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 shariat. In Sunni Islam an imam is the leader of congregational prayer. Among the Shia of Iran the term imam traditionally has been used only for Ali and his eleven descendants. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The Shia doctrine of the Imamate was not fully elaborated until the tenth century. The Imamate began with Ali, who is also accepted by Sunni Muslims as the fourth of the "rightly guided caliphs" to succeed the Prophet. Shia 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. *

Shia believe that their imam are infallible leaders like a pope who disclosed the true meaning of the Qur’an and provided in guidance for daily life. Various groups of Shia recognize different numbers of “imams” . The largest sect acknowledges 12 and they are known as the Ithnasharo ("Twelver") sect. They believe the 12 imans are descendants of the Prophet and perfect teachers, who were inspired by God to provide authoritative guidance and guide the faithful from paradise.

Some say the first five imam were 1) Muhammad, 2) Ali, 3) Hussein (Husayn), 4) Hussein’s oldest son Ali Zayn al-Abidin (died 714), a mystic and poet, and 5) Muhammad al-Baqir, who developed an escoteric method of reading of the Qur’an with hidden meanings. Soem have also described a Shia trinity of Allah, Muhammad and Ali. Beginning with Ali all the Shia imam are believed to have been murdered.

Many Shias say this is not true. Muhammad is not an imam. He serves as a prophet in both Shia and Sunni ideology. The first three Imams were: 1) Hazrat Ali; 2) Hazrat Hassan, eldest son on Hazrat Ali; and 3) Hazrat Hussein, second son of Hazrat Ali Hazrat Mohammad was not an Imam, he was the Prophet . There is no trinity in Shia Islam, as there is in Christianity. There is no idea of trinity in Islam. We as muslim believe that God is one and Mohammad is his messenger. (source- Noble Quran- surah 112. Hazrat Mohammad and Hazrat Ali are not different facets of God. They are His Most Revered beings on Earth.

Websites and Resources: Islam ; Islamic City ; Islam 101 ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance ; BBC article ; Patheos Library – Islam ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam ; Islam at Project Gutenberg ; Islam from UCB Libraries GovPubs ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary frontline ; Discover Islam ;

Shias, Sufis and Muslim Sects and Schools Divisions in Islam ; Four Sunni Schools of Thought ; Wikipedia article on Shia Islam Wikipedia Shafaqna: International Shia News Agency ;, a Shia Website ; The Shiapedia, an online Shia encyclopedia ; ; Imam Al-Khoei Foundation (Twelver) ; Official Website of Nizari Ismaili (Ismaili) ; Official Website of Alavi Bohra (Ismaili) ; The Institute of Ismaili Studies (Ismaili) ; Wikipedia article on Sufism Wikipedia ; Sufism in the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World ; Sufism, Sufis, and Sufi Orders – Sufism's Many Paths ; Afterhours Sufism Stories ; Risala Roohi Sharif, translations (English and Urdu) of "The Book of Soul", by Hazrat Sultan Bahu, a 17th century Sufi ; The Spiritual Life in Islam:Sufism ; Sufism - an Inquiry

Different Shia Imam

Iman Reza shrine in Mashhad, Iran

The imamate began with Ali, who is also accepted by Sunni Muslims as the fourth of the "rightly guided caliphs" to succeed the Prophet. Shia revere Ali as the First Imam, and his descendants, beginning with his sons Hasan and Husayn, continue the line of the Imams until the twelfth. Shia point to the close lifetime association of the Prophet with Ali. When Ali was six years old, he was invited by the Prophet to live with him, and Shia believe Ali was the first person to make the declaration of faith in Islam. Ali also slept in the Prophet's bed on the night of the hijra, when it was feared that the house would be attacked by unbelievers and the Prophet stabbed to death. He fought in all the battles the Prophet did, except one, and the Prophet chose him to be the husband of one of his favorite daughters, Fatima. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Among Shia, 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 Sunni caliphs were cognizant of this hope, Imams generally were persecuted under 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 eighth century, Caliph Al Mamun, son and successor to Harun ar Rashid, was favorably disposed toward the descendants of Ali and their followers. He invited Imam Reza, the Eighth Imam (765-816), to come from Medina to his court at Marv (Mary in present-day Turkmenistan). While Reza was residing at Marv, Al 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, in present-day Iran. A major shrine developed around her tomb, and over the centuries Qom has become a major Shia pilgrimage site and theological center.*

