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The Cause of the Separation of the Shi'ite Minority from the Sunni Majority

ghdair khom

The friends and followers of Ali believed that after the 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.[1] 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 its 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 affair accompli. [2]

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. [3]

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. [4]

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. [5] They believed that all spiritual and religious matters should be referred to him and invited people to become his followers. [6]


1. Jabir says: "We were in the presence of the Prophet when Ali appeared from far away. The Prophet said: 'I swear by Him who holds my life in His hands, this person and his partisans (Shi'ah) will have salvation on the Day of Judgment."' Ibn 'Abbas says: "When the verse: '(And) lo! those who believe and do good works are the best of created beings' (Qur’an, XCVII, 7) was revealed, the Prophet told Ali: 'This verse pertains to you and your partisans who will possess felicity on the Day of Judgment and God will also be satisfied with you."' These two hadiths and several others are recorded in the book al-Duirr aI-manthur of Suyuti, Cairo', 1313, vol. VI, p.379, and Ghayat al-maram, p.326.

2. While suffering from the illness that led to his death, Muhammad organized an army under the command of Usamah ibn Zayd and insisted that everyone should participate in this war and go out of Medina. A number of people disobeyed the Prophet including Abu Bakr and Umar and this disturbed the Prophet greatly. (Sharh, Ibn Abi'l-Hadid, Cairo, 1329, vol.l, p.53.) At the moment of his death the Holy Prophet said: "Prepare ink and paper so that I will have a letter written for you which will be a cause of guidance for you and prevent you from being misled." Umar, who prevented this action, said: "His illness has run out of hand and he is delirious." (Tarikh-i Tabari; vol.ll, p.436: Sahih of Bukhari, vol.lll and Sahih, of Muslim, Cairo, 1349, vol. V; al-Bidayah wa'l-nihayah, vol. V, p.227; Ibn Abi'l- Hadid, vol. I, p.133.) A somewhat similar situation occurred again during the illness which led to the death of the first caliph. In his last testament the first caliph chose Umar and even fainted while making the testament but Umar said nothing and did not consider him to be delirious, although he had fainted while the testament was being written. The Prophet had been inerrant and fully conscious when he asked them to write down a letter of guidance. (Raudat al-Safa' of Mir Khwand, Lucknow, 1332, vol.ll, p.260.)

3. lbn Abi'l-Hadid, vol.l, p.58 and pp. 123135; Trikh-i Ya'qubi.vol.ll, p.102; Tarikh.i Tabari, vol.ll, pp.445-460.

4. Tarikh.i Ya'qubi; vol.ll, pp. 103-106; Tarikh-i Abi'l-Fida, vol.l, pp.156 and 166; Muruj al-dhahab, vol.ll, pp.307 and 352; lbn Abi'l-Hadid, vol.l, pp.17 and 134. In answer to Ibn Ahbas's protest Umar said, "I swear to God Ali was the most deserving of all people to become caliph, but for three reasons we pushed him aside: (1) he was too young, (2) he was attached to the descendants of 'Abd al-Muttalib, (3) people did not like to have prophecy and the caliphate assembled in one house hold." (Ibn Abi'l-Hadid, vol.l, p.134.) Umar said to Ibn Abbas, "I swear to God that Ali deserved the caliphate, but the Quraysh would not have been able to bear his caliphate, for had he become caliph he would have forced the people to accept the pure truth and follow the right path. Under his caliphate they would not have been able to transgress the boundaries of justice and thus would have sought to engage in war with him." (Tarikh-i Ya'qubi; vol.ll, p.137.)

5. Amr ibn Horith said to Sa'id ibn Zayd, "Did anyone oppose paying allegiance to Abu Bakr ?" He answered, "No one was opposed to him except those who had become apostates or were about to become so." Tarikh-i Tabari, vol.ll, p.447.

6. In the famous hadith of thaqalein the Prophet says, "I leave two things of value amidst you in trust which if you hold on to you will never go astray: the Qur’an and the members of my household; these will never he separated until the Day of judgment." This hadith has been transmitted through more than a hundred channels by over thirty-five of the companions of the Holy Prophet. ('Abaqat, volume on hadith-i thaqalayn; Ghayat al-maram, p.211.) The Prophet said, "I am the city of knowledge and Ali is its gate. Therefore whosoever seeks knowledge should enter through its door." (al-Bidtyah wa'l-nihayah, vol. VII, p.359.)

Taken from the book: SHI'A

By Allamah Seyyed Muhammad Hussein Tabatabai

Other links:

The Origin and Growth of Shism

The Two Problems of Succession and Authority in Religious Sciences

The Caliphate of Imam Ali (A.S) and His Method of Rule (Part 1)

The Caliphate of Imam Ali (A.S) and His Method of Rule (Part 2)

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