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Shi'a Islam

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Shi‘as (the adjective in Arabic is شيعى shi‘i; English has traditionally used Shiite) make up the second largest sect of believers in Islam, constituting about 25%-30% of all Muslims. (The largest sect, the Sunni Muslims, make up about 70% of all Muslims).


Shi‘as around the world

Shi‘a Muslims live in all parts of the world, but some countries have a higher concentration of Shi‘a. Iran is almost entirely Shi‘a, and of the 95% Muslim population of Iraq, about 70% are Shi‘a. Large Shi‘a populations are also found in Pakistan (25%), the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia (19%), Bahrain (almost 80%), Oman, with smaller groups in other parts of the Persian Gulf.

Twelver Shi‘a Beliefs

The majority of Shi‘as are referred to as Twelver Shi‘as. This is so that they can be distinguished from other variants of Shi‘a Islam. Twelver Shi‘as believe in the imamate (leadership) of the twelve imams following the death of Prophet Muhammad.

Twelve Imams

Following is a listing of the rightful sucessors of Muhammad, as recognized by mainstream ("Twelver") Shias. Each Imam was the son of the previous Imam, except for Husayn who was the brother of Hasan. See Shia Imams for details.

  1. Ali ibn Abu Talib (600 - 661)
  2. Hasan ibn Ali (625 - 669)
  3. Husayn ibn Ali (626 - 680)
  4. Ali ibn Husayn (658 - 713), also known as Zainul Abideen
  5. Muhammad al Baqir (676 - 743)
  6. Jafar as Sadiq (703 - 765)
  7. Musa al Kazim (745 - 799)
  8. Ali ar Rida (765 - 818)
  9. Muhammad at Taqi (810 - 835)
  10. Ali al Hadi (827 - 868)
  11. Hasan al Askari (846 - 874)
  12. Muhammad al Mahdi (868 - ?))

Shi‘a Muslims believe that Ali, the son-in-law and cousin of Prophet Muhammad, was the first of the twelve imams appointed by God to succeed Prophet Muhammad as leader of the Muslim community. Shi‘as disregard the three caliphs who succeeded him as illegitimate rulers who usurped power in contravention to God's command and the will of the Prophet Muhammad.

They believe that the twelve descendants of Prophet Muhammad are Imams (political and religious leaders) and have a special status. They are regarded as direct corporeal and spiritual successors of Prophet Muhammad. They are infallible, divinely inspired, and chosen directly by God.

There are two categories of Islamic theology, namely "Usuli " (rationalist) and "Akhbari " (traditionalist). According to Usulis, it is the obligation of every muslim to either be a marja or follow a living marja. There are many Shi‘a marjas in the world today such as Ayatollah Khamenei, Ayatollah Vahid-Khorasani , Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Ayatollah Sadiq Sherazi, etc. However, according to "Akhbaris," only Prophet Muhammad and the twelve imams should be followed absolutely.

Important Days


This is the 10th of Muharram, which is the first month of the Islamic year. This day marks the commemoration of Imam Husayn bin Ali's martyrdom. It is a day of deep mourning. Husayn was the third imam, a grandson of Prophet Muhammad (the son of Prophet Muhammad's daughter- Fatima) and a son of Ali. He is a symbol of martyrdom, and standing up against oppression for Shi‘a Muslims.


Arba'een is 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 revealed to Prophet Muhammad to inform the people that Imam Ali would be his successor.

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 Chrsitian 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 Shi'a Imam, Ja'far al-Sadiq (see Shia Imams). (The Sunnis mark the occasion on 12th Rabbi al-Awwal.)

Shab al-Bara'ah

Significant to all Muslims but specifically to Shi'as as it also marks the birth date of their 12th and final Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi.

Variants of Shi‘a Islam

The variants of Shi‘a Islam differ regarding the rights of succession after the death of Prophet Muhammad, but they agree that the Imams were usurped from their rightful position.

Sevener Shi‘as: The Ismailis are the largest group among Sevener Shi‘as.

Fiver Shi‘as or Zaidis: A minor group that believes in the same first four imams as the Twelvers and Seveners, but differ on the fifth. They are thus known as Fivers.

Both major Shi‘a sects (as do some Sunni Muslims) believe that the last Imam (either the seventh or the twelfth) has been hidden alive by God. This hidden (occulted) imam is capable of communicating with the faithful. Some Iranian Shi‘as believed that the late Ayatollah Khomeini (not to be confused with Ayatollah Khamenei, the current supreme ayatollah of Iran) received inspiration from the twelfth and last Imam. Beliefs vary as to what will happen when the last Imam, called the Mahdi ("the guided one"), returns (though some sects reserve that title for Jesus). It is generally believed that the last Imam will be accompanied by Jesus and will affirm Muhammad's message to mankind from God.

Bahá'í Faith: This independent religion (not a sect of Islam) accepts the Twelver Shi‘a succession as correct, though they also believe that the twelfth Imam is the Báb. The Bahá'ís are considered heretics by many Shi‘a Muslims.

See also

Karbala, Jafari, Imam, Fatimids, Ismailis, Sunni Islam, Iraqi opposition, Shia Imams, Zaidi, Dawoodi Bohras

External links

  • Ahlul Bayt Digital Islamic Library Project
  • Shi‘a News
  • Islamic Institute & Imam Ali Mosque, New York
  • Imam AL-KHOEI islamic center, Jamica, New York
  • Marja and concept of Shi‘a Leadership
  • Fundamentals of Islam
  • Akhbari sub-sect , a Shia school that rejects modern innovations; including Khomeini's

Last updated: 05-01-2005 23:37:46