The illustration above shows the second 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 the names of Fatima, her two children, Hasan and Husayn, and the latter's child, 'Ali Zayn Al-Abidin.
'Ali's eldest son, Hasan, regarded by the Shi'ites as their second leader or Imam led a peaceful life in Medina after publicly renouncing his claim to the Caliphate. However there was continued support for the grandchildren of Muhammad amongst the conquered tribes who opposed the Ummayad Caliphate, and following Mu'awiya's death in 680 CE and his succession by his son, Yazid, they invited Hasan's younger brother, Al-Husayn to lead them. Al-Husayn had been living in Meccah, and had taken a Persian wife, which may be one reason for the later importance of Shi'ism in Iran, but in September 680 he, and some fifty companions took the pilgrim road from Meccah to Iraq. His passage to Kufa was blocked by the Caliphate and he was forced to travel along the Euphrates attracting a few more followers in the process. On October 10th (10th Muharram) a battle took place on the plain of Karbala, following Al-Husayn's refusal to pay tribute to Yazid. Al-Husayn and his supporters were hopelessly outnumbered and nearly all were slaughtered. The captured women and children were
taken to Kufa along with the severed heads of the dead. The head of Al-Husayn was subjected to various indignities first by the Governor of Kufa, and later by Yazid himself in Damascus. Al-Husayn's youngest son, 'Ali, who was ill and had not taken part in the battle, was spared and allowed to return to Medina.
The death of Al-Husayn finalised irreconcilably the split which had started with the death of his father. Julius Wellhausen has commented (Oppositionsparteien 70f) as follows:
"His marytrdom opened up a new era for the Shia; it was far more important for them than that of his father who was not the son of the Prophet's daughter. There are such things as events which have a tremendous effect, not so much through themselves and their inevitable consequences, as through the memories they leave in the hearts and minds of men" Tr. Heinz Halm - Shi'ism p.15
Since that time the Tenth day of Muharram, known as the 'Tenth' or 'Ashura, has remained the most important religious day for the Shi'ia and a shrine was erected at Karbala which became the focal
point of Shi'ia pilgrimage. The shrine itself has had a chequered history but there is still one there today.
Al-Husayn was succeeded as Imam by his son 'Ali Zayn Al-Abidin who became the fourth Imam. His eldest son Zayd sought to revenge his grandfather's death but was killed in a street battle in Kufa and when 'Ali died in 713 CE he was followed as Imam by his son Muhammad Al-Baqir who became the fifth Imam but who had nothing to do with politics. However Shi'ite proclivities in Iraq persisted under various guises and eventually brought about the fall of the Ummayad Caliphate in 747 CE. By this time Muhammad Al-Baqir had died in 733 and had been succeeded by his equally retiring son Ja'far Al-Sadiq, the sixth Imam.
Ja'far turned down the offer of the Caliphate and an opposing group, the Abbasids, who were the descendants of Muhammad's Uncle Al-'Abbas, took over the Caliphate; ultimately they were to oppose the Shi'ia as implacably as their predecessors in power.
Although Ja'far had played no political role, his charismatic personality appears to have attracted a considerable number of supporters and it is from this time that a belief in the Imamiyya can probably be traced. This is the belief that there must at all times exist a leader with almost superhuman qualities. These are transmitted to his successor by designation (nass), he is innocent and therefore infallible (ma'sum). Much of this doctrine rests on sayings attributed to Ja'far, however it was not codified until much later. Ja'far died in 765, and his son Musa al-Kazim, who became the seventh Imam, was arrested and held captive by the Abbassid Caliph Haroun Al-Rashid in Baghdad. He is said to have been poisoned at the command of the Caliph in 799 and was succeeded by his son, 'Ali Al-Reza who had stayed in Medina after the arrest of his father. Haroun Al-Rashid's son, Ma'mun, proclaimed 'Ali Al-Reza as successor to the throne and made him his son-in-law at Merv, in eastern Iran in 816 CE, and Reza, the eighth Imam, accompanied him on an expedition to quell a revolt in Baghdad two years later. He died at Tus at the age of 55, allegedly poisoned by Ma'mun. The latter buried him alongside the grave of his own father, Haroun Al-Rashid, near Tus, and this became an important shrine or mashad, attracting so many pilgrims that a large town grew up round it which has become one of the most important and sacred cities in Iran. 'Ali Reza was the first of Muhammad's grandchildren to die in Iran and this has made him esepcially important to Iranians, and accounts for the great popularity of the name Reza. his sister, Fatima, also died in Iran and is buried in Qom, on the road between Tehran and Isfahan, which is also a particularly sacred city on this account.
'Ali Reza was succeeded by his son Muhammad Al-Jawad, the ninth Imam. Ma'mun took him as a son-in-law and kept him at court in Baghdad for eight years. He then returned to Medina but in 835 CE, Ma'mun's brother and successor, Al-Mu'tasim, had him brought back to Baghdad, at the age of twenty four, where he died and was interred beside his grandfather, Musa Al-Kazim, in a tomb which is still the object of pilgrimage by Shi'ites. Al-Jawad was followed by his son, 'Ali Al-Hadi, the tenth Imam, but like
his father was brought to the Caliphal residence, which by now had moved to Samarra, in 848 CE. The Caliph at the time was Al-Mutawakkil, who is particularly disliked by the Shi'ites because he arranged for the original tomb at Karbala to be destroyed in 850 CE. Al-Hadi died in 868 CE and was succceeded by his son, Hasan Al-Askari, the eleventh Imam, his epithet deriving from the fact that he was obliged to live in a camp (askari) alongside the caliphate army. He died at the end of 873 CE, at the age of 28, and is buried beside his father in Samarra, another important Shi'ite shrine.
For the first time an Imam had died with no obvious heir to succeed him. A period of confusion followed known as Al-Hayra, but eventually credence was given to the idea that he had in fact left a son called Muhammad, who had been born in 869 CE, but who had been hidden by his father out of caution. The legend grew up that he had been hidden in the ice cellar beneath his father's house, and by the start of the 13th century, the cave below the shrine in Samarra had become a place of great sanctity. He became known as the Imam Mehdi, and is the last of the original Imams who will come again at the end of the world.
Thus the grandchildren of Muhammad gave rise to the sect which we know as Shi'ite. In the remaining parts of this section we shall examine their political and social importance in Iran up to the time of the Safavids, and also the architectural evidence of populist Shi'ite belief in the country in the face of a generally Sunni monarchy.
Last Updated: 17 April 2001