1902 Encyclopedia > Sunnis and Shi'ites

Sunnites and Shi'ites
(now known as: Sunnis and Shi'ites)


Geographical Distribution

The religion of Mohammed is at present professed by 150 to 200 million souls, spread over great parts of Asia (including the Indian Archipelago), Africa, and southern Europe, [659-1]—over Asia Minor, Armenia, Syria, Palestine, Arabia, Mesopotamia, the Caucasus, Persia, all upper Asia (including Siberia), the steppes of southern Russia, Afghanistan, Beluchistan, Tibet, China, Japan, India, Egypt, the Soudan as far as the equatorial lakes, the whole north coast of Africa and thence deep into the interior, European Turkey, Bulgaria, Bosnia, and Herzegovina. In most of these regions Mos-lems live side by side with men of other confessions, even where Islam is the ruling creed; it is found unmixed in Central Asia and some parts of Arabia.

Mohammedans fall into the two great divisions of Sunnites and Shi’ites (Shí’a), separated by such bitter hatred as belongs to two hostile religions, or such as some Catholic populations feel towards a Protestant. [659-2] The Sunnites, who accept the orthodox tradition (Sunna) as well as the Koran as a source of theologico-juristic doctrines, predominate in Arabia, the Turkish empire, the north of Africa, Turkestan, Afghanistan, and the Mohammedan parts of India and the east of Asia; the Shi’ites, whose origin has been explained in MOHAMMEDANISM (vol. xvi. pp. 564, 568, 592), have their main seat in Persia, where their confession is the state religgion, but are also scattered over the whole sphere of Islam, especially in India and the regions bordering on Persia, except among the nomad Tatars, who are all nominally Sunnite. Even in Turkey there are many native Shi’ites, generally men of the upper classes, and often men in high office. The Shi’ites are less numerous and less important than the Sunnites, but on the whole may amount to 20 millions.



Orthodox Islam preserves unchanged the form of doctrine established in the 10th century by Abú ‘l-Hasan al-Ash’arí (see vol. xvi. p. 593, and also pp. 553 sq., 592, 584). The attacks of rationalism, aided by Greek philosophy, were repelled and vanquished by the weapons of scholastic dialectic borrowed from the enemy; on most points of dispute discussion was forbidden altogether, and faith in what is written in Koran and tradition was enjoined without question as to how these things were true (bilá kaifa). Freer allegorical views, however, were admitted on some specially perplexing points, such as the doctrine of the eternity of the Koran, the crude anthropo-morphisms of the sacred text, &c.; and, since Mo’tazilite views had never taken deep root among the masses, while the caliphs required the help of the clergy, and from the time of Motawakkil (847 A.D.) became ever more closely bound to orthodox views, the freethinking tendency was thoroughly put down, and to the present day no rationalizing movement has failed to be crushed in the bud. Philosophy still means no more than scholastic dialectic, and is the humble servant of orthodoxy, no man venturing on devious paths except in secret. In the years 1872-78 the Afghan Jamál al-Dín, a professor in the Azhar mosque at Cairo, attempted to read Avicenna with his scholars, and to exercise them in things that went beyond theology, bringing, for example, a globe into the mosque to explain the form of the earth. But the other professors rose in arms, forbade him to enter the mosque, and in 1879 procured his exile on the pretext that he entertained democratic and revolutionary ideas. Thus the later movements of thought in Islam never touch on the great questions that exercised Mohammedanism in its first centuries, e.g., the being and attributes of God, the freedom of the will, sin, heaven and hell, &c. Religious earnestness, ceasing to touch the higher problems of speculative thought, has expressed itself in later times exclusively in protest against the extravagances of the dervishes, of the worship of saints, and so forth, and has thus given rise to movements analogous to Puritanism.


That even in early times the masses were never shaken in their attachment to the traditional faith, with all its crude and grotesque conceptions, is due to the zeal of the ulema, or clergy, for the protection of Islam from every alien influence. Mohammedanism has no priesthood standing between God and the congregation, but Koran and Sunna are full of minute rules for the details of private and civil life the knowledge of which is necessarily in the hands of a class of professed theologians. These are the ‘ulema ("knowers," singular ‘álim). Theology being briefly named the "knowledge" ('ilm). Their influence is still enormous and hardly has a parallel in the history of religions. For it is not supported by temporal agencies like the spiritual authority of the Christian priesthood in the Middle Ages, but is a pure power of knowledge over the ignorant masses, who do nothing without consulting their spiritual advisers. When the vigorous Spanish sultan Mansúr b. Abí ‘Ámir proposed to confiscate a religious foundation and the assembled ulema refused to approve the act, and were threatened by his vizier, one of them replied, "All the evil you say of us applies to yourself; you seek unjust gains and support your injustice by threats; you take bribes and practise ungodliness in the world. But we are guides on the path of righteousness, lights in the darkness, and bulwarks of Islam; we decide what is just or unjust and declare the right; through us the precepts of religion are maintained. We know that the sultan will soon think better of the matter; but, if he persists, every act of his government will be null, for every treaty of peace and war, every act of sale and purchase, is valid only through our testimony." With this answer they left the assembly, and the sultan’s apology overtook them before they had passed the palace gate. [660-1] The same consciousness of independent authority and strength still survives among the ulema. Thus the sheikhu ‘l-Islám ‘Abbásí (who was deposed by the professors of the Azbar in 1882) had in the first period of his presidency a sharp conflict with ‘Abbás Pasha, viceroy of Egypt, who asked of him an unjust legal opinion in matters of inheritance. When bribes and threats failed, the sheikh was thrown into chains and treated with great severity, but it was the pasha who finally yielded, and ‘Abbásí was recalled to honours and rich rewards.

