We now know how Shi'ism came into existence, but how did the Shi'a emerge and how did the schism of the Ummah develop from this? This is a question which we shall now answer.
When we follow the first stage of the life of the Muslim Ummah during the lifetime of the Prophet we find that there were two different principal trends accompanying the development of the Ummah and the beginning of the Islamic experience from the earliest years, which co-existed within the embryonic Ummah established by the guiding Prophet. This difference between the two trends led to an ideological schism immediately after the death of the Prophet which divided the Ummah into two sections, one of which was destined to rule and extend its influence so as to include the majority of the Muslims, while the other section was forced further from power and was destined to exist as an opposing minority within the framework of the greater Muslim Ummah. This minority was in fact the Shi'a.
The two principal trends which accompanied the development of the Ummah during the lifetime of the Prophet from the beginning were:
i) The trend which believed in devotion to Islam and its arbitration, and in total submission to the religious texts in every sphere of life.
ii) The trend which believed that belief in Islam did not necessitate devotion except in the special scope of religious observances and metaphysics, and believed in the possibility of ijtihad (independent judgement), and the permissibility of making judgements on this basis with changes and modifications in the religious texts according to their interests in matters other than the above in the sphere of life.
Although the Sahaba, as the believing and enlightened vanguard of Islam, were the most perfect and most important seeds for its religious development to the extent that there has never in the course of history been an ideological generation more magnificent, purer or nobler than that established by the Prophet, we find that it is necessary to accept the existence of a large trend, from the very lifetime of the Prophet who inclined towards proposing the use of ijtihad and circumstantial considerations in determining their interests, above strict adherence to the religious texts. Similarly, there was another trend which believed in religious arbitration and in submission and devotion there to concerning all religious texts and all areas of life.
One of the factors contributing to the spread of the second trend (al-ijtihad) amongst the Muslim ranks was its coherence withman's natural tendency towards making judgements and according to its interests, as he understands them, rather than according to a decision whose significance he does not understand.
This trend was represented by a daring group of important sahaba like, Umar ibn al-Khattab, who disputed with the Messenger and made judgements contradicting the texts in many subjects, believing that they had the right to do so. In this respect we can cite Umar's attitude towards the Treaty of al-Hudaybiyyaand his objection there to, his attitude towards the adhan: (call to prayer) and his decision to exclude, 'Hayy 'alakhayr al-'amal,' his attitude towards the Prophet regarding the Mutia'a 'l-Hajj, and other examples of his attitude towards the use of ijtihad.
Both these trends were reflected in the presence of the Messenger during the last days of his life. In his Sahih, Al-Bukhari quotes on the authority of Ibn Abbas:
'When the Messenger of Allah was about to die there were men gathered in the house, amongst whom was Umar ibn al-Khattab. The Prophet said, "Come I shall give you a document after which none shall go astray." But Umar said, "The Prophet has been overcome by pain and he has already given us the Qur'an, and the Book of Allah is sufficient for us." Where upon the people gathered together in the house disagreed, and one of them argued, saying, "Come near! The Prophet is going to give us a document after which none shall go astray." While another said the same as Umar. And when the nonsensical speech and disagreement became too much for the Prophet he told them, "Depart! "'
This incident alone serves to prove the deep-seated attitudes of the two trends, and the extent of the disagreement and struggle between them.
In order to illustrate the deep-seated attitudes of the trend who believed in such judgement, we can add an account of the controversy and disagreement between the Sahaba which surrounded the appointment of Usama ibn Zayd over the army, in spite of the fact that there was a clear prophetical designation to that effect. This controversy continued until the Messenger of Allah, who was ill, came out to the people and spoke to them saying: '0 people, what is this that I have heard concerning the attitude of some of you to the appointment of Usama? If you oppose the appointment of Usama you should have opposed the appointment of his father before him. I swear by Allah that he was worthy of the appointment and that his son is worthy of it after him!'
The struggle between these two trends, which was visible during the lifetime of the Prophet, was also reflected in the attitude of the Muslims to Imam Ali's designation as leader of the da'wah after the death of the Prophet. Those who represented the devotional trend (AI-Ittijad at-Ta'abbudi) found it necessary to accept this designation without hesitation or modification, whereas the second trend thought that they could reject this designation of the Prophet when their independent judgement led them to one which was more in keeping with their understanding of the circumstances.
Thus we can see that the Shi'a appeared immediately after the death of the Prophet and was represented by those Muslims who actually accepted his designation of Imam Ali as the leader,whose leadership had been stipulated by the Prophet which should have been realized immediately upon the Prophet's death.
