Shi'ism began with a reference made for the first time to the partisans of Ali (shi'ah-i ' Ali), the first leader of the Household of the Prophet, during the lifetime of the Prophet himself. The course of the first manifestation and the later growth of Islam during the twenty-three years of prophecy brought about many conditions which necessitated the appearance of a group such as the Shi'ites among the companions of the Prophet.
The Holy Prophet during the first days of his prophecy, when according to the text of the Quran he was commanded to invite his closer relatives to come to his religion, told them clearly that whoever would be the first to accept his invitation would become his successor and inheritor. Ali was the first to step forth and embrace Islam. The Prophet accepted Ali's submission to the faith and thus fulfilled his promise.
From the Shi'ite point of view it appears as unlikely that the leader of a movement, during the first days of his activity, should introduce to strangers one of his associates as his successor and deputy but not introduce him to his completely loyal and devout aides and friends. Nor does it appear likely that such a leader should accept someone as his deputy and successor and introduce him to others as such, but then throughout his life and religious call deprive his deputy of his duties as deputy, disregard the respect due to his position as successor, and refuse to make any distinctions between him and others.
The Prophet, according to many unquestioned and completely authenticated hadiths, both Sunni and Shi'ite, clearly asserted that Ali was preserved from error and sin in his actions and sayings. Whatever he said and did was in perfect conformity with the teachings of religion and he was the most knowledgeable of men in matters pertaining to the Islamic sciences and injunctions.
During the period of prophecy Ali performed valuable services and made remarkable sacrifices. When the infidels of Mecca decided to kill the Prophet and surrounded his house, the Holy Prophet decided to emigrate to Medina. He said to Ali, "Will you sleep in my bed at night so that they will think that I am asleep and I will be secure from being pursued by them?" Ali accepted this dangerous assignment with open arms. This has been recounted in different histories and collections of hadith. (The emigration from Mecca to Medina marks the date of origin of the Islamic calendar, known as the hijrah.) Ali also served by fighting in the battles of Badr, Uhud, Khaybar, Khandaq, and Hunayn in which the victories achieved with his aid were such that if Ali had not been present the enemy would most likely have uprooted Islam and the Muslims, as is recounted in the usual histories, lives of the Prophet, and collections of hadith.
For Shi'ites, the central evidence of Ali's legitimacy as successor to the Prophet is the event of Ghadir Khumm when the Prophet chose Ali to the "general guardianship" (walayat-i 'ammah) of the people and made Ali, like himself, their "guardian" (wali).
It is obvious that because of such distinctive services and recognition, because of Ali's special virtues which were acclaimed by all, and because of the great love the Prophet showed for him, some of the companions of the Prophet who knew Ali well, and who were champions of virtue and truth, came to love him. They assembled around Ali and followed him to such an extent that many others began to consider their love for him excessive and a few perhaps also became jealous of him. Besides all these elements, we see in many sayings of the Prophet reference to the "shi'ah of Ali" and the "shi'ah of the Household of the Prophet."
The Cause of the Separation of the
Shi'ite Minority from the Sunni Majority
The friends and followers of Ali believed that after death of the Prophet the caliphate and religious authority (marja'iyat-i 'ilmi) belonged to Ali. This belief came from their consideration of Ali's position and station in relation to the Prophet, his relation to the chosen among the companions, as well as his relation to Muslims in general. It was only the events that occurred during the few days of the Prophet's final illness that indicated that there was opposition to their view. Contrary to their expectation, at the very moment when the Prophet died and his body lay still unburied, while his household and a few companions were occupied with providing for his burial and funeral service, the friends and followers of Ali received news of the activity of another group who had gone to the mosque where the community was gathered faced with this sudden loss of their leader. This group, which was later to form the majority, set forth in great haste to select a caliph for the Muslims with the aim of ensuring the welfare of the community and solving its immediate problems. They did this without consulting the Household of the Prophet, his relatives or many of his friends, who were busy with the funeral, and without providing them with the least information. Thus Ali and his companions were presented with a fait accompli.
