Shiites: The partisans of Ali insist on a divine choice for succession

March 06, 2004 12:00 AM

Anyone who is exposed to American media will find many references to Shiites and Sunnis almost on a daily basis. Nevertheless, nowhere in such media, and one is inclined to say, almost nowhere in American academia, are the two sects really understood. Many of those who deal with Islam in the United States think of it as a redundant imitation of Christianity, therefore the differences between Islamic sects are, either consciously or subconsciously, believed to correspond to the differences between Christian sects.

I was once asked by an American political science professor, while giving a guest lecture on Islamic sects, whether Shiism was more like Catholicism or Protestantism ­ a question akin to whether a star was more like a river or a sea!

Shiism was the first of the three major Islamic sects to be given a name, the other two being Sunnism and Kharijism. The three sects developed when, after the death of Prophet Mohammed, the Muslim community had to deal with the question of his succession. In Islam, God is the original legislator; His laws are expressed in the Koran. However, since the Koran is a metaphorical text, law-making becomes a process of literary interpretation. When the Prophet lived, he was the sole Koranic interpreter and head of the executive; he led the community to war, made peace and oversaw the community’s daily life in Mecca and Medina.

After his death, however, it became imperative for his companions to know who had the right to succeed him, and whether that successor would inherit only the Prophet’s executive powers, or his legislative powers as well. Some Muslims believed that Ali, the Prophet’s companion, his cousin, and most importantly, his son-in-law and the father of the Prophet’s only male descendants ­ Hassan and Hussain ­ had a divine right to succeed him. They interpreted some Koranic verses referring to Ali as indications of a divine will that Ali should be the Prophet’s successor. They also said the Prophet had explicitly told his companions that he wanted Ali as his successor, and that, once the Prophet died, the companions denied it.

These Muslims were called by their contemporaries “the Partisans of Ali” or in Arabic “shiat Ali” and later simply as shia.

According to Shiites, just as Mohammed was divinely chosen to be God’s Prophet, Ali was divinely chosen as Mohammed’s successor. Moreover, such divine choice was extended to Ali’s decedents. Ali was to succeed the Prophet in all capacities: legislatively, as the exclusive interpreter of the Koran, and in his executive capacity as the leader of the community. Therefore, Ali was called the imam, or guide, and a caliph, or successor. The first title referred to his interpretive and therefore legislative capacity, while the second referred to his executive capacity.

These capacities of Ali were then transferred to Hassan and Hussein respectively, and then to their sons, down to the 12th imam. In a sense, Shiism was an attempt to keep the Prophet alive.

The political tendencies of the sect, however, might seem tyrannical, for imams have all power in their hands and are checked by no other body. Shiism becomes very much like theories known in Europe as theories of Divine Right. However, the difference here is that, while those who used the Divine Right arguments actually ruled in Europe, the Shiite imams, except for Ali, never actually came to power. Here the very meaning of the theory of Divine Right is turned upside down. Instead of being an argument to legitimize tyranny and magnify the corrupting effect of power, the theory of Divine Right in Shiism became a responsibility held by the imams in opposition to be Prophet-like figures that commit no mistakes; they had to be infallible models for the rest of the Muslim community. Once political power is withdrawn, the claim of being divinely chosen become nothing but a heavy responsibility to live up to. Actually, in Shiism, the fact that the Imams merited to have power, yet were deprived from it, the fact that they were militarily defeated, the fact that they were prosecuted, tortured and martyred are all parts of the divine design. They are better models, teachers, and altogether, better leaders, precisely because they are not in power.

However, after the disappearance of the 12th imam, the hereditary line of the divinely chosen guides was broken. According to Shiites, this meant that the community of Muslims was now mature enough not to need living guides who are present at all times. Shiites believe that the 12th imam will return by the end of time to fill the earth with justice as it has been filed with oppression. In the time of his absence, the legislative power in the Muslim community is left to normal scholars, who, using their knowledge of the Arabic language of the contexts in which every verse of the Koran was revealed and of previous interpretations would be able to extract workable laws from the original metaphorical text.

Up until the Islamic revolution in Iran, the traditional Shiite position on the executive power was vague. It was preferred that Shiites live under the authority of a Shiite executive but there was no imperative that Shiites revolt against Sunni rule, they simply had to wait for the twelfth Imam to come back and assume his executive powers. In his theory commonly known as “the rule of the scholar” or “the guardianship of the jurist,” which is the theoretical basis for today’s Islamic system in Iran, Ayatollah Rohullah Khomeini argued that scholars, who had the legislative power to interpret the Koranic text, also had the right to assume executive powers in time of the imam’s absence.

While the imam’s powers were unquestionable, because he was divinely chosen and therefore infallible, no scholar could claim to have such an advantage. Therefore, the scholar’s use of his legislative and executive powers is checked by other scholars as well as by the majority of the population. Khomeini’s arguments were thus revolutionary; they ended centuries of political acquiescence by Shiites, making Shiism, the sect that was based on the theory of Divine Right, result in a republic!

It should be mentioned that the republican part of the Khomeini’s theory was logically inseparable from his arguments about the guardianship of the scholar. Obstructing or tampering with elections by some scholars is thus a violation of Khomeini’s original idea, and therefore of Shiism as understood by many of his students.

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