Shia Ismaili Leadership Past and Present

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Karim H. Karim



The self-declaration of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as khalīfah in 2014 has once
again brought to the fore the topic of Muslim leadership. There are numerous
forms of leadership in Muslim societies today. Apart from presidents, prime
ministers, kings, emirs, and shaykhs, religious heads like the Shaykh al-Azhar
as well as certain Sufi shaykhs and pirs have varying levels of prominence.
The Supreme Leader of Iran is the head of state and the county’s highestranking
political and religious authority. Aga Khan IV, the current Shia Nizari
Ismaili Imam, leads a transnational community and has established the Aga
Khan Development Network. Fethullah Gulen is founder of the transnational
Hizmet (service) movement that has roots in Turkey.
The issue of Muslim leadership initially came into focus following the
Prophet’s death in 632, when Abu Bakr al-Siddiq was nominated as the first
khalīfah. Ali ibn Abi Talib, married to the Prophet’s daughter Fatima, asserted
his claim but eventually agreed to accept Abu Bakr’s selection. Ali became the
fourth khalīfah after Abu Bakr, Umar al-Khattab, and Uthman ibn Affan. His
closest followers, who came to be known as the Shī‘at ‘Alī and later just Shia,
upheld the belief that the Prophet’s family possessed the right of leadership.
This group has adhered to Ali and Fatima’s descendants as Imams.
The Shia Imama is a religious institution that embodies authority in the
domains of faith (dīn) and world (dunyā). It is generally characterized by a
hereditary succession of leaders from father to son, except among the Zaydis
(living mostly in northern Yemen), who select their Imams from any male descendant
of Ali and Fatima. The largest Shia group, the Ithna Asharis (Twelvers),
are concentrated mainly in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Azerbaijan,
and the Gulf region. Their name refers to the belief that their Twelfth Imam
went into occultation in 873 and is expected to re-emerge as the messianic
Mahdi. In his absence, the community is guided by ulama led by the ayatullahs ...

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