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How Did the Shi’a Begin? (Part 2)

Part 1

As seen, there was nothing in the event about spiritual investiture of ‘Ali, as presupposed by Shi’is.

The Prophet Muhammad only singled out and called people’s attention to ‘Ali’s exceptional attributes and traits which warranted consideration and appreciation, just as he was in the habit of doing not only about ‘Ali, but also about other eminent companions.

If, hypothetically, the Prophet intended to carry out a directive of ‘Ali’s investiture, he would certainly have done it during the pilgrimage, especially during the farewell sermon, when a larger multitude of people were available and when the Prophet was really up to conveying some of the most emphatic messages to the community knowing all too well that he was not going to see many of them again.

After the pilgrimage, many groups of pilgrims went back their own separate ways. Many did not use the Makkah-Madinah route, while the Makkans remained in Makkah, their hometown, and therefore could not attend and bear witness to the Ghadir Khumm episode.

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Having been executed with recourse to this strategy, with reference to the alleged fundamental religious tenet of Ali’s inauguration, the whole matter seems to have been rather anticlimactic and so, definitely was not an affair of such fundamental and pivotal significance as in certain circles understood.

As regards the authentic Prophet’s words about the two things which he was leaving to the people to follow, lest they go astray, which are the Quran and ahl al-bayt, or the members of the Prophet’s household, firstly, the scholars differ considerably concerning the meaning and extent of ahl al-bayt.

In any event, apart from ‘Ali, Fatimah, Hasan and Hussein, the wives of the Prophet (peace be upon him), too, are included as members of ahl al-bayt, because the Quran mentions the idea in the context of lengthily addressing the wives of the Prophet. (33:28-34).

It follows that other daughters of the Prophet are also included within the definition. According to some accounts, the members of the Prophet’s family are the family of ‘Ali, the family of ‘Aqil (d. 67 AH/ 686 CE), the family of Ja’far (d. 8 AH/ 629 CE) and the family of ‘Abbas (d. 33 AH/ 653 CE), since they were not permitted to receive charity after the Prophet had died. (Ibn Kathir)

Some scholars went so far as to extend the concept to the whole of the Banu Hashim and the Banu al-Mutallib. (F. Daftary, The Isma’ilis, 57)

Some even thought that the whole Ummah (Muslim community) is the family of the Prophet.

Secondly, not only that the Prophet is reported to have said that he was leaving the Quran and ahl al-bayt to the people to follow, but also, as per another authentic tradition, he said that he was leaving the Quran and his Sunnah (traditions and way of life) also to be followed. (Muwatta’ Malik)

What is the relationship between these two proclamations of the Prophet? These two bona fide statements of the Prophet Muhammad not only do not contradict each other, but also greatly support and explain each other. In their most profound actual meanings, they are like one.

The Prophet’s Sunnah, as a way of life, was perfectly typified by each and every member of his household, certainly more than anyone else, due to their constant proximity to and most intimate contacts with the Prophet which allowed them to be the immediate, and often first, recipients of his knowledge, wisdom and counsel. That qualified them to become the legitimate sources of Islamic jurisprudence, as well as the ideal exemplars to be emulated by the succeeding generations of Muslims.

Hence, the way of life of the members of the Prophet’s family – spirituality-wise – was in so many ways the way of life of the Prophet himself.

Talking about the way of life of the Prophet’s family members is as good as talking about the way of life (Sunnah) of the Prophet. This status of the Prophet’s family members was possible, principally, because of the successful functioning of the Prophet’s family as an institution and his houses as family education and development centers.

At any rate, however, in the two above mentioned traditions of the Prophet, it is meant that the Quran, first, the Prophet’s Sunnah, second, and then the members of the Prophet’s household, and by extension all companions of the Prophet, are guarantors that a person, or a society, that sticks to and follows them will not go astray.

Muhammad Abu Zahrah stated that although both traditions (hadiths) are very sound and mutawatir (successive narration), the state of being mutawatir of the one with the words “the Quran and Sunnah” is stronger than the same state of the one with the words “the Quran and ahl al-bayt”. (Al-Imam, 156)

It was owing to this undeniable veracity that the wives of the Prophet were instructed to keep maximizing the roles and functions of their houses, while unreservedly enjoying personal and family comfort, privacy and security in them. Their houses were to be transformed into the centers of learning and spiritual upbringing for the members of ahl al-bayt (the Prophet’s family), wherefrom all other Muslim houses and households were bound to benefit. Their personalities, similarly, were to be transformed into priceless sources of knowledge and guidance, ultimately positioning themselves as legitimate and substantial references to the Ummah (community).

