Posted in Islam & Interfaith Subjects

A Quick Introduction To Zaidism

As a liberal Muslim heavily influenced by the Shia side of the schism, I thought it would be worthy to include some information about a branch within Shia Islam called Zaidism. There isn’t much info about them out there and all their blogs seem to have become inactive and many are hard to find. Throughout these next few weeks I’m going to post up a couple of things I’ve found about these folks in hope of reviving the movement a little bit. This post is a repost from one found a blog called Zaydiya on Blogspot.

So is it some strange cult in Islam? Do they believe in a completely different Quran? Are they even considered Muslim?

Much mystery shrouds Zaidiya, and in some ways its understandable since it is one of the smallest schools of thoughts in the present Muslim world, with followers in Yemen, the Indian Subcontinent and some areas of North Africa. There may only be a few million of Zaidis, but at one point in time in early Islamic history it was one of the predominate schools with Zaidi states established in at several geographies (including Morroco Idrissid, Yemen, Iran, Hijaz). There is a ocean of Zaidi scholarship, most still in the form of manuscripts, across all sciences of Islam including fiqh (jurisprudence), theology, philosophy, spirituality, Quranic Tafsir (exegesis), hadith compilations (one of the first hadith collections was the Musnad of Imam Zaid). So far from being an obscure blip in Islamic history, Zaidiya scholars, followers and leaders have had a major impact on the history and thought of the Muslim world.

We should mention that there are many with the last name is Zaidi who generally are descendents of Imam Zaid Bin Ali Zain Al Abideen. It’s interesting to note that most of them in this day and age actually Jaafari (12ver shia).

Are Zaidis Muslim?

We will go into more detail in to the madhab/mazhab (school of thought), but at this point we thought it might be helpful to provide a very quick overview of what Zaidiya believe, especially in relation to Sunni and Jaafari (12vr Shia, the predominate Shia school of thought).

Let us being by stating clearly that Zaidiya are Muslim and share the same core beliefs that all Muslims profess. They believe in:

  • Absolute Oneness of Allah (God)
  • Allah sent Messengers and Prophets to humanity to guide them
  • Some Messengers were given scripture (Moses, David, Jesus, Muhammad)
  • Allah created humans, angels and jinn
  • After death, humanity will be resurrected for a final day of judgment which Allah will preside over
  • Heaven and hell are realities in the next life
  • The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was the last and final messenger, with no exceptions and no human reaches his noble rank
  • The Quran has been preserved since the Prophet’s time, and nothing has been added, deleted or changed in it since the Prophets time.

Of course more can be added, but the point is that Zaidiya are Muslims, in what makes a person a Muslim there are no differences. The shahada (testimony of faith) is the same.

Why the Name?

Zaidis get their name from Imam Zaid bin Ali Zayn Al Abideen bin Imam Hussain Al-Shaheed bin Ameer al Mumineen Imam Ali bin Abu Talib. Imam Zaid (80 AH – 122 AH) was a luminary scholar, and contemporaries such as Abu Hanifa (r) studied under him. We will get into more details of his life, and death, at another time. Suffice to say that Zaidis view Imam Zaid as one of the Imams of his time, but he was not the last, nor the first, nor was he infallible. He was a righteous scholar, and a mujahid who died fighting the oppressive khalifa of his time. Much can be learned from this inspiring figure and we look forward to doing so.

Zaidiya vs. Sunni

Zaidiya are considered shia, which is a loaded term with many meanings for different people, each with a unique definition. For this brief post, we’ll limit the definition to mean “those that confirm the importance of following the Ahl Bayt” (household of the Prophet, defined by Zaidis to be Muhammad, Ali, Fatimah, Hasan, Hussain and their righteous descendants). We will spend more time discussing why, and the historical context of this in forthcoming posts. Here are some reasons that Zaidiya are considered Shia, and then we will discuss what makes them unique among Shias.

