Some scholars who study Shi`ism describe it as a phenomenon that is incidental to Islamic society. They observe the Shi segment within the body of the Islamic community precisely in its quality of a segment, one that first came into being, through the passage of time, as a result of specific societal events and developments, leading to the intellectual and doctrinal formation of one part only within the larger body; a part which gradually broadened later.1 Beyond this assumption, these scholars differ as to the particular events and developments that led to the rise of such a phenomenon.
Some assume that `Abd Allah b. Saba'2 and his alleged political activity were at the origin of the rise of the Shi`ite bloc. Others trace the phenomenon of Shi`ism back to the era of Imam `Ali's Caliphate and whatever political and social circumstances had taken shape within the pale of events of the time. Still others claim that, within the historical sequence of the Islamic community, the appearance of the Shi`ites occurred through still later events than these.3
As far as I can tell, what has prompted many of these scholars to believe that Shi`ism was a phenomenon merely incidental to Islamic society is precisely that the Shiites of early Islam represented but a tiny portion of the Ummah. This fact may have inspired the feeling that what was not Shi`i must have then been the predominant pattern in Islamic society, and that Shi'ism was the exception, an accidental phenomenon whose causes can be discovered through developments relating to the opposition to the dominant order.
But to consider either numerical majority or relative minority as grounds enough for distinguishing the dominant order from the exception, or the original root from the schism, lacks logical rigour. It is incorrect to describe “non-Shi'ism” as dominant simply on the basis of a numerical majority; and, based on numerical inferiority, to relegate “Shi'ism” to an incidental phenomenon and the idea of schism.
That would not agree with the nature of creedal divisions, since many divisions can remain within the fold of a single message and arise only through the differences attending the process of defining certain of the message's features. No two credal divisions ever have numerical equivalence, although both sides may at bottom be seeking to express the same message on whose nature they disagree.
Hence, under no circumstances can we build our conception upon a creedal division between Shi'ism and other currents within the Islamic Mission4 based on numbers alone; just as we may not link the birth of the Shi'i thesis, as it occurs within the framework of the Islamic Mission, with the advent of the word “Shi'ites” or “Shi'ism” taken as a technical term or proper noun for a clearly defined group among the Muslims. This is because the advent of names and technical terms is one thing, and the development of the content, the actual current and the thesis are another. If we cannot find the word “Shiites”5 in current usage at the time of God's Messenger, or immediately following his death, this does not mean that the Shiite current and thesis did not exist.
With this frame of mind, then, let us turn to the issue of “Shi`ism” and “Shi`ites” in order to answer the following two questions:
What is the origin of Shi'ism?
How did the Shi'ites emerge?