Ali and his friends - such as 'Abbas, Zubayr, Salman, Abu Dharr, Miqdad and 'Ammar - after finishing with the burial of the body of the Prophet became aware of the proceedings by which the caliph had been selected. They protested against the act of choosing the caliph by consultation or election, and also against those who were responsible for carrying it out. They even presented their own proofs and arguments, but the answer they received was that the welfare of the Muslims was at stake and the solution lay in what had been done.
It was this protest and criticism which separated from the majority the minority that were following Ali and made his followers known to society as the "partisans" or "shi'ah" of Ali. The caliphate of the time was anxious to guard against this appellation being given to the Shi'ite minority and thus to have Muslim society divided into sections comprised of a majority and a minority. The supporters of the caliph considered the caliphate to be a matter of the consensus of the community (ijma') and called those who objected the "opponents of allegiance." They claimed that the Shi'ah stood, therefore, opposed to Muslim society. Sometimes the Shi'ah were given other pejorative and degrading names.
Shi'ism was condemned from the first moment because of the political situation of the time and thus it could not accomplish anything through mere political protest. Ali, in order to safeguard the well-being of Islam and of the Muslims, and also because of lack of sufficient political and military power, did not endeavor to begin an uprising against the existing political order, which would have been of a bloody nature. Yet those who protested against the established caliphate refused to surrender to the majority in certain questions of faith and continued to hold that the succession to the Prophet and religious authority belonged by right to Ali. They believed that all spiritual and religious matters should be referred to him and invited people to become his followers.
The Two Problems of Succession and
Authority in Religious Sciences
In accordance with the Islamic teachings which form its basis, Shi'ism believed that the most important question facing Islamic society was the elucidation and clarification of Islamic teachings and the tenets of the religious sciences. Only after such clarifications were made could the application of these teachings to the social order be considered. In other words, Shi'ism believed that, before all else, members of society should be able to gain a true vision of the world and of men based on the real nature of things. Only then could they know and perform their duties as human beings - in which lay their real welfare - even if the performance of these religious duties were to be against their desires. After carrying out this first step a religious government should preserve and execute real Islamic order in society in such a way that man would worship none other than God, would possess personal and social freedom to the extent possible, and would benefit from true personal and social justice.
These two ends could be accomplished only by a person who was inerrant and protected by God from having faults. Otherwise people could become rulers or religious authorities who would not be free from the possibility of distortion of thought or the committing of treachery in the duties placed upon their shoulders. Were this to happen, the just and freedom-giving rule of Islam could gradually be converted to dictatorial rule and a completely autocratic government. Moreover, the pure religious teachings could become, as can be seen in the case of certain other religions, the victims of change and distortion in the hands of selfish scholars given to the satisfaction of their carnal desires. As confirmed by the Holy Prophet, Ali followed perfectly and completely the Book of God and the tradition of the Prophet in both words and deeds. As Shi'ism sees it, if, as the majority say, only the Quraysh opposed the rightful caliphate of Ali, then that majority should have answered the Quraysh by asserting what was right. They should have quelled all opposition to the right cause in the same way that they fought against the group who refused to pay the religious tax (zakat). The majority should not have remained indifferent to what was right for fear of the opposition of the Quraysh.
What prevented the Shi'ah from accepting the elective method of choosing the caliphate by the people was the fear of the unwholesome consequences that might result from it: fear of possible corruption in Islamic government and of the destruction of the solid basis for the sublime religious sciences. As it happened, later events in Islamic history confirmed this fear (or prediction), with the result that the Shi'ites became ever firmer in their belief. During the earliest years, however, because of the small number of its followers, Shi'ism appeared outwardly to have been absorbed into the majority, although privately it continued to insist on acquiring the Islamic sciences from the Household of the Prophet and to invite people to its cause. At the same time, in order to preserve the power of Islam and safeguard its progress, Shi'ism did not display any open opposition to the rest of Islamic society. Members of the Shi'ite community even fought hand in hand with the Sunni majority in holy wars (jihad) and participated in public affairs. Ali himself guided the Sunni majority in the interest of the whole Islam whenever such action was necessary.