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AFTER the death of Prophet Muhammad (Sallalahu Alaihi Wassalam), Muslims came under the rule of a caliphate system and stayed united under the initial four caliphs for a period of about 30 years. In Islamic history, these first fours caliphs are also known as the “Rashidun (the rightly guided) Caliphs” or “Khlifat Ar-Rashidah” in Arabic. The four Rashidun caliphs who ruled the Muslims and the Islamic territories were Caliph Abu Bakr As-Siddeeq, Caliph Umar Ibn Khattab, Caliph Uthman Ibn Affan, and Caliph Ali Ibn Abu-Talib.

Early Signs of Disunity in the Era of the ‘Rashidun Caliphate’ (Khilafat Ar-Rashidah)

The rule under the first two caliphs (Abu Bakr and Umar) is considered as the golden period in Islamic history as both caliphs maintained law and order under their continually expanding territories and Muslims stayed united under the two caliphs. However, signs of discord and disunity started to surface under the rule of the third caliph, Uthman Ibn Affan (RA). This disunity eventually led to multiple rebellions that led to the unfortunate assassination of Caliph Uthman, and multiple battles under the reign of Caliph Ali Ibn Abu-Talib. Another unfortunate consequence of these rebellions was the split of a segment of Muslims in two separate sects from the mainstream Islam. The first was the sect of ‘Khawarij’ whereas the other came to be known as the ‘Shia’ or ‘Shiite’. The circumstances leading to the split of both are unrelated to each other. While the ‘Khawarij’ didn’t continue as a prominent sect per se, the “Shia” doctrine continued to strengthen and currently make up 10% – 13% of the overall Muslim population. Sunnis on the other hand comprise of 87% – 90% of the overall Muslim population. (Reference: Pew Research Center)

This article looks back in Islamic history and provides a brief background on the circumstances that led to the schism of the ‘Shia’ from the mainstream Muslims. As facts differ between what has been narrated by Shia and Sunni historians, the facts in this article are based on facts as documented by Muslim Sunni historians.

Start of the ‘Fitnah’-Sedition- by Abdullah Ibn Saba against Caliph Uthman Ibn Affan

Islamic Sunni historians (e.g. Ibn Taymiyyah and many others) attribute the roots of the Shia movement to a person named Abdullah Ibn Saba. According to the historians, Abdullah Ibn Saba was a Yemeni Jew who had migrated from Yemen to Madinah and became a Muslim. Reflecting back on the actions of Abdullah Ibn Saba and having observed that his efforts primarily centered around instigating disunity among Muslims, some historians allege Abdullah Ibn Saba’s conversion to Islam as a cover to start a rift between Muslims.

Right from the start, Abdullah Ibn Saba focused his efforts to turn Muslims against the sitting caliph, Uthman Ibn Affan. To do so, he first started to publicly question Caliph Uthman’s decisions related to the appointment of certain Muslim governors from the clan of Banu Umayyah, which was the clan that the caliph also hailed from. At the time, the Muslim rule had expanded to include areas in and around Makkah and Madinah (present day Saudi-Arabia), Alexandria (present day Egypt), Damascus (present day Syria), Kufah (present day central Iraq), and Basrah (present day southern Iraq). Besides, expansions were also continuing in other parts of the Arab world, present day Russian states, Eastern Europe, Northern Africa, and other regions. As these ongoing expansions were bringing their own challenges, Caliph Uthman appointed only those governors whom he saw fit to keep the Muslims united and to maintain law and order in the new territories. In this pursuit, he ended up appointing a number of governors from his own clan of ‘Banu Umayyah’. Abdullah Ibn Saba used this fact to accuse Caliph Uthman of favoritism. The caliph responded to these allegations by reminding his masses that some of his appointments across the Muslim caliphate were before his reign (e.g. Muawiyah Ibn Sufiyan was appointed governor of Syria by Caliph Umar) and for the others, he felt the need to appoint only those in critical positions whom he could trust to maintain law and order within the Muslim territories.

Noting that Abdullah Ibn Saba and some of his cohorts were behind instigating this unrest, some of Caliph Uthman’s companions advised the caliph to take a stronger stance to stem this ‘fitnah’ (sedition) before the situation got out of control. However, as Caliph Uthman was known to be a mild mannered and lenient individual, he didn’t want to use forceful measures and as a result was unable to control Ibn Saba who continued to fan these flames to build support for his cause of ousting the caliph from power.

