Who Are the Shia and What Do They Say?

Lesson 2: The Fundamentals of Shia Thought

In the Name of God

Who Are the Shia and What Do They Say?

Based on the words of: Masoud Basiti

Collected By: Zahra Moradi

Translated By: Ali Mansouri


Over the course of "Who Are The Shia And What Do They Say?", we will examine the advent of Shi’ism, discuss the foundations of Shia belief, and present authentic Islam.


Lesson 2: The Fundamentals of Shia Thought


In the previous lesson we spoke about the lexical and colloquial meaning of the word ‘Shia’ and pointed out that, the founder of Shi’ism was the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) himself. He repeatedly invited the people to follow and befriend Ali ibn Abi Talib (AS), called the followers and helpers of Ali the ‘Shia of Ali’, and gave them tidings of heaven. According to Divine Command and based on the will of the Prophet, Ali ibn Abi Talib (AS) and 11 Imams from his progeny were introduced as the successors to the Prophet. The Muslims pledged allegiance to Ali (AS) as their Caliph and overseer after the Prophet during the Prophet’s lifetime. Despite this, the God and his Prophet’s instructions were not followed, and immediately after the Prophet left this world another person became the Caliph. This event gradually led to differences in doctrine and culture to arise between the Shia of Ali and other groups of Muslims.

Due to the Shia being under intense pressure by the Caliphs they were always in the minority and did not usually have the opportunity to spread their doctrines and belief. In the continuation of this series, we intend to state the fundamentals of Shia belief and thought so that people around the world can become aware of the teachings of Shi’ism.

The fundamentals of Shia thought: Aql and Ilm

The Shia school of thought is built upon the two foundations of ‘Aql’ and ‘Ilm’.[1] These two principles are the biggest difference between the Shia school of thought and other schools.

The definition and uniqueness of Aql in the Shia School:

The root of Aql means to bind and fasten. This is why the Arabs called the thing they used to bridle a camel an Iqal[2]. In essence, an Iqal is something that the owner of a camel uses to restrain it when necessary. But what does the Aql restrain and deter?

According to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), the Aql is a deterrent of people from ignorance. It is like a rope that restrains the ego so that it cannot harm oneself or others[3].

In the Shia school, the Aql is like a light beam that illuminates the dark twisted road of life, allowing a person to be able to distinguish the proper path from pitfalls along the way (truth from falsehood)[4]. In essence, the Aql is the tool that allows one to distinguish right from wrong. Someone that follows the Aql uses it to make right choices.

Based on this description, that which the Shia call the Aql is different from intelligence, thought, reason, induction, knowledge or expertise. A person may be quite intelligent but use their intelligence to commit horrendous crimes. This is while the Aql is not a tool that can be used in the way for falsehood. The Aql says righteousness is good, oppression is bad, kindness is good, betrayal is bad, and so on. In contrast, intelligence, thought, and reason are tools that can be used for planning, analysis, making conclusions from data, and solving problems, but not to distinguish the morality of actions.

The importance of the Aql is to such a level that it has been introduced as the means through which God Almighty is worshipped[5]. In the Shia school, an act of worship is valuable if it comes from Aql, and good deeds and sins, Heaven and Hell, and the satisfaction and dissatisfaction of God are all dependent on the degree to which person follows the Aql[6].

Accepting the pillars of faith becomes valuable and justified through the light of the Aql[7]. Note that this is very different from following religion out of blind faith or merely out of habit. The acknowledgement of the Oneness of God is possible by referring to the Aql[8]. Similarly, the recognition and confirmation of the truth of the Prophets of God is possible through the Aql. Understanding proper ethics, the advantages and disadvantages of actions, the necessity of correct behavior, and staying away from undesirable dispositions are all possible through the blessings of the Aql.

In essence, the Aql is a proof and guide from God[9]. Whenever a person listens to the Aql and acts in a way in accordance to it, they are listening to the words of God and worshipping him.


