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The term Shi'a is Arabic for 'group' or 'faction'. It is applied to those who believe that, after the death of the Prophet, the Imamate (the political and religious leadership of the Muslim community) should have gone to 'Ali - the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet - and his descendants as a divine right. The three caliphs who preceded 'Ali - Abu Bakr, 'Umar, and 'Uthman - were not intended by Muhammad to be his immediate successors.

The Imam is regarded by Shi'ites not merely as a political leader but as a metaphysical being, one who is without sin, whose doctrinal pronouncements are infallible and who bestows true knowledge on humanity. The Imams are referred to within the Shi'ite tradition as masum - free from error or sin - and are regarded by the majority of Shi'as as twelve in number. The last Imam, the Mahdi, is believed not to have died but to be in hiding and will appear at the end of time in order to bring about the victory of the Shi'a faith.

Unlike the Sunnis, who perform prayers five times a day, the Shi'ites pray three times a day: in the morning, in the afternoon, and at night. Like other Muslims, they perform ritual ablutions before prayer. However, they customarily place a tiny tablet of clay brought from a holy place on the spot where their forehead will touch the ground. They also build very sumptuous monuments to their saints, organize pilgrimages to the tombs of the Imams and their descendants, and turn death and martyrdom into the focal point of their devotion. In the sphere of law the principal difference between Shi'a and Sunni is that Shi'a allows for temporary marriage, called mu'tah, which can legally be contracted for a fixed period of time on the provision of a fixed dower. With regard to theology, the Shi'a, particularly the Zaydis and Imamis, differ from the Sunnis in adopting the principles of the Mu'tazilite school of theology. A controversial aspect of Shi'a theology is called taqiya, which means dissimulation of one's real beliefs. This doctrine allows believers to hide their true beliefs for the sake of their own self-protection in the face of persecution.

The movement that came to be known as Shi'a first appeared as a political tendency resulting from the conflict between the supporters of the Prophet's son in law, 'Ali, and the Umayyad dynasty over who should have authority over the Muslim community. Following the assassination of 'Ali, his supporters claimed that leadership should go to 'Ali's descendants. The conflict was exacerbated by the assassination in 671 of Ali's son, Husain, at the hands of government troops, an event which gave the movement a distinctively religious, as well as political, impulse.

According to mainstream Shi'a (The Twelver Shi'is) there have been twelve Imams who have succeeded the Prophet Muhammad. These are: 1) Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad (d.661); 2) al-Hasan (d.670); 3) al-Husayn (d.680); 4) Ali Zayn al-'Abidin (d.713); 5) Muhammad al-Baqir (d.733); 6) Ja'far al-Sadiq (d.765); 7) Musa al-Kazim (d.799); 8) 'Ali al-Rida (d.818); 9) Muhammad al-Jawad (d.835); 10) 'ali al-Hadi (d.868); 11) al-Hasan al-'Askari (d.874); 12) Muhammad al-Mahdi.

The early history of the Shi'ite branch of Islam is characterised by a series of unsuccessful insurrections against the dominant Sunnis and the subsequent persecution of the Shi'is by the Sunnis. However, in the 10th century the Shi'is acquired a substantial measure of self-determination as a result of the establishment of various independent Shi'i dynasties which came to control much of the Muslim world. In Iraq and Iran a dynasty called the Buyids held sway. Syria was controlled by the Shi'i Hamdanid dynasty. Egypt and much of North Africa was under the control or influence of the Isma'ili Fatimid dynasty.
In the 11th century, however, these dynasties were swept away by Turkish tribes who were invading the region from Central Asia and who came to adopt Sunni, rather than, Shi'i Islam. These were followed by invasions by the Mongols in the 13th and 14th centuries, the first of which was particularly devastating for both Sunni and Shi'i Muslims.

Shi'i independence was once again reestablished with the emergence of the Safavid dynasty in Iran at the beginning of the 16th century. The establishment of the Safavids exacerbated tensions between the Sunni and Shi'i areas of the Islamic world. The rise of the Ottoman empire to the west led to a long series of struggles between the two empires for control of Iraq. It was, however, internal weaknesses followed by the invasion of Iran by the Safavids' Afghani subjects that led to the fall of the Safavid dynasty in 1722.

After a brief attempt to reimpose Sunni Islam on Iran by its new Shah, Nadir Khan (r.1736-47), and a period of anarchy and factional fighting following Nadir Khan's assassination in 1747, the country came under the authority of Karim Khan (r.1750-79) whose wise rule brought temporary stability and prosperity to the region. Following the death of Karim Khan in 1779 the country was led by a series of weak leaders until a new dynasty, the Qajars, established themselves and ruled Iran until 1909. The reign of the Qajars coincided with the beginnings of the attempt to modernise Iran in the context of the growing impact of the European presence in Iran.
The attempt to modernise and westernise Iran was taken further by the final ruling dynasty the Pahlavis (1925-1979). Following the ascendancy of the Pahlavis a series of laws were passed which were designed to erode the power of Islamic law in favour of a form of secularised civil law. In 1928 a law was passed making it illegal to wear traditional dress. In the 1931 the power of the religious courts was reduced. In 1936 the use of the veil was forbidden. Between 1941 and 1953 the Shah was forced to abdicate because of his support for the National Socialists during the second world war. On his return he continued the process of secularisation and westernisation.

Growing opposition to the Shah's westernising policies on the part of the clergy and their supporters, accompanied by increased political corruption and oppression within Iran, led to the downfall of the Shah in 1979 and its replacement with an Islamic republic under the rule of Ayatullah Khomeini. The regime immediately introduced the Shi'i version of the shari'ah, thereby undoing the modernising reforms that had been introduced by the Pahlavis and their predecessors. Although Ayatullah Khomeini died in 1989, the Islamic revolution which he founded continues to dominate the political and religious life of Iran.

Shi'a Islam (also called Shiite, or Shi'i) is the second largest division of Islam, constituting about 10-15% of all Muslims. The Sunni Muslims recognise the Four Caliphs as ‘rightly guided’, while Shi’a Muslims recognise Ali as the First Caliph and his descendants. Shi’as differ on how many Imams there have been. Some talk of Twelve and others of Fourteen. They also differ on who is the last Imam (Mahdi). Imamites say it was the Twelfth Imam, Muhammad al’Mahdi, the Zaydites say the Fifth, Zayd, and, the Isma’ilites say the Seventh Imam, Ismail. However, Shi’as agree that the Last Imam went into hiding and will return to bring in the end of the world.

The five Shia principles of religion (Usul ad Din) are: belief in divide unity (Tawhid); prophecy (Nubuwwah); resurrection (Maad); divine justice (Mdl); and the belief in the Imams as successors of the Prophet (Imamah). The latter principle is not accepted by Sunnis.

Most Sunnis believe the Sharia (religious law of Islam) was codified and closed by the 10th century. Shia followers believe the Sharia is always open, subject to fresh reformulations of Sunna, hadith, (traditions of what Muhammad and his companions said and did) and Qur’an interpretations.

Like Sunni Islam, Shia Islam has developed several sects. Because of their belief that the leader of the Muslim community must be a blood relative of the prophet, disputes arose when two sons of an Imam (the title given to the Shia leader) both claimed to be the rightful successor. These disputes caused the Shia sect to further divide into three groups: Zaydis, Ismai’ilis, and Ithna Asharis. The Twelver or Ithna-Ashari sect is the most important of these, as it predominates not only in Iraq but in the Shia world generally. Broadly speaking, the Twelvers are considered political quietists as opposed to the Zaydis who favor political activism, and the Ismailis who are identified with esoteric and gnostic religious doctrines.

Canonical schools in Islam, are called "Fiqh's"; the only Fiqh's in Shia Islam, are Usuli, Akhbari, and Shaykhi. These 3 all belong to the Ithna-Ashari or mainstream Shia Islam, which believes in the 12 Shia Imams; hence the name which means "Twelver's". The dominant Shia legal school is sometimes termed the Ja'fari Fiqh, after lmam Jaafar Sadiq (a.s.), the Sixth Infallible Imam of the world of Shiism. The term "Jaafari" is something of a pejorative term, just like "Wahhabiyyah" is; and one that is not used by Shias themselves. It is used by Sunnis, to derided Shias, just as "Wahhabiyyah" is used by Westerners and Shias, to deride Sunnis, but neither term is correct in and of itself.

A student assimilates from very early the ijtihad methodology as he assumes religious ranks: preacher, then mujtahid, hujjat Al-Islam [Proof of Islam], and then hujjat Al-Islam wa Al-Muslimeen until he becomes a Source or ayatollah, and thereafter the great ayatollah or ayatollah al-`uzma.

The 1964 Afghan Constitution, which was the basis of new 2003 constitution, stated: "Islam is the sacred religion of Afghanistan. Religious rites performed by the state shall be according to the provisions of the Hanafi school of jurisprudence." This stipulation left Afghan Shia without proper representation. Thus in March 2003, Ayatollah Mohammad Asef Mohseni, leader of the predominantly Shia Harakat-e Islami-yi Afghanistan, proposed that, along with the Sunni Hanafi school of jurisprudence, the Shia Ja'fari school of jurisprudence be included in the new constitution as an official sect. Mohseni said he proposed two additional formulas if his proposal is not accepted: mentioning "Islam and the Islamic sects," or just mentioning Islam without any mention of sects to ensure that Afghan Shia have their jurisprudence recognized and are allowed to "perform their religious duties according to it."

The Ja'fari [Hafari] fiqh of the Imami Shias is in most cases indistinguishable from one or more of the four Sunni madhahib, except that "Muta'h" or temporary marriage is considered lawful by the Fiqh Jafari, whereas it is prohibited in all the Sunni schools. But the Shia are still viewed with great caution by the Ulema of the Sunni world. Although Sunni and Shi'a Muslims are historically ambivalent, this traditional enmity was dampened in Central Asia due to shared resistance to Russian and Soviet rule. Indeed, both Sunni and Shi'a delegations to the 1905 Third Congress of Muslims in Russia declared Ja'farite Shi'ism as a fifth legal school, equivalent to the Hanafi, Maliki, Hanbali, and Shafi'i madrasehs.

Shi’as do not believe in predestination. They accept the teachings of the Mu’tazilities, a group of Sunni scholars who were later declared heretical. The Mu’tazilities believed that God cannot be responsible for evil, and therefore, humans must have freewill and be independent of God’s authority in this life. A further belief of Shia Muslims concerns divine justice and the individual's responsibility for his acts, which are judged by a just God. This contrasts with the Sunni view that God's creation of man allows minimal possibility for the exercise of free will.

Two distinctive and frequently misunderstood Shia practices are mutah, temporary marriage, and taqiyah, religious dissimulation.

Mutah, that is, marriage with a fixed termination contract subject to renewal, was practiced by Muslims as early as the formation of the first Muslim community at Medina. Banned by the second caliph, it has since been unacceptable to Sunnis, but Shias insist that if it were against Islamic law it would not have been practiced in early Islam. Mutah differs from permanent marriage because it does not require divorce proceedings for termination because the contractual parties have agreed on its span, which can be as short as an evening or as long as a lifetime. By making the mutah, a couple places the sexual act within the context of sharia; the act then is not considered adulterous and offspring are considered legitimate heirs of the man.

Taqiyah is another practice condemned by the Sunni as cowardly and irreligious but encouraged by Shia Islam and also practiced by Alawis and Ismailis. A person resorts to taqiyah when he either hides his religion or disavows certain religious practices to escape danger from opponents of his beliefs. Taqiyah can also be practiced when not to do so would bring danger to the honor of the female members of a household or when a man could be made destitute as a result of his beliefs. Because of the persecution frequently experienced by Shia imams, particularly during the period of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, taqiyah has been continually reinforced.

Shia practice differs from that of the Sunnis concerning both divorce and inheritance in that it is more favorable to women. The reason for this reputedly is the high esteem in which Fatima, the wife of Ali and the daughter of the Prophet, was held.

Among Shias the term imam traditionally has been used only for Ali and his eleven descendants. None of the twelve Imams, with the exception of Ali, ever ruled an Islamic government. During their lifetimes, their followers hoped that they would assume the rulership of the Islamic community, a rule that was believed to have been wrongfully usurped. Because the Sunni caliphs were cognizant of this hope, the Imams generally were persecuted during the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties. Therefore, the Imams tried to be as unobtrusive as possible and to live as far as was reasonable from the successive capitals of the Islamic empire.

The Imamate began with Ali, who is also accepted by Sunni Muslims as the fourth of the "rightly guided caliphs" to succeed the Prophet. Shias revere Ali as the First Imam, and his descendants, beginning with his sons Hasan and Husayn, continue the line of the Imams until the twelfth, who is believed to have ascended into a supernatural state to return to earth on Judgment Day. Shias point to the close lifetime association of the Prophet with Ali. When Ali was six years old, he was invited by the Prophet to live with him, and Shias believe Ali was the first person to make the declaration of faith in Islam. Ali also slept in the Prophet's bed on the night of the hijra or migration from Mecca to Medina when it was feared that the house would be attacked by unbelievers and the Prophet stabbed to death. He fought in all the battles the Prophet did except one, and the Prophet chose him to be the husband of his favorite daughter, Fatima.

The Sunni-Shia division of Islam originated as a succession dispute shortly after the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632 A.D. Shia believe that the proper successor of Muhammad was Ali. The word “Shia” means partisan or faction of Ali. Ali was elected to be the fourth Muslim ruler or caliph, but was later overthrown and assassinated. Shia Muslims believe that the first three caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman were usurpers, and that Ali was the first true Imam.

Shia hold Ali in equally high regard as Muhammad. Ali was buried in the Iraqi city of Najaf, which established an early connection between Iraq and Shiism and became a shrine city that continues to be a destination for Shia pilgrims.

In 661 A.D. Mu’awiya, the governor of Syria, named himself caliph and made the caliphate hereditary in his own family, the Umayyads, who the Shia rejected as usurpers of Ali and his sons’ rights to the caliphate. In the year AD 661, Imam Ali, Muhammad's son-in-law and the fourth caliph of Islam, was assassinated in southern Iraq in a struggle over who would rule the faithful. Ali was buried in Najaf, and his tomb is housed in a mosque in the city's center.

Nineteen years after Ali's death, his two sons were killed in battle and subsequently buried in nearby Karbala. Their battlefield deaths made martyrdom one of the most important tenets of Shiism. Shia attempts to challenge the Umayyad leaders resulted in the death of Ali’s son and the third Shia Imam, Husayn, at the Battle of Karbala in 680. The city of Karbala has become a Shia shrine city.

Husayn’s death is commemorated annually in the Ashura ceremony, and is seen as a symbol of the persecution and oppression experienced by the Shia community. Celebration of Ashura can also be a form of Shia political dissent. Male participants in the Ashura rituals beat their chests and chant in an action called lahtom. Some use swords to lacerate their heads to symbolize the beheading of Husayn, or use chains to beat their backs to evoke the suffering of Husayn.

Shia may place a piece of stone or clay, known as a turba, from the shrine of an Imam or other Shia figure on the ground so that their forehead touches the stone when they prostrate themselves in prayer. The possession of such a disc is a sign of Shia identity.

Jaafari [Jafari] Faith means the Religion according to lmam Jaafar Sadiq (a.s.), the Sixth Infallible Imam of the world of Shiism. Ascription of the Shiite Religion to Imam Jaafar ben Muhammad A]-Sadiq (a.s.) was due to the fact that this noble Imam lived longer than all other Infallible Imams and, thus, he has had more time and opportunity for action. Because of the conditions of his time, the role of imam Sadeq (a.s.) in reviving true, genuine Islamic teachings, formation of numerous education centers and training of faithful men was exceptional to the point that the Shiite religion by ascription to him has been named the "Jaafari Faith". The infirmity and confusion of the Caliphate due to the clashes between the Abbasid, and the Omayyad dynasties, in particular, afforded wider opportunities to the Imam to teach, instruct, discuss and train the faithful and sincere forces and to establish lbeologic Centers and promulgate the Islamic truths.

During the eighth century the Caliph Mamun, son and successor to Harun ar Rashid, was favorably disposed toward the descendants of Ali and their followers. He invited the Eighth Imam, Reza (A.D. 765-816), to come from Medina (in the Arabian Peninsula) to his court at Marv (Mary in the present-day Soviet Union). While Reza was residing at Marv, Mamun designated him as his successor in an apparent effort to avoid conflict among Muslims. Reza's sister Fatima journeyed from Medina to be with her brother, but took ill and died at Qom, in present-day Iran. A major shrine developed around her tomb and over the centuries Qom has become a major Shia pilgrimage and theological center.

Mamun took Reza on his military campaign to retake Baghdad from political rivals. On this trip Reza died unexpectedly in Khorasan. Reza was the only Imam to reside or die in what in now Iran. A major shrine, and eventually the city of Mashhad, grew up around his tomb, which has become the most important pilgrimage center in Iran. Several important theological schools are located in Mashhad, associated with the shrine to the Eighth Imam.

Reza's sudden death was a shock to his followers, many of whom believed that Mamun, out of jealousy for Reza's increasing popularity, had the Imam poisoned. Mamun's suspected treachery against Imam Reza and his family tended to reinforce a feeling already prevalent among his followers that the Sunni rulers were untrustworthy.

The Twelfth Imam is believed to have been only five years old when the Imamate descended upon him in A.D.874 at the death of his father. Because his followers feared he might be assassinated, the Twelfth Imam was hidden from public view and was seen only by a few of his closest deputies. Sunnis claim that he never existed or that he died while still a child. Shias believe that the Twelfth Imam never died, but disappeared from earth in about A.D. 939. Since that time, the greater occultation of the Twelfth Imam has been in force and will last until God commands the Twelfth Imam to manifest himself on earth again as the Mahdi or Messiah. Shias believe that during the occultation of the Twelfth Imam, he is spiritually present--some believe that he is materially present as well--and he is besought to reappear in various invocations and prayers. His name is mentioned in wedding invitations, and his birthday is one of the most jubilant of all Shia religious observances.

The Shia doctrine of the Imamate was not fully elaborated until the tenth century. Other dogmas were developed still later. A characteristic of Shia Islam is the continual exposition and reinterpretation of doctrine.

Shia Muslims hold the fundamental beliefs of other Muslims. But, in addition to these tenets, the distinctive institution of Shia Islam is the Imamate -- a much more exalted position than the Sunni imam, who is primarily a prayer leader. In contrast to Sunni Muslims, who view the caliph only as a temporal leader and who lack a hereditary view of Muslim leadership, Shia Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad designated Ali to be his successor as Imam, exercising both spiritual and temporal leadership. Such an Imam must have knowledge, both in a general and a religious sense, and spiritual guidance or walayat, the ability to interpret the inner mysteries of the Quran and the sharia. Only those who have walayat are free from error and sin and have been chosen by God through the Prophet. Each Imam in turn designated his successor--through twelve Imams--each holding the same powers.

Implied in the Shia principle of the imamah is that imams, are imbued with a redemptive quality as a result of their sufferings and martyrdoms. And, although imams are not divine, they are sinless and infallible in matters of faith and morals, principle very similar to the notion of papal infallibility in the Roman Catholic Church. That man needs an intermediary with God is an Iranian idea that long predates Islam, as is the idea of a savior or messiah (Mahdi) who will come to redeem man and cleanse the world. To expect that the Mahdi, who is the last (twelfth) Imam, really will one is a religious virtue (intizar).

The Twelver Shi'i population in 1980 was estimated to be 72,750,000. There are important Shi'i communities in the following countries: Iran (34,000,000); Pakistan (12,000,000); India (10,000,000); Iraq 7,500,000; the former Soviet Union (4,000,000); Turkey (1,500,000); Afghanistan (1,300,000); Lebanon (1,000,000); Kuwait (270,000); Saudi Arabia (250,000); Bahrain (160,000); Syria (50,000). There are also small Shi'i communities in Europe, Africa, North and South America, and Australia and New Zealand (Momen 1985, 282).

 

 




Page last updated: Friday, November 25, 2005 22:04:51 -0500