The way in which the ulema are recruited and formed into a hierarchy with a vigorous esprit de corps throws an instructive light on the whole subject before us. The brilliant days are past when the universities of Damascus, Baghdád, Níshápúr, Cairo, Kairowán (Kairwan), Seville, Cordova, were thronged by thousands of students of theology, when a professor had often hundreds or even, like Bokhárí, thousands of bearers, and when vast estates in the hands of the clergy fed both masters and scholars. Of the great universities but one survives—the Azhar mosque at Cairo—where thousands of students still gather to follow a course of study which gives an accurate picture of the Mohammedan ideal of theological education. [660-2]

Theological students

The students of theology generally begin their course in early youth, but not seldom in riper years. Almost all come from the lowest orders, a few from the middle classes, and none from the highest ranks of society,—a fact which in itself excludes all elements of freer and more refined education. These sons of poor peasants, artisans, or tradesmen are already disposed to narrow fanaticism, and generally take up study as a means of livelihood rather than from genuine religious interest. The scholar appears before the president’s secretary with his poor belongings tied up in a red handkerchief, and after a brief interrogatory is entered on the list of one of the four orthodox rites,—Sháfi’ite, Hanafite, Málikite, and Hanbalite. If he is lucky he gets a sleeping-place within the mosque, a chest to hold his things, and a daily ration of bread. The less fortunate make shift to live outside as best they can, but are all day in the mosque, and are seldom deserted by Moslem charity. Having kissed the hands of the sheikh and teachers of his school, the pupil awaits the beginning of the lectures. For books a few compendiums suffice him. Professors and students gather every morning for the daily prayer; then the professors take their seats at the foot of the pillars of the great court and the students crouch on mats at their feet. The beginner takes first a course in the grammar of classical Arabic, for he has hitherto learned only to read, write, and count. The rules of grammar are read out in the memorial verses of the Ajrúmíya, and the teacher adds an exposition, generally read from a printed commentary. The student’s chief task is to know the rules by heart; this accomplished, he is dismissed at the end of the year with a certificate (ijáza), entered in his text-book, which permits him to teach it to othere. The second year is devoted to dogmatic (kalám and tawhíd), taught in the same mechanical way. The dogmas of Islam are not copious, and the attributes of God are the chief subject taken up. They are demonstrated by scholastic dialectic, and at the end of his second year the student, receiving his certificate, deems himself a pillar of the faith. The study of law (fikh), which rests on Koran and tradition, is more difficult and complex, and begins, but is often not completed, in the third year. The student had learned the Koran by heart at school and has often repeated it since, but only now is the sense of its words explained to him. Of the traditions of the Prophet he has learned something incidentally in other lectures ; he is now regularly introduced to their vast and artificial system. From these two sources are derived all religious and civil laws, for Islam is a political as well as a religious institution. The five main points of religious law, "the pillars of Islam," have been enumerated in vol. xvi. p. 553 sq.; the civil law, on the development of which Roman law had some influence, is treated under heads similar to those of Western jurisprudence. It is here that the differences between the four schools (vol. xvi. p. 594 sq.) come most into notice: the Hanafite praxis is the least rigorous, then the Sháfi’ite; the Hanbalites, whose system is the strictest, have practically disappeared in the Málikites. The Hanafite rite is official in the Turkish ernpire, and is followed in all Government offices whenever a decision still depends on the sacred law, as well as by all Mohammedans of Turkish race. In Egypt and North Africa Sháfi'ites are more numerous than Málikites, while the opposite is the case in Arabia. In 1878 the Azhar had 7691 students,—3723 Sháfi'ites with 106 sheikhs, 2855 Málikites with 75 sheikhs, 1090 Hanafites with 49 sheikhs, 23 Hanbalites with 1 sheikh. in this as in the previous studies a compendium is learned by heart, and explanations are given from commentaries and noted down by the students word for word. The professors are expressly forbidden to add anything of their own. The recognized books of jurisprudence, some of which run to over twenty folio volumes, are vastly learned, and occasionally show sound sense, but excel mainly in useless hair-splitting and feats of scholastic gymnastics, for which the Arabian race has a natural gift.

Besides the three main disciplines the student takes up according to his tastes other subjects, such as rhetoric (ma’ání wabayán), logic (mantik), prosody (‘arúd), and the doctrine of the correct pronunciation of the Koran (kirá’a watajwíd). After three or four years, fortified with the certificates of his various professors, he seeks a place in a law-court or as a teacher, preacher, cadi, or mufti of a village or minor town, or else one of the innumerable posts of confidence for which the complicated ceremonial of Mohammedanism demands a theologian, and which are generally paid out of pious foundations. A place is not hard to find, for the powerful corporation of the ulema seeks to put its own members into all posts, and, though the remuneration is at first small, the young ‘álim gradually accumulates the revenues of several offices. Gifts, too, fall in, and with his native avarice and economy he rises in wealth, position, and reputation for piety. The commonalty revere him and kiss his hand; the rich show him at least outward respect; and even the Government treats him as a person to whom consideration is due for his influence with the masses.

This sketch of his education is enough to explain the narrow-mindedness of the ‘álim. He deems all non-theological science to be vain or hurtful, has no notion of progress, and regards true science—i.e., theology—as having reached finality, so that a new supercommentary or a new students’ manual is the only thing that is perhaps still worth writing. How the mental faculties are blunted by scholasticism and mere memory work must be seen to be believed; such an education is enough to spoil the best head. All originality is crushed out and a blind and ludicrous dependence on written tradition—even in things profane—-takes its place. Acuteness degenerates into hair-splitting and clever plays on words after the manner of the rabbins. The Azbar students not seldom enter Government offices and even hold important administrative posts, but they never lose the stamp of their education--the narrow unteachable spirit, incapable of progress, always lost in external details, and never able to grasp principles and get behind forms to the substance of a matter. (W. S.-B.)


Yet it is but a small fraction of the ulema of the Moslem world that enjoy even such an education as the Azhar affords. It draws few students from foreign parts, [661-1] where the local schools are of the poorest kind, except in India (thanks to the British Government) and perhaps in Con-stantinople. [661-2] Bokhárá was once a chief seat of learning, but is now so sunk in narrow fanaticism that its eighty madrasas with their 5000 students only turn out a bigoted and foolish clergy (Vámbéry). [661-3] But for this very reason Bokhárá is famed as a luminary of pure theology and spreads its influence over Turkestan, Siberia, China, Kashmir, Afghanistan, and even over India. Minor schools attached to mosques are found in other places, but teach still less than the great schools already mentioned.

