An Introduction to Shi`i Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shi'ism

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An Introduction to Shi`i Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shi'ism
An Introduction to Shi`i Islam.jpg
AuthorMoojan Momen
PublisherYale University Press; New edition

The book An Introduction to Shi`i Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shi'ism deals with history and development of Shi’ite branch of the Islamic religion and focuses in particular on those areas in which it differs from Sunni Islam.

About the author[edit | edit source]

Dr Moojan Momen was born in Iran, but was raised and educated in England, attending the University of Cambridge. He has a special interest in the study of the Baha’i Faith and Shi`i Islam, both from the viewpoint of their history and their doctrines. In recent years, his interests have extended to the study of the phenomenon of religion. His most recent publications include

  • The Baha’i Communities of Iran, 1851–1921: Volume 1,
  • The North of Iran 1851–1921 (George Ronald, 2015) and Shi’i Islam,
  • A Beginner’s Guide (One world, 2015).

He has contributed numerous articles to Encyclopedia Iranica as well as papers to academic journals such as Implicit Religion, Nova Religio, The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, Iranian Studies, Journal of Religious History and British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies. He is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society.

About the book[edit | edit source]

This book published in Yale University Press; New edition (September 10, 1987), has 424 pages and best sellers rank of 171,483 in Books.

Dr Momen in this book introduces Shi'i Islam specifically to Twelver Shi'ism in a way to satisfy both the general reader and the aspiring student. He gives a detailed account of Shia Sunni historical events with charts and visual examples so that the reader can grasp information at a glance.

Abstract of chapters[edit | edit source]

Chapter 1, An Outline of the Life of Muhammad and the Early History of Islam[edit | edit source]

This chapter is intended to set the background for the emergence of Shi'i Islam. It will consist mostly of a survey of the life of Muhammad and a brief outline of the early history of Islam as well as some of the fundamental elements of the teachings contained in the Qur'an. The outline presented in this introductory chapter is intended to be a presentation of what is held in common by both Shi'is and Sunnis.

Chapter 2, The Question of the Succession to Muhammad[edit | edit source]

The specifically Shi'i aspects of the history and teachings will be presented in this chapter. It also deals with the first part of the life of 'Ali and the succession to Muhammad as a principal factor separating Shi'is from the Sunni majority. The question is not only who was the successor of Muhammad but also the nature of the role of this successor, for it is on both these points that Shi'is and Sunnis disagree. There were a number of persons who considered that in view of a number of statements made by Muhammad in his lifetime, 'Ali should have occupied the leading position - not only as temporal head (Caliph) but also as spiritual head (Imam).

Chapter 3, The Lives of the Imams and Early Divisions among the Shi'is[edit | edit source]

In this chapter the traditional view will be examined giving the traditional account of the lives of the Shi'i Imams and, in particular, the Karbala episode that looms so large in Shi'i history and in the minds of the Shi'is that its importance can hardly be overestimated. In the second half of this chapter the reader will find notes on some of the other sects of Shi'i.

Chapter 4, Early History of Shi'i Islam, AD 632—1000[edit | edit source]

The reader will find in this chapter, an account of the history of early Shi'ism as it has emerged from modern critical scholarship.

Chapter 5, Shi'i Islam in the Medieval Period AD 1000-1500[edit | edit source]

The early history of the Safavids is described in this chapter. The coming of the Seljuqs was at first a great blow to the Shi'is. The powerful minister of the Seljuq Sultans, Nizamu'1-Mulk, was the principal opponent of the Shi'is but after his assassination the pressure on the Shi'is began to lift. The death of Nizamu'1-Mulk marks the beginning of the decline of the Seljuqs and from this time on rival factions within the dynasty fought one another. During this period a number of Shi'is achieved prominent positions.

Chapter 6, Shi'i Islam in Modern Times AD 1500-1900[edit | edit source]

This chapter shows that during 18th and 19th centuries, important changes in the popular religion for the generality of the Shi’a was seen and ulama and particularly the mujtahids pushed their way more forcefully into the lives of ordinary Shi’i through the doctrine of taqlid and the rise of the marja’ al-taqlid.

