• Category Category: I
  • View View: 1692
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

ITHNA ASHARIYAH. The followers of the twelve imams regarded as the rightful successors of the Prophet, the Ithna `Ashariyah, or Twelvers, constitute the major subdivision within Shi’i Islam. The Ithna `Ashariyah are also known as Imamiyah because of their main tenet regarding the necessity of the imam for the establishment of the ideal Muslim community under divine revelation. The term Shi’ah is generally applied to the Twelvers, despite the fact that there are other factions, such as the Ismd’111yah and Zaydiyah, that are also included within Shl’i Islam.

Historical Development. The Ithna `Ashariyah trace their history to the investiture, in Ghadir Khumm (modern-day Juhfah), of `All ibn AN Talib, the first imam, with wilayah (discretionary authority) by Muhammad after the Prophet’s Farewell Pilgrimage. Following Muhammad’s death in 632, the leadership of the nascent community was assumed by the Prophet’s leading companion, Abfi Bakr, but a group of Muslims refused to accept him as caliph. This group constituted the nucleus of the early Shi’ah (“partisans”). They believed that `All was Muhammad’s rightful successor and that those who usurped his right were sinners. This belief marked the genesis of the Sh!’! concept of imamate. Although `All did not assume political authority until after the third caliph, `Uthman, was murdered in 656, he was regarded by the Shi’ah as the imam, that is, a person qualified to assume temporal and spiritual authority. Following ‘Ali’s murder in 66o, the imamate continued with Hasan (d. 669) and Husayn (d. 68o), the sons of ‘Ali and his wife Fatimah Muhammad’s daughter. [See Wilayah and the biography of ‘Ali.]

The second most significant event during the formative period of the Ithna `Ashariyah was the murder of the third imam, Husayn, on the plains Karbala, Iraq, in 68o. The Karbala episode provided the Shi`ah with the ethos that led to the distinct Shl’! belief system, which is constructed around the notion of divinely designated ideal leadership, and the pathos that set the tone of the Ithna `Ashari religious praxis for posterity. From the Ithna `Ashari perspective, Karbala became the paradigm for defiance against the unjust authority that culminated in martyrdom (shahddah in the sense of sacrificial death in the path of God). It also marked a shift in the subsequent role of the Shl’! imam from politically activist upholder of just authority to politically quietist successor of Husayn. The imamate was identified more in terms of the imam’s religious-legal knowledge of Islamic revelation than his activist posture as the redresser

of the wrongs committed against the ahl al-bayt (the Prophet’s family). [See Karbala; Ahl-al Bayt; and the biography of Husayn ibn ‘Ali.]

`All Zayn al-`Abidin (d. 7t4), Muhammad al-Bagir (d. 733), and Ja’far al-Sadiq (d. 765), the fourth, fifth, and sixth imams, inaugurated the era of devotional, theological, and juridical formulations of the Ithna `Ashariyah. Whereas for the Muslim community in general the second half of the eighth century was a period of political and social unrest, for the Shi`ah it was the critical phase of self-definition in the face of competing and politically supported religious expression. The replacement of the Umayyads by the `Abbasids in 748 and the political turmoil that ruled in the central lands of the caliphate afforded these imams necessary time to shape the future direction of the Ithna `Ashariyah. Through the spiritual and intellectual leadership of al-Bagir and al-Sadiq, the Shi’ah developed distinctly Shi’! Qur’anic exegesis, through well-documented Prophetic h adiths (reports), including ones related by the imams, and a highly sophisticated juridical tradition, which subsequently earned them a distinct recognition in the larger community as the followers of the Ja’fari madhhab (rite).

The succeeding imamate of al-Sadiq’s descendants, from Musa al-Kazim (d. 799), the seventh imam, to Muhammad al-Mahdi (disappeared in 874 to return as the Mahdi, “divinely guided” leader of the ummah [community], at the End of Time), the twelfth and last imam, was the most difficult period for the Ithna `Ashariyah. The imams lived either incarcerated or under surveillance for suspected activities against the caliphate. The ShFah were faced with unrelenting ‘Abbasid atrocities and had little or no access to their imams. Under those conditions, the imams appointed their nuwwab (personal deputies), who conveyed their teachings and collected religious dues, such as the khums (originally a fifth of the spoils of war) and zakat (alms), from their followers. This deputyship gradually evolved into the influential religious institution among the Sh!’Is that culminated in the wilayah (comprehensive guardianship) of the qualified mujtahid (or faqih; jurist-theologian) under the Qajar and post-Qajar jurists.

During al-Kazim’s imamate, the concept of an imam in ghaybah (occultation), who continued to direct his community’s affairs through his trusted associates, found theological and legal expression in the hadiths attributed to the imams al-Bagir and al-Sadiq. [See Ghaybah.] The requirement of taqiyah (prudential concealment of one’s true belief) as a strategy of survival in the midst of the hostile majoritarian Sunnis also became more pronounced among the Shi`is at this time.

The occultation of the twelfth imam is divided into two forms: the Short (or Lesser) Occultation and the Complete (or Greater) Occultation. During the Short Occultation (874-941), the last imam appointed some of his prominent followers as his “special deputies” to carry on the function of the imamate in religious and social affairs. During the Complete Occultation (941-), the learned jurists among the Shi’is were believed to have been appointed by the twelfth imam as his “general deputies” to guide believers pending his return.

The period of the general deputies has been dominated by two concerns: first, stabilization of the theological imamate of the twelve imams; and second, consolidation of the juridical and functional imamate of the leading Shi’i scholars who, being de facto leaders of the Shi’ah, were solely responsible for directing their social and religious life. Whereas the former concern provided the Twelver community with its distinctive creedal identity based on the doctrine of divine justice and infallible leadership of the imams, the latter was instrumental in providing authoritative religious praxis and hierarchical intellectual and spiritual organization to ensure the continuity of the minority community spirit living at times under hostile Sunni power.

The establishment of the Buyid dynasty (932-1055) and its patronage of Shiism, despite its support for the continuation of the Sunni caliphate as symbolic of the unity of the majority of the Muslims, created favorable political and social conditions for the Shi is. It was intellectually the most productive period of the Ithna `Ashariyah. Prominent scholars representing the rationalist trend of the Baghdad theologians wrote major works vindicating the imamate of the Hidden Imam. Baghdad was also the point of convergence for the two important centers of Shi i hadith, Kufa and Qom. Qom remained an important center for other cities of Shi’i learning in Khurasan.

Al-Kulayni (d. 941) and Ibn Babuyah (d. 991), the renowned Imamite traditionists, produced multivolume hadith works that included everything that was needed in formulating the Imamite creed and praxis. Some of the most detailed and systematic treatment of Imamite jurisprudence was undertaken by Shaykh al-Mufid (d. 1023) and his prominent disciples, such as al-Sharif alMurtada (d. 1045) and Shaykh al-Td’ifah al-Tusi (d. 1067). Unlike Shi`i theology, which never conceded extending the imamate to other than the infallible succes

sors of the Prophet, Shi`i jurisprudence essentially reflected the conclusion of Sunni jurists regarding the rationalization of existing political authority, which was deemed indispensable for safeguarding and widening the application of normative shari`ah.

In view of the prolonged occultation of the imam, jurists developed a profile of a just Shi`i authority other than the infallible imam that would manage community affairs. A number of Shi`i dynasties followed the Buyids, although the first Shi`i state in Iran was not established until the sixteenth century under the Safavids. Shi’i jurists had no difficulty in validating the temporal authority of the Safavids. As experts in shari`ah, they justified their own authority as the legally sanctioned wali (guardians) of the community, thereby making themselves responsible for carrying out the obligation of enjoining the good and forbidding the evil. The full implications of such investiture became plain with the establishment of the Qajar dynasty in the late eighteenth century. The role of the Shi’i religious leadership received fuller elaboration during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, until it reached its logical conclusion under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902-1989) in 1980 in the constitutionalization of the wilayat alfaqih (“guardianship of the jurist”) in the modern nation-state of Iran. [See Wilayat al-Faqih.]