Caliphhate and temporal sovreignity

Except in India, where it is controlled by the Government, the organization of the priestly and judicial persons trained in the schools is a compromise between what theological principles dictate and what the state demands. Neither Koran nor Sunna distinguishes between temporal and spiritual powers, and no such distinction was known as long as the caliphs acted in all things as successors of the prophets and heads of the community of the faithful. But, as the power of the ‘Abbásids declined (see vol. xvi. p. 585 sq.) and external authority fell in the provinces into the hands of the governors and in the capital into those of the amír al-omará, the distinction became more and more palpable, especially when the Búyids (Buwaihids), who were disposed to Shi’ite views, proclaimed themselves sultans, i.e., possessors of all real authority. The theologians tried to uphold the orthodox theory by declaring the sultanate to be subordinate to the immate or sovereignty of the caliphs, and dependent on the latter especially in all religious matters; but their artificial theories have never modified facts. The various dynasties of sultans (Búyids, Ghaznevids, Seljúks, and finally the Mongols) never paid heed to the caliphs and at length abolished them; but the fall of the theocracy only increased the influence of the clergy, the expounders and practical administrators of that legislation of Koran and Sunna which had become part of the life of the Mohammedan world. The Mamelukes in Egypt tried to make their own government appear more legitimate by nominally recognizing a continuation of the spiritual dignity of the caliphate in a surviving branch of the ‘Abbásid line which they protected, and in 923 A.H. (1517) the Ottoman Selim, who destroyed the Mameluke power, constrained the ‘Abbásid Mutawakkil III., who lived in Cairo, to make over to him his nominal caliphate. The Ottoman sultans still bear the title of "successors of the Prophet," and still find it useful in foreign relations, since there is or may be some advantage in the right of the caliph to nominate the chief cadi (kádí) of Egypt and in the fact that the spiritual bead of Khiva calls himself only the nakíb (vicegerent) of the sultan. [661-4] In India too the sultan owes something perhaps to his spiritual title. But among his own subjects he is compelled to defer to the ulema and has no considerable influence on the composition of that body. He nominates the sheikhu l’-IsIám (senior, i.e., president of Islam) or mufti of Constantinople (grand mufti), who is his representative in the imámate and issues judgments in points of faith and law from which there is no appeal; but the nomination must fall on one of the mollahs, [661-5] who form the upper stratum of the hierarchy of ulema. And, though the various places of religious dignity are conferred by the sultan, no one can hold office who has not been examined and certified by older ulema, so that the corporation is self-propagating, and palace intrigues, though not without influence, can never break through its iron bonds. The deposition of ‘Abd al-Azíz is an example of the tremendous power that can be wielded by the ulema at the head of their thousands of pupils [662-1] when they choose to stir up the masses; nor would Mahmúd II. in 1826 have ventured to enter on his struggle with the Janissaries unless lie had had the hierarchy with him.

The student who has passed his examinations at Constantinople or Cairo may take up the purely religious office of imám (president in worship) or khatíb (preacher) at a mosque. These offices, however, are purely ministerial, are not necessarily limited to students, and give no place in the hierarchy and no particular consideration or social status.

Judicial offices

On the other hand, he may become a judge or cadi. Every place of any importance has at least one cadi, who is nominated by the Government, [662-2] but has no further dependence on it, and is answerable only to a member of the third class of the ulema, viz., the mufti or pronouncer of fetwas. A fetwa is a decision according to Koran and Sunna, but without reasons, on an abstract case of law which is brought before the mufti by appeal from the cadi’s judgment or by reference from the cadi himself. For example, a dispute between master and slave may be found by the cadi to turn on the general question, "Has Zaid, the master of ‘Amr, [662-3] the absolute right to dispose of bis slave’s earnings?" When this is put to the mufti, the answer will be simply "Yes," and from this decision there is no appeal, so that the mufti is supreme judge in his own district. The grand mufti of Constantinople is, as we have seen, nominated by the sultan, but his hold on the people makes him quite an independent power in the state; in Cairo he is not even nominated by the Government, but each school of law chooses its own sheikh, who is also mufti, and the Hanafite is head mufti because his school is official in the Turkish empire.

Modern changes

All this gives the judges great private and political influence. But the former is tainted by venality, the plague-spot of the East, which, aggravated by the scantiness of judicial salaries or in some cases by the judge having no salary at all, is almost universal among the administrators of justice. Their political influence, again, which arises from the fusion of private and political law in Koran and Sunna, is highly inconvenient to the state, and often becomes intolerable now that relations with Western states are multiplied. And even in such distant parts as Central Asia the law founded on the conditions of the Prophet’s lifetime proves so unsuited to modern life that cases are often referred to civil authorities rather than to canonical jurists. Thus a customary law (‘orf) has there sprung up side by side with the official sacred law (sharí’a), much to the displeasure of the mollahs. In Turkey, and lately above all in Egypt, it has been found necessary greatly to limit the sphere and influence of the canonical jurists and introduce institutions nearer to Western legal usage. We do not here speak of the paper constitutions (khatt-i-sheríf) and the like, created to dupe Western diplomatists and amuse their authors, but of such things as consular and commercial courts, criminal codes, and so forth. The present sultan seems also to aim at diminishing the power of the ulema by such measures as frequent changes of the sheikhu ‘l-islám, though this policy is perhaps less likely to confirm his power than to rob it of its last supports.

