Section Banner Images

Rulership and Justice

Islamic Period

print icon Print Page


Back Button On 4 of 5 Next Button On

The Shī‘ī Political Vision

The time of the Rāshidūn caliph-imāms, from the death of Muhammad in 632 until the assassination of ‘Ali in 661, is a critical period in the history of Islamic civilization and central to the genesis and evolution of the two principal branches of Islam: Sunnism and Shi‘ism. The distinguishing feature of Shī‘ī Islam, that is, what most prominently sets it apart from the majority Sunnī tradition, is disagreement over the question of the rightful succession to the Prophet Muhammad. Shī‘ī Muslims believe that leadership of the ummah belongs in the hands of the family of the Prophet. They believe that Muhammad explicitly designated his close relative ‘Ali as his first successor and that ‘Ali and his descendants (through his wife Fatimah, Muhammad’s daughter) are the legitimate leaders of the ummah. While it is true that the other three Rāshidūn caliph-imāms all possessed familial connections to the Prophet, these bonds were established through marriage and were not based on blood-kinship.

The articulation and crystallization of Shī‘ī Islam occurred over several centuries in response to two important political events: 1) the usurpation of ‘Ali’s authority; and 2) the martyrdom of Husayn, ‘Ali’s son and the Prophet’s grandson, who in 680 CE attempted and failed to restore the leadership of the ummah to the family of the Prophet. Shī‘ī tradition does not recognize the legitimacy of Abū Bakr’s acclamation, and thus, according to one scholar of Islam, “Legitimism, i.e. the doctrine that headship of the Muslim community rightfully belongs to ‘Ali and his descendants, was the hallmark of the original Arab Shī‘ism which was purely political.”

The descriptive term Shī‘ī is derived from the Arabic term Shī‘at ‘Ali, which means “the party of ‘Ali” or “the partisans of ‘Ali,” i.e., the members of the ummah who supported ‘Ali in the conflict with Mu‘āwīyah and the Umayyads which erupted in the aftermath of ‘Uthman’s assassination in 656. Evidence supporting the foundational Shī‘ī tradition that ‘Ali was the rightful successor to Muhammad is reflected in ‘Ali’s special relationship with the Prophet in the time of the utopian Medinan ummah. In addition to being Muhammad’s closest male relative, he also served as the Prophet’s secretary and most trusted deputy. According to the most reliable Hadīth, the written reports that capture and preserve the words and deeds of the Prophet, ‘Ali was the most courageous of all Muslims in battle and distinguished within the ummah because of his unique personal virtues.

In addition to this body of evidence, Shī‘ī tradition maintains that Muhammad publicly confirmed ‘Ali as his first successor on the occasion of the Farewell Pilgrimage, the Prophet’s final pilgrimage to Mecca. Muhammad and the members of the ummah who accompanied him were returning to Medina from Mecca when the Prophet ordered the large concourse of Muslims to stop at an oasis called Ghadīr Khumm, located approximately halfway between the two sacred cities. According to Shī‘īs, it was here that Muhammad delivered an address in which he explicitly designated ‘Ali his first successor.

Of course, when Muhammad died, ‘Ali did not succeed him, and later Shī‘īs came to recognize the acclamation of Abū Bakr as a catastrophic moral and political failure. They regard Abū Bakr, ‘Umar, and ‘Uthmān as unjust usurpers who seized power in direct contravention of Divine Will. The internecine fighting that imperiled the ummah during the reigns of the last two Rāshidūn caliph-imāms is thought to be a direct consequence of undermining the Prophet’s authority, and thus God’s authority, on earth. In 680, ‘Ali’s younger son, Husayn, organized a coalition of supporters loyal to his father and the Banū Hāshim (the Prophet’s family) in an attempt to restore the Godly status of the ummah by dislodging the illegitimate Umayyad caliph-imām from power. The Umayyads crushed the uprising at Karbala (in modern day Iraq) where, abandoned by most of his followers, Husayn died a martyr.

A detailed exploration of the subsequent development of Shī‘ī political traditions and attitudes, and their underlying theological doctrines, is beyond the scope of this module. We have included this short discussion of Shī‘ism because the general course of Islamic civilization cannot be properly understood without first considering the origins of the Shī‘ī vision and the counter-narrative it poses, which challenges the more widely accepted political history validated by the majority Sunnī tradition.

Next Button Off Structure of the First Sunnī-Jamā‘ī Imamate (632-661 CE)

© 2010 The Oriental Institute, The University of Chicago  |  Page updated: 12/29/2010

Contact Information  |  Rights & Permissions