So the Shi'i trend took form in the first instance because of the prevention of Imam Ali's assumption of the leadership at as-Saqifa and the entrusting of the authority to someone else.
In Al-ihtijaj At-Tabarsi says, on the authority of Iban ibn Taghlib:
'I told Ja'far ibn Muhammad as-Sadiq, peace be upon him, "May I be your ransom. Did any of the Sahaba of the Messenger of Allah deny the appointment of Abu Bakr?" He said, "Yes. Twelve of the Muhajirun denied it: Khalid ibn Sa'id ibn Abi'I-As, Salman al-Farsi, Abu Dharr al-Ghifari, AI-Miqdad ibnal-Aswad, Ammar ibn Yasir, and Barida 'l Aslami; as did the following Ansar: Abu 'l-Haytham ibn at-Tayhan, Uthman ibn Hunayf, Khuzayma ibn Thabit Dhu sh 'Shihadatayn, Ubayy ibn Ka'b and Abu Ayyub al-Ansari".'
You may say that if the Shi'i trend represented close adherence to the text while the other trend represented independent judgement this implies that the Shi'a refuted the concept of ijtihad and did not permit themselves to apply it, whereas we know that the Shi'a have always practiced the use of ijtihad in matters concerning Islamic law (ash-Shari'ah).
The answer to this is that the ijtihad employed by the Shi'a is the derivation of a ruling from the legal texts, which they believe not only to be permissible, but obligatory for a section of the Ummah, not the ijtihad which is to reject the legal texts or to subject the legal text to the personal view of the mujtahid, or to some resultant benefit, for this is impermissible and the Shi'a trend refutes any such use of ijtihad.
When we talk of the development of these two trends from the origins of Islam onwards, one of which followed the texts closely while the other employed ijtihad, we mean by ijtihad the making of judgements in contradiction to the text or the acceptance of such a judgement. The appearance of these two trends would have been natural in the case of any radical and reformatory religion which attempted to change a corrupt reality from its very roots upwards, although the extent of their influence would have differed according to the strength of the residue of previous ideas, the extent of the individual's identification with the principles of the new religion, and of his devotion there to. We of course know that the trend which represented the close adherence to the texts identified with Islam and devoted themselves totally to it; and did not reject the use of ijtihad within the framework of the religious texts and in extracting legal rulings from these texts. It is also important that we should point out that this adherence to the texts does not imply ossification and rigidity, which would be incompatible with the problems imposed by progress and by the many different modernizing factors which are part of man's life. As we understand it, adherence to the text is adherence to Islam and the total acceptance there of, for Islam carries within itself all the flexibility and capacity necessary to adapt to the needs of any particular time and all the elements of modernization and progress included there in. Thus, adherence to Islam and its texts is also adherence to all these elements, and to their capacity for original creation and modernization.
This is a general sketch to explain Shi'ism as a natural phenomenon within the framework of Islam and the appearance of the Shi'a as an answer to this natural phenomenon.
Before ending, I would like to mention a point which I believe to be very important. Some scholars have tried to distinguish between two different aspects of Shi'ism: the first is spiritual Shi'ism and the second is political Shi'ism. Moreover, they believed that spiritual Shi'ism is older than its political counterpart, and that the Imami Imams from the lineage of Imam Husayn, peace be upon him, retired from the political scene after the massacre at Karbala, moved their attention to spiritual guidance and ritual acts, and withdrew from the world.
However, the truth is that Shi'ism has never been solely a purely spiritual trend from its earliest beginnings, and indeed originated at the very heart of Islam as a movement dedicated to assisting Imam Ali to achieve his rightful position as the sole ideological leader of Islam after the death of the Prophet as we previously explained in our examination of the circumstances which led to the birth of Shi'ism. It is not in fact possible, in view of the circumstances which we have examined, to divorce the spiritual side from the social in any representation of Shi'ism, just as it is impossible to divorce one from the other in Islam itself.
Thus Shi'ism can only be divided when it loses its significance as an attempt to safeguard the future of the da'wah after the death of the Prophet, a future which required a combination of both ideological authority and social leadership. There was a great deal of support for Imam Ali among the Muslim ranks who believed that he was the person capable of maintaining the type of leadership initiated by the three khulafah, and it was this which brought him to power after the murder of Uthman. But this mere support is not Shi'ism, neither spiritual nor political, because the Shi'a believe Imam Ali should have ruled instead of these three khulafah, and should have assumed the khilafah immediately after the Prophet. Thus the wide support for Imam Ali amongst the Muslim ranks extended beyond the scope of true Shi'ism, so that the supposed spiritual and political wings of Shi'ism were actually an element within this greater support, and we can hardly claim this case as an example of divided Shi'ism.