The official hierarchy, strong as it is, divides its power with the dervishes. A religion which subdues to itself a race with strongly marked individuality is always influenced in cultus and dogma by the previous views and tendencies of that race, to which it must in some measure accommodate itself. Mohammed himself made a concession to heathen traditions when he recognized the Kaaba and the black stone; and the worship of saints, which is now spread throughout Islam and supported by obviously forged traditions, is an example of the same thing. So too are the religious orders now found everywhere except in some parts of Arabia. Mystical tendencies in Mohammedanism arose mainly on Persian soil (see vol. xvi. p. 594), and Von Kremer has shown that these Eastern tendencies fell in with a disposition to asceticism and flight from the world which had arisen among the Arabs before Islam under Christian influence. [662-4]

Súfís and dervishes

Intercourse with India had given Persian mysticism the form of Buddhistic monkery, while the Arabs imitated the Christian anchorites; thus the two movements had an inner kinship and an outer form so nearly identical that they naturally coalesced, and that even the earliest organizations of orders of dervishes, whether in the East or the West, appeared to Mohammedan judgment to be of one type. Thus, though the name of Súfí (see vol. xvi. p. 594) is first applied to Abú Háshim, who died in Syria in 150 A.H. (767), we find it transferred without question to the mystical brotherhood which appears in Khorásán under Abú Sa’íd about 200 A.H. (815/6). Yet these two schools of Súfis were never quite similar; on Sunnite soil Súfism could not openly impugn orthodox views, while in Persia it was saturated with Shi’ite heresy and the pantheism of the extreme devotees of ‘Ali (see vol. xvi. p. 593). Thus there have always been two kinds of Súfis, and, though the course of history and the wandering habits which various orders borrowed from Buddhism have tended to bring them closer to one another, we still find that of the thirty-six chief orders three claim an origin from the caliph Abú-bekr, whom the Sunnites honour, and the rest from ‘Alí, the idol of the Shi’ites. [662-5] Mystic absorption in the being of God, with an increasing tendency to Pantheism and ascetic practices, are the main scope of all Súfism, which is not necessarily confined to members of orders; indeed the secret practice of contemplation of the love of God and contempt of the world is sometimes viewed as specially meritorious. And so ultimately the word súfi has come to denote all who have this religious direction, while those who follow the special rules of an order are known as dervishes ("beggars," in Arabic fukará, sing. fakír—names originally designating only the mendicant orders). In Persia at the present day a Súfí is much the same as a freethinker. Several of the chief dervish orders arose in the evil times before and after the invasion of the Mongols: thus ‘Abd al-Kádir al-Jílání (d. 561 A.H.; 1165/66) founded the Kádíríya order, Ahmad al-Rifá'í (d. 578 A.H. ; 1182/3) the Rifá’íya, Jalálu ‘I-din Rúmíi (see RUMI) the Mawlawíya, Abú 'I-Hasan al-Shádhili (d. 656 A.H.; 1258) the Shádhilíya, Ahmad al-Badawí (d. 675 A.H.; 1276) the Ahmadíya or Badawíya, an order still very widely spread in Egypt. While civil distress drove men to flee from the world, the stupid fanaticism of Turkish rule has helped on the belief in miracles so often associated with mysticism and all those deceits that go with the spread of enthusiastic notions. Of later orders we may name the Nakshbendíya, now the most important in the khanates of Turkestan, whose founder died 719 A.H. (1319), the Sa’díya (736 A.H.; 1335), the Bektashíya (758 A.H.; 1357), the Khalwatíya (800 A.H. ; 1397). [663-1]

The modern dervishes have sunk as low as the modern ulema. The idea of absorbed contemplation of the divine being, freed from all earthly conceptions, and of mortification of the flesh in order to become one with God is grossly caricatured in the insane howlings hu hu ("he, he") and self-torture with red-hot knives, &c., practised by the "howling" Rifá’íya and in the dizzy whirling of the "dancing" Mawlawíya. Very pestilent too is their traditional reputation for holiness with the common people, while ecstatic piety easily passes into deceit where it is still generally believed that a saint (walí) can work miracles. The wandering dervishes especially, who move constantly from place to place, are noted for all sorts of juggling impostures, by the aid of which, like the Yogis of India, they live at the cost of the people. [663-2] But they are no longer trusted or held in much esteem even by the populace, whereas the conventual orders are usually regarded as pious and inspired men. Sheikh Ahmad, the founder of the Badawíya, is the national saint of Egypt, and his tomb at Tanta is a great place of pilgrimage. The ulema dislike these rivals, but can do little against their influence.

The bright side in the modern world of Islam is found among the, lower classes. The ruling classes of Turkey are utterly corrupt, and for centuries their one art of administration has been to suck the provinces dry. Taxes are exorbitant and bad laws check the production of wealth, while what remains of the useful institutions and public works of old time daily decays. To this is added the recklessness born of a more or less clear consciousness that things cannot last as they are. The effendi of Constantinople has lost faith in his religion and the future of his race; as for a sense of honour, as we understand it, that does not exist in the East. In Egypt things have not been quite so bad since Mohammed ‘Alí destroyed the Mamelukes and founded a state with some pretensions to order and solidity; selfish as he was, he saw that to maintain the revenue it was necessary to stimulate production, and to this end, amid many mistakes, he took not a few useful steps. His successors were less wise and skilful, yet prosperity increased, and for the first time for centuries national feeling began to assert itself. But this movement fell into the hands of the ignorant and fanatical ‘Orábí Pasha (1882) and led to the English, occupation and the entire disorganization of the country, so that Cairo is now little better than Constantinople.

Poorer classes

Yet with all this the poorer classes have not lost their vigour, and among them Islam has still a deep-rooted strength. The common Turk of Roumelia or Asia Minor is still a solid sober honest fellow and a brave soldier, always ready to make every sacrifice for his religion. In Egypt the morality of the people has suffered from the great foreign immigration, which has introduced many evil elements as well as some good; yet even here the great mass of both townsmen and peasants are loyal to the old faith and to the traditional sobriety and parsimony which the nature of the country itself prescribes. These qualities taken with the undoubted intelligence of the Arabian population give hope of a revival of prosperity on the Nile under more favourable political conditions. The people have a persuasion of the superiority of their religion, which, while it often makes necessary reforms difficult, prevents them from losing national individuality and self-reliance, and the belief in predestination gives a certain dignity and self-possession under calamities, without excluding foresight and activity in daily duty. But whether all this is enough to secure the political revival of the Sunnite commonwealths is doubtful in face of the preponderating influence on all the coasts of the Levant of Western civilization, which as yet is almost entirely a disintegrating force and seems certain to prevent a redintegration of Islam in Turkey, and probably also in Egypt. The khanates, again, are sunk in incredible moral corruption cloaked by blind fanaticism, while most of the Bedouin tribes of Arabia have known little about Koran and religion for the last eight centuries. [663-3] Islam has certainly still a great future in Central Africa, but this can hardly lead to veritable reformation of its system. Still there are many evidences that the faith is not yet dead even in its old realms. We lay no stress on the existence of various sects opposed to the current Sunnite orthodoxy, such as the puritanical Wahhabites of Arabia and India, or the DRUSES (q.v.), Nosairíya, Isma’ílíya, and Metwáliya of Syria, who are tinged with Shí’ite views and belong only politically to the Sunnite section of Islam. But in India there are still living seeds of further development within Islam proper. Under English control the ulema, are unable to maintain the same spiritual tyranny over men’s minds as elsewhere, and we find more mutual toleration between Sunna and Shí’a, an easy accommodation to local tradition, [663-4] and even an ability to leave the grooves of Al-Ash’arí’s scholasticism and approach the ideas of the old rationalistic Mo’tazilites. Movements in this direction have come to light quite recently; but their further growth need not here be speculated on. [663-5]