Al 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 in, or die in, what is now Iran. A major shrine, and eventually the city of Mashhad, grew up around his tomb, which is the major pilgrimage center in Iran. Several 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 Al Mamun, out of jealousy for Reza's increasing popularity, had the Imam poisoned. Al Mamun's suspected treachery against Imam Reza and his family tended to reinforce a feeling already prevalent among his followers that Sunni rulers were untrustworthy.*

Shia Beliefs

Ayatollah Khomeini expounded the doctrine of velayat-e faqih

All Shia Muslims believe there are seven pillars of faith, which detail the acts necessary to demonstrate and reinforce faith. The first five of these pillars are shared with Sunni Muslims. They are shahada, or the confession of faith; namaz, or ritualized prayer; zakat, or almsgiving; sawm, fasting and contemplation during daylight hours during the lunar month of Ramadan; and hajj, or pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina once in a lifetime if financially feasible. The other two pillars, which are not shared with Sunnis, are jihad — or crusade to protect Islamic lands, beliefs, and institutions, and the requirement to do good works and to avoid all evil thoughts, words, and deeds. [Source: Library of Congress *]

One distinctive and frequently misunderstood Shia belief is taqiyah, religious dissimulation. Taqiyah, condemned by the Sunnis as cowardly and irreligious, is the hiding or disavowal of one's religion or its practices to escape the danger of death from those opposed to the faith. Persecution of Shia Imams during the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates reinforced the need for taqiyah. A further belief of Shia Muslims concerns divine justice and the individual's responsibility for his acts, which are judged by a just God. This contrasts with the Sunni view that God's creation of man allows minimal possibility for the exercise of free will. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

A 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. This has not been a traditional idea in Shia Islam and is, in fact, an innovation. 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 Shia had not attempted prior to the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

Twelfth and Last Imam, the Shia Messiah

Shia believe that the 12th and last Imam, Imam-e-Zaman (Imam al-Mahdi), a son of Hasan al-Askari, who was never seen, mysteriously disappeared in 878. After that he maintained contacts with representatives until 941 and then went silent. Shia believe he is still alive and will one day appear and usher Shia to the Judgement Day. They say he will reappear on earth at the “end of time” to rid the world of corruption, establish justice, pass judgement on wicked and raise the faithful in way not unlike Jesus and his second coming.

The Twelfth Imam is believed to have been only five years old when he became Imam in 874 on the death of his father. 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. Shia believe that the Twelfth Imam never died, but disappeared in about 939. Since then, the greater occultation of the Twelfth Imam has been in force, which will last until God commands the Twelfth Imam to manifest himself on earth again as the mahdi or messiah. Shia believe that during the 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. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The Shia doctrine of the imamate was not fully elaborated until the tenth century. Other dogmas developed still later. A characteristic of Shia Islam is the continual exposition and reinterpretation of doctrine.*

Many Iranian Shia believe that when the 12th imam returns he will appear at Jamkaram Mosque near Qom, Iran. In recent years this mosque has become a center of messianic fever as the faithful come by the car and bus load to not only to seek miracles but to be on hand when Imam al-Mahdi reappears. The come in the greatest numbers on Tuesday, the day associated most with the imam’s blessings. Sometimes the government stirs up fervor, especially when they are under threat and need some distraction. When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke before the United Nations General Assembly in 2005 he prayed for the Mahdi’s returns: “O mightly lord, I pray to hasten the emergence of thee...the promise done...the one who will fill this world with justice and peace.”

As is true with beliefs about the second coming of Jesus certain signs are viewed as fulfillment of a prophesies that al-Mahdi is coming soon. Among the signs was the destruction of the important Shia shrine in Samarra in 2006. Some have argued that American troops were placed in Saudi Arabia and Iraq to kill the Mahdi and make Jesus the Shia messiah.

