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Islamic Terms
Apr 2013

SHIAH : Literally, the followers of a person or party. The term refers to the followers of Ali, who, as a first cousin of the Prophet, and husband of his daughter, Fatimah, regard him and his heirs as the rightful successor of the Prophet.

ISMAILIYAH : A Shia sect known as the Sabiyah (Seveners), who hold that the Imamate closed with Ismail, the son of the sixth Imam, Jafar-as-Siddiq. They are variously subdivided. In India, however, the two branches are : the Bohras and the Khojas 

ITHNA ASHARIYAH : Literally means the Twelvers. The chief division of the Shiahs, which recognizes twelve Imams, beginning with Ali.They regard the twelfth Imam, Mahammad, son of Hasan-al-Askari, as the concealed or hidden Imam, who will ultimately appear in the last days as the Mahdi (Quaid-e-Azam Jinnah the creator of Pakistan was an Ithna Ashariyah)

MAHADI : Literally means the directed or guided one. The eschatological belief of Muslims regarding the mighty one who will appears in the last days.

IMAM : Literally means who goes before.

FATIMIDS : The dynasty of caliphs which ruled over Egypt and North Africa (908-11-1171 AD) They claimed descent from Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet, and Ali

SUNNAH : Literally means a path or way; a manner of life. A term which has become applied to tradition which records either the sayings or doings of Prophet Muhammad.

SUNNI : Literally means one of the path. A follower of Tradition. The Term usually applied to the major sect of Muslims, who recognize the first four Khalifas as the rightful successors of Prophet Muhammad. (Indian Islam, by Murray Titus London,1929 ).


It was widely accepted in the early community of Believers that Prophet Muhammad could have no successor in his role as Prophet. But the early believers decided that someone should succeed Muhammad as temporal head of the Community. The first documentary references call the leader of the community of Belivers not caliph but amir al-mumin (commander of the Believers) and this was replaced sometime later by the term caliph. The first two caliphs, Abu Bakr and Umar appear to have enjoyed widespread support among the Believers, dissension arose under the third caliph, Uthman. After Uthman's murder in 656 AD the people of Medina, including some others recognized as the next caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib -cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet. His acclamation was opposed by significant segments of the Community of Believers- in particular by Uthman's kinsmen of the Umayyad clan led by Muawiyah and by leading members of some other Quraysh families including Prophet's wife, Aishah and two of Muhammad's early supporters Talha ibn Ubaydallah and al-Zubayr ibn al-Awwam. Their bid for power was thwarted at the battle of the camel near Basra in Southern Iraq by the supporters of Ali (Shiat Ali Arabic for Party of Ali, often referred to simply as the Shia or Shiites). Later the armies of Muawiya and Ali met at Siffin along the middle Euphrates near the frontier of Syria and Iraq. After many days, Ali and Muawiya agreed that the matter should be settled by arbitration. In the meanwhile, Ali's position was weakened by the withdrawal from his side of some militant priests who came to be known as kharijites (possibly meaning seccders). The First Civil War (656-661) came to an end in 661 when a Kharijite assassin killed Ali. Shortly there after the majority of Believers agreed to recognize Muawiyah as caliph. This marks the beginning of Umayyad Caliphate which lasted for about a century (661-750 AD), But the issues that were at the heart of the First Civil War? How leader of the Community of Believers was to be selected-remained unresolved. After Muawiyah's death in 680, the Second Civil War (680-692 AD) broke out. The Shiites who claimed that the caliphate should belong to someone of Ali's family rallied around Ali's younger son, al-Husayn. Al-Husayn and his family were massacred in 680 at Karbala.

It is during the Civil Wars that the main sectarian sub-divisions of the Islamic community first emerged: the Shiites, the Kharijites, and the Sunni sects of Islam. The Sunni sect came to be defined as much as anything by their rejection of the central beliefs of the Shiites and Kharjites. 

(The Oxford History Of Islam, 1999)


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