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The Caliphates - 3. The Imams

The Twelve Imams
While the Rashidun Caliphate ended when Mu'awiyah's army subdued Hasan's forces in modern-day Iraq, it wasn't the end of the line for the descendents of the Prophet Muhammad and their claim to the leadership of the Islamic empire. Ali, who had finally become the fourth Rightly Guided Caliph in the Sunni tradition, is regarded as the first Islamic caliph by Shiites. They also know him as the First Imam in the line of Twelve. Hasan, vanquished by Mu'awiyah in Iraq, was the Second Imam.

At some point after Hasan surrendered the caliphate that had been passed to him by the Patriarchs of Islam, he was poisoned by his wife, apparently on the orders of Mu'awiyah, and was succeeded by his brother, Husayn, the Third Imam. Husayn was later killed and beheaded in a battle with Caliph Yazid, son of and successor to Mu'awiyah. Caliph Yazid was the second caliph of the Umayyad Caliphate (discussed here in the next posting).

To make a long story short, Shiite tradition holds that the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Imams were all poisoned to death on orders by a succession of Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs. The Twelfth Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, was a 5-year old leading the funeral prayer for his father in the 9th century when legend has it he disappeared. Believers claim God made him disappear and has kept him hidden in caves (or in a well, according to some) ever since. Eventually, "the Mahdi," as he's known, is prophesied to reveal himself to preside over the Worldwide Caliphate.

The succession of Twelve Imams and the reappearance of the Mahdi is a Shiite tradition, but the Sunnis are also awaiting the coming of the Mahdi so he can preside over the Worldwide Caliphate. The difference is that the Sunnis believe he will come from among the people, not through the succession of Ali's descendants.

Aside from the fundamental difference between Shiites and Sunnis relating to the original caliphate succession, there are entrenched matters of faith that separate them as well.

While early Muslim leaders struggled over appearance of different versions of the Koran, Shiites and Sunnis also adhere to different interpretations of what the Koran instructs.  These interpretations are contained in the Hadiths, narrations used to understand the Koran. They're intended to reflect the thoughts and habits of the Prophet Muhammad. So, while many non-Muslims cite passages in the Koran as a way to understand Islam, the more reliable method for understanding Islam is to study the Hadiths which purport to explain each sect's understanding of it. I mention them here because in attempting to understand why it's so far proven difficult to reconcile Shiites and Sunnis politically, bringing them together on points of faith have proven even more difficult.

The two primary traditions that guided the authorship of the Hadiths were the same that inspired the two sects themselves. Those who were faithful followers of Abu Bakr and Umar wrote what have become the Sunni Hadiths, while those who followed Ali wrote what have become the Shiite Hadiths. Sunnis don't accept the Shiite Hadiths which give them meaning to the Koran, and Shiites don't accept the Sunni Hadiths which give them their own interpretation of the Koran. Very, very few Muslims known as Qur'anists accept neither of the groups of Hadiths and hold with the Koran alone.

With Ali's son, Hasan, the Second Imam, having been deposed by the first Umayyad Caliph Mu'awiyah, the conflicts between Sunnis led by Mu'awiyah and the Shiites who were faithful to Ali's blood line were about to take a significant turn.

Tomorrow: The Umayyads 

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