Syed Ameer Ali.

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lessly destroyed by the Ommeyyades, whilst they insisted on
the principle of election, abhorred the injustice done to the
children of Fatima. After the murder of Husain, a cry of
horror had gone forth from the heart of Islam, and the people
of the holy cities had risen in arms against the tyrant, and
suffered bitterly for it. The adherents of the Ahl-ul-bait and
the followers of the first three Caliphs together underwent fearful
cruelties in the cause of the common Faith. But when it
became necessary for dynastic reasons to create a gulf between
the two parties the elements of divergence came ready to hand
on both sides. Their doctrinal and legal differences began from
this time to assume the type and proportions they retain at the
present moment

During the enlightened rule of Mamun and of his two im-
mediate successors, when humanitarian science and philosophy
influenced the conceptions of all classes of society, there was
a break in the development of the Sunni Church. With the
exception of this period the entire duration of the Abbaside


Caliphate 1 was occupied in the consolidation of its dogmas.
The Church and State were linked together ; the Caliph was
the Imam — temporal chief as well as spiritual head. The
doctors of law and religion were his servants. He presided at
the convocations, and guided their decisions. Hence the
solidarity of the Sunni church. Many of the sects 2 into which
it was originally split up have gradually disappeared, but it is
still divided into four principal denominations, differing from
each other on many questions of dogma and ritual. Their
differences may perhaps be likened to those existing between
the Roman Catholic and the Greek, Armenian, and Syrian
orthodox churches.

Shiahism, on the other hand, shows how the Church and the
State have become dissociated from each other, and how the
" Expounders of the Law " have assumed, at least among a
section, the authority and position of the clergy in Christendom.
The freedom of judgment, which in Protestantism has given
birth to one hundred and eighty sects, has produced an almost
parallel result in Shiahism, and the immense diversity of opinion
within the church itself is due to the absence of a controlling
temporal power, compelling uniformity at the point of the

The question of the Imamate, 3 or the spiritual headship of

1 From 750 A.c. to 1252 A.c.

2 According to Imam Ja'far Tusi (quoted in the Dabistdn), the Sunnis were
originally divided into sixty-five sects.

3 A very good definition of the word " Imam " is given by Dr. Percy Badger :
" The word ' Imam ' comes from an Arabic root signifying to aim at, to follow
after, — most of the derivatives of which partake, more or less, of that idea.
Thus Imam means, primarily, an exemplar, or one whose example ought to
be imitated. It is applied in that sense, K-ar' i^oxn", to Mohammed, as
being the leader and head of the Muslims in civil and religious matters, and
also to the Khalifahs, or legitimate Successors, as his representatives in both
capacities. It is also given — in its religious import only — to the heads of the
four orthodox sects, namely, the el-Hanafy, esh-Shafa'iy, el-Maliky, and
el-Hanbaly ; and, in a more restricted sense still, to the ordinary functionary
of a mosque who leads in the daily prayers of the congregation, — an office
usually conferred on individuals of reputed piety, who are removable by the
Ndzirs or wardens, and who, with their employment and salary, lose the title

" The term is used in the Koran to indicate the Book, or Scriptures, or
record of a people ; also, to designate a teacher of religion. Hence, most
probably, its adoption by the Muslims in the latter sense. ' When the Lord
tried Abraham with certain words, which he fulfilled, He said, I have made
thee an Imam to the people.' Again, referring to Abraham, Isaac and
Jacob, ' We have made them Imams, that they may direct others at our


the Musulman commonwealth, is henceforth the chief battle-
ground of the two sects. 1 The Shiahs hold that the spiritual
heritage bequeathed by Mohammed devolved on Ali and his
descendants. They naturally repudiate the authority of the
Jama' at (the people) to elect a spiritual head who should super-
sede the rightful claims of the Prophet's family. According to
the Shiahs, therefore, the Imamate descends by divine appoint-
ment in the apostolical line. The Imam, besides being a
descendant of the Prophet, must possess certain qualities, — he
must be Ma' sum or sinless, bear the purest and most unsullied
character, and must be distinguished above all other men for
truth and purity. It is not proper, nor could it be the intention
of the Almighty, they argue, that a man whose character is not
unimpeachable should have the direction of the human con-
science. Human choice is fallible, as is proved by the history
of mankind ; and the people have often accepted the worst
men for their leaders. God could never have left the religious
needs of man to his unaided faculty. If an Imam be needed,
he must be one whom the conscience must accept. Accordingly
they declare that if the choice of an Imam be left to the
community, it would be subversive of all morality ; and

command.' And again, ' We delivered to Moses the Book, therefore be not
in doubt of his reception thereof, and we ordained it to be a guide unto the
children of Israel. And we appointed some of them to be Imams, to direct
the people according to our command.' " — Badger's Imams and Seyyids oj
Oman, App. A.

1 " The question of the Imamate forms a subject of controversy," says Mas'udi,
" between the followers of different sects, particularly between those who
adhere to the doctrine of appointment, ij&\)\ Ij <•; JLtftJ) an d the followers
of the doctrine of election, .U^yi ^lar* 9 !. The defenders of the doctrine of
appointment are the Imamias, &xtx>S|| »Ja| who form a section of the
Adherents, Shiahs lxjJiJ[ of Ali ibn Abi Talib and his holy children (by
Fatima) 5 ^.\ ^q Wij&ihJj ■ They believe that God does not leave man-
kind at any time without a man who maintains the religion of God (and acts
as their Imam). Such men are either prophets or their legates. The doctrine
of election is defended by a section of the Khawarij <f J'j^i , the Murjias
**Aj+Jl t . by many of those who admit the traditions and the generally received
opinions {Ahl-us-Sunnat), by some of the Mu'tazalas, and by a section of the
Zaidias, &>i&>jJ\. They believe that it is the will of God and his Prophet
that the nation should choose a man amongst themselves, and make him their
Imam, for there are times when God does not send a legate. The Shiahs
consider such Imams as usurpers of the dignity." — Murilj-uz-zahab.


consequently the spiritual guidance of mankind has been
entrusted to divinely-appointed persons. 1

According to the Sunnis, the Imamate is not restricted to
the family of Mohammed. The Imam need not be just,
virtuous, or irreproachable (Ma' sum) in his life, nor need he
be the most excellent or eminent being of his time ^UJi JLiit J
so long as he is free, adult, sane, and possessed of the capacity
to attend to the ordinary affairs of State, he is qualified for
election. Another doctrine in which they agree with the
Church of Rome was full of momentous consequences to Islam.
They hold that neither the vices nor the tyranny of the Imam
would justify his deposition ; 2 nor can the perversity or evil
conduct of the Imam or those who preside at the public divine
service invalidate the prayers of the Faithful. 3 They also hold
that the Imamate is indivisible, and that it is not lawful to
have two Imams at one and the same time. As Christianity
could yield obedience to but one Pope, so the Moslem world
could yield obedience to but one lawful Caliph. But as three
Popes have often pretended to the triple crown, so have three

1 " It is neither the beauty of the sovereign," says Ibn-Khaldun, " nor
his great learning, perspicacity, or any other personal accomplishment which
is useful to his subject. . . . The sovereign exists for the good of his people."
" The necessity of a ruler," continues this remarkable writer, whose keenness
of observation was equalled by his versatility, " arises from the fact that
human beings have to live together, and unless there is some one to maintain
order, society would break to pieces. A temporal sovereign only enforces
such orders as are promulgated by man, but the laws framed by a divinely-
inspired legislator have two objects in view — the moral as well as social
well-being of mankind. The Caliph is the Vicar and Lieutenant of the Prophet.
He is more than a temporal ruler, he is a spiritual chief as well. The Caliph
is thus designated the Imam, his position being similar to that of the leader
of the congregation at the public prayers."

" This establishment of an Imam," continues Ibn-Khaldun, " is a matter
of obligation. The law which declares its necessity is founded on the general
accord of the Companions of the Prophet. The Imam is the spiritual head,
whilst the Caliph or Sultan represents the temporal power."

2 In spite of this doctrine, promulgated at the order of tyrants anxious
to avoid the penalty of their oppression, the people have never approved
of it entirely. Under the Ommeyyade Walid, surnamed for his vices the
Fdsik (the Wicked), they rose in revolt and deposed him. Similarly, when
the iniquities of Mutawakkil (the Abbaside) became intolerable, he was
deposed by his own son, Muntasir the Good. The history of the Ottoman
Turks contains many examples of the people rising in revolt against a vicious
or incapable sovereign, the last being under the unhappy Abdul Aziz.

3 Against this doctrine there is now a widespread revolt in the Sunni Church ;
the Ghair-Mukallidin, whom we shall describe later, holding that if the Imam
is not chaste in his life, the prayers of the congregation are invalid.


