Shia Muslims hold the fundamental beliefs of other Muslims. But, in addition to these tenets, the distinctive institution of Shia Islam is the Imamate--a much more exalted position than the Sunni imam, who is primarily a prayer leader. In contrast to Sunni Muslims, who view the caliph only as a temporal leader and who lack a hereditary view of Muslim leadership, Shia Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad designated Ali to be his successor as Imam, exercising both spiritual and temporal leadership. Such an Imam must have knowledge, both in a general and a religious sense, and spiritual guidance or walayat, the ability to interpret the inner mysteries of the Quran and the sharia. Only those who have walayat are free from error and sin and have been chosen by God through the Prophet. Each Imam in turn designated his successor--through twelve Imams--each holding the same powers.
The Imamate began with Ali, who is also accepted by Sunni Muslims as the fourth of the "rightly guided caliphs" to succeed the Prophet. Shias 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, who is believed to have ascended into a supernatural state to return to earth on Judgment Day. Shias 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 Shias 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 or migration from Mecca to Medina 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 his favorite daughter, Fatima.
Among Shias 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 the Sunni caliphs were cognizant of this hope, the Imams generally were persecuted during 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 the Caliph Mamun, son and successor to Harun ar Rashid, was favorably disposed toward the descendants of Ali and their followers. He invited the Eighth Imam, Reza (A.D. 765-816), to come from Medina (in the Arabian Peninsula) to his court at Marv (Mary in the present-day Soviet Union). While Reza was residing at Marv, 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 and theological center.
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 or die in what in now Iran. A major shrine, and eventually the city of Mashhad, grew up around his tomb, which has become the most important pilgrimage center in Iran. Several important theological schools are located in Mashhad, associated with the shrine to the Eighth Imam.
Reza's sudden death was a shock to his followers, many of whom believed that Mamun, out of jealousy for Reza's increasing popularity, had the Imam poisoned. Mamun's suspected treachery against Imam Reza and his family tended to reinforce a feeling already prevalent among his followers that the Sunni rulers were untrustworthy.
The Twelfth Imam is believed to have been only five years old when the Imamate descended upon him in A.D.874 at 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. Shias believe that the Twelfth Imam never died, but disappeared from earth in about A.D. 939. Since that time, the greater occultation of the Twelfth Imam has been in force and will last until God commands the Twelfth Imam to manifest himself on earth again as the Mahdi or Messiah. Shias 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.
The Shia doctrine of the Imamate was not fully elaborated until the tenth century. Other dogmas were developed still later. A characteristic of Shia Islam is the continual exposition and reinterpretation of doctrine.
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.
A significant practice of Shia Islam is that of visiting the shrines of Imams both in Iraq and in Iran. These include the tomb of Imam Ali in An Najaf and that of his son Imam Husayn in Karbala since both are considered major Shia martyrs. Before the 1980 Iran-Iraq War, tens of thousands went each year. The Iranians have made it a central aim of their war effort to wrest these holy cities from the Iraqis. Other principal pilgrimage sites in Iraq are the tombs of the Seventh and Ninth Imams at Kazimayn, near Baghdad, and in Iran, the tomb of the Eighth Imam in Mashhad and that of his sister in Qom. Such pilgrimages originated in part from the difficulty and expense in the early days of making the hajj to Mecca.
Commemorating the martyrdom of Husayn, killed near Karbala in A.D. 680 during a battle with troops supporting the Ummayad caliph, there are processions in the Shia towns and villages of southern Iraq on the tenth of Muharram (Ashura), the anniversary of his death. Ritual mourning (taaziya) is performed by groups of men of five to twenty each. Contributions are solicited in the community to pay transportation for a local group to go to Karbala for taaziya celebrations forty days after Ashura. There is a great rivalry among groups from different places for the best performance of the passion plays.
In the villages, religious readings occur throughout Ramadan and Muharram. The men may gather in the mudhif (tribal guesthouse), the suq (market), or a private house. Women meet in homes. The readings are led either by a mumin (a man trained in a religious school in An Najaf) or by a mullah who has apprenticed with an older specialist. It is considered the duty of shaykhs, elders, prosperous merchants, and the like to sponsor these readings, or qirayas. Under the monarchy these public manifestations were discouraged, as they emphasized grievances against the Sunnis.
Two distinctive and frequently misunderstood Shia practices are mutah, temporary marriage, and taqiyah, religious dissimulation. 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.
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.
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.
Like Sunni Islam, Shia Islam has developed several sects. The most important of these is the Twelver or Ithna-Ashari sect, which predominates not only in Iraq but in the Shia world generally. Broadly speaking, the Twelvers are considered political quietists as opposed to the Zaydis who favor political activism, and the Ismailis who are identified with esoteric and gnostic religious doctrines. Within Twelver Shia Islam there are two major legal schools, the Usuli and the Akhbari. Akhbaris constitute a very small group and are found primarily around Basra and in southern Iraq as well as around Khorramshahr in Iran. The dominant Usuli school is more liberal in its legal outlook and allows greater use of interpretation (ijtihad) in reaching legal decisions, and considers that one must obey a mujtahid (learned interpreter of the law) as well as an Imam.
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