We have seen how Shia and Shiism come into the picture. We have also seen that, although all of them are known as Shias, they are not the same.
To understand what they are, and how they are different from the masses, known as Ahl al Sunnah or simply the Sunnis, I have developed a simplified model as below. This model, it has to be mentioned, is applicable mostly to the Shia Imamiyah. Shia Ismailiyah’s creed is more complex while Shia Zaydiyah is simpler.
Since Shia Imamiyah is the largest sect, and it is to them that we refer when we mention Shia nowadays, this simplified model would suffice for us to understand the ideology (or theology) of Shiism.
As the above model shows, Shia’s central creed rests on what they call Imamate. Imam means leader. One who leads the prayer is called Imam. In Shia’s creed, however, it means the appointed successor to the Prophet. Imamate is therefore the series of Imams who are supposed to occupy the Seat of Caliphate as the religious (spiritual) as well as secular (temporal) leaders of the Ummah. The Shias hold this Imamate to be divinely ordained, except for Shia Zaydiyah, who hold it as a matter of preference.
Here, one should note that the word Imams is reserved to those Ahl al Bayt who make up the line of their Imamate: five for Zaydiyah, seven for Ismailiyah and twelve for Imamiyah. It is in this specialized sense that we are using here.
In their line of Imamate, Ali is the first Imam, and hence should be the first caliph. Ali, however, was not chosen as the first Caliph, nor the second or the third, but the fourth. Since Abu Bakar, Umar and Uthman were successively appointed as the caliphs by the Companions (or approved and accepted by them), this has caused the Shias to reject the Companions. With the exception of Shia Zaydiyah, they consider these first three caliphs to be the usurpers.
As we know, our Prophet is unlettered. He did not write his own autobiography about his life or his sayings. Thus, everything that we know about the Prophet comes from people close to him, namely his Companions or spouses. Since the Shias reject the majority of these Companions and the Prophet’s wives, whatever is narrated by them, except those narrations that meet their fancy, is therefore rejected.
In this connection, as the above model shows, we can see that since they reject the companions (cause), it has resulted in them rejecting the body of Sunnah or Ahaadith (effect).
This rejection of the Companions, and subsequently the Prophetic Sunnah brought down by them, has led to schism or great division between the Ummah. The majority of the Ummah who have accepted the Companions and the Prophetic Sunnah brought by them are called the Sunnis. While those who have rejected these companions and the Prophetic Sunnah brought by them are known as Shias (other sects such as Mu’tazilah, Qadariyah, etc., are excluded in this simplified model).
This schism has led to perpetual polemic that is continued until these very days. It has also led to occasional bloodshed between the two parties, as shown in the model above.
In the like manner, since they reject the Companions, the Shias develop their own interpretation of the Quran to suit their fancies. The Imamiyah interpretation tends to be rationalistic and extrapolative, while Ismaliyah tends to be esoteric and mystical. Some even claim to have a different Quran, although the majority of them believe in the same Quran as the Sunnis.
In the same vein, we know that the Quran only provides general guidelines especially on matters relating to worshipping rituals (ibadah). These details are known only through the Sunnah. Since the Shias have rejected the Prophetic Sunnah as brought down by the Companions, they therefore have to develop their own set of Ahaadith. The most important one of these is called Al Kafi, which is the Shia equivalent to our collections of authentic Ahaadith such as Imam Malik’s Al-Muwatta’ and the Six Canonical collections (Six Canonical is referred to the Ahaadith collections by Bukhari, Muslim, Ibnu Majah, Abu Dawood, Tirmidzi and Nasa’i).
As a result of their extrapolative Quranic interpretation and innovative formulation of Ahaadith, these have led to differences in Islamic Jurisprudence (Fiqh). The majority of the core rituals such as prayer and fasting remain the same, with some differences in the details, but they also develop a few innovative rituals such as the pilgrimage to the Shrine in Karbala and the celebration of Ashura, which have no place among the Sunnis.
Their innovative approaches with regard to Quranic interpretation as well as having their own corpus of Ahaadith, which they attribute to their Imams, have led to many innovative rituals and beliefs, as shown in the model above.
Furthermore, the difference in their approach on this matter has also resulted in some fundamental differences in the jurisprudential rulings (Sharia). For instance, Nikah Mut’ah (temporary marriage) is declared unlawful by all Sunnis, but lawful to them. This is because they have rejected the hadith concerning the declaration of its unlawfulness by the Prophet at the Battle of Khaybar. Instead, they attribute the ruling only to the decision made by Umar when he was the Caliph.
Since they have rejected the above mentioned hadith, reportedly made by the Prophet at Khaybar and related by Ali himself (among others), and since they have rejected Umar and considered him to have apostatized after the death of the Prophet, and since they do not consider the Consensus (Ijma) among the Companions to be binding, having rejected them as well, what is declared unlawful by the Sunnis is therefore held as lawful to them.
At this point, it may be asked: where do they get all these ideas about Imamate?
They claim that this Imamate is Divinely Ordained by Allah Himself. They quote Quranic verse 5:55 to support their claim. The verse reads: “Your ally (wali) is none but Allah and His Messenger and those who have believed - those who establish prayer and give zakah, and they bow [in worship].”
Their leading commentators such as At-Toosi and At-Tubrusi equate the word Wali (ally, protector) in the above verse to be the Imamate of Ali, and declare this verse to be the strongest evidence for the support of Imamate.
Another evidence they bring to prove the validity of Imamate is the verse known as the Verse of Mubaahalah (Quran 3:61) which reads: Then whoever argues with you about it after [this] knowledge has come to you - say, "Come, let us call our sons and your sons, our women and your women, ourselves and yourselves, then supplicate earnestly [together] and invoke the curse of Allah upon the liars [among us]."
How they arrive to the strange conclusion of Imamate from these two verses is a long story that we shall reserve for other installment, insyaAllah.
As for the Prophetic Signals, they base their arguments on a few authentic traditions or events such as Ghadeer Khumm and the appointment of Ali to be in charge of Madinah during the Battle of Tabook, and a few fabricated traditions such as the Hadith of the Bird, The Hadith of the House, and the Hadith “I am the city of knowledge, and Ali is its gate…”
We shall likewise reserve these Prophetic Signals for other installment, insyaAllah, but if you like to wet your beak, here is the interesting Shia site on Ghadeer Khumm, and the equally interesting rebuttal by the Sunni.
The Shias further amplify their claim on the Sacred Bloodline of the Prophet, giving prominence and superiority of Ali and his descendants above all others, and hide under the Love of Ahl al Bayt. Together with Divine Appointment and Prophetic Signal, these make up the sources for their claim on Imamate, as the model above shows.
To strengthen their belief on Imamate, they develop the reinforcing doctrines of the Infallibility of Imams and Taqiyyah. They declare that, like the Prophets, the Imams too are infallible, incapable of committing mistakes, sins or errors. Because of these infallibility, whatever the Imams say must be true and acting upon these sayings are obligatory. Capitalizing on this infallible doctrine, they concoct lies and attribute these lies to the Imams.
But the Imams whose lies they attribute are the descendants of the Prophet. They are pious and honorable people. For that reason, these Imams, who are the descendants of the Prophet, always denied these strange things attributed to them while they were still alive. The Rafidi Shias, however, have a convenience doctrine at their disposal, namely the Taqiyyah, to counter the contradictions due to these denials.
Taqiyyah means deliberate denial or deliberate lying. The purpose is to avoid persecution. This is one of their pillars of faith, and exercising Taqiyyah is considered an act of worship (ibadat). Thus, when these Imams deny saying those things attributed to them, the Rafidi Shias say that these Imams are exercising Taqiyyah. In other word, when the Imams make the denials, they are in fact deliberately lying to conceal the truth so as to avoid persecution. Hence, whatever they deny is therefore the truth.
These reinforcing doctrines of Imams’ Infallibility and Taqiyyah further strengthen their claim on the Imamate Creed, as shown in the model above.
The net effect of the Imamate Creed, as shown in the model above, is that it has created an elite class of clergy and shaykh. These are the religious positions enjoyed by the leading elite in their sect. This special elite is necessary due to the complexities of their doctrines, whereby one evidence often cancels the other. This special class is also required because of the need to extrapolate just about everything (the Arabic term is ta’wil, namely creating a meaning which is different from the apparent). Their situation is pretty much like the Christians who need the special class of priest because Christianity Creed is extremely complex.
That, in its most complete but simplified form, is what Shiism is all about.