Ameer ul-Muslimin laid claim to supreme rule. After the
downfall of the Ommeyyades in Asia a member of that
house succeeded in setting up an independent state in Spain,
whilst the family of Abbas exercised power on the banks
of the Tigris, and that of Fatima on the Nile. The fact
that at various times two or three sovereigns have assumed
simultaneously the Headship of Islam has given rise to an
opinion that the rule of indivisibility applies only to one and
the same country, or to two countries contiguous to each other ;
but when the countries are so far apart that the power of one
Imam cannot extend to the other, it is lawful to elect a second
Imam. The Imam is the patron and syndic of all Musulmans,
and the guardian of their interests during their lives as well as
after their death. He is vested with the power to nominate
his successors, subject to the approval of the Moslems. As the
office is for the temporal and spiritual benefit of the community,
the nomination is dependent on the choice of the people. 1

It might have been expected that persecution would keep
the Shiahs united among themselves ; but although all were
agreed on the question that the supreme pontificate of Islam
is confined to the line of the Prophet, many of them fell away
from the recognised heads of the family, and attached them-
selves from design or predilection to other members of the
House. Whilst the acknowledged Imams and their disciples
lived in holy retirement, the others found leisure amidst their
foreign hostilities for domestic quarrels. They preached, they
disputed, they suffered.

Shahristani divides the Shiahs into five sects, viz. the Zaidia,
the Isma'ilia, the Isnd-'asharia or Imamia, the Kaisdnia, and
the Ghdllia or Gkulldt. As a matter of fact, however, as we
shall show hereafter, some of these sects, and especially the
branches into which they bifurcated, had, excepting in a more
or less exaggerated attachment to Ali, nothing in common with
Shiahism proper. On the contrary, they derived their origin
from sources other than Islamic.

The Zaidias, says Shahristani, are the followers of Zaid, son
of Ali II. (Zain-ul-'Abidin), son of Husain. They affirm that
the Imamate descended from Ali to Hasan, then to Husain ;
1 Ibn-Khaldun ; see ante, part i. chapter x.


from Husain it devolved upon Ali II. (Zain-ul-'Abidin) ; and
from him it passed to Zaid, and not, as is held by the Isnd-
'Asharias, and, in fact, by most Moslems, to Mohammed
al-Bakir. In their doctrines they closely approach the A hi
us-Sunnat. They hold that the people have the right of
choosing their spiritual head from among the descendants
of the Prophet, combining thus the principle of election with
the principle which restricts the Imamate to the family of
Mohammed. They also affirm that it is lawful to elect the
mafzul (the less eminent) whilst the afzal (the most eminent) is
present. As a consequence of this principle, they accept the
Imamate of the first three Caliphs, whose pontificate is generally
disclaimed by the other Shiahs. They hold that though Ali
was the most eminent of all the Companions of the Prophet,
and by right of descent as well as by his qualities entitled to
the Imamate, yet for reasons of policy, and to allay the dis-
orders which had broken out upon the death of the Prophet,
to settle the minds of the people and to compose the differences
among the tribes, a man of a maturer age was required to fill
the office. Besides, owing to the struggle in which Ali had
been engaged in defence of the Faith, the feeling of retaliation
was strong in the bosom of those who had fought against Islam,
and who had been only recently reduced to subjection ; and
these people would not willingly have bowed before the grandeur
of Ah. They hold that the same reason applies to the election
of Omar. 1 Their acceptance of the Imamate of the first two
Caliphs brought upon the Zaidias the name of Rawdfiz, or Dis-
senters, by the other Shiahs. Another doctrine held by them
is too important to escape notice. They maintain that in
addition to piety, truth, knowledge, and innocence or sinless-
ness, qualities required by the Shiahs proper for the pontifical
office, the Imam should possess bravery, and the capacity to
assert by force of arms his right to the Imamate. The Imam
Mohammed al-Bakir, who had succeeded his father Ali II.,
maintained that the use of force was reprehensible. Zaid
differed from his brother in this opinion. He rose in arms
against the tyrants in the reign of Hisham ibn Abdul Malik
(the Ommeyyade), and was killed in the neighbourhood of

1 Shahristani, pt. i. p. 115.
s.i. x


Kufa. He was succeeded by Yahya, his son, who followed
the example of his father, and, against the advice of Imam
Ja'far as-Sadik, proceeded to assert his right by force of arms.
He collected a large following in Khorasan, but was defeated
and killed by one of the generals of Hisham.