The definition and uniqueness of Ilm in the Shia School:

Ilm (knowledge) and science are considered valuable for almost all people and used in order to reach success and perfection. In the Shia thought, people’s value is related to the level of their Ilm, knowledge, and the application of it in their day to day lives[10]. For this reason, in the Shia school, the pursuit of true Ilm is obligatory and necessary for every Muslim man and woman[11].

However, the meaning of Ilm in this school is different from that which comes in other schools of thought. In the view of Shi’ism, a person that has studied more than others is not necessarily a more knowledgeable, a better person, or closer to God. Rather the Shia school distinguishes between true Ilm and ordinary human sciences.

In Shia teachings, if knowing or not knowing a piece of knowledge has no bearing on one’s welfare and does not necessarily make them a better person, that piece of knowledge is not considered Ilm. Instead such a piece of knowledge would be called Fazl.

Fazl means knowledge that is extra[12]. Such knowledge is not necessary, though it could potentially have some applications in limited parts of life. However, it will not make someone a better person. Who can claim that someone that has studied more physics or chemistry is necessarily more honest or has a higher rank with God?

‘True Ilm’, which we have been instructed to seek, has a direct effect on our salvation. Whichever person gains more of it will have a higher rank with God.

This Ilm is made of light and is found in the heart of the Ilm seeker[13]. This description is not simply a metaphor to visible light (like that of the sun). Ilm is literally light. A light that is the source of life for the human soul and heart[14].

The Shia believe the owner of this light and distributor of it is God Almighty. Thus, whoever seeks Ilm must, in the first step, ask for it from the possessor of light[15].

The next step is that a seeker makes their soul, which is the place where the light of Ilm will be stored, ready to accept this valuable blessing. This means they must stay away from what makes their soul impure and corrupted, such as oppression, lying, jealously, ungratefulness, prejudice, betrayal, and whatever else the Aql determines to be indecent[16].

In the next stage, the seeker of Ilm must expose themselves to the radiance of the light of Ilm. This means they must associate with Alim’s (those who have been blessed with Ilm) and pay attention to their advice and warnings.

After an individual follows these points and receives Ilm from God Almighty, they must act upon whatever Ilm has been given to them, so that God blesses them with even more Ilm and recognition. However, if they fail to act upon the Ilm that they have been given, they will not receive more, and will have the light of the Ilm that they had previously been given taken away[17].

The true nature of Ilm is not something that can be described, but rather must be actively experienced. This active experience is known as Vejdan. Something that is felt through Vejdan cannot be fully and satisfactorily explained in words. For example, a phenomenon such as ‘thirst’ cannot be fully expressed in words. Even if we describe ‘thirst’ as the feeling of needing water or the dryness of the mouth and tongue, it will not be an exact definition. The previous descriptions only refer to the effects of thirst. Only a person that has actually felt thirsty can fully understand, or have Vejdan of its true meaning. The highest level of ma’rifat (recognition) of thirst is when a person is actively experiencing, or having Vejdan of thirst. And this person cannot truly explain the sensation of thirst so someone else who has not experienced it.

What makes describing Ilm difficult is this same concept. Ilm has certain known effects on a person, but the essence of Ilm cannot be described to someone until they have Vejdan of it.

Among the effects of true Ilm is that a person that has gained it will have a feeling of humility towards the Creator. Imam Ali (AS) states,

“If you want to know whether or not you possess Ilm, it is enough that you see whether or not you have humility towards God. And if you want to know whether or not you are ignorant, see whether or not you have pride towards your knowledge[18]”.

Therefore, if someone claims to possess Ilm, but is disobedient toward the truth, or has arrogance about what they have learned, know that they have not gained true Ilm.

In the Shia school, another sign of having true Ilm is good behavior with the people and delivering goodness to others[19]. Another meaning is Hilm[20], which means restraining that ego against the passions of anger[21]. If the light of Ilm has shined about a person’s soul, that person will be able to restrain their ego during times of high pressure and anger, and refrain from violence or any other irrational behavior. In the next lesson, there will be further explanations about this topic when discussing knowing oneself and knowing God.

At the end, it will be reiterated that Aql and Ilm, with the given definitions, are the main foundations of Shia thought. A Shia is someone whose collection of words, actions, and intentions are based upon Aql and Ilm.