The Early Beginnings of the Shia (Shiite) Movement

As Abdullah Ibn Saba was determined to overthrow the caliph, Ibn Saba started to profess his love and admiration for Ali Ibn Abi-Talib on the grounds that Ali Ibn Abi-Talib was from the family of the Prophet (Ahl-ul-bayt). In this pursuit, he also started to turn Muslims against the first two Caliphs (Abu Bakr and Umar) by reminding Muslims how Ali Ibn Abi-Talib had not initially accepted the rule of Caliph Abu Bakr after his selection by the prominent companions of the prophet. In this context, although it’s true that Ali Ibn Abi-Talib had delayed giving his pledge to Caliph Abu Bakr after he was sworn in as the first Muslim caliph, the reasons were not what Abdullah Ibn Saba was making people believe through his false interpretations of historical events and Quranic verses. Most historians have noted (and as confirmed by Ali Ibn Abi-Talib and Aisha, the wife of the prophet) that Ali didn’t immediately pledge his support for Caliph Abu Bakr primarily because of his objection of not being consulted in the caliph selection process, especially when Ali was very close to the prophet. The reason for this was that after the death of the prophet when Ali was busy with the funeral arrangements of the prophet, a number of prophet’s companions had gathered separately and insisted to immediately appoint a caliph to ensure Muslim unity, and maintain law and order. As they started the conversation, people from the Ansar (actual inhabitants of Madinah) and those who were the Muhajireen (Muslims who had immigrated from Makkah and settled in Madinah) made their arguments related to the appointing of the first caliph of the Muslims from their respective groups. That meeting between the prominent companions eventually resulted in the appointment of Abu Bakr as the first caliph of the Muslims. Historians also note that during those discussions, Ali was never mentioned as a candidate.

However, as is confirmed by many accounts, Ali Ibn Abi-Talib was satisfied with the appointment of Abu Bakr and later pledged his allegiance to him putting the matter of brief disagreement between them to rest. Abdullah Ibn Saba, however, had sought to reignite those flames by reminding everyone of that incident from approximately 20 years earlier and used that as an excuse to sow discord and disunity among Muslims.

As Abdullah Ibn Saba based his rebellious movements on the basis of professing his love for Ali Ibn Abi-Talib, his supporters started to be known as ‘Shiat Ali’, which means ‘party of Ali’. Initially, the ‘Shiat Ali’ group primarily comprised of Muslims from Egypt (Alexandria) and Iraq (Kufah and Basrah) because Abdullah Ibn Saba was better able to garner support for his cause in those cities as they were away from the caliphate capital of Madinah where the caliph and his companions had better control of the city. Later, as the ‘Shiat Ali’ grew in number, they approached Madinah to remove Caliph Uthman from power and to instead appoint Caliph Ali as the caliph. An important point to note here is that while Abdullah Ibn Saba and his ‘Shiat Ali’ wanted to remove Caliph Uthman from power so they could appoint Ali as the next caliph, Ali Ibn Abu-Talib himself never gave credence to their evil plans. This is explained further later in the article.

The Assassination of Caliph Uthman

As the ‘Shiat Ali’ approached the city of Madinah, they laid a siege to Caliph Uthman’s house. Although Caliph Uthman’s supporters and companions were ready to fight Ibn Saba’s rebellion and the rioters, Caliph Uthman insisted that he didn’t want Muslim blood spilled because of him. The group of companions that offered the caliph their support included most of Prophet Muhammad’s companions and even included Ali Ibn Abu-Talib’s own sons (Hassan Ibn Ali and Hussein Ibn Ali) who stood to guard Caliph Uthman’s house based on the orders from their father, Ali. However, as Caliph Uthman had instructed his companions not to engage in any violent fights, the ‘Shiat Ali’ managed to break into Caliph Uthman’s house and ultimately assassinated the caliph.