Shia, Miracles and Saints

20120510-ali Tailb-Muhammad-fresco 2.jpg
ali Tailb-Muhammad
Shia have a stronger belief in miracles than Sunnis. The Jamkaran shrine in Qom has been a destination for pilgrims seeking miracle cures for a thousand years. A cleric at the shrine told the Los Angeles Times, “A prayer in the Jamkaran Mosque is almost like going to Mecca...If someone comes each week, 40 times in 40 weeks, he can be worthy to meet the Mahdi when he returns.”

One worker at the shrine told the Los Angeles Times that she saw a 13-year-old who was very ill suddenly stand up cured. “People were crying, You could not hear the loudspeaker,” she said. In 1998, the Registry of Divine Acts of Mercy was set up at Jamkaran shrine to investigate reported miracle cures. As of 2002, six miracles out 270 claims had been authenticated.

Describing the scene at Jamakran, John Daniszewski wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Thousands of people arrive her by car and bus. Beneath the twinkling lights of the blue-tiled mosque, they sit on the carpets, following prayers broadcasts over loudspeakers: families, pilgrims from distant provinces, young men frantic was expectation, women hoping for cures...The devout make their way to the back of the shrine. There, they write their hopes, dreams and prayers onto slips of paper that they drop into two wells — one for men, one for women. The pray, eyes squeezed shut, until politely moved along by mosque workers.”

Sunnis have traditionally frowned upon the worship of saints and shrines as a distraction from the worship of Allah that borders on the worship of idols. Shia and Sufis look upon on visits to shrines as meritorious forms or religious worship. Visiting the shrines of important Imam is central to the Shia faith.

The worship of saints has been part of Islam since the very beginning. The Qur’an speaks of friends of God (“awilya’ Allah” ). Among this those have attracted a great deal of attention are Fatimah, Muhammad’s favorite daughter, and Ali, his cousin and son-in-law. Muslims who honor local saints and holy men worship their relics and invoke their names for protection and blessings. Many Sunni Muslims look down upon these activities as forms of idolatry.

According to the BBC: “The Wahabi movement within Sunni Islam views the Shi'a practice of visiting and venerating shrines to the Imams of the Prophet's Family and other saints and scholars as heretical. Most mainstream Sunni Muslims have no objections. Some Sufi movements, which often provide a bridge between Shi'a and Sunni theologies, help to unite Muslims of both traditions and encourage visiting and venerating these shrines. |[Source: BBC, August 19, 2009 |::|]

Shia Religious Obligations

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, Moharram, and pilgrimages to the shrines of the Twelve Imams and their various descendants. The Moharram observances commemorate the death of the Third Imam, Husayn, who was the son of Ali and Fatima and the grandson of Muhammad. He was killed near Karbala in modern Iraq in A.D. 680 during a battle with troops supporting the Umayyad caliph. Husayn's death is commemorated by Shia with passion plays and is an intensely religious time. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

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 Shia. *

Twelver Shia reverence for the Imams has encouraged distinctive rituals. The most important is Ashura, the commemoration of the death of Husayn. Other practices include pilgrimages to shrines of Ali and his relatives. According to strict Wahhabi Sunni interpretations of Islam, these practices resemble the pagan rituals that the Prophet attacked. Therefore, observance of Ashura and pilgrimages to shrines have constituted flash points for sectarian problems between the Saudi Wahhabis and the Shia minority in the Eastern Province. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Saudi Arabia: A Country Study, U.S. Library of Congress, 1992 ]

Shia Clerics

20120510-Shiraziye 25.jpg
The structure of the Shia clergy is much more hierarchical and centralized than the Sunni clergy, which since the abolishment of the caliphate in 1924 has had a serious void of central leadership.

Shia are under the leadership of the religious leaders call “Mujtahids” until the 12th Imam, the Mahdi, returns. Under their guidance Shia theology, first formulated into standard works around A.D. 1000, has developed independent of the Sunni community. Shia doctrine was given a final form with the establishment of Shia Islam as the state religion of Iran in 1500 and the development of Shia madrassahs in Iran and Iraq.

