This series has five easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Islam’s Great Schism Explained.
Just like the Christian religion has its Catholics and Protestants, so does the Muslim religion have its Sunnis and Shiites, also called Fatimites. Stanley Lane-Poole explains the Muslim division preparatory to the Fatimite invasion of Egypt below.
This selection is from History of Egypt in the Middle Ages by Stanley Lane-Poole published in 1901. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Stanley Lane-Poole (1854-1931) was a British expert on Asia and an archaeologist.
Three hundred and thirty years had passed since the Saracens first invaded the valley of the Nile. The people, with traditional docility, had liberally adopted the religion of their rulers, and the Moslems now formed the great majority of the population. Arabs and natives had blended into much the same race that we now call Egyptians; but so far the mixture had not produced any conspicuous men. The few commanding figures among the governors, Ibn-Tulun, the Ikshid, Kafur, were foreigners, and even these were but a step above the stereotyped official. They essayed no great extension of their dominions; they did not try to extinguish their dangerous neighbors the schismatic Fatimites; and though they possessed and used fleets, they ventured upon no excursions against Europe.
The great revolution which had swept over North Africa, and now spread to Egypt, arose out of the old controversy over the legitimacy of the caliphate. The prophet Mohammad died without definitely naming a successor, and thereby bequeathed an interminable quarrel to his followers. The principle of election, thus introduced, raised the first three caliphs, Abu-Bekr, Omar, Othman, to the cathedra at Medina; but a strong minority held that the “divine right” rested with Ali, the “Lion of God,” first convert to Islam, husband of the prophet’s daughter Fatima, and father of Mohammad’s only male descendants. When Ali in turn became the fourth caliph, he was the mark for jealousy, intrigue, and at length assassination; his sons, the grandsons of the Prophet, were excluded from the succession; his family were cruelly persecuted by their successful rivals, the Ommiad usurpers; and the tragedy of Kerbela and the murder of Hoseyn set the seal of martyrdom on the holy family and stirred a passionate enthusiasm which still rouses intense excitement in the annual representations of the Persian passion play.
The rent thus opened in Islam was never closed. The ostracism of Ali “laid the foundation of the grand interminable schism which has divided the Muslim Church, and equally destroyed the practice of charity among the members of their common creed and endangered the speculative truths of doctrine.”
The descendants of Ali, though almost universally devoid of the qualities of great leaders, possessed the persistence and devotion of martyrs, and their sufferings heightened the fanatical enthusiasm of their supporters. All attempts to recover the temporal power having proved vain, the Alides fell back upon the spiritual authority of the successive candidates of the holy family, whom they proclaimed to be the imams or spiritual leaders of the faithful. This doctrine of the imamate gradually acquired a more mystical meaning, supported by an allegorical interpretation of the Koran; and a mysterious influence was ascribed to the imam, who, though hidden from mortal eye, on account of the persecution of his enemies, would soon come forward publicly in the character of the ever-expected mahdi, sweep away the corruptions of the heretical caliphate, and revive the majesty of the pure lineage of the prophet. All Muslims believe in a coming mahdi, a messiah, who shall restore right and prepare for the second advent of Mahomet and the tribunal of the last day; but the Shiahs turned the expectation to special account. They taught that the true Imam, though invisible to mortal sight, is ever living; they predicted the mahdi’s speedy appearance, and kept their adherents on the alert to take up arms in his service. With a view to his coming they organized a pervasive conspiracy, instituted a secret society with carefully graduated stages of initiation, used the doctrines of all religions and sects as weapons in the propaganda, and sent missionaries throughout the provinces of Islam to increase the numbers of the initiates and pave the way for the great revolution. We see their partial success in the ravages of the Karmathians, who were the true parents of the Fatimites. The leaders and chief missionaries had really nothing in common with Mohammadanism. Among themselves they were frankly atheists. Their objects were political, and they used religion in any form, and adapted it in all modes, to secure proselytes, to whom they imparted only so much of their doctrine as they were able to bear. These men were furnished with “an armory of proselytism” as perfect, perhaps, as any known to history: they had appeals to enthusiasm, and arguments for the reason, and “fuel for the fiercest passions of the people and times in which they moved.” Their real aim was not religious or constructive, but pure nihilism. They used the claim of the family of Ali, not because they believed in any divine right or any caliphate, but because some flag had to be flourished in order to rouse the people.
One of these missionaries, disguised as a merchant, journeyed back to Barbary in 893, with some Berber pilgrims who had performed the sacred ceremonies at Mecca. He was welcomed by the great tribe of the Kitama, and rapidly acquired an extraordinary influence over the Berbers–a race prone to superstition, and easily impressed by the mysterious rites of initiation and the emotional doctrines of the propagandist, the wrongs of the prophetic house, and the approaching triumph of the Mahdi. Barbary had never been much attached to the caliphate, and for a century it had been practically independent under the Aglabite dynasty, the barbarous excesses of whose later sovereigns had alienated their subjects. Alides, moreover, had established themselves, in the dynasty of the Idrisides, in Morocco since the end of the eighth century. The land was in every respect ripe for revolution, and the success of Abu-Abdallah esh-Shii, the new missionary, was extraordinarily rapid. In a few years he had a following of two hundred thousand armed men, and after a series of battles he drove Ziyadat-Allah, the last Aglabite prince, out of the country in 908. The missionary then proclaimed the imam Obeid-Allah as the true caliph and spiritual head of Islam.
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