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Shi'a Islam


Doctrines 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.

History 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.

Symbols See Islam.

Adherents 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).

Main Centre
 The tradition has no headquarters. It is above all dominant in Iran.