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How Did the Shi’a Begin?

It must be emphatically said at the outset of this section that at the beginning, following the demise of the Prophet Muhammad, there was not at all such things as Shi’ism and Shi’i Islam or Sunnism and Sunni Islam.

The two concepts were the products of subsequent times and subsequent generations.

At that time, there were only pristine Islam, the best generation of Muslims (sahabah), the exemplary nascent Muslim society, and all the problems that the people were attempting to come to terms with and successfully triumph over following the departure of their Prophet.

Definitely, this entire group of the Prophet’s companions, with a hierarchy of merits which they all shared, by the texts of both the Quran and the Prophet’s tradition were the best community that has ever lived and will ever come to live.

It could be postulated, in addition, that some of the most challenging tests, tribulations and difficulties, on virtually all fronts, cropped up unerringly during the era of the companions not as a result of the natural flow of events, but rather as a result of a deliberate and predetermined design and strategy.

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This might have been so because it was only the first Muslims who could generate and leave to posterity an invaluable legacy as to how best to deal with those tests, tribulations and challenges without the physical presence of the Prophet, if and when they, or some of them, recur.

The first generations of Muslims, it goes without saying, were exceptional teachers and role models. They were standard setters to all those who were to come after them. Thus, following the loss of their own teacher and the teacher of all teachers, Prophet Muhammad, they were not to leave the life scene without creating and teaching due lessons about some of the most crucial and sensitive facets of human culture and civilization.

Indeed, the legacy of the earliest Muslims is a supreme gift not only to fellow Muslims, but also to entire human race.

One of the most pressing issues that emerged after the Prophet’s death was the subject of succeeding the Prophet and leading the community. At the same time, however, that was the most critical and most intense matter about which afterwards there was never in any age a full consensus.

Once the helpers of Madinah (Ansar) gathered at their gathering place to discuss and possibly elect a successor, immediately after the Prophet had died, the fate of the Muslim community was never to be the same again. (Al-Farq bayn al-Firaq, 15)

Points of Division

Unlike their Shi’i counterparts, Sunnis believe that choosing caliphs, or successors, is a political rather than a religious matter. It is a political functionary only. The commandments of religion are contained in the Quran and the Prophet’s Sunnah. There is no mention about the Prophet’s caliphs or successors in them, whereas the Quran explicitly proclaimed that it is a Book which has been sent:

{…as clarification for all things and as guidance and mercy and good tidings for the Muslims.} (An-Nahl 16: 89)

God also says that Islam as a religion and a complete way of life has been perfected and transmitted during the Prophet’s life. (Al-Ma’idah 5: 3). The revelation of this particular verse during the Prophet’s farewell pilgrimage presaged the imminent death and departure of the Prophet. As it also meant that from then on, religion and many people’s relationship with and commitment to it would start to degenerate. This dreadful thought caused Umar ibn Al-Khattab to weep. When asked by the Prophet what made him weep, he replied:

“What made me cry is that our religion is being perfected for us. Now it is perfect, but there is nothing which is perfect that it is bound to deteriorate.” The Prophet then approved of what ‘Umar had said. (Tafsir Ibn Kathir)

Commenting on this verse, Ibn Kathir (d. 775 AH/ 1373 CE) wrote:

“This, indeed, is the biggest favor from Allah to this Ummah, for He has completed their religion for them, and they, thus, do not need any other religion or any other Prophet except Muhammad.

This is why God made Muhammad the final Prophet and sent him to all humans and Jinn. Therefore, the permissible is what he allows, the impermissible is what he prohibits, the Law is what he legislates and everything that he conveys is true and authentic and does not contain lies or contradictions.” (Tafsir Ibn Kathir)

The Quran likewise announces: {And the word of your Lord has been fulfilled in truth and in justice. None can alter His words, and He is the Hearing, the Knowing.} (Al-An’am 6: 115)

Accordingly, Prophet Muhammad was instructed to announce and convey that which has been revealed to him from his Lord: {…and if you do not, then you have not conveyed His message. And Allah will protect you from the people. Indeed, Allah does not guide the disbelieving people.} (Al-Ma’idah 5: 67)

Indeed, everything about the activities of the Prophet including the minutest details is fully documented. No will of his is on record, and as such it is a fact that the Prophet made no will.

It is alleged in some quarters, especially Shi’is, that just before his death the Prophet had expressed the desire to record his will, but some companions, especially Umar, frustrated the attempt. However, the Prophet’s wife, ‘Aisha (d. 59 AH/ 678 CE), refuted this allegation and observed that the Prophet did not express any desire to record his will.

