Other spellings: Shia Islam, Shi’a Islam, Shii Islam
*) Calculated for the total population of North Africa and the Middle East, approx. 460,000,000.
The largest non-Sunni branch of Islam, the Shi`i, in their various forms represent some 10-15 percent of Muslims.
Shi’is must not be understood as a group with a united identity. Rather Shi’ism is a theoretical category, in which a large number of existing and lost orientations.
Unity between these groups, as well as agreement over theology, may be no more than with most Sunnis. The term Shi’ism is therefore more a method of systemizing history than identifying a religious group. Many Shi’i groups will not accept other Shi’is more than they do Sunnis, nor are their deducted theology related.
The term Shi’i refers to the partisans of the fourth Caliph, Ali, who was Muhammad‘s son in law through his daughter Fatima and the last Caliph to be elected, as well as the last to be drawn from the original nucleus of converts from the Mecca–Medina period.
The Shi’i, in their various forms, are significant minorities in Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Bahrain, the Gulf States, Pakistan, and India. They represent the overwhelming majority (88%) in Iran where Shi’i Islam has been the state religion since the 16th century CE. They are also in majority in Iraq, Yemen, and Bahrain.
Ali as Caliph
The seeds of schism were planted upon the deathbed of the Prophet Muhammad, when, according to Shi’i tradition, he indicated that Ali was to be the successor as the leader of Islam. But this didn’t happen as indicated in the traditions: and there were 24 years between his death and the day when Ali finally became Caliph.
Through these years a sizeable group of partisans had joined the charismatic Ali in his demand for the Caliphate. Ali’s election and rule turned out to be very tumultuous, and he didn’t stay in power long, he was murdered in his 5th year of reign (for more information see the article on Ali).
Following the assassination of Ali a short period of disorder came until the Caliphate was reorganized under the rule of Mu’awiya who established the Umayyad dynasty. Mu’awiya’s rule brought many innovations to Islam and the old partisans of Ali formed the nucleus of the opposition. Yet, Ali’s eldest son Hassan came to an accommodation with Mu’awiya, so there was still no division in Islam.
Husayn is killed, and Shi’i Islam is born
When Hassan died, Ali’s second son Husayn, became the leader of the opposition. Through his claim on the Caliphate, he made clear that there was a clear division between Ali’s followers and the Umayyad Caliphs.
When Mu’awiya died in 680 CE, Husayn left Medina in direction of Kufa, with the hope that he would be heard in his claim to the Caliphate. He never came to Kufa, but was trapped in the desert at Karbala by the soldiers of the new Caliph Yazid, son of Mu’awiya.
Without water and hopelessly outnumbered, Husayn and his followers fought a desperate battle, and he and many of his supporters were killed (for more information see Husayn). From this point on the Shi’i became alienated, and Shi’i Islam was born! In the following decades, they would be persecuted by Yazid and succeeding Caliphs.
As the main tenet of the Shi’i is the illegitimacy of the Caliphate after Ali, over the next few centuries the Shi’i cause drew many supporters from among the disaffected in the Caliphate, frequently among those not of Arab origin, who were considered second class citizens.
Of greater significance was the use of the Shi’i cause as a rallying point for the opposition, uprisings, and rebellions.
Aside from many failed rebellions, the Shi’i played critical roles in ending the Umayyad dynasty, and the Shi’i Buwayhid, a Persian dynasty, actually succeeded in controlling the Abbasid Caliphate for over 100 years.
More dramatically, the Nizari Cult of the Assassins, founded by Hassan Sabbah and centered at the mountain fortress of Alamut, terrorized both Christian and Muslim leaders during the Crusades and gave Europe the word assassin (the corruption of Hashish, which was used in their rituals).
Final success in Persia
However, the fortunes of the Shi’i were very precarious until their establishment as the state religion of the Safavid dynasty in Persia in the 16th century. From this point on the Twelver Shi’i received significant support, protection, and funding from the Persian state, and major theological centers were built up in Esfahan, Najaf, Qom, and Meshed.
It has been particularly since the 16th century that the Twelver Shi’i have become the dominant Shi’i sect and developed a very distinct character from the Sunni majority.
Here, the Twelver cause has taken on a strong identification with Iranian foreign policy and Twelver minorities in other countries have looked to Iran for support. And Iran has viewed Twelvers abroad as the country’s clients.
In the first few centuries of the Islamic era, any of Ali’s descendants (called Alids) were considered as acceptable candidates to be leaders of the Shi’i, but as time went on it became more important for the Shi’i leader to be descended from Ali through Husayn along a designated line.
Unlike the Sunni, the Shi’i normally use the term Imam to refer only to Ali and those descendants of his who led the Shi’i faction.
The most significant divide among the Shi’i today is among those recognizing 12 Imams known as Twelvers, and those recognizing 7, known as Seveners, or more commonly Isma’ilis, after Isma’il, their seventh Imam, and the Zaydis who differ after the fourth Imam, and who accept any Alid who is learned and who asserts his rule through force of arms.
A significant feature of Twelver Shi’i belief is their expectation of the return of the last Imam, called the Mahdi, to lead the faithful in establishing the Shi’i belief on Islam in preparation for the Judgement Day. This ideology has many similarities with the Messiah ideology of Judaism and Christianity.
Other features with roots in Judeo-Christian tradition are the focus on the trials of the martyrs (rawda kani) and exultation of martyrdom in general, the use of self-flagellation as part of religious ritual, and the commemoration of the 10 days ending in the events of Karbala (ta’ziya) which are the central event of the Shi’i calendar and bear significant similarities to the passion of Christ.
One interesting element in Shi’i Islam is the permission to dissimulate (taqiyya), that is to deny one’s faith in public in order to aviod social problems, while one maintains it in private.
Another element is the principle of temporary marriage (Arabic: mut¢a, Persian: sīgheh), in which a marriage contract can be entered for a set time, for any period of time between 1 day and 99 years. The woman entering the mut’a is paid a set amount of money. According to some Shi’i traditions, a man performing 4 mut’as is secured a place in Paradise. With the Iranian revolution, the system of mut’a was reinstalled as a part of the total Muslim practice.
Who has the right belief?
While the Sunni consider the Shi’is as innovators who introduce new and unorthodox elements into Islam, the Shi’is view themselves as the true fundamentalists of Islam by retaining the leadership of Muhammad’s household.
This dilemma can be understood in the context of the methods with which the early Muslims sought guidance in matters not explicitly covered in the Koran. The Shi’i relied upon the opinions of their Imams, who as descendants of Mohammad and Ali were viewed as having a closer connection to the divine.
The Sunni relied on traditions based in theological and juridical schools which involved drawing analogies from the Koran and Hadith, as well as from the consensus of theologians where analogies were not possible.
Practically all branches of Shi’i Islam agree that the 4 first imams, Ali, Hassan, Husayn, and Ali Zayn l’Abidin were correct leaders of Islam.
Among surviving orientations, the Zaydis of northern Yemen were the first to disagree and they consider Ali Zayn l-Abidin’s son Zayd to be the true 5th imam. Following the breach, they have a multitude of Imams at different times and different locations. The most significant line of imams was founded in Yemen in 893 CE and lasted until the 1960s.
The Isma’ilis and Twelvers both recognize Muhammad al Baqir and Jafar as Sadiq. After this, the Isma’ilis consider Jafar’s son Ismail as the truthful imam. The various Isma’ili traditions then recognize different lines of Imams which reach all the way up until modern time.
The Twelvers continue with Musa al Kazim, Ali ar Rida, Muhammad at Taqi, Ali al Hadi, Hassan al Askari and Muhammad al Mahdi, their last Imam whom they believe went into occultation. Hence, the last imam never died.
The Twelver Shi’i are also sometimes referred to as Rafidi, Jafari, Mutawahi, Kizilbash, Imami, Ithna Ashari, and al Khassa.
Some offshoots of Shi’i Islam include the Druze, Alawites, Alevis, Ahl-e Haqq and the Baha’i.