The extreme Shí’ite view that ‘Alí is to be regarded as an incarnation of the Godhead (see vol. xvi. pp. 568, 592) maintained its predominance only in times when and places where the opposition to the sovereignty of the Omayyads and ‘Abbásids was intense, or where pantheistic influences from India were at work. From the first there existed also a milder form of Shí’ite faith, which soon was at open war with the fanatical Ismá’ílíya and their disciples, the Fátimites and Assassins (vol. xvi. p. 593 sq.). [663-5]

Shi'ite dynasties in Persia

It was through the moderate Shi’ítes that the caliph Ma’mún thought to reconcile his dynasty with the house of ‘Alí (vol. xvi. p. 584), and it was this party that became dominant in Persia in the 10th Christian century under the Búyids. When they conquered Baghdád the Búyids abstained from interfering with the Sunnite orthodoxy of the populations of the capital and Arabian ‘Irák, but the Shí’íte faith was openly professed in their courts at Rai, Shiráz, and Kirmán. But in the next century the power of the Shí’íte dynasty crumbled and fell before the Ghaznevids and Seljúks, who as Turks were Sunnites, and repressed the opposing views. In the 13th century the Mohammedan East was overrun by the Mongols, who at first were indifferent to all religion, and gave the Persian Shí’ítes perfect liberty; later on the great-grandson of Jenghis Khán, Mohammed Khodahbende Oeljitu (1303-16), himself became a Shí’íte; nor was the progress of the sect checked by the fall of the dynasty and the conquests of Tímúr (1387), who veiled his religious indifference by proclaiming himself an admirer of ‘Alí. Thus the mass of the Persian population remained Shí’ítes, and the Tímúrides accommodated themselves to the religious feelings of their subjects. Tímúr’s son, Shúh Rokh, even built and furnished forth the tomb of the imám Rizá in Meshhed (Meshed). The troublous times that followed and the intervention in Persian affairs of the Sunnite Ak-Koyunlu (see vol. xviii. p. 632 sq.) must have been unfavourable to Shí’íte principles; but they gained a final victory through the Safawi dynasty, whose founder, Sháh Ismá’íl (1499-1523), gave the Shí’íte doctrine, in the form in which it is held by the Ithná-‘Asharíya, the position it still has as the state religion of Persia.

The Ithná-‘Asharíya

The Ithná-‘Asharíya, or "Twelvers," a sect of the moderate Shí’ítes, have their name from the respect they pay to ‘Alí and his eleven immediate heirs through Fátima, daughter of the Prophet. Like all Shí’ítes, they hold that ‘Alí was designated as his successor by Mohammed, [664-1] and unjustly thrust aside by the three actual caliphs, Abúbekr, ‘Omar, and ‘Othmán. Still more do they hate the Omayyad enemies of ‘Alí and his house (see vol. xvi. p. 563). They and the ‘Abbásids were usurpers, the true caliphs de jure being the imáms—(1) ‘Alí; (2) Hasain; (3) Hosain, then his heirs in the direct line—(4) ‘Alí II.; (5) Mohammed al-Bákir; (6) Ja’far al-Sádik; (7) Músá al-Kázim; (8) ‘Alf III. al.-Ridá, (in modern pronunciation Riza); (9) Mohammed II.. al-Jawád; (10) ‘Alí IV. al-‘Askarí; (11) Hasan II. al-Khamt; (12) Mohammed III. al-Mahdí, who lived in the second half of the 3d century of the Flight (9th century A.D.), and to whom his Shí’íte partisans looked to free them from the ‘Abbásid yoke. These hopes failed and he himself disappeared, whence the belief grew that he was concealed in a cave at Samarra and would return at the end of days. Meantime the sovereignty belongs to the other descendants of ‘Alí, the Sayyids (lords). In fact the Safawis claimed descent from the seventh imán, and neither the Afghan Nadir Sháh, who overthrew their power, nor the Kajars, who now reign, are regarded as legitimate. The false position which the royal house stands in with the clergy is an important element in the weakness of the crumbling state of Persia.

Shi'ite tenets

All other points in which Shí’ítes differ from Sunnites depend on their legitimistic opinions, or are accommodations of the rites of Islam to the Persian nationality, or else are petty matters affecting ceremonial. The rejection of the whole Sunnite traditions goes with the repudiation of the caliphs under whose protection these were handed down. [664-2] An allegorical and mystical interpretation reconciles the words of the Koran with the inordinate respect paid to ‘Alí; the Sunnite doctrine of the uncreated Koran is denied. To the Mohammedan confession "There is no god but God and Mohammed is His ambassador" they add "and ‘Alí is the vicegerent of God" (wali, properly "confidant"). There are some modifications in detail as to the four main religious duties of Islam,—the prescriptions of ritual purity, in particular, being absurdly exaggerated and made the main duty of the faithful. The prayers are almost exactly the same, but to take part in public worship is not obligatory, as there is at present no legitimate imám whose authority can direct the prayer of the congregation. Pilgrimage to Mecca, to which the Sunnite indwellers of ‘Irák and Arabia, oppose difficulties, though since the reign of ‘Abd al-Mejíd it is officially thrown open to all, may be performed by a hired substitute, [664-3] or its place can be taken by a visit to the tombs of Shí’íte saints, e.g., that of ‘Alí at Nejef, of Hosain at Ker-belá, of Rizá at Meshhed, or of the "unstained Fátima" at Kum (Fátima-i-ma’asúm, daughter of Músá, the 7th imám). The Shí’ítes are much the most zealous of Moslems in the worship of saints (real or supposed descendants of ‘Alí) and in pilgrimages to their graves, and they have a characteristic eagerness to be buried in those holy places. The Persians have an hereditary love for pomps and festivities, and so the Shí’ítes have devised many religious feasts. Of these the great sacrificial feast (‘íd-i-Kurbán; Turkish Kurbán Bairám) is also Sunnite; the first ten days of the month Moharram are dedicated to the mourning for the death of Hosain at Kerbelá (vol. xvi. p. 568), which is celebrated by passion-plays (ta’zíya; see vol. xviii. p. 660), while the universal joy of the Nauroz, or the New Year of the Old Persian calendar, receives a Mohammedan sanction by the tradition that on this day the Prophet conferred the caliphate on ‘Alí. [664-4]