In future lessons, we will talk about the main principles of Shia belief.


Main Points of Lesson 2:

-    The key foundations Shia thought are based on the two foundations of Aql and Ilm.

-    According to the definition of Aql in the Shia school:

o    Aql is different from intelligence, thought, reason, logic, and similar concepts.

o    Aql is a valuable blessing from God that restrains the ego like a rope so that ignorant behaviors do not come from it.

o    Aql is light. With its illumination, it specifies the path from pitfalls for its owner (it is the tool of determining what is right from what is wrong).

o    Aql is the tool through which God is worshipped.

o    An act of worship has value that originates from the Aql.

o    The acceptance of the main pillars of faith gains its value and validity through the light of the Aql.

o    The recognition and confirmation of truth of the Prophets of God are possible through the Aql.

o    When a person listens to the Aql, they are listening to the words of God and worshiping him.

-    According to the definition of Ilm in the Shia school:

o    Not every science is called Ilm.

o    Ilm must be asked for from its owner and possessor (God Almighty).

o    By staying away from whatever the Aql has determined to be indecent, the soul can be made ready to accept the light of Ilm.

o    In order to gain Ilm, the advice and warnings of Alim’s must be followed.

o    If one acts upon the Ilm that was granted to us, God will grace us with even more Ilm. Otherwise, the light of the Ilm that was given to us will leave our souls.

o    Ilm is something that must be felt and experienced and cannot be easily described.

o    Ilm has certain effects and signs. If someone does not show these, they do not possess it.

o    Some of the effects of Ilm include humbleness towards the truth, good behavior towards the people, delivering goodness towards others, and possessing Hilm.

o    True Ilm will result in a person’s understanding, recognition (of the truth), and guidance.

o    The value of each person is based on the amount of Ilm they possess and how much they put it to action in their own lives.


[1]Translator’s Note: The word Aql is usually translated to reason, intellect, or the mind. The word Ilm is usually translated to knowledge or science.However, as explained by this lesson, the exact meaning of these terms in Shia thought is more nuanced than this. Thus, I have kept these words in their Arabic transliterated form.

[2]The root of Aql means to bind and fasten. For example, the phrase,

"عَقِلَ البعیر بالعِقَال"

Means, “Binding a camel with a bridle”. Mufradat Alfadh al-Quran (by Raghib), Page 578.


"اِنَّ العقلَ عِقالٌ مِنَ الجَهلِ وَ النَّفسُ مِثلُ اَخبَثِ الدَّوّابِ، فَاِنْ لَم تُعقَل حارَت"

meaning, “The Aql is a deterrent from ignorance, and the ego is like the most evil beast that will go astray if it is not restrained”. Bihar al-Anwar, Volume 1, Page 117.

[4]The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) stated,

"العقلُ نورٌ فِى القلبِ یفَرِّقُ بِهِ بَینَ الحقِّ وَ الباطِل"

meaning, “The Aql is a light in the heart (soul), through which falsehood is differentiated from truth”. Irshad al-Qulub, Volume 1, Page 198.

[5]Imam Ja’far Sadiq (AS), the sixth successor to the ProphetMuhammad (PBUH), stated,

"مَا عُبِدَ بِهِ الرّحْمَنُ وَ اكْتُسِبَ بِهِ الْجِنَانُ"

meaning, “The Aql is that through which God is worshipped and Heaven is attained”. Kafi, Volume 1, Page 11.

Imam Ali (AS) also stated,

"مَا عُبِدَ الله بشی‌ء اَفضَلَ مِنَ العَقلِ"

meaning, “God has not been worshipped by anything greater than the Aql”. Kafi, Volume 1, Page 17.

[6]Imam Sadiq (AS), the sixth successor to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), stated,

"اِنَّ الثَوابَ عَلَی قَدرِ العقلِ"

meaning, “Verily thawab (the reward for good deeds) is [given] as much as the Aql [of a person]”. Wasa'il ash-Shiʿa, Volume 1, Page 40.

