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  • Date :
  • 7/9/2003

Differences Between Twelve-Imam Shi"ism and Isma"ilism and Zaydism


The majority of the Shi"ites, from whom the previously mentioned groups have branched out, are Twelve-Imam Shi"ites, also called the Imamites. As has already been mentioned, the Shi"ites came into being because of criticism and protest concerning two basic problems of Islam, without having any objections to the religious ways which through the instructions of the Prophet had become prevalent among their contemporary Muslims. These two problems concerned Islamic government and authority in the religious sciences, both of which the Shi"ites considered to be the particular right of the Household of the Prophet.

The Shi"ites asserted that the Islamic caliphate, of which esoteric guidance and spiritual leadership are inseparable elements, belongs to Ali and his descendants. They also believed that according to the specification of the Prophet the Imams of the Household of the Prophet are twelve in number. Shi"ism held, moreover, that the external teachings of the Quran, which are the injunctions and regulations of the Shari"ah and include the principles of a complete spiritual life, are valid and applicable for everyone at all times, and are not to be abrogated until the Day of Judgment. These injunctions and regulations must be learned through the guidance of the Household of the Prophet.

From a consideration of these points it becomes clear that the difference between Twelve-Imam Shi"ism and Zaydism is that the Zaydis usually do not consider the imamate to belong solely to the Household of the Prophet and do not limit the number of Imams to twelve. Also they do not follow the jurisprudence of the Household of the Prophet as do the Twelve-Imam Shi"ites.

The difference between the Twelve-Imam Shi"ism and Isma"ilism lies in that for the latter the imamate revolves around the number seven and prophecy does not terminate with the Holy Prophet Muhammad. Also for them, change and transformation in the injunctions of the Shari"ah are admissible, as is even rejection of the duty of following Shari"ah, especially among the Batinis. In contrast, the Twelve-Imam Shi"ites consider the Prophet to be the "seal of prophecy" and believe him to have twelve successors and executors of his will. They hold the external aspect of the Shari"ah to be valid and impossible to abrogate. They affirm that the Quran has both an exoteric and an esoteric aspect.

Summary of the History of Twelve-Imam Shi"ism

As has become clear form the previous pages, the majority of Shi"ites are Twelvers. They were originally the same group of friends and supporters of Ali who, after the death of the Prophet, in order to defend the right of the Household of the Prophet in the question of the caliphate and religious authority, began to criticize and protest against prevalent views and separated from the majority of the people.

During the caliphate of the "rightly-guided caliphs" (11/632-35/656) the Shi"ites were under a certain amount of pressure which became much greater during the Umayyad Caliphate (40/661-132/750) when they were no longer protected in any way against destruction of their lives and property. Yet the greater the pressure placed upon them, the firmer they became in their belief. They especially benefited from their being oppressed in spreading their beliefs and teachings.

From the middle of the 2nd/8th century when the Abbasid caliphs established their dynasty, Shi"ism was able to gain a mew life as a result of the languid and weak state prevailing at that time. Soon, however, conditions became difficult once again and until the end of the 3rd/9th century became ever more stringent.

At the beginning of the 4th/10th century, with the rise of the influential Buyids, who were Shi"ites, Shi"ism gained power and became more or less free to carry out its activities. It began to carry out scientific and scholarly debates and continued in this manner until the end of the 5th/11th century. At the beginning of the 7th/13th century when the Mongol invasion began, as a result of the general involvement in war and chaos and the continuation of the Crusades, the different Islamic governments did not put too great a pressure upon the Shi"ites. Moreover, the conversion to Shi"ism of some Mongol rulers inPersia and the rule of the Sadat-i Mar"ashi (who were Shi"ites) in Mazandaran were instrumental in the spread of the power andterritory ofShi"ism. They made the presence of large concentrations of Shi"ite population in Persia and other Muslim lands felt more than ever before. This situation continued through the 9th/15th century.