Shia mullahs wield considerable power. Unlike Sunni clerics, who act primarily in an advisory role, Shia clerics are mandated to interpret the God’s word and the more senior a cleric is the more authoritative his views are. Shia Islam requires followers to choose a senior cleric, known as a “marjah-e-taqlid” (“source of emulation”) to guide them through life as a good Muslim.

Ayatollahs (literally meaning “mirrors of Islam”) are the highest ranking clerics in Shia Islam. They are regarded as sources of wisdom and guidance and have been the authoritative leaders since the last of the Imam disappeared. Their power is regarded as sanctioned by God. As the power of the clergy has grown in Iraq, some rivalry has begun to develop between the religion leaders in Iraq and Iran. Since the Iranian revolution in 1979 the Ayatollahs of Iran have acted as if they were the central authority of Shia Islam.

The power of the Iranian ayatollahs is enshrined in the Iranian constitution where their authority has served as the basis for the governance of Iran since 1979. The mandate for rule is based on a theory called “wilayat al-faqih” elaborated on by Ayatollah Khomeini in a series of lectures in 1970 in which he argued that ayatollahs are the inheritors of God’s authority from Ali and the 12 imam. In Iraq, by contrast, there is no legal basis for the power of the ayatollahs. Their influence comes from tradition and respect. Iraq’s ayatollah have tended to sit quietly on the sidelines of politics, above the fray, entering the realm only when the well being of country is at stake, a role played by monarchs in countries like Spain and Thailand.

Shia clerics are often more elaborately dressed than their Sunni counterparts. They often wear white, black or green headgear, Sunni clergy usually wear white headgear. Anthony Shahod wrote in the Washington Post, that Shia tend make points less directly “through whispers and hints, through allegories and metaphor.”

Shia Customs, Laws and Practices

Sheikh Fazlollah Noori
Shia Islam has a long association with mysticism, poetry and ritual. While Sunni Islam is known largely for its austerity and emulation of the prophet’s simple way of life, Shia Islamic is known more for its blood-letting festivals, hypnotic music and poetry and use of images, acts that are regarded as idolatrous and heretical by some Sunnis. In predominately-Sunni Egypt, which has a rich cultural tradition and lively nightlife, people say they may be Sunni in mind but they are Shia in heart. In Cairo, Sunnis fill the streets to celebrate the birthdays of Shia saints and pay their respects to the head of Hussein in Cairo’s Shrine of Imam Hussein.

Khite is ancient custom practiced by Shia in which hair is removed from the cheeks and eyebrows using twists of cotton thread. Under Shia law, women get a larger share of inheritance than Sunnis. In some places there is tradition of Sunnis converting to Shia Islam so their daughters can receive a larger inheritance share.

Some have argued that Shia Islam is more compatibly with democracy than Sunni Islam because it isn’t so tied to the Qur’an. One of the leading liberal Muslim scholars is Abdolkarim Soroush, an Iranian Shia. But on the other hand a lot of anti-American and anti-West vitriol has come out of mouths of Shia leaders, a trend popularized by Ayatollah Khomeini after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah is widely respected in the Muslim world for standing up to the Israelis.

Shia have their own legal school of Sharia law that defines ways of doing prayer actions, going about personal relations and treating criminals that are different than those of Sunnis. Legal precedents are reached on the basis of decisions made with imam rather than made by the Muslim community, which is the case with the four main Sunni Sharia schools. The primary schools of law for Shia are the Jafari and Zaydi schools.

Sunni judges are known following Islamic law to the letter. Shia judges are known for being more lenient in interpreting the law. Sufis are known for taking an even more relaxed view on sharia. Shia law refuses to accept traditions not transmitted through Ali or one of his descendants. It rejects the doctrine of ijma (coming to a decision by consensus), and says Muslim law can only be interpreted by the Imams of the House of Ali.

