Shiis, representing the largest sectarian division of Islam after Sunnism, make up roughly one-tenth of the world population of Muslims. The label Shia, which originally referred to the "partisans" of 'Ali, the Prophet Muhammad's cousin and sonin-law, designates various groups in Islamic history united by a belief that the leader of the Muslim community, termed caliph or imam, should be a member of the Prophet Muhammad's family (ahl al-bayt). The Shia first formed an identifiable movement in Islamic history during the First Civil War (fitna), which tore the Muslim Community apart between 656 and 661 C.E. According to Shii doctrine, 'Ali was meant to assume leadership of the Community upon the Prophet's death in 632, the Prophet having explicitly designated him as his successor, but the jealousy and ambition of his enemies prevented him as a succession of three other leaders, Abu Bakr (632–634), 'Umar (634–644), and 'Uthman (644–656), were chosen instead. The Shiis are divided into several sects according to the historical line of imams they accept as legitimate, the most important being the Twelvers, Zaydis, and Ismailis.
A common misconception, based on the fact that Iran is today predominantly Shii, holds that Iran is the historic "homeland" of Shii Islam. However, the truth is that Medina and southern Iraq are the original centers of Shii Islam, which spread from there to other areas in the Muslim world. The heyday of the Shiis was in the tenth and eleventh centuries, when dynasties representing the three main Shii sects, Twelvers, Zaydis, and Ismailis, succeeded in conquering most of the Muslim world. For over a century, the Fatimids (Ismaili) controlled Egypt, Syria, the Hijaz, Tunisia, and for a time Sicily. The Hamdanids and other lesser Twelver dynasties controlled northern Syria and Iraq, the Buwayhids (Zaydis/Twelvers) controlled much of Iran and Iraq, Zaydi dynasties controlled areas around the Caspian and Yemen, and the Qaramitah controlled eastern Arabia. Between the eighth and the fifteenth centuries, Shiis in Iran formed the majority in a number of smaller towns such as Qum, Kashan, Aveh, and Sabzevar, and a significant minority in certain major cities such as Rayy and Nishapur. Altogether, though, they probably represented no more than 20 percent of the Iranian population. This situation changed after 1501, when Shah Ismail I conquered the city of Tabriz, founded the Safavid dynasty, and declared Twelver Shiism the religion of the empire. The Safavids (1501–1736) promoted Shii Islam through patronage and propaganda, and over the next several centuries, most Iranians converted. Conversely, former Shiite populations have either disappeared or dwindled in a number of areas, particularly following the fall of the Fatimids and other Shiite dynasties of the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries, and regular persecution by subsequent Sunni powers, including the Zengids, Ayyubids, Mamluks, and Ottomans. The Shiite populations of Tunisia, Egypt, the Hijaz Arabia, such parts of Syria as the city of Aleppo, and parts of northern Iraq either converted or migrated to other areas.
Twelver Shiism, the largest Shiite sect, represents the overwhelming majority in Iran and a slim majority in Iraq, Lebanon, and Bahrain. Significant Twelver Shii minorities are found in Syria, Kuwait, eastern Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, and both northern and southern India. Zaydi Shiis, important in Iraq and northern Iran in the ninth to the eleventh centuries, have for long been confined to Yemen and Yemeni diaspora communities. Ismaili Shiis, who controlled Egypt and much of the eastern Mediterranean between the tenth and twelfth centuries, dispersed after the fall of the Fatimid caliphate in 1171, establishing strongholds in Iran and Syria, and became famous as the Assassins during the Crusades. Their reign of terror ended with conquests by the Mongols and the Mamluks. Although small communities remain in Syria and Iran, the bulk of Ismailis ended up in Bombay and Gujarat in India, with smaller communities in Pakistan, Tajikistan, Yemen, and diaspora communities in Africa, Europe, Canada, and elsewhere.
