One of the two main sectarian divisions within Islam, which also provides the historical and theological setting for the origins of the Bahá'í religion. Other spellings for this term include "Shiah," "Shiite", "Shi'ah," "Shi'i," and "Shi'ite," but in the system of transliteration used by Bahá'ís, the usual spelling is Shí'ih.
In Shí'ih doctrine, the Imám 'Alí, the adopted son of Muhammad and the husband of Muhammad's daughter Fatimih, is considered the legitimate successor to Muhammad. They believe that Muhammad verbally appointed 'Alí to lead the community of Islam. The word "shi'ih" means "faction," and this sect was originally referred to as the "Faction of Ali." In later usage, the last part of the phrase was dropped, although their reverence for Ali continues.
The Shi'ih account of Islamic history states that while Muhammad was on his deathbed, he called for pen and paper to be brought to him. They believe he intended to leave written instructions, in which Ali's rightful station of leadership would be established beyond doubt. Unfortunately, this command was not obeyed, and Muhammad died soon after.
In the absence of written instructions, the Muslims chose to elect a leader from among the prominent figures in their community. There was great respect for Ali in the Muslim community, but only a few had been present when Muhammad appointed him to lead them. Because of this, the first caliph selected was Abu Bakr. In order to preserve unity, Ali accepted this decision and did not pursue his own rightful claim.
After Abu Bakr, there were two other caliphs who both received support from Ali for the sake of unity. Ali was elected to be the fourth caliph. Shi'ih history refers to these first four caliphs as "rightly guided," because Ali participated in the institution during the tenure of all four, and the Muslim community remained united. The split between the Shi'ih and the Sunni sects began after Ali was murdered.
The Shí'ih believe that the true succession continued with other Imáms after 'Alí, beginning with his sons, first Hasan, and then Husayn. All of the Imáms after Husayn were descendants of Husayn, and thus descendants of Muhammad.
The Shí'ih are themselves divided into two main branches, the "Seveners" and the "Twelvers," depending on the total number of Imáms they believe were in the true line of succession after Muhammad. The branch which accepts twelve Imáms is currently dominant in Iran, and was also dominant in 19th-century Persia, the birthplace of the Bahá'í Faith. At that time, there was a good deal of messianic fervor among Shí'ih Muslims who anticipated the imminent return of the hidden Twelfth Imám.
Bahá'ís share the belief that the twelve Imáms were the intended successors of Muhammad. In addition, Bahá'ís believe that the Prophet-Herald of their religion, known by the title of the Báb, was the spiritual return of the hidden Twelfth Imám. However, the Bábí and Bahá'í interpretation of this "return" is symbolic, as opposed to the literal interpretation that is traditional among the Shí'ih.