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Concept of Imamat(Who is Imam?)

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    Concept of Imamat(Who is Imam?)

    The main branch of Shi'ite Islam is called Imamiyyah or Twelver Shi'ism. This branch claims that there have been twelve Imams who have descended from the Prophet Muhammad. With the exception of the third Imam, Husayn, who became Imam after his brother abdicated his claim to the caliphate, the Imamate has been passed down from father to son. The twelfth Imam, however, did not have any sons and did not designate a successor. According to Shi'i tradition, this Imam did not die but is concealed and will return one day to establish a reign of peace on earth. The twelfth Imam is known as the Mahdi.

    The first major schisms took place in the 8th century. The first of these was led by Zayd b.'Ali, the son of the fourth Imam and half-brother of the fifth Imam. He challenged the principle that the Imamate should automatically go to the eldest son of the previous Imam; the Imamate should instead be available to any descendant of 'Ali who was worthy of the position. Zayd's followers came to be known as Zaydis. Zaydi communities continue to the present day in the Yemen region.

    In the same century a second dispute arose over who should succeed the sixth Imam, Jaf'ar al-Sadiq (d.765). The Imamate was originally intended to go to al-Sadiq's eldest son, Isma'il. However, because Isma'il predeceased his father by five years, al-Sadiq nominated his younger son, al-Must'alis, to be the next Imam. This decision was not accepted by certain groups. Some claimed that Isma'il did not in fact die but was in hiding, and would return as the Mahdi. Others recognised that Isma'il had died but argued that the Imamate should go to Isma'il's son Muhammad.

    Both groups were overshadowed by another faction: the Fatimids. The Fatimids rose to power in Egypt at the beginning of the 10th century and established a dynasty which they claimed to be directly descended from 'Ali through Isma'il to themselves. As professed descendants of 'Ali, the Fatimids claimed the title of Imam for themselves. The Fatimid dynasty lasted from 909 to 1171, during which period they set themselves up as rivals to the Ummayad caliphs who were based in Baghdad. The Isma'ilis who lived in Iraq and the Persian Gulf were divided in their attitude towards the Fatimids. Some accepted Fatimid authority; others rejected it. This latter group, which came to be known as Qarmartis, continued to regard Muhammad ibn. Isma'il as the Mahdi. This group survived until the 14th century. The next schism to take place within Isma'iliyyah happened in the early decades of the 11th century. An Isma'ili missionary called al-Darazi proclaimed the sixth Fatimid caliph, Abu 'Ali al-Mansur al-Hakim (985-1021), to be God, and denounced both Islam and Isma'iliyyah to be mere superstitions. It is not exactly certain when this event occurred; the earliest evidence of it is a letter of November 1017 written to al-Darazi rebuking him for his unorthodox teachings. Following the death of al-Hakim the sect was driven out of Egypt into Syria where it flourished and continues to the present day and is known as the Druzes. The Druzes are also important minority groups within Israel and the Lebanon.

    In the final decade of the 11th century Isma'iliyyah itself split into two groups: Nizariyyah and Musta'liyyah. Following the death of the Fatimid Imam, al-Mustansir, in 1094, his two sons, Nizar and al-Must'ali, fought with each other over who had the right to inherit the Imamate. Al-Must'ali prevailed and imprisoned and executed his brother. Nizar's followers fled Egypt and established themselves in Iran, from where they spread to India. Indian Nizaris are today known as Khojas. Al-Must'ali's descendants continued in Egypt until the fall of the Fatimid dynasty. Today Must'alis are to be found in India, China, Russia and South-East Asia.

    In addition to groups that seceded from Isma'iliyyah, a number of groups have emerged from within the Imamiyyah branch of Shi'a. The first of these are the Nusayris. the Nusayris trace their origins to the eleventh Shi'i Imam, al-Hasan al-'Askari (d.873), and his pupil Ibn Nusayr (d.868). the sect, however, seems to have been organised by a certain al-Khasibi who died in Aleppo in about 969. His grandson, al-Tabarani, moved to al-Ladhiqiyya on the Syrian coast, where he refined the Nusayri religion and, with his pupils, converted much of the local population. Today Nusayriyyah exists as a minority, but politically powerful, religion in Syria. Following the Nusayri schism the Imami tradition remained relatively stable until the 19th century when a number of millenarian sects emerged anticipating the return of the hidden Imam. One such sect, the Babis, was founded by Ali Muhammad Shirazi, who claimed initially to be the Bab (gate) of the hidden Imam and then the hidden Imam himself. These claims led to his arrest in 1845 and execution in 1850. In 1863 one of the Shirazi's followers, Mirza Husayn Ali Nuri, proclaimed himself to be the prophetic figure foretold by the Bab. Shirazi taught that God had been manifest in many different forms, and that he was the most recent (but not final) manifestation. Since its inception the Baha'i faith has developed into a world wide religion completely independent of its Shi'ite roots. Baha'is do not consider themselves to be Muslims and are not regarded as Muslims by any Islamic tradition.