After his assassination, Ali Ibn Abi Talib, didn’t want to become the caliph because he never supported Abdullah Ibn Saba or his plans. However, Ibn Saba and his supporters started to demand that Muslims of Madinah appoint a caliph by choosing one from Ali Ibn Abi Talib, Talhah Ibn Ubaidullah, and Zubair Ibn Awwam Al-Asadi (all three were prophet’s companions). Ibn Saba also announced that if the people of Madinah didn’t select a caliph from these three, then he would execute all of the three candidates. Despite these threats, Talhah and Zubair immediately barricaded themselves and declined to accept the position regardless of the consequences. As Muslims in Madinah wanted to avoid more bloodshed, they convinced Ali to accept the reigns of the caliphate. Consequently, Ali Ibn Abi Talib became the fourth caliph of the Muslims.

Attributing Divinity to Caliph Ali Ibn Abi-Talib

During later years, Abdullah Ibn Saba became more extreme about his views about Ali Ibn Abu-Talib and started attributing divinity to him. He did so by misinterpreting Quranic verses and other false reports and ahadith (sayings of the prophet).  As mentioned earlier, while Abdullah Ibn Saba continued to profess his immense love for Ali Ibn Abu-Talib (including attributing divinity to him), Ali never approved of his evil thinking. In fact, later during his reign as a caliph, Ali repeatedly warned Ibn Saba from attributing any divinity to him (Ali) as they were contradictory to the basic tenets of Islam. However, Abdullah Ibn Saba didn’t relent from doing so. As a result, Caliph Ali ordered his imprisonment and later executed him for his crimes.

History is not clear on whether other supporters of Caliph Ali also joined Abdullah Ibn Saba in attributing divinity to Caliph Ali Ibn Abi-Talib.  The only present day group that comes close to attributing such claims are the Alawites in Syria. Sunni scholars like Ibn Taymiyyah therefore consider them to be out of the fold of Islam. Even the present day mainstream Shia, who although revere Caliph Ali, don’t approve of attributing divinity attributes to Ali. They instead refer to these sects as “Ghulat”, which means ‘those who exaggerate’. This is discussed in further detail in a Shia book called ‘al-Rijaal of Abu-Umar Muhammad Ibn Umar Ibn Abd al-Aziz al-Kashi’, a book considered authentic by many Shiites.

Breaking away of the Shia from the Sunni

Although Abdullah Ibn Saba had visited many cities to get people to rally behind his cause of denigrating the three caliphs and to remove Caliph Uthman from power in an effort to replace Uthman with Caliph Ali, his support was strongest in Kufah. This is why during the time when Ali Ibn Abu-Talib was the caliph and was experiencing his own issues with ruling over Syria, he moved the center of his caliphate from Madinah to Kufah where he had considerable support. This support for Ali and for his family continued in the future even after his death and until the time of Hussein Ibn Ali when Hussein was invited by the people of Kufa to lead them at a time when Yazeed Ibn Muawiyyah (a Caliph from the Banu Umayyah clan) had become the ruler of the Muslim territories, and they expressed their support to him to defect from the rule of Yazeed. This is one of the primary reasons that Shias (Shiites) have a strong presence in present day Iraq, especially in and around the cities of Kufa and Karbala.

A few years later after the death of Caliph Ali, the ‘Shiat Ali’ eventually supported the movement of another person named Mukhtar Al-Thaqafi (in the city of Kufah) who according to Sunni historians further gave shape to some of the beliefs of the Shia that continue until the present day. According to Sunni historians, Mukhtar had started his rebellious movement to avenge the death of Hussein Ibn Ali (son of Ali Ibn Abu-Talib) but did so by falsifying a lot of facts and in the process killed many from those who supported the Banu Umayyah caliphate (which followed the caliphate of the first four caliphs and who were primarily Sunnis) in later years. However, many in history consider Mukhtar’s efforts to pursue the killers of Hussein Ibn Ali to gain the respect of the ‘Shiat Ali’ group instead of him being true to the cause. It goes without saying therefore that while Sunni historians accuse Mukhtar of committing many evils and killings and label him as “Mukhtar the Liar”, the Shia consider him as a revolutionary who led a rebellion against the Banu Umayyah (Umawi) caliphate to avenge the killing of Imam Hussein. Recently, in 2012, the Iranians produced a Persian TV series called Mokhtarnameh to commemorate his life.



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