The ascension of ‛Alī ibn abī Tālib to the caliphate in 656 had much to do with the political manuevering among the clans and families of Mecca and Medina. The core Muslim elite had been that of Medina. But the Meccan elite had gained much greater influence, particularly under ‛Uthmān. The Medinan elite backed ‛Alī for the caliphate, hoping to capture more influence and appointments.
But, as Hans Küng says in Der Islam (2004), ‛Alī's selection had a "deadly problem" from the start. "He had already discredited himself in the eyes of many because, instead of arresting ‛Uthmān's murderers and punishing them, he allowed himself to be elected caliph with their support." As we saw in discussing ‛Uthmān, his administration had particularly favored the Umayyad family of Mecca. Now, the Umayyad governor of Syria, Mu‛āwiya ibn abī Sufyān, became the leader of those seeking blood vengeance against ‛Uthmān's killers.
The first Muslim civil war
‛Alī's caliphate (656-661) is almost synonymous with what is known as "the first Muslim civil war." In 656, ‛Alī achieved an important victory at the Battle of the Camel at Basra, a city that has become somewhat more familiar to Americans the last couple of years. The Prophet's most influential widow, ‛Ā'iša, the daughter of the first caliph Abū Bakr, was a prominent and important opponent of ‛Alī, perhaps in part because ‛Alī had been reluctant to recognize her father as the legitimate caliph. Küng observes, "She would remain for a long time the last Muslim woman who would be able to exert that kind of influence on public affairs."
After a stalemate at the battle of Siffīn in 657, Mu‛āwiya persuaded ‛Alī to accept an arbitration to determine whether ‛Alī had been selected caliph through an appropriate process of consulation among the leaders of the ummah (Muslim community). In 659, the arbitrators decided that ‛Alī's selection as caliph in 656 had been improper and ordered a new selection. Although Mu‛āwiya formally became caliph in 660, his authority was not fully recognized until after ‛Alī's death.
‛Alī was assassinated in 661 by a Khāriğite, one of a group of embittered former supporter of ‛Alī. Beginning a century after his death, the city of al-Najaf, where ‛Alī's grand shrine is located, became an important spiritual center for "the partisans of ‛Alī," the Shia Muslims, and remains so today. Another city whose name has recetnly become more familiar to Americans.
The first Muslim civil war, of which the legitimacy of ‛Alī's caliphate was the central issue, gave rise to three major division within the ummah.
The Khāriğites were furious that ‛Alī had agreed to allow a council to decide on the legitimacy of his caliphate. In their view, ‛Alī had thereby made the things of God - the legitimate successor to the Prophet as leader, in this case - subject to human whim. The Khāriğites argued that the central criteria for selecting a caliph should not depend on dynastic relationships, but rather the best Muslim shold be selected for caliph, no matter who that might be.
Küng notes that the Khāriğite trend, having long since lost most of its militant edge, persists today among the Berbers of North Africa, in Zanzibar and most of all in Oman. Perhaps 500,000 Muslims in the world today would fall into this category.
It is sometimes said that contemporary jihadists like Osama bin Laden are Khāriğites. But that description seems as vague as to have little real meaning. It looks more like yet another bad historical analogy that manages to mystify more than clarify. Whatever ripples of historical influence may extend from 7th-century Khāriğites to 21st-century global jihadist groups is far overshadowed by more proximate influences. Prominent among them would be the 20th-century Islamist thinkers Pakistani Maulana Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi and the Egyptian Sayyid Kutb, the theory and practice of the Muslim Brotherhood (especially in Egypt) and above all the toxic brew of violence and religious fanaticism spawned by the guerrilla war against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
The Shi'a tendency among Muslims also emerged from the first Muslim civil war. This trend still persists today, with about 10% of the world's Muslims being Shia. The Shia were the "partisans of ‛Alī." They believe that ‛Alī was the legitimate successor to the Prophet, and that the caliphates of Abū Bakr, ‛Umar and ‛Uthmān were illegitimate. It's worth noting that for centuries to come, the Shia would be intermixed in the same communities as the majority Sunni. The present-day geogrpahical concentrations of Shia in Iran and certain areas of Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon was a later development.
The Khāriğites' rejection of both major sides in the civil war had a more clear theological basis than that of the Shia. The Khāriğites rejected the dynastic principle in favor a religious one. The Shia were the partisans of a dynasty based on ‛Alī's line. It would probably be misleading to say that the Shia/Sunni split was political rather than religious. The Shia did believe that ‛Alī carried a divine legitimacy that the first three caliphs did not. The issues were not theological as such at the beginning, though Shia theology would later develop in different directions than the Sunni.
The Sunni majority saw themselves as staying true to the Islamic "sunna," or tradition. They accepted all the first four caliphs, ‛Alī included, as legitimate and came to see them as the Rightly Guided Caliphs. (In other words, though the Shia were the "partisans of ‛Alī," the Sunni can't be seen as the "partisans of anti-‛Alī.) The conduct of the four Rightly Guided Caliphs, together with the Prophet's revelations and the traditions surrounding his life, are seen as akind of golden age of the religion. Just as religious Jews may look to the actions of Abraham or David for religious lessons, or Christians at Jesus or Paul, Sunni Muslims look to Muhammad and the Right Guided Caliphs as models.
So, even though the Shia are the "partisans of ‛Alī," it's not the case that the majority Sunni reject ‛Alī's legitimacy. It is rather that the Shia do not recognize the legitimacy of the caliphates of Abū Bakr, ‛Umar and ‛Uthmān.
The Shia and Husain
After Mu‛āwiya had established himself as caliph Mu‛āwiya I, founder of the Umayyad dynasty, conflict with the Shia continued. He persuaded ‛Alī's son al Hasan ibn ‛Alī to renounce any claim on the caliphate in exchange for a huge payoff, which allowed Hasan to lead a long life of luxurious decadence in Medina, where he had 60 wives and 300 concubines, according to the more conservative figures Küng gives. Both Mu‛āwiya and Hasan evidently regarded the result as a good bargain.
Shia tradition sees it differently. In their view, Hasan was forced to give up the caliphate due to multiple poisonings by Mu‛āwiya, and refused to fight to seize the caliphate militarily out of pious relectance to shed further Muslim blood. "In Shiite texts," writes Küng, "Hasan's story is consequently more and more embellished with miracles."
In 671, Shia opponents of Mu‛āwiya began courting another son of ‛Alī, Al-Husain ibn ‛Alī, to come from Mecca to Kufa to be proclaimed as caliph, which would mean overthrowing Mu‛āwiya. Eventually, Husain decided to make the fateful journey to Kufa.
Intercepted by the caliph's forces, Husain's party made a stand at Kerbala in 680, in which Husain met his death. Leaving aside the rather gruesome question of which parts of his body wound up in which city, Husain is also revered by Shia today, the city of al-Najaf being perhaps teh most important site for reverence of Husain's memory. The "profession of faithfulness to Husain becomes central for the 'party of ‛Alī [Shia]," says Küng.
Though the conflict ‛Alī's caliphate was the cause of the Shia split, the memory of Husain is also highly important for the Shia, being a direct continuation of that struggle. These events may seem for Christians or Jews as distant and vague as the passion of Christ or the Exodus from Egypt may seem for adherents of other faiths. But for many Shia Muslims, as Küng observes, the stories of ‛Alī, Hasan and Husain are "the past that is very much present" (allgegenwärtigen Vergangenheit).
Transition to a new religious paradigm
Küng sees two events associated with ‛Alī's caliphate (656-661) as being both symbolic and pratical signs of the end fo the "original Islamic community" paradigm. Those were ‛Alī's decision to move the residence of the caliphate from Medina to Kufa in Iraq, and the splits in the ummah resulting from the civil war. Küng writes of the period of ‛Alī's caliphate and the first Muslim civil war:
* Certainly, Mecca remains the religious center of Islam and the Ka‛ba its central shrine. But the political center, the government of the Islamic state [caliphate] is located for the first time (and remains forever) outside Arabia, which becomes the periphery.
* For the first time, Muslim armies confront each other as enemies (which in the time of the Prophet would have been unthinkable). A war among believers contradicts the Qur'ān.