are the Holy Book, the Qur’an, and my family [Itrat] ." On the day of Ghadir, as we mentioned previously -- and it is mentioned by both Shi‘a and Sunni -- he indicated that Ali should be his successor and he named him as the master of the people. This was an indication that Ali should be the next Caliph, that is, Successor to Muhammad.
Ali and the Rise of Shi‘A
Ali, Muhammad’s cousin, had been brought up by the Prophet, was the husband of the Prophet’s beloved daughter, and was the closest person to Muhammad. From his early childhood until the day the Prophet died, day and night, on journeys and in the cities, in mountains and on the plains, in battle and in peace, on strenuous days and on calm ones, in public appearances and in hiding -- Ali was with the Prophet. He wholeheartedly adopted Muhammad’s way of life; he learned about his aims and his methods of instruction so that he understood Muhammad’s teachings better than anyone else.
On many occasions Ali made personal sacrifices for the sake of the Prophet and for the sake of Islam. His bravery, which was motivated by his great faith, accounts for the early progress of Islam. In every good quality -- in virtues, in knowledge, in bravery, in faithfulness, in generosity and reliability -- Ali was superior to others; he was second only to Muhammad.
The Prophet both explicitly and implicitly affirmed Ali’s eminent position, mentioning Ali’s superiority over the others a number of times. We have seen that Ghadir-Khumm was a significant event in Ali’s honor, for there Muhammad explicitly named himself as the master of the people and Ali next to him, in relation to God. On the day that he invited the Christian leaders for Mubaheleh (to pray to God to damn a person and his family if he knowingly misrepresents religious facts and lies willfully), he had his daughter Fatimah, his grandchildren Hasan and Husain, and Ali sit with him; it was on this occasion that he referred to Ali as his soul. In this way he paid tribute to the greatness of Ali. These events, and other similar ones, made Muhammad’s choice of his successor quite evident. All the evidence pointed to the fact that Muhammad wished Ali to succeed him with complete authority to guide the people. Ali was justly fitted to lead the Muslims and to head the affairs of Islam.
Consequently, after the death of Muhammad, Ali, who felt assured of his position and was greatly saddened by Muhammad’s death, went on to fulfill Muhammad’s wishes for his funeral. Meanwhile a few followers, who apparently were driven by selfishness, ambition, and a great desire for power, gathered their followers to decide for themselves the question of the succession. Abu Bakr, Umar, and Abu Ubaydah, with glib tongues and skillful speeches, weakened the position of their rivals. Some of the delegates followed them through hope, some through fear, and some made no commitment at all. With the support of Umar and Abu Ubaydah, Abu Bakr was named Caliph. This choice led to conflict between the supporters of Abu Bakr and the other Muslims, but they recognized that if the conflict continued Islam would be so weakened that it might even lead to its destruction. Furthermore, the followers of Abu Bakr would make trouble for those who did not express an opinion in his favor. Therefore, for the sake of Islam, the people gradually took the oath of allegiance to Abu Bakr as Caliph and showed no opposition when he assumed office.
At the same time, there were people who knew that the position of Caliph should have been given to Ali, and they recognized him as the leader of Islam. It was these people who were to follow Ali and to believe in him, and they eventually became the sect known as Shi‘a. They believed that Muhammad’s successor should have been appointed by God and the Prophet himself, and that the Caliph should not have been chosen on the basis of men’s capricious will and temptation. Many of them took the oath of allegiance reluctantly, and Ali himself did not give his approval until six months later.
Abu Bakr, who was Caliph for about two years, nominated Umar as his successor. Umar was a man of will, a ruthless administrator, and a man who abstained from worldly pleasures. As Caliph he decided to extend the borders of Islam and conquered Iran and some of the Roman territories, organizing a widespread empire.
While Umar was Caliph, Ali’s position was supreme; for Umar had to recognize his high position in Islam and ascertain his views on important matters. At times Umar acted on his suggestions and at other times Ali pointed out the Caliph’s mistakes. Umar admitted his errors, and once said, "If it were not for Ali I should have perished."
When Umar’ s warriors vanquished Iran they captured the daughters of Yazdigird, the king of Iran, and brought them to Umar. He was going to sell them like any other slaves but Ali advised him that this would be an unjust treatment for princesses and the religion forbade it. As a result the women were allowed to choose their own husbands, and one of them was married to Ali’s son Husain and the other to Abu Bakr’s son Muhammad. On another occasion Umar was going to execute Hurmuzan, a captured Iranian prince, but Ali persuaded the prince to become a Muslim and his life was spared. During his life he honored Ali.
For ten years Umar served as Caliph and made great conquests for the glory of Islam. Before he died he made plans for the choice of his successor. Although he knew that Ali was well qualified to replace him, he would not consider Ali as his successor. Instead of making Ali the next Caliph, Umar appointed six persons, including Ali and Uthman, to select one person from among themselves as the next Caliph and spiritual leader of the believers. When the six men were assembled to reach a decision, they were surrounded by fifty brave armed men who were ordered to watch the election committee. If after three days they could not select a successor to the Caliph, they were all to be killed on the spot; if they selected someone but could not agree unanimously, the minority should be killed. If three persons selected one Caliph and three selected another, then the group in which Abd-ar-Rahman Ibn Awf was a member would have the deciding vote and the other three must agree or be killed. This was Umar’s plan, which was to be carried out after his death. This plan was set up so that Uthman would become Caliph, because Abd-ar-Rahman Ibn Awf was his relative and supporter.
At the meeting of the committee, Abd-ar-Rahman Ibn Awf asked Ali, "If you are selected will you act according to the Qur’an, the Sunnah, and the policies of the two previous Caliphs?" Ali replied that he would act according to the Qur’an and the Sunnah, but he would not follow the opinions of others. After that, the original plan was followed and Uthman was chosen.
As Caliph, Uthman acted against the principles of the previous Caliphs. He made his own corrupt relatives governors; he used the treasury to further his own interests by giving gold and silver to relatives and friends. Democracy, freedom, justice, and equality, which had more or less prevailed under Umar, were silenced by Uthman’s rule. Therefore the people became disappointed in him and rose up against him. Some of the great men and sincere believers in Islam knew that Uthman had been selected falsely and they considered his conduct contrary to the tradition of the Prophet and the previous Caliphs. They warned him by speeches and pointed out his faults with audacity, and even with rudeness. Some of them came from distant Islamic cities to make their objections. Muhammad, the son of Abu Bakr, protested, and even the Prophet’s wife A’isha publicly and privately criticized Uthman. Several times Uthman promised to make reforms, but he did not fulfill his promise. He was attacked and killed in his own home in the thirty-fifth year of the Hijrah, twelve years after he became Caliph.
After Uthman’s death the representatives of Islamic cities who were in Medina asked Ali to become their Caliph. From that day, Ali’s friends and followers freely and openly expressed their devotion to Ali, and they were proud of it. They all vowed their belief in Shi‘a and honored it.
When, before his death, Uthman saw that he was surrounded by Muslims who disapproved of his policies, he asked help from Mu‘awiya, who was a relative in the Umayyad family, the governor of Syria (Sham), and a man who would be called a politician today. Mu‘awiya acted slowly because he was clever and had designs for setting up an Islamic empire; therefore his help did not arrive until after Uthman had been killed and Ali confirmed as Caliph by all the people of Islam except those of Syria, who were ruled by Mu‘awiya. Mu‘awiya was certain that Ali did not favor him and felt sure that Ali would dismiss him as governor of Syria; so he started a plot against Ali by accusing him of Uthman’s murder. He wrote letters and sent messengers to Mecca and Medina to arouse the people against Ali, and in Damascus he proclaimed in the mosques that Uthman’s death was an Injustice against Islam perpetrated by Ali. By telling lies, distributing gold, and making promises to the ambitious and greedy, Mu‘awiya turned some of the people against Ali.