On the death of Yahya, the Imamate, say the Zaidias, passed
to another member of the family, Mohammed ibn Abdullah,
surnamed an-Nafs-uz-Zakiya (" the Pure Soul "). Mohammed
assumed the title of Mahdi, and rose in arms in Hijaz against
the Abbaside Mansur. He was defeated and killed at Medina
by Tsa, Mansur's nephew. He was succeeded by his brother
Ibrahim, who lost his life similarly in a vain struggle against
the Abbasides. Isa, another brother, who also endeavoured
to assert his claims by force, was seized by Mansur, and im-
prisoned for life. After mentioning these facts, Shahristani
adds that " whatever befell them was prognosticated by Ja'far
as-Sadik, who said that temporal dominion was not for their
family, but that the Imamate was to be a toy in the hands of
the Abbasides."

According to a branch of the Zaidias, the Imamate passed
from Ibrahim to Idris, the founder of the Idriside dynasty in
Mauritania ( .^^Vf ^**>), and of the city of Fez. After the
fall of the Idrisides, the Zaidias became disorganised, but
members of this sect are still to be found in different parts of
Asia and Africa. A branch of the Zaidias ruled in Tabaristan
for a long time, and there is a Zaidia Imam still in Northern
Yemen. The Zaidias, according to Shahristani, were divided
into four subsections, viz. the Jdmdias, Sulaimdnias, Tabarias,
and Sdlehias. They differ from each other about the devolution
of the Imamate from Zaid's grandson. The Jdmdias, who up-
held the claims of Mohammed Nafs-uz-Zakiya in supersession
of Isa, suffered bitterly under Mansur. The Sulaimdnias were
named after their founder, Sulaiman ibn Jaris, who declared
that the Imamate depended upon the consensus of the people ;
..." that the Imamate is not intended for regulating religion
or for the acquisition of a knowledge of the Deity, or His unity
or the laws which He has made for the government of the world,
for these are acquired through Reason. The Imamate is in-
tended for the government of the earth, inflicting punishments


on wrong-doers, dealing out justice, and defending the State.
It is not necessary for the Imam to be afrzl. ..." "A section
of the Ahl-us-Sunnat hold similar opinions, for they say that
it is not required for the Imam to be learned or a Mujtahid,
so long as he is wise and has some one with him capable of
expounding the law." x The Sulaimdnias and the Sdlehias
agree in accepting the Imamate of the first two Caliphs ; the
latter hold that Ali, having himself abandoned his preferential
claim in favour of Abu Bakr and Omar, the people have no
right to question their Imamate : but as regards Osman they
are in doubt, for they say " when we see how he travailed for
the support of the Bani Ommeyya, we find his character
different from the other Sahdba."

The Ismailias, also sometimes called Sabi'yun (Seveners), 2
derive their names from Isma'il, a son of Imam Ja'far as-Sadik,
who predeceased his father. They hold that upon the death
of Imam Ja'far as-Sadik, the Imamate devolved on Isma'il's
son, Mohammed (surnamed al-Maktum, 3 the hidden or un-
revealed), and not on Ja'far's son, Musa al-Kazim, as believed
by the Isnd-'Asharias and generally by the other Moslems.
Mohammed al-Maktum was succeeded, according to the 7s-
ma'ilias, by Ja'far al-Musaddak, whose son Mohammed al-Habib
was the last of the unrevealed Imams.

His son, Abu Mohammed Abdullah, was the founder of the
Fatimide dynasty which ruled Northern Africa for three cen-
turies. He had been thrown into prison by the Abbaside
Caliph, Mu'tazid-b'illah Saffah II., but, escaping from his
dungeon at Segelmessa, he appeared in Barbary, where he
assumed the title of Obaidullah and Mahdi {the promised Guide).
Followers gathered round him from all sides, and, assisted by

1 Shahristani, pt. i. pp. 119, 120.

2 Because they acknowledge only seven Imams — (1) Ali, (2) Hasan, (3)
Husain, (4) Ali II., (5) Mohammed al-Bakir, (6) Ja'far as-Sadik (the True),
and (7) Isma'il.

3 So called, says Makrizi, because his followers kept him " concealed " to
escape the persecution of the Abbasides. Isma'il was the eldest son of Imam
Ja'far as-Sadik, and a man of sweet disposition and engaging manners, and
according to Makrizi, had a considerable following in Yemen, in Ketama,
and the African provinces. During the lifetime of Isma'il's mother, says
Shahristani, the Imam Ja'far never had any other wife, " like the Prophet
with Khadija, and Ali with Fatima,"