  • The sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him) is to be followed, and after the Quran is the major source that informs legal rulings and theological understanding. Though this is not a difference, it is worth mentioning since many people assume Shia’s do not follow the sunnah.
  • The early Ahl Bayt, based upon many hadiths that occur even in Sunni sources, are also an important source of knowledge and wisdom. Of course some Sunnis also affirm this, though the reality is that the Ahl Bayt takes a much less prominent role among most Sunnis.
  • The Zaidiya believe that Muhammad (peace be upon him) did choose Imam Ali to be his successor. There is much interesting historical context around this issue which we hope to address.
  • The Zaidiya do not believe everyone who saw the Prophet (peace be upon him) was a companion. There are varying definitions of what a companion is, and among most Sunnis, the belief is that anyone who saw him is considered a companion. Zaidiya believe anyone who saw the Prophet, followed him and died believing and following him is given the high rank of a companion of the best of creation. This is important for the next point
  • The Zaidiya do not believe all companions were infallible. No doubt they were the first generation of Muslims and all Muslims are indebted to them for their sacrifice and establishment of the Muslim community, however they are not infallible and did make mistakes, and in some cases major errors. This differs with Sunnis, since when you combine this belief and (iii), by definition, anyone who saw the Prophet is a companion, and all companions were infallible, or at least above any scrutiny and reproach. This issue becomes very critical when looking at Islamic History.
  • Zaidiya believe Muslims can revolt against an unjust ruler, even if he is Muslim. Most Sunnis do not accept this, in fact it is written in the Aqidah Tahawiya as being not allowed. However it should be noted that some Hanafis in particular are closer with the Zaidi position on this (and as we will see, Imam Abu Hanifa in particular was very close to Imam Zaid). Again this is extremely important when looking at the historical context of how these different approaches to Islam developed.
  • There are aqidah (belief) differences as well, which we will get into in future posts.

Zaidiya vs. Other Shia

So Zaidiya are Shia, but how do they differ from other Shia? For our purposes here, we will limit it to Itha ‘Ashariya, also known as 12vr or Jaafari madhab. Both believe Imam Ali (a) was the rightful successor of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and the importance of following the Ahl Bayt, but they also have some major differences.

  • Zaidiya and Jaafaria diverge in their concept of Imam, or Immamate:
    • Infallibility: For Zaidiya, an Imam is not infallible, but is basically the same figure as the Sunni Khalifa. The Imam should be a righteous, knowledgeable, wise leader of the Muslims, but he is not infallible, and in fact the Imam could end up being replaced if they are unjust. Jaafari on the other hand consider all the Imams as infallible.
    • Number: The Jaafari limit the number of Imams to 12. For Zaidiya there is no limit, again the concept is basically the same as a Sunni Khalifa. In fact Zaidiya believe there can be two Imams in different geographies at the same time in history (and this did indeed happen).
    • Lineage: All of the Jaafari Imams after Hussain came from Imam Hussain (a) descendants. Zaidiya believe the Imam/Khalifa can be descendant of either Hasan or Hussain. It should be noted here that it has historically been ‘Ijma among Sunnis that the Khalifa must be a descendant of the Quraish (read ahkam sultani for this reference).
    • Mahdi: Jaafari believe the 12th and final Imam, Muhammad ibn Al-Hassan, at the age of five went into occultation and is the promised Mahdi to return towards the end of time. While Zaidiya believe in Imam Mahdi (as do Sunnis), they do not belive the 12th Imam is the Mahdi.
  • Fiqh:
    • Muta: Temporary marriage, Jaafari consider this halal while Zaidis do not
    • Matem: This is the self flagellation during Ashura commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (a), one of the most tragic events of human history. Zaidis do believe in the importance of teaching people the realities of what happened that day, and keeping Imam Hussain’s (a) legacy alive, however they do not consider it allowed to beat ones self to do so.
    • Cursing Sahaba: Zaydis do not consider all sahaba’s as deviant, nor do they curse them, this includes Abu Bakr and Umar. Though they do consider Imam Ali (a) as the rightful first khalif/imam. How do they square this? Well, there is diff of opinion, but basically even the Nahj Al Balagha Imam Ali states that it was a mistake they made, but did not put them out of Islam (of course even Umar admitted in a sahih narration that the way Abu Bakr was elected was a ‘falta’, a disaster, and if someone gets elected like that again they should be killed).

These are just some very high level understanding of the Zaidiya madhab. As we move forward we will introduce more details on this and look forward to any feedback you may have. If you love the Ahl Bayt, and believe they should be followed, you will find much in the Zaidiya that you find compelling. If you do not even understand why the Ahl Bayt needs to be followed, we will be covering the reason why. God Willing.

(July 13th, 2012)





Liberal Muslim, social justice and human rights activist, cat lover, author and fellow human.

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