Mu‘awiya knew that Ali had a strong faith and that the majority of his followers were sincere believers. Therefore, after he had done all he could to deceive the followers whose religious beliefs were weak, he started a war against Ali with a large army made up of people from Syria. The fighting continued for some time and several thousand people were killed on both sides. Just when victory was close at hand for Ali’s side, Mu‘awiya turned the battle by means of a devilish trick. He asked Ali to stop fighting so they could arrange a truce, and Ali unwillingly accepted the offer for negotiations. Mu‘awiya appointed Amr Ibn al-As, a tricky, clever man, while Ali’s group selected Abu Musa Ash‘ari, a weak, ambitious man, to represent them. Amr Ibn al-As took advantage of Abu Musa Ash‘ari’s selfishness and stupidity to deceive him, just as Mu‘awiya had planned.
When they saw how the negotiations were going, the same people who had urged Au to accept the truce started to criticize him for starting the negotiations and for sending as a delegate the man whom they had chosen to represent them. They said that Ali had committed an error and he should either repent or be killed. Au defended himself by giving them evidence from the Qur’an and citing the reasons for the action, but they were not convinced. Over ten thousand of Ali’s men, all Shi‘ites, left his army.
It is one of the puzzles of history that a group of people who believed in Au and had made great sacrifices for his sake, who knew him to be right and his enemy wrong, and who had even risked their lives by going into battle for him should desert him and even take up their swords against him. A group of soldiers who were good Shi‘as and who had believed in Ali just a few days previously now suddenly left Ali’s camp and became his enemies. It was truly a strange happening.
The men who deserted Ali and abandoned their faith became famous in history as unbelievers and were known as Kharijites -- the people who have forsaken their faith. Twelve thousand of these Kharijites formed an army which tried to kill Ali. Therefore it was necessary for Ali to deal with them before he could turn to Mu‘awiya. With only four thousand men Ali approached the Kharijites; he heard their protests and answered them, and as a result of his preaching eight thousand changed their minds; but four thousand remained as bitter enemies. When the eight thousand had left the battlefield, Ali spoke to his men in the name of Allah, saying, "Our loss will not be more than their survivors, and in neither case will the number be more than ten." After the battle, just as Ali had miraculously predicted, nine of the enemy remained and nine of Ali’s men were dead. Although Ali was victorious, that battle did not eliminate the Kharijites.
During the five years that Ali ruled as Caliph he was busy with emergencies at home which prevented him from returning to the conflict with Mu‘awiya. On the nineteenth of Ramadan in the year 40 of the Hijrah, while Ali was praying in the mosque at Kufa he was struck down with a poisoned sword by Ibn Muljam, a Kharijite.
In the last hours while he lay on his death bed, Ali besought the people to act with self-sacrifice, rectitude, and gentleness, to serve the poor, the orphans, and the weak, and to follow religion. He said to them, "O people, we are from God and we will go back to Him. Therefore try to know Him, worship Him, be virtuous and do good. In this short time that you are in the world prepare yourself for the life to come." As a man who revered and worshiped God, Ali wished death to come. He said repeatedly, "By God, Ali is more acquainted with death than a child with his mother’s breast!" When he was attacked in the mosque he had said, "I have my wish and I join my God." Before he died he showed again his magnanimous spirit by saying concerning his murderer, "As long as I am alive, do not hurt him, but tolerate him. If I do not die and I remain, I will know what to do. If I die never attack him with more than a stroke for he hit only one." Thus just before he died he protected his murderer from torture.
In writing about Ali’s sublime qualities and counting his virtues, one can agree with what was said by one of his followers, "To describe your qualities, it would not suffice to wet the finger with all the water of the seas in order to leaf through your book of virtues." Once when the Sunni authority Muhammad Ibn Idris al-Shafi‘i was asked to talk about Ali he said, "What should be said about him when his virtues are concealed by his friends because they are afraid, and by his foes because of jealousy? Yet in spite of this his virtuous character was revealed and has been made known to us."
In praying, in bravery, in eloquence, in modesty, in patience, and in helping the poor and weak All was above all others; after the Prophet he has had no equal. Once he fasted for three days and nights and when he was to break the fast he gave his food to a beggar and remained hungry himself. When he became Caliph he used to eat bread made of barley and wear rough woolen clothes. When they asked him to change his behavior he said, "Is it just if I call myself Amir of believers but refuse to participate in the difficulties of the people? Rather I should live in such a way that the poorest will be satisfied with his life, and if he eats barley bread he will be glad and will say that his leader eats the same thing."
It has been said that Ali’s words are beneath God’s words -- the Qur’an -- but they are far superior to the words of the people. There can be no conflict between Ali’s words and Muhammad’s, for Ali speaks on the basis of the Qur’an and of his intimate knowledge of Muhammad’s teachings. Ali’s speeches, letters, and aphorisms have been preserved in many books and are compiled in Nahdj al-Balagha.
Ali gave numerous lectures on many topics, such as how to pray and how to thank God, on Muhammad, on prophecy, on the virtues and morals of Muhammad, on the Qur’an, on the stages of life to come, on ways to live in this world, on holy wars, and the like. These speeches so impressed the people that they used to recite them and gathered them in the book called Nahdj al-Balagha which is highly respected among the Shi‘a and next to the Qur’an is important for every Muslim. As an example of the variety of speeches recorded in that book one of the shorter sermons is summarized here:
In truth, God has sent the Qur’an to you for guidance. Righteousness. sinfulness and misbehavior are revealed in it. Follow the path of righteousness so that you may be guided truthfully; keep away from sins until you become moderate and acquire justice. Follow God’s given orders until you go to heaven. Verily God has forbidden for you things which are known to be corrupt. God has also provided you with things which lack imperfection and defect. To respect an individual is the greatest tribute one can give to a Muslim. Through monotheism and the worship of God, God has protected the individual’s right, for believers in God should not be aggressive toward others, but should respect others’ rights. O people! Be virtuous toward God with regard for people and places and always remember Him; for you are responsible for everything and every deed. You will be asked to explain -- even if you have destroyed a shelter or even if you have hurt an animal. Obey your God! Do not disobey His commands. When you see good, go toward it, and if you see evil keep away from it.
Not only are Ali’s speeches masterpieces which, next to the Qur’an, are without equal, but his letters are also most eloquent and superior to all others. These letters try to guide people to paths of good conduct by discussing such topics as knowing God and knowing one’s self, understanding one’s situation in this world and in the life to come, seeking knowledge devoutly, and behaving devoutly. The letters were sent to men who were appointed to public office, such as the governors at Basra and Kufa, and also to people like Mu‘awiya. One of the most important letters is one to Malik Ashtar who became governor of Egypt, a letter which awakened Malik’s heart and taught him how to behave in Egypt, and is a model for statesmen of all times and places. Another letter of equal importance is his last letter of advice to his son Hasan. After talking about life, death, the day of creation, and the Day of Resurrection, Ali says:
My dear son, take your soul as the criterion when you want to judge deeds which take place between you and others -- then desire for others what you desire for yourself, and help others to avoid what you avoid yourself. Do not be cruel, as you do not want to receive cruelty. Do good to others as you would like others to do good to you. What you consider ugly in others, consider it the same in yourself. What you do not know, do not talk about it even though you know a little. Do not say to others what you would not like to be said about yourself. And know that selfishness is the squander of reason. Give away what you have gained and do not save it for others or yourself. And when you have reached such a stage of life, thank God for these things.
Ali is also noted for his aphorisms, some of which were in his speeches and letters and some of which have been recorded independently. These are typical of his aphorisms:
Behave yourself with others in such a way that if you die, people will cry fox you, and if you stay alive they seek your presence.
Opportunity is just like a passing cloud. Therefore take advantage of the right opportunities while they are within sight.
Victory depends upon thinking ahead, and thinking ahead upon mental resourcefulness; and decision on keeping secrecy.
The one who is a dictator will be killed soon and the one who consults with the people will share their wisdom.
The one who observes his own deficiencies will overlook another’s inadequacy.
These few examples of the teachings of Ali give only a hint of the greatness of the man who was Muhammad’s closest companion and chosen successor, second only to the Prophet in relation to God.
Shi‘a Leaders After Ali
After Ali was murdered, Mu‘awiya increased his deception and bribery in order to gain power and to establish a strong kingdom under his rule. He swiftly banished all the people who were trained by Ali, who were lovers of freedom, who were Shi‘a and as friends of Ali knew the truth. Not only did he kill sincere Shi‘ites, but he made every effort to turn others from the support of the family of the Prophet and to turn the spiritual system of Islam into a political kingdom which he would rule. To accomplish his ends Mu‘awiya played on the hopes and fears of the people by bribery and threats and issued false statements which he attributed to Mi. Stranger than that was that he asked the people of Damascus to curse and hate Ali as a part of their daily prayers. In spite of all these murders and evil deeds and false propaganda there were still God-worshipers who knew the greatness of the family of the Prophet and remained Shi‘as.
IMAM HASAN. After Ali’s assassination the Shi‘as affirmed that his eldest son, Hasan, the grandson of the Prophet, was the next Imam. However, the evil influence of Mu‘awiya was so strong that after several months Imam Hasan had to enter into a peace agreement with him. In this way the rule of the Caliph lost its spiritual and religious color and, under pressure from Mu‘awiya, took on a worldly, material form. Even though Mu‘awiya called himself Caliph and forced the people to recognize him as ruler, there were still Shi‘as who knew that Hasan was their Imam and that they should ask him about religious doctrines and heavenly duties.
Even after Imam Hasan made peace Mu‘awiya was not sure of his support, for he knew that Imam Hasan would not approve his plan to make the Caliphate hereditary in the Umayyad family by appointing his son Yazid as his successor. Therefore Mu’awiya decided to poison Imam Hasan. Although the Imam recovered from several unsuccessful attempts to poison him, the poison was finally effective and Imam Hasan died in the year 40 (AD. 660) and was buried at Medina.
After Imam Hasan’s death the true followers of Shi‘a affirmed that the right to be the next Imam belonged to Husain, Ali’s second son and the most meritorious of the grandsons of the Prophet. Mu‘awiya knew that Muhammad had predicted that Husain would become Imam and that he was honored by all his people. Therefore, although Mu‘awiya had taken over the government and called himself Caliph and kept the people silent through fear of punishment, he still had to consider Imam Husain. Iman Husain knew that Mu’awiya held his power over the people through fear and greed, but he could do nothing more than to point out Mu‘awiya’s evil deeds and to remind the people that he was Caliph only through deceit.
After twenty years of dictatorship and deviations from the rules of Islam, Mu‘awiya got the confirmation of the people for Yazid, his son, as successor. Some gave their confirmation as a result of bribery and some through fear, but Mu‘awiya did not get even silent assent from Husain and some of the others until he brought them together in the presence of a heavily armed force and said to them, "When I ask you not to oppose my son as my successor, you must be silent; otherwise all of you will be killed." In this way he forced silence.
Mu‘awiya died in the year 60 of the Hijrah, and Yazid replaced him. Yazid was a sinful man, quite ignorant of the laws and practices of Islam. The people knew how corrupt he was and that he did not have enough ability even to occupy the lowest office in Islam, and many of them would not accept him as Caliph. Yazid decided to get an open confirmation from Imam Husain and sent orders to the governor of Medina to force Imam Husain to submit. In the meantime Husain had gone to Mecca; so Yazid sent an armed force there with secret orders either to capture or kill Husain; he also sent thirty men disguised as pilgrims to try to kill Husain secretly.
When Imam Husain learned of Yazid’s plans he decided to accept the invitation of the people of Kufa and set out on the journey from Mecca to Kufa. Before he could reach his supporters in Kufa he was stopped at Karbala by Yazid’s army, which was led by Ibn Ziyad. There at Karbala, in the month of Muharram of the sixty-first year of the Hijrah, Imam Husain and his son, his friends, his brothers, and his relatives were all killed in one of the most tragic historical events ever known.
The Twelve Imams.
Ali was the first Imam, Hasan was the second, and Husain was the third. Husain had a son Ali, whose mother was the princess of Iran and the daughter of Yazdigird, the last Sasanian king. During the battle at Karbala, Ali was sick at home and thus his life was spared. According to the will of his father he was accepted by the Shi‘as as their religious leader and became known as Imam Zain al-Abidin, the Ornament of the Pious. He died in the month of Muharrain in the year 95 (AD. 713).
The fifth Imam was Muhammad al-Baqir who lived until the year [4 of the Hijrah. He was succeeded by his son, known as Ja‘far as-Sadiq. During the lifetime of main Ja‘far as-Sadiq the cruelty of the Umayyad rule came to an end, and their kingdom was dissolved. The new Caliph, the first of the Abbasid Caliphs, was a descendant of the uncle of the Prophet. On Friday, the thirteenth day of Rabi Awwal, in the year 132 (AD. 749) the people gathered to make their affirmation for Abu’l-Abbas as Caliph. He ascended the pulpit in the mosque but could not continue to speak because of an attack of malaria; so his uncle stood on the step below him and said, "By God, after the Prophet and Ali, no one has been as worthy as Abu’l-Abbas to be Caliph."
After the Abbasids became the head of the government the situation was so modified that the family of Muhammad could have a voice in leading the people. This made it possible for main Ja‘far as-Sadiq to teach the people and to encourage interest in religious laws. Well-educated scholars recorded his teachings, which led some people to refer to the religion of Shi‘a as the sect of Ja‘fari.
When Imam Ja‘far as-Sadiq died in the year 148 (AD. 765), according to his will his son Musa became the seventh Imam. During Musa’s time the Abbasids became more powerful, and Harun al-Rashid decided to make the office of Caliph hereditary. When he found that the friends of Ali’s family opposed that plan, he asked Musa to come to Baghdad and held him in prison there for years until he was murdered in the year 183. He was buried at Kazimain near Baghdad.
According to Musa’s will, his son Ali al-Rida became the eighth Imam. He was recognized by the people as an authority on Shi‘a beliefs and practices. In his time the Caliph was Ma’mun, the son of Harun al-Rashid, a learned man and a good statesman who in many discussions proved the sublime position of Ali and his right to be the immediate successor of Muhammad. Because of his interest in Muhammad’s family he decided to make Imam Ali al-Rida his successor so the family could attain its just rights. He brought Imam Rida from Medina and persuaded him to accept the appointment as his successor in the Caliphate. Imam Rida accepted on condition that he should not be required to interfere with state affairs and should be free to devote his time to religion and study. The common people recognized the Imam’s good attributes, his scholarship, his character, and his noble virtues, and held him in high respect. But the Abbasid family was jealous of him. Later, when Ma’mun regretted his decision to make Imam Rida his successor, he poisoned him secretly. The Imam died in the year 203 (AD. 818) and was buried in Meshed, a place of holy pilgrimage to this day.
The ninth Imam was Muhammad Taghi, who became Imam according to his father’s will. He was murdered in the year 220 and was buried in Kazimain.
