In the contemporary period Shi'ah is the standard short form for Shi'ah Ali, the Partisans of Ali. The Shi'ah have a history that goes back as far as the time of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), and form one of the two main schools of thought in Islam; the other group being the Sunni, short for Ahl us-Sunnah wa Jama'ah, the People of Tradition and Consensus. The main division between these two groups relates to questions of religious authority, and who has that authority. In this post I want to give a brief outline of Shi'ah understandings of authority. Rather than cover the issues in great detail, I want to summarize some of the key issues and point to references that people who are interested can refer to. Of course, Wikipedia's entry is always a good starting point. However, like most histories of Muslims, it often treats the majority Sunni perspective, as normative and reads back into the past, rather than taking the history on its own terms. This is a short piece that really wants to look at Shi'ah history as much on its own terms as I can.
There has been some debate amongst historians of Islam as to whether the Shi'ah Ali was a political movement that crystallized into a religious movement, or a religious movement that coincided with political aims. Current research seems to indicate that the movement began during the lifetime of the Prophet, and had strong religious overtones (see Succession to Muhammad). The basic issue was who was to succeed Prophet Muhammadas head of the community upon his death. For the Shi'ah, the answer was Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law, and leadership was to be both temporal and religious. The fact that a group known as the Shi'ah Ali existed during the lifetime of the Prophet indicates a legitimacy to this claim that most normative histories seem to deny. There is also strong support, according to the Shi'ah, for Ali's claim to leadership in both the Qur'an and the Sunnah, traditions of the Prophet (see Origins and Early Development of Shiah Islam). At this time, there is no indication that such a group as the Sunni community existed. Essentially, the groups vying for power were all named for the person(s) they supported, so that in contrast to the Shi'ah Ali were the Shi'ah Abu Bakr, the Partisans of Abu Bakr, or the Shi'ah Umar, the Partisans of Umar, not the Sunni community.
Ali was denied the role of Caliph, or secular authority, for three rounds of selection, eventually becoming the fourth caliph, and the last of what are known as the Rightly Guided Caliphs. He was the last of the Caliphs to have known Prophet Muhammadduring his lifetime. Upon his death, the Shi'ah Uthman founded a dynasty we now refer to as the Umayyads. The first of the Umayyad caliphs assassinated the son of Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, Husayn. Historians who take the view that early Shi'ism was a political movement look to the death of Husayn as the beginning of the theological beginnings of Shi'ism, as a traumatic event that crystallizes communal identity. It forced the community to address the question that if Ali and his descendants were chosen by God, how could Husayn be killed. The question is essentially a variation of the theme of “why do bad things happen to good people.” The moment is clearly important historically to the Shi'ah as it does force the community to question how Husayn could be slaughtered in a particularly brutal way. There is a trend in scholarship to compare the death of Husayn to the death of Jesus, using the idea of redemptive suffering. Of course there are several issues with this argument, notably that Husayn was neither the son of God, nor even a Prophet. His suffering was not to have his followers sins forgiven. However, those Shi'ah who commemorate the death of Husayn do suffer, either through self-flagellation, or through participation is story-telling meant to evoke tears and sorrow, find redemption is causing themselves to suffer as they imagine Husayn to have suffered. The suffering is cathartic and is a way to bind oneself more closely with the family of the Imams. (see Reliving Karbala, The Martyrs of Karbala, The Women of Karbala, The Horse of Karbala, Religious Performance in Contemporary Islam, Redemptive Suffering in Islam).
After the death of Husayn, a formal split occurred in Shi'ah though between the Imami Shi'ah and the Zaydi Shi'ah. Muhammadal-Baqir, grandson of Husayn, began to develop the idea of Imami Shi'ism more formally, arguing for lineal descent of Imams from Ali, and his wife Fatima, through a formal designation process known as nass. The nass ensures the sanctity of the line, and keeps the idea of God's chosen alive. These ideas were further institutionalized by Muhammadal-Baqir's son, the next Imam, Jafar as-Sadiq. (see The Divine Guide in Early Shi'ism, Early Shi'i Thought). The Zaydis hold that lineal descent and nass do not matter, simply being of the Prophet's family and being politically active, which neither Zayn al-Abidin, son of Husayn, or Muhammadal-Baqir were. These two requirements were all that were required to become a Zaydi Imam; the community is still active, especially in Yemen.
During the time of Jafar as-Sadiq and anti-Umayyad movement began that had a strong Shi'ah Ali flavor, first coming to Imam Jafar to lead them, he refused, so they turned to a distant relation of the Prophet and Imam Ali, Abbas. The movement argued that the Umayyads were corrupt, lecherous drunks who were were leading the community astray, and only someone from the family of the Prophet could properly guide the community. Their early overtures to Imam Jafar indicate a strong support of Imami Shi'ism, although after his rejection, they remained Shi'ah sympathetic in rhetoric, but distanced themselves in practice from the Shi'ah, whom they often persecuted and imprisoned. It is during this early period of persecution that another division over succession emerged. After the death of Imam Jafar, two groups emerged, supporting one of two sons, Musa al-Kazim or Ismail. Both groups agree Ismail received the nass, but the question was whether Ismail pre-deceased Jafar, in which case Musa al-Kazim should have received the nass. The details of this argument are best left to other sources (see Origins and Early Development of Shiah Islam, A Short History of the Ismailis). The groups that emerged out of this are the Ithna'ashari and the Isma'ilis, the former being the largest of Shi'ah groups, and usually the community referred to when the term Shi'ah is used (just like when people say Muslim or Islam, they really mean Sunni Muslims or Sunni Islam; the majority defining the noun and no longer being used as an adjective, which is totally unacceptable in my opinion, but I'm a stickler for naming).
The Ithna'ashari line of Imams ends at 12, hence the name Twelvers. Towards the end of the line, there was a mild rapprochement between the Ithna'ashari and Abbassid groups, although nothing substantial came of it. Once the Twelfth Imam went into occultation, a sophisticated legal system emerged with various ranks of scholars who were to be learned in all religious sciences. At the top of the hierarchy is the marja at-taqlid, or what we often hear of as the Grand Ayatollah, of which there are only a handful in the world. The time difference from the beginning of the Abbassid dynasty (Shi'ah Abbas), to the the occultation is approximately 120 years (750CE and 868CE respectively), indicating a strong Shi'ah Ali sensibility in the largest Muslim empire of the world at the time.
The Isma'ili Imams emerged from hiding in 910CE and establish a formal rival empire to the Abbassids in Egypt, known as the Fatimids. The name was chosen to indicate that they were of the family of the Prophet through his daughter Fatima, as well as through Ali, whereas the Abbassids could only claim relation through Ali. In 934CE the Abbassids became figureheads for an Ithna'ashari group known as the Buyids. Essentially, a century of Shi'ah rule began over all of Islamdom except for the Iberian Peninsula (Fatimids 910-1171, Buyids/Abbassids 934-1055). The Buyids eventually fell to a non-Shi'ah group known as the Seljuqs (also Seljuks), and they ruled under the Abbassid name as well. It was under the Seljuqs that a process known as the Sunni Revival began. This name is an unfortunate misnomer as it implies that the Sunni community was ascendant at one point, its power had waned, and was now ascendant again. It is more accurate to say that at this time the Sunni community began to coalesce in response to a century of Shi'ah rule. Since the time of Imam Muhammad al-Baqir a well developed theological and legal system emerged in the Shi'ah community, whereas the non-Shi'ah community had several schools of theological and legal thought, very little bound them together. During the Sunni revival, these groups formed around the kernel of non-Shi'ah, collectively becoming known as the Ahl as-Sunnah wa al-Jama'ah, or the People of Community and Consensus. The latter part on consensus was important because the Shi'ah could also claim to be Ahl as-Sunnah as they based their argument on Imamah on the Prophet's traditions and revelations in the Qur'an. By the twelfth century CE it is possible to talk about a Sunni community in the way we know it today, but not realistically before then. When we refer to Sunni before this point, we are arguing non-Shi'ah Ali, a much more amorphous group. (see A Learned Society in a Period of Transition, Islamic Art During the Sunni Revival).
Currently, we fall into the fallacy of reading the relatively organized community of the Sunnis of today into 1400 years of history. As a result, the Shi'ah are always treated as marginal and irrelevant to Islamic history. However, the animosity that we read so much about cannot be traced back 1400 years because the divisions we see now did not exist back then. Many Shi'ah are complicit in the perpetuation of this fallacy by claiming the Sunnis killed Husayn. Non-Shi'ah killed Husayn, and by virtue of the Abbassid revolution we can the revulsion the majority of ummah of the time viewed that act, Shi'ah and non-Shi'ah alike. While there is now a well-developed literature that argues that the other group is not Muslim, the reality is that all evidence points to long periods of peaceful co-existence between Shi'ah and non-Shi'ah groups at a practical level. The theological implications of leadership are quite important, and cannot be erased, however both communities are drawing on the same source texts, so God's presence and revelation are not at issue, helping to ease the sharp divide. The more pernicious issue is the contemporary usage of Muslims and Islam to mean Sunnis. By normatizing the current majority, much of the large debate over identity and interpretation that has happened in Islamic traditions is lost. It is better to talk about Islam, meaning the great big mess of contradictory beliefs that make up a religious system of 1.3 billion people, or to make sure the adjective of Sunni or Shi'ah is always used.