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Shia (Shī‘ah Arabic: شيعة), is the second largest denomination of Muslims, after Sunni. Shi'a, though a minority in the Muslim world, constitute the majority of the populations in Iran, Azerbaijan, Bahrain and Iraq, as well as a plurality in Lebanon.

The Shi'a attribute themselves to the Qur'an and teachings of the final Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, and in contrast to other Muslims, believe that his family, the Ahl al-Bayt (the People of the Household), including his descendants known as Imams, have special spiritual and political rule over the community.[1] Unlike Sunnis, the Shi'a believe that Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad's cousin and husband of his daughter, Fatimah, was the true successor to Muhammad who was appointed by God as his prophet, and thus reject the legitimacy of the first three Rashidun caliphs.[2]

The Shi'a faith is vast and inclusive of many different groups. There are various Shi'a theological beliefs, schools of jurisprudence, philosophical beliefs, and spiritual movements. Shi'a embodies a completely independent system of religious interpretation and political authority in the Muslim world. The Shi'a identity emerged soon after the death of Muhammad, and Shi'a theology was formulated in the second century[3] and the first Shi'a governments and societies were established by the end of the third century.

Shia is divided into three branches. The largest and best known are the Twelver (اثنا عشرية iṯnāʿašariyya) which forms a majority of the population in Iran, Azerbaijan, Bahrain and Iraq. The term Shi'a often refers to Twelver Shi'a only. Other smaller branches include the Ismaili and Zaidi, who dispute the Twelver lineage of Imams and beliefs.[4]

They are known for disregarding the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) and highly regard the companion Ali ( رضي الله عنه ).


Main article: Shia etymology

Shī‘ah, collectively, or Shī‘ī, singularly, means follower. It has been used in Qur'an in singular or plural forms with both positive[Qur'an 37:83] and negative[Qur'an 54:51] connotations.

"Shia" is the short form of the historic phrase Shy'at Ali (شيعة علي), meaning "the followers of Ali" or "the faction of Ali". Both Shia and Sunni sources trace the term to the years preceding the death of Muhammad.


Main article: Demographics of Islam



Tomb of Muhammad in Madinah, Saudi Arabia.

Shia Muslims believe that the descendants from Muhammad through his daughter Fatimah Zahra and his son-in-law Ali (the Imams) were the best source of knowledge about the Qur'an and Islam, the most trusted carriers and protectors of Muhammad's Sunnah (traditions), and the most worthy of emulation.

In particular, Shia Muslims recognize the succession of Ali (Muhammad's cousin, son-in-law, the first man to accept Islam — second only to Muhammad's wife Khadija — the male head of the Ahl al-Bayt or "people of the [Prophet's] house") and the father of Muhammad's only bloodline as opposed to that of the caliphate recognized by Sunni Muslims. Shia Muslims believe that Ali was appointed successor by Muhammad's direct order on many occasions, and that he is therefore the rightful leader of the Muslim faith.

This difference between following either the Ahl al-Bayt (Muhammad's family and descendants) or the Caliph Abu Bakr has shaped Shia and non-Shia views on some of the Qur'an, the Hadith (narrations from Muhammad) and other areas of Islam. For instance, the collection of Hadith venerated by Shia Muslims is centered on narrations by members of the Ahl al-Bayt and their supporters, while some Hadith by narrators not belonging to or supporting the Ahl al-Bayt are not included (those of Abu Huraira, for example). According to the Sunnis, Ali was the third successor to Abu Bakr however, the Shia maintain that Ali was the first divinely sanctioned "Imam," or successor of Muhammad. The seminal event in Shia history is the martyrdom in 680 CE at the Battle of Karbala of Ali's son Hussein, who led an non-allegiance movement against the defiant caliph (71 of Hussein's followers were killed as well). Hussein came to symbolize resistance to tyranny.

Regardless of the dispute about the Caliphate, the Shia recognize the religious authority of the Imams.