Chapter 7, The Imamate[edit | edit source]

This chapter deals with the issue of Imamate and how to determine it in both Shiite and Sunni sects. To the Shi'is, the succession to the Prophet is a matter of the designation by the Prophet of an individual as Imam. Each Imam designates his successor during his lifetime whereas this quite clearly does not apply to a Sunni Caliph. The Sunnis and Shi'is are basically in agreement with each other over the nature and function of prophethood.  The two main functions of the Prophet are to reveal God's law to men and to guide men towards God. Of these two functions, the Sunnis believe that both ended with the death of Muhammad, while the Shi'is believe that whereas legislation ended, the function of guiding men and preserving and explaining the Divine Law continued through the line of Imams.

Chapter 8, The Twelfth Imam, His Occultation and Return[edit | edit source]

This chapter examines available historical information regarding the Twelfth Imam.

Chapter 9, Doctrines, Ritual Practices and Social Transactions[edit | edit source]

This chapter begins with this text:

The main sources for all rituals and legal practices in Islam are the Qur’an and the traditions (hadis). In the matter of basic theological principles, however, Shi’is hold that reason is the primary source.


In the field of doctrines Shi’is have placed doctrines specific to themselves in parallel with those acceptable by Sunnism. The field of jurisprudence may be divided into ritual observances (ibadat) and social transactions (mu'amalat). As far as the former are concerned, Shi’ism does not differ much from the 4 schools of Sunnism. But with the respect to social transactions there are more marked divergences.  Shi’is have, however, tended to highlight their differences from Sunnis, even in the field of ritual observances, by emphasizing parallel rituals that are specific to Shi’ism.

Chapter 10, Shi'I Jurisprudence and the Religious Hierarchy[edit | edit source]

This chapter deals with Usuli School and Shi'i Islam is viewed from the aspect of the ulama. It shows that when Twelver Shi'i Islam first emerged as a distinct entity separate from other Shi'i groups at the turn of the 2nd-3rd Islamic centuries (8th/9th centuries AD), it was principally the ulama who took the lead in defining its doctrines and evolving its polemics.

Chapter 11, Sufism, 'Irfan and Hikma[edit | edit source]

The author in this chapter considers only Sufism in its relationship to Shi'ism and the history of the Shi'i Sufi orders. Sufism as it is known today, with its organized orders and their hierarchies and rituals, dates from the 12th and 13th centuries AD. The roots of this organized Sufism have a complex inter-relationship with the Shi'ism of the 12th to 14th centuries AD. Shi'ism achieved political power over almost the entire Islamic world in 10th and 11th centuries. Then in the middle of the 11th century the Seljuqs came to power and severely repressed Shi'ism. It has been suggested that Sufism, in its organized form, arose at about this time to fill the vacuum left by the suppression of Shi'ism. Certainly, there is a great deal of similarity between Shi'ism and many aspects of Sufism which would tend to support this thesis. One of the most important doctrines of Sufism is the concept of the Perfect Man (al-Insdn al-Kdmil).

Chapter 12, Schools within Twelver Shi'ism[edit | edit source]

In this chapter there is a description of the other schools of jurisprudence within Twelver Shi'ism. In historical terms, it is extremely difficult to determine a separate sect. It would appear that during about AD 750 to 950 in Iraq and in particular in Kufa and Baghdad the main body of Shi'a began to break up into a number of groups. At first the boundaries of these groups were ill-defined, but as time went by their distinctive differences became sharper and many died out. In general terms it can be said that the Shi'a broke into three broad groups: those who advocated political action, the political quietists and those attracted to esoteric and gnostic ideas. These became the Zaydi, Ithna-'Ashari (Twelver) and Ghulat/Isma'ili groups respectively.

Chapter 13, The Popular Religion[edit | edit source]

In this chapter the author tries to give an impression of what the religion means to the Shi'i masses and how it affects their lives. In Sunni Islam it has tended to be the Sufi Shaykhs and their mysticism that have held sway over a large part of the population. Shi'is, however, look to the ulama for guidance in religious matters. And therefore, Islam for the Shi'is is, even more than for Sunnis, a religion of rituals, obligations and prohibitions.

Chapter 14, Contemporary Shi'ism[edit | edit source]

In this chapter it is mentioned that the 20th century has seen great changes in all the Shi'i communities of the world.  The principal change has been in the political sphere where the Shi'i communities have become more assertive, particularly in countries such as Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain where they form a significant proportion of the population but wield little political power. This process will undoubtedly be accelerated by the 1979 Revolution in Iran but the full effect of that remains to be seen.

Source[edit | edit source]