With its rational theology founded on the notion of divine justice and the ideal civil-moral authority of the imam, Shiism during the Safavid and Qajar periods provided the impetus for a renewed interest in Neoplatonist philosophy, more specifically, the Illuminationist theosophy of Suhrawardi. Among the prominent figures whose elaboration of the Avicennian philosophy led them to formulate their own metaphysics were Mir Damad (d. 1631) and Mulla Sadra (Sadr al-Din Shirazi, d. 1640). In jurisprudence, the old tension between the uncritical upholders of the authority of traditions, known as the Akhbari, and the supporters of rationalist methodology, the Usuli, flared up during the later part of the Safavid period and into the Qajar era. The controversy resulted in the resounding victory of the Usuli jurists under the leadership of Vahid Bihbahani (d. 1793) and his disciples. The notion of centralized leadership of the most qualified mujtahid, the maija` altaglid, whose authority was institutionalized by the Usuli deduction regarding the necessity of formally pledging obedience to a taqlid (expert) in matters of shad `ah, was also legalized during this period. [See Akhbariyah; Usuliyah; Marja` al-Taqlid.]

The Qajar and post-Qajar eras coincided with the introduction of modernization, including a modern system of administration, education, and modern values. Although introduced gradually and haphazardly, modernization of traditional Shi`i society created tensions in the community and undermined the effectiveness of traditional religious leadership. The Shi`is exerted enormous pressure on their marja` al-taglid to resolve the tensions caused by the changed expectations of modern living. Not many mujtahids were willing to undertake methodological revision and rethinking in order to provide legal-religious justifications for making Islam a relevant system for modern times. Nor did many regard it permissible for a mujtahid to assume political authority to implement shad `ah norms in a modern society. However, Ayatollahs Khomeini and Muhammad Baqir alSadr (d. 1980) of Iraq regarded it appropriate for a qualified mujtahid to assume political power in his role as the executor of the affairs of the Shi’is in a modern nationstate. Khomeini offered his own nuanced interpretation of hi`! religious leadership in both theory and practice.

Religious Beliefs and Practices. Unlike the Sunni Five Pillars of Islam, which include both the shahadah (fundamental belief) and religious practice, Twelver Shiism adheres to the usul al-din (principles of religion) and furu` al-din (derivatives of religion). The usul expounds the five tenets of the Shi`i belief system: (i) tawhid (affirmation of the unity of God); (z) `adl (justice of God); (3) nubuwah (necessity of prophecy); (4) imdmah (necessity of imamate); and (5) ma`ad (Day of Judgment). In the principles of tawhid, nubuwah, and ma’ad, identified as usul al-Islam (essential for being a Muslim), the ShMs in general share a common ground with the Sunnis, although there are differences on points of details. The principles of `adl and imdmah are peculiarly Shi’i in that they are regarded as usul al-im an (essential to the faith). ShM belief in God’s justice is similar to that of the Mu’tazilah, who taught that God is infinitely removed from every evil act and from being remiss in doing what is good for humanity. Divine justice also means that God provides humanity with the knowledge of good and evil and creates reason to guide a person to such knowledge. However, there is no guarantee that reason would always seek out the most beneficial way to perfection. Hence, God sends revealed messages through prophets as a complementary source to reason to remind humanity of its fitrah (innate disposition) inclined toward perfection. The principle of imamah is regarded as part of the divinely appointed office

of the prophecy to continue the Prophet’s mission of establishing the ideal community on earth. [See Tawhid; Justice, article on Concepts of Justice; and Imamah.]

The imamate, like the prophecy, is protected from sin and is regarded as a divinely designated office. Through the imamate, survival of religion is guaranteed, hence the Shi`i belief that “the earth cannot be set aright except by the Imam.” This means that there is an imam in every age, either manifest or concealed, who has the knowledge of the lawful and unlawful in Islam and who calls people to the way of God. There are times when the community can be without a manifest imam; this happens when God is enraged at the people for endangering the imam’s life. Thus, the twelfth imam went into occultation in 874 and will continue to live in this state for as long as God deems necessary; eventually, God will command him to reappear and take control of the world in order to restore justice and equity. During the occultation, the imam has deputies, in the person of the marja` al-taglid, who can act on God’s behalf and guide the Shi`is in their religious and social matters.

