Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Shia Islam

Shia Islam
Iraqi Shiites pray inside the Imam Abbas shrine in the holy city of Karbala, Iraq, 11 October 2016. Photo MOHAMMED SAWAF / AFP

Every tenth day of the Islamic hijri calendar, the same scenes of mourning, sorrow and self-flagellation are repeated by Shiite Muslims across the globe: men beating themselves with chains; others slapping their bare chests in a powerful rhythm; bodies bleeding; women weeping; and crowds chanting.

Ashura, the tenth day of the hijri month of Muharram, is generally commemorated by all Muslims, who believe it is the day Moses fasted to thank God for saving the Israelites from the pharaoh. But for Shiites, who constitute roughly 10-15 per cent of Muslims worldwide, Ashura holds particular significance. It saw the martyrdom of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein ibn Ali more than 1,300 years ago while he was on his way to lead a revolt against Yazid ibn Muawiyah, the second caliph in the Umayyad Caliphate. Yazid had just assumed power, to the dismay of other leading Muslim figures at the time, and amid a civil war dubbed by Muslim scholars as the second fitna.

Hussein was killed in the famous Battle of Karbala. The city of Karbala is located in today’s Iraq, and it is where Shiites believe Hussein is buried. Shiite pilgrims visit his shrine every year.

Who are the Shiites?

Shia Islam- Ashura
Iraqi Shiite men are beating themselves with large knives in the day of Asura, Karbala, Iraq, 11 October 2016. Photo MOHAMMED SAWAF / AFP

While the second fitna is widely believed to have led to the crystallization of the Sunni-Shiite schism, Shiites first emerged following the death of Prophet Muhammad in 632. They wanted Ali ibn Abi Talib, the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, to succeed him as the first Muslim caliph, instead of Abu Bakr, who was the prophet’s close companion and father-in-law.

Abu Bakr would indeed become the first caliph and Ali would be the fourth. Ali ruled the Muslim nation for five years before he was assassinated during a civil war that came to be called the first fitna.

So, it was amid the first and second fitnas that Shiites emerged as supporters of Ali and his blood descendants, including his son Hussein, whose martyrdom lies at the heart of Shiites’ beliefs and rituals.

To the majority of Shiites, Ali and his descendants (who are related to the prophet by blood) should have succeeded the prophet as caliphs and imamsi (infallible religious leaders).

This is also how the Shiite sect got it name, as the word ‘Shiism’ originates from Shiat Ali, which translates as ‘Ali’s supporters’ or ‘Ali’s partisans’.

Today, Shiites are divided into numerous sects, the largest being Twelver Shiism. Shiites make up the majority of the population in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Azerbaijan; and they constitute significant minorities in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Turkey, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India, Nigeria and Tanzania.

According to the Pew Research Center, between 68-80 per cent of the world’s Shiite population live in four countries: Iran, Pakistan, India and Iraq. Twelver Shiism is the official religion in Iran.

Shiite Sects

Twelver Shiism

The largest and most dominant sect is Twelver Shiism. Twelvers prevail in Iran, Iraq and Bahrain. Lebanon’s Shiite community, who make up more than a quarter of the country’s population, also adhere to this sect.

Twelvers believe that there is a chain of 12 imams, all of whom are blood descendants of Prophet Muhammad. They regard the 12 imams, one after the other, as the only legitimate religious and political leaders to succeed Prophet Muhammad.

The first of the twelve imams is Ali ibn Abi Talib himself, followed by his son Hassan as second imam, then his other son Hussein as third imam. Hussein’s son, Ali Zayn al-Abideen, is regarded as the fourth imam. The fifth is Muhammad al-Baqir, followed by Jafar al-Sadiq, then Musa al-Kazim as seventh imam, and so on to the 12th imam.

Whether the 12th imam ever existed is disputed. Some say that the 11th imam, Hassan al-Askari, never had a son to succeed him in the first place. Twelver Shiites insist that he did, but his son has been hiding in a secret place, or occultation (ghayba), and is still alive. His name is Muhammad ibn Hassan, also known as al-Mahdi al-Muntathar (the awaited, guided one). Twelver Shiite tradition holds that the Mahdi will return at the end of time to ‘fill the world with justice’.


To Twelver Shiites, the 12 imams were infallible, and they are seen to hold a rank second only to Prophet Muhammad’s. Unlike the prophet, imams do not receive revelations from God. They do, however, possess the unique authority ‘to provide divine guidance in the form of exposition and elucidation upon Muhammad’s teachings’. This authority ‘is considered an extension of Muhammad’s prophetic authority’.


Another core concept in Twelver Shiism is taqiyyah (dissimulation), whereby Shiites are allowed to conceal their true religious and/or political views ‘in times of danger or political necessity’.

The concept was developed in the early days of Shiism when the imams and their followers were persecuted under the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties. It is in the framework of taqiyyah that Twelver Shiites explain the occultation of the Mahdi. Taqiyyah also enables Shiites to cope with difficulties and persecution as they wait for the Mahdi’s eventual return.

Vilayet i-faqih

Despite taqiyyah and the quiescent nature that it implies for Twelver Shiites, the world saw Twelvers rise against the ruling regime in 1979, in the Iranian Revolution led by Ruhollah Khomeini, who recalled the old concept of vilayet i-faqih (the guardianship of the jurist) and developed it to form a religious basis for the uprising.

The absence of the Mahdi made it necessary for the ulama (scholars) to provide guidance to Shiite laymen through ijtihad (reasoning) until the Mahdi’s return.

There are differences among Shiite scholars over the vilayet i-faqih theory. Even those who subscribe to it disagree about the magnitude of the authority of the faqih (jurist), and whether this authority should be limited or be absolute. Absolute guardianship of the jurist, in line with Khomeini’s theory, means that the jurist, who heads the hierarchy of mujtahids (scholars who adopt reasoning), is not only authorized to guide the people in religious matters but also to rule them at the political level.

Ismailiyyah – The Seveners

Historically, Ismailiyyah emerged in the 8th century, breaking with Twelver Shiites after the death of the sixth imam, Jafar al-Sadiq. They believe that Jafar’s eldest son Ismail and his descendants complete the legitimate imamate linage, on the grounds that Jafar had appointed Ismail as his successor imam. Ismail died before Jafar and the imamate actually went to Musa al-Qazim, who is recognized by the Twelvers as the seventh imam. The Ismailiyyah, the largest Shiite sect after the Twelvers, split into several branches throughout history.

Currently, Nizari Ismailis, whose imam is Aga Khan IV, are believed to be the largest Ismaili branch, with millions of followers in India and Pakistan as well as parts of Iran, Syria and Africa. Nizari Ismailis believe Aga Khan IV has lineage that goes back to Ismail ibn Jafar, which also makes him a descendent of Ali ibn Abi Talib, Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law. A smaller Ismaili branch is the Bohras, who split into Dawoodi Bohras and Sulaimani Bohras.


Zaydi Shiites make up between 25-40 per cent of Yemen’s population.

Zaydis broke with Twelver Shiites over the fifth imam’s identity. Twelvers regard Muhammad al-Baqir as the fifth imam whereas Zaydis believe the imamate went to al-Baqir’s half-brother Zayd (both are sons of the fourth imam) because Zayd was politically active and led a rebellion against the Umayyad Caliphate when al-Baqir stayed away from the political arena. This differentiation is central to Zaydis’ perception of the imam as being a ‘hero’. Any male, adult descendent of Ali ibn Abi Talib qualifies to be an imam, according to most Zaydis, if he has enough religious knowledge and is capable of and willing to fight against corruption and tyranny.

Unlike Twelvers, Zaydi Shiites do not believe in the imams’ infallibility, and they also reject the concept of a ‘hidden imam’ who will return at the end of time.

Like Sunnis, however, Zaydis ‘believe that religion is revealed to man once and for all’. This is different from the Twelver notion that the imam is divinely inspired and authorized to guide laymen and provide an explanation of God’s rulings.

The Zaydi sect is often described as closer to Sunni Islam than it is to Twelver Shiism. Zaydis’ jurisprudence bears similarities to Sunnis’ Shafei school of jurisprudence, which is also prevalent among Yemen’s Sunni community. Moreover, most Zaydis are less radical in their condemnation of the first and second Muslim caliphs, Abu Bakr and Omar ibn al-Khattab. The Zaydiyyah doctrine has evolved over time; and there are divisions and disagreements among Zaydis.

Other Shiite sects

In addition to Twelvers, Ismailis and Zaydis as the largest Shiite sects, there are the Alawites, who constitute a significant minority in Syria. The country’s President Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite.

Another Shiite group is the Alevites, the largest religious minority in Turkey. The Alevi faith is thought to be rooted in Shiism, the Bektashi Sufi order and even Christianity.

Both the Alawite and Alevi faiths have a secretive nature, which means little is known to outsiders about their doctrines and practices.

How Sunnis view Shiites

Just like Shiites are divided into branches and smaller sects, Sunnis are by no means homogenous in their views and stances, including with regard to how they view Shiites.

Saudi Arabia’s top cleric Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh (a Sunni) said in 2016 that Iran’s leaders, who are Twelver Shiites, “are not Muslims”. The Saudi stance on Shiites has a political aspect to it, with both Saudi Arabia and Shiite-majority Iran at loggerheads over regional politics.

Egypt, another Sunni-majority country, officially adopts a different stance toward Shiites. Grand Imam of al-Azhar, the country’s most senior Sunni authority, recently called for Sunni-Shiite dialogue and prayed alongside Shiite leaders during a visit to Indonesia. Pro-Shiite critics, however, accused the imam of failing to adopt a consistently tolerant stance towards Shiites, pointing to previous statements such as his criticism of the “massacres” committed by Shiite militias in Iraq during the war on the Islamic State group.