The Quran says: {And stay quietly in your houses, and make not a dazzling display, like that of the former times of ignorance; and establish regular prayers, and give Zakat and obey Allah and His Messenger. And Allah only wishes to remove all abomination from you, you members of the Family (ahl al-bayt), and to make you pure and spotless. And recite what is rehearsed to you in your houses, of the Signs of Allah and His Wisdom: for Allah understands the finest mysteries and is well-acquainted (with them).} (33: 33-34)

Surely, this was one of the reasons why the wives of the Prophet are called in the Quran “the Mothers of believers” (ummahat al-mu’minin) (33:6). By analogy, the Prophet could also be looked at as the father of, or a fatherly figure to, believers. The Quran reveals that Prophet Lot described the women of his nation as his daughters (Hud 11: 78). That said it becomes apparent why some scholars, as mentioned earlier, were of the view that the whole Ummah (Muslim community) is the family (ahl al-bayt) of the Prophet Muhammad.

caliphsElecting the First Caliph

Subsequent to the passing away of the Prophet, the people eventually elected Abu Bakr as their caliph and temporal leader. The office was purely a political matter, not a religious one, which had to be administered in accordance with the injunctions of Islam. (Tafsir)

Thus, different views were expressed in the process and even several heated exchanges came to pass. But once Abu Bakr became elected as a result of a consultative method, all the people ultimately accepted the decision in good faith knowing all too well that the process had nothing to do with religion and thus, all disputes thence arising ought to come to an end and misunderstandings be ironed out. If not, some essential religious issues, as a consequence, might have been implicated and their inviolability unnecessarily imperiled and even compromised.

They also knew that election of a functionary is for a limited period only, and when that period is over the people will stand facing the same problem all over again. Upholding this egalitarian spirit, although ‘Ali might have been of the view that he was more qualified for the caliphate job, he in the end accepted the verdict and gave allegiance to Abu Bakr.

However, he is reported to have done so sometime later, most probably after six months, after the death of his wife Fatimah. ‘Ali appears to have refrained temporarily from swearing allegiance to Abu Bakar partly because of a misunderstanding that had taken place between his wife Fatimah and the latter on the subject of inheritance. As a result, Fatimah became angry with Abu Bakr and kept away from him, and did not talk to him till she died. When she died, ‘Ali buried her at night without informing Abu Bakr, and he said the funeral prayer by himself.

Both al-Bukhari and Muslim (d. 262 AH/ 875 CE) related that:

“when Fatimah was alive, the people used to respect ‘Ali much, but after her death, ‘Ali noticed a change in the people’s attitude towards him. So ‘Ali sought reconciliation with Abu Bakr and gave him an oath of allegiance. ‘Ali had not given the oath of allegiance during those months (i.e., the period between the Prophet’s death and Fatimah’s death). ‘Ali sent someone to Abu Bakr saying” ‘Come to us, but let nobody come with you’…”

Another reason for ‘Ali’s deferment of swearing allegiance to Abu Bakr was his unhappiness that he and the other members of ahl al-bayt were not consulted in the question of the rule, and they thought that they got a right in it on account of their close relationship to the Prophet.

Indeed, when the Prophet did not nominate a successor that was not by any means an omission or an accident. We must hold that such omission to nominate a successor was deliberate and in accordance with the Will of God. Although the choice of the people fell on Abu Bakr as the first caliph, he never coveted the office for himself. He always viewed the caliphate as a great burden and responsibility, rather than a privilege and a source of enjoyment.

If, under the circumstances, there had been any indication that the Prophet wanted ‘Ali to be the caliph, Abu Bakr, unquestionably, would have been the last man to stand in the way of ‘Ali.

Also, ‘Ali himself and the people in general would have repeatedly referred to such Prophet’s will, reminding everyone about it, and would have voiced their most tenacious disapproval at its violation.

However, nothing of the kind came down to us in any form. The caliphate could not be claimed on the basis of inheritance. It was a political office, and the community was free to choose, whomever they liked. If for some reason, ‘Ali was not at first chosen, this could not be made a ground for religious grievance. (Hadrat Ali, 160)

When ‘Ali was about to breathe his last, he was asked to appoint a successor. He replied in the negative, adding that he was going to adopt the practice of the Prophet who, too, did not appoint a successor.

“If God wills good for you, He will draw you together around the best among you, just as He did draw you together around the best among you after the Prophet’s death,” was ‘Ali’s closing reasoning.

Here even on his deathbed, ‘Ali explicitly acknowledged that there was no divine will relating to Muslim leadership. He also accepted the legitimacy of Abu Bakr’s caliphate, and by extension the caliphate of all his predecessors, the same as he always throughout his exceptionally dynamic and avant-garde life-story, did. (Al-Bidayah, 16)

Ibn Khaldun (d. 809 AH/ 1406 CE) summed up the matter of the caliphate and whether it is a matter of election or divine appointment and inheritance, and whether it is a religious matter or one of the general public interests, when he said:

“Some (Shi’is) wrongly assume the imamate to be one of the pillars of the faith. It is one of the general (public) interests. The people are delegated to take care of it. If it were one of the pillars of the faith, it would be something like prayer, and Muhammad would have appointed a representative, exactly as he appointed Abu Bakr to represent him at prayer. (Had he done so), it would have become generally known, as was the case with prayer. That the men around Muhammad considered the caliphate as something analogous to prayer and on the strength of that attitude argued in favor of Abu Bakr’s caliphate, is merely another proof of the fact that no appointment of an heir had taken place.