There are two interpretations about the emergence of Shia. One of them emphasizes the political struggle about the succession of Muhammad after his death and especially during the First Fitna.[5] The other one emphasizes on different interpretation of Islam which led to different understanding about the role of caliphs and ulamas. Hossein Nasr has quoted:

Shi'ism was not brought into existence only by the question of the political succession to Muhammad as so many Western works claim (although this question was of course of great importance). The problem of political succession may be said to be the element that crystallized the Shi'ites into a distinct group, and political suppression in later periods, especially the martyrdom of Imam Husayn-upon whom be peace-only accentuated this tendency of the Shi'ites to see themselves as a separate community within the Islamic world. The principal cause of the coming into being of Shi'ism, however, lies in the fact that this

possibility existed within the Islamic revelation itself and so had to be realized. Inasmuch as there were exoteric [Zaheri] and esoteric [Bateni] interpretations from the very beginning, from which developed the schools (madhhab) of the Sharia and Sufism in the Sunni world, there also had to be an interpretation of Islam which would combine these elements in a single whole. This possibility was realized in Shi'ism, for which the Imam is the person in whom these two aspects of traditional authority are united and in whom

the religious life is marked by a sense of tragedy and martyrdom... Hence the question which arose was not so much who should be the successor of Muhammad as what the function and qualifications of such a person would be.[6]

Ahl al-Kisa[]

Main article: Ahl al-Kisa


The Four Companions[]

Main article: The Four Companions


Main article: Status of a Shia Imam

The Occultation[]

Main article: The Occultation


The Shi'a faith throughout its history split over the issue of imamate, with each branch supporting different imams. The largest branch are the Twelvers, which over 85% of Shi'a belong to. The only other surviving branches are the Zaidi and Ismaili. All three groups follow a different line of Imamate.

Twelver Shi'a believe in the lineage of the Twelve Imams. The Zaidi dispute the succession of the fifth Twelver Imam, Muhammad al-Baqir, because he did not stage a revolution against the corrupt government, unlike Zaid ibn Ali. They do not believe in a normal lineage, but rather that any descendant of Hasan ibn Ali or Husayn ibn Ali who stages a revolution against a corrupt government is an imam. The Zaidi are mainly found in Yemen.

The Ismaili dispute the succession of the seventh Twelver Imam, Musa al-Kadhim, believing his older brother Ismail bin Jafar actually succeeded their father Jafar al-Sadiq, and did not predecease him like Twelver Shi'a believe.[7] and have several subbranches.


Main article: Twelvers

The Twelve Imams[]

See also: Twelve Imams

Template:Twelve Imams

  1. Ali ibn Abu Talib (600–661), also known as Ali, Amir ul-Mu'mineen (commander of the faithful), also known as Shah-e Mardan Ali (King of men)
  2. Hasan ibn Ali (625–669), also known as Hasan al Mujtaba
  3. Husayn ibn Ali (626–680), also known as Husayn al Shaheed, also known as Sah Hüseyin
  4. Ali ibn Husayn (658–713), also known as Ali Zainul Abideen
  5. Muhammad ibn Ali (676–743), also known as Muhammad al Baqir
  6. Jafar ibn Muhammad (703–765), also known as Ja'far as Sadiq
  7. Musa ibn Jafar (745–799), also known as Musa al Kadhim
  8. Ali ibn Musa (765–818), also known as Ali ar Ridha
  9. Muhammad ibn Ali (810–835), also known as Muhammad al Jawad (Muhammad at Taqi), also known as Taki
  10. Ali ibn Muhamad (827–868), also known as Ali al-Hadi, also known as Naki
  11. Hasan ibn Ali (846–874), also known as Hasan al Askari
  12. Muhammad ibn Hasan (868–?), also known as Hujjat ibn al Hasan, also known as Mahdi

Principles of the Religion (Usūl al-Dīn)[]

Template:Twelvers Five basic elements of Islam according to Twelver Shi'a beliefs are:

