World History 1 181 - 11.3.3 Sect Formation in the Middle East

The early Abbasid period brought stability to the Islamic world, but it was not permanent. Although there had been contention within the Islamic ummah from the very beginning, it was during the Abbasid rule that more distinct sects formed, based on doctrinal differences and questions about the leadership of the community that traced back to the first century of Islamic history.

The catalyst for the formation of denominations within Islam was a growing divide between the groups now known as the Sunni and the Shia (sometimes written as Shi‘ite), the two primary “umbrella sects” within Islam. The Sunni take their name from the sunna or customs of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Adherents follow a canonized, common form of the hadith and interpretation of the Quran, although different schools of law exist that provide variable interpretation and guidance to the religious faithful. Today the largest group of Muslims around the world, the Sunni also came to be identified as those who accepted the decision, following Muhammad’s death, that the first leader of the community would be his father-in-law Abu Bakr rather than his son-in-law Ali. The Shia derive their name from the Arabic phrase Shiat Ali or “the followers of Ali,” who eventually became the fourth caliph. They began as those who believed in the claim by Ali and the Prophet’s family that Ali had been designated the new leader of the Muslim community following Muhammad’s death.

Tensions between the two groups continued to escalate through the first Islamic civil war, fought between the caliph Ali and the Umayyad ruler Mu‘awiya, and escalated with the massacre of a large portion of Muhammad’s family, including his grandson Husayn ibn Ali, at Karbala as the second Islamic civil war was beginning. The commemoration of these events in the early Islamic period remains a major feature of the denominations of Shia Islam. The Shia came to revere the family of the Prophet, seeing in them a role beyond providing a new caliph. They believe members of Muhammad’s family transmit divine knowledge, charisma, and authority, and they afford certain of them the title of imam, signifying the religious leader of the community of Muslims. At the center of this focus on the Prophet’s family in the faith’s earliest century was the lineage of Muhammad through his daughter Fatima, the wife of Ali, and her children, who included Husayn. As time passed, however, and as Islam became increasingly more patriarchal in the Abbasid period, the emphasis shifted to the male members of Muhammad’s family and their lineage through Ali specifically.

In the medieval period, the divide between the Sunni and Shia was not complete. The issue of succession following Muhammad’s death was not irreconcilable, and the Sunni respected the family of the Islamic prophet Muhammad even if they did not see an automatic or exclusive right to rule through Ali’s bloodline. The early Shia supported the Abbasids’ claim to leadership because the Abbasids required the caliph to be a member of the Prophet’s family, but Ali’s kin were eventually overlooked in the line of succession. As rivalry grew between these early Shia and the Abbasids, it seems likely that the Shia then articulated that the authority of the imam specifically passed through the family of the Prophet through Ali, and not through anyone less closely related to him—likely to support their own claims to rule.

The role of the caliph as a leader in the Islamic world also began to change dramatically in the Middle Ages. This shift was due not just to the Shia conception of the imam. Rather, as the Abbasids came to power, a religious clerical class also arose within Islam. Known as the ulama (literally “the scholars”), they came to hold an increasingly important role as the interpreters of Islamic law within non-Shia, Sunni Islam during the Abbasid period (Figure 11.21).

A picture of a drawing is shown. Six bearded men are seated on the ground facing a seventh bearded man on the right who is extending his hand out toward the ground. They all wear long solid-colored robes and various turbans on their heads. All of them have black, almond-shaped eyes and black beards, except for one man who has a white beard. One of the men holds two thin white and brown items in his hands. Behind them are shown thirty-three squares in three rows of nine and one row of seven at the top, partially hidden by a green and yellow lattice archway. Inside the square sit stacks of brown books in front of yellow and pink jugs. Red and gold designs are shown across the top of the picture with a gridded gold pyramid shown above the designs in the middle.
Figure 11.21 This thirteenth-century image of a group of students learning from a teacher (far right) in a library depicts religious education in the Abbasid period. (credit: “Les Makamat de Hariri” by Bibliothèque nationale de France/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Before the Abbasid period, the early caliphs had successfully made a case for being vested with both secular and religious authority, including the ability to interpret the scripture and issue religious proclamations. As the ulama acquired a more prominent role in Abbasid society, however, they claimed more of this power and authority for themselves, diminishing the religious entitlements that earlier caliphs had claimed. As the centuries passed, the religious role of the caliph weakened further, and the decision to compile and write down the hadith, which had been transmitted only orally for the bulk of the first two centuries, gave further authority to the keepers and teachers of this material at the expense of the caliph within early Sunni Islam.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax