Shi'ism - The Beginnings

Tefl-e-Ma'asum (1)

The illustration above shows the first of four alcoves from the Masjed-e-Hakim three of which carry the names of Muhammad's daughter, Fatima and her children and grandchildren, who are revered in Shi'ism as leaders or Imams. This one contains a prayer for peace upon Muhammad and his family, known as the Salavat.


In 622 C.E. Muhammad had been forced to leave Mecca and seek refuge in Medina. This departure, or emigration is called the "hejira" and marks the inception of the Muslim calendar. He was accompanied in exile by a large number of Meccan supporters and assited on his arrival in Median by many of the farming community in Median, who became known as the "Helpers" or "ansari". Eight years later Muhammad's Medinan helpers assisted him to regain control of Mecca, and many of the Meccans converted to Islam. Shortly before his death in 632, Muhammad undertook a final farewell pilgrimage to Medina and on 16th March, halfway between the two cities, at Qadir Khum, Muhammad is said to have taken 'Ali by the hand and said in front of all those present "Everyone whose patron I am, also has 'Ali as a patron". However following Muhammad's death in 632 C.E. there appears to have been a general consensus in settling the succession or Caliphate on his uncle, Abu Bekr, who had been one of the original party of emigrants, however, this was not without opposition from the "ansari" who felt that they were being overlooked. After two year Abu Bekr was succeeded by Omar, another of those who had fled with Muhammad who greatly extended the area under Islam, not least by defeating the Persian Army at Nihavand in 642.

In 644 C.E. six Companions of Muhammad including his son-in-law, 'Ali, elected the third Caliph, Osman. This marked the start of the ascendancy of the Ummayad clan, because Osman was a member of this Meccan aristocracy which had formerly been responsible for Muhammad's persecution and expulsion. This, and his tendency to appoint members of his clan to the most important positions, led to his assassination by a consortium of discontented fellow exiles and "ansari" in 656, and the appointment in Medina of Muhammad's son-in-law and cousin, 'Ali ibn Abi Taleb. His appointment was resisted by the Ummayads and in the end led to a pitched battle on the 9th December 656 C.E. outside Basra, known as the Battle of the Camel, in which Muhammad's widow, Ayesha, who had declared herself against her son-in-law, was taken prisoner and sent under armed guard to Medina.

"Shi'ia" literally means, "The Party of 'Ali", and the divisions between the Ummayads and the followers of 'Ali gave rise, in the longer term to a lasting sectarian division. The Shi'ites claim that 'Ali was the second Muslim after Muhammad's first wife, Khadija, while Sunnis, who kept faith with the Ummayads claim him as the third, putting Abu Bekr before him. In addition they cite Muhammad's utterance at Qadir Khum as evidence that Muhammad intended him as his successor; the Sunnis dispute the meaning of this, alleging that it was merely intended to strengthen 'Ali's position in the face of unpopularity arising from his severity. 'Ali's caliphate lasted some five years until his assassination in 661 at the door of a Mosque in Kufa and during this time he established himself as a popular leader amongst the newly converted peoples, including those in Iran, as he represented the only opposition to the more established traditions of the Ummayads who regarded the newer converts less favourably than themselves.

His assassination effectively split the Muslim world, the Shi'ia adopting his eldest son, Hassan, as their Imam or leader, while the rest of Islam followed the Ummayad governor of Syria, Mu'awiya. This split was to be deepened still further by the killing of his younger son, Hussein, at Karbala in 680.


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21-January-95