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Encyclopaedia of Ismailism by Mumtaz Ali Tajddin

"The word shi'a (pl. shi'ya, ash'ya) is derived from musha'ayah, which is synonymous with following a person and obeying him. Its second letter in the root is sha'a, shia'an meaning a person who follows his peer group. According to Lisan al-Arab, al-Shi'ah means a group which is formed on the basis of a certain agreement, and every group thus formed is called Shi'ah. According to al-Qamus, the word shi'a means follower, friend or member of a group. The word shi'a occurs 11 times in the Koran with the first use in Sura An'am and the last in Sura Qamar.

Thus being a shi'a does not mean anything, unless we know the shi'a of whom God mentioned in Koran that some of His righteous servants were shi'a. The primary meaning of the term shi'a is that of faction, community, follower and supporter as portrayed in the Koran in the example of Abraham, who is mentioned (37:83) specifically as the shi'a of Noah: "Verily, Abraham was among the followers (of Noah) (wa-inna min shi'atihi la-Ibrahim).

In another verse, Koran talks about the shi'a of Moses versus the enemies of Moses: "And he (Moses) went into the city at a time when people (of the city) were not watching, so he found therein two men fighting, one being his follower (min shi'atan) and the other his enemy, and the one who was of his follower (shi'atahi) cried out to him for help against the one who was of his enemy" (28:15). Here, one is named the Shi'a of Moses and the other his enemy. Thus, the Shi'a is an official word used by God for His high rank prophets as well as their followers.

If somebody calls himself a Shi'a, it is not due to any sectarianism, nor any innovation. It is because Koran has used the phrase for some of His best servants. The above verses contain the term shi'a in singular form (i.e., one group of followers). This means that it has special meaning, such as the Shi'a of Noah or the Shi'a of Moses. Also in the history of Islam, Shi'a has been specially used for the "followers of Ali". According to Taj al-Arus (5:405), "In Arabic the shi'a means the follower or supporter. Thus, this name has included all those who follow and support Ali and the members of house. So, this name concerned to them."

The first who used this term was the Prophet himself. The author of Asl al-Shi'a wa Usulaha (p. 77) writes that, "The leader of the Islamic law (the Prophet) was the first to plant the seed of Shi'ism in the field of Islam." Thus, the Prophet said to Ali: "O Ali! Verily you and your shi'a (followers) will be in paradise," vide Fadha'il al-Sahaba (2:655) by Ahmad bin Hanbal, Hilyatul Awliya (4:329) by Abu Nu'aym,Tarikh (12:289) by al-Khateeb al-Baghdadi, Majma al-Zawa'id (10:21-22) by al-Haythami, al-Sawa'iq al-Muhriqah (1:247) by Ibn Hajar, etc.

Jabir bin Abdullah al-Ansari narrated that the Prophet said, "The Shi'a of Ali are the real victorious on the day of judgment" (al-Manaqib Ahmad as mentioned in Yanabi al-Mawaddah by al-Qundoozi al-Hanafi, p.62). Dhur-e-Manthur by Suyuti, quotes the tradition as follows: "We were with the Prophet when Ali came towards us. The Prophet said: He and his Shi'a will acquire salvation on the day of judgment." According to Dhur-e-Manthur (6:379), the Prophet said, "Ali and his followers (shi'a) are khair al-bariyah (best created being)."

It is narrated that the Prophet said, "O Ali! On the Day of Judgment I shall resort to God and you will resort to me and your children will resort to you and the Shi'a will resort to them. Then you will see where they carry us. (i.e. to paradise)," vide, Rabi al-Abrar by Zamakhshari.

Ibn Abbas narrated: When the verse "Those who believe and do righteous deeds are the best of the creation (98:7)" was revealed, the Prophet said to Ali: "They are you and your Shi'a." He continued: "O Ali! (On the day of Judgment) you and your Shi'a will come toward God well-pleased and well-pleasing, and your enemies will come angry with their head forced up." Ali said: "Who are my enemies?" The Prophet replied: "He who disassociates himself from you and curses you. And glad tiding to those who reach first under the shadow of arsh on the day of resurrection." Ali asked: "Who are they, O the Messenger of God?" He replied: "Your Shi'a, O Ali, and those who love you," vide, al-Sawa'iq al-Muhriqah, (1:246-7) by Ibn Hajar.

It infers that the word Shi'a is used by God for His prophets as well as their followers. Further, His Prophet repeatedly used this word for the followers of Ali. The word Shi'a is used here in its special meaning, and moreover, it is not in plural form (parties), rather the above verses and traditions are referring to a special party, i.e., one single party. If Shi'a meant sectarian, neither God would use it for His prophets nor the Prophet would have praised them.

