Rizwi S. Faizer Ph.D. McGill



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The Divine Guide in Early Shi`ism:
Sources of Esotericism in Islam

Amir-Moezzi, Mohammad Ali.
Translated by David Streight
Albany: SUNY Press, 1994.
ISBN: 0-7914-2122-8

If the vast majority of Muslims conform to the Sunni tradition, the greater portion of the minority non-Sunni community conform to the Ithna-`Ashari (or twelver shi`ite) tradition also known as Imamism because of the significant role ascribed to the Imams, the direct and chosen descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, by their followers. According to Imamism, however, only twelve, very specific descendants of the Prophet from the line of Husayn, the Prophet’s grandson, were ascribed religious authority. How this came to be is not clearly understood. According to the religious leaders of that community the twelve Imams were so destined by God even before He created the world. The majority of historians of today, however, suggest that the doctrine emerged from the needs of a subordinate and beleagured community, whose leadership, to put it crudely, re-invented its past, to establish a creed which would adequately meet the needs of its people while preserving its distinctness from other opposing Muslim factions. The problem according to Amir-Moezzi is that "We know nothing or next to nothing, about the vision that the Imams had . . . of the world, man, and history."
    Limited as we are in our understanding of early Islam, Amir-Moezzi alerts us to the prejudices that have conspired to establish our very narrow view of that milieu. He suggests that specific aspects of the community’s history, if researched with greater care, should lead to more fruitful results. The history of the meaning of the word `aql, for instance, usually translated as intelligence, did not originally carry with it the insinuation of objective reasoning. `Aql, as understood in early Islam could not be communicated from a teacher to a pupil; nor could it be acquired through the reasoning skills of a philosopher. `Aql, in fact, referred to an intuitive understanding which was by its very nature inspirational and God-given. If the essence of `aql was perceived in this manner, clearly, the individual who possessed `aql must have had a tremendous religious significance. That the Imams, the direct descendants of Muhammad should be those chosen few, becomes, therefore, understandable.
    Another aspect of Imamism which may possibly be traced back to an early past is the pre-determined number of twelve. To the more sceptical analyst, the number may appear a matter of convenience, and even anachronistic. According to Moezzi, however, the number twelve had always had a special biblical significance: hence the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve disciples of Jesus. Thus the twelve Imam-descendants of Muhammad.
    This is not to suggest that Professor Moezzi's approach is by any means simplistic. Intensely aware of the difficult nature of the sources available to the student of the doctrinal history of Imamism, he merely cautions the scholar to treat the fragmentary material that we possess with more respect and systematic thoroughness. His purpose is not to provide a new interpretation of that past, but merely to encourage others to seek it out. Given the emergence, today, of an agressive Islamic fundamentalism, it is good to be reminded that early Islam is indeed inadequately understood, and that the judgemental opinionatedness that prevails is built on a murky foundation. The larger community would indeed be well-served if it reinvestigates its past with an openminded tolerance which is long overdue.

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