Ecclesiastical officers

While they naturally reject the four Sunnite schools of jurisprudence, the Shí’ítes also derive all law from the Koran, and their trained clergy (mollahs) are the only class that can give legitimate legal responses. The training of the mollah resembles that of the Sunnite ‘álím. The course at the madrasa embraces grammar, with some rhetoric and prosody, logic, dogmatic, Koran exegesis, tradition, and jurisprudence, and finally some arithmetic and algebra. The best madrasa is at Kerbelá. [664-5] But the best students of Kerbelá are no match even for the Sunnite disciples of Bokhárá. [664-6] The scholar discharged from his studies becomes first a simple mollah, i.e., local judge and notary. [664-7] A small place has one such judge, larger towns a college of judges under a head called the sheikhu ‘l-Islám.

Judicial officiers

The place of the Sunnite muftis is filled by certain of the imám-jum’a, i.e., presidents of the chief mosques in the leading towns, who in respect of this function bear the title of imám mujtehid. This is a dignity conferred by the tacit consent of people and clergy, and is held at one time only by a very few disinguished men. At the beginning of the 19th century there were but five mujtehids in Persia; now (1887) they seem to be more numerous. In Persia the cadi (kází) is an inferior judge who acts for the sheikhu ‘l-Islám in special cases, and a mufti is a solicitor acting under the judge to prepare cases for court.

Under the Safawis, when the clergy had great influence, they had at their head the sadru ’ssodúr, who administered all pious foundations and was the highest judicial authority. But so great a power was found dangerous; ‘Abbás the Great (1586-1628) abstained from filling up a vacancy which occurred in it, and, though Sháh Sefí (1628-1641) restored the office, he placed it in commission. Nádir Sháh abolished it in his attempt to get rid of the Shí’íte hierarchy (1736), and since then it has not been restored. Yet the imám-jum’a of Ispáhán, the old Safawi capital, is tacitly regarded as representative of the invisible imám of the house of ‘Alí, who is the true head of the church. Various vain attempts have been made in the 19th century to subordinate the authority of the clergy to the Government. These attempts had the sympathy of the better classes, for the venality and moral corruption of the mollahs and their disposition to the most vulgar fraud are proverbial. But, on the other hand, the clerical power and the right of asylum at Meshhed, Kum, and some other sanctuaries are the only protection of the masses against the arbitrary tyranny of the court and the officials. There is now a sort of truce between the Government and the clergy, though the former is always suspicious of the latter. Only the venality of the spiritual courts has led, as in Turkestan, to a limitation of their jurisdiction, and judicial decisions are given also by civil magistrates according to ‘orf or customary law and, although their decisions are often arbitrary, they are commonly resorted to in cases affecting property, in which the spiritual judge would think it his duty to "eat up" the sum in dispute. The main prop of the mollahs against the Government are the scum of the population, the lútís or foul rowdies. In 1862, according to Vámbéry, the imám-jum’a of Ispáhán had at his orders a thousand of these scoundrels.


The rivals of the clergy in popular influence are the dervishes, whose show of holiness cloaks an immorality and propensity to crime far exceeding what is found among their brethren in Egypt and Turkey. So it has been for centuries, as appears in Olearius’s account of the Calanders of his time (1637). Supported by popular superstition, the Persian dervishes are much more pretentious than those of the West. At the great feasts especially they quarter themselves impudently in wealthy houses and deafen the indwellers with their unceasing cry of Yá hakk ("O Truth !" the mystical equivalent of "O God!"). The wise and modest dervish who in Sa’di’s poems tells the greatest sultan the truth as to the hollowness of his royal state has degenerated into the half-mad and insolent hanger-on who thrusts himself into audience-chambers and claims the seat of honour beside the grandees. The multitude of these motley vagabonds, some harmless, others dangerous, is explained by the love for idleness, buffoonery, and story-telling, which is even more marked in Persia than in other parts of the East.

Religious observance by both sects

The great practical difference between the Sunnite and Shí’íte communities is that among the former it is only with the upper classes, who are few in number, and with the worse sort of dervishes that obedience to the precepts of religion is a mere formal profession. Most of the ulema and the middle and lower classes are sincere Moslems. In Persia it is the other way; the praise of religion is always on men’s lips, but the inner conviction is that it is all a mockery. The clergy laugh inwardly at their own functions; the educated classes either believe nothing at all or hold secretly to a Súfí pantheism. Sa’dí and Háfiz are much more to them than the Koran; and, while the Sunnite takes his sortes biblicae from the Koran, the Shí’íte uses a copy of the songs of Háfiz. With the common people it is not the proper precepts of Islam, but the Shí’íte tenets directed against Sunnites and Jews, that find hearty adherence. The death-feast of Hasan and Hosain excites them far more than the great sacrificial feast; and ‘Alí, the national saint, is much more popular than Mohammed. Islam, as it was forced on Persia by ‘Omar, was the faith of foreign conquerors and oppressors ; and the people have revenged themselves by travestying it and veiling their old convictions under its outward forms. And so Islam has never had any considerable influence on conduct save that it has confirmed the natural turn of the Persians for lying and hypocrisy. As it was long necessary to profess orthodoxy for fear of the Arabs, it came to be an established Shí’íte doctrine that it is lawful to deny one s faith in case of danger. This "caution" (takíya) or "concealment" (ketmán) has become a second nature with the Persians. And with this it goes that no one shrinks from secret sins, though outwardly professing the utmost devotion. The preparation of wine and spirits, for example, is confined to Jews and Armenian Christians, but private drunkenness is most common. Very conscientious or pious people, however—e.g., the dervishes—use rather opium or hashísh and confound the narcotic intoxication with mystic ecstasy. Another mischievous thing is the permission of temporary marriages,—marriages for a few hours on a money payment. This legitimized harlotry (mot’á) is forbidden by the Sunna, but the Shí’ítes allow it, and the mollahs adjust the contract and share the women’s profits.