At the beginning of the 10th/16th century, as a result of the rise of the Safavids, Shi"ism became the official religion of the vast territories ofPersia and continues in this position to the present day. In other regions of the world also there are tens of millions of Shi"ites.





By "religious thought" we mean that form of thought which is concerned with any of the problems of a religious nature within a particular religion, in the same sense that mathematical thought is the form of thought which deals with mathematical questions and solves mathematical problems.

Needless to say religious thought, like other forms of thought, must have reliable sources from which the raw material of its thought originates and upon which it depends. Similarly, the process of reasoning necessary for the solution of mathematical problems must have a series of established mathematical facts and principles.

The single source upon which the divinely revealed religion of Islam depends and upon which it is based, inasmuch as it is based on a revelation of celestial origin, is none other than the Holy Quran. It is the Quran which is the definitive testament of the universal and ever-living prophethood of the Prophet and it is the content of the Quran that bears the substance of the Islamic call. Of course the fact that the Quran is alone the source of Islamic religious thought does not eliminate other sources and origins of correct thinking, as will be explained later.

There are three methods of religious thought in Islam. The Holy Quran in its teachings points to three paths for Muslims to follow in order to comprehend the purposes of religion and the Islamic sciences: (1) the path of the external and formal aspect of religion (the Shari"ah); (2) the path of intellectual understanding; and (3) the path of spiritual comprehension achieved through sincerity (ikhlas) in obeying God.

It can be seen that the Holy Quran in its formal aspect addresses all people without providing any demonstration or proof. Rather, depending on the unique sovereignty of God, it commands people to accept the principles of faith such as divine unity, prophethood, eschatology; it gives them practical injunctions such as the daily prayers, fasting, etc.; and at the same time it prohibits them from committing certain other actions. Yet if the Quran had not provided authority for these commands it would never have expected man to accept and obey them. It must, therefore, be said that such simple utterances of the Quran are a path toward the understanding of ultimate religious ends and the comprehension of the Islamic sciences. We call such verbal expressions as "Believe in God and His Prophet" and "Perform the prayers," the external or formal aspect of religion.

In addition to guidance in the external aspect of religion, we see that the Holy Quran in many verses guides man toward intellectual understanding. It invites man to meditate, contemplate and deliberate upon the signs of God in the macrocosm and the microcosm. It explains many verities through unfettered intellectual reasoning. It must be said in truth that no sacred book praises and recommends science and intellectual knowledge for man as much as does the Quran. In many of its words and utterances the Quran attests to the validity of intellectual proof and rational demonstration, that is, it does not claim that man should first accept the validity of the Islamic sciences and then through intellectual proofs justify these sciences. Rather, with complete confidence in the truth of its own position it proclaims that man should use his intellect to discover the truth of the Islamic sciences, and only then accept this truth. He should seek the affirmation of the words contained in the Islamic message in the world of creation which is itself a truthful witness. And finally man should find the affirmation of his faith in the results of rational demonstration; he should not have to gain faith first and the, in obedience to it, seek proofs. Thus philosophical thought is also a way whose validity and efficacy is confirmed by the Holy Quran.

Also, in addition to guidance in the external and intellectual aspects of religion, we see that the Holy Quran in subtle terms explains that all true religious science originates and comes from Divine Unity (tawhid) and the knowledge of god and His Attributes . The perfection of the knowledge of God belongs to those whom He has drawn from all places and elevated solely to Himself. It is these men who have forgotten themselves and all things and as a result of sincerity in obedience to God have been able to concentrate all their powers and energies upon the transcendent world. Their eyes have become illuminated through the vision of the light of the Pure Creator. With the eye of discernment they have seen the reality of things in the kingdom of heaven and earth, for through sincerity of obedience they have reached the station of certainty (yaqin). As a result of this certainty the kingdoms of heaven and earth and the immortal life of the eternal world have become revealed to them.