The tenth Imam was Ali Naghi, the son of Imam Muhammad Taghi, and became Imam according to the will of his father. He was eight years old when he became Imam and served until he was murdered in Iraq in the year 254 (AD. 868).
The eleventh Imam was Hasan al-Askari, taking his title from the locality where he was born. He was murdered in the year 260 (AD. 873) and was buried at Samarra, near Baghdad, where his father had been killed before him.
After the death of the eleventh Imam his son succeeded him. The twelfth Imam is known by several titles, of which one of the best known is the Arabic title Imam Zaman, the Imam of all time. According to Shi‘a, the twelfth Imam, who was born in the year 255 (AD. 869), is still living; but he is invisible. As the Prophet and others prophesied, when the earth is full of cruelty he will appear and bring justice.
After he became Imam he learned that the Caliph planned to kill him, so he disappeared. The disappearance is known as the absence, and the Imam Zaman had two absences -- the short absence and the long absence. For sixty-nine years the twelfth Imam spent his time in hiding, communicating through four great Shi‘ites, and through them guiding the people and answering their questions. As this was a short time and communication was carried on during this time, it is known as the short absence. The men through whom he communicated were known as the ambassadors, or specifically appointed deputies. During this time there were four ambassadors who guided the Shi‘ites, and it was the fourth ambassador who was assigned the duty of giving the people the news of the Imam’s bodily death through a letter from the Imam. The Imam said that after his bodily death no one was to be the Imam’s ambassador and that there would be a long absence. And this took place.
Both Shi‘as and Sunnis have mentioned in their writings the good qualities and sublime conduct of the twelve Imams. According to the Shi‘as, they have had virtues and attributes which have been superior to those of anyone in their time; they were endowed with greatness and the ability to perform miracles; they were infallible and innocent; each one was introduced by the previous Imam as his immediate successor; the Prophet referred to them by name and designated them by number; they gave the best and clearest statements concerning the origin of man and the Day of Resurrection; and after the Prophet they were the best authority to speak about religious affairs and conduct in the affairs of this world.
The Long Absence.
Since the year 329 (AD. 940), when special ambassador, and according to the testimony of the fourth ambassador died, no one has been appointed as a religious authorities, if anyone should claim to be an ambassador he is claiming an untruth. During the short absence the four men who were appointed as ambassadors were known by name. These special ambassadors, whether they were aware of religious doctrine or not, whether they were learned or not, had to follow the Imam’s instructions and were not free to act according to their own wishes in regard to religious regulations and actions. The same was true for everyone during the presence of the Imam -- everyone had to follow his orders.
It is important for Shi‘as to recognize what their duty is during the long absence, how they should carry out the laws and regulations. Since there are no ambassadors during the long absence, Shi‘as are responsible to their religious leaders who have a thorough knowledge of jurisprudence and understand religion comprehensively. The order was received that during the long absence the ignorant are to be guided by the orders and the religious ideas of leaders -- called public deputies, or deputies not specifically appointed -- who know jurisprudence, can protect their religion, and are thus able to save the people from sins, corruption, and earthly desires. Such public deputies who have a thorough knowledge from the proper sources are, during the long absence, like an Imam, and following them is comparable to following an Imam. Since Shi‘a depends upon the one who is the most learned and accepts him as the public deputy, in every epoch the person who is the most learned and most pious is regarded as the public deputy, and the people follow his ideas and his decisions concerning religious affairs.
Those believers are called Shi‘a who believe that Ali was the immediate successor of Muhammad and who have faith in the eleven descendants of Ali who were the Imams of Islam. Those who accept the twelve Imams are known as the believers in the twelve Imams, Ithna Ashariya, and have always been a large majority of the Shi‘as. There are several other sects which are also called Shi‘a because they believe that Ali was the immediate successor of Muhammad, but most of them are not well known or have disappeared. Three of them, however, should be mentioned -- Kaisanis, Zaidis, and Isma‘ils. Of these, the Kaisanis exist only in name today, the Zaidis are mostly in Yemen, and the majority of the Isma‘ils are in India, with a few in Iran and in Africa.
The Kaisanis believed that Muhammad Ibn Hanafiyya was an Imam. He was Ali’s son by a Hanafite girl, while Hasan and Husain were sons of Fatimah. Some believed that Muhammad Ibn Hanafiyya was to have been the Imam immediately after Ali, and others believed that he became Imam after Husain was killed. It is said that the first man who believed in this Imam was Kaisan, one of Ali’s servants, and thus the sect became known by his name. Others say that the name comes from the name of the man who took revenge for the murder of Husain, saying that he did it on behalf of Muhammad Ibn Hanafiyya. It is not, however, an influential sect in modern times.
The Zaidis have existed as a Shi‘a sect since the time of the fourth Imam, chiefly in Yemen, but also to some extent in Iraq and Africa. Zaid was the brother of Imam Muhammad al-Baqir. He believed that the Imam ought to be the ruler of the state and must fight for his rights, so he rose in rebellion against the Umayyad Caliph and was killed near Kufa. Zaidis accept the first four Imams but have maintained their own succession of Imams since that time.
The Isma‘ilis are followers of Isma‘il, one of the sons of the sixth Imam, Ja‘far as-Sadiq. He was greatly loved by his father and might have been the seventh Imam if he had not died before his father. Therefore some of the people said that his descendants should be the Imams and they became followers of his descendants, one after the other. Therefore the followers of this sect are known as Isma‘ilis. They founded the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt but today are an influential sect chiefly in India.
While Sufism is not a sect in the sense of a separately organized group within Shi‘a, it should be mentioned here because it has had a significant influence on Shi‘a thought. Some believe that the name Sufi is derived from the woolen clothes worn by the Sufis; others say that it refers to the purity of insight they possess; but it is most likely that the word is derived from the Greek word sophas which was taken into the Arabic language to refer to the special wisdom which they possess.
The Sufi mystics claim that mankind can discover truth through internal purity and mental discipline, which produce insight without the use of logical reasoning. They say that whatever philosophers can discover by means of reason the mystics can perceive by intuition. Such mysticism is not exclusively found in Islam; it has been known in many different cultures. In Islam there were people who, from the first century onward, led others on the basis of Sufism -- men like Hasan Basri, for instance. Through the years Sufism developed special rules and regulations, customs, and modes of conduct, and different sects grew up, both Shi‘a and Sunni.
Although not all the sects of Sufism relate themselves to Ali, there are quite a number which do. Those who honor Ali say that Islam has a hidden meaning, and they believe that Muhammad revealed the secrets of Islam to Ali -- who in turn shared this secret information with those people who showed a readiness to receive it.
There is need for more study and writing on the subject of the Sufi sects and their similarities and dissimilarities and the important role they have played in Islam.
An important Sufi in Iran was Shaikh Safiyyu’d-Din whose ancestors had been Sunnis but who, when they found the opportunity, mentioned their objections and accepted Shi‘a.
His son, Shah Isma‘il, was the founder of the Safavid dynasty in Iran which made Shi‘a the official religion of the country.
Shi‘a in Iran
Backed by an old culture, endowed with a rich civilization, and acquainted with logic, philosophy, and other intellectual pursuits, the people of Iran became familiar with the teachings of Islam. Gradually, as they understood the aims of the religion and judged them by intellectual standards, they found that they could aspire to perfection and real happiness. Consequently, they began to accept the religion. They investigated the founder of Islam, his virtues and deeds as well as the rules and regulations he set forth. They sought information on the Prophet’s relatives, friends, and successors in order to determine who had most truly inherited his character and his concept of justice.
