Shiite Muslims in Iraq

About the Shiite Muslims in Iraq

Nearly two-thirds of Iraqis are Shiite Muslims, and they populate the slums of Baghdad as well as the south of Iraq. Unlike Kurds and others in the northern no-flight zone, who have received a proportionate share of Iraqi revenues under the United Nations-administered oil-for-food program, Iraqis in the vast southern zone have suffered greatly from a decade of sanctions.

An Iraqi Shiite Man in Najaf (VOA News)
An Iraqi Shiite Man in Najaf (VOA News)

Iraqi Shiites demonstrated their independence from Iranian Shiites in 1980 after Iraq invaded Iran. A Central Intelligence Agency report noted in 1991 that Iraq’s Shiites “rejected Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini’s concept of velayat-e faqui (political rule by a supreme religious leader) and remained loyal to Baghdad during the eight-year war with Iran.”

Despite a lack of political connection, Iraq’s most important Shiite clerics survive in exile in Iran today. Only in August did Bush administration officials meet with the brother of Shiite leader Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, head of the influential Supreme Assembly for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is based in Tehran. This is only a small step toward forming a representative anti-Hussein coalition.

It is Shiites who have most consistently fought Saddam Hussein since 1991, when Shiite clerics called for an uprising. “The Shia uprising in the south was far more dangerous than the Kurdish insurgency in the north,” one eyewitness later reported to the State Department. Although the small and disastrous northern uprising in 1996 had no exact counterpart in the south, a Shiite group attacked Mr. Hussein’s eldest son, Uday, that year and crippled him. In 1998 Shiite rebels attacked Mr. Hussein’s second in command, Izzat Ibrahim.

Sunni/Shiite Split in Islam

Islam is a monotheistic faith and the world’s second-largest religion.

Followers of Islam, known as Muslims, believe that God (or, in Arabic, Allah) revealed His direct word for mankind to Muhammad (c. 570–632) and other prophets, including Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. However, that which was revealed to Muhammad was considered to be the final and ultimate revelation, and corrective of Jewish and Christian traditions. The Muslims hold that the main written record of revelation to mankind is the Qur’an, which is believed to be flawless, as it is, after all, the direct word of God to mankind.

There are six basic beliefs shared by all Muslims:

  • Belief in God, the one and only one worthy of all worship.
  • Belief in the Angels.
  • Belief in the Books (sent by God).
  • Belief in all the Prophets and Messengers (sent by God).
  • Belief in the Day of Judgment (Qiyamah) and in the Resurrection.
  • Belief in Fate (Qadar)

The Qur’an is the sacred book of Islam. It has also been called, in English, the Koran and the Quran. Qur’an is the currently preferred English transliteration of the Arabic original; it means “recitation”.

Muslims believe that the Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel on numerous occasions between the years 610 and Muhammad’s death in 632.

Shi’a Islam makes up the second largest sect of believers in Islam, constituting about 15% of all Muslims. (The largest sect is the Sunni Muslims)

Sunnis and Shias agree on the core fundamentals of Islam – the Five Pillars – and recognize each others as Muslims.

Shia Muslims continue to hold the same fundamental beliefs of other Muslims, with the principle addition being that they also believe in an imamate, which is the distinctive institution of Shia Islam. The doctrine of the imamate was not fully developed until the tenth century.

Sunni Muslims view the caliph as a temporal leader only and consider an imam to be a prayer leader, but for the Shia the historic caliphs were merely de facto rulers, while the rightful and true leadership continued to be passed along through a sort of apostolic succession of Muhammad’s descendants, the Imams (when capitalized, Imam refers to the Shia descendant of the House of Ali).

The imamate began with Ali, who is also accepted by Sunni Muslims as the fourth of the “rightly guided caliphs” to succeed the Prophet. But the Shia also revere Ali as the First Imam, and his descendants, beginning with his sons Hasan and Husain, continue the line of the Imams until the twelfth.

The Theology of the Shiite Belief

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.

The Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, Iraq
The Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, Iraq

Shi’a Muslims believe that Ali, the son-in-law 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 regard 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.

Shi’a Muslims believe that the twelve descendants of Prophet Muhammad are Imams (political and religious leaders) and have a special status. They are regarded as direct successors (in all matters) of Prophet Muhammad. They are infallible, impeccable, divinely inspired, and chosen directly by God.

The differences between Shi’a and Sunni are historical and theological. Theological differences include different beliefs in regard to only principle of the religion of Islam. That difference is Immamate (Leadership and Guidance).

Shi’a believe that there is only one God however they believe that God has delegated some qualities of Divinty onto the Twelve Imams.

There are also differences in regards to other principles of Islam. The Shi’a believe that God at all times appoints