An Introduction to Shi`i Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shi`ism, by Moojan Momen

Moojan Momen’s book, An Introduction to Shi’i Islam, is an historical account that explains the emergence of Shi’i Islam and its evolution over 1,300 years. In 632 CE upon the Prophet’s demise the followers of Muhammad had to appoint his successor. It was during this time that the Ummah split into two groups, the supporters of Abu Bakr (Sunni) versus the supporters of Ali (Shi’i). Throughout time, sectarian biases have infected the conversations on Shi’i Islam (as well as Sunni Islam). Fortunately, Momen’s attempt at entering this dialogue offers a relatively impartial approach because his methodology is more historical and literal than theological, therefore allowing him to focus on the evidence rather than being pressured from a cultural, social, political, national, or religious affiliation.

Chapter one discusses the historical accounts of Arabia, specifically in Mecca where Muhammad was born. Momen goes through a timeline of key events from the importance of the trade route running through the Kaaba, which was to be the epicenter of Arabia (before and during Islam), to Muhammad’s tribe, the Quraysh, as the custodians of this sanctuary. It was here where Muhammad’s reputation as an honest, trustworthy arbitrator was affirmed. It was also here where Muhammad would be boycotted, chastised, ridiculed, and exiled for his preaching of Islam and his threat to the Arab normalcy. After gaining a modest following while fearing for his safety in Mecca, Muhammad emigrated to Yathrib (later known as Medina). For the next eight years he would strengthen his following, his military, and Islam in the hopes of one day returning to Mecca and reclaiming the Kaaba as the house of God. Also during those eight years he was involved in a number of skirmishes, battles, raids, and treason and assassination attempts. The one constant throughout his prophetic career was his closest companions, which included his daughter Fatimah, his cousin Ali, and his dear friend Abu Bakr. During Muhammad’s prophetic years, specifically his public life, Ali and Abu Bakr were arguably his right-hand-men. However, Ali had more intimate access to Muhammad’s private life primarily because they were cousins and later in-laws (Ali married Fatimah). Momen’s accounts of Prophet Muhammad’s later years was a smart introduction to the book because the foreshadowing of Ali set the tone for remainder of the book.

Chapter two goes into much more detail of explaining how and why Shi’is claim to this day why Ali should have been the Prophet’s successor. Momen provides a plethora of Hadith from both Sunni and Shi sources that show Ali’s closeness to the Prophet, his knowledge of the religion, Muhammad’s praises of Ali, his fighting skills, his bravery, and so on. These attributes are reasons why Sunnis also revere Ali, but as the fourth righty guided Caliph. Shi’is on the other hand maintain that not only do these passages from the Hadith prove Ali’s successorship but two in particular directly address it. The first depicts Muhammad’s initial announcement to his dearest companions of his prophecy and his call for followers. When it is Ali who first answers this call Muhammad declares that Ali is his successor. The second story comes towards the end of Muhammad’s prophecy, during his final pilgrimage, where he announces in front of his followers that Ali is his successor. Sunnis do not disagree that these events happened, rather, they disagree on the interpretation of the message.

Chapter three is broken up into two parts; the first presents a brief description of each of the twelve Imams, the second discusses many of the sects that formed after each Imam. For example, after the eighth Imam (Imam Rida), three denominations formed from his followers that believed the lineage of Muhammad ended with Imam Rida. Ultimately, this chapter, according to Momen, provides an insight into the traditional view and history of Shi’ism. He believes this information to be valuable because “in considering Shi’i history, especially in the early period, it is necessary to differentiate between the traditional history as recorded by the Shi’i writers and the results of modern critical scholarship”. Unfortunately, Momen falls short in presenting the traditional view and history of Shi’ism during the early period. For example, his description of each Imam is vague. With the exception of the first three Imams (Imam Ali, Hasan, Hosain), Momen provides a very rudimentary synopsis of each Imam without going into detail as to the nature of their Imamte or any contributions they made to Islam. If his objective is to present a traditional view according to Shi’i scholars, he could have referenced numerous Hadiths from many of the Imams.

The second limitation ties in with the first in that Momen points out the cause of death for many of the Imams as unclear due to lack of evidence. He goes on to explain that according to Shi scholars the Imams were all martyred – the majority through poison. He then successfully depicts the tension between each Imam and his rival Caliph but fails to argue the possibility of a correlation between these relationships and the cause of death by poison or murder. The third shortcoming, his presentation of the numerous divisions that branched off of each Imam lacked substantive material. He briefly describes each division (a total of 48 is documented by Momen) but does not explain their significance in understanding either that particular sect, Shi’ism, or if/how one sect influenced the next. For example, Momen states that Twlever Shi’ism emerged out of 48 different divisions spanning over two centuries but fails to elaborate more on some of the strengths and weakness of each sect as well as Twelver Shi’ism to explain why this particular sect survived.

Chapter four paints a picture of how Shi’ism developed in the earlier stages of its propagation. Momen discusses how the initial followers were more politically drawn to the faction; how many of the earlier beliefs were considered the norm of that time but later became viewed as extreme, therefore suggesting that modern day Shi’i beliefs developed and re-developed; and how the idea of twelve Imams was not dominant in the early years but obviously developed after Imam Mehdi. These topics are very fascinating because it raises many interesting views and dares to examine the Shi’i sect in a way that appears to be counter to how Shi’i theologians today would teach or discusses their faith.

Chapter five, although very entrenched in a historical presentation, is also thought provoking because Momen tries to explain how Shi’is over the centuries were quasi-opportunists, taking advantage of situations where they could further their influence and gain a stronger political, religious, and demographical foothold. Momen introduces the historical evidence – he lists all the influential actors that contributed in shaping what is known today as Shi’i Islam – that offers a glimpse into the transformation of Shi’ism throughout the centuries. The overall presentation of Momen’s work on this topic appears to suggest that later scholars retrospectively imposed their beliefs onto the Imams’ teachings – a fascinating argument that leaves the reader begging for deeper analysis.

The first half of chapter six focuses on the Safavid dynasty, particularly its political and religious development, as well as the evolution of power from the monarchs to the mujtahids (educated Muslim legal scholar). Momen’s historical accounts of the key figures and events during this period, although brief at times, is vital because recognizing the origins of Shi’ism within Iran can provide a better understanding of how and why this sect became dominate in a country where up to that point was populated by Sunnis. Moreover, this moment in Shi’i history could shed light on the aforementioned point of how Shi’ism evolved over the centuries. Momen explains that Shi’ism was able to strengthen within Iran because of: (a) the perseverance by Ismail and most of his successors in encouraging and pursuing a more orthodox Twelver Shi’i stance throughout Iran; (b) the indifference and almost disinterest of the Iranian people in being either Sunni or Shi’i; (c) the merciless eliminating of non Twelver Shi’is, such as the Sufis, Sunnis, and Ghulats; and (d) the successful propagation and education of Shi’ism by prominent scholars, like Majlisi, Shushtari and Bahai. On the surface it would appear that given the circumstances of Iran’s geographical position between two Sunni empires in the Ottomans and Uzbeks as well as the country itself being predominantly Sunni, that Ismail should have declared Sunni Islam as the state religion. Instead, he decides on Shi’ism but little discussion is found as to why he made this move and Momen does little to spark a debate on the possible explanations. The second half of chapter six focuses is in and around Iran with discussions about the Shi’i ulama and their relationship with the numerous Persian rulers throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Momen juxtaposes the two in order to describe how the Shi’i ulama evolved over time and slowly strengthened their political power and influence. Due to the plethora of information that is presented, parts of this chapter is somewhat disarranged, so much so that a novice reader may become overwhelmed and perhaps confused.

In chapter seven, Momen examines the Imamate by first providing traditional proof from the Imams themselves who describe the spiritual, religious, political, legal, and historical significances of an Imam as well as the limitations of an Imam when compared to a Prophet. Secondly, Momen lists the necessary attributes of an Imam accompanied by quotes from Imam Sadiq (the 6th Imam). Chapter eight is devoted to the twelfth Imam, where Momen describes how Imam Mehdi came into the Imamate; how he entered into lesser occultation which brought about the role of a particular family to serve as his intermediary to his followers; and the culmination of his greater occultation. Momen’s method in these two chapters is historical and descriptive, and thus the presentation of the material is straight forward with more than sufficient evidence provided from not only Shi’i scholars but also traditional sources from the Imams themselves.

Chapters nine, ten, eleven, thirteen, and fourteen were excluded from this review as a result of time and relevance. Given the limitations of this paper the decision was made to only focus on those chapters that relatively provided the most relevant and comprehensive historical accounts of Shi’i Islam.

In chapter twelve Momen discusses the diagrammatical divergence of the many Shi’i sects. He, therefore, divides this chapter into three sections, each one discusses a specific faith that grew out of Shi’ism, two of which (Akhbari and Shaykhi) are an appendage of Shi’ism and the third (the Bahai Faith) eventually became an independent religion. The first is the Akhbari School, which achieved its greatest influence during the Safavid period. Momen does not explain why it was most influential during this time but he does provide a preface beforehand stating that “very little research has been done on these two minority schools [Akhbari and Shaykhi] in Twelver Shi’ism and so the details given about their doctrines should only be regarded as tentative pending further research”. Despite the limited research Momen does an excellent job conveying in detail the significant characteristics of these three sects – a feat I am unable to duplicate here.

In conclusion, Moojan Momen’s book, An Introduction to Shi’i Islam, is a great historical resource for any novice reader who wishes to learn about Shi’i Islam. Although Momen provides keen insight into many of the events throughout Shi’i Islam he does, unfortunately, fall short of providing a more thorough analysis at key points of the book that would have otherwise created a more robust conversation. For example in chapter four, when discussing the early followers of Ali, Momen does not explore the reasons that motivated a certain portion of the ummah to side with Ali – whether politically, religiously, or otherwise. At times, when presented with a debatable topic, Momen does not offer much investigation into the counter argument. Perhaps given the volume of information Momen had to deliver he had to make sacrifices in certain areas of his research. Aside from the shortage of elaborations, Momen presents a comprehensive historical account of Shi’i Islam. He allowed his research to drive his presentation therefore providing the reader the freedom and ability to determine the merits of the historical accounts rather than Momen imposing his beliefs and understandings of the events that created Shi’i Islam.

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