Chapter 5  


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VI.

THE HOLY IMAMS



      As Muhammad lay dying, He called for materials to write. He said, "Fetch Me hither ink and paper, that I may record for you a writing which shall hinder you from going astray forever." But 'Umar said, "Pain is deluding Him. We have God's Book, which is enough." So the companions wrangled at the deathbed, whether to bring the materials and write the words, and Muhammad sent them away.

      At the taking of Mecca, surih 110 of the Qur'an had been revealed; Muhammad regarded it as the warning of His own death; it states: "When the help of God and the victory arrive, And thou seest men entering the religion of God by troops; Then utter the praise of the Lord, implore His pardon; for He loveth to turn in mercy." Tradition says that when it was revealed He called Fatimih and said, "My daughter! I have received intimation of My approaching end." And Fatimih wept. And he said, "Why weepest thou....? Be comforted...."

      The Hidden Words is the Hidden Book of Fatimih--the words which Gabriel brought to mitigate her anguish: for she had seen her Father's death, and, forty days after the Prophet had ascended, the schism in Islam beginning before her eyes. Those unknown words addressed to Fatimih were believed by Shi'ah Islam to be in the possession of the Promised One Who would come from the line of her descendants; and they were called "Hidden" because all down the centuries their content was unknown.

      Muhammad had unmistakably appointed His successor, but nothing had been written down. The Qur'an, so detailed in other things, is silent here.

      When the Prophet was returning from His Farewell Pilgrimage to Mecca, He had the caravan halt; He told the concourse of people to gather in the shade of some thorn trees, and had the ,m build a pulpit of saddles, near the Pool of Khumm. Then He raised 'Ali up and said, "Whoever hath Me as his Master, hath 'Ali as his Master...I have been summoned to the gate of God, and I shall soon depart...to be concealed from you." Then He spoke of two treasures He would leave them: "The greatest treasure is the Book of God...Hold fast to it and do not lose it and do not change it. The other treasure is the line of My descendants."

      The great tragedy of Islam is that three men, one after the other, took over the headship of the Faith for a period of twenty-four years, and that all this time the Imam 'Ali was forced to stand aside. He must have suffered untold agonies as He watched the irreparable damage being done, knowing all the time in His heart that He was the intended of God--the Imam, the one who stands before the people, the divinely ordained, divinely inspired.

      Muhammad was dead. The people could not accept this. They had seen Him in the mosque, only a little time before; His voice still echoed there. 'Umar came into the room and lifted the sheet which covered the Prophet; then he stood at the street door and proclaimed to the people that Muhammad had only swooned away; 'Ali simply looked at 'Umar and wept; Abu Bakr entered, lifted the striped sheet, and kissed the dead face. And he said, "Sweet Thou wert in life, sweet in death." Then he hurried to the mosque and remonstrated with 'Umar and said, "Let him then know, whosoever


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worshippeth Muhammad, that Muhammad is dead; but whoso worshippeth God, let him know that the Lord liveth." And while 'Ali, the appointed Imam, was grieving over the body of His Beloved, and the funeral washings had not yet been made, 'Umar and Abu Bakr were seeing to their appointment as caliph (successor). In the mosque, the leaders of the various groups were proposing 'Ali and others as successor, when 'Umar settled the matter by swearing allegiance to Abu Bakr, who had himself proposed 'Umar; each seems to have been in collusion with the other, against 'Ali.

      The Prophet was washed for burying by 'Ali, without removal of His garment, while some held the water vessels; then He was wrapped in three shrouds, two of white material and one striped, and covered with fragrant ointments; then the grave was dug in the same room of 'Ayishih's house where the deathbed had been. The people came to pray beside the Body, as it lay by the grave, and when all this was done, a few of them lowered it down: 'Ali was the last to climb up out of the grave, before it was filled with earth. (Cf. M. Tabari, III, 217 ff.).

      For two years and three months, Abu Bakr was caliph. Before his death, he made them all agree to accept 'Umar as caliph, although some objected to him as rude and harsh. Meanwhile the Empire was forming; the Romans re beaten, under Heraclius; the Persians were beaten; Jerusalem surrendered; the people were thronging into the Faith. 'Umar was assassinated, put to death by a slave who had an Abyssinian sword with two blades, the handle being in the center, that would strike two ways at once; this did for the caliph, but even when he was dying from his wounds, he shut 'Ali out of office, by appointing a council of six, 'Ali being one, to deliberate as to the successorship.[1] For three days these deliberated in a guarded room, and then through various political machinations managed to appoint 'Uthman.

