SHI’ISM is one of the two principal branches of the Islamic religion. It is composed of the adherents of Ali. Ali was the Prophet’s cousin, and was married to His daughter Fatima. Their children, Hasan and Huseyn, were the Prophet’s only grandsons. Ali was the fourth Caliph. It is deemed necessary that the Caliph, as Islam’s political leader, should be a descendant of Mohammed. Shi’ites, adherents of Ali, believes him to be the most important person after the Prophet Mohammed and maintain that he was appointed to the Caliphate by the Prophet himself. Consequently, they believe that the Caliphate rightly belongs to him and to members of his family, that the Imams who succeed Ali should, without exception, be appointed from among his descendants, and that the Imams are without sin, people endowed with special knowledge. Shi’ism was the unifying factor for those who disputed Arab autonomy in Iran.
In Islam, there are three main sects, two of which, Sunni’ism and Shi’ism we have dealt with before. The third consists of the Kharijites or Seceders, who formed the earliest Islamic sect. In the year 657 the battle of Siffin took place between Mu’awiya, governor of Syria, and Ali. While the battle was going on, Ali was forced to agree to a truce. Those of Ali’s supporters who were against this concession formed a new sect called Kharijites. Members of this sect were equally opposed to Mu’awiya. With regard to the caliphate (head of the Muslim community), they set themselves against the special claims of the family of Mohammed and the Muslim aristocrats. They insisted upon an elected caliph through the free choice of all the believers in Islam. So they set up their own community. Ali’s assassins were members of this group. At the present time, only very small groups remain, living in North Africa, Umman and Zanzibar.