With all this, modern observers are agreed that the middle and lower classes of Persia are not hopeless, and that their natural intelligence, though combined with lack of perseverance, would make it much easier for them than for the Turks to take a new start if they were freed from the wretched civil and ecclesiastical administration.

Shi'ite sects

There is still mental life and vigour among them, as appears—though in an unfavourable aspect—among the sects, which, allowance being made for "takíya," play no inconsiderable part. The Akhbárís (traditionalists), who adopt a semi-philosophical way of explaining away the plainest doctrines (such as the resurrection of the flesh) on the authority of false traditions of ‘Alí, are not so much a sect as a school of theology within the same pale as the orthodox Shí’á or mujtehidis. [665-1] A real dissenting sect, however, is the Sheikhís, of whose doctrines we have but imperfect and discrepant accounts. [665-2] Representatives of the old extreme Shí’ítes, who held ‘Alí for a divine incarnation, are found all over Persia in the ‘Alí-Iláhí or ‘Ali-Alláhí sect ("Alí deifiers"). [665-3]

Babi movement

Finally, in the year 1848 there broke out a violent reaction against the wretched condition of state and church in at a moment when a new succession to the throne had (as is wont) involved great part of the land in anarchy (comp. vol. xviii. p. 651). As early as 1837 a young enthusiast, ‘Alí (son of) Mohammed, imbued with pantheistic and communistic ideas, [665-4] had begun a peaceable but zealous propaganda. Consistently enough with ultra-Shí’íte principles, he deemed himself inspired by the spirit of God, and claimed to be the Mahdí, the twelfth imám, issued from his obscurity to lead the world to salvation. He took the title of Báb al-dín ("portal of the faith"), and his followers are known as Bábís. Báb was a man of profound sincerity and averse to violent measures; he avoided all open polemic against the Government, which in turn at first tolerated him in its jealousy of the clergy. In 1844 the too great zeal of his follower Mollah Hosain occasioned Báb’s imprisonment; but Hosain and his emissaries continued the propaganda and made many converts in all provinces. When the troubles of 1848 broke out Hosain raised open rebellion in Mazenderán. Terrible conflicts ensued, made only more bitter by the execution of Báb (18th July 1849). Apparently suppressed, the movement proved that it was not extinct in an attempt to assassinate the sháh in 1852. A new proscription followed; but there is no doubt that Bábism still lives in secrecy, and the universal sympathy felt for the martyr Báb among generously minded Persians may still give it a future. [666-1]

Less dangerous than these bold communists are the Ishmaelites, direct descendants of the old Ismá’ílíya, whose nihilist doctrines are now diluted into a harmless doctrine of incarnation. They are pretty numerous in India, at Bombay, Surat, and Burhampur, but hardly are found in Persia. [666-2]

Coming of the Mahdi

Despite their mutual feuds, Sunnites and Shí’ítes are at one in their hatred and contempt for the professors of other religions. Holding that faith and unbelief are matter of predestination, Islam is not given to forcible proselytizing, and on certain conditions Christians and Jews (and later on Zoroastrians also) have always been tolerated in the Mohammedan empire, except that ‘Omar, mainly on political grounds, expelled all non-Moslems from Arabia. But none the less the adherents of other faiths are hated and despised as children of hell and enemies of true religion. To reconcile the present decay of Islam and prosperity of the unbeliever with their feelings and convictions, Sunnites and Shí’ítes alike take refuge in the doctrine of a restoration of Islam before the end of the world through the "divinely guided" Mahdí. In view of the interest in the subject excited by recent events, some addition may here be made to the brief statement in the article MAHDI. [666-3] Originally, as has been shown in that article, the idea of a god-sent deliverer from the illegitimate caliphs was attached by the Shí’ítes to actual pretenders of the house of ‘Alí; but later on, and especially since the days of the Mongols, the figure of the Mahdí was projected into the far future, and ultimately his arrival was made a sign of the end of the world. Among the Sunnites, on the other hand, who could not accept the Shí’íte pretenders, some of those who felt that the Omayyad sovereignty was not truly spiritual and worthy of Islam borrowed the Christian hope of the second coming of Christ, whom Islam acknowledges as a prophet and precursor of Mohammed, and whose return at the end of the world seemed to accord with some vague passages of the Koran; others looked, like the Shí’ítes, for a deliverer from earthly tyranny, but did not tie themselves to the belief that he must spring from the house of ‘Alí. When the theologians of ‘Abbásid times began to systematize the religious traditions they found some that spoke of a return of Jesus and others referring to a Mahdí. These they combined together, so that Sunnites now believe that, when unrighteousness is at its height upon earth and the victory of the enemies of Islam seems sure, the Mahdí will appear to destroy the unbelievers and establish God’s kingdom on earth. Then the Antichrist (dajjál) will work new mischief, but be destroyed by Jesus, who appears as precursor of the last judgment. Sunnite theologians have not all been at one in expecting a Mahdí as well as Jesus, but this is the view generally current in recent times; and Sunnites and Shí’ítes are agreed that the Mahdí will destroy the external foes of Islam, i.e., all non-Mohammedan powers. Theologians have tried by artificial interpretation of Koran and Sunna to fix when and how the Mahdí is to appear, and have concluded that he must be looked for at the close of a century. Of this widespread belief Mohammed Ahmed, the Sudanese Mahdí, availed himself in coming forward in the year 1300 of the Flight (1882-83). Theological opinion is so unsettled as to all the details of the Mahdí’s work that, according to trustworthy information, his death has not seriously impaired the impression produced by his victories. In Mecca, for example, in 1885 it was commonly held to be conceivable that the Sudanese fighting in his name might destroy England and the Western powers; and it is possible that the belief in this latest Mahdí has still an important part to play in the Eastern question. (A. MÜ.)