a Sufi, he soon overthrew the Aghlabites, who were ruling the
African provinces in the name of the Caliphs of Bagdad, and
founded an empire which extended from Mauritania to the
confines of Egypt. One of his successors (Ma'dd Abu Temim),
al-Muizz-li-din-illdh (Exalter of the Faith of God), wrested Egypt
and a portion of Syria from the Abbasides. Muizz, to mark
his victory over the enemies of his House, founded Cairo
(Kdhira, the Victorious City), and removed his capital from
Mahdieh, near Kairwan, established by Obaidullah al-Mahdi,
to the new city. At this time his dominions included, besides
the whole of Northern Africa, the islands of Sardinia and
Sicily. He founded in Cairo the mosque of al-Azhar (fdmi'-
al-azhar, the Brilliant Mosque), a vast public library, and
several colleges, and endowed them richly. At these colleges,
students received instruction in grammar, literature, the inter-
pretation of the Koran, jurisprudence, medicine, mathematics,
and history. " The distinctive character of his reign," says the
historian, " was justice and moderation." x

Almost all the accounts we possess of the Egyptian Fatimides
have come down to us from hostile sources. Since Jouhar, the
general of Muizz, conquered Egypt and Syria from the Caliphs
of Bagdad, there was an incessant struggle between the two
Caliphates as to the legitimacy of their respective titles. The
hold which the claim of the Fatimides to be descended from
Mohammed enabled them to acquire over the people, gave rise
to an unceasing desire on the part of the Abbasides to anni-
hilate the genuineness of their rivals' genealogy, and to impress
on the world the anti-Islamic character of the doctrines adopted
by them. In the reign of Kadir-b'illah, a secret assemblage of
the doctors of the law was held at Bagdad at the instance of

1 Marcel. The orthodox Jamal ud-din bin Taghri-bardi (in his Many eel ul-
Latdfat, iJ\iaM\ 2>xy°) says, "though Muizz was a schismatic, he was wise,
learned, generous, and just to his subjects,"

For a full account of the Fatimide dynasty, see Short History of the Saracens


the frightened Caliph, to fulminate against the Fatimides an
anathema declaring that they were not the genuine descendants
of Fatima. The Fatimides, on their side, replied by a counter-
anathema, signed by the leading doctors of Cairo, among them
many belonging to the Maliki and Shafe'i persuasions. In spite,
however, of the doubts thrown on their legitimacy by the
Abbaside doctors, great historians like Makrizi, Ibn Khaldun,
and Abulfeda have accepted the genuineness of the claims of
the Fatimides.

Makrizi is extremely outspoken on the subject, and plainly
charges the partisans of the Bani-Abbas with misrepresenta-
tion and forgery. Dealing with the Abbaside statement that
Obaidullah al-Mahdi was not a descendant of Mohammed, he
goes on to say, " a little examination of facts will show that this
is a fabrication. The descendants of Ali, the son of Abu Talib,
at that time were numerous, and the Shiahs regarded them with
great veneration. What was it then that could have induced
their partisans to forsake them, the descendants of Mohammed,
and to recognise in their stead as Imam an offspring of the Magi,
a man of Jewish origin ? No man, unless absolutely devoid of
commonsense, would act thus. The report that Obaidullah al-
Mahdi was by descent a Jew or a Magian owes its origin to the
artifices of the feeble Abbaside princes, who did not know how
to rid themselves of the Fatimides, for their power lasted with-
out interruption for 270 years, and they despoiled the
Abbasides of the countries of Africa, Egypt, Syria, the Diar-
bakr, the two sacred cities (Mecca and Medina), and of Yemen.
The Khutba was even read in their names at Bagdad during
forty weeks. The Abbaside armies could not make head
against them ; and, therefore, to inspire the people with
aversion against the Fatimides, they spread calumnies about
their origin. The Abbaside officers and Ameers who could not
contend successfully with the Fatimides gladly adopted these
slanders as a means of revenge. The Kazis, who attested the
act of convocation under Kadir b'illah, acted under the orders
of the Caliph, and only upon hearsay ; and since then historians
have heedlessly and without reflection given currency to a
calumny which was invented by the Abbasides." Nothing
can be more explicit than this statement by a critical historian


and a distinguished jurisconsult whose reputation stands high
among all Orientals. 1

Probably the doctrines professed by the Egyptian Fatimides
were subjected to the same process of misrepresentation. Still
there can be little doubt that they adopted largely the esoteric
doctrines of Abdullah ibn Maimun, surnamed the Kadddh (the
Oculist), and made use of his degrees of initiation for the
purposes of a political propaganda.

Online LibrarySyed Ameer AliThe spirit of Islâm : a history of the evolution and ideals of Islâm → online text (page 36 of 55)