Historical record of the Shia group
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This designation is seen as disclosing the person whom God has appointed to be the rightful Imam. One group followed the younger son, Musa Kazim, and recognized five more generations of Imams after him, until , when the 12 th Imam of this line disappeared and was believed to have gone into hiding. This group is known as the Twelver Shia and comprises the majority of Shia Muslims.
They await the return of the 12 th Imam as the messianic Mahdi, and many follow the guidance of the clerical Ayatollahs, who are said to represent the hidden Imam in his absence.
The Abbasid Caliphs persecuted the descendants of Ismail, forcing the next few Ismaili Imams and their followers to go into hiding for a century and a half. By the beginning of the 10th century, Ismaili Imams had organized a vast esoteric teaching network and founded the Fatimid Caliphate , a public challenge to the claims of the Abbasid Caliphate and the Sunni Ulama.
The Fatimid Caliphate, led by Ismaili Imam-caliphs, established several institutions of religious and scientific learning, including al-Azhar University in Cairo, which ironically serves as the center of Sunni learning today. This Ismaili political and intellectual challenge to the Sunni establishment prompted an ongoing process of anti-Ismaili polemic sponsored by Abbasid Caliphs, culminating in al-Ghazali being commissioned to write anti-Ismaili treatises in By the end of the 11 th century, the Fatimid Caliphate faced economic and political decline, and Shia Ismailis divided again over the succession to the 18 th Ismaili Imam, al-Mustansirbillah, who died in The group that came to be known as the Nizari Ismailis recognized the elder son and heir-designate, Nizar, and his descendants as the legitimate Ismaili Imams.
Another group, later called the Tayyibis, recognized a younger son of al-Mustansirbillah as the rightful successor and their line of Imams went into hiding shortly after. Today, the largest segment of the Tayyibi community are the Dawoodi Bohras led by a Chief Missionary who represents the concealed Imams of that line.
Nizari Ismaili Imams eventually moved from Fatimid Egypt to Persia, and ruled over an Ismaili polity centered at the fortress of Alamut.
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During this time, the Ismaili state barely survived repeated assaults from Saljuq forces, the Turkic dynasty that effectively controlled the Abbasid Caliphate in the late 11 th century. Many vulnerable Ismaili towns were persecuted and Ismailis were massacred. The Mongol invasions of defeated the Ismaili polity and led to the attempted genocide of Ismailis; the Ismaili Imam and his immediate family were killed.
Nevertheless, throughout this turbulent history, the lineage of Ismaili Imams continued uninterrupted, with every Imam appointing a successor from among his male progeny. However, Qajar court politics and rivalries forced Aga Khan I and his retinue of family members and Ismaili followers to flee Iran and migrate to India.
They used this relationship to help safeguard the interests of Indian Muslims. He embarked on modernizing the Ismaili community while also working for the betterment of the Muslim community of India. He founded the All-India Muslim League in and was its first president. Aga Khan III exerted great efforts at promoting Pan-Islamic unity, stressing the unity of Muslims while affirming theological differences.
That was how that old Alawite man understood the enmity of Sunnis. Saddam was demonstrating that the Arab-Persian rivalry was as old as time, and that the Jews, empowered as they are in the modern era by the rebirth of Israel, have always been a nuisance; one that previous and present kings of Mesopotamia were destined to deal with. Yet the extremists of the Middle East today, both Sunni and Shia, are employing history differently, in a way that is not only reactive and descriptive, but rather prescriptive.
They use it in a way that is both specific and strategic to instruct policy. Remembering the past is not a tool of mere inspiration or for marking enemies when utilized by the extremists, the past is their blueprint for resetting history back to a time they could take pride in.
A Brief History of Ismaili Muslims - The Islamic Monthly
It is analytically useful to understand the Islamic State as it understands itself. Theirs is a ten-year venture that began during October , when they put the world on notice with their announcement of the Islamic State of Iraq. The jihadists, back then, understood the implications, and the hazards of what they were about to do. They knew that it would focus the hostility not only of their apparent enemies, such as the United States and the Shia, but also that of their ideological cousins, the other jihadist groups orbiting the Salafist constellation.
The jihadists of the nascent Islamic State anticipated the refrain of rejection and hesitation: this is too bold, too grand, too soon. Their ideological cousins would immediately recognize that this is indeed the caliphate, attempted. An attempt fraught with ideological peril and uncertainty, even though it is the end-goal of many Salafists. It would sow dissent and acrimony at a time when all groups should be singularly focused on the goal of waging jihad against the West and the internal enemies lurking within Islamic lands.
