What is Shia Islam?
Shia Islam encompasses most Muslims who are not counted among the Sunni. The division between Sunni and Shi'a, dates to the death of the Prophet Muhammad when his followers were faced with the decision of who would be his successor as the leader of Islam. Shi'ites are those who followed Ali, the closest relative of Muhammad, as Muhammad's successor. Today there are approximately 120 million Shi'ite Muslims in the world.
The Shia consist of one major school of thought known as the Jafaryia or the "Twelvers," and a few minor schools of thought, as the "Seveners" or the "Fivers." These names all refer to the number of imams they recognize after the death of Muhammad. The term Shi'a is usually meant to be synonymous with the Jafaryia/Twelvers.
The distinctive dogma and institution of Shia Islam is the Imamate, which includes the idea that the successor of Muhammad be more than merely a political leader. The Imam must also be a spiritual leader, which means that he must have the ability to interpret the inner mysteries of the Quran and the sharia. The Twelver Shias further believe that the Twelve Imams who succeeded the Prophet were sinless and free from error and had been chosen by God through Muhammad.
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 (also seen as Hosein), 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 Muhammad 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 Muhammad'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 Muhammad did except one, and the Prophet chose him to be the husband of his favorite daughter, Fatima.
In Sunni Islam an imam is the leader of congregational prayer. Among the Shias of Iran 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.
During the ninth century Caliph Al Mamun, son of Caliph 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 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. A shrine developed around her tomb, and over the centuries Qom has become a major Shia pilgrimage and theology 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 is 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 of 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 him poisoned. Mamun's suspected treachery against 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 874 CE at the death of his father. The Twelfth Imam is usually known by his titles of Imam-e Asr (the Imam of the Age) and Sahib az Zaman (the Lord of Time). 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 remained on earth, but hidden from the public, for about 70 years, a period they refer to as the "lesser occultation" (gheybat-e sughra). Shias also believe that the Twelfth Imam has never died, but disappeared from earth in about 939 CE. Since that time the "greater occultation" (gheybat-e kubra) 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 greater 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. One characteristic of Shia Islam is the continual exposition and reinterpretation of doctrine. The most recent example is Khomeini's expounding of the doctrine of velayat-e faqih, or the political guardianship of the community of believers by scholars trained in religious law. The basic idea is that the clergy, by virtue of their superior knowledge of the laws of God, are the best qualified to rule the society of believers who are preparing themselves on earth to live eternally in heaven. The concept of velayat-e faqih thus provides the doctrinal basis for theocratic government, an experiment that Twelver Imam Shias had not attempted prior to the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
In addition to the seven principal tenets of faith, there are also traditional religious practices that are intimately associated with Shia Islam. These include the observance of the month of martyrdom, Muharram, and pilgrimages to the shrines of the Twelve Imams and their various descendants. The Muharram observances, which culminate on the otherwise minor holiday of Ashura, commemorate the death of the Third Imam, Husayn, the son of Ali and Fatima and the grandson of Muhammad. He was killed near Karbala in modern Iraq in 680 CE during a battle with troops supporting the Umayyad caliph. Husayn's death is commemorated by Shias with passion plays and is an intensely religious time.
Pilgrimage to the shrines of Imams is a specific Shia custom. The most important shrines in Iran are those for the Eighth Imam in Mashhad and for his sister Fatima in Qom. There are also important secondary shrines for other relatives of the Eighth Iman in Rey, adjacent to south Tehran, and in Shiraz. In virtually all towns and in many villages there are numerous lesser shrines, known as imamzadehs, which commemorate descendants of the imams who are reputed to have led saintly lives. Shia pilgrims visit these sites because they believe that the imams and their relatives have power to intercede with God on behalf of petitioners. The shrines in Iraq at Karbala and An Najaf are also revered by Shias.
In addition to the general Muslim holidays and Ashura (see above), the following days are of special significance to Shia Muslims.
Arba'een Arba'een - commemorated on the 20th of Safar, 40 days after Ashurah. Shias also remember the terrible treatment of the women of Imam Hussein's household - they were dragged from Karbala (central Iraq) to Shaam (Damascus, Syria) - with many young children dying of thirst and exposure along the route.
Eid al-Ghadeer - A celebration held on the 18th of Dhil-Hijjah marking the event of Ghadeer Khumm in 10 AH. The day on which God stated the completion of Islam. Laylatul Qadr is the biggest night, and Eid al-Ghadeer is the biggest day.
Eid al-Mubahila- A celebration held on the 24th of Dhil-Hijjah marking the event of al-Mubahila between the Household of the Prophet and a Christian deputation from Najran, in 10 AH.
Milad al-Nabi - A celebration to mark the Prophet Muhammad's birth date, 17th Rabbi al-Awwal. Coincides with the birth date of the 6th Shia Imam, Ja'far al-Sadiq. (The Sunnis mark the occasion on 12th Rabbi al-Awwal.)
Mid of Shaban- Significant to all Muslims, but specifically to Shias as it also marks the birth date of their 12th and final Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi.
In addition to the mosque, another religious institution of major significance in Shia Islam is a special building known as a hoseiniyeh. Traditionally, hoseiniyehs existed in urban areas and served as sites for recitals commemorating the martyrdom of Husayn, especially during the month of Muharram. In the 1970s, some hoseiniyehs, such as the Hoseiniyeh Irshad in Tehran, became politicized as prominent clerical and lay preachers used the symbol of the deaths as martyrs of Husayn and the other Imams as thinly veiled criticism of Mohammad Reza Shah's regime, thus helping to lay the groundwork for the Revolution in 1979.
Institutions providing religious education include madrasehs and maktabs. Madrasehs, or seminaries, historically have been important for advanced training in Shia theology and jurisprudence. Madrasehs are generally associated with noted Shia scholars who have attained the rank of ayatollah. There are also some older madrasehs, established initially through endowments, at which several scholars may teach. Students, known as talabehs, live on the grounds of the madrasehs and are provided stipends for the duration of their studies, usually a minimum of seven years, during which they prepare for the examinations that qualify a seminary student to be a low-level preacher, or mullah. At the time of the Revolution, there were slightly more than 11,000 talabehs in Iran; approximately 60 percent of these were studying at the madrasehs in the city of Qom, another 25 percent were enrolled in the important madrasehs of Mashhad and Esfahan, and the rest were at madrasehs in Tabriz, Yazd, Shiraz, Tehran, Zanjan, and other cities.
Maktabs, primary schools run by the clergy, were the only educational institutions prior to the end of the nineteenth century when the first secular schools were established. Maktabs declined in numbers and importance as the government developed a national public school system beginning in the 1930s. Nevertheless, maktabs continued to exist as private religious schools right up to the Revolution. Since 1979 the public education system has been desecularized and the maktabs and their essentially religious curricula merged with government schools.
Another major religious institution in Shia Islam is the shrine. In Iran, a predominantly Shia country, there are more than 1,100 shrines that vary from crumbling sites associated with local saints to the imposing shrines of Imam Reza and his sister Fatima in Mashhad and Qom, respectively. These more famous shrines are huge complexes that include the mausoleums of the venerated Eighth Imam and his sister, tombs of former shahs, mosques, madrasehs, and libraries. Imam Reza's shrine is the largest and is considered to be the holiest. In addition to the usual shrine accoutrements, Imam Reza's shrine contains hospitals, dispensaries, a museum, and several mosques located in a series of courtyards surrounding his tomb. Most of the present shrine dates from the early fourteenth century, except for the dome, which was rebuilt after being damaged in an earthquake in 1673. The shrine's endowments and gifts are the largest of all religious institutions in the country. Traditionally, free meals for as many as 1,000 people per day are provided at the shrine. Although there are no special times for visiting this or other shrines, it is customary for pilgrimage traffic to be heaviest during Shia holy periods. It has been estimated that more than 3 million pilgrims visit the shrine annually.
From the time that Twelver Shia Islam emerged as a distinct religious denomination in the early ninth century, its clergy, or ulama, have played a prominent role in the development of its scholarly and legal tradition; however, the development of a distinct hierarchy among the Shia clergy dates back only to the early nineteenth century. Since that time the highest religious authority has been vested in the mujtahids, scholars who by virtue of their erudition in the science of religion (the Quran, the traditions of Muhammad and the imams, jurisprudence, and theology) and their attested ability to decide points of religious conduct, act as leaders of their community in matters concerning the particulars of religious duties. Lay Shias and lesser members of the clergy who lack such proficiency are expected to follow mujtahids in all matters pertaining to religion, but each believer is free to follow any mujtahid he chooses.
Since the mid-nineteenth century it has been common for several mujtahids concurrently to attain prominence and to attract large followings. During the twentieth century, such mujtahids have been accorded the title of ayatollah. Occasionally an ayatollah achieves almost universal authority among Shias and is given the title of ayatollah ol ozma, or grand ayatollah. Such authority was attained by as many as seven mujtahids simultaneously, including Ayatollah Khomeini, in the late 1970s.
To become a mujtahid, it is necessary to complete a rigorous and lengthy course of religious studies in one of the prestigious madrasehs of Qom or Mashhad in Iran or An Najaf in Iraq and to receive an authorization from a qualified mujtahid. Of equal importance is either the explicit or the tacit recognition of a cleric as a mujtahid by laymen and scholars in the Shia community. There is no set time for studying a particular subject, but serious preparation to become a mujtahid normally requires fifteen years to master the religious subjects deemed essential. It is uncommon for any student to attain the status of mujtahid before the age of thirty; more commonly students are between forty and fifty years old when they achieve this distinction.
Most seminary students do not complete the full curriculum of studies to become mujtahids. Those who leave the madrasehs after completing the primary level can serve as prayer leaders, village mullahs, local shrine administrators, and other religious functionaries. Those who leave after completing the second level become preachers in town and city mosques. Students in the third level of study are those preparing to become mujtahids. The advanced students at this level are generally accorded the title of hojjatoleslam when they have completed all their studies.
The Shia clergy in Iran wear a white turban and an aba, a loose, sleeveless brown cloak, open in front. A sayyid, who is a clergyman descended from Muhammad, wears a black turban and a black aba.
Shah Ismail, the founder of the Safavid dynasty, who established Twelver Shia Islam as the official religion of Iran at the beginning of the sixteenth century, was revered by his followers as a Sufi master. Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, has a long tradition in Iran. It developed there and in other areas of the Islamic empire during the ninth century among Muslims who believed that worldly pleasures distracted from true concern with the salvation of the soul. Sufis generally renounced materialism, which they believed supported and perpetuated political tyranny. Over time a great variety of Sufi brotherhoods was formed, including several that were militaristic, such as the Safavid order, of which Ismail was the leader.
Although Sufis were associated with the early spread of Shia ideas in the country, once the Shia clergy had consolidated their authority over religion by the early seventeenth century, they tended to regard Sufis as deviant. At various periods during the past three centuries some Shia clergy have encouraged persecution of Sufis, but Sufi orders have continued to exist in Iran. During the Pahlavi period, some Sufi brotherhoods were revitalized. Some members of the secularized middle class were especially attracted to them, but the orders appear to have had little following among the lower classes. The largest Sufi order was the Nimatollahi, which had khanehgahs, or teaching centers, in several cities and even established new centers in foreign countries. Other important orders were the Dhahabi and Kharksar brotherhoods. Sufi brotherhoods such as the Naqshbandi and the Qadiri also existed among Sunni Muslims in Kordestan. There is no evidence of persecution of Sufis under the Republic, but the brotherhoods are regarded suspiciously and generally have kept a low profile.
Unorthodox Shia Religious Movements
Iran also contains Shia sects that many of the Twelver Shia clergy regard as heretical. One of these is the Ismaili, a sect that has several thousand adherents living primarily in northeastern Iran. The Ismailis, of whom there were once several different sects, trace their origins to the son of Ismail who predeceased his father, the Sixth Imam. The Ismailis were very numerous and active in Iran from the eleventh to the thirteenth century; they are known in history as the "Assassins" because of their practice of killing political opponents. The Mongols destroyed their center at Alamut in the Alborz Mountains in 1256. Subsequently, their living imams went into hiding from non-Ismailis. In the nineteenth century, their leader emerged in public as the Agha Khan and fled to British-controlled India, where he supervised the revitalization of the sect. The majority of the several million Ismailis in the live outside Iran.
Another Shia sect is the Ahl-e Haqq. Its adherents are concentrated in Lorestan, but small communities also are found in Kordestan and Mazandaran. The origins of the Ahl-e Haqq are believed to lie in one of the medieval politicized Sufi orders. The group has been persecuted sporadically by orthodox Shias. After the Revolution, some of the sect's leaders were imprisoned on the ground of religious deviance.
- "Iran: Religious Life." U.S. Library of Congress Country Studies, December 1987. This article consists primarily of public domain text from this source.
External Links on Shia Islam
- Al-Islam.org - Ahlul Bayt Digital Islamic Library Project
- Shi'ite Encyclopedia
- Imam AL-KHOEI Islamic Center