The New International Encyclopædia/Shiites

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SHIITES, shē'īts (from Ar. shī'ah, party, sect, from shā'a, to accompany, follow, spread abroad). The sect in Islam which insists upon the sole legitimacy of Ali and his descendants as the successors of Mohammed, and so are opposed to the Sunnites (q.v.). The division has its root in the different opinions and struggles concerning the successor of the Prophet. (See Mohammedan Sects.) Ali seems to have been capable of invoking an extraordinary enthusiasm in his followers, such as even the Prophet never gained, and the personal element has since remained one of the sources of Shiite strength. Further, the tragedies of his house have given a sentimental motif to his party, which is richer and more attractive than anything found in the prosaic orthodoxy of Islam. The memory of the tragedy is still celebrated from year to year by the Shiite world in a kind of passion play on the tenth day of Muharram, the anniversary of Kerbela. (See Hasan and Hosein.) The conservatives acknowledged Ali's caliphate and revered him as a saint and martyr, but they possessed no such legitimist principles as his adherents. A bitter struggle followed his selection as Caliph. (See Ommiads; Moawiyah.) The resulting history is a remarkably complicated one, partly by reason of the interfusion of the Shiites throughout orthodox Islam, and partly because the party itself soon split upon all kinds of political purposes, personal ambitions, and theological tenets. We find them in part founding new States, in part establishing mystical fraternities and schools of liberal thought, in part cherishing, more or less patiently, millennial hopes.

As has been said, the root of the sect lay in the personality of Ali. Politically, this involved the sole right of succession as inherent in his descendants. Here, however, various views developed according to the claims of various lines; some held that descent must pass through Fatima, the daughter of Mohammed and wife of Ali, others that any of Ali's descendants were legitimate. Further, about Ali's person arose a theology which was incongruous to original Islam, and which gave room for all forms of theosophic speculation. He came to be named in the creed along with God and Mohammed as ‘the representative of God.’ Some, even in his lifetime, held him to be an incarnation of God. Others, starting from his violent death, taught that he was reserved for a future reappearance, as the Hidden Imam, or Mahdi (q.v.), who should establish the millennium; this notion was contributed to by the large numbers of Jewish and Christian converts that came into Islam. Yet another development of thought held that Ali was reincarnated in the Imams, his legitimate descendants; this was the product of Oriental theosophy coming in through Persia and India. In general, the doctrine was that God never left Himself without an authoritative representative or Imam in the world, and that it was the business of the faithful to find him. The strength, therefore, of the Shiites lay in the doctrine of legitimism, and in the opportunity it gave to those temperaments and races which desired a richer theology than that of simple Moslem unitarianism. With the passing of Islam out of Arabian hands, the development of history made the whole doctrine of a legitimacy of blood or race as a sine qua non of the ruler a pure fiction, and in its opportunism lay the strength of Sunnite orthodoxy, which was thus able to assimilate the barbarian races which conquered original Islam. As for the peculiar Shiite theologies, they antagonized in general the spirit and letter of the Koran, to which as a religion of a book Islam is necessarily bound. Thus we find Shiism perpetuating itself secretly and coming to the surface sporadically or on the periphery of Islam, but never able to gain any but a temporary control over the great Moslem body. Its history, therefore, is a story of opposition to the principles of Islam, existing in underground organizations, taking advantage of political and theological opportunities and of free-thinking rulers, now and again creating independent States through the personal ability of some Alide scion. An early instance was the establishment of the Idriside dynasty in North Africa (about 800), through a great-grandson of Ali. From this connection the present Sherifs of Morocco, whose dynasty has existed since the end of the eighteenth century, claim to possess the legitimate caliphate. Another branch of the family, that of the Zarydites, arose in Northern Persia and in Yemen, in Soutliern Arabia; in the latter land the sect, still maintains itself.

The doctrine of the Hidden Imam or the Mahdi soon produced innumerable divisions in the sect. Any Alide might come to be regarded as the Promised One, and so gain a following. The most notable split of this kind occurred in 765, when a dispute arose as between the two sons of the sixth Imam, Jafar al-Sadik. Through one of these, the line was traced down to the twelfth in descent, Mohammed ibn al-Hasan, who was supposed to have been mysteriously translated to abide his return. His followers are called the Ithnaashariya, i.e. Twelvers, and have come to be the prevailing Shiite sect, and the only one now possessing an important political domain, namely, Persia, which came into their hands by conquest in 1502. But Jafar's other son, Ismail, who was the seventh in succession, was accepted by another faction, the Ismaelites or Sabaïyites, i.e. Seveners. His cause was taken up by a remarkable machinator, one Abdallah ibn Maimun (about 850), who founded the secret society which developed into the Karmathians.

A more abiding political result was produced in Africa. Said, great-grandson of al-Maimun, gave himself out in the western regions of Northern Africa as the Mahdi, and gained a political following which enabled him and his line, the Fatimite dynasty, to conquer Egypt and Syria, which they ruled for over two centuries. During the same period (932-1055) the Shiite Buweyhides were political masters of the Sunnite caliphate at Bagdad, so that Shiism appeared triumphant in the heart of Islam. But the mass of the people remained orthodox, and the Saracens finally turned the scale in their favor. From the Shiite Fatimite movement in Egypt sprang two developments, which were for many centuries disturbing factors in Southwestern Asia, namely, the Druses and the Assassins (qq.v.). Also the Syrian Nosairies (see Ansaries) adopted the Shiite doctrines, and are still a considerable sect.

Modern history finds the Shiites, outside of scattered sects, in political importance in the following lands: There is the Moorish Alide dynasty, although the land is practically Sunnite. In Southern Arabia Yemen is Shiite, and there are other traces of the sect through the peninsula. A large number of the Indian Moslems are of the same persuasion. But Persia is now the only Shiite nation of importance. Here, however, Shiism has not been able to achieve its political ideals. The Safawide dynasty, to which the Shahs belong, and which conquered Persia in 1502, claims descent from Ali, but the Church disowns them, and there has been continuous strife between the political and ecclesiastical authorities. In any case the Shiite theology could recognize their power as but temporary until the appearance of the Hidden Imam. The ecclesiastical head is the Imam-Jumaa, at Ispahan, who is regarded as the representative of the Mahdi. An interesting attempt at reform was made by Ali Mohammed, ‘al-Bab’ (1843), but, becoming a political agitation, it was cruelly repressed by the Government. See Babism.

The following points of contrast and agreement between the two great sects of Islam may be noted. The mysticism and extravagant theology of Shiism and the volatile Persian character have sadly corrupted the morality of the Shiite Moslems, and a divorce between religion and ethics exists among them that does not prevail in orthodox Islam. The dervish type of holiness prevails to excess, while superstition, especially in the matter of worship of the saints, runs riot. The people have lost all respect for the ministers of religion. In law the two bodies agree except in details. There exists, however, one important difference in principle between Shiite and Sunnite law. The latter has developed its four schools of law, and the lawyers in each school must keep strictly to the decisions of their accepted masters; they have no power of creating new law. The Shiites have the theory of a living authority in law, and their Mujtahids have the right to make new decisions without appeal to traditional precedent. The traditional mutual hatred of Shiites and Sunnites is still maintained, but the intensity of this sentiment is said to lie now with the Sunnites. On the other hand, the two parties acknowledge one another as Moslems, and stand together as against the Unbelievers.

For literature, besides the works mentioned in the articles Mahdi, Mohammedanism, Mohammedan Sects, consult: Goldziher, Beiträge zur Litteraturgeschichte der Shi'a (Vienna, 1874); Baillie, Imameca Code, vol ii. (London, 1869).