The Shi‘ites constitute one of the two main branches of Islam. Although historically there have been Shi‘ite communities dispersed throughout various areas in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, today they are primarily concentrated in Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and southern Lebanon. Unlike the more mainstream majority of Sunni Muslims, Shi‘ites hold that true authority within the community of believers rests only with the ‘people of the house’ (ahl al-bayt), that is, the Prophet Muhammad and his descendants. They thus reject the legitimacy of Muhammad’s first three successors (Abu Bakr, ‘Umar and ‘Uthman), who were his companions, and believe that only the fourth, his son-in-law and cousin ‘Ali b. Abi Talib, was actually qualified to lead the community. It was because of this that they acquired the name shi‘at ‘Ali (‘partisans of ‘Ali’), or just shi‘a. ‘Ali and his descendants are typically characterized by Shi‘ites as imams rather than caliphs. Imams are not only directly related to Muhammad by bloodline, but are actually guided and legitimized by God. Thus, unlike the Sunni caliphs (who in practice if not in theory exercised mainly secular power), the imams were invested with both spiritual and temporal authority. Historically, however, these claims to authority were repeatedly frustrated both religiously and politically. The history of the imams is a bloody and tragic one that has given rise to the veneration of their tombs and shrines, as well as repeated calls for repentance and martyrdom. The Shi‘ites believe that the last historical imam was not killed but rather went into occultation or concealment (ghayba) and will return as the Mahdi (lit. the ‘one who is rightly guided’) at the end of time to restore true religion and rule justly and wisely over all. There are several divisions within Shi‘ite Islam itself, the two most prominent of which are the Isma‘ilis (or ‘Seveners’ [sab‘iyya], as they are sometimes called) and the ‘Twelvers’ (ithna ‘ashariyya). They are divided by the question of which imam went into occultation (the seventh or the twelth) and by their practical response to this state of affairs (Isma‘ilis opting for various degrees of religio-political activism, the Twelvers generally adopting a kind of quietism until the Mahdi’s return). Both branches of Shi‘ism produced important philosophical figures ranging from al-Farabi, to al-Sijistani (Abu Ya‘qub), to al-Tusi, to Mulla Sadra.
   Further reading: Chittick 1981; Halm 1991/2004; Hogson 1974; Watt 1962/85

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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