Shi'ism and Muslim Movements Regarded as Being Heterodox

A Brief Introduction to Shi'ism
    Ithna 'Ashari (Twelver) Shi'ism
    Isma'ili Shi'ism
    Zaydi Shi'ism

Movements Regarded as Heterodox


The name "Shi'ism" is derived from the Arabic phrase "shi'at 'Ali," which literally means the partisans or party of 'Ali (d. 661). The cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, 'Ali was believed by most Muslim historians (but not all) to be the first male to embrace the Prophet's message of Islam. His partisans were those who believed that 'Ali was the rightful successor of the Prophet and that 'Ali had been chosen by the Prophet to succeed him in his role as the political and spiritual leader of the Muslims. This was in contrast to the belief of the Sunnis, who did not believe the Prophet had selected 'Ali to serve in that role. The vast majority of Shi'ites are the twelve imam or twelver shi'ites (ithna 'ashari) and live today primarily in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon. Although it is not uncommon to find Sunni Muslims who are wary of Shi'is, generally Shi'ites are accepted as being authentic Muslims by Sunnis.

Ithna 'Ashari (Twelve Imam) Shi'ism

  • Shi'a, an article by Bulend Shanay of Lancaster University briefly surveys some of the beliefs and history of the Ithna 'Ashari (twelve imam) Shi'ites.
  • Outline of Differences between Shi'is and Sunnis from the viewpoint of Shi'ism. This was written by the scholars who have compiled the Shi'ite Encyclopedia, noted below. 
  • Shi'ite Islam This is an on-line book by the famous Shi'ite scholar Tabataba'i and translated by Prof. Seyyed Hossein Nasr.
  • A Shi'ite Encyclopedia Developed by Shi'ites, this encyclopedia covers the main lines of Shi'i thought. It can be browsed by topic or searched with its own search engine.
  • Al-Islam: Subject Index This is the topical index to the Al-Islam website, a massive site on Islam as viewed from a Shi'ite perspective. It contains many articles useful to students of Islam. This site was developed by Ahlul Bayt Digital Islamic Library Project. 
  • On the Beliefs of the Shi'a Imamiya is a translation of a primary text by one of the most important medieval Twelver Shi'ite scholars, Ibn Babawayh, also known as Shaykh al-Saduq (link fixed 15 March, 2006).
  • The Nahj al-balagha: Sermons, Letters, and Sayings of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the first Shi'i Imam and the fourth of the "Rightly-Guided Caliphs"(al-khulafa' al-rashidun) 
  • The Nahj al-balagha another online version.
  • Usul al-kafi The four books of volume one of this work translated by Muhammad Sarwar.
  • Al-Kafi by al-Kulayni is a scholarly article concerning the first of the four major works of Shi'i hadith. The article, written by Dr. I.K.A. Howard, discusses al-Kafi and its author, Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn Ya'qub al-Kulayni (d. 328 or 329 / 939 or 940). Unlike hadith in Sunni Islam, hadith collections in Shi'i Islam include the sayings of the Shi'i imams.
  • Man La Yahduruh al-Faqih by al-Saduq is a scholarly article concerning the second of the four major collections of Shi'i hadith. Written by Dr. I.K.A. Howard, this article also includes a discussion of al-Shaykh al-Saduq, Ibn Babawaih al-Qummi (d. 381).
  • Tahdhib al-ahkam and Al-Istibsar by al-Tusi is the title of an article by Dr. I.K.A. Howard concerning the third and fourth of the four major works of Shi'i hadith. Both of these works were written by Abu Ja'far Muhammad b. al-Hasan, known as al-Shaykh al-Tusi (d. 460). 
  • The Origin and Growth of the Shia (link fixed 17 August 2005). This useful summary is presented at the website of the World Federation of the Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheri (sic) Muslim Communities (KSIMC). See their list of Islamic Resources (link fixed 15 March, 2006). Currently the best description of this organization is to be found in the Constitution of the World Federation (link fixed 17 August 2005).
  • Website of Ayatullah Muhammad Shirazi, who is one of the more important Shi'ite religious leaders alive today. Based in Qum, Ayatullah Shirazi is a marja'-i taqlid (model whose guidance is to be followed). His website includes a variety of materials, among them being some of his articles and a short biography of him.
  • Karbala and the Imam Husayn in Persian and Indo-Muslim literature This article, by Annemarie Schimmel, emeritus professor at Harvard, surveys the literary use of the image of the martyed Imam Husayn (the third Shi'i Imam). 
  • The Shrine of the Hidden Imam "Twelver" (Ithna 'ashari) Shi'ites believe that including 'Ali there were twelve rightful descendants of the Prophet in his role as political and spiritual leader of the Muslims. They believe that the twelfth of these, the Hidden Imam, never died but rather "occulted," which is to say that he left this material plane of being and went to a metaphysical plane of being, from where he will return to the material plane near the end of time in order to inaugurate a new era for humankind. Through this link you can view a good quality image of the shrine of the Hidden Imam in Samarra, Iraq. 
  • The Silencing of Professor Abdulaziz Sachedina Ayatollah Sistani, the chief Shi'ite religious authority (marja' al-taqlid) of the majority of the 12 Imam Khoja Shi'ites, in 1998 recommended the silencing of Professor Sachedina, a 12ver Shi'ite, who is also a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Virginia. Among the issues for which he was criticized are his views on religious pluralism. (Link fixed, February, 2004; formerly online at .)
  • Shi'ites in Iraq a section of my Muslims, Islam, and Iraq website, contains information on the history of Shi'ism in Iraq as well as various news articles and other related links.
  • Scholarly Papers on Shaykhism, also known as the Shaykhi school of Shi'ism, written by Juan R. I. Cole, a professor at the University of Michigan. These papers all concern Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i, the central figure of the Shaykhi school, which developed in 19th century Iran. 
  • Isma'ili Shi'ism

    The Isma'ili Shi'ites (or 7-Imam Shi'ites), diverged from the majority Ja'fari or 12-Imam Shi'ites since they regarded the seventh and last Imam to be Isma'il, the eldest son of Ja'far al-Sadiq. In contrast, the 12-Imam Shi'ites do not accept Isma'il, who predeceased his father, as their seventh imam. Instead, after the death of Ja'far al-Sadiq (d. 765 CE), they followed his still living son, Musa al-Kazim (d. 799 CE) and, after him, his descendants.