It may be even recalled that during his illness, the Prophet attended the mosque on two occasions and addressed the people. On one occasion, he reprimanded the people for their objection to the command of an expedition against Syria by Usamah ibn Zayd (d. 54 AH/ 673 CE). If the Prophet in spite of his illness could advocate the cause of Usamah’s command, he could have advocated the cause of the succession of ‘Ali as well, if he had so desired.

What is more, during his death-illness, which lasted approximately thirteen days, the Prophet is reported to have uttered some remarkable statements in relation to prayers, monotheism in worship and social relations. Yet, even during the cited incident according to which the Prophet’s effort to record his will on succession and leadership was allegedly frustrated by the people – or immediately afterwards – the Prophet still managed to dictate three orders to the people, two of which were:

“Expel the pagans from the Arabian peninsula, respect and give gifts to the foreign delegates as you have seen me dealing with them”. (Al-Bukhari)

If the Prophet really wanted to command something else, which was supposed to be far more important, and the people frustrated him in his attempt, there was no reason whatsoever for the Prophet not to reveal it when he later spoke of those three orders, or when he later spoke of many other things before he eventually passed away.

Masudul Hasan further explains that the Prophet Muhammad did not pass away suddenly. He had ample time to settle his affairs before his death. Even at the farewell pilgrimage three months before his death, he knew that his end was nigh. He had been sent by God to complete his mission. If the nomination of a successor was to be a part of the divine mission with which he had been entrusted, he would have nominated a successor to complete his mission.

As the Prophet did not nominate a successor, and as his mission had been completed, it means that the nomination of a successor was not part of his mission. After him, whosoever was to succeed him was to be temporal ruler only, and the right to choose such ruler vested in the people.

If, on the other hand, as another scenario almost unanimously put forth and rather aggressively publicized practically by all Shi’is, the Prophet did designate in most unambiguous terms ‘Ali and then his offspring with his wife Fatimah as his successors, but numerous companions of the Prophet, especially a number of those most eminent and closest to the Prophet, driven by selfishness, ambition and a great desire for power, cunningly denied ‘Ali and ahl al-bayt their right and made sure that the Prophet’s will never materialized nor became a recognized and widespread truth- that, too, would be grossly illogical, unfounded and thus unacceptable.

Respect for the Prophet’s Companions

It would be so because here we are talking about exceptional persons who met the Prophet, willingly accepted Islam and followed him, struggled for the cause of Islam, and in the end died as Muslims. They were the Prophet’s helpers and the helpers of the truth. Consequently, they are praised in many Quranic verses (3: 110; 9:100; 48:18).

Only on this particular occasion the companions numbered one thousand four hundred. Among them there were almost all the leading companions whom many Shi’is target with their slandering and vituperations.

Prophet Muhammad also said for example:

“Love for the Ansar (natives of Madinah) is a sign of faith and hatred for the Ansar is a sign of hypocrisy.” (Al-Bukhari)

“Do not abuse my companions for if any one of you spent gold equal to Uhud (in Allah’s Cause) it would not equal a handful of one of them or even half of that.” (Al-Bukhari)

“The best people are those living in my generation, then those coming after them, and then those coming after (the second generation).” (Al-Bukhari)

It is thus unconceivable that a majority of those people whom the Quran and Sunnah accorded such glowing tributes betrayed their master and his revolutionary message as soon as he had gone.

They became bitterly divided pertaining to some of the most vital subject matters, putting their own greed, ambitions, as well as personal and tribal interests ahead of anything else.

In due course, a majority of them went astray and only a tiny minority remained loyal and fully committed to the truth and its ways. In his discourse about the origins and early development of Shi’ism, Farhad Daftary keeps reiterating that it was a case of a minority of the companions, who zealously maintained that the succession to the Prophet was ‘Ali’s legitimate right, and persisted in holding that all religious matters should be referred to ‘Ali, who in their opinion was the sole person possessing religious authority – versus the majority of the companions who opposed the former and supported the caliphate of Abu Bakr, Umar ibn Al-Khattab and Uthman ibn ‘Affan (d. 36 AH/ 656 CE), the usurpers who usurped ‘Ali’s inherent right.

“This minority group, originally comprised of some of ‘Ali’s friends and supporters, in time came to be known as the Shi’ah of ‘Ali, or the party of ‘Ali, and then simply as the Shi’ah.”