As such, they were not trailblazers at all, but were simply rediscovering a trail first embarked upon by Muhammed, the prophet, the actual trailblazer of the faith. Muhammed did not wait around for the conditions to turn optimal in Mecca.
His calling compelled him to strike out boldly, against incredible odds. His was a precarious venture, at once tenuous, and due for a number of setbacks. Muhammad did not reign supreme as he began to wield authority and manage the day-to-day affairs of his flock. He had to contend with a mixed city that boasted, for example, confident, armed and well-positioned Jewish tribes, that were not about to part with their faith for his. He had to wage war against his Meccan detractors, or consequently suffer their counter-attacks. Yet even in the bleakest of times, the jihadists remind us, Muhammad foresaw that what he was setting out to build in Medina would subjugate the mighty and nearby empires of Byzantium and Persia.
These visions did not strike the true believers around him as loony, even during the darkest of times, so why would the detractors of the Islamic State in the twenty first century counsel against going too big, too soon? Conditions then did not deter him, they why should they do so nowadays? In fact, they argued, there were many similarities between what he faced and what was happening in Iraq. If only the jihadists would follow his example, and enact his steps by going back to the basics, then the jihad would recapture the path back towards redemption and righting what went wrong.
The motif of going back to the basics has a rich tradition in Islamic dogma, and thus the method and argumentation of the modern jihadists would not strike their ideological cousins, or the audience at large, as contrived. The medieval Syrian jurist, Ibn Taymiyya, writing at a time of Muslim decline following the Mongol invasions and the sacking of Baghdad, also argued for revisiting the early days of Islam to recapture the vitality of the faith.
He inspired many later movements, most notably, in the eighteenth century, the Wahhabis of the Arabian Peninsula, who put his theories into practice to much martial success over successive attempts spanning three centuries.
It also helps that Wahhabism eventually became the credo of modern, deep-pocketed Saudi Arabia. The jihadists of the Islamic State were merely stretching it further. And further they did. Resurrecting a caliphate implies the necessity of picking a caliph, which is no easy thing. That alone would seem daunting. It does not help that historical precedence on this topic is itself problematic.
Yet history tells us that the process of picking those four turned out to be politically acrimonious. Three of the four met their demise through murder or assassination. The historical record is elastic by its very nature, and polemicists can stretch it out to fit current circumstances, rendering history books into recipe books. Not all the ingredients may be available, but the recipe can still be followed, albeit with some tweaking and minor substitutions, to arrive at a formula that works.
Problem solved. Any questions? Kindly refer to early Islamic history, the jihadists would say. They would say that because it works as a winning argument with their target audience: the Sunni populations of the Middle East that are to be incorporated into their caliphate in the first phase of its rebirth. By citing historical precedent to legitimize their actions, the jihadists enjoy standing on firm foundations. The founding father of the particular strain of jihadism that gave us the Islamic State did not have to try very hard to stoke the fires of sectarianism in Iraq, for example.
He would frame his war as a fight against the Shias, who were now acting as the enablers of the Americans, a foreign non-Muslim army that had just occupied a gloried Sunni and caliphal capital, one that was specifically established to manage the sprawling Islamic empire. Zarqawi would employ sectarianism as the fast burning fuel necessary for mobilizing support for an even more ambitious enterprise, resurrecting the Islamic State. Sectarian hate speech has been around for centuries, but it was mass propagated two decades prior to the Iraq War on the occasion of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, led by the Shia cleric Ayatollah Ruhullah Khomeini in Consequently, Zarqawi could turn to Islamic history and find a poster boy for Shia treachery that would neatly fit the scenes of Actually, he would riff off a data point that Saddam had highlighted in his first letter following his ouster: For, prior to the last time Baghdad was dramatically sacked by a great power, the Mongols, in , the day-to-day affairs of the once mighty Sunni Abbasid empire had been left in the hands of a Shia, the Grand Vizier Ibn al-Alqami.
That was quite progressive of the Abbasids to put a minority candidate in charge, but that is not what Saddam and Zarqawi would like remembered from that episode. Zarqawi leveraged the drama of history to explain the present, and it enabled him to suggest a solution, a final solution. There can be no moving forwards towards resurrecting the Islamic State until the Shia are dealt with, once and for all. Cue: civil war. Yet pedantically citing historical instances as a propaganda tool is not enough.
For it to truly resonate it must be dramatized. The drama of current events must match the drama of history. The actors of today must mimic and project the greatness of those individuals they cite from the early Islamic community. One literary minded jihadist authored a play depicting a late night conversation between the last Abbasid caliph and Ibn al-Alqami before the Mongol invasion.
