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The Imamate

Among Shias the term imam traditionally has been used only for Ali and his eleven descendants. None of the twelve Imams, with the exception of Ali, ever ruled an Islamic government. During their lifetimes, their followers hoped that they would assume the rulership of the Islamic community, a rule that was believed to have been wrongfully usurped. Because the Sunni caliphs were cognizant of this hope, the Imams generally were persecuted during the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties. Therefore, the Imams tried to be as unobtrusive as possible and to live as far as was reasonable from the successive capitals of the Islamic empire.

The Imamate began with Ali, who is also accepted by Sunni Muslims as the fourth of the "rightly guided caliphs" to succeed the Prophet. Shias revere Ali as the First Imam, and his descendants, beginning with his sons Hasan and Husayn, continue the line of the Imams until the twelfth, who is believed to have ascended into a supernatural state to return to earth on Judgment Day. Shias point to the close lifetime association of the Prophet with Ali. When Ali was six years old, he was invited by the Prophet to live with him, and Shias believe Ali was the first person to make the declaration of faith in Islam. Ali also slept in the Prophet's bed on the night of the hijra or migration from Mecca to Medina when it was feared that the house would be attacked by unbelievers and the Prophet stabbed to death. He fought in all the battles the Prophet did except one, and the Prophet chose him to be the husband of his favorite daughter, Fatima.

The Sunni-Shia division of Islam originated as a succession dispute shortly after the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632 A.D. Shia believe that the proper successor of Muhammad was Ali. The word "Shia" means partisan or faction of Ali. Ali was elected to be the fourth Muslim ruler or caliph, but was later overthrown and assassinated. Shia Muslims believe that the first three caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman were usurpers, and that Ali was the first true Imam.

Shia venerate Ali only second to Muhammad, considering him the first Imam and the true caliph. Ali was buried in the Iraqi city of Najaf, which established an early connection between Iraq and Shiism and became a shrine city that continues to be a destination for Shia pilgrims.

In 661 A.D. Mu'awiya, the governor of Syria, named himself caliph and made the caliphate hereditary in his own family, the Umayyads, who the Shia rejected as usurpers of Ali and his sons' rights to the caliphate. In the year AD 661, Imam Ali, Muhammad's son-in-law and the fourth caliph of Islam, was assassinated in southern Iraq in a struggle over who would rule the faithful. Ali was buried in Najaf, and his tomb is housed in a mosque in the city's center.

Nineteen years after Ali's death, his two sons were killed in battle and subsequently buried in nearby Karbala. Their battlefield deaths made martyrdom one of the most important tenets of Shiism. Shia attempts to challenge the Umayyad leaders resulted in the death of Ali's son and the third Shia Imam, Husayn, at the Battle of Karbala in 680. The city of Karbala has become a Shia shrine city.

Husayn's death is commemorated annually in the Ashura ceremony, and is seen as a symbol of the persecution and oppression experienced by the Shia community. Celebration of Ashura can also be a form of Shia political dissent. Male participants in the Ashura rituals beat their chests and chant in an action called lahtom. Some use swords to lacerate their heads to symbolize the beheading of Husayn, or use chains to beat their backs to evoke the suffering of Husayn.

Shia may place a piece of stone or clay, known as a turba, from the shrine of an Imam or other Shia figure on the ground so that their forehead touches the stone when they prostrate themselves in prayer. The possession of such a disc is a sign of Shia identity.

Jaafari [Jafari] Faith means the Religion according to lmam Jaafar Sadiq (a.s.), the Sixth Infallible Imam of the world of Shiism. Ascription of the Shiite Religion to Imam Jaafar ben Muhammad A]-Sadiq (a.s.) was due to the fact that this noble Imam lived longer than all other Infallible Imams and, thus, he has had more time and opportunity for action. Because of the conditions of his time, the role of imam Sadeq (a.s.) in reviving true, genuine Islamic teachings, formation of numerous education centers and training of faithful men was exceptional to the point that the Shiite religion by ascription to him has been named the "Jaafari Faith". The infirmity and confusion of the Caliphate due to the clashes between the Abbasid, and the Omayyad dynasties, in particular, afforded wider opportunities to the Imam to teach, instruct, discuss and train the faithful and sincere forces and to establish lbeologic Centers and promulgate the Islamic truths.

During the eighth century the Caliph Mamun, son and successor to Harun ar Rashid, was favorably disposed toward the descendants of Ali and their followers. He invited the Eighth Imam, Reza (A.D. 765-816), to come from Medina (in the Arabian Peninsula) to his court at Marv (Mary in the present-day Soviet Union). While Reza was residing at Marv, Mamun designated him as his successor in an apparent effort to avoid conflict among Muslims. Reza's sister Fatima journeyed from Medina to be with her brother, but took ill and died at Qom, in present-day Iran. A major shrine developed around her tomb and over the centuries Qom has become a major Shia pilgrimage and theological center.

Mamun took Reza on his military campaign to retake Baghdad from political rivals. On this trip Reza died unexpectedly in Khorasan. Reza was the only Imam to reside or die in what in now Iran. A major shrine, and eventually the city of Mashhad, grew up around his tomb, which has become the most important pilgrimage center in Iran. Several important theological schools are located in Mashhad, associated with the shrine to the Eighth Imam.

Reza's sudden death was a shock to his followers, many of whom believed that Mamun, out of jealousy for Reza's increasing popularity, had the Imam poisoned. Mamun's suspected treachery against Imam Reza and his family tended to reinforce a feeling already prevalent among his followers that the Sunni rulers were untrustworthy.

The Twelfth Imam is believed to have been only five years old when the Imamate descended upon him in A.D.874 at the death of his father. Because his followers feared he might be assassinated, the Twelfth Imam was hidden from public view and was seen only by a few of his closest deputies. Sunnis claim that he never existed or that he died while still a child. Shias believe that the Twelfth Imam never died, but disappeared from earth in about A.D. 939. Since that time, the greater occultation of the Twelfth Imam has been in force and will last until God commands the Twelfth Imam to manifest himself on earth again as the Mahdi or Messiah. Shias believe that during the occultation of the Twelfth Imam, he is spiritually present--some believe that he is materially present as well--and he is besought to reappear in various invocations and prayers. His name is mentioned in wedding invitations, and his birthday is one of the most jubilant of all Shia religious observances.

The Shia doctrine of the Imamate was not fully elaborated until the tenth century. Other dogmas were developed still later. A characteristic of Shia Islam is the continual exposition and reinterpretation of doctrine.

Shia Muslims hold the fundamental beliefs of other Muslims. But, in addition to these tenets, the distinctive institution of Shia Islam is the Imamate -- a much more exalted position than the Sunni imam, who is primarily a prayer leader. In contrast to Sunni Muslims, who view the caliph only as a temporal leader and who lack a hereditary view of Muslim leadership, Shia Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad designated Ali to be his successor as Imam, exercising both spiritual and temporal leadership. Such an Imam must have knowledge, both in a general and a religious sense, and spiritual guidance or walayat, the ability to interpret the inner mysteries of the Quran and the sharia. Only those who have walayat are free from error and sin and have been chosen by God through the Prophet. Each Imam in turn designated his successor--through twelve Imams--each holding the same powers.

Implied in the Shia principle of the imamah is that imams, are imbued with a redemptive quality as a result of their sufferings and martyrdoms. And, although imams are not divine, they are sinless and infallible in matters of faith and morals, principle very similar to the notion of papal infallibility in the Roman Catholic Church. That man needs an intermediary with God is an Iranian idea that long predates Islam, as is the idea of a savior or messiah (Mahdi) who will come to redeem man and cleanse the world. To expect that the Mahdi, who is the last (twelfth) Imam, really will one is a religious virtue (intizar).

Imam Ali

Imam Husayn

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:59:44 ZULU