In order to explain the transformation that Islām went through since the rise of Shī'ism, Muslim and non-Muslim historians point to two factors derived from the same cause: the political struggle for the Caliphate. The first factor was the political influence of the oligarchy which transformed itself into a timocratic power, a state in which political power increases with the amount of property one owns, through the support of the triumphant majority.
The second factor was the political will of a marginalized minority which became a medium of resistance. Depending on the personal inclinations of previous researchers, they argue in favor of one of these two factors. For us, both factors are two aspects of the same cause. For Western research scholars, it is not always easy to accept the idea that in Islām, the relationship between the religion and politics is much closer than it is in the West between the Church and State.
It is even more difficult for them to accept that, in Shī'ism, religion and politics are two aspects of the orthodox development of the same doctrine, rather than parallel or separate tendencies that revolve around the same sphere but without any effective connection between them.
”Recent studies,” says Bausani, “distinguish more between a political Shī'ism, which included the purely political partisans of 'Alī and his family…, a religious Shī'ism, which included activists impregnated with Gnostic ideas, who were based mostly in Kūfah, in Mesopotamia, and whose main representative … was the politico-religious agitator al-Mukhtār who took over Kūfah in 685-686. He preached Messianic doctrines and started some very interesting customs like the cult of the vacant throne and so forth” (112-113).
As a result of these events, some Orientalists attempted to establish a clear distinction between an “extremist” political Shī'ism, a “moderate” religious Shī'ism, and an “intermediate” Shī'ism. This latter, which shares both political and religious aspects, is at times “extremist” and at others “moderate” according to Bausani's definition of Twelver Shī'ism. It comes as no surprise that, centuries after the birth of Shī'ism, Orientalists seeking support for the “democratic” orientation of Abū Bakr would use this inappropriate division to supposedly distinguish between a political Shī'ism and a religious Shī'ism.1
The origin and early development of Shī'ite Islām is, to a great extent, a history of divisions, dissensions, and internal quarrels relating to the problem of succession. A considerable number of movements, some of which went from partial or relative dissidence to outright rupture [fitnah], were drawn into the center of this great storm as a result of the violence perpetrated by the political and religious authorities. It must be mentioned, however, that while some of these groups may have reached the state of sects [furuq] in the Christian sense of the world, in our view, even this barrier between differences does not produce clear-cut division.
On the contrary, under this umbrella, many branches flourished, some longer-lived than others, which developed alongside Shī'ism without breaking the tie, as weak as it may have been, with the Islāmic trunk from which they were born.2
In truth, the development of sects–that is, groups which diverge on the basis of important beliefs or practices–is the result of the closer ties established between Shī'ism and the surrounding esoteric traditions. The divergence and conflict between the distinct groups is related to the reaction towards an ocean of doctrinal wealth.
The Ismā'īliyyah,3 for example, have a doctrine which, in many respects, makes them the heirs of the Sabian tradition of Harrān which, as is known, was the depository of Hermetic and neo-Pythagorean doctrines combined with elements from Hindu occultism and Gnosis.4These Sabians must not be confused with the Sabaeans or Mandaeans from southern of Irak and Persia.5
One of the common mistakes made in relation to Shī'ah Islām is the attempt to compare it with the various schisms found in Christianity. Shī'ism is often portrayed as a schismatic coextension of dissident groups organized in small cells or brotherhoods driven by an uncompromising parochial spirit. The concept of inshi'āb [division] in the Islāmic religion must not be confused with that of fitnah, definitive division and irreparable rupture. In fact, Shī'ism suffered no “division” [inshi'āb] or rupture [fitnah] during the Imāmate of the first three Imāms: 'Alī, Hasan, and Husayn.
After the death of Husayn, however, the majority of Shī'ites placed their trust in 'Alī ibn al-Husayn Zayn al-'Ābidīn,6 while a minority, known as al-Kaysaniyyah, believed that the right to succession belonged to Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyyah. He was the third son of 'Alī, but not through Fātimah. As a result, he cannot be considered a descendant of the Prophet.7
Despite this fact, Muhammad ibn Hanafiyyah was proclaimed by his partisans as the Fourth Imām and the promised Mahdī. During the time he sought refuge in the mountains of Rawdah, which form a cordillera in Madīnah, Mukhtār al-Thaqāfī served as his “representative.”8 It was believed that Muhammad ibn Hanafiyyah would come down one day and appear as the rightly-guided and long-awaited Messiah. In accordance with Shī'ite thought, the Mahdī is a man motivated by God who is also a military chief and a warrior.
