The Question of Legitimacy
From 759 to 874, among the thorniest issues bedeviling the Abbasid caliphate was its relationship with the two main strains in Islam, Sunnism and Shiism. By the eighth century, the split between both had led to several wars, or ﬁ tnas, as well as polemical and doctrinal arguments, which were later to be incorporated in each community’s traditions and bequeathed to later generations.
At this initial stage, those religious-political currents had not yet gelled into hard-and-fast ideologies; they were more or less rival interpretations of certain crucial events in early Islam (such as the succession question or the issue of salvation) that, while inspiring political revolts throughout the empire, were not yet adequately supported by a systematic body of doctrine.
The Abbasids came to power promoting what was essentially a Shii message: They emphasized revenge for the death of the Prophet’s grandson Husayn, who had been killed in piteous circumstances by Yazid, the son of the ﬁ rst Umayyad caliph, Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan. The problem for the early Abbasids, however, lay in the fact that by propagating the martyrdom of Husayn, they were helping to endorse the legitimacy of the family of Ali ibn Abu Talib, the father of Husayn and son-in-law of the Prophet.
The Alids, as some Western scholars call the family of the imam Ali (in Arabic, the Alids are referred to as Al al-Bayt, or the Family of the House of the Prophet), were revered by the Khurasanis and other Muslim settlers in the eastern parts of the empire, who fully expected an Alid descendant to become imam, or ruler, of the new Abbasid Empire.The Abbasids were therefore involved in an ideological struggle with the Alids from the very beginning, with the Abbasids attempting to buttress their claim to be the most legitimate of the Prophet’s descendants in a variety of ways.
One sureﬁ re method was to maintain, on the basis of assorted hadith, or sayings of the Prophet or his Companions, that “the Prophet had a special regard for the Abbasids’ ancestor al-Abbas and [to encourage] various prophecies foretelling the Abbasid accession” (Buckley 2002, 135). Because these claims did not prove legitimacy to the Alids and the substantial majority was in favor of the Alids, the second Abbasid caliph, al-Mansur, eventually had two pro-Alids, Abu Salama and Abu Muslim, the celebrated leader of the Abbasid revolt, executed.
Meanwhile, al-Mansur’s shaky relationship with the imam Jaafar alSadiq, the sixth imam (descendant of the House of the Prophet through Ali and the charismatic leader of the Shia community), grew shakier as the years went on. Finally, on December 4, 765, Jaafar al-Sadiq died under suspicious circumstances in Medina, widely thought by his followers to have been poisoned by the caliph.Jaafar al-Sadiq is a very important ﬁ gure in Shii lore because it was he who formulated the doctrine of the imamate, that is, the notion of the charismatic leader who would lead the Shii community in times of travail.
After his death, the Alid, or Shii, party split over the identity of the Mahdi, a messianic belief in a savior who will reappear on earth to bring social justice. One faction believed that al-Sadiq was the Mahdi, whereas another group forwarded Jaafar’s son Musa al-Kazim as a candidate for the role of the Mahdi. Yet a third group proclaimed two other descendants of Jaafar al-Sadiq, his son Ismail, who died in 760 ﬁ ve years before Jaafar, and then Ismail’s son Muhammad as the Awaited Ones.
However, it was only in 874 that the three Shii factions crystallized into different, deﬁ nitive schools of thought to which the preponderant majority of Shiis adhere until the present day. After the death of the 11th imam without an heir, the theory of the Greater Occultation (ghayba) was developed, which stressed that the hidden 12th imam was not dead but in seclusion until the time when he was to reappear as Mahdi to rescue his ﬂ ock.
The two schools of thought most associated with this philosophy were the Twelvers (ithna ashariyun, in Arabic; so called because they believed that it was the 12th imam who disappeared) and the Ismailis who believed that it was Jaafar al-Sadiq’s son Ismail who was to return as the Mahdi. The third school of thought, Zaydism, was not as widely subscribed to; therefore, it posed lesser problems to the Abbasids.
The dilemma posed to the Abbasid caliphs by the growing Shii movement thus involved not only legitimacy or ideological “cover” for an increasingly secular state but, worse, the persistence of political claims to the leadership of the Muslim community that the Abbasids believed settled with their accession to power.
To control the imamate, the caliph al-Mamun even tried to bring it within the direct orbit of the caliphate by designating Musa al-Kazim’s son Ali al-Ridha as his successor, only to witness his death a few years later, in 817. Sufﬁ ce it to say that until the end of their caliphate, no real solution was found by the Abbasids to the Shii challenge, which continued as an underground tradition throughout the major part of the Abbasid era.
Sunni Law and the Development of Suﬁ sm
By the middle of the ninth century, a similar process of self-deﬁ nition was taking place in what was soon to be called the Sunni community. The evolving Sunni consensus centered on the study of the Qur’an and Hadith and the developing system of ﬁ qh, or the inferences and precedents of Islamic law. The latter was used most often in matters of personal or family status, such as marriages, divorces, and inheritance. The creation of Sunni law was the work of a professional elite of religious scholars and professors of law and theology, but the legal system also developed as a result of strong Abbasid support. Nevertheless, just as Shiism had developed splits in religious interpretation and political alignments, so too, at times, did Sunnism.
One of the largest differences between Muslims as a whole concerned the path to salvation. In Sunni Islam, in particular, this took two forms: a literal and prescriptive reading of the Qur’an and sunna, which led to the formulation of the principles of Islamic law, or sharia; and a mystical, transcendent, deeply individual interpretation of Islam’s holy book called Suﬁ sm.
From the dawn of Islam, there were two types of men: those who read the Qur’an and Hadith in order to draw out from them an orderly, rational, legal structure and those who read the Qur’an in order to grasp its immediacy and power. The ﬁ rst, the ulama, became the leaders of the Sunni religious community; the second, the mystics, were the traveling men of God who searched for an experience of the divine that was not bound by cold, formal logic.
The mystics, or suﬁ s, in Arabic, believed that they could experience a direct union with God through the pursuit of rigid self-discipline, poverty, spirituality, and the renunciation of human desire, and that, rather than subscribe to the literal meaning of the Qur’an, the true Suﬁ could arrive at a deeper, more allegorical meaning of God’s unity through a closer and more emotive reading.By the early 10th century, Suﬁ brotherhoods were beginning to initiate followers in the way, or tariqa, by which they could directly experience God’s Oneness. The late scholar Albert Hourani continues with the story:
There was a process of initiation into an order: the taking of an oath of allegiance to the shaykh, the receiving from him of a special cloak, the communication by him of a secret prayer . . . the central act of the tariqa and the characteristic that marked it off from others [was] the dhikr or repetition of the name of God, with the intention of turning the soul away from all the distractions of the world and freeing it for the flight towards union with Him (Hourani 1991, 154–155).
However, after some time, Suﬁ sm, with its more esoteric knowledge of the divine, began to create enemies among the more orthodox Sunni scholarly establishment, and a serious rift developed between the ulama and the mystics of Islam. This rift was only resolved by the great Islamic scholar al-Ghazali (1058–1111), whose synthesis of Islamic learning won over both the Abbasid ruler of the time and the more disaffected scholarly circles in the empire. In various texts, al-Ghazali set out his treatise that “Muslims should observe the laws derived from the Will of God as expressed in Quran and Hadith . . . to abandon them was to be lost in a world of undirected human will and speculation” (Hourani 1991, 168).