The jihadists dramatically recall the parts of history they would like remembered, while simultaneously erasing, to much fanfare, the parts they would like forgotten. Maybe that explains their fixation with leveling the monuments of ancient Assyria and Palmyra, and capturing it all on YouTube. The glories and very presence of pre-Islamic civilizations crowds out their absolutist messaging, and even in this they can cite precedence: Did Muhammad not personally destroy the pagan idols of Mecca upon his victory? There can be only one version of history, theirs. The jihadist proto-caliph, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, relished playing the role of caliph.
He had a flair for spectacle, showcasing his craft over the course of many audio speeches. Consider the audacity that a wannabe caliph in the twenty first century can determine that a 1, year-old pact no longer applies, since the modern-day Christians have broken the rules, and that it time for the Christians to renegotiate the pact with him, the legal guardian of the Islamic faith.
In projecting historical drama, the jihadists know their audience. Actually, it is not that difficult to figure out what they are working with, and how they are purposely manipulating it. I know it by my own example: when I leaf through stodgy, scholarly books on early Islam, I catch myself visualizing what I am reading as scenes from a particular movie, The Message My mental image of what the buildings looked like, the colors, how people dressed, the background noises, and even the haircuts that early Muslims sported derive from it.
It was an epic and compelling production: a Syrian director, Libyan money, two separate versions in Arabic and in English, with the later starring Anthony Quinn and Irene Papas. The score was exhilarating—its composer Maurice Jarre was nominated for an Academy Award but lost to Star Wars that year. The grand tales of early Islam that we had to read in schoolbooks came vividly alive on the screen. The movie had a big impact across Muslim lands and beyond: it was cited as one of the grievances behind the first act of Islamic terror in Washington DC, when a Nation of Islam off-shoot occupied three buildings in the capital in , leaving two dead.
They deemed the movie sacrilegious and were incensed that it was due to premiere on U. Salafists were never enthusiastic about it, sensing that it portrayed early Islam in a manner that was sympathetic to the Shia version of history. They also have other issues to nitpick; one Salafist told me years ago that depicting the early Muslims as the movie did in all white garb is illogical since they would not have self-identified by their dress color, for example. The movie, although controversial, was eminently influential in how dramatized history reached great numbers of Muslims in countries such as Iraq and Syria.
In fact, they seem to borrow heavily from it. Take the flag of the Islamic State, for example. It is so omnipresent now that even the Eurovision Contest had to make it officially clear that it is banned along with such as flags as those of the Basques Country and Northern Cyprus. The jihadists claim that this is the banner of Muhammad, under which the conquering armies of Islam brought the high and mighty empires of their day to their knees.
It certainly looks authentic, with its archaic font and old-timey seal. Consider the jihadist victory parade into Mosul. Their convoys of trucks and tanks were preceded by a number of warriors on horseback. Their dress, and their manner of riding, evokes scenes from the aforementioned movie, as Muhammad returned to Mecca, a conqueror.
Or let us take that sole televised speech of the current caliph, Abu Bakr, on the occasion of proclamation of the caliphate. There is something about the way he slowly ascends the pulpit in the main mosque of Mosul, how he turns to face the worshippers, how he speaks, what he is wearing save for the watch , his stern yet contemplative mannerisms—it all seems very familiar.
It seem so because modern media in the Middle East, whether through movies or television series, have depicted early Islam as such. Clearly, the jihadists have latched on to a pre-existing stage-set to amplify their messaging. Again, the jihadists seem to be purposely evoking memorable scenes from The Message when these letters were read out at the imperial courts of the Middle East that a new religion, Islam, has emerged in Arabia. The jihadists knew exactly what they were doing as they filmed themselves smashing and hacking away at the statues of prior civilizations down the corridors of the Museum of Mosul.
In recent years, some Shias have developed an extremist credo of their own, one that also borrows from history to enact present policy, chiefly that of revenge and secession as statecraft. This credo is driving events towards conflagration across the region in tandem with the jihadist agenda. It is important to understand the cyclical nature of extremism today in the Middle East: one cannot focus solely on the challenge posed by the policies and propaganda of the jihadists of the Islamic State, for Sunni and Shia extremists feed into each other. It is a toxic loop, which perpetually rationalizes why they need to go to extremes.
