An insightful opinion on the origins of Shia Islam in Persia by Muhammad Asad born Leopold Weiss excerpted From the Book “The Road to Makkah”
When, in the middle of the seventh century, the armies of Caliph Umar conquered the ancient Sasanian Empire, bringing Islam with them, Iran's Zoroastrian cult had already long been reduced to rigid formalism and was thus unable to oppose effectively the dynamic new idea that had come from Arabia. But at the time when the Arab conquest burst upon it, Iran was passing through a period of social and intellectual ferment which seemed to promise a national regeneration.
This hope of an inner, organic revival was shattered by the Arab invasion; and the Iranians, abandoning their own historic line of development, henceforth accommodated themselves to the cultural and ethical concepts that had been brought in from outside.
The advent of Islam represented in Iran, as in so many other countries, a tremendous social advance; it destroyed the old Iranian caste system and brought into being a new community of free, equal people; it opened new channels for cultural energies that had long lain dormant and inarticulate: but with all this, the proud descendants of Darius and Xerxes could never forget that the historical continuity of their national life, the organic connection between their Yesterday and Today, had suddenly been broken. A people whose innermost character had found its expression in the baroque dualism of the Zand religion and its almost pantheistic worship of the four elements - air, water, fire and earth - was now faced with Islam's austere, uncompromising monotheism and its passion for the Absolute. The .transition was too sharp and painful to allow the Iranians to subordinate their deeply rooted national consciousness to the supranational concept of Islam. In spite of their speedy and apparently voluntary acceptance of the new religion, they subconsciously equated the victory of the Islamic idea with Iran's national defeat; and the feeling of having been defeated and irrevocably torn out of the context of their ancient cultural heritage - a feeling desperately intense for all its vagueness - was destined to corrode their national self-confidence for centuries to come. Unlike so many other nations to whom the acceptance of Islam gave almost immediately a most positive impulse to further cultural development, the Iranians first - and, in a way, most durable - reaction to it was one of deep humiliation and repressed resentment.
That resentment had to be repressed and smothered in the dark folds of the subconscious, for in the meantime Islam had become Iran's own faith. But in their hatred of the Arabian conquest, the Iranians instinctively resorted to what psychoanalysis describes as 'overcompensation': they began to regard the faith brought to them by their Arabian conquerors as something that was exclusively their own. They did it by subtly transforming the rational, unmystical God-consciousness of the Arabs into its very opposite: mystical fanaticism and sombre emotion. A faith which to the Arab was presence and reality and a source of composure and freedom, evolved, in the Iranian mind, into a dark longing for the supernatural and symbolic. The Islamic principle of God's ungraspable transcendence was transfigured into the mystical doctrine (for which there were many precedents in pre-Islamic Iran) of God's physical manifestation in especially chosen mortals who would transmit this divine essence to their descendants. To such a tendency, an espousal of the Shia doctrine offered a most welcome channel: for there could be no doubt that the Shiite veneration, almost deification, of Ali and his descendants concealed the germ of the idea of God's incarnation and continual reincarnation - an idea entirely alien to Islam but very close to the Iranian heart.
It had been no accident that the Prophet Muhammad died without having nominated a successor and, indeed, refused to nominate one when a suggestion to that effect was made shortly before his death. By his attitude he intended to convey, firstly, that the spiritual quality of Prophethood was not something that could be 'inherited*, and, secondly, that the future leadership of the community should be the outcome of free election.by the people themselves and not of an 'ordination* by the Prophet and thus he deliberately ruled out the idea that the community's leadership could ever be anything but secular or could be in the nature of an 'apostolic succession. But this was precisely what the Shia doctrine aimed at. It not only insisted -in clear contradiction to the spirit of Islam - on the principle of apostolic succession, but reserved that succession exclusively to 'the Prophet's seed, that is, to his cousin and son-in-law Ali and his lineal descendants.
This was entirely in tune with the mystical inclinations of the Iranians. But when they enthusiastically joined the camp of those who claimed that Muhammad's spiritual essence lived on in Ali and the latter's descendants, the Iranians did not merely satisfy a mystical desire: there was yet another, subconscious motivation for their choice. If Ali was the rightful heir and successor of the Prophet, the three Caliphs who preceded him must obviously have been usurpers - and among them had been Umar, that same Umar who had conquered Iran! The national hatred of the conqueror of the Sasanian Empire could now be rationalized in terms of religion-the religion that had become Iran's own: Umar had 'deprived' Ali and his sons Hasan and Husayn of their divinely ordained right of succession to the Caliphate of Islam and, thus, had opposed the will of God; consequently, in obedience to the will of God, Ali's party was to be supported. Out of a national antagonism, a religious doctrine was born.
In the Iranian enthronement of the Shia doctrine I discerned a mute protest against the Arabian conquest of Iran. Now I understood why the Iranians cursed Umar with a hatred far more bitter than that reserved for the other two 'usurpers', Abu Bakr and Uthman: from the doctrinal point of view, the first Caliph, Abu Bakr, should have been regarded as the principal transgressor - but it was Umar who had conquered Iran ...
This, then, was the reason for the strange intensity with which the House of Ali was venerated in Iran. Its cult represented a symbolic act of Iranian revenge on Arabian Islam (which stood so uncompromisingly against the deification of any human personality including that of Muhammad). True, the Shia doctrine had not originated in Iran; there were Shiite groups in other Muslim lands as well: but nowhere else had it achieved so complete a hold over the people's emotions and imagination. When the Iranians gave passionate vent to their mourning over the deaths of Ali, Hasan and Husayn, they wept not merely over the destruction of the House of Ali but also over themselves and the loss of their ancient glory...