Imam Baqir (AS), the fifth successor to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), stated,

"إِنَّمَا يُدَاقُّ اللَّهُ الْعِبَادَ فِي الْحِسَابِ- يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ عَلَى قَدْرِ مَا آتَاهُمْ مِنَ الْعُقُولِ فِي الدُّنْيَا"

meaning, “God will carefully account for the deeds of his servants on the Day of Judgement according to the amount of Aql he gave them in the world. Kafi, Volume 1, Page 11.

He also states,

"أَوْحَى اللَّهُ إِلَى مُوسَى ع- أَنَا أُؤَاخِذُ عِبَادِي عَلَى قَدْرِ مَا أَعْطَيْتُهُمْ مِنَ الْعَقْل"

meaning, “God will hold his servants accountable according to the amount of Aql that he bestowed upon them”. Wasa'il ash-Shi’a, Volume 1, Page 41.

[7]The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) stated,

"لادینَ لِمَن لاعَقلَ لَهُ"

meaning, “Whoever does not have Aql, does not have religion”. Mustadrak al-Wasa’il, Volume 11, Page 208.

[8]Imam Ridha (AS), the eighth successor to the Prophet, stated,

"بِالْعُقُولِ يُعْتَقَدُ التَّصْدِيقُ بِاللَّهِ"

meaning, “Through the means of the Aql, the acknowledgement of God becomes belief”. Bihar al-Anwar, Volume 4, Page 230.

[9]Imam Kazem (AS), the seventh successor to the Prophet, stated,

"إِنَ‏ لِلَّهِ‏ عَلَى‏ النَّاسِ‏ حُجَّتَيْنِ‏ حُجَّةً ظَاهِرَةً وَ حُجَّةً بَاطِنَةً فَأَمَّا الظَّاهِرَةُ فَالرُّسُلُ وَ الْأَنْبِيَاءُ وَ الْأَئِمَّةُ ع وَ أَمَّا الْبَاطِنَةُ فَالْعُقُول"

meaning, “God has two proofs upon the people: The first is the outer and the other is the inner. The outer proof are the Messengers, Prophets, and Imams (AS) and the inner proof is the Aql”. Bihar al-Anwar, Volume 1, Page 137.

[10]God almighty states,

"هَلْ یَسْتَوِى الَّذِینَ یَعْلَمُونَ وَ الَّذِینَ لَا یَعْلَمُونَ إِنَّمَا یَتَذَكَّرُ أُوْلُواْ الْأَلْبَاب"

meaning, “Are those who have Ilm (knowledge) equal to those that do not have Ilm?” The Holy Quran, Surah az-Zumar (39:9).

The Prophet of Islam stated,

"الْعَالِمُ بَيْنَ الْجُهَّالِ كَالْحَيِّ بَيْنَ الْأَمْوَاتِ ... فَاطْلُبُوا الْعِلْمَ فَإِنَّهُ السَّبَبُ بَيْنَكُمْ وَ بَيْنَ اللَّهِ عَزَّ وَ جَلَّ وَ إِنَّ طَلَبَ الْعِلْمِ فَرِيضَةٌ عَلَى كُلِّ مُسْلِم"

meaning, “Someone that has Ilm among the ignorant is like a living person among the dead . . . so go after Ilm, for it will be an intermediary between you and God Almighty. Surely the pursuit of Ilm is incumbent upon every Muslim”. Bihar al-Anwar, Volume 1, Page 172.


[12]“One day the Prophet entered a Mosque and saw a group of people that were gathered around a man. He asked, ‘Who is he?’. They responded, ‘An Allamah [someone that possesses lots of Ilm]’. The Prophet asked, ‘Why do you call him an Allamah?’ The people responded, ‘He is the most knowledgeable of the people about the genealogy of the Arabs, the events that happened among the Arabs, and the most knowledgeable about what happened in the Days of Ignorance [the era before Islam] and Arabic poetry’. The Prophet stated, ‘If one lacks this knowledge, they will not see any harm, and if one obtains this knowledge, it will not bring them any benefit”. Kafi, Volume 1, Page 32.