Similarly, the spiritual and ideological support which the Imam enjoyed from some of the important sahaba during the reigns of Abu Bakr and Umar (such as Salman, Abu Dharr, Ammar andothers) does not indicate a spiritual Shi'ism divorced from its political side. On the contrary, it expresses the fact that these Sahaba believed ideologically and politically in the rights of Imam Ali to the leadership of the da'wah after the death of the Prophet and that their ideological belief in his leadership was reflected in their previous spiritual support, while their political belief in his leadership was reflected in their opposition to the khilafah of Abu Bakr and to the trend which turned the authority from the Imam in favour of another.In fact, there was never any such division between spiritual Shi'ism and social Shi'ism, and such an idea only presented itself to the Shi'i believer after he succumbed to the reality of the situation, and after the fire of Shi'ism in its limited meaning as a movement towards truly Islamic leadership within the Ummah and the accomplishment of the radical, reformatory task undertaken by the Great Messenger had been extinguished in his heart, and had turned into a purely religious belief which the individual bore within his heart, or from which he derived his conduct and aspirations.
We now come to the claim that the Imams of the Ahl al-Bayt from the progeny of Imam Husayn withdrew from politics and cut themselves off from the world. In fact it is worth noting that Shi'ism, as we understand it, was a means towards the continuation of truly Islamic leadership. Islamic leaderhip, however,simply means the continuation of the type of leadership initiated by the Noble Messenger towards the total establishment of an Ummah on the basis of Islam, and it is thus impossible to imagine a way in which the Imams could have withdrawn from social affairs without withdrawing also from Shi'ism.
However,the Imams' decision not to take up arms against the contemporary governments helped to spread the belief that they had in fact abdicated their social interest in the leadership. Yet we possess many texts transmitted on the authority of the Imams which show that each Imam was always ready to undertake military action if he was sure that he had the necessary followers and strength to achieve the Islamic aims. If we follow the path of the Shi'i movement we find that the Shi'i leadership, which was represented by the Imams of the Ahlal-Bayt, believed that the achievement of authority was not in itself sufficient for the fulfillment of the Islamic reformatory process, unless this authority was supported by ideological, popular bases which were aware of the aims of this government, strove to guard it and explain its attitudes to the populace, and stood firm in times of hardship.
In the middle of the first century after the death of the Prophet the Shi'i leadership was still continually trying to regain control of the Ummah by means which they believed in, in spite of the distance between them and the government, because they believed that they had strong, popular support from the Muhajirun, Ansar, and Tabi'un: (next generation) who were aware, or semi-aware, of their rights to authority. However, half a century later, after all noticeable signs of this popular support had vanished and new generations had grown up under insidious influences, it became clear that any achievement of this control by the Shi'i movement would not lead to its lofty goal, because the popular support, which would have assisted them and sacrificed themselves for them because of their awareness of their rights to power, no longer existed.
In view of this there were only two possible courses of action: firstly, an attempt to reestablish these conscious popular bases, which could prepare the ground for the eventual achievement of power; and secondly, to shake the consciousness of the Muslim Ummah, so as to maintain the life and vigour of the Islamic consciousness and the Ummah, and protect the Ummah against the total abdication of its identity and nobility to deviant rulers.The first course of action was actually adopted by the Imams themselves, while the second was adopted by the 'Ali revolutionaries who tried to protect the conscience and free will of the Muslim Ummah by their courageous self-sacrifice.
Those of the revolutionaries who were sincere enjoyed the support of the Imams. Imam Ali ibn Musa ar-Ridha, peace be upon him, told Al-Ma'mun, when he discussed the martyred Zayd ibn Ali: 'He was one of the scholars (ulama) of the Ahl al-Bayt who became angry on Allah's behalf and fought His enemies until he was killed fighting in His path. My father, Musa ibn Ja'far,peace be upon him, told me that he used to hear his father,Ja'far, say, "May Allah have mercy on my Uncle Zayd, who encouraged the people to support the most suitable leader from the Al-Muhammad. For had he been victorious, he would have fulfilled his promise to Allah, because he used to say, 'I am calling you to support the most suitable leader from the family of Muhammad'."'
Thus the fact that the Imams abandoned the idea of direct military action against deviant rulers does not mean that they set aside the political aspect of their leadership and turned all their attention to prayers only. On the contrary, it demonstrates how their different forms of political policy were shaped by contemporary circumstances and by their profound awareness of the exact nature of their radical policy and of the best means to its fulfillment. And Praise be to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds.