In Arabic, the term “Shi‘a” originally means one, two or a group of followers. In the Glorious Qur’an, this term is used several times in this sense. For example, God speaks of one of the followers of Moses as one of his Shi‘a in the verse (28:15). Elsewhere, Abraham is introduced as a Shi‘a of Noah (37:83). In the beginning of the history of Islam, the term “Shi‘a” was used in its original or literal sense for followers of different people. For example, some hadiths speak of the Shi‘a of Ali b. Abi Talib and others of the Shi‘a of Mu‘awiyah b. Abi Sufyan. However, gradually the term acquired a secondary or technical meaning, i.e. the followers of Ali, those who believed in his Imamate (divinely appointed leadership).
Shahrestani (d. 548 A.H) in his Al-Milal wa al-Nihal, an outstanding source about different sects in Islam, writes, “The Shi‘a are those who followed Ali in particular and believed in his Imamate and caliphate according to the explicit teachings and will of the Prophet Muhammad.”1 This is a very accurate definition, since the Shi‘a themselves believe that the reason for following Ali is that it was required by the Prophet and it was not their personal decision to choose whom to follow, unlike the non-Shi‘a who, after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, followed Abu Bakr b. Abi Quhafah who was chosen at Saqīfah and believed that the Prophet had left it to the people themselves to decide whom to follow. Of course, Abu Bakr himself believed that he must appoint his successor. And the second Caliph, ‘Umar b. Khattab, in turn appointed a council of six people to choose one amongst themselves according to a very strict procedure set up by him. It is interesting to note that it was Ali, the fourth Caliph, who was chosen and indeed forced by nearly all Muslims after the murder of the third Caliph, ‘Uthman b. ‘Affan to undertake the position of caliphate.
In his Firaq al-Shi‘a, al-Hasan b. Musa Nawbakhti (d. 313 A.H), a well-known Shi‘a scholar, writes, “the Shi‘a are the party of Ali b. Abi Talib. They were called ‘Shi‘a’ of Ali during and after the life of the Prophet and are known as the followers of Ali and believers in his Imamate”. 2 Shaykh al-Mufid (d. 413 A.H), one of the most outstanding early Shi‘a scholars, defines the Shi‘a as being those who follow Ali and believe in his immediate successorship to the Prophet.3 Explaining why the Shi‘a are also called “Imāmīyah”, he says: “This is a title for those who believe in the necessity of Imamate and its continuity in all ages, and that every Imam must be explicitly designated, and must also be infallible and perfect.”4
Thus, it can be said that Shi‘a Muslims are those who have the following beliefs about the successorship to the Prophet Muhammad:
- Successorship to the Prophet is a divinely appointed position.
- As the Prophet was chosen by God, his successor or Imam must also be chosen by God and then made known by the Prophet.
- The immediate successor to the Prophet Muhammad was Ali.
1 Shahrestani, vol. 1, p. 146.
2 Nawbakhti, p. 17.
3 See al-Mufid, p. 36.
4 Ibid, p. 38.
Discovering Shi’i Islam Mohammad Ali Shomali 9th Edition