The seminal event occurred in Karbala, on the day of Ashura, in AD. The battle is re-enacted every year among Shia communities, in all its gore and drama, so much so that those portraying the bad guys may get assaulted and chased down through the streets by incensed mobs. We are witnessing such as an outbreak now, one that some Shia strategists in Tehran would like to see reshaping the Middle East. There was too much bad blood, too much history, between the two sects.
The phenomenon of Shia chauvinism did not crystalize in my mind until I saw a photograph on the internet in The picture depicted a religious procession of Shia Iraqis, either in Iraq or somewhere in Iran, brandishing a banner. He defeated some in battle, executed others, and arranged for the assassination of more. As avengers go, al-Mukhtar was a superstar in populist Shia lore, and the banner was suggesting that Maliki is his rightful successor as the Shia avenger against the Sunnis in our day.
But just in case some had missed the connotation, the banner also depicted the Iranian actor who had portrayed the character of al-Mukhtar in a big production TV series first released in over the course of forty episodes. The Farsi language series was epic and very well made, dubbed eventually in Arabic, Urdu and other languages and shown across the Shia world. When I first saw that picture I thought that they had gone too far. I was wrong. A large segment of Iraqi Shias thirsted for revenge following the excesses of Zarqawi and his heirs, even after the Sunni insurgency was soundly defeated in They wanted Sunnis humiliated.
The slogan was successfully put to use in the election cycle, the outcome of which gave Maliki a plurality of the vote. Sectarianism breathed new life in the jihadist cause there, riding a desire for Sunni restitution and revenge in Damascus. Seen through the prism of history, it all made sense to the target audiences: war was inevitable; the enemies of the past were standing in the way of the future.
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By enveloping themselves in the cloak of history, the extremists from both sides can radiate an aura of certainty. This certitude will make it very difficult to convince them of the need for reconciliation, both with the past and with the present. It also means that it will be very difficult to convince them that they are losing, or have lost. By citing precedent and conspiracy, they can explain away setbacks. They can tell themselves that they got the recipe wrong somewhere, and all they need to do it to go back to the basics to try and try again until it gets going.
The stench of past glories, the musky manuscripts that speak of ancestral feats, the decay of once-glorious cities, excite their senses. It is excessively hard to let go of the legacy of greatness. Its loss gnaws at them. It haunts them. They will keep trying. As far as the jihadists are concerned, they were left for dead in They were thought to be a spent force, its remnants living out a precarious existence in the deserts of Iraq. Then they came back. They made no excuses for the doctrinal overreach of declaring the Islamic State in that had turned so many other jihadist and Salafist groups against them.
They felt they were right all along, and that their temporary setbacks mirrored ones that Muhammad had experienced himself. Their righteousness and certainty was foretold by precedence. History is their refuge, their sanctuary. They stand on firm ground. And if that terrain goes unchallenged, they will keep coming back. But it is not all doom and gloom: It just so happens that challenging them on the received facts of history is easier than what many may imagine. They did so to counter the excesses of the Islamic State against minorities such as the Christians and Yezidis who had the misfortune of falling under the new caliphate.
The Charter of Medina was a constitution enacted by Muhammad to manage relations with non-Muslims like those Jewish tribes that lived in close proximity to his flock. Not only that, but the moderates must contend with the extremists on a terrain that is advantageous to the latter. The moderates must argue that history should be interpreted in a new way, to reflect the spirit of the times then and now.
They do as it says. Why would the moderates need to second-guess the prophet or the early caliphs? Why not simply follow the historical precedent to the letter? After all, it worked back then, and going back to the basics might work again. The jihadists earn points for being succinct and straightforward.
After all, they have had centuries to figure out all the polemical angles and history is their impregnable bastion. The simplest literal read of history is a winning argument too. What if there is a way by which we do not have to take the Charter of Medina at face value? There is no original, extant copy of the Charter of Medina under a glass display case in a well-guarded museum somewhere. What we think we know about the Charter was jotted down, ink on parchment, to years after the event.
That is the period when comprehensive chronicles of early Islam were written down, relying for the most part on oral transmission. One of those chroniclers, laboring six generations after the first community of Muslims had passed, may have seen an earlier, written charter somewhere, but again, we cannot know for sure. Our hearts should go out to that chronicler: difficult as it is to recall what one did last Tuesday, it is surely a heavy burden to recall the events on a Tuesday two hundred years ago.
But that is precisely why the history of early Islam is enveloped in the fog of doubt. They worked laboriously, with difficult languages, to figure out all the analytical angles. They have engaged in furious debates and disagreements, as scholars do, and they have made their respective cases in thousands of books, papers and symposia. Their work continues, with fascinating and insightful research coming out in print in recent years.