[13]Imam Sadiq (AS), the sixth successor to the Prophet, stated,

"لَيْسَ‏ الْعِلْمُ‏ بِالتَّعَلُّمِ‏ إِنَّمَا هُوَ نُورٌ يَقَعُ فِي قَلْبِ مَنْ يُرِيدُ اللَّهُ تَبَارَكَ وَ تَعَالَى أَنْ يَهْدِيَهُ فَإِنْ أَرَدْتَ الْعِلْمَ فَاطْلُبْ أَوَّلًا مِنْ نَفْسِكَ حَقِيقَةَ الْعُبُودِيَّةِ وَ اطْلُبِ الْعِلْمَ بِاسْتِعْمَالِهِ وَ اسْتَفْهِمِ اللَّهَ يُفَهِّمْك"

meaning, “Ilm cannot be learned. Ilm is a light that God Almighty will place in the heart of whomever he wishes to guide. So, if you want Ilm, in the first stage you must seek the truth of worshipping in yourself. And by the means of acting upon Ilm, seek Ilm. And ask God for it until God answers you and makes you understand”. Bihar al-Anwar, Volume 1, Page 225.

[14]Imam Ali (AS) stated,

"ان الْعِلْمَ حَیَاةُ الْقُلُوبِ وَ نُورُ الْأَبْصَارِ مِنَ الْعَمَى ..."

meaning, “Verily Ilm is the life of the hearts and the light of the eyes, which takes it out of blindness to illumination”. Bihar al-Anwar, Volume 1, Page 166.

[15]Refer to Footnote 13.

[16]God Almighty states in the Holy Quran that if a person has Taqwa (meaning if they stay away from whatever the Aql has determined to be indecent), they will be given Ilm.

"وَ اتَّقُوا اللَّهَ وَ يُعَلِّمُكُمُ‏ اللَّهُ"

meaning, “Observe Taqwa of God, and God will give you Ilm”. The Holy Quran, Surah al-Baqarah (2:282).

The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) also emphasized this point by explaining that one of the pieces of advice of the Khizr (AS) to Prophet Moses (AS) was,

"وأَشْعِرْ قَلْبَكَ التَّقْوَى تَنَلِ الْعِلْمَ"

meaning, “Place Taqwa in your heart so that you will attain Ilm”. Bihar al-Anwar, Volume 1, Page 227. Also refer to Footnote 13.

[17]The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) stated,

"من عَمِلَ بِمَا عَلِمَ وَرَّثَهُ اللَّهُ عِلْمَ مَا لَمْ یَعْلَم‏"

meaning, “Whoever acts upon whatever Ilm they have been given, God will make them the inheritors of an Ilm that they do not know”. al-Khara’ij wa al-Jara’ih, Volume 3, Page 1058.

And he also stated,

"إِنَّ الْعِلْمَ يَهْتِفُ بِالْعَمَلِ فَإِنْ أَجَابَهُ وَ إِلَّا ارْتَحَلَ عَنْه"

meaning, “Ilm shouts out for action. If [action] answers it, then it will stay, otherwise it will travel away”. Bihar al-Anwar, Volume 2, Page 33.


"حَسْبُكَ مِنَ الْعِلْمِ أَنْ تَخْشَى اللَّهَ وَ حَسْبُكَ مِنَ الْجَهْلِ أَنْ تُعْجَبَ بِعِلْمِك"

Bihar al-Anwar, Volume 2, Page 48.

[19]Imam Ali (AS), stated,

"رَأْسُ الْعِلْمِ الرِّفْق"

meaning, “The head of Ilm is Rifq”. Ghurar al-Hikam wa Durar al-Kalim, Page 376, Hadith 3. The Abjadi Dictionary defines Rifq as kindness and delivering goodness to others. The Arabic-Farsi Abjadi Dictionary, Entry for Rifq.

[20]Imam Ali (AS) stated,

"رَأْسُ الْعِلْمِ الْحِلْم"

Ghurar al-Hikam wa Durar al-Kalim, Page 286, Hadith 6427.

[21]Mufradat Alfadh al-Quran (by Raghib), Page 253 (Entry for Hilm).


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