However there are some verses in Koran, which uses the plural form of Shi'a that is Shi-ya'a which means parties or groups. This is a general meaning of this term, and not the special meaning in singular form, which has been given in previous examples. Only one single party is accepted by God and the rest are severely denounced because they have separated from that unique party. So it is clear why God denounced groups/parties/sects (plural form) who separated from that unique group in some verses of Koran. There can't be two righteous groups (with conflicting ideas) at the same time, because between the two leaders one is surely better and more qualified, and thus the claims and the motives of the other leader go under question.

It should be emphasized that the Prophet never wished to divide Muslims into groups. He ordered all people to follow Ali as his agent during his life time, and his successor after him. But unfortunately those who heeded him were few and were known as the followers of Ali. When the Shi'a started to formulate their official position, some attempts were made to sort out the various groups of Ali's supporters which had been confusingly mixed up at that earlier stage. The ranks of the Shi'a were divided into four categories: al-Ashab (the Companions), al-Awliya (the devoted friends), al-Asfiya (the sincere friends) and the Shurtat al-Khamis (the picked division). It is not quite clear about the first three terms. The Shi'ite sources indicate the group of earlier followers, such as Miqdad, Salman, Hudhayfa, Abu Hamza, Fazal bin Abbas, Hashim bin Merqal, Hijr bin Ali, Maytham al-Tammar, Abdullah bin Abbas, Aban bin Sa'id, Khalid bin Sa'id, Khuzemah, Abu Sasan and Shutayr belonging to al-Asfiya. Syed Sharifuddin writes in Fusul al-Muhemah that, "There were about 250 followers of Ali bin Abu Talib in very early stage." This minor group played passive role like Ali in the period of Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman, but continued to acquire religious knowledge from their Imam. Ali bin Abu Talib once spoke to Abul Muqdam about the high moral standards of the early Shi'ites that, "The Shi'ites of Ali are pale, thin and withered. Their lips are faded, their abdomens are slim, their colours are changeable, and their faces are yellow. When it becomes dark, they use the ground as a bed and receive the earth with their foreheads" (vide al-Khisal, p 413). According to Tuhaf al-Uqul (p. 295), Imam Muhammad al-Bakir said, "The Shi'ites of Ali sacrifice their lives for our authority. They love each other, for they love us. They visit each other to enliven our affairs. When they become angry, they do not do wrong. When they are pleased, they do not go too far (in pleasure). They are a blessing for him who is their neighbour, and they are peace for one who associates with them."

When Ali became the fourth Caliph, his original followers or the minor group numbered over 1500. They owed their allegiance to Ali with other major group of the Muslims, not as an Imam but as Caliph because they had already expressed their love and devotion for Ali as their Imam after the Prophet. It clearly means that the minor group believed in the Imamate and Caliphate of Ali, while the major group recognized only his Caliphate. Most of the historians have failed to distinguish these two groups of the Muslims, and branded them on the whole as the Shi'at-i Ali or the followers of Ali. When Muawiya was on the verge of defeat in the battle of Siffin, he was suggested to hang the Koranic copies on the spears. Despite several efforts of Ali, his soldiers refused to advance and stopped the battle. These disobedient soldiers were from among the major group mentioned above, who are wrongly included in the term of Shi'at-i Ali.

The supporters of Ali from among the minor and major groups were known as the Shi'at-i Ali in the battle of Camel, and the people of Ai'sha were known as Ashab al-Jamal (the companions of the camel). Ali's supporters during the battle of Siffin were called not only the Shi'at-i Ali, but also Ahl al-Iraq, while his opponents became known as Shi'at-i Uthman, Shi'at-i Muawiya and Ahl al-Sham. It was in this wider sense that the term Shi'a was used in the document of arbitration at Siffin (Tabari, 1:3336), comprising of the minor and major groups.

During the early period of the Abbasids, the common names Shi'at-i Ali and Shi'at-i Uthman prevalent among the Muslims were given up, and instead, the terms Shi'a and Sunni got currency. While addressing his followers, Imam Muhammad al-Bakir used to say: "Our followers (shi'atuna) or our party (min shi'atina).

It is gleaned from different traditions that the Shi'ites were called as Rafida in the period of Imam Muhammad al-Bakir. The Shi'ites boasted of it, for it has become a proof for their love for Ahl al-Bayt. Imam Shafi'i boasted of this term when he said, "If the love for Ahl al-Bayt is rafd, then let jinn and men testify that I am a rafidia" (al-Mahasin by al-Barqi, p. 119)

In conclusion it can be said that Sunnism and Shi'ism are two orthodox dimensions of Islam. Being each an affirmation of the doctrine of unity they do not in themselves destroy the profound unity of Islam whatever their formal differences may be. They are rather two ways of asserting the truth of the Shahadah, no god save Allah. They are two streams originated from the same fountain, which is their unique source, namely the Koranic revelation.

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