Sunni and Shia Mosques and Homes

Kerbala Mosque in Iraq
Sunni mosques tend to have domes and minarets. Shia often worship at Huseiniyas, which combine the functions of a mosque and community center and don’t necessarily have domes. In Iraq, Shia places of worships are often draped with traditional green and black flags and are decorated with portraits of Ali and sometimes Hussein. Sunni mosques tend to be more austere; portraits of any kind are regarded as forms of idolatry. [Source: Time magazine, March 15. 2007]

Shia fondness of portraits often extends to their homes. An image of Ali is often hung on the walls of their living rooms. Sunnis tend to favor calligraphy with quotations from the Qur’an. During important religious occasions Shia may unfurl colorful flags on their roof. Sometimes Sunnis display a white flag when they have returned from the Hajj.

Shia fondness of portraits also extends to their vehicles. Shia often have pictures or stickers of Ali in their cars, especially in their rear windows. The also like to hang religious amulets (like a strip of green called am “Alek”) from the rear view mirrors. In Iraq, such markers can be dangerous. In the mid 2000s, it was not uncommon for Sunni militias to pull over cars with Ali stickers and murder the passengers,

Shia Prayers and Prayer Positions

Shia and Sunnis hold their hands in different positions when they pray. Shia tend to hold their arms straight down and with their hands in front them with their palms touching the body or facing downwards. Sunnis cross their arms just over the rib cage. A Shi'a at prayer can often be identified by a small tablet of clay from a holy place (often Karbala), on which they place their forehead whilst prostrating. [Source: BBC, Time magazine, March 15. 2007]

During prayers members of both sects kneel, bend and touch their foreheads to the ground. Devout Shia touch their heads to a small clay disc, known as a “turba”, made in to the holy city of Najaf. Over time the “turba” can make a small callus on the forehead. Some Sunnis develop calluses from rubbing their forehead against their prayer mats.

All Muslims are required to pray five times a day. Sunnis have five separate prayer times. Shia have the option of doubling up their prayers and praying at three prayer times (before sunrise and twice in the afternoon at one's discretion). On the call to prayer Shia add “Come to the best deed” after “Come to security” and add Ali’s name to those of God and the Prophet Muhammad. Shia also have a special ritual ablution and their call to prayer is typically a couple minutes behind those of Sunnis.

During Ramadan, Sunnis and Shia often break the fast at different times and observe their celebrations a day or two apart. In Iraq, the Shia-dominated government angered Sunnis when it decided to hang Saddam Hussein on the first day of Sunni Eid in 2006. The festival started the next day for Shia.

Shia prayers

Sunni Predetermination Versus Shia Free Will

Predetermination is primarily a Sunni belief. Shia affirm man's free will. Some Muslims believe “God determines all things, but humans are responsible for acquiring the possibilities God creates for them." There are a number of Qur’anic verses that proclaim human responsibility and declare that men will be rewarded or punished on the Judgment Day depending on the deeds they perform in their life.

The Shia belief is essentially as follows: “Human reason is competent to determine good and evil, except in such matters as religious obligation. Men do not themselves possess the power to create actions which belongs to God alone, but they are invested by God with volition whereby they can chose to do good or evil actions, and thus everyone is liable to reward or punishment in future life." [Source: Encyclopedia of the World's Religion, H.A.R. Gibb]

The beliefs that free will and reasoning have a place in Islam were advocated by scholars influenced by Greek philosophy. Some of their ideas — such as reasoning contradicts revelation — undermined the very foundation of Islam. Conservative Muslims argue against free will, stating that to do so is second guessing Allah and reckoning that someone other than God is involved in the act of Creation. Some go even farther and say that anything that comes into existence as a “consequence” of human action is an allusion and the consequence exists only because God allows it. In doing this God creates beliefs and non-beliefs, piety and impiety as well as concrete things like people and animals. These beliefs remain at the heart of Sunni beliefs today. Tied in to these argument is a suspicion of applying reasoning to the Qur’an and matters of faith.

Sunni-Shia Differences on Hadith, Sunnah and Mahdi

According to the BBC: “Initially the difference between Sunni and Shi'a was merely a question of who should lead the Muslim community. As time went on, however, the Shi'a began to show a preference for particular Hadith and Sunnah literature. [Source: BBC, August 19, 2009 |::|]

“Interpretation of the Hadith and Sunnah is an Islamic academic science. The Shi'a gave preference to those credited to the Prophet's family and close associates. The Sunnis consider all Hadith and Sunnah narrated by any of twelve thousand companions to be equally valid. Shi'as recognise these as useful texts relating to Islamic jurisprudence, but subject them to close scrutiny. Ultimately this difference of emphasis led to different understandings of the laws and practices of Islam. |::|

“The concept of the Mahdi is a central tenet of Shi'a theology, but many Sunni Muslims also believe in the coming of a Mahdi, or rightly guided one, at the end of time to spread justice and peace. He will also be called Muhammad and be a descendant of the Prophet in the line of his daughter Fatima (Ali's wife). The idea has been popular with grassroots Muslims due to the preaching of several Sufi or mystical trends in Islam.


“Over the centuries a number of individuals have declared themselves the Mahdi come to regenerate the Muslim world, but none has been accepted by the majority of the Sunni community. However, some more Orthodox Sunni Muslims dispute the concept of the Mahdi because there is no mention of it in the Qur'an or Sunnah. |::|

Shia Marriage and Divorce Practices

One distinctive and frequently misunderstood Shia practice is mutah, temporary marriage. Mutah is a fixed-term contract that is subject to renewal. It was practiced by the first community of Muslims at Medina but was banned by the second caliph. Mutah differs from permanent marriage in that it does not require divorce to terminate it. It can be for a period as short as an evening or as long as a lifetime. The offspring of such an arrangement are the legitimate heirs of the man. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Shia practice differs from that of the Sunnis concerning both divorce and inheritance in that it is more favorable to women. The reason for this reputedly is the high esteem in which Fatima, the wife of Ali and the daughter of the Prophet, was held.

Shia Sects

Shia have repeatedly broken up into smaller sects with the “Twlevers,” being the largest sect. By some counts there are 72 Shia sects. Most Iranians and Iraqis follow the Ja’fari Twelver school of Shia Islam. The recognize twelve imam and in the old days folded their turbans 12 times, one for each imam. (see Above). The Ismaelis are sometimes called the "Seveners." They recognize seven imam.

The Alawites are a Shia sect in Syria. The Syrian president and his father Hafez al-Assad are members. The Druze are sometimes regarded as a Shia sect. Kharijism is a puritanical form of Shia Islam that developed over disagreements over the succession of the caliph.

The Zayids are a Shia sect in Yemen founded the Zayd ibn Ali, a direct descendant of Muhammad and Ali. They recognize only four imans and believe that only the worthiest members of the Prophet’s family should be named imam. The do not recognize Muhammad al-Baqir (d. 731) as the fifth imam, as most Shia do, but rather recognize his brother Zayd instead, hence the Zayid’s name.

Shia Music in Iraq

Moteza Neydavoud, a Jewish musician, who became a master of Persian music

Alissa J. Rubin wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The heart of Baghdad's Shia life is in Kadhimiya, one of the city's oldest neighborhoods. Cantilevered windows lean out from wooden houses over the narrow dirt streets; the outdoor market is so thick with merchants' booths that each awning touches the next. Small wooden doorways lead into warrens of tiny shops, apothecaries, barbers and cloth sellers. At the very back of one of these dark hallways is a small jewelry store no more than 6 feet across and perhaps 8 or 9 feet deep. On a February afternoon, four men are inside, two of them chatting and the other two etching religious messages in fine calligraphy onto gold jewelry. A small boy rushes in periodically with trays of heavily sugared tea. Portraits of revered Shia leaders watch over the proceedings: Muhammad Sadeq Sadr, with his snow-white beard, and his darker-bearded brother, Muhammad Bakr Sadr. Both are believed to have been assassinated on Hussein's orders. [Source: Alissa J. Rubin, Los Angeles Times, May 8, 2005]

“The hunched jewelers are more than craftsmen. They are the "poets of the Husseini pulpit," singers from a tradition stretching back more than 10 centuries. They sing the story of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, in versions ancient and contemporary, urban and Bedouin. It is a form of a cappella music that strikes a chord in almost every Shia who hears it, seeming at once ancient and utterly current. The men in the shop are reciters, or singers; generally, the poems have been handed down through an oral tradition or are written by contemporaries."Most of my thinking is spiritual. I go deeper and deeper into each word I utter and also have before my eyes the image of the death of Imam Hussein," Haider abu Ameer, 23, says as he pauses in his engraving. Then, he lays down his tools and begins to sing.

The melody is lilting, yet carries a sadness so eloquent it brings many listeners to tears. The sound fills the small shop and seeps out under the door. It draws neighborhood children who, their noses pressed to the glass, listen from outside. Ameer closes his eyes as his voice rises and falls by half and quarter tones. Much more than a jewelry shop, this is a gathering place for Husseini pulpit singers. Many of them work the two jobs — engraver and singer. "There have been attempts over the centuries to extinguish the tradition of the Husseini pulpit," says the singer Talib, 33, sitting in the shop listening to the conversation, a white shawl covering his head. "But it has been around for 1,400 years. There is no end to such a school. Saddam's regime tried to diminish us as well, but we were able to continue."

“The Kadhimiya neighborhood has two flourishing schools that teach the art of Husseini pulpit singing. There are more in other Shia areas of Baghdad as well as in Najaf and Karbala. Some graduates of the four-year schools become professionals and sing at religious festivals; others confine their performances to their own families. Some become teachers or travel to start Husseini pulpit schools in other places. The singers, in demand for weddings and funerals, are almost always present on the Shia' high holidays, when corps of men walk in formation, alternately clapping their hands, beating their chests and hitting themselves with ropes or chains, as poets of the pulpit sing Imam Hussein's story. "The suffering which we have 'lived under is part of a cycle of actions and reactions," Talib says. "And our suffering is rewarded by God."”

Shia Islamic Education in Iraq

Mustansiriya University (founded as a madrassah) in Baghdad

Alissa J. Rubin wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The signs began to appear in the Shia neighborhoods of Baghdad and in the larger cities across southern Iraq just a few months after Saddam Hussein's disappearance from the capital. "Classes in Qur’an, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays," and then, "Classes for Girls and Boys." By the fall of 2003, announcements blared from mosque loudspeakers. One proclaimed, "We are calling all women to join religious school. Secondary school certificates necessary. They will have to pass an exam. Classes start Saturday. Registration is at the Kadhimiya hospital." [Source: Alissa J. Rubin, Los Angeles Times, May 8, 2005]

“And women came. At first in small groups, then dozens, then scores. The clerics who ran some of the schools puzzled over how to accommodate them. In strict Islamic settings, men and women must attend separate classes, sometimes even at different times of the day. "We started out just meeting once a week. Right away, we had to go to twice a week. Now we are trying to add a third class because the women want it," Salah Ubaidi says at a low-slung, modern Arab house in Kadhimiya donated by a wealthy Shia from the United Arab Emirates for use as a religious school. In Iraq, Shia clerics, including Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, encourage women to take part in politics and pursue an education, although they expect them to wear head scarves and abayas. In the domestic sphere, women are expected to allow their rights to be governed by Sharia — Islamic law.

“On that particular day, the instruction is for men. In the classrooms for theology lessons, students sit on rugs, and instead of desks there are rows of low wooden Qur’an holders that — like the stands on which preachers place the Bible — allow the book to stay open. Other classrooms have rows of computers, and just before lunch a class gets underway in how to use the Internet for research.

“In another Shia neighborhood, a 100-year-old school that had been used by the Baath Party as a neighborhood headquarters is searching for a female teacher. Sheik Hassan Tuaima, who teaches women twice a week in two-hour sessions, needs the help. In a neon-lighted classroom, about 25 women ranging from their late teens to their 40s, one or two quieting children they have brought along, listen closely to Hassan's lecture. Several interrupt him with questions, and Hassan looks away as he answers. In Iraqi Muslim culture, it is considered rude for a man to look a woman in the eye when he is speaking to her.

“After class, as they drink juice with Hassan, the students turn to a reporter and several talk animatedly about the hijab controversy in France, where the head covering was banned from public schools. "You need to write very clearly about this," admonishes Fatima, 25, who studied engineering at college. "This is about religious freedom. The hijab is a sign of our faith, like Christians wearing a cross. Why shouldn't we be allowed to wear it?"”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). Also articles in National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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