      When something is wrong in principle, it soon begins to show in practice--to become manifest in the outside world. It was with 'Uthman that the disobedience to Muhammad began to show flagrant consequences, so that the believers finally rose up in wrath against the caliph. 'Uthman, old and feeble, was of 'Umayyad stock, of the family that had for generations been opposed to the stock of Muhammad. He had been backed for office by Abu Sufyan, the 'Umayyad--a man forgiven by Muhammad, but the Prophet's arch-enemy, who led the Meccan armies against Him and who was the husband of Hind, the woman who tore out the vitals of a dead Muslim hero at Uhud. I once read of ancient Tibetan play, in which the believers had got ready the sacrifice and placed it on the altar, whereupon a raven flew down and stole the sacrifice. This is what happened in Islam: the raven stole the sacrifice...It is said that one day 'Uthman sat by a well, toying with the Prophet's signet ring, which had been worn by his two predecessors, slipping it on and off again, when it fell into the well and was never found again. Whether the incident is true actually or only in symbol makes no difference...'Uthman began to exhaust the public treasury in favor of his own relatives, saying it was a duty to give to the poor; 'Ali commented, "You could have given them one thousand or two thousand dirhems instead of fifty thousand." (M. Tabari, III, 592-593). He began to appoint throughout the Empire, his people, the 'Umayyads, to office, putting the power in their hands. The first two caliphs had frequently consulted 'Ali; "Most of the grand undertakings initiated by 'Umar for the welfare of the people were due to his counsel. (For he was) Ever ready to succour the weak and to redress the wrongs of the injured..." (Ameer-'Ali, A Short History of the Saracens, 53). 'Uthman did not consult him. The


  1. Returning from 'Umar's deathbed council, 'Ali' told 'Abbas: "This man has taken away the power from the Bani Hashim He has established a group who are linked one with the other." Tabari', III, 549-550



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accounts show 'Uthman weak and whining, always doing the wrong thing and then appealing to the peoples' sympathies in weak self-justification, always vowing to reform and then continuing on as the tool of his vazir, Marvan, a man who had been exiled by Muhammad; that 'Uthman fasted and read the Qur'an continually is not impressive in view of his actions. Soon a Second-Advent-of-Muhammad movement sprang up in Egypt (35 A.H.), and one of their tenets was the rightfulness of 'Ali as Chief of Islam. Tabari gives the whole story. And all these years, to preserve unity, 'Ali stood aside; he had spent his life in teaching the people and in intellectual pursuits, for he was an outstanding scholar and writer. Now that the believers rose up to champion his cause he disdained to seize the office by force; he did his best to maintain order and did not take the believers' side against the established caliph. On the contrary, since 'Uthman was the duly-constituted ruler, he bolstered him up and told him how to regain his lost prestige, by public apology and reform; 'Uthman would promise to follow 'Ali's advice and then, shifting and vacillating, would do the opposite. Always, with these leading contemporaries, hatred of 'Ali's excellence seems to have been the hidden motive. Once 'Uthman begged 'Ali to say that a certain appointee of his was no worse than one of 'Umar's; 'Ali answered, 'Umar had his foot on his agents' necks--you give them free rein. Mur'aviyyih (son of Hind and Abu Sufyan, and now, by the grace of 'Uthman, governor of Syria) was more afraid of a slave of 'Umar's than of 'Umar himself--you let him do what he wants and will brook no complaints." (M. Tabari, III, 587 ff.). Believers from other countries were crowding to Medina to protest against the scandalous rule of 'Uthman's appointees; to give only one example of what was going on, the caliph's half-brother, appointed (in the best twentieth century tradition!) governor of Kufa, went to the mosque and led the congregational prayer while drunk, and only escaped being stoned by running back to his palace, chanting as he went, "Where wine and song abound, there you will find me !" (Dozy, op. cit., 30) .

      'Uthman begged 'Ali to make the protestants go away; 'Ali persuaded them to leave and then, when the danger was passed, 'Uthman went to the mosque and told the people they had gone because their complaints had been proved baseless. At this, all over the mosque, voices cried out, "Repent, 'Uthman!" In the end there was civil war; fighting in the streets, and around 'Uthman's house; and although 'Ali and his sons fought to defend the old weakling, the mob broke in and killed him. According to Ibn Battuta, in the 14th century, at Basra, you could still see exhibited a Qur'an with 'Uthman's blood splashed on the page he was reading when they killed him. For many days, no one would even allow him a bier for burial; they finally carried him to the grave on one of the ruined doors of his house.