With regard to this central Shi’i viewpoint, furthermore, one ultimately feels compelled to wonder, if such was the case where then a huge chunk of the Prophet’s efforts, optimism, expectations and seemingly outstanding, yet miraculous, results and triumphs, went. Were some of them in vain, so to speak? Were some things just illusions, mirages, acts of most profound and cunning forms of hypocrisy and two-facedness?

Indeed, it was unfeasible that immediately following the Prophet’s death, relative falsehood, prejudice, injustice and despair took over and ruled, despite the fact that just a short while ago the total religion had been perfected, duly conveyed and elatedly established, resulting in falsehood, darkness and ignorance to vanish.

In equal measure, it was impossible that a great many companions who were most acclaimed and at the same time most intimate with, and closest to, the Prophet were most responsible for the early religious failings and calamities that befell the nascent Muslim community.

Shahrastani concluded his elaborate defense of the Prophet’s companions against Shi’i onslaughts by categorically exclaiming:

“This shows how great is their standing in the eyes of God, as well as the esteem and honor in which they were held by the Prophet. It is a matter of wonder to me how the adherents of a religion can allow themselves to slander them, and ascribe unbelief to them, seeing that the Prophet said:

“Ten of my companions are in Paradise: Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman, ‘Ali, Talha, Zubayr, Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas, Sa’id ibn Zayd, Abd Al-Rahman ibn ‘Awf and Abu Ubaydah ibn Al-Jarrah.” (Ibn-Majah)

Moreover, other traditions exist in favor of each one individually. If there are unfavorable reports about some of them, these reports must be treated with circumspection, because the Rafidis (Shi’is) have been found guilty of many lies and fabrications.”

Our attitude towards the companions should be that of love, respect, peace and purity of our hearts and tongues, even though they were not all alike and their virtues and merits greatly varied.

God describes this approach by saying:

{And (there is a share for) those who came after them, saying, ‘Our Lord, forgive us and our brothers who preceded us in faith and put not in our hearts (any) resentment toward those who have believed. Our Lord, indeed You are Kind and Merciful’.} (Al-Hashr 59: 10)

We should therefore keep mentioning the companions’ virtues and try to emulate them, while remaining silent about any mistakes they made – and they surely did some for the reason that they were neither angels nor infallible mortals – and about anything untoward that occurred between them, for such is none of our business and is bound to bring us no benefit, just as it did not to those who throughout history were actively engaged in those polemics.

Caliph Umar ibn ‘Abd Al-‘Aziz encapsulated this outlook when he said:

“Those from whose blood Allah has kept our hands exempt, we shall not soil with it our tongues.” (Missionislam)

The same methods featuring certain Shi’i fabrications, manipulations, embellishments and overly exploitation of human emotions, have been employed in the case of the Ghadir Khumm episode as well, where alleged spiritual investiture of ‘Ali most explicitly and most dramatically had taken place.

On the whole, Sunnis too accept that the said episode came to pass, but in a different context, with some different fine points and with a different set of goals. When the Prophet was performing his farewell pilgrimage, ‘Ali was still in Yemen where he about two and a half months earlier was dispatched with an army to invite people to Islam.

When ‘Ali came from Yemen he went to Makkah to meet the Prophet there. He hurried to him and left one of his companions in charge of his army. That man dressed some of, or all, his men in the army with linen clothes that were entrusted to ‘Ali. When the army approached Makkah, ‘Ali went out to receive them and found that they were dressed in the linen clothing. “Woe to you,” he said, “what is this?” “I dressed them so that they might look handsome when they came to the people,” the man replied. ‘Ali asked him to remove the clothing before he came to the Prophet.

He did so and returned them to the booty, but the army expressed resentment at their treatment. When the people, i.e., the army, complained about the behavior of ‘Ali and their clamoring grew louder and stronger, the Prophet who with the people was on his way from Makkah to Madinah following the pilgrimage, stopped at Ghadir Khumm and said in a sermon what he said as regards wilayah (mastership) in order to defend ‘Ali and vindicate his actions, lest the situation should get out of control.

So serious was the incident that resolving it could not wait for the Prophet’s and the people’s return to Madinah. Additionally, the Prophet also said in favor of ‘Ali and his overall actions and judgments:

“O people, do not complain of ‘Ali. By God, he is too tough in the matters of God (or in the way of God) (to be blamed).”

About Dr. Spahic Omer
Dr. Spahic Omer, an award-winning author, is an Associate Professor at the Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM). He studied in Bosnia, Egypt and Malaysia. In the year 2000, he obtained his PhD from the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur in the field of Islamic history and civilization. His research interests cover Islamic history, culture and civilization, as well as the history and theory of Islamic built environment. He can be reached at: [email protected].