Shi’ism has passed through two completely distinct and separate periods. One period begins with the first Islamic century and ends with the beginning of the Safavid dynasty. During this period Shi'ism was an expression of Islam as ’’movement” as opposed to the Islam of the ruling institution, i.e., the caliphate; it was the period of vitality and movement. The other period began with the Safavids and continues until today; it is the period in which Shi'ism as a movement has been transformed into Shi'ism as an institution.
The early Shi'a were a minority, ruled by others and lacking all power. They were not able to go freely to Karbala, they were not able to mention the name of [Imam] Husayn, and they were not able even to perform their religious rituals in front of others. They were always persecuted, always being tortured or in prison, or hiding in taqiya. Then [under the Safavids] those selfsame Shi'a were transformed into a great power ruling a country where they enjoyed the maximum protection of the powers-that-be. The same pole that used to oppress the Shi'a and would arrest, torture and kill people for the crime of loving [Imam] ‘Ali, now begins to call itself "a dog at the threshold of [Imam] Reza." What a great triumph!
The same ruler who for nine hundred years had been persecuting the Shi'a now hangs his boots around his neck and makes a pilgrimage on foot from Isfahan to Mashhad! Yes, on foot! What a great triumph! The same ruler who for ten centuries regularly prevented people from visiting the graves of the Imams, who cut off the water supplies to the shrines and destroyed them, now covers the domes over those tombs with gold, provides those tombs with silver railings, and decorates the minarets with faience tiles! What a great triumph!
The pilgrimage that the ardent Shi'i would undertake to Mashhad or Karbala, enduring manifold dangers and difficulties at the hands of the government, is now proclaimed by that same government to be an official religious pilgrimage, similar or even equivalent to the Hajj! The government gave the pilgrim returning from Mashhad or Karbala the title of "Mashhadi" or "Karbala'i," just as the pilgrim returning from Mecca is known as Hajji! What a great triumph!
Those same Shi'i scholars and clerics who were always in the front ranks of the struggle against various governments, who were constantly the targets on which the arrows of the ruling institution rained down, now begin living under the most splendid and luxurious of circumstances! They sit next to the ruler and are consulted by him on matters of state! In fact, the ruler considers his power to have been bestowed on him by the Shi'i scholars who are the deputies of the [Twelfth] Imam and the legitimate rulers [hakimi shar']! They have assigned rulership to him by virtue of their deputyship! What a great triumph!
It is precisely when Shi'ism begins to achieve all these triumphs that it is defeated. Once all the obstacles to the performance of its religious rituals, all the barriers to the expression of its sentiments, are removed; once the factors that used to oppress it begin to encourage it and conform to it - then Shi'ism stops advancing, and it is transformed into a social institution, a ruling power! This is how the law for the transformation of a movement into an institution operates. A fervent belief which once agitated for dynamic, revolutionary change in all dimensions of society is transformed into an institution! It becomes one of the fixed, official bases of society; it merges with and adjusts itself to the other bases of society; it becomes one institution among others, like the state, the family, or language, or [worse still], like insurance, a bank, a pension, a savings account, a lottery ticket!