The origins of Shia Islam المَذْهَبُ الشِّيْعِي dates back to the early days of Islam; therefore, it is the oldest branch of political Islam. More specifically, it emerged during the era of third caliph, Uthman ben Affan. Without his involvement, it flourished and sprang up during the era of fourth caliph, Imam Ali Ben Abi Talib. Apart from other talents, people had great admiration for his religious knowledge and piety. Propagandists of Shia Islam exploited people’s reverence for him to spread their beliefs. Following his death, Shi’ism as a concept fully developed into two ideologies, extreme and moderate.
According to ibn Khaldun, a noted Arab historian and sociologist, imamate اَلْإِمَامَة constitutes both the pillar and base of Islam. Therefore, it should not be neglected by the prophet or deputed to the masses. Rather, the prophet must designate the succeeding Imam, one who must be infallible and never commits a sin. In light of this, all Shiites concur that Ali bin Abi Talib, the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, is the chosen caliph and that he was the best of his companions. Also, many close companions of the prophet, such as Ammar bin Yasir; Abu Dhar al-Ghufari; Ubai bin Ka’b; and Salman al-Farsi, deemed Imam Ali the best successor of the Prophet (PBUH).
Right from the inception of Shia Islam, there were two classes of Shiites—the extremist and the moderate. The extremists are those who excessively revere Imam Ali and his sons, al-Hassan and al-Hussein, to the point of sanctification. Further, they accuse whoever disagree with their view of irreligion. The moderates, on the other hand, favored Imam Ali to all other companions as a caliph without accusing those who thought otherwise of disbelief. Nowadays, the extremists can be found in Iran and Iraq, while the moderate can be found in Yemen. The former belongs to Ja’fari or the Twelver Shiism, whereas the latter belong to the Zaydism, followers of Imam Zayd—grandson of Imam Hussein.
According to ibn Hadid, deemed by most as a Sunni Scholar, moderate Shiites believe that Imam Ali is the best of mankind in the present life and the hereafter, the most exalted in heaven, and the most virtuous and noble-minded of all. Therefore, whoever acted hostilely towards him or provoked him is, according to them, the enemy of Allah and is to be treated as an infidel. Also, it had been attested that the Prophet (PBUH) said “Oh Allah may You be the enemy of whoever engaged in hostilities with Ali, and may You be the supporter of whoever stood by him.”
Shi’ism as a religious ideology came into existence during the era of the third caliph, Uthman bin Affan. Without his auspices, it then thrived during the era of the fourth caliph, Imam Ali bin Abi Talib. Following his death, it developed into multiple sects. It reached it pinnacle during the Umayyad caliphate due to the strong aversion of the Umayyad caliphs to Imam Ali and his household.
For example, Muawiyah, the first Umayyad caliph, notoriously prescribed that Imam Ali was to be cursed after Friday sermons. This heinous practice continued over a span of fifty-five years, that is during the rule of the first seven Umayyad caliphs. Also, during the era of Yazid, the son of Muawiyah and the second Umayyad caliph, Imam Hussein, Imam Ali’s son and the grandson of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), was killed. Daughters of Imam Ali and Imam Hussein were taken as captives. The anathematization of Imam Ali’s household as well as the killing Imam Hussein instigated the anger, rage, and fury of the public that they excessively loathed the Umayyads and exaggeratedly loved and revered Imam Ali’s household.
People who revered Imam Ali and his household were in Egypt, the Levant, and the Hejaz—present-day Saudi Arabia. However, the majority of fervent admirers were in Iraq for a number of reasons. For the duration of his caliphate, which lasted around five years, Imam Ali was based in Iraq. During this time, he continually met with people, and they witnessed in him what deserved their excessive reverence; as a result, the people of Iraq never pledged allegiance to Umayyads and posed constant threat throughout their dynasty.
In addition, Iraq was a meeting hub of ancient civilizations. The scholarly knowledge of the Persians and that of the Chaldeans, the Greek philosophy, and the contemplative thoughts of the Indians amalgamated resulting in various philosophical ideas and notions and multiple divisions of Shiite sects. Furthermore, Iraq was the center of scientific studies; the people of Iraq were famous for their profound insights and outstanding intelligence. Their persistent research and investigation into religious matters led to a high tide in Shi’ism and its ideologies.
Today, Shiites make up around 15% of the global Muslim population. The majority of them are twelvers, that is they follow a hereditary line of twelve imams who are descendent of Ali and Fatimah, the daughter of Prophet. Iran is principally the heartland of Shia Islam in the modern world.