Even if the followers of Mukhtār al-Thaqāfī gave an extremist character to the eschatological idea of the Hidden Imām, the Islāmic figure of the Messiah as restorer of revealed religion is not an invention of Mukhtār or a Christian influence. The Mahdī is a spiritual synthesis of all revealed forms and not a mere uniform syncretism. It is a concept that is expressed in all its dimensions and depth in many ahādīth of the Prophet as well as many traditions of the Imāms.9
In synthesis, we can say that after the death of Imām Zayn al-'Ābidīn, the majority of Shī'ites accepted Muhammad al-Bāqir as the Fifth Imām, despite the fact that a minority followed his brother Zayd al-Shahīd, who were known from that moment on as Zaydīs.10 Imām Muhammad al-Bāqir was succeeded by his son Ja'far al-Sādiq the Sixth Imām and, after his death, his son Mūsā al-Kāzim was recognized as the Seventh Imām.
Nevertheless, an opposition group insisted that the successor of the Sixth Imām was his elder son Ismā'īl who had died when his father was still alive.11 This group split from the Shī'ite majority and became known as the Ismā'īlis. Others, instead, preferred 'Abdullāh al-Aftah and some even chose Muhammad, both sons of the Sixth Imām. Still, there were even those who considered Ja'far al-Sādiq as the Last Imām and were convinced that none would succeed him.
Likewise, after the martyrdom of Imām Mūsā al-Kāzim, the majority followed his son 'Alī al-Ridā as the Eighth Imām. But there were those who refused to recognize any Imām after al-Kāzim and came to constitute the brotherhood of the Wāqifiyyah.12From the Eighth to the Twelfth Imām, considered by the Shī'ite majority as the Awaited Mahdī, no important division [inshi'āb] took place within Shī'ism.
However it occurred, what is important to retain here is that, since its origins, Shī'ite Islām represents, more than a spiritual and political rebellion against illegitimate authority, a movement of “awakening,” like that of Sūfism in the Sunnī world. It was not a reformist movement in the Christian sense, like the one that took place in Europe during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Shī'ite Islām represents an integral restoration of Muhammadan theosophy and metaphysics through the application and practice of all the teachings of the Holy Imāms, who linked the outer meanings of the text to the inner meanings of the divine word.
The root cause for the development of Shī'ism is utterly alien from worldly affairs. The source of Shī'ism is not a simple heresy or a political disagreement. Shī'ite Islām springs from a metaphysical reality, a process of epiphany which establishes a new logophonic manifestation of Prophethood. Shī'ism, as the Islām of 'Alī and the Ahlul Bayt , is the temporal and earthly pillar of the eternal and celestial reality of the wilāyah.
The wilāyah, the spiritual guidance of the Imāms, is a manifestation of Prophethood. The wilāyah is an inner or occult reality which is found in potential and action within the same Prophethood. The wilāyah is a manifestation of Prophethood that is revealed in a new way. The wilāyah is not the renovation of the anterior Qur'ānic revelation but its closure. The wilāyah is an unveiling of the esoteric and metaphysical truths found in the Qur'ān.
While the Prophet sealed the age of formal revelation, by means of the divine concession of the wilāyah and the Imāmate to his descendants, a new age of profound “revelations” was opened.13 Just as the pleroma of the Twelve Imāms represents the fullness of the Muhammadan Reality, their teachings and doctrines are flashes from the sole Muhammadan Light, the logophonic effusions and manifestations of the Qur'ānic revelation: its perfect synthesis and exact formulation.
Finally, in order for there to be a living branch from the Islāmic trunk, a favorable doctrinal terrain was required, a spiritual identity with its own characteristics which were qualitatively different from the other ideological options of its age. With such an understanding, the historical appearance of Shī'ism seems to be completely inevitable.
Without its presence, of course, the history of Islām and the world would have totally changed. In our judgment, any attempt to reduce the historical development of Shī'ism to a mere political problem related to the succession or to some insurgent elements is misguided at best. This applies to figures as fictitious as 'Abd Allāh ibn Saba', the Yemenite of Jewish extraction, and as real and historical as Mukhtār al-Thaqāfī.
Abd Allāh ibn Saba' and Mukhtār al-Thaqāfī are presented by Alessandro Bausani as “extremists” [ghulāt]14 and precursors of a political Shī'ism. Muslim and non-Muslim specialists have long disputed which one deserves the inappropriate title of “founder of Shī'ite Islām.”
The Italian Orientalist briefly refers to 'Abd Allāh ibn Saba' as an exalted personality, an ex-Jewish Yemenite who deified 'Alī during his lifetime. The feeble historical foundation surrounding someone considered to be no less than the “founder of Shī'ite Islām” should have ledBausani and other contemporary Orientalists to infer that they were dealing with a fictitious character or an insignificant individual whose existence had not even been faithfully documented by the annals of time.