      Well, it was 'Uthman who gave the play to the `Umayyad caliphs, who, 'Abdu'l-Baha teaches us, are the Beast in Revelations, that warred on God's two Witnesses, Muhammad and 'Ail (Some Answered Questions. 53 ff.). "The beast that ascendeth out of the bottomless pit shall war against them, and shall overcome them and kill them,--this beast means the Bani-Umayya who attacked them from the pit of error, and who rose against the religion of Muhammad and against the reality of 'Ali--in other words, the love of God." (Ibid., 60).

      The leaders and populace now swore allegiance to 'Ali, saying: "The world is without a spiritual Head, and none hath more rights to this office than thou." And so at last, after a quarter of a century, the rightful successor of Muhammad was allowed to perform his function of Guardianship (vilayat)--for the Imams were Guardians--but it was too late. 'Abdu'l-Baha, in His commentary on the eleventh and twelfth chapters of the Revelation


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of St. John, explains what happened to the Faith of Muhammad.

      'Ali, who would never for an instant compromise with evil, at once deposed the unworthy `Umayyad office holders, so that Mu'aviyyih rose against him with Syrian armies. Meanwhile 'Ayishih, widow of Muhammad, who had long hated 'Ali (and devotion to 'Ali was the test of faith then, just as devotion to Shoghi Effendi is the test of faith today) rallied her forces against him. "When Ayishih wanted something done," says a modern writer, "it was carried out regardless of ethics." (Bodley, R.V.C., The Messenger, 349). She rode to battle against 'Ali in a red pavilion that was strapped to the back of camel; soon the pavilion was stuck through and bristling with lances and arrows, ten thousand Muslims had perished, and 'Ali, who had implored peace, won the day. But there were other battles and betrayals and finally the first Imam was martyred in the mosque at Kufa, in 661.

      Even yet in Persia, if men have a hard job to do or a heavy load to carry, they band together and shout, 'Ya 'Ali!" He was the Guardian (Vali), and the Lion of God. Muhammad, embracing him after the Farewell Pilgrimage, said, "He is to Me what Aaron was to Moses....God be a friend to his friends and a foe to his foes; help those who help him and frustrate the hopes of those who betray him." (See Dwight M. Donaldson, The Shi'ite Religion). 'Abdu'l-Baha says, "Muhammad was the root, and 'Ali the branch, like Moses and Joshua." (SAQ, 57). 'Ali was also called the Hand of God. He was the cousin, the adopted son, and the son-in-law of the Prophet. He was the first male believer, having accepted Islam as a child. He was the husband of the great Fatimih (the marriage took place in 624) whom the Muslims call Our Lady of Light, and they two were the parents of the next Imams, Hasan and Husayn. Remember that Baha'u'llah is to Shi'ah Islam the return of Husayn (God Passes By, 94), and that the Bab is of the seed of Fatimih.

      He was a man broad and powerful, of the middle height, of ruddy complexion, of a thick and comely beard. He was utterly devoted to Muhammad, simple in tastes, strictly honest; when he was caliph, if he had business of state to perform at night, he would light a candle; then as soon as the work of the state was done, and he was at leisure, he would blow it out and sit in the darkness, rather than use the peoples' candle. When he prayed he was so rapt that once, an arrow having lodged in his foot at war, they waited till he was at prayer to withdraw it, knowing that then he would not feel the pain. Daring in battle, he has been called chivalry's beau ideal; it was he who took the Prophet's place when Muhammad escaped from Mecca, lying on the Prophet's couch, wrapped in His green cloak; He fought with Muhammad at Badr, he received sixteen wounds at Uhud, he engaged in single combat at the Battle of the Trench, he carried away the banner at Khaybar; but braver than all this, he stood aside for a quarter of a century from his rightful place, in order to protect the Faith. He was a very perfect, gentle knight.[2]

      After 'Ali, Mu'aviyyih the Umayyad was caliph, and after him, his notorious son Yazid. The center of government shifted away from Medina to Syria. When the Medinites found Yazid drunk and incestuous, a lute


  1. 'Ali was frequently appointed by Muhammad in His own place: when some Bedawin were wrongfully killed, it was 'Ali who was sent to make reparations; he wrote the Charter to the Christians of Najran; when Muhammad once left Medina, He left 'Ali' as khalifa, saying, "O 'Ali, art thou not content that thou art to Me what Aaron was to Moses?" When the munafiqun (hypocrites) said that 'Ali had stayed behind because he was afraid of combat, whereupon 'Ali rode after the Prophet and told Him and He said "Kadhdbabu--they lied." Then, according to Ibn Hisham, He said, "Wa lakinni khallaftuka lamma turikta vara'i; fa'rjaf'khlifni fi abli wa ahlik." It was 'Ali who was commissioned to read the Declaration of Discharge, forbidding the idolaters to practise their heathen rites at the Ka'bih. Cf. Ameer-'Ali, Spirit of Islam, 97, ff. (rev. ed., 1922).