  • Tawhīd (Oneness): The Oneness of God
  • Adalah (Justice): The Justice of God
  • Nubuwwah (Prophethood): God has appointed perfect and infallible prophets and messengers to teach mankind the religion (that is, a perfect system of how to live in "peace" or "submission to God"). Prophets are Messengers which are appointed by Allah to bring the message of God to people and spread that message while the Imam (leader) is appointed by Allah to protect that message since ordinary people will fail to do so. Also, as Muhammad was the last messenger of God which means the message he brought was the last and final message to the people from Allah, none is supposed to bring a message from Allah after Muhammed, therefore, if people were left with the message alone, the true message could not survive long and would have undergone changes. Imams were therefore appointed to take care of the message and prevent people from going astray after the last prophet.
  • Imamah (Leadership): God has appointed specific leaders to lead and guide mankind — a prophet appoints a custodian of the religion before his demise. Shi'a Muslims believe in Twelve Imams, eleven of whom were killed, but they believe their twelfth Imam is still alive. Their history says that he disappeared after performing rituals of the eleventh Imam's (his father's) death. He is still under 'ghaybat' or 'occultation' and will appear on the face of the earth to raise the truth and bring an end to tyranny and oppression
  • Qiyamah (The Day of Judgment): After the annihilation of this world, God will raise mankind for Judgement.

Practices of the Religion (Furū al-Dīn)[]

Main articles: Practices of the Religion and Seven Pillars of Islam (Ismaili)
  • Salat (Prayer) – Performing the five daily prayers.
  • Sawm (Fast) – fasting during the Islamic holy lunar month of Ramadhan (Able to eat while the sun is hidden)
  • Hajj (Pilgrimage) – performing the pilgrimage to Mecca (once in a lifetime)
  • Zakat (Poor-rate) – paying the poor-tax (2.5% of your wealth every year should go to the poor)
  • Khums (One-fifth of savings) – paying tax to the Imam (سهم امام)
  • Jihad (Struggle) – struggling to please the Almighty. The greater, or internal Jihad is the struggle against the evil within one's soul in every aspect of life. The lesser, or external, Jihad is the struggle against the evil of one's environment in every aspect of life. This is not to be mistaken with the common modern misconception that this means "Holy War". Writing the truth (jihad bil qalam) and speaking truth in front of an oppressor are also forms of Jihad.
  • Amr-Bil-Ma'rūf – commanding what is good
  • Nahi-Anil-Munkar – forbidding what is evil
  • Tawalla – loving the Ahlul Bayt and their followers
  • Tabarra – dissociating oneself from the enemies of the Ahlul Bayt

Ja'fari jurispudence[]

Main article: Ja'fari jurisprudence

Role of religious scholars[]

Main article: The Shia clergy


Main article: Ismaili


Ismā‘īlī Imāms[]

Main article: List of Ismaili Imams

The Pillars of the Ismā‘īlī[]

Main article: Seven Pillars of Islam (Ismaili)


Main article: Zaidi

Sunni & Shi'a relations[]

Main article: Historical Shia-Sunni relations

Doctrinal differences[]

Because Islamic law and theology is based partly on hadith (traditions or customs of Mohammad) the Shia rejection of some Sunni hadith and Sunni rejection of some Shia hadith means that the versions understandings of Islam emerge.


See also: ismah

Unlike most Sunni Muslims and Zaidi Shi'a, Twelver and Ismaili Shi'a Muslims believe that the Ahl al-Bayt, who include the Ahl al-Kisa (People of the Cloak) and lineage of Imams, are in a state of ismah, meaning infallibility.[8]

Esoteric interpretation[]

Main article: Esoteric interpretation of the Qur'an


For example, while Twelver and Mustaali Shi'a, and all Sunni Muslims pray five times each day, some of the prayer times differ. Shia perform ritual prayers (Salah) back to back, sometimes worshipping two times consecutively, as in (1+2+2) - Asr with Dhuhr, and Isha'a with Maghrib, respectively. Shi'a do not perform non-obligatory prayers in congregation, like Tar'raweeh, which Sunnis pray during Ramadaan. Nizari Ismaili have a completely different style of prayer from both mainstream Shi'a and Sunni tradition.