659-1 Exact statistics are unattainable because we lack details as to the great advances which Islam has recently made and is still making in Central Africa.

659-2 Generally speaking the Sunnites are the more bitter party. The relation is least strained in India, where the Sunnites approach the Slí’ites iii reverence for ‘Alí, Hasan, and Hosain, and share the feasts of these saints.

660-1 Von Kremer, Gesch. d. herrschenden Ideen d. Islams, Leipsic, 868, p. 464.

660-2 Of the 126 madrasa or colleges which once belonged to the university of Damascus but five remained in 1880.

661-1 In 1878 seventeen lecture-rooms of the Azhar had 3707 students, of whom only 64 came from Constantinople and the northern parts of the Ottoman empire, 8 from North Arabia, 1 from the government of Baghád, 12 from Kurdistan, and 7 from India with its thirty million Sunnites.

661-2 In Kazan also the standard of learning seems to have been raised by Russian and Western scholars.

661-3 The madrasa is here a college, generally attached to a mosque, with lands whose revenues provide the means of instruction and in part also food and residence for scholars and teachers.

661-4 Till the Russians gained preponderating influence the khán of Khiva also acknowledged the sultan as his suzerain.

661-5 Mollah is the Perso-Turkish pronunciation of the Arabic maulá, literally "patron," a term applied to heads of orders and other religious dignitaries of various grades.

662-1 Called in Constantinople softa, Persian sókhta, "burned up," scil., with zeal or love to God.

662-2 In Egypt before the time of Sa’id Pasha (1854-63) the local judges were appointed by the chief cadi of Cairo, who is sent from Constantinople. Since then they have been nominated by the Egyptian Government.

662-3 Zaid and ‘Amr are the Caius and Sempronius of Arabian law.

662-4 Op. cit., p. 52 sq.

662-5 These claims to early origin are mere fables, like the claim of the Oweisí order to spring from Oweis, one of the oldest traditionalists, and so forth.

663-1 The best account of the dervishes is still that in D’Ohsson, Tableau Général de l’Emp. Ottoman, vol. ii., Paris, 1790.

663- 2 These mendicants belong in part to orders like the Bektashíya and Rifá’íya, whose other members live in convents (Khangah, Takíya); in part they are Kalanderíya (Calanders), i.e., bound by the rule of kalander, a disciple of Bektash, which enjoins constant wandering.

663-3 Sefer Nameh, ed. Schefer, Paris, 1881, pp. 30 sq., 233.

663-4 See Garcin de Tassy, "Sur les particularités de la rel. mus, dans l’Inde," reprinted in L’Islamisme, 3d ed., Paris, 1874, pp. 290 sq., 296 sq. The Wahhabites protest against this laxity.

663-5 See Syed Ameer ‘Alí, Personal Law of Mohammedans, London, 1880, preface.

663-6 When the Fátímite lords of Egypt tried to enter into relations with the moderate Shí’íte Búyids in Baghdád they were met with polite reserve, and subsequently public protests against them emanated from the ‘Alíde circles of that city (Wüstenfeld, Geschichte der Fatimiden-Chalifen, Göttingen, 1881, pp. 197, 237),

664-1 To make this credible divers passages of the Koran have been changed from the received readings, and ultimately a special súra was forged out of Koran phrases. See Nöldeke, Gesch. des Qorans, p. 220 sq.

664-2 But the comparison of Shí’ítes with Protestants is futile. Shí’ítes have their own tradition (hadís) referred to ‘Alí, which is grossly distorted,—indeed a tissue of lies.

664-3 This the Sunnites also allow under certain conditions.

664-4 Without this sanction the Nauroz was celebrated even at court under the ‘Abbásids. It is the only feast still celebrated by the poor as well as the rich.

664-5 On Turkish soil; but the Shí’íte foundations there are tolerated.

664-6 Polak, Persien, Leipsic, 1865, i. 290.

664-7 No contract, especially no contract of marriage, is valid unless made before a mollah. An ordinary inferior judge is called darúgha.

665-1 The orthodox are so called because they allow the authority of the mujtehid (supra, p. 664). See Gobineau, Les Religions, &c., dans l’Asie Centrale, Paris, 1866, p. 28 sq.

665-2 Gobineau (op. cit., p. 30) reckons them as orthodox; but see Polak, Persien, Leipsic, 1865, i. 348; comp. also Von Kremer, Gesch. d. herrschenden Ideen des Islams, p. 206 sq. (after Kazem Beg).

665-3 See Polak, op. cit., p. 349 ; Malcolm, Hist. of Persia, ii. 382; Rehatsek, in Journ. R.S.A. (Bombay branch),1880, p. 424. Langlès, in Chardin, Voyages, 1811, x. 241, says that at the beginning of the 19th century their chief seats were north of Kandahar and Kabul (Cabul), and at Kashan.

665-4 The fusion of these two tendencies is in Persia as old as Mazdak (Vvl. xviii. p. 611). Communistic risings constantly took place in various parts of Persia under the caliphs, and that of Bábek endangered the empire for twenty years (till 837 A.D.). The communists were afterwards absorbed in the Ishmaelites (see vol. xvi. p. 593 sq.), whose power was extinguished by the Mongols (1256).

666-1 See on Báb and Bábism, Mirza Kazem Beg, in Journ. Asiatique, ser. 6, vols. vii. viii. ; Gobineau, op. cit., where there is a translation of Báb’s new Koran; Von Kremer, op. cit., p. 202 sq.

666-2 See Garcin de Tassy, L’Islamisme, 3d ed. (1874), p. 298, and Rehatsek, ut sup.

666-3 Compare especially Snouck Hurgronje, "Der Mahdi," in Revue Coloniale Internationale, 1885, an article based on wide reading and personal observations at Jeddah and Mecca.

The above article was written by two authors:

(First section) The late Wilhelm Spitta-bey

-- (Second section) Professor A. Müller.

Search the Encyclopedia:

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-16 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries