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Shi'a Islam

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Shi'a Islam (Arabic شيعى follower; English has traditionally used Shiite or Shi'ite) is the second largest Islamic denomination; some 20-25% of all Muslims are said to follow a Shi'a tradition. Sunni Muslims make up the rest.

Shi'a is short for Shi'at Ali, a follower of Ali. Ali ibn Abi Talib was Muhammad's relative and son-in-law. Shi'a Muslims believe that Ali should have followed Muhammad as the leader of the Muslims. Sunni Muslims believe that Abu Bakr, the first caliph to hold power after Muhammad, held his office legitimately. This difference of opinion regarding an event in 632 C.E. may seem like a minor matter to some, but it has shaped two Muslim traditions which differ sharply in many of their beliefs and practices.


Shi'as around the world

Shi'as live in many parts of the world, but some countries have a higher concentration of Shi'a than others. Iran has 89% Shi'a, Bahrain has 70% Shi'a, Iraq has 62% and Azerbaijan has 60%. The largest religious denomination in Lebanon is also Shia (36%). Large Shi'a populations are also found in Yemen (49%), Kuwait (30%), Pakistan (15%–20%), Syria (15%–20%), United Arab Emirates (16%), Saudi Arabia (10%–15%), Afghanistan (13%), Tajikistan (5%), Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Oman and Brunei, with smaller groups in other parts of the Persian Gulf, Arabic peninsula, India and African countries.

The imamate

One of the main tenets of Shi'a belief is the imamate. They say that the imam is the divinely appointed leader, political and religious, of all Muslims. The imam is infallible, impeccable, divinely inspired, and chosen directly by God. Those who do not recognize his authority are resisting God. Just as Muhammad appointed his son-in-law Ali as the first imam, Ali, under divine guidance, appointed his eldest son by Fatimah, Hassan, as the second imam. Hassan appointed his brother Husayn; Husayn appointed his son, and so forth. Shi'a say that the sequence is hereditary only because it has been so decreed by God, who is the ultimate source of the authority of the imam.

The Shi'a sects

The Shi'a of the present day are divided into sects based on their beliefs regarding the sequence of the imams.

  • Most Shi'a are Twelvers; they recognize twelve imams, of whom the twelfth, the Mahdi, has been occluded, or removed from human view, and will return at some time in the future.
  1. Ali ibn Abu Talib (600661)
  2. Hasan ibn Ali (625669)
  3. Husayn ibn Ali (626680)
  4. Ali ibn Husayn (658713), also known as Zainul Abideen
  5. Muhammad al Baqir (676743)
  6. Jafar as Sadiq (703765)
  7. Musa al Kazim (745799)
  8. Ali ar Ridha (765818)
  9. Muhammad al Taqi (810835)
  10. Ali al Hadi (827868)
  11. Hasan al Askari (846874)
  12. Muhammad al Mahdi (868—)

  • There are several groups of Sevener Shi'as. The Ismailis are the largest group.
  • Fiver Shi'as are also called Zaidis. They are found mostly in Yemen. They accept the same first four caliphs as the Sunni Muslims, then recognize Ali's sons, then one of Ali's grandsons.

Zaidis also reject the notion of divinely appointed Imams.

Both Twelver and Sevener Shi'a believe that the last imam (either the seventh or the twelfth) has been occulted, or hidden away by God. He is still alive, and will return. Beliefs vary as to what will happen when the last imam, called the Mahdi ("the guided one"), returns. It is generally believed that he will be accompanied by Jesus and will affirm Muhammad's message to mankind from God.

Shi'a and Sunni traditions

While the Shi'a and the Sunni accept the same sacred text, the Qur'an, they differ somewhat in their approach to recorded oral tradition, or hadith. Shi'a believe that the split between the Shi'a and Sunni extends back to the time of Muhammad's death, when a small number of the faithful clung to Ali and the rest of the Muslims followed Abu Bakr, then Umar and Uthman. Traditions that can be traced back to the testimony of the faithful are to be trusted, and traditions passed through the other Muslims are suspect. While the Sunni generally accept the hadith collections of Bukhari and Muslim as sahih, or trustworthy, the Shi'a privilege different narrators and different hadith.

Shi'a and Sunni versions of Islamic law

Because Islamic law is based upon the hadith, rejection of some Sunni hadith means that the Shi'a version of the law differs somewhat from the Sunni version. For example, Shiites permit temporary marriages, or mut’a, which can be contracted for months or even days, and follow different inheritance laws.

Shi'a and Sunni belief

Shi'a and Sunni differ not only with regard to history and law, but with regard to belief. Such differences may be summarized as differences regarding:

  • Predestination and free will
  • Prophethood
  • The role of religious scholars

Predestination and free will

Modern Sunnis generally accept a doctrine of predestination. God has ordained all things, including the heart of man. Shi'a stress human free will.


Shi'a believe that the prophets and messengers (Adam being the first prophet and Muhammad the last) appointed by God are impeccable and infallible in every aspect (i.e., in their beliefs, thoughts, actions, speech, etc).

The Mu'tazilite strain of Sunni belief, now extinct, also believed in the infallibility of the prophets. Current Sunni belief (Ash'ari) is that prophets are only infallible in regards to revelation.

The role of religious scholars

Most Sunni scholars, preachers, and judges (collectively known as the ulema) believe that the door of ijtihad, or private judgment, closed some four hundred years after the death of Muhammad. Muslim scholars had been studying Qur'an and hadith for centuries; four schools of law (madhhab) had been developed; there was nothing more to be added to the four schools.

Shi'a scholars believe that the door to ijtihad has never closed. They believe that they can interpret the Qur'an and the Shi'a traditions with the same authority as their predecessors. Generally, the Shi'a clergy have exerted much more authority in the Shi'a community than have the Sunni ulema.

Religious calendar

All Muslims, Sunni or Shi'a, celebrate the following annual holidays:

  • Eid Al-Fitr (عيد الفطر), which marks the end of fasting during the month of Ramadan.
  • Eid Al-Adha , which marks the end of the Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca.

Both Sunni and Shi'a celebrate:

  • Milad al-Nabi, Muhammad's birth date. However, the Sunni celebrate on the 12th of Rabbi al-Awwal and the Shi'a celebrate on the 17th of Rabbi al-Awwal. The Shi'a celebration coincides with the birth date of the sixth imam, Ja'far al-Sadiq.
  • Ashurah (عاشوراء). For Shiites, this commemorates Imam Husayn bin Ali's martyrdom. It is a day of deep mourning. For Sunnis, it is the anniversary of several prophetic events, including the drowning of Pharaoh. Ashurah occurs on the 10th of Muharram.

Shi'a alone observe these occasions:

  • Arba'een, which commemorates the suffering of the women and children of Imam Husayn's household. After Husayn was killed, they were marched over the desert, from Karbala (central Iraq) to Shaam (Damascus, Syria). Many children died of thirst and exposure along the route. Arba'een occurs on the 20th of Safar, 40 days after Ashurah.
  • Eid al-Ghadeer , which celebrates Ghadir Khum , the occasion upon which Shi'a believe Muhammad announced Ali's imamate before a multitude of Muslims. Eid al-Ghadeer is held on the 18th of Dhil-Hijjah.
  • Al-Mubahila celebrates a meeting between the household of the prophet Muhammad and a Christian deputation from Najran. Ak-Mubahila is held on the 24th of Dhil-Hijjah.

Twelvers celebrate the

History of the Shi'a

Modern Sunni-Shi'a relations

Many Sunnis refuse to accept the Shi'a as fellow Muslims, calling them "bringers of bid'a" -- bid'a, or innovation, being regarded as necessarily wrong. The Shi'a in turn believe that the Sunni have yielded to power and the temptations of ease and wealth, and that only the Shi'a have kept faith with Muhammad's original intentions. The communities have remained separate, mingling only during the Hajj.

Modern Shi'a have generally been tolerant towards the Sunni, tolerating them even when the state religion is Shi'a, as in Iran. However, when attacked (as in Pakistan) they have retaliated violently.

Modern mainstream Sunni have also become less confrontational. The renowned al-Azhar Theological school in Egypt, one of the main centers of Sunni scholarship in the world, announced the following on July 6, 1959:

"The Shi'a is a school of thought that is religiously correct to follow in worship as are other Sunni schools of thought."

Al-Azhar's official position in this regard remains unchanged to this day. However, Muslims like the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and the Pakistani Islamist parties still regard Shi'a as heretics, and have been responsible for many attacks on Shi'a gatherings at mosques and shrines.

See also

External links


Shi'a texts:

  • Qur'an
  • Nahj al Balagha; the sermons and letters of Ali.
  • Mafatih al-janan; a collection of prayers.
  • Usul i Kafi; a collection of hadiths.

Academic sources:

Last updated: 05-07-2005 09:02:01
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