ZAIDIS | ISMA’ELIS | FATAMIDS
Not all Shi’ites accepted the political quietism of the Twelvers. The opposite view was taken by Zaid, a grandson of Husain, who argued that a true Imam must claim the title publicly and strive actively to overthrow the corrupt regime of the usurpers. His followers, the Zaidis, recognize him as Imam instead of recognizing his quietist brother and nephew who are the 5th and 6th Imams of the Twelvers.
The Zaidis trace the succession onward from Zaid. They reject the doctrine of the Hidden Imam and don’t insist on an unbroken dynastic succession. For them, the Imam may be any adult descendant of Ali who has sufficient learning and military ability. There may even be “several Imams at one time.’
Today the Zaidis survive only in Yemen, which was ruled by Zaidi Imams until 1962. Doctrinally, the Zaidis are closer to the Sunnis than to the other branches of the Shi’as.
More radical movements, in both social and theoretical terms, arose among the Isma’ilis, followers of Isma’il, the eldest son of the 6th Imam, whom the Twelvers excluded from the succession because he was alleged to have drunk wine.
The Isma’ilis wanted to reinterpret Islam by incorporating some of the ideas of the Hellenistic Christian culture that had dominated the Near East before their arrival. They held that the Koran contained an ‘inner’ allegorical meaning that was secretly transmitted to Ali and then, by him, through the line of Imams. Only through secret teaching, after a careful initiation process, could the faithful gain access to this hidden interpretation.
The masses were expected to be content with the ‘apparent’ meaning, while the initiate, after progressing through various grades of instruction, would discover the single, Divine Truth. This ultra-elitist doctrine, by providing the certainty of Divine Guidance, inspired popular revolts.
One of the Isma’ili groups set up a kind of communist people’s republic in Iraq in the late 9th century AD. They subsequently gained control of Bahrain where their state survived for 200 years. Like many revolutionary movements, they acquired a reputation for terrorism and atrocities. Over time, they became objects of widespread hatred, fear, and persecution, and they eventually disappeared.
A better organized successor movement, the Fatimids, centered on the descendants of Fatima and Ali through the line of Isma’il. In the 10th century, this group proclaimed themselves as caliphs in North Africa, and they ruled Egypt from 969 to 1171.
The Fatimids claimed to be the rightful Imams of all Muslims. Their subversive religious doctrine appealed to people with political and social grievances, especially in Syria and Persia. In Egypt, the Fatimid caliphate took on the usual characteristics of the establishment. However, in the east, Isma’ilism remained a revolutionary movement. We’ll talk more about other offshoots in the next e-mail.