It is shocking to learn, nonetheless, that the refusal to recognize Shī'ism as a historical and meta-historical reality profoundly rooted since the dawn of Islām has led certain Orientalists to discard the strongest evidence in favor of the weakest. In reality, 'Abd Allāh ibn Saba' is a literary character, a fabrication of Sayf ibn 'Umar al-Zindīq [the Atheist or Dualist], a famous falsifier of ahādīth or prophetic traditions.15
The absence of any convincing evidence to support the existence of 'Abd Allāh ibn Saba', partnered with the constantly contradictory and nebulous character of his life, convinced some Shī'ite scholars long ago that they were facing the figure of an imposter. Despite this body of bona fide doubts, it took longer than expected for this fact to be confirmed. In fact, it took no less than one thousand years before a perspicacious research scholar, the erudite Shī'ite 'Allāmah Sayyid Murtazā 'Askarī, shed light on this somber subject.
For many centuries, the detractors of Shī'ism used the tale of 'Abd Allāh ibn Saba' as a pretext to deny its purely Islāmic origin and to corrupt its genuine Muhammadan connection. They have stubbornly presented Shī'ism as the creation of an ex-Jew, thence as the political scheme of an upstart Muslim convert. As a result, the figure of the “convert” in the Muslim world continues to be the center around which all suspicions converge, whether reasonable or groundless.16
Along with 'Abd Allāh ibn Saba', Mukhtār al-Thaqāfī is often cited as one of the persons directly responsible for the creation of Shī'ism. He appeared as the inspiration for an armed resistance that took place in the year 40 of the Hijrah, during the regime of Mu'āwiyyah.
The revolutionary movement was directed against the Caliph and the powerful governors of the Ummayad clan who were all considered, without exception, as preachers of moral perdition and religious innovation. During the period of the first three khulafā' al-rāshidūn [rightly-guided Caliphs]–Abū Bakr, 'Umar ibn al-Khattāb and 'Uthmān–between the years 632 and 656, 'Alī ibn Abī Tālib and his followers were subjected to a considerable degree of political coercion which relaxed temporarily when 'Alī acceded to the Caliphate. After the death of 'Alī, however, the persecution of the Shī'ites became increasingly intense and intolerable under the Ummayad regime.17
With the proclamation of Mu'āwiyyah as the Caliph in Jerusalem in the year 660, the Caliphate was moved to Damascus and acquired an entirely different character than the one it possessed during the rule of the four rightly- guided Caliphs.18The defining characteristics of Mu'āwiyyah's rule were nepotism and tyranny. The Caliph turned into a “king” [malik] who governed as an absolute sovereign in the manner of the Persian and Byzantine emperors.19 With the death of Mu'āwiyyah, he was succeeded by his son Yazīd [680-683], described by historians as a degenerate drunkard.20
Successive uprisings against him broke out through all of Arabia, inspired and encouraged by the Shī'ites who despised the moral and spiritual decadence of the Ummayads. The Shī'ite revolts multiplied throughout the Ummayad Caliphate. The political reaction and righteous revenge for the death of Husayn, the youngest son of 'Alī and Fātimah, occurred in Karbala during the reign of Yazīd.
The revolution was led on behalf of Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyyah, whom we have already mentioned, and its goal was accomplished by Mukhtār al-Thaqāfī of Kūfah in the year 685. It was in Kūfah, one of the holiest cities in Islām, that the various esoteric and political branches of Shī'ism appeared. Fond of the old Christianizing formula of the Orientalists, Hitti affirms that “the blood of Husayn, and the blood of his father, was the seed of the Shī'ite Church.”21
The unequal efforts of the distinct Shī'ite groups against the Ummayad regime, each distinct in nature, meaning, purpose and reach, definitively did nothing but lead the insurgents to disaster, to merciless, heartless, and relentless repression and to brutal martyrdom. But, despite these vagaries, they are not movements undeserving of attention. They have their place, which is not at all negligible, in the course of the historical evolution of the Shī'ism we attempt to trace. In short, Mukhtār al-Thaqāfī lived in a period of difficult transition in the history of Shī'ism.
As we have mentioned, it was to a great extent a time of violent dissent and disputes. Bribery and political crimes were routinely used by the Ummayad regime to suppress its opponents. As a result, the division of Shī'ite Islām into distinct parties or factions, each one following 'Alī and some of his descendants, became an instrument of political struggle and the sole means of liberation and hope for the oppressed.
