How did the word ‘Shia’ originate?

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Another baseless allegation by the opponents of Shias is related to the origin of the Shia word and the sect itself. They allege that this sect and its beliefs were propounded by Abdullah Ibn Sabaa, who was originally a Jew but had later accepted Islam along with Ka’ab al-Ahbaar and Wahab Ibn Munabbah. All three had accepted Islam but created confusion among Muslims. The third caliph Usmaan Ibn Affaan drove them away. They fled to Egypt and formed a sect called ‘Shia’. They fabricated traditions of Holy Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) and claimed that Imam Ali (peace be upon him) is his successor and created a chaos which led to the murder of Usmaan Ibn Affaan and Imam Ali (peace be upon him) then assumed caliphate.


It is quite absurd and there is no sense in associating the name of Abdullah Ibn Sabaa with the Shias. He was a Jew, and, according to Shia sources, a hypocrite and is harshly condemned. If, for some time, he appeared to be a friend of Imam Ali (peace be upon him), what connection did he have with the Shias? If a thief puts on the attire of a learned man, mounts the pulpit, and injures the cause of Islam, should you be averse to learning and call all learned men as thieves?

Meaning of ‘Shia’

Shia literally means ‘follower’. One of the greatest Ahle Tasannun scholars, Firuzabaadi in his Qaamoos al-Lughaat says,

“The name ‘Shia’ commonly means every person who is a friend of Ali (peace be upon him) and his Ahle Bait (peace be upon them). This name is peculiar to them.”

The exact same meaning has been mentioned by Ibn Athir in Nihaayah al-Lughaat.

According to commentaries of Quran by Ahle Tasannun scholars, the word Shia means “follower of Ali Ibn Abi Talib (peace be upon both of them)” and was used in this way even during the time of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny). In fact, it was the Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) himself who introduced the word Shia in the meaning of “follower of Ali Ibn Abi Talib (peace be upon both of them).”

The word ‘Shia’ was used by Holy Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny)

Contrary to the allegation of the opponents, the word Shia originated much before the reign of Usmaan Ibn Affaan. This is proved from the exegesis of the Ahle Tasannun scholars who have themselves written commentary nullifying these false accusations.

Allah, the Almighty, states in Surah Bayyinah (98): verses 7-8

إِنَّ الَّذِيْنَ آمَنُوْا وَ عَمِلُوْا الصَّالِحَاتِ أُولٰٓئِكَ هُمْ خَيْرُ الْبَرِيَّةِ (7) جَزَاؤُهُمْ عِنْدَ رَبِّهِمْ جَنَّاتُ عَدْنٍ تَجْرِي مِنْ تَحْتِهَا الْأَنْهَارُ خَالِدِيْنَ فِيْهَا أَبَداً رَضِيَ اللهُ عَنْهُمْ وَ رَضُوْا عَنْهُ ذٰلِكَ لِمَنْ خَشِيَ رَبَّهُ (8)

“(As for) those who believe and do good, surely they are the best of men. Their reward with their Lord is gardens of perpetuity beneath which rivers flow, abiding therein forever. Allah is well pleased with them and they are well pleased with Him; that is for him who fears his Lord.”

In the exegesis of the above verse by the Ahle Tasannun scholar Shaikh Abu Nuaim Ahmad Isfahani in his book Hilyah al-Awliya, it is narrated from Abdullah Ibn Abbas that the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny), addressing Imam Ali (peace be upon him), said,

“O Ali! The best of creatures (Khair al-Bariyyah) in this holy verse refers to you and your followers (Shia). On the Day of Resurrection, you and your followers (Shia) shall attain such a position that Allah will be pleased with you, and you will be pleased with Him.”

Among the innumerous traditions mentioning the merits of Shias we find in the exegesis of the aforementioned verse that Imam Ali (peace be upon him) said that at the time of the Prophet’s (peace be upon him and his progeny) death, his head was resting on Ali’s (peace be upon him) chest and he said:

“You have heard the holy verse, ‘Those who believe and do good deeds, it is they who are the best of creatures’. They are your Shias. My and your meeting place shall be at the fountain of Kauthar (in Paradise). When all created beings assemble for reckoning, your face will be bright, and you will be identified on that day as the leader of the bright-faced people.”

  • Al-Manaaqib by Muwaffaq Ibn Ahmad al-Khwarazmi
  • Shawaahid al-Tanzeel by Haakim Abdullah Ibn Abdullah al-Haskaani
  • Kifaayah al-Talib, p. 19 by Muhammad Ibn Yusuf Ganji al-Shaafei
  • Tazkirah al-Khawaas, p. 31 by Sibt Ibn Jauzi

In another tradition from Al-Manaaqib by Khwarazmi it is narrated from Jabir Ibn Abdullah Ansari (may Allah have mercy upon him) who says that, “I was in the presence of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) when Ali (peace be upon him) joined us, and thereupon the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) said: ‘It is my brother who has come to you.’ Then, facing towards the Holy Kaabah, the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) caught hold of Imam Ali’s (peace be upon him) hand and said: ‘By Him, Who controls my life, this Ali and his Shias will attain salvation on the Day of Judgement.’

In Chapter 2 of the book Sawaaiq al-Muhriqah, Ibn Hajar al-Haythami quotes Haafiz Jamaluddin Muhammad Ibn Yusuf Zarandi Madani, a great Ahle Tasannun scholar, that when the above verse was revealed, Holy Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) said: “O Ali, you and your Shia are the best of created beings. You and your Shias will come on the Day of Judgement in such a condition that all of you will be pleased with Allah, and Allah will be pleased with you. Your enemies will be resentful, and their hands shall be tied round their necks.” Then Ali (peace be upon him) asked who was his enemy? The Holy Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) replied, “One who is hostile to you, and who reviles you.”

The well-known anti-Shia scholar, Ibn Hajar, in his famous book Sawaaiq al-Muhriqah narrates from Umm al-Momineen Umm Salma (peace be upon her), that the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) said twice: “O Ali, you and your Shias will abide in Paradise.”

In fact, even in the Holy Prophet’s (peace be upon him and his progeny) era, several noted companions were called Shias. Haafiz Abu Haatim Razi, in his Al-Zainat, which he compiled for clarifying the meanings of certain words and phrases current among scholars, says that the first new word that came into general acceptance in Islam in the days of the Prophet was ‘Shia’. The word was applied to four prominent companions: Abu Dharr al-Ghifaari, Salman al-Farsi, Miqdad Ibn Aswad al-Kindi, and Ammaar Yasir. Many more traditions were quoted in support of the same point.

Therefore, the allegation that Abdullah Ibn Sabaa was the founder of Shiaism and that the word Shia was his creation is completely baseless. In fact, the word ‘Shia’ was used by the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) himself.

Adapted from the famous book ‘Peshawar Nights’, the Second Session

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