Another issue of difference between the sects is that of Nikah Mut‘ah or "temporary marriage". While the Sunni claim that Mut`ah is forbidden, Shia accept it because it is found in a number of Shia traditions that the practice is permitted. There are Sahih Shia traditions which maintain that mut'ah is forbidden, but these are dismissed as they contradict other narrations on mut'ah which were deemed more acceptable.[9] Many Shi'a discourage the practice of Mut'ah, but maintain that it is permissible. The Nizari Ismaili do not allow it at all.


Another difference is that some Shia use soil (turbah) or clay tablets (mohr) during their prayers.


Main article: Persecution of Shia Muslims

Religious places & events[]


Muharram procession 2, Manama, Bahrain (Feb 2005)

Shi'a Muslims in Bahrain strike their chests during the Remembrance of Muharram.

Sunni, and Twelver and Mustaali Shi'a, celebrate the following annual holidays:

  • Eid ul-Fitr (عيد الفطر), which marks the end of fasting during the month of Ramadan and falls on the first day of Shawwal.
  • Eid ul-Adha, which marks the end of the Hajj or pilgrimage to Makkah, starts on the 10th day of Dhul Hijja.

The following holidays are observed by Twelver and Mustaali Shi'a only, unless otherwise noted:

  • The Remembrance of Muharram and Ashurah (عاشوراء) for Shia commemorates Imam Husayn ibn Ali's martyrdom. Imam Husayn was grandson of Muhammad, who was killed by Yazid ibn Muawiyah, the Sunnis' 6th Khalif. Ashurah is a day of deep mourning which occurs on the 10th of Muharram. Sunnis also celebrate Ashurah, but give it a different meaning (see Ashurah). On January 19, 2008, 2 million Iraqi Shia pilgrims marched through Karbala city, Iraq to celebrate Ashura. 20,000 Iraqi troops and police guarded the event amid tensions due to clashes between Iraqi troops and the cult which left 263 people dead (in Basra and Nasiriya).[10]
  • Arba'een 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 (some of whom were direct descendants of Muhammad) died of thirst and exposure along the route. Arba'een occurs on the 20th of Safar, 40 days after Ashurah.
  • Milad al-Nabi, Muhammad's birth date, is celebrated by both Sunni(though not all celebrate as there is a dispute on this issue) and Shia on the 17th of Rabi al-Awwal, which coincides with the birth date of the sixth imam, Ja'far al-Sadiq.
  • Mid-Sha'ban is the birth date of the 12th and final imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi. It is celebrated by Shi'a Muslims on the 15th of Shaban. Many Shia fast on this day to show gratitude.
  • Eid al-Ghadeer celebrates Ghadir Khum, the occasion when 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 Muhammad and a Christian deputation from Najran. Al-Mubahila is held on the 24th of Dhil-Hijjah.

Holy cities[]

Both Shia and Sunni Muslims share a certain veneration and religious obligations towards certain shrines and holy sites, such as Mecca (Masjid al-Haram), Medina (Al-Masjid al-Nabawi), and Jerusalem (Al-Aqsa Mosque). For a list of some of the holiest uniquely Shia shrines see Shia holy sites.


  1. Corbin (1993), pp. 45 - 51
  2. Tabatabaei (1979), pp. 41-44
  3. Dakake (2008), pp.1 and 2
  4. Tabatabae (1979), p. 76
  5. See:
    • Lapidus p. 47
    • Holt p. 72
  6. Nasr, Shi'ite Islam, preface , p. 9 and 10
  7. International Crisis Group. The Shiite Question in Saudi Arabia, Middle East Report N°45, 19 September 2005
  8. Nasr, Vali, The Shia Revival, Norton, 2006, p.38
  9. hadith number 511 The Shia sheikh Tusi gives the explanation that although this hadith is Sahih, it was narrated by Ali under taqiyah and therefore the contradiction between this hadith and those Shia narrations permitting mut'ah can be overlooked.
  10. BBC NEWS, Iraqi Shia pilgrims mark holy day

External links[]