Deliberation upon the following holy verses illuminates fully this claim: "And We sent no messenger before thee but We inspired him (saying): There is no God save Me (Allah), so worship Me" (Quran, XXI, 25); and, "Glorified be Allah from that which they attribute (unto Him), Save single-minded slaves of Allah" (Quran, XXXVII, 159-160); and, "Say, I am only a mortal like you. My Lord inspireth in me that your God is only One God. And whoever hopeth for the meeting with his Lord, let him do righteous work, and make none sharer of the worship due unto his Lord" (Quran, XVIII, 111); and, "And serve the Lord till the inevitable [al-yaqin] cometh unto thee" (Quran, XV, 99); and God says, "Thus did We show Abraham the Kingdom of the heavens and the earth that he might be of those possessing certainty" (Quran, VI, 76); and "Nay, but the record of the righteous is in "Iliyin - Ah! what will convey unto thee what "Iliyin is! - A written record, attested by those who are brought near (unto their Lord)" (Quran, LXXXIII, 18-21); and, "Nay, would that ye knew (now) with a sure knowledge ["ilm al-yaqin]! Ye will behold hellfire" (Quran, XII, 5-6).

Thus it may be said that one of the paths for the comprehension of religious verities and sciences is the purification of the carnal soul and sincerity in obedience to God.

From what has been said it becomes clear that the Holy Quran proposes three methods for the comprehension of religious truths: the external or formal aspects of religion; intellectual reasoning; and sincerity in obedience leading to the intellectual intuition which results in the unveiling of the truth and its inward vision. Yet it must be understood that these three methods differ from each other in several ways. For instance, since the external forms of religion are verbal expressions in the simplest language, they are in the hands of all people, and everyone benefits from them according to his own capacity. On the other hand, the other two paths, which are appropriate to a particular group (the elite - khawass), are not common to all. The path of the external forms of religion leads to the understanding of the principles and the obligations of Islam and results in knowledge of the substance of the beliefs and practices of Islam, and of the principles of the Islamic sciences, ethics, and jurisprudence. This is in contrast to the other two paths. The intellectual path can discover the problems connected with faith, ethics, and the general principles governing practical questions, but the intellectual method cannot discover the specific religious injunctions given in the Quran and the Sunnah. The path of purification of the carnal soul, since it leads to the discovery of God-given spiritual truths, can have no limits nor measure of its results or of the truths revealed through this divine gift. Men who have reached this knowledge have cut themselves off from everything and forgotten everything but God and are under the direct guidance and dominion of God Himself - May His Name be Glorified. Whatever He wants and not what they want is revealed to them.

We will now take up in detail the three methods of religious thought in Islam.



The Different Facets of the Formal Aspect of Religion

It has become clear from what has been said thus far that the Holy Quran, which is the principal source of religious thought in Islam, has given full authority to the external meanings of its words for those who give ear to its message. The same external meaning of the Quranic verses has made the sayings of the Prophet complementary to the words of the Quran and has declared them to be authoritative like the Quran. For as the Quran says: "And We have revealed unto thee the Remembrance that thou mayst explain to mankind that which hath been revealed for them" (Quran, XVI, 44). And, "He it is who hath sent among the unlettered ones a messenger of their own, to recite unto them His revelations and to make them grow, and to teach them the scripture and Wisdom" (Quran, LXII, 2). And, "And whatsoever the messenger giveth you, take it. And whatsoever he forbiddeth, abstain (from it)" (Quran, LIX, 7). And, "Verily in the messenger of Allah ye have a good example" (Quran, XXXIII, 21).

It is quite evident that such verses would not have any real meaning if the words and deeds of the Prophet and even his silence and approval were not authority for us just as the Quran itself is. Thus the words of the Prophet are authoritative and must be accepted by those who have heard them orally or received them through reliable transmission. Moreover, through such a completely authentic chain of transmission it is known that the Holy Prophet said, "I leave two things of value amidst you in trust which if you hold on to you will never go astray: the Quran and the members of my household. These will never be separated until the Day of Judgment." According to this and other definitely established hadiths the words of the Family of the Household of the Prophet form a corpus that is complementary to the Prophetic religious sciences and are inerrant in the explanation of the teachings and injunctions of Islam. Their sayings, received orally or through reliable transmission, are reliable and authoritative.

Therefore, it is clear that the traditional source from which the formal and external aspect of religion is derived, which is an authoritative document and which is also the basic source for the religious thought of Islam, consists of two parts: The Book (the Quran) and the Sunnah. By the Book is meant the external aspect of the verses of the Holy Quran; and by the Sunnah, hadith received from the Prophet and his revered Household.

Traditions of the Companions

In Shi"ism hadiths transmitted through the companions are dealt with according to this principle: if they deal with the words and actions of the Prophet and do not contradict the hadiths of the Household of the Prophet, they are acceptable. If they contain only the views or opinions of the companions themselves and not those of the Prophet, they are not authoritative as sources for religious injunctions. In this respect the ruling of the companions is like the ruling of any other Muslim. In the same way, the companions themselves dealt with other companions in questions of Islamic law as they would with any Muslim, not as someone special.

The Book and Tradition

The Book of God, the Holy Quran, is the principal source of every form of Islamic thought. It is the Quran which gives religious validity and authority to every other religious source in Islam. Therefore, it must be comprehensible to all. Moreover, the Quran describes itself as the light which illuminates all things. Also it challenges men and requests them to ponder over its verses and observe that there are no disparities or contradictions in them. It invites them to compose similar work, if they can, to replace it. It is clear that if the Holy Quran were not comprehensible to all there would be no place for such assertions.

To say that the Quran is in itself comprehensible to all is not in any way contradictory to the previous assertion that the Prophet and his Household are religious authorities in the Islamic sciences, which sciences in reality are only elaborations of the content of the Quran. For instance, in the part of the Islamic sciences which comprises the injunctions and laws of the Shari"ah, the Quran contains only the general principles. The clarification and elaboration of their details, such as the manner of accomplishing the daily prayers, fasting, exchanging merchandise, and in fact all acts of worship ("ibadat) and transactions (mu"amalat), can be achieved only by referring to the traditions of the Holy Prophet and his Household.

As for the other part of the Islamic sciences dealing with doctrines and ethical methods and practices, although their content and details can be comprehended by all, the understanding of their full meaning depends on accepting the method of the Household of the Prophet. Also each verse of the Quran must be explained and interpreted by means of other Quranic verses, not by views which have become acceptable and familiar to us only through habit and custom.

Ali has said: "Some parts of the Quran speak with other parts of it revealing to us their meaning and some parts attest to the meaning of others." And the Prophet has said, "Parts of the Quran verify other parts." And also: "Whosoever interprets the Quran according to his own opinion has made a place for himself in the fire."

As a simple example of the Quran through the Quran may be cited the story of the torture of the people of Lot about whom in one place God says, "And we rained on them a rain," and in another place He has changed this phrase to, "Lo! We sent a storm of stones upon them (all)." By relating the second verse to the first it becomes clear that by "rain" is meant "stones" from heaven. Whoever has studied with care the hadiths of the Household of the Prophet, and the outstanding companions who were the followers of the Prophet, will have no doubt that the commentary of the Quran through the Quran is the sole method of Quranic commentary taught by the Household of the Prophet.

The Outward and Inward Aspects of the Quran

It has been explained that the Holy Quran elucidates religious aims through its own words and gives commands to mankind in matter of doctrine and action. But the meaning of the Quran is not limited to this level. Rather, behind these same expressions and within these same meanings there are deeper and wider levels of meaning which only the spiritual elite who possess pure hearts can comprehend.

The Prophet, who is the divinely appointed teacher of the Quran, says: "The Quran has a beautiful exterior and a profound interior." He has also said, "The Quran has an inner dimension, and that inner dimension has an inner dimension up to seven numerous references to the inner aspect of the Quran.

