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  • Print publication year: 2014
  • Online publication date: June 2014

6 - Shi‘ite Islam

Summary

The term “Shi‘ite” existed during the time of the Prophet of Islam and denoted a number of pious Muslims who had an interest in intellectual, spiritual, and metaphysical issues and who had gathered around Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad. When the Prophet passed away and the question of succession to him began to be discussed, Ali’s supporters argued that he must succeed the Prophet not only as the political head of the Islamic state (i.e., Caliph) but also as religious and spiritual leader (Imām) of the community. They believed that before the Prophet passed away in 632 he had in fact appointed Ali as his successor. This claim was based on a number of Traditions of the Prophet accepted by all members of the Islamic community, Shi‘ites and Sunnis alike, on the personal virtues and political qualities of Ali. The question, therefore, was not just who the legitimate successor of the Prophet was, but what role and function the successor to the Messenger was expected to perform. In other words, from the Shi‘ite view dispute over succession to the Prophet was not a political one; rather, it was a disagreement over profound doctrinal and spiritual issues as well as over the nature of the Islamic state and society. However, while Ali and other family members of the Prophet were preparing for the burial of the Prophet’s body, the senior members of the community in Medina gathered and elected Abu Bakr as the first successor to the Prophet. Thus the young Muslim community split and two branches of Islam, namely, Sunnism and Shi‘ism, emerged.

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