    Not following Musa al-Kazim and his descendants, the Isma'ilis followed Muhammad the son of Imam Ismail and his descendants up to the present day. An important Isma'ili movement was the 9th century Qarmati movement in 'Iraq, comprised of followers of Hamdan Qarmat. See the brief summary of the movement, Qarmatiyyah, written by Bulend Shanay of Lancaster University (UK).

    More significant was the Ismaili Fatimid dynasty, which ruled in North Africa from the 10th to the 12th centuries. Another significant Ismaili movement of 12th century Iran is commonly known as that of the "Assassins." The following linked article Assassins , written by the eminent scholar Philip Hitti, although dated is still informative. On the other hand, the contemporary scholar Farhad Daftary seems to have overturned many of the assertions of the previous generation of scholars such as Hitti. See the following review of Daftary's The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Isma'ilis. The Ismailis underwent the following sub-divisions:

    Druze-- A minority of Ismailis who, after the death of the Fatimid, Imam Al-Hakim bi-Amrillah, believed that Imam al-Hakim was divine and did not in fact die. Today this group is found in Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine. See a brief summary of this sect, titled Druzes, written by Bulend Shanay of Lancaster University.

    The majority, however, followed Imam al-Hakim's son, al-Zahir and his descendants until Imam Mustansir Billah. At his death, another split occured:

    Buhras or Bohras (originally known as Musta'lians)-- Ismailis who followed Imam Musta'li, a son of Imam Mustansir billah, instead of Imam Nizar, who was another son of Imam Mustansir. The Bohras today live primarily in Yemen, India, and East Africa. See the scholarly article Bohras by Mustafa Abdulhussein, from the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World (if that link is down, the page is archived here 15 March, 2006) and the Dawoodi Bohra website.

    Nizaris, Khoja Ismailis, or Agakhanis-- followed Imam Nizar, the other son of Imam Mustansir, who escaped from prison (after being deposed by the supporters of Imam Musta'li) and made his way from Cairo to Syria and from there to Iran. Today the Nizaris are followers of Imam Karim Agha Khan.

  • A Brief History of the Ismaili Community based on material from Prof. Farhad Daftary, the leading scholarly authority on Ismaili history.

  • Introduction to Ismailism by Dr. Sheikh Khodr Hamawi

  • Ismaili Web, constructed by Ismailis, is a useful resource containing among other things a number of scholarly articles.

  • The Importance of Studying Ismailism is a short essay by the famous "White Russian" scholar of Ismaili history and thought, Professor W. Ivanov.

  • Nasir Khusraw (d. 481 AH) was an important Persian poet, philosopher, traveller, and Ismaili propagandist (da'i).

  • Cosmology and Authority in Medieval Ismailism by Prof. Simonetta Calderini, lecturer at the Roehampton Institute in London, is a scholarly article on the web addition of Diskus, but it was originally published there in Vol.4, No.1 (1996) pp.11-22. (Linked fixed, October 13, 2001.)
  • Isma'ili Qasidas in Persian and Arabic Listen to these with Real Audio.

  • The Institute of Ismaili Studies

    Zaydi Shi'ism

    The Zaydi or five imam Shi'ites are those who follow Zayd ibn 'Ali, the grandson of the third Shi'ite imam, Imam Husayn, who was in turn a grandson of the Prophet. Zayd's father was 'Ali, the fourth Shi'ite imam. Yemen became a Zaydi country toward the end of the ninth century CE and has continued to be Zaydi until today. See the brief article Zaydiyyah by Bulend Shanay of Lancaster University (UK).

    Movements Generally Considered to be Heterodox but Originating Within Islam


  • Nusayriyyah, who are generally regarded by Muslims as being outside the limits of Islam, regard themselves as originating with the eleventh Shi'a Imam al-Hasan al-Askari (d.873) and his student Ibn Nusayr (d.868). They are particularly important in Syria even though they are only about 11% of the population. The reason for their importance in Syria is because Hafez al-Asad, the former Syrian president, was a Nusayri.


    Though neither Shi'i nor Sunni, the Ahmadiya consider themselves to be Muslims, although they are generally regarded as being outside the fold of Islam by other Muslims.
  • Ahmadiya is a useful article from the Banglapedia, an online encyclopedia concerning all things related to Bangladesh. The editorial board is comprised of professional scholars.
  • Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, the Jamaat-i-Ahmadiya, also known as the Qadianis (Qadiyanis), regard Mirza Ghulam Ahmad as a prophet. See also the official website of the Ahmadiyyah Muslim Community.
  • Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement , the Ahmadiyya Anjuman Ishaat-i-Islam, is one of two branches of the Ahmadiyya. Unlike the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, the Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement does not regard Mirza Ghulam Ahmad as a prophet. See also The Official website of the Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement (US office) as well as another Lahore Ahmadi website.

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