The main support of these assertions is a symbol which God has mentioned in Chapter XIII, verse 17, of the Quran. In this verse divine gifts are symbolized by rain that falls from heaven and upon which depends the life of the earth and its inhabitants. With the coming of the rain, floods begin to flow and each river bed accepts a certain amount of the flood, depending on its capacity. As it flows, the flood is covered with foam, but beneath the foam there is that same water which is life-giving and beneficial to mankind.

As is indicated by this symbolic story, the capacity for comprehension of divine sciences, which are the source of man"s inner life, differs among people. There are those for whom there is no reality beyond physical existence and the material life of this world which lasts but a few days. Such people are attached to material appetites and physical desires alone and fear nothing but the loss of material benefits and sensory enjoyment. Such people, taking into consideration the differences of degree among them, can at best accept the divine sciences on the level of believing in a summary fashion in the doctrines and performing the practical commands of Islam in purely outward manner without any comprehension. They worship God with the hope of recompense or fear of punishment in the next world.

There are also those who, because of the purity of their nature, do not consider their well-being to lie in attachment to the transient pleasures of the fleeting life of this world. The losses and gains and bitter and sweet experiences of this world are for them no more than an attractive illusion. Memory of those who passed before them in the caravan of existence, who were pleasure-seekers yesterday and no more than subjects of stories today, is a warning that is continuously present before their eyes. Such men who possess pure hearts are naturally attracted to the world of eternity. They view the different phenomena of this passing world as symbols and portents of the higher world, not as persisting and independent realities.

It is at this point that through earthly and heavenly signs, signs upon the horizons and within the souls of men, they "observe" in a spiritual vision the Infinite Light of the Majesty and Glory of God. Their hearts become completely enamored with the longing to reach an understanding of the secret symbols of creation. Instead of being imprisoned in the dark and narrow well of personal gain and selfishness they begin to fly in the unlimited space of the world of eternity and advance ever onwards toward the zenith of the spiritual world.

When they hear that God has forbidden the worship of idols, which outwardly means bowing down before an idol, they understand this command to mean that they should not obey other than God, for to obey means to bow down before someone and to serve him. Beyond that meaning they understand that they should not have hope of fear of other than God; beyond that, they should not surrender to the demands of their selfish appetites; and beyond that, they should not concentrate on anything except God, May His Name be Glorified.

Likewise when they hear from the Quran that they should pray, the external meaning of which is to perform the particular rites of prayers, through its inner meaning they comprehend that they must worship and obey God with all their hearts and souls. Beyond that they comprehend that before God they must consider themselves as nothing, must forget themselves and remember only God.

It can be seen that the inner meaning present in these two examples is not due to the outward expression of the command and prohibition in question. Yet the comprehension of this meaning is unavoidable for anyone who has begun to meditate upon a more universal order and has preferred to gain a vision of the universe of reality rather than his own ego, who has preferred objectivity to an egocentric subjectivism.

From this discussion the meaning of the outward and inward aspects of the Quran has become clear. It has also become evident that the inner meaning of the Quran does no eradicate or invalidate its outward meaning. Rather, it is like the soul which gives life to the body. Islam, which is a universal and eternal religion and places the greatest emphasis upon the "reformation" of mankind, can never dispense with its external laws which are for the benefit of society, nor with its simple doctrines which are the guardians and preservers of these laws.

How can a society, on the pretense that religion is only a matter of the heart, that man"s heart should be pure and that there is no value to actions, live in disorder and yet attain happiness? How can impure deeds and words cause the cultivation of a pure heart? Or how can impure words emanate from a pure heart? God says in His Book, "Vile women are for vile men, and vile men for vile women. Good women are for good men, and good men for good women." (Quran, XXIV, 26) He also says, "As for the good land, its vegetation cometh forth by permission of its Lord; while as for that which is bad, only evil cometh forth (from it)." (Quran, VII, 58) Thus it becomes evident that the Holy Quran has an outward and an inward aspect and the inward aspect itself has different levels of meaning. The hadith literature, which explains the content of the Quran, also contains these various aspects.

To be continued…

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