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Imamate the First Source of Division

The first division in the Muslim community resulted from the followers of Imam `Ali (PBUH) parting way with those who approved of the allegiance (bay`ah) given to Abu Bakr in the course of Saqifah negotiations. Without delving into a detailed discussion of the relevant theological issues this much is evident that Imam `Ali (PBUH) in spite of giving allegiance to the first three caliphs, as a means of preventing a rift within the Muslim community, remained convinced of his right to caliphate. This is clearly in evidence in his sermons and letters, as well as in those of his children, e.g. the Shaqshaqiyyah Sermon (Nahj al-balaghah, sermon #3) and Imam Hasan’s (PBUH) letter to Mu`awiyah. Another piece of historical evidence is the title given to a group of Muslims of the early Islamic period who were known as the Shi`ites (followers) of Imam `Ali (PBUH). In the reports of the Battle of Siffin the term Shi`ite is used in reference to a group of the companions of the Imam. Another occurrence of the word Shi`ite is in connection with the peace treaty between Imam Hasan (PBUH) and Mu`awiyah which stipulates that the latter should refrain from persecuting the Shi`ites of `Ali (PBUH). What gave rise to the term Shi`ite was its combined use in the phrase “the Shi`ites of `Ali” during the religious and historical events of the 1st century AH. It does seem likely that the abbreviated form of the phrase, i.e. Shi`ites, was in circulation during the 1st century itself. 

Unlike the Shi`ites, who considered imamate as a religious imperative and divine prerogative for Imam `Ali (PBUH), the Muhajirun and Ansar held a fundamentally different view of the subject; a fact that is borne out by their discussions during the course of negotiations at Saqifah, where even the representatives of Ansar claimed the right to caliphate and only backed down when the Muhajirun adduced the hadith of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) which asserts “the imams are to be from the Quraysh”. From a theological point of view the majority of Muslims have considered the caliphate of Abu Bakr to have been a voluntary affair and, apart from the obscure sect of the Bikriyyah, no other sect has ascribed a Shi`ite-type imamate to Abu Bakr. 

`Umar was appointed caliph after the death of Abu Bakr (caliphate 11 – 13 AH), who chose him as his successor. At the time of his death `Umar, in turn, appointed a council of six to choose a caliph from among themselves. This led to the selection of `Uthman (caliphate 23 – 35 AH). Imam `Ali (PBUH) and his followers yielded to the caliphates of Abu Bakr and `Umar as a means of preserving the unity of the Islamic community, in spite of the fact that, all along, they saw the truth as being otherwise; a fact that is reflected in the Imam’s remarks in Nahj al-balaghah (sermon #3). It is worth noting that the sirah (practice) of the Shaykhayn (the two Shaykhs, i.e. Abu Bakr and `Uthman) had come to be acknowledged as an established tradition, toward the end of the caliphate of `Umar, so much so that at times it was placed alongside the Quran and the sirah of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). The clearest historical example of this can be seen in the selection process of the six-member council appointed by `Umar. When the leader of the council, `Abd al-Rahman b. `Awf, offered the position of caliph to `Ali (PBUH) and `Uthman on the condition that they should observe the sirah of the Shaykhayn, `Ali (PBUH) promised to adhere to those of their practices which conformed to the Quran and the sirah of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), whereas `Uthman agreed unconditionally and thus succeeded in securing `Abd al-Rahman’s allegiance. 

According to the evidence of many historical and theological sources, in the first six years of his caliphate, `Uthman managed to, more or less, stay true to his promise. However, from around 30 AH he began to introduce changes in his system of government and to give freer rein to the members of Bani Umayyah, a development which caused a great deal of dissatisfaction among those who had considered his caliphate as legitimate but who, none the less, were critical of his deviation from the tradition set by the two previous caliphs. An instance of this objection took place in 33 AH, when scholars of various orientations, including Shi`ite leaders and non-Shi`ite personalities such as `Amr b. `Abd Allah b. `Abd Qays, formed a group to voice their opposition; a development which eventually turned into an insurrection resulting in `Uthman’s murder. Imam `Ali (PBUH) condemned the actions of those who took part in the riots. The same view may be detected in the theological sources of later eras which, in spite if their authors’ belief in the illegitimacy of `Uthman’s caliphate, none the less, contain no assertions that may be interpreted as approvals regarding his murder. 

After `Uthman’s death Muslims gave their allegiance to Imam `Ali (PBUH). However, some of his opponents rose against him under the pretext of trying to avenge `Uthman’s blood. The first battle, known as the Battle of Jamal, was joined between the Imam and two of the influential companions of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), Talhah and Zubayr. Though the encounter was based on purely political motives it, served as a context for theological musings. Some, such as Sa`d b. Abi Waqqas and `Abd Allah b. `Umar, came to advance the notion that since a conflict had arisen between the companions of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and therefore the line between truth and falsehood had been blurred the logical stance was to refrain from taking any positions in favor of either side. They thus arrived at the notion of tawaqquf (suspension of judgment). In some sources, the followers of this idea are referred to as the “early Mu`tazilites”. The Battle of Siffin followed on the heels of the Battle of Jamal. In this confrontation Imam `Ali (PBUH) faced Mu`awiyah, the `Uthman-appointed governor of Syria, an event which at a sensitive juncture in Islamic history gave rise to another wave of politico-theological divisions. 

As a result of the events of arbitration (tahkim), which was imposed on Imam `Ali (PBUH) as a means of bringing to a close the Battle of Siffin (37 AH), a group of ascetic Muslims bent on adherence to the tradition of the Shaykhayn decided to part ways with Imam `Ali (PBUH) and in fact with all the rest of the Muslim community. They later came be known as the Haruriyyah, the Shurrat, the Khawarij, or more precisely the Muhakkimah. Though the arbitration at Siffin served as a pretext for this splintering, the real roots of this development must be sought in the ascetic teachings of a school which was prevalent in Iraq, especially in Kufah. The adherents of the school advocated an individualistic life of asceticism and shunning of worldly affairs, while in their social approach they insisted on the practice of enjoining the good and forbidding the evil. The followers of the school believed that it was improper to leave a decision of religious significance to a process of arbitration based on the judgment of humans and thus chose to become dissidents with the cry “la hukma illa ’l-llah”, literally “No decision save God’s”. They gathered at the village of Harura near Kufah and gave their allegiance to `Abd Allah b. Wahab Rasibi as their imam. They went on to muster an army, and in spite of Imam `Ali’s (PBUH) repeated attempts at reconciliation the matter came to a head at the Battle of Nahrawan (38 AH). The battle led to the destruction of a great number of hardliner Haruris. However, another faction headed by Farurah b. Nawfal opted for a moderate position and refused to take part in the conflict.

* source: Pakatchi , Ahmad "Islam Entry" The Great Islamic Encyclopedia. Ed. Kazem Musavi Bojnourdi.Tehran: The Center of Great Islamic Encyclopaedia , 1989-, V.8 ,pp.418 - 419

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