This book, which we have called Shi'ite Islam, seeks to clarify the true identity of Shi'ism which is one of the two major branches of Islam - the other being Sunnism. It deals in particular with the way Shi'ism originated and later developed, with the type of religious thought present in Shi'ism, and with Islamic sciences and culture as seen from the Shi'ite point of view.
The Meaning of Religion (din), Islam, and Shi'ism
Religion. There is no doubt that each member of the human race is naturally drawn to his fellow-men and that in his life in society he acts in ways which are interrelated and interconnected. His eating, drinking, sleeping, keeping awake, talking, listening, sitting, walking, his social intercourse and meetings, at the same time that they are formally and externally distinct, are invariably connected with each other. One cannot perform just any act in any place or after any other act. There is an order which must be observed.
There is, therefore, an order which governs the actions man performs in the journey of this life, an order against which his actions cannot rebel. In reality, these acts all originate from a distinct source. That source is man's desire to possess a felicitous life , a life in which he can react to the greatest extent possible the objects of his desire, and be gratified. Or, one could say that man wishes to provide in a more complete way for his needs in order to continue his existence.
This is why man continually conforms his actions to rules and laws either devised by himself or accepted from others, and why he selects a particular way of life for himself among all the other existing possibilities. He works in order to provide for his means of livelihood and expects his activities to be guided by laws and regulations that must be followed. In order to satisfy his sense of taste and overcome hunger and thirst, he eats and drinks, for he considers eating and drinking necessary for the continuation of his own happy existence. This rule could be multiplied by many other instances.
The rules and laws that govern human existence depend for their acceptance on the basic beliefs that man has concerning the nature of universal existence, of which he himself is a part, and also upon his judgment and evaluation of that existence. That the principles governing man's actions depend on his conception of being as a whole becomes clear if one meditates a moment on the different conceptions that people hold as to the nature of the world and of man.
Those who consider the Universe to be confined only to this material, sensible world, and man himself to be completely material and therefore subject to annihilation when the breath of life leaves him at the moment of death, follow a way of life designed to provide for their material desires and transient mundane pleasures. They strive solely on this path, seeking to bring under their control the natural conditions and factors of life.
Similarly, there are those who, like the common people among idol-worshipers, consider the world of nature to be created by a god above nature who has created the world specially for man and his goodness. Such men organize their lives so as to attract the pleasure of the god and not invite his anger. They believe that if they please the god he will multiply his bounty and make it lasting and if they anger him he will take his bounty away from them.
On the other hand, such men as Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians, and Muslims follow the "high path" in this life for they believe in God and in man's eternal life, and consider man to be responsible for his good and evil acts. As a result they accept as proven the existence of a day of judgment (qiyamat) and follow a path that leads to felicity in both this world and the next.
The totality of these fundamental beliefs concerning the nature of man and the Universe, and regulations in conformity with them which are applied to human life, is called religion (din). If there are divergences in these fundamental beliefs and regulations, they are called schools such as the Sunni and the Shi'ite schools in Islam and the Nestorian in Christianity. We can therefore say that man, even if he does not believe in the Deity, can never be without religion if we recognize religion as a program for life based on firm belief. Religion can never be separated from life and is not simply a matter of ceremonial acts.
The Holy Quran asserts that man has no choice but to follow religion, which is a path that God has placed before man so that by treading it man can reach Him. However, those who have accepted that religion of the truth (Islam) march in all sincerity upon the path of God, while those who have not accepted the religion of the truth have been diverted from the divine path and have followed the wrong road.
Islam etymologically means surrender and obedience. The Holy Quran calls the religion which invites men toward this end "Islam" since its general purpose is the surrender of man to the laws governing the Universe and man, with the result that through this surrender he worships only the One God and obeys only His commands. As the Holy Quran informs us, the first person who called this religion "Islam" and its followers "Muslims" was the Prophet Abraham, upon whom be peace.
Shi'ah, which means literally partisan or follower, refers to those who consider the succession to the Prophet - may God's peace and benediction be upon him - to be the special right of the family of the Prophet and who in the field of the Islamic sciences and culture follow the school of the Household of the Prophet.