It also shows that the question of the imamate and succession to it was not as important then as it is today…” (The Muqaddimah, 169)

Thus, to Ibn Khaldun, the caliphate or imamate – which he uses interchangeably and which to him mean the same thing – denotes a substitute for the Prophet in as much as it serves, like him, to preserve the religion and to exercise political leadership of the world. (155)

‘Ali never raised the issue of the Prophet’s will on succession because there was none. (Maqalat, 2-4)

His personal feelings and perceptions towards the whole thing and its then unfolding processes were in fact a part and reflection of those novel developments, and were identical to the essence of the feelings and perceptions of many others whose preferences likewise did not materialize.

The interests of the community had to be ahead of personal interests; and the interests of the community must be tailored according to the mandate of the Islamic tawhidic (the Oneness of Allah) worldview and message.

What happened in relation not only to the election of Abu Bakr, but also the other three rightly guided caliphs, including ‘Ali as the forth one, was the Islamic style of egalitarianism, meritocracy, consultative consensus and social equality at its best. Corroborating further the above assertions, once ‘Ali was asked if he had the knowledge of any divine inspiration besides what was in God’s Holy Book. He replied:

“No, by Him Who splits the grain of corn and creates the soul, I do not think we have such knowledge, but we have the ability of understanding which Allah may endow a person with, so that he may understand the Quran.” (Al-Bukhari, 283)

Moreover, when ‘Ali eventually decided to swear an oath of allegiance to Abu Bakr he is reported to have said to him “We know well your superiority and what Allah has given you, and we are not jealous of the good what Allah has bestowed upon you, but you did not consult us in the question of the rule and we thought that we have got a right in it because of our near relationship to Allah’s Messenger.”

The story on the meeting between ‘Ali and Abu Bakr, as al-Bukhari narrated, continues:

“…Thereupon Abu Bakr’s eyes flowed with tears. And when Abu Bakr spoke, he said: ‘By Him in Whose Hand my soul is to keep good relations with the relatives of Allah’s Messenger is dearer to me than to keep good relations with my own relatives. But as for the trouble which arose between me and you about his property, I will do my best to spend it according to what is good, and will not leave any rule or regulation which I saw Allah’s Messenger following, in disposing of it, but I will follow.’ On that ‘Ali said to Abu Bakr: ‘I promise to give you the oath of allegiance in this after noon.’

So when Abu Bakr had offered the Zuhr (noon) prayer, he ascended the pulpit and uttered the tashahhud (bearing witness to God’s Oneness and Prophet Muhammad’s prophethood) and then mentioned the story of ‘Ali and his failure to give the oath of allegiance, and excused him, accepting what excuses he had offered; Then ‘Ali (got up) and praying (to Allah) for forgiveness, he uttered tashahhud, praised Abu Bakr’s right, and said, that he had not done what he had done because of jealousy of Abu Bakr or as a protest of that Allah had favored him with. ‘Ali added:

‘But we used to consider that we too had some right in this affair (of rulership) and that he (i.e., Abu Bakr) did not consult us in this matter, and therefore caused us to feel sorry.’

On that all the Muslims became happy and said:

‘You have done the right thing.’ The Muslims then became friendly with ‘Ali as he returned to what the people had done (i.e., giving the oath of allegiance to Abu Bakr).” (Al-Bukhari, 546)

When Abu Bakr died, ‘Ali delivered an oration which was a faithful summing up of the character and personality of Abu Bakr. He highly praised him therein. During the caliphate of Umar, ‘Ali not only took the oath of allegiance to Umar, but also married his daughter Umm Kulthum to him. ‘Ali held the office of the Chief Justice. He acted as the principal Counselor of Umar. He acted as the Chief Secretary as well.

The services of ‘Ali were highly appreciated by Umar. Once on a pulpit in a mosque in Kufah when he himself became the caliph, ‘Ali openly declared that after the Prophet the best persons among Muslims were Abu Bakr and Umar. (Al-Bidayah, 346)

Next, when the mantle of the caliphate passed to Uthman, ‘Ali continued to serve the government as the Chief Justice. However, most accounts are silent about the other activities of ‘Ali for the duration of Uthman’s caliphate. (Hadrat Ali, 138-149)

Finally, following the tragic murder of Uthman, many people desperately turned to ‘Ali with the prospect of him leading the community next. At first, ‘Ali was reluctant to accept the offer running away both from it and those who were offering it to him. However, after the people’s perseverance, on account of ‘Ali having been the most outstanding candidate left, ‘Ali reluctantly agreed. He did so fully aware of how bad and precarious the situation had become, and how direly his contributions and services were needed for safeguarding the future of Islam and the Muslim community.

Read more on the topic by the author:


Works Cited:

Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari, Maqalat al-Islamiyyin wa Ikhtilaf al-Musallin. Maktabat al-Nahdah, 1969

Abu Zahrah, Muhammad. Al-Imam al-Sadiq. Cairo: Dar al-Fikr al-‘Arabi, 2005

Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, vol. 8. Maktabat al-Maarif, 1977

Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, Princeton University Press (Abridged edition). October 11, 2004

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].