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player, frequenting brigands and playing with hunting dogs, never at prayer, they littered the mosque at Medina in their wrath, calling for his deposition. Then he sent an army and sacked the City of the Prophet; seven hundred who knew the Qur'an by heart were killed at the sack of Medina, and eighty aged Companions of the Prophet; horses were stabled in the mosque that Muhammad had built, in the space between the Prophet's tomb and His chair--a spot which He had called the Garden of Paradise. The men were killed, the children enslaved, the women violated by the caliph's soldiers. The Helpers, Medinite followers of Muhammad, escaped as they could to join the army of Africa, later (712) passing over to Spain. In the 13th century a traveler to Medina asked if any descendants of the Helpers remained; one old man and one old woman were pointed out. (Cf. Dozy, 60ff.). During the period of `Umayyad domination, the holy city was given over to packs of dogs and wild beasts. The 'Umayyads ruled for a hundred years with sword and poison, until a man called the Blood Pourer destroyed them.

      The term Shi'ah began to be adopted after Mu'aviyyih seized power; it refers to the adherents, or party, or family, of 'Ali. The Imam of the Shi'ah is sacred, immaculate (ma'sum), divinely-appointed, divinely guided. He is a spiritual leader. The caliph of the Sunnis is a temporal ruler, chosen by the peoples' leaders and acclaimed by the people. 'Ali was the expounder of the Faith; he had the inward knowledge and the inward light; his assassination changed the history of Islam.

      All the Imams were put to death except perhaps the last, who died as a child, in 260, and was succeeded for sixty-nine years by four successive "Gates" (abvab-i-arba'ih), who were known as his intermediaries. Then there was utter silence in Islam till the rise of the Bab in 1260 (the surih of Adoration states: "From the Heaven to the Earth He governeth all things: hereafter shall they come up to Him on a day whose length shall be a thousand of such years as ye reckon." (32:4). Hence the importance of the "Year Sixty.") The Muslims (Shi'ahs) claim the Twelfth Imam did not die, but disappeared into an underground passage at Surra-man- Ra'a, and now lives in one of the mysterious cities of Jabulqa or Jabulsa, to come forth at the time of the end and inaugurate the millennium. When I was in Persia I heard them chanting from the minarets, "O Lord of the Age (Sahibu'z-Zaman), hasten Thy coming; the world hath fallen away--set Thy foot in the stirrup!" They even struck silver coins in His name.

      Dying, 'Ali appointed his son Hasan as Imam, and he was poisoned. Then Husayn, the third Imam, with a little band of followers, including women and children, was betrayed by the men of Kufa, who had sworn allegiance to him and asked him to come to them and be their ruler. He and his party were surrounded in the sand and cut off from the river so that they would die of thirst; singly and in bands, his men were butchered. Husayn's horse was felled. Weak from thirst, Husayn sat on the ground; soldiers came up to kill him, but none dared; his little son was crying, so he took it in his arms: an arrow killed it. He laid it on the earth, saying, "We are from God and to Him do we return." Then he rose, and went toward the Euphrates, and bent down to drink; an arrow struck him in the lips and the blood streamed out. The soldiers surrounded him and slowly shot him down, till from many wounds he fell and died. They rode their horses over his body and severed his head and put it up on a lance. As the enemy general reported to the caliph, "Their bodies were dishonored and naked, their clothes mixed with the sand, their faces stained with the earth, and the winds blew upon them..." When the head of Husayn, grandson of Muhammad, was brought in to Kufa, the


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governor there struck the mouth with his cane; there was an old Muslim present and he wept, and cried out," Alas, on these lips have I seen the lips of the Prophet of God."

      Gibbon comments on this crime that stirred up the conscience of the Muslim world to such a point that the Persians still, two months out of the year, wear mourning clothes for Husayn--"In a distant age and climate, the tragic scenes of the death of Husayn will awaken the sympathy of the coldest reader."

      Baha'u'llah teaches us in the Iqan (129): "Should We wish to impart unto thee a glimmer of the mysteries of Husayn's martyrdom, and reveal unto thee the fruits thereof, these pages could never suffice, nor exhaust their meaning." And again He says: "My persecutors decapitated Me, and, carrying aloft My head from land to land paraded it before the gaze of the unbelieving multitude, and deposited it on the seats of the perverse and faithless." (Gleanings, 89).

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Books
Home ][ Sacred Writings ][ Bulletin board
Primary sources ][ Secondary sources ][ Resources
Links ][ Personal pages ][ Other sites
 

Google distinguishes accents, e.g. "Babi" and "Bábí"
return different results. See more search tips.