As a result of these studies they learned about Ali’s position and they recognized his great leadership. Therefore they all agreed that Ali was best entitled and best endowed to become Muhammad’s successor. They sought his leadership and they followed him wholeheartedly and devoutly. As well-informed Iranians and others who were interested in Islam sought to learn more about Islam, they came to appreciate Ali more and more. They found that Ali was far above all others in telling the truth and in searching for the truth. As they learned about his teachings concerning religion, science, morals, and faith, as well as his close relationship to Muhammad and his personal kindness, it was natural that they should become interested in Ali. Thus they followed him, and believed in him, and appreciated him.
The non-Arab nations, especially those which possessed civilization, culture, and a mature philosophy were undoubtedly more ready than the Arabs to perceive the truth. This was because they were not prejudiced against other people and tribes; they were not motivated by jealousy, anger, or ambition which could mislead their feelings and attitudes. They sought truth, and their emotions could not keep them from the truth.
The Arabs knew Ali very well. They knew how close he was to the Prophet and were aware of his deep faith. They had been informed about his constant association with the Prophet and the careful training he had received from Muhammad. They had heard Muhammad talk about Ali’s service, his self-sacrifice, his virtues, generosity, bravery, and other noble qualities. These facts were all known to the Arabs, but their minds were clouded by a thick veil of jealousy, prejudice, selfishness, rivalry, and hostility, and thus their sense of justice was unbalanced. Their hostility to Ali was increased by the fact that there was scarcely an Arab family which had not lost some of its members to Ali’s sword in fighting against Islam; for instance, three relatives of Mu‘awiya were killed by Ali himself in the battle of Badr. Not only was that a factor, but it is also important to note that the Arabs were prejudiced and considered themselves superior to other peoples, while Ali, like Muhammad, favored unequivocal equality -- non-Arabs, the Arab tribes, and Ethiopians all received equal justice from him.
According to these reasons one should have expected that the people of Egypt and Syria, since they were far from Mecca, should have followed the pattern of the Iranians, but it was not so. This is because both Mu‘awiya and Amr Ibn al-As were bitter enemies of Ali and would not let the people learn about the greatness of Ali, for they sought to establish themselves as rulers of those countries. Mu‘awiya in particular prevented the people from getting the truth about Ali and even spread untruths about him.
In Iran, on the other hand, Ali and his sons were respected and had friends and followers. Learned Iranians, from the first Islamic century on, wrote books and spread the ideas of the religion of the family of the Prophet. In the middle of the fourth century the family of the Buyids, who were ruling in a part of Iran, formally supported Shi‘a . During the reign of Muhammad Khudabanda one of the Mongols who wanted to select an official religion investigated the four schools of law of Islam and interviewed their leaders, but he was dissatisfied because each one revealed the weaknesses of the others. He then ordered a Shi‘a scholar to discuss Shi‘a teachings with him and was convinced of its merits; and Shi‘a was made the official religion.
Ever since Shah Isma‘il established the rule of the Safavid family at the beginning of the tenth century of the Hijrah (sixteenth century AD.), Shi‘a has been the official religion of Iran. Today, the constitution of Iran continues that tradition by recognizing Shi‘a as the official religion.
Islam demands two kinds of responsibilities of Shi‘ites -- belief in the major principles of religion and performance of the particular requirements of religion. The major principles are those which are necessary and desirable for religion. The particular requirements are the rules and regulations, the code of practices, which are accepted with faith as guides for all actions.
MAJOR PRINCIPLES OF RELIGION. Every Shi‘a should know and believe in these five major principles or tenets: the unity of God; the justice of God; the Prophet and his prophecies; the twelve Imams; the Day of Resurrection.
‘According to Shi‘a, the Creator has given life to all beings and they will all return to Him. He has all the qualities of perfection and has no defects. God is omniscient and omnipotent, and self-sufficient. Nothing has been before His existence -- He is the first. Everything has come into existence through Him. He is eternal; He will be when the rest is not. One of the characteristics of God is His unity, which means that God is One and has no partners. Within His being, His entity is single. There is no dualism between His entity and His attributes -- His attributes are His entity, for He is One.
Briefly speaking, God has two kinds of attributes: affirmative attributes which are acknowledged by proofs, and negative attributes acknowledged by denial. The affirmative attributes are: God is omniscient, omnipotent, His being is all will, all perceiving, all hearing, all seeing, all speaking, and all truth. The negative attributes are: God is not composed of anything, He is nothing, He is not seen, He has no place, nor does He have any partner.
By belief in the justice of God, Shi‘a means that God is just and directs the beings in this world toward their perfection in such a way that everything is good in its own place. There is no defect in the things in this world in the light of the order of the universe. In the creation of the world, which is moving toward perfection, there is no deviation, and also in the life to come there is neither injustice nor cruelty. Whatever an individual does in this world will be recognized in the Hereafter; the amount of good he does in this world will be correspondingly rewarded in the Other World. If he commits bad deeds in this life, he will, without doubt, suffer his punishment and taste the bitter fruit of his deeds in the hereafter, as is clearly stated in many passages of the Qur’an. Therefore, according to this principle of justice, God will judge everyone according to his deeds. He will give good rewards in the life to come to those who have lived according to the code of religion -- spiritual benefits, pleasures, and eternal joys; but whoever has followed only his own desires and passions will receive punishment -- spiritual and mental pains and eternal punishment.
Prophets and the role of prophecy have been explained above in this chapter. A prophet is one who through natural aptitude, worship, serving God, and being pious attains the highest point of perfection and is blessed by God and finally appointed to educate others. Such a man is different from others in all the sublime qualities, with attributes that others do not have. One of the qualities which a prophet should have is innocence, or purity. A person who never commits bad deeds, acts only according to truth and righteousness, always seeks God and tries to act according to His will is endowed with purity of soul and is known as innocent. According to Shi‘a belief, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other prophets were all innocent. The Prophet of Islam was innocent and his ancestors, although they were not innocent, were worshipers of God, gentle, and virtuous. According to Shi‘a, whatever the Prophet of Islam said or did was done by the order of God, and perceived through revelation and intuition. Muhammad never did anything on the basis of his own wishes.
The fourth major principle of Shi‘a faith is belief in the twelve Imams. The word Imam means leader, and is used in other sects to refer to anyone who becomes an authority in religion and knowledge and is recognized as a leader. They refer to such a leader as Ghazali as an Imam. The Shi‘ites, however, attach a special meaning to the title and use it only for the twelve Imams, never using it for others no matter how learned and great they may be.
According to Shi‘a, an Imam is a man who is most learned in all fields of knowledge, and especially in religion; he has the most sublime qualities and must be innocent just as the Prophet was, and he must have been appointed by God and the Prophet to guide the people. The difference between the Prophet and an Imam is that the Prophet received messages and religious regulations through revelation, while the Imam receives regulations through the Prophet and it is his duty to lead the people toward God’s will and the Prophet’s Tradition.
As we have seen, the Shi‘ites put their faith, after Muhammad, in Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law who was brought up by Muhammad himself. He was the most pious man of his time and the most learned in religious doctrines. From early childhood he was a worshiper of God; he did not commit any sins; he was innocent. Because he had these virtues, Ali was several times cited by Muhammad as his successor and was called Imam by the Prophet. Ali’s eleven descendants who succeeded him one after another are called Imams because they had all the same virtues, committed no sins, and were spiritually pure. Their interpretations were according to God’s will just as Muhammad’s and Ali’s were, and each Imam indicated his successor so there could be no possibility of error.
The fifth major principle is belief in the Day of Resurrection, belief that everyone will be alive in the next world after his death here. There everyone’s deeds will be weighed and he will be rewarded according to his merit. In this world each man must work and in the world to come he will receive his rewards or punishments; here one cultivates, and there one reaps the harvest. If a human being has followed the rules and acted according to celestial orders, the doors of Paradise are opened to him; but if he has disregarded his duties and disobeyed the religious rules, he will go to Hell to receive perpetual torture and punishment.
Paradise is described in a number of verses in the Qur’an. It is the place to which the doer of good goes in the Hereafter to receive infinite blessings, pleasures, and kindnesses. The Qur’an also clearly tells of the differences in Paradise between the doers of good who have attained a high degree of perfection and those who have committed some degree of misbehavior.
Hell is described as the place set aside for the doers of bad deeds, the place where sinners will receive their eternal torture and punishment. The difficulties, the pains, the tortures, and the eternal sufferings of Hell are mentioned in the Qur’an, by the Prophet, and by many others.
Method of Learning the Major Principles.
In learning the major principles of religion, everyone is free to investigate the facts and to try to discover the principles which they reveal. In this way man comes to recognize the truth of the unity of God and the truth of God’s justice. God has endowed everyone with wisdom, which makes it possible for everyone to use his reason to discover that he did not exist previously but now he does exist. Therefore, man must have a cause which brought him into existence, and that cause is either himself or someone else. If he is the cause of his own existence, then he was either a cause when he did not exist, or he existed before he caused his existence. Yet each of those is an impossibility, for one who has no existence cannot be the cause of existence, and if one exists already, he does not need to cause his existence. And if someone else caused a man’s existence, then the same impossibilities apply to that person, as to every other possible cause for existence. Therefore one must conclude that all things which did not exist and then came into being resulted from one cause which is self-existent, which is therefore the essence of existence. Such a being did not come into existence from non-existence, from the void -- therefore such a being is eternal; it is God.
The manifestations of that Creative Being -- life, knowing, power, will -- are evident in the creation of this universe, which is intelligently based on established principles with everything put in its proper place and every deed performed at its proper time. The secret of the universe, the mystery of creation, the beginning and the end of every creature are all arranged with such care that no one can call the order of the universe accidental. Therefore, the Eternal Being has knowledge of this creation, and the attributes revealed in creation are as old as His entity.
This way of knowing the principles of the unity and the justice of God is open to everyone. Therefore everyone should follow this path of investigation and should know where he comes from and should recognize that an Eternal Being who is omniscient, omnipotent, all will, all wisdom, and all justice created him.
To know the major principles of religion the believer must discover the two principles of the unity and justice of God through learning and through contemplation. Then, since he seeks happiness, he will continue to discover what he should do to gain happiness, for he is assured that the all-wise Creator did not create him in vain. At this point he discovers that God has sent prophets and endowed them with the knowledge and ability to guide others toward happiness and perfection, the purpose for which God created them. In this way, the need for prophecy and the truth of prophecy becomes known to everyone, and the third major principle of religion is accepted.
Then, following the words of the Prophet and guided by reason, man will search for the principles of the Imamate and of the Day of Resurrection; and since on the basis of reasoning he accepts the words of the Prophet and of Imams as the basis for truth, he will acknowledge the truth of the Day of Resurrection. It is by this method that man learns the truth of the five major principles of religion.
Disagreement on the Principles of Religion.
Generally speaking, there is disagreement between the Shi‘as and the Sunnis concerning the fourth major principle, the Imamate, for none of the other sects of Islam consider it to be a major principle of faith. The Shi‘as believe that the Imamate was established by prophecy and is essential for guiding the people; just as God appoints prophets to protect the religion, he also appoints Imams. The Sunnis, on the other hand, believe that the selection of the successor of a religious leader is the direct responsibility of the people, who are free to choose whomsoever they like. For them, the one they elect replaces the Prophet; it becomes his responsibility to protect the religion, and the people should obey him.
There are also disagreements between the Shi‘ites and some of the sects of the Sunnis, particularly the Ash‘arites and the Mu‘taziites. The Ash‘arites have denied that God has the attribute of justice. On the basis of the principle of justice God should give rewards to the doers of good and punish the sinners, but the Ash‘arites maintain that God may give rewards to sinners and atheists and may torture the good, the virtuous, and those who are believers in God. God may do whatever He wills; all that can be known is that He is accustomed to reward good and punish evil. This does not mean, according to them, that He possesses the inherent attribute of justice which is expressed in all His actions, or that He considers individual cases. According to their belief, there is no causal relationship between happenings. Whatever exists is only a succession of events which follow one another according to God’s custom and will, with no necessary causal relationship.
The Mu‘tazilites agree with the Shi‘ites that justice is an essential attribute of God and everyone will receive his appropriate reward.
According to Shi‘a, all the attributes of God are within Him; they are not accidental but are a part of His entity. God is one entity, which is manifested as omniscience, omnipotence, power, will, and the like. The Ash‘arites maintain that there are eight attributes: life, knowledge, power, will, speech, hearing, sight, and being. The attributes have always coexisted and cannot be separated from the being of God; nothing existed before God. They say that the opposite is true of human beings, for in man knowledge -- as an attribute -- is added to his being, and is not even given to him, for he has no knowledge other than that which he learns.
There are other points on which Shi‘a is not in general agreement with the Ash‘arites. For instance, the Ash‘arites believe that Paradise is as old as eternity, that it has been in existence from the first day of creation, but Shi‘ites do not accept this point.
Concerning determinism and free will the Shi‘ites differ from both the Ash‘arites and the Mu‘tazilites. From the beginning of man’s existence he has been faced with the paradox of freedom and determinism. There is no doubt that man passes through some stages of life without freedom of choice, as when he was hidden in the potentiality of the father, then in the womb of the mother, and then attained his existence in the world. But when he is mature, is he then free? The followers of Islam have faced the paradox of determinism and free will and have cited evidence for their conclusions on the basis of reason, verses of the Qur’an, and the words of the Prophet. The Ash‘arites have accepted determinism and the Mu‘tazilites believe in free will, but the Shi‘ites believe that the arguments of both sects are inadequate. Shi‘a takes the middle position and believes that there is neither complete determinism nor complete freedom of choice, but there is something between these two.
Particular Requirements Of Religion.
The particular requirements of religion are embodied in the rules and regulations which are given as guides to personal and social welfare. There is not a single deed, not a moment in a man’s life, for which Islam has not issued a rule, and all Muslims are required to accept the regulations of Islam with faith and to obey them. Man’s duty toward himself and his duties toward others have all been explicitly mentioned. Even when man exists potentially in his father’s sperm, and in the fetal stage in his mother womb, there are rules of behavior prescribed for the parents.
For instance, the father must not drink alcohol, and he is taught how to have intercourse for the sake of having a child; it is the father’s duty to protect the fetus. When the baby is born the parents should follow certain rules for upbringing until he becomes spiritually and physically mature; then he should follow the rules of Islam himself. The regulations of Islam specify the proper procedure concerning food, clothing, sleep, awaking, friendship, hostile behavior, silence, talking, and how to benefit one’s self. Even when the individual departs from this world there are codes covering the proper forms for his burial which must be followed by his survivors.
The particular requirements of religion are concerned with worship, contracts, unilateral agreements, and practical rules of conduct.
Worship includes those religious deeds which aim to reach God, deeds which should be performed to achieve perfection, not out of passion or personal desire. Worship, in this sense, includes praying, fasting, almsgiving (khums), giving away one-tenth (zakat), pilgrimage, holy war, preaching righteousness, and prohibiting bad deeds. Generally speaking, all rules of Islam take into consideration all of those eight requirements, for they are the means of achieving happiness. All of these rules are supported by reason, and whatever fits reason is acceptable to religion. But often reason and common sense fail to understand the advantages or disadvantages of an act; therefore, there is need for an authority, someone to lead. That is why the Prophet made the rules for Islam.