As for furu`, in addition to the four pillars recognized by Sunni Islam (salat [ritual worship], fasting of Ramadan, zakat, and the hajj ), the Shi`is add a number of juridically sanctioned acts. Shi`is are required to pay the khums on all gainful acquisition (wages, inheritance, treasure, wealth acquired through diving, and so on) after deducting all expenses connected with support of one’s family, including education, marriage, assistance to the underprivileged, and so forth. Khums donations are divided into two equal portions: one portion is distributed among the needy, the orphaned, and wayfarers among the Prophet’s descendants (the Hashemites); and another portion belongs to the imam, who uses it for all benevolent purposes in the community. During the absence of the twelfth imam, his share is administered by the mujtahid. This share has become the single most important source of financial independence of the Shi`i religious class, which has used these donations to expand its influence over the community by supporting the establishment of religious institutions, including mosques and schools, and by providing religious personnel to represent its views and opinions in the community. Indirectly, such independence has increased the prestige of the religious class trustworthy protectors of the Shi’s against perceived oppression and tyranny of government officials. [See Khums.]

Jihad, “enjoining the good and forbidding the evil,” “befriending (tawalla) those who befriend the Prophet and his descendants,” and “disassociating (tabarra’a) from those who hate them” are also listed in the Shi’i furu` alongside the other pillars. However, in the absence of the twelfth imam, only a defensive form of jihad is permitted in Shi’i law, and “enjoining” and “forbidding” by use of force is limited to the legitimate Shi’i authority, including the deputized jurist. [See Jihad.]

The obligation of tawalla (“befriending”) has led to two important religious practices unique to the Shi’is: first, the ziyarah (visitations) to the mashhad (mausoleums) of the imams and their descendants; and second, majalis (devotional gatherings) to mourn the martyrdom of Imam Husayn on `Ashura’, the tenth day of Muharram, in Karbala. Both these practices have provided the Shi’! minority with a renewed sense of loyalty to the Prophet’s family. The shrine cities of Karbala, Najaf, Mashhad, and Qom have functioned as the religious centers for the ordinary Shi’is and learning centers for their mujtahids, who continue to teach in the holy sanctuaries. The Muharram commemoration has fostered among the Shi’is an identity consonant with their vision of history in which the godly people suffer at the hands of the oppressors until God commands the Mahdi to restore justice and equity on earth. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 not only utilized the religious symbols of Karbala to overthrow the shah’s regime; it also used its most powerful message-challenging the tyranny of the time-by mobilizing support of the Shi i populace in the first ten days of Muharram (December 1978). Similar demands for the end of tyranny were heard in the neighboring Persian Gulf states, including Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, with large Shi’i minorities, during the Muharram celebrations of 1978 and 1979. Thus, Muharram devotional gatherings held in special buildings for that purpose and known as husayniyah have served as important indicators of political and social awareness among ShNs. The husayniyah have also provided influential Shi’i preachers with a platform to educate masses in religious observances and to prepare them to pledge their loyalty to the marja`, whose stance on religious and political matters they represent among the ShVis. [See Ziyarah; Mashhad; Husayniyah.]

[See also Shi Islam.]


Ayoub, Mahmoud M. Redemptive Suffering in Islam: A Study of the Devotional Aspects of `Ashura’ in Twelver Shi ism. The Hague, 1978.

Jafri, S. H. M. Origins and Early Development of Shi’a Islam. London, 1979.

Momen, Moojan. An Introduction to Shi’i Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shi’ism. New Haven, 1985.

Sachedina, A. A. Islamic Messianism: The Idea of the Mahdi in Twelver Shi’ism. Albany, N.Y., 1981.

Sachedina, A. A. The Just Ruler (al-Sultan al-`Adil) in Shiite Islam: The Comprehensive Authority of the Jurist in Imamite Jurisprudence. New York, 1988.

Sachedina, A. A. “Activist Shi`ism in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon.” In Fundamentalisms Observed, edited by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, PP. 403-456. Chicago, 1991.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/ithna-ashariyah/

  • writerPosted On: July 4, 2014
  • livePublished articles: 768

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Translate »