It was then, during those dark days of despotism, that Mukhtār al-Thaqāfī appeared on the scene, transforming himself into one of the most active combatants and one of the most outstanding and ingenious revolutionaries of his time. It goes without saying that Mukhtār al-Thaqāfī was Shī'ite, and probably forcibly so. In the religious and social framework of his time, he was also a messianic revolutionary, illuminated by Gnostic ideas.
In line with the goals and aspirations of his political program, he accomplished his mission to kill 'Ubayd Allāh ibn Ziyyād and, in so doing, he avenged the death of the Third Imām, Husayn al-Sibt al-Asghar, the youngest grandson of the Prophet. The personality and character of Mukhtār al-Thaqāfī aroused a great deal of controversy in the early history of Shī'ite Islām. Some sources present him as an ambitious adventurer and a faithful follower of the political authority of Ahlul Bayt. For others, he was an enlightened being who was almost raised to the rank of a prophet by his contemporaries.
Although he never made such a claim himself, he did indicate directly and indirectly, as we will see shortly, that his actions were inspired by the angel of revelation. After overcoming some initial hurdles, Mukhtār's personal success was great and long-lasting. He finished his days with praise and acclaim, recognized as one of the bravest heroes and one of the most efficient military leaders of Shī'ism.
He was the implacable avenger of Husayn, the standard of the tawwābūn [penitents] who consolidated the aspirations of this revolutionary Shī'ite movement whose appearance was motivated by the tragedy of Karbala.22 The tawwābūn or penitents constituted the first avenging movement of Karbala. However, as soon as Mukhtār al-Thaqāfī appeared on the scene, the tawwābūn were assimilated, and perhaps rightfully so, into his brand of revolutionary Messianism.
Regardless of the reason behind Mukhtār's popularity, the question of his religious commitment coincides with the establishment of an initiatory hierarchy which is distinct from the Shī'ite structure. Since Shī'ite thought was already sufficiently delineated, we must say without hesitation that his divergent approach did not arouse much sympathy among the Shī'ites.
The cause for such aversion is to be found in an accidental slip related to Imām Hasan. During his conflict with Mu'āwiyyah, the Imām sought asylum in Madā'in, in the house of the governor Sa'd ibn Mas'ūd who was Mukhtār's uncle. Unexpectedly and inexplicably,Mukhtār suggested to his uncle that he should turn in Imām Hasan to the Umayyad Caliph, who was searching for him. He told his uncle that he could subjugate the deposed Caliph and declare that “The treaty made with Hasan is null and void. It is under my feet.” Obviously, the governor emphatically rejected the treacherous suggestion made by his nephew.
From this incident, we can only lament Mukhtār's political blunder which did not go unnoticed by the Shī'ites. They unanimously and severely reproached him for being so inconsiderate and disloyal towards the first son of 'Alī and the oldest grandson of the Prophet.23
Further on, in an isolated and equally accidental incident, he regained the confidence and the appreciation of the Shī'ites. This occurred when he refused to appear before Ziyyād ibn Abih, the Governor of Kūfah, to testify against Hujr ibn 'Adī, the leader of the one of the Shī'ite rebellions to overthrow the tyrant. It seems that, from that moment onwards, Mukhtār adopted a position that was increasingly favorable towards the Shī'ite cause.
At the same time, his revolutionary rhetoric acquired an undeniable messianic character whichoccasionally resembled revelation. Mukhtār was a man who possessed psychological qualities in line with his strong and unusually esoteric religious mentality. He quickly converted himself into a spontaneous orator. His rhetoric was smooth and eloquent. It overflowed with obscure reflections and periphrastic expressions, which gave it a poetic flow which superficially resembled the revealed word. His speeches gave the impression that they came from an inspired source. It was for this reason that Mukhtār often alleged that his spirit was illuminated by Gabriel, the Angel of Revelation, who, in an ineffable and mysterious way, warned him of the unexpected.
Mukhtār's ingenious rhetorical slips had a tremendous influence on his followers and convinced them of the appearance of the Awaited Mahdī, identified with Muhammad ibn Hanafiyyah, who was coming to restore order and justice. Due to this deep-rooted Shī'ite conviction, he was considered by his followers as the “Representative of the Mahdī,” namely, a delegate of the third son of Imām 'Alī.
This is the manner in which he was recognized and allowed himself to be addressed. In the years 685 and 686, he established a Shī'ite-oriented government in Kūfah.24This was the first time this was done since the time of Imām 'Alī when he finally received his much delayed turn to occupy the Caliphate and to fully assume the supreme role he had inherited from the Prophet.
