In this series of articles, I will discuss the origins of Shi’ism from the perspectives of politics, creed and extremism. It is a study that shows that Shi’ism originated as a sheer political faction which, however, almost immediately started to assume an ideological complexion as well, meant for its philosophical and actual buttressing and thus survival. In the process, unavoidably, as different schemes and ideas and their numerous protagonists came to the fore and departed, Shi’ism oscillated, often dramatically and radically, between legitimacy, moderation and outright deviation and extremism. This research is divided into three main sections: Shi’ism in the eyes of Shi’is; Shi’ism in the eyes of Sunnis; and the evolution of Shi’ism from political activism to a complex ideology. * Shi’ism in the Eyes of Shi’is Etymologically, the word shi’ah is derived from the root verb sha’a which means to spread, to become known and common. The noun shi’ah means faction, party, as well as adherents, followers and partisans. In this case, the terms faction and party mean the faction and party that supported the power of ‘Ali b. Abi Talib (d. 41 AH/ 661 CE), the fourth rightly-guided caliph in Sunnism and the first Imam in Shi’ism, and, later, of his descendants (Shi’atu ‘Ali). A shi’i is the one who belongs to the group. The plural is shi’is, or simply shi’ah or shi’ites. Shi’is normally see nothing pejorative in this appellation. Moreover, they even see it as a source of honor and an overall mark of respect. God says in the Qur’an, for example, that Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) was of those who followed the way of Prophet Nuh (Noah), or among his kind, using the word shi’ah (Al-Saffat, 83). Also, according to the Qur’anic chapter al-Qasas, verse No. 15, when Prophet Musa (Moses) entered the city at a time of unawareness of its people and he found there two men fighting, God calls the one who just like Prophet Musa belonged to the ranks of the Children of Israel, as one from his party or faction (shi’atihi), and the one who was Egyptian, as the one from among his enemy or foes. “…And the one from his faction (shi’atihi) called for help to him against the one from his enemy, so Musa struck him and (unintentionally) killed him.” (al-Qasas, 15). Besides, Shi’is tried their best to establish that the term Shi’atu ‘Ali existed even during the time of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and that it was nobody else but the Prophet (pbuh) himself who articulated it on a few occasions,  but the attempt is so transparently wrong and does not stand up under close and serious scientific scrutiny. The most widespread evidence used for those contentions is an extremely weak tradition (hadith) of the Prophet (pbuh) to the effect that the phrase khayr al-bariyyah (the best of creatures) in the Qur’anic chapter al-Bayyinah, verse No. 7, denotes ‘Ali and his Shi’ah (faction or party). This weak and, so, discarded Prophet’s tradition is recorded by Ibn Jarir al-Tabari (d. 310 AH/ 922 CE) in his famous exegesis of the Qur’an,  which due to the specific methodology adopted by the author contains scores of weak and even unauthentic traditions, or those that have weak narrative chains.  Other major commentators of the Qur’an simply ignored the said tradition in their commentaries of the same verse. However, the term shi’ah could likewise entail some negative connotations, something which the opponents of Shi’ism throughout history did not by any means hesitate to take advantage of and promulgate, often in exaggerated terms. Hence, the word shi’ah is often understood to signify a sect, and even a cult. It is bracketed together with divisive and conflict-ridden tendencies. It is synonymous with the notions of disagreement and discord, hence the word schism in English which translates as a division of a group into opposing factions, or a formal breach of union within, or a separation from, an established or a mainstream unit, group, or a system of thought. It follows that shi’ah in Arabic and schism in English are almost identical. The Qur’an on a couple of occasions refers to the word in question, insinuating its other side and a few of its off-putting meanings. For example, God says warning against disunity and divisions in religion: “Indeed, those who have divided their religion and become sects (shiya’, plural of shi’ah) – you, (O Muhammad), are not (associated) with them in anything. Their affair is only (left) to Allah; then He will inform them about what they used to do.” (Al-An’am, 159). Discord and perennial conflicts befalling an erring people, are the signs of God’s wrath. Similarly, they symbolize an adversity and hard times meant for such people: “Say, ‘He is the (One) able to send upon you affliction from above you or from beneath your feet or to confuse you (so you become) sects (shiya’, plural of shi’ah) and make you taste the violence of one another.” (Al-An’am, 65). Breaking into factions and sects is a sign of weakness and imminent doom: “Indeed, Pharaoh exalted himself in the land and made its people into factions (shiya’, plural of shi’ah), oppressing a sector among them, slaughtering their (newborn) sons and keeping their females alive. Indeed, he was of the corrupters.” (Al-Qasas, 4). The Prophet (pbuh) also used the word shi’ah when he referred to the followers of Antichrist or Dajjal who as an evil figure will appear towards the end of the world pretending to be Masih or Messiah. Dajjal will delude and thus ruin many people. The Prophet (pbuh) said this in the context of rejecting and condemning those among his followers who will reject predestination (qadr). The Prophet (pbuh) inferred about them: “They are the faction, or party, of Dajjal (shi’atu Dajjal)” Surely, it was because of this that Shi’ism over the course of long and often turbulent Muslim history accrued a legacy which is frequently associated with sheer sectarianism, bigotry, discord, conflict and violence, at the hands of both Muslims and non-Muslims. As a result, Shi’ism with its people, traditions and institutions, habitually found itself on the back foot, highly apologetic and on the defensive. It is yet to shed its tag, at once ideologically, culturally and politically. In a contemporary world, it is yet to live and breathe on its own. The abounding contributions to the growth of Islamic culture and civilization, which are one way or another pertinent to Shi’ism as a religious tradition within Islam, are still, as a result, greatly obscured by the mentioned indictments of Shi’ism and Shi’is. Some of those indictments, admittedly, account for nothing more than plain dishonest fabrications, while others are overstated or misinterpreted Shi’i dubious spiritual, intellectual and cultural realities. Accordingly, the editors of a book entitled “Shi’ism: Doctrines, Thought and Spirituality” emphatically stated in their introductory remarks that one of the chief objectives of their anthology of writings which deals with nearly every aspect of the religion, was to help stop projecting Shi’ism as an essentially political phenomenon, and also as a creed of violence. The somewhat encyclopedic book was an effort to dispel the common myth that Shi’ism always was a volatile and disruptive force, and that it was liability rather than asset to the Islamic and Muslim presence. Shi’ism is thus presented in the book in its most essential nature, in its doctrinal, intellectual and spiritual dimensions. It is expounded as Islam’s major branch and its integral part. It is neither a particular aspect of Islam, nor a sect; nor is it a heterodoxy apart from orthodoxy. Rather, Shi’ism is to be viewed as the embodiment of the Qur’anic revelation, as a religious tradition within Islam.   By: Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design International Islamic University Malaysia E-mail: Posted on: October 7, 2013 Footnotes:   1- ‘Allamah Tabataba’i, Al-Shi’ah fi al-Islam, (Beirut: Dar al-Ta’aruf, n.d.), p. 23. 2- Ibn Jarir al-Tabari, Jami’ al-Bayan fi Tafsir al-Qur’an,… (accessed September 21, 2013). 3- Sitki Gulle, An Evaluation of Tabari’s Tafsir from the Aspect of Riwayah and Dirayah Methods, in: Journal of Islam in Asia, International Islamic University Malaysia, Vol. 6, No.2, December 2009, pp. 103-121. 4- Abu Dawud, Sunan Abi Dawud, The Book of Sunnah, Hadith No. 4692. 5- Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Hamid Dabashi & Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr (Eds.), Shi’ism: Doctrines, Thought and Spirituality, (New York: State University of New York Press, 1988), see: “Prefice” p. xi, and “Introduction” p. 1-8.