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Back to the roots of Shia Islam: ‘We need to get the full picture.'

When discussing the history of Islam, the focus is almost always on the history of the Sunni majority. University Lecturer in the history of Islam, Edmund Hayes wants this to change. His new ERC-funded project , focuses on the development of the early Shia community.

In the centuries following the death of the prophet Muhammad, a set of schisms occurred in the Islamic world. While the Sunnis ultimately believed that the caliphs, the de facto rulers of the Islamic empire, were legitimate, the Shia were convinced that leadership of the Muslims should be from the family of Muhammad’s brother-in-law, ‘Ali.

Currently, eighty to ninety percent of Muslims worldwide are Sunni. Hayes points out that this has implications for the historiography of Islam. ‘The number of scholars working on the history of Shiism is relatively small. Much of the work done has focused on beliefs. What did Shia believe and how does it differ from what the Sunnis believe? There’s very little done on the social history of early Shia Islam. Open any textbook and you’ll find the vast majority of it will be about Sunni Islam, leaving maybe one chapter for Shia Islam, and that is often biased or even wrong.’

Concentric circles

Hayes will therefore attempt to provide a more nuanced depiction of this early Islamic period. In the eighth and ninth centuries, the Shia were led by a series of religious leaders, or imams. ‘This project aims to do some fundamental research on the Shia institutions,’ Hayes explains. ‘It will be structured as a set of circles emanating from the imam, the first being his household. Who was he married to? Who did he have relationships with? Who were his servants? After that, we will look at who were the mediators between the imam and the rest of the community. What role was played by the scholars, Shia courtiers, and the imam’s agents who brought letters back and forth? The outermost circle will be the wider community. People far away or close by who practised Islam in their own way, but also had some connection with the imam.’

Hayes will rely on written sources such as letters to depict these circles, but he also plans to think about objects, buildings and landscape markers in his research. ‘Most of the Shia did not have direct access to the imam,’ he explains. ‘They lived in local communities, went to the local mosque, and maybe went on pilgrimage to either the graves of the imams or the current imam. The places where these things took place are important, as is looking at the texts where these spaces are discussed.’

Full picture

Ultimately, Hayes hopes to paint a more nuanced picture of the early Shia community in the early period. ‘With anything that’s over a thousand years old, you might question whether it’s still important, but these are the roots of Shia Islam in the modern world. We need to get the full picture.'

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