Prayer is required five times during the twenty-four hours of the day of every mature individual (according to Shi‘a a girl is mature at ten years and a boy at fifteen) who is intelligent and able. These prayers should follow certain prescribed rituals. For example, the clothes and the body should be clean; one should observe the washing of the hands, arms, and face before praying. The place of praying should not be a usurped place that is being taken by force. During the prayer one should face Mecca, pray in the prescribed way, and submit himself to Allah. One prayer should be given at dawn before sunrise, the second at noon, the third in the evening, the fourth after sunset, and the fifth should be given when one goes to bed.
The requirement of the five prayers is designed to make one attentive, to enlighten one’s spirit, and to cause one to seek happiness and perfection in drawing near to God. If a man’s body is clean and his spirit enlightened through the regular practice of worshiping God five times a day, he will behave according to the rules of Islam and accomplish good deeds and avoid bad ones. Such a man’s body and spirit will make progress in this world and the next, and a society full of such individuals will follow the path to perfection.
Fasting during the month of Ramadan is obligatory in Islam for every intelligent, mature, and able Muslim; from dawn to sunset he is forbidden to eat, drink, or have sexual intercourse. Fasting offers both bodily and spiritual advantages -- advantages for the individual and for society in this world and in the world to come. For example, the man who fasts develops strength of will because he decides not to eat or drink; he becomes more considerate of his fellowmen; he becomes pious and virtuous; his spirit is enlightened and his body becomes clean of sin. If he is rich he will find a common tie with the poor which is beneficial to society because some of his property will be distributed to the poor; and the poor will be gratified because they will see that pleasure is sometimes denied to the rich. There are many other advantages to fasting which are recognized in Islam.
Almsgiving is obligatory in all sects of Islam, but the way in which it is administered in Shi‘a differs from the practice of other sects. There are two kinds of almsgiving -- khums and zakat. To make up khums, Shi‘a takes a fifth of one’s properties, including a share of gold and silver, valuables, and property captured in a war, as well as a certain percentage of the benefits derived from business. According to Shi‘a this fifth of these properties should be given to the Imam and Muhammad’s descendants (or Sayyids) who do not share in zakat, the second form of almsgiving. An Imam, who is one of the grandsons of the Prophet, can use the share he receives from khums in any way he likes. Those descendants of Muhammad’s family who are in need can use their share for their living expenses. The advantage of khums is that those of Muhammad’s descendants who are blind, old, and unable to work are thus taken care of and they need not turn to begging and lose their self-respect. The Imam also has a free hand in using the money for educating the people, helping the poor, and improving social conditions.
The second form of almsgiving is zakat, the giving away of one-tenth of one’s income if one is a person of wealth who owns gold, silver, cattle, or crops of a certain amount. Zakat should be used to help the poor and the stranger, those who are in debt, those who are not Muslims but might become believers, or those who would be able to assist Islam in some way. It should also be used for public works, such as the construction of schools, bridges, water reservoirs, and the like.
Pilgrimage to Mecca is required of every Muslim who can afford and is able to make the trip. The duties he should perform at Mecca are called Hajj and the man who has performed the duties of the pilgrimage is known as a Hajji. One of the social advantages of the pilgrimage is that every year from all over the world Muslims gather together in one place. There the rich and the learned ones exchange ideas and learn about one another’s country, life, and people; they learn of the needs in various parts of the Muslim world; they discover their friends and foes; and they are able to cooperate to solve their problems. In the early days, before modern means of communication were available, the religious center was especially important, but even today it serves as a means by which Muslims learn to live together in unity and diversity. In addition to the pilgrimage to Mecca, great numbers of Shi‘ites make the pilgrimage to Karbala, Najaf, Meshed, Qum, and other such centers where they honor Ali or the other Imams. Such pilgrimages are not obligatory but the people go out of respect for Ali and his descendants and as a means of strengthening their faith. Many more people can afford to go on these pilgrimages than could make the long trip to Mecca.
Holy war is obligatory on Muslims under certain circumstances. It is every Muslim’s duty to fight against unbelievers, idol worshipers, and pagans; to defend Islam; to extend the borders of Islamic countries; and to scatter Islam to other places. According to Shi‘a when the Imam is not present and there is no special substitute for him, a holy war is not obligatory. However, if an enemy attacks and an Islamic country is in danger, it is everyone’s duty to fight in defense of his country.
Worship in Islam also includes preaching righteousness and preventing people from performing bad deeds. One is responsible for others as well as for oneself; therefore, each individual has the obligation to encourage others to do good and to prevent others from doing evil deeds.
In addition to worship, as we have said, the particular requirements of religion include contracts, unilateral agreements, and practical rules of conduct. The contracts are written or verbal agreements between two persons, and are governed by certain prescribed regulations and verbal forms which must be followed. When the dealers have uttered the required phrases, the contract is binding and everyone is obligated to fulfill his promise except under certain clearly defined conditions. Contracts in Islam cover many aspects of human relations, such as renting, marrying, buying, and the like.
The unilateral agreement is a relationship between two persons but its fulfillment depends upon the words of one person, as in a divorce, confession, and taking an oath.
The practical rules of conduct cover personal and social actions such as inheritance, giving evidence, political activities, and many other aspects of life. They include the areas of Islamic jurisprudence not covered in the other three categories of religious requirements.
Method of Learning the Practical Requirements.
There are two ways of learning the particular requirements of religion: by truth-seeking (ijtihad), or by imitation. Those who use the method of ijtihad seek the truth by individual interpretation through discussion, investigation of the evidence, and the use of reason. The second method is that of learning the truth from learned men who are worthy of confidence; it is also valid because those who follow it imitate an authority. By these methods it is possible to understand the rules and regulations of religion and to discover their proper application in particular instances.
These two ways of learning are valid for learning the particular requirements of religion, but not, as we have seen, for belief in the major principles of religion. The principles of religion must be discovered by each person through his own knowledge and contemplation, and no one should imitate another person blindly in worshiping God, recognizing His attributes, believing in His Prophet, or believing in the Imams and the Day of Resurrection. It is necessary for everyone to discover the truth and believe it himself.
On the other hand, it is not important for the individual to contemplate the laws and regulations of Islam and act according to his own understanding. Rather, if a religious authority has studied and understood the laws and regulations, the rest of the people may follow him without having gone through the process of study. The laws and regulations of Islam have come to the people through the Qur’an, the words of Muhammad, and Imams. Therefore, one who has potentialities for becoming a religious leader strives to gain knowledge of these three sources and derives specific laws from them; he follows those laws and sets an example for the people. Such a man is known as a Mujtahid, and those who accept his leadership are called imitators.
The religious leaders believe in the five major principles of religion and in the Twelve Imams, accepting the twelfth one in absence, but they may differ in their interpretation of religious laws. One group of the mujtahid bases its understanding and interpretation of the religious laws on the Qur’an, on major authorities, and on reason, while another group bases its rules and procedures on Tradition. The first group has clearly worked out principles of jurisprudence as a guide, with accepted procedures for legal actions, while the second group uses only testaments and Tradition as guides for their actions.
According to Shi‘a there are four sources for the particular requirements of religion, for religious law: the Qur’an, Tradition (Sunnah), general agreement, and reason. The first source for guidance in formulating a religious law, for determining what would be a good action in a given situation, is the Qur’an, whether its teaching is explicit or implicit. If guidance is not found in the Qur’an, then one turns to the Traditions. If a basis for the ruling is not found in the Qur’an or the Traditions, then it should be sought in the general agreement (ijma) of the religious leaders, and that general agreement should be followed by all the people. Sometimes, however, even such an agreement may not be reached; in such a case one s reason must serve as a guide. Reason as a means of forming a judgment is included in religious doctrine because whatever reason favors, religion agrees to. All Shi‘as accept these four sources of religious law, but those who derive religious laws from testaments and Traditions define reasoning as the use of analogy, or parallels from Tradition, rather than deductive and inductive reasoning; those who follow the principles of jurisprudence do not accept reasoning by analogy as valid.
When the practical regulations or laws of Islam are inferred from the four sources -- the Qur’an, Traditions, agreement of leaders, or individual reason, in that order -- there is always the possibility of misinterpretation because of differences in intelligence and understanding. Many of the differences between Shi‘as and Sunnis are due to differing interpretations of the four sources. Even during the governing of Ali as Caliph there were differences of interpretation of the same sources; at such times not all Muslims followed Ali, but at least the Shi‘ites did. During the early centuries of Islam there grew up five schools of law in the Muslim world: the four Sunni schools of Hanbali, Maliki, Shafi‘i, and Hanafi, and the Shi‘a school which is sometimes called Ja‘fari after the sixth Imam.
Shi‘ites believe that in formulating the laws governing practical affairs it is essential to follow strictly the words of Muhammad when he said, "I leave two things with you, the Qur’an and my descendants, which will lead you to the true way." Shi‘a received Muhammad’s own teachings, actions, and sermons as transmitted by his grandchildren, not by others. Under the Umayyads the Imams were not allowed to teach publicly, but when the Abbasids came to power the sixth Imam was free to explain the particulars of religion, the laws of Islam. He educated a large number of people who collected his teachings in book form and laid the basis for Islamic law as interpreted by Shi‘a. From his teachings and the teachings of the other Imams, four hundred principles have been handed down to present-day Shi’ites; these principles are, next to the Qur’an, the fundamental principles of Shi‘a.
The four hundred principles were too many for everyone to learn and were in danger of being lost, so it was appropriate for the reliable learned religious leaders to summarize the principles in a more readily available form. In the fourth and fifth centuries the four hundred principles were outlined in four books which serve as the basis for the rules of Shi‘a. This is fortunate, since almost all of the original four hundred principles have been lost. At the beginning of the fourth century of Islam and before the long absence of the twelfth Imam, there lived a learned man named Muhammad Ibn Ya‘qub al-Kulaini (died 329; AD. 940) who was known as the "guardian of Islam" and who became famous as the compiler of the first book, known as Kafi, or The Sufficient. The second book was written by another great man, Muhammad Ibn Ali Ibn Baba-waih al-Qummi (died 381; AD. 991), known as the "truthteller"; his book is Man la Yahduruh al Faqih, which means Self-Study Jurisprudence. The third and fourth books -- Tahdhib al Ahkam, or The Best Selection of All Principles, and Istibsar, or Enlightening the People -- were written by Muhammad Ibn Hasan al-Tusi (died 460; AD. 1067), known by the title "The Great Man of Shi‘a."
These four books, written by great religious scholars, are the basis for Shi‘a jurisprudence; after the Qur’an, they are the sources of law for religious leaders in Shi‘a.
Disagreement on the Requirements of Religion.
Although there are differences in interpretation between the five schools of law in Islam, it should be noted that Shi‘a differs more sharply from the four Sunni schools in the codes it derives from the Qur’an, the Sunnah, the consensus of the religious leaders, and from individual interpretation. For instance, as was mentioned, although some sects consider reasoning from analogy to be a valid method for deriving laws, Shi‘ites do not accept inferences from analogy as conclusive.
Shi‘a recognizes Tradition as a source of religious rules, but it does not find all kinds of Traditions acceptable. Only those Traditions are accepted which were revealed to the family of Muhammad and interpreted by Imams and learned men who follow the authority of the family of the Prophet. The books of Traditions gathered by the Sunnis are not accepted as authoritative by Shi‘ites.
Shi‘a, that is, the followers of the twelve Imams, differ from other sects in Islam in that it allows ijtihad; that is, it allows everyone to become an authority for himself in religion. The believer can study the rules and regulations and by referring to the sources and using his reason can infer their application in specific cases. He is able to act according to his understanding of the rules of Islam without obligation to follow other authorities. Everyone, under certain clearly defined conditions, can derive a code of conduct from the Qur’an, from. Tradition, from the consensus of authorities (ijma), and from the use of reason.
In the four schools of Sunni law ijtihad is not permitted; the follower must adhere strictly to the orders of the religious; leaders. Hanafi followers, for instance, must be guided by what was said by Abu Hanifah who lived twelve hundred years ago; whether he was right or wrong, there is no recourse to studying such primary sources as the Qur’an or Tradition. Abu Hanifah lived a hundred years after Muhammad and thus was not present to hear Muhammad’s teachings; nor did Muhammad ever say that Abu Hanifah was to be the sole interpreter of matters of jurisprudence. No one before or after him had any right to check his words and guide the people according to a revised doctrine, and even if someone more learned than Abu Hanifah were to appear, the disciple of that sect must still follow what Abu Hanifah has said. The same criticism applies to the other sects.
By contrast, the door of personal responsibility in religion, ijtihad, is open to every Muslim, according to Shi‘a doctrine. Every eligible person who can make an intelligent judgment can derive particular applications of religion from the sources. This is a major point of disagreement between Shi‘a and Sunni in the area of the particular requirements of religion.
Islam in Society.
In its laws, Islam tries to establish a foundation for equality, brotherhood, and friendliness among men. According to Islam, no individual has an advantage over another except through virtue and knowledge. Through its major principles of religion Islam expects everyone to seek his own happiness through recognizing that God is omnipotent, omniscient, infinite, all-living, and eternal. Whatever a man is, it is because of God, and whatever a man has obtained, it has been given to him by God.
Islam demands moral virtues from everyone, everywhere, always. It wants everyone to love his fellow beings, to search for the truth, to be brave, faithful, honest, noble, true, just, and reliable. He must avoid immorality, must not be cruel, must not lie, or be a traitor, or deceitful, or jealous, or aggressive; he must not harm animals. Islam does not make distinctions between men, is not in favor of class distinction; Arab, Turk, occidental, oriental, a man of the north or of the south -- they are all alike. All people are brothers and Islam wants people from all over the world to be kind to one another and to help one another so they can achieve their own perfection and happiness in a brotherly way. The only superiority of one man over another which is recognized by Islam is that which is gained by virtue and knowledge, for the virtuous and learned man has a superior place in the eyes of God.
Islam tries to make people understand that this world is not the eternal world, that it is a place we pass through as an introduction to the other world; it is a field that we cultivate, but we will have our harvest in the other world. Man must not be charmed by the façade of this world. He must recognize that real happiness is not available in this world -- it can be achieved only in the Other World. To improve this world is not the ultimate aim of man, nor is it to make contributions to civilization or to build up the physical aspects of this world. The real aim of man is to work for the perfection of the Other World. Unless a man realizes this he will spend all his time in this world receiving hardship and troubles and will leave this world bare-handed and despondent, feeling at the moment of departure that he has wasted his life and has not gained anything worthwhile. An intelligent man knows that he is a traveler in this world on his way to eternal perfection. There is no doubt that the life required of a follower of Islam is planned so that it takes a man to that end.
In truth, if a man saves himself from the danger of the illusions of this world and breaks away from the difficulties which he has spun around himself like a spider in a web, if he considers his true nature and that which is good for man, he may occasionally catch a glimpse of the Other World and be inspired to find the true godly way to his foreordained goal. If, then, he will consider the lives of the great religious leaders and discover how they reached their goal, he will, without doubt, pursue Islamic doctrines, and he will heartily follow the Prophet of Islam and his true descendants.