It must be remembered, however, that similar excesses on the part of Mukhtār caused, if not serious religious worries, at least considerable annoyance to the ruling religious authorities. His influence was great in the genesis of one sect, the Mukhtāriyyah, but did not shake the foundation of Imāmī Gnosis.
Although Mukhtār's ideas were not free from doctrinal errors, they did not radically alter the esoteric concept of the Hidden Imām which is the real touchstone of all Shī'ite thought: past, present, and future.25The repercussion of his ideas was sufficient to inspire the partial development of an erroneous path which, in its true sense, was nothing more than a stubbornness to maintain ideas which were contrary to those espoused by the majority of Shī'ites.
In fairness, the interesting and eventful life of this unique man brought him the opportunity to regain the sympathy of the Shī'ites. As we have said, avenging the death of Husayn, the martyr of Karbala, was the mission that was thrust upon Mukhtār al-Thaqāfī, as well as Sulaymān ibn Surad, leader of the tawwābūn. The target of this vengeance was 'Ubayd Allāh ibn Ziyyād, considered unanimously among Shī'ites to be the direct instigator and the main executor in the death of Imām Husayn and his family.
And here is one of those interesting facts that mark the lives of the chosen ones; the martyr Maytham al-Tammār, one of the closest companions of Imām 'Alī and one of the saints of Islām who is highly venerated by Sūfis, was imprisoned as a political prisoner by 'Ubayd Allāh ibn Ziyyād on charges of conspiring against the Ummayad regime. Destiny would have it that Mukhtār was also in the same prison. It is there that Maytham predicted that, once he was released, he would fulfill his mission of avenging Husayn which is, after all, exactly what happened.26
We have focused our attention on Mukhtār for the purpose of clearing up some common confusion related to the creation of the Party of 'Alī. We wish to take advantage of this opportunity to clarify another error. Bausani says that Mukhtār took over Kūfah and preached messianic doctrines and starting very interesting customs like the cult of the vacant throne. While this is true, it is not the complete truth. As “interesting” as this custom may be to Bausani–perhaps due to its symbolism–we must point out that Mukhtār never introduced “a cult of the vacant throne.”
As Dozy explains, the idea of the throne was simply an ingenious ruse that this clever and brilliant strategist contrived to incite his army to battle. He had the idea of purchasing an old armchair that he had re-upholstered with a fine and expensive silk, converting it into the famous “vacant throne” of 'Alī. This unusual inducement brought forth its desired fruit. Ibrāhīm, the commander of Mukhtār's troops, fought in an unusually brave and heroic fashion and killed 'Ubayd Allāh ibn Ziyyād with his own sword. In the minds of the Shī'ite soldiers the supposed throne of 'Alī truly acquired a highly symbolic value. Mukhtār had told them at the beginning of the battle that the throne would represent for them what the Ark of the Covenant represented to the Children of Israel.
As serious as the political events that coincide with the start of Shī'ism were, they cannot be considered a sufficient reason for its historical appearance. It is certain that Abū Bakr's assumption of the Caliphate of the Islāmic Community instead of 'Alī, the coerced resignation of Hasan and the martyrdom of Husayn, the division of the Islāmic world into various groups as a result of the bloody raids and forays of Mu'āwiyyah and Yazīd–the founders of the Ummayad dynasty–forced Muslims, Gnostics included, to take sides. However, the reason for which they were fighting goes well beyond what today is qualified as “political.”
Not all of the political insurrections which took place in the name of Shī'ism reflected the complex reality of the Imāmate and what it represents metaphysically. Likewise, the development of the esoteric doctrine and thought of Shī'ism in Islām should not be linked to the appearance of the word “Shī'ite” or “Shī'ism.” These terms simply designate a particular “party” or a “group” of Muslims.27 As Muhammad Bāqir al-Sadr observes, one thing is the meaning of the term, and the other is the distinct doctrine it designates. To say that the Shī'ites are a “party” of legitimistic minority Muslims merely expresses one aspect of the term.
In the time of the Prophet, as can be seen in many ahādīth, there are references to the “Shī'ah of 'Alī” and the “Shī'ah of Ahlul Bayt”28In Arabic, shī'ah means “partisans,” “adepts,” or “followers” of someone.29As a result, it is said that Shī'ites are those who are partisans of Imām 'Alī and his descendants. They are those who consider that the fulfillment of the sunnah of the Prophet demands the complete and obligatory observance of all of its dispositions and rulings. This evidently, and most importantly, includes the designation [nass] made by the Prophet of Imām 'Alī as his successor [khalīfah].