Shiism as a movement bursts into full view with the assassination of 'Uthman and the ensuing civil war. In 656 'Uthman was assassinated in Medina by Muslims angered by his open nepotism in making appointments to lucrative governorships in the newly conquered provinces. At this point, 'Ali was chosen as caliph, but soon met opposition from the Umayyah clan, the Prophet's widow 'A'isha, and others, who accused him of complicity in 'Uthman's assassination. War ensued, pitting 'Ali's supporters, centered in Kufa in Iraq, against forces in Basra and Syria. In 656, 'Ali's forces met those of 'A'isha, Talha, and al-Zubayr just outside Basra in the "Battle of the Camel," so called because 'A'isha joined the fray in an armored palanquin mounted on her camel 'Askar. 'Ali's forces killed Talhah and al-Zubayr, captured 'A'isha, and returned her to Medina in humiliation. The following year, 'Ali lost the battle of Siffin in the Syrian desert after his deputy bungled arbitration with the agent of Mu'awiya, the governor of Damascus. A large group of 'Ali's supporters, angered that he had submitted to arbitration, left him at this point. Known as the Kharijis (or Kharijites, "deserters"), they became 'Ali's bitter enemies. 'Ali retreated to Kufa and defeated a Kharijites army at Nahrawan in 658. In 661, he was assassinated by the Khariji ibn Muljam in Kufa. His supporters recognized his eldest son Hasan as their leader, but Hasan soon entered into a truce with Mu'awiya, renouncing his claim to the caliphate, and the war ended. The Muslim community was reunited under one regime; Mu'awiya became caliph of the entire community by default; the capital was moved to Damascus; and, when Mu'awiya designated his son Yazid as his heir, the Umayyad dynasty (661–750) was established. Doctrinally, however, the Muslim community would remain divided into three main groups, 'Ali's supporters (the Shia), enemies of 'Ali who had originally supported him but renounced their allegiance at Siff n (the Kharijis), and the main body of his opponents, the Umayyads and their supporters.
Throughout Umayyad rule, the Shia engaged in periodic uprisings against the illegitimate caliphs, rebelling in the name of various members of ahl al-bayt. The most famous of these incidents is the revolt of Husayn, 'Ali's second son, on the death of Mu'awiya and the accession of his son Yazid in 680. Husayn was summoned to Kufa to lead the revolt. He set out from Medina with a small contingent, but Umayyad forces halted him in the Iraqi desert, preventing him from reaching his supporters in Kufa. Rather than surrender, Husayn and his followers fought; most were slaughtered, and Husayn's head was delivered to Yazid in Damascus. The martyrdom of Husayn and his followers is retold and reenacted by the Shia on 'Ashura, the tenth day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar. Four years later, Kufan Shia known as al-Tawwabun ("the Penitents") led a revolt, reflecting their dedication to the cause of Husayn and their regret that they had had not come to his aid. In 686, Mukhtar al-Thaqafi led an initially successful revolt in the name of Muhammad b. al-Hanafiyya, another son of 'Ali, holding Kufa in 686–687. In 740, Zayd, a grandson of Husayn, led a revolt in southern Iraq and was defeated and killed. 'Abd Allah b. Mu'awiya, a great-grandson of Muhammad's cousin Ja'far, led yet another insurrection (744–747).
The Abbasid revolution that toppled the Umayyads in 750 began in part as a Shii movement, adopting the slogan al-rida min al al-bayt, "the acceptable candidate from the family of the Prophet." Upon victory, a descendant of the Prophet's uncle 'Abbas assumed rule as caliph. In a clear pro-Shii move, the new dynasty established its capital in Iraq, first at Wasit, then at Baghdad, founded in 761. The Abbasids, however, soon turned on their Shii allies and eventually took over the Umayyads' role as illegitimate rulers and the nemesis of Shii aspirations. Muhammad al-Nafs al-Zakiyya ("the Pure Soul") led a Shiite revolt against the Abbasids in 762. The Abbasid period would witness countless more revolts in the name of 'Alid leaders. Attempts at reconciliation, the most notable being al-Ma'mun's appointment of 'Ali al-Rida, the eighth imam of the Twelver Shii line, as his successor in 816, were short-lived.
Conflict over leadership of the community and over succession among rival Shii claimants to the imamate gave rise to theological doctrines and concepts that would remain important throughout Islamic history. In the course of the eighth century the Shia developed the doctrines of the imam's 'isma ("infallibility" or "divine protection from sin"), and nass, the theory that the imam must be explicitly designated by his predecessor, with divine sanction. The ghulat ("extremists") developed beliefs that the imam did not die but went into occultation (ghayba) or that he would return (raj'a) as a messianic figure (mahdi) before the apocalypse. Others claimed that the imam shared in prophetic authority, had status equal to that of the Prophet, possessed divine qualities, or manifested divinity through divine infusion (hulul). Some "extreme" concepts, particularly occultation, would become standard doctrine in the main divisions of the Shia in later centuries. A second set of issues had to do with the status of the Prophet's Companions. To bolster the legitimacy of 'Ali, the Shiites used hadith reports and historical accounts concerning the first three caliphs, 'A'isha, and many other Companions to impugn their characters, casting them as sinners, incompetent leaders, or outright unbelievers. The Sunnis, on the other hand, adopted a compromise position, using similar accounts to uphold the view that the Companions, both those who had supported 'Ali and those who were opposed to him, were all exemplary. The Shiite position, while certainly exaggerated over time, readily admits the seriousness of the conflicts that wracked the early Muslim community, whereas Sunni historiography has often endeavored to cover them up or explain them away.
Shiites share with Sunnis the main holy days of the Islamic calendar: 'Id al-Adha ("the Feast of the Sacrifice") on the tenth of the twelfth month, Dhu al-Hijja, coinciding with the culmination of the annual pilgrimage rites in Mecca, the fast of Ramadan, the ninth month of the calendar, together with the ensuing 'Id al-Fitr ("Breaking the Fast"), and the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. Distinctly Shiite holy days include Ashura, the tenth of Muharram, the first month of the calendar, which commemorates Husayn's martyrdom. Ceremonies performed on this day and during the ten days leading up to it include emotional readings of the story of Husayn's martyrdom, processions in which the participants chant slogans, rhythmically beat their chests, flagellate their backs, and on occasion lacerate their backs or foreheads, and ta'ziyah passion plays, reenactments of the Battle of Karbala', often in great detail. This is followed on Safar 20 by the arba'in, the forty-day mourning ceremony for Husayn's death, the most important date of the year for pilgrimage (ziyarah) to Karbala'. 'Id al-Ghadir, on the 18th of Dhu al-Hijja, commemorates the speech Prophet Muhammad made at Ghadir Khumm on the return trip from the Farewell Pilgrimage to Medina in which he designated 'Ali his heir as leader of the Muslim community. In addition, the Shiite calendar includes birthday celebrations for the imams, the most important of which are 'Ali's birthday and the birthday of the Twelfth Imam. Pilgrimages to the imams' tombs and to the tombs of their descendants are an important feature of Shiite ritual life.
A number of significant differences exist between Sunni and Twelver Shiite law and ritual practices. Shiites often add to the shahadah or fundamental Islamic creed, "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is God's Messenger" a third clause, 'Aliyyun waliyyu Llah ("'Ali is God's ward/ally/supporter"). They include in the call to the dawn prayer the phrase hayya 'ala khayral-'amal ("Come to the best of works") in place of the phrase as-salatu khayrun min al-nawm ("Prayer is better than sleep") used in Sunni tradition. In questions of ritual purity, the Shiites hold that one may wipe one's inner shoes (khuffayn meaning "socks" or "slippers") rather than washing one's feet, when they have not been soiled since last washed. In prayer, Shiite men generally hold their hands down at their sides when in standing position, rather than clasping them in front of the chest or belly, as Sunnis do. They commonly join the noon and afternoon prayers in one session and the sunset and evening prayers in one session, praying daily in three sessions rather than in five. Many Shiites set a muhr ("seal"), a baked clay tablet made of earth from Karbala', before them when praying, touching their foreheads to it when they prostrate. They consider the tarawih, extra prayers by Sunnis at night during the month of Ramadan, as a heretical innovation. Shiite dietary law is a bit more strict than that of the Sunnis. They do not allow the believer to eat meat slaughtered by Jews and Christians and agree with Jewish dietary law in prohibiting shellfish (any seafood without scales) and rabbit. Shiites have some stricter requirements for the pronouncement of unilateral divorce by the husband—there must be two male witnesses for it to be valid. They also allow mut'ah, a type of marriage that is undertaken for a fixed duration stipulated in the contract and that Sunnis consider forbidden. Finally, Shiite inheritance law differs substantially from Sunni inheritance law in that it negates the rights of the 'asabah or agnate relatives (the deceased's brothers, paternal uncles, and cousins) to receive any surplus left over after dividing the set shares of the inheritance, favoring the nuclear family and, significantly, daughters instead. The khums, or fifth, that must be paid according to Sunni law on war booty and the product of mines is generalized to a type of income tax payable to the imam or his representative, meaning, for many centuries now, one of the top Shiite legal authorities. The khums funds are divided into six shares, of which three go to support the descendants of the Prophet, who cannot receive ordinary alms, and three go to support religious education and the poor and afflicted in general.
In theology, the Twelver and Zaydi Shiites have largely adopted Mu'tazili doctrines; this sets them apart from the Sunnis, who have generally adopted Ash'ari and Hanbali doctrines on such questions as God's justice. The Shiites hold that God is obligated to act justly, conforming to the definition of good and evil arrived at through rational inquiry. Sunni theology generally sees this as limiting God's power and presuming to dictate to God something that cannot be known with certainty and remains inscrutable to humans.
The question of the imamate was early subsumed under the purview of theology, as were questions of the status of the Prophet's Companions and other prominent figures in early Islamic history. This has been historically the biggest bone of contention between the Shiis, who deplore the actions of certain Companions, including the first three caliphs—Abu Bakr, 'Umar, and 'Uthman—and some of the Prophet's own wives, including 'A'isha and Hafsah; other Companions, such as Talhah and al-Zubayr; and Mu'awiyah for usurping the position of leadership of the Community, which rightly belonged to 'Ali, or for opposing 'Ali, his allies, or the later imams. The Sunni position is one of compromise. All early figures are praised, despite the conflicts that definitely occurred, and the first four caliphs are all accepted as the best of the Companions, in descending order of excellence. For this reason Shiites are continually accused in the medieval sources of rafd and sabb, meaning rejection of the Companions' exalted status, blasphemy against them, and vituperation or cursing of them. On the Shiite side there developed an extensive literature on the foibles and defects of 'Ali's enemies among the Companions as well as of the injustices they perpetrated. Some of these undoubtedly preserve kernels of authentic material, but many may derive from later exaggeration, including stories designed to prove the extreme cowardice and conniving of Abu Bakr and 'Umar as opposed to 'Ali's outlandish feats of bravery, or suggestions that 'Umar prevented the dying Prophet Muhammad from dictating his will and testament.
By the eleventh century, Twelver Shii jurists made strong claims that, during the prolonged occultation, certain roles of the imams naturally devolved on them. Much later, in the sixteenth century, this idea would be justified by the claim that the jurists as a group, and, more specifically, the leading jurist(s) of the age, were in effect the "general deputy" (al-na'ib al-'amm) of the occulted imam. Although they had not developed this theory of the general deputyship, Twelver jurists of earlier centuries, such as al-Shaykh al-Mufid (d. 1025), al-Sharif al-Murtada (d. 1044), and al-Shaykh al-Tusi (d. 1067), argued that duties of judging between litigants, the holding of Friday prayer, collection of khums funds, and so on, could indeed be held in the absence of the imam by virtue of the jurists' authority. Al-Karajaki (d. 1057) goes so far as to term Twelver scholars "intermediaries" between the imam and Shii laypeople.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there was a significant challenge to the authority of Twelver scholars qua jurists by the Akhbari movement, which denied that expertise in legal interpretation, with rational and extra-scriptural bases, could justify religious authority. The Akhbari movement met resounding defeat by the end of the eighteenth century, and in the process their opponents, the Usulis, made very strong arguments for the jurists' authority, stressing their ability to perform ijtihad (independent investigation of the law) and stressing their exclusive authority. One may see the development in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries of the concept of wilayat al-faqih, or the comprehensive authority of the jurist, as an extension of this move to bolster the jurists' authority. Khomeini, the most outspoken proponent of this doctrine, and author of a work by that title based on his 1971 lectures, held that the leading Twelver jurist was, as the general deputy of the imam, entitled not only to take over some of the "religious" prerogatives of the imam, such as the collection of khums, but also to take over political rule itself. This radical extension of Twelver doctrine later became the basis for the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which designated the office of rahbar, or leader, to be held by the leading Twelver jurist of the age and concentrated in that figure tremendous political powers, including command of the armed forces and the right to appoint the members of the Shura Council.
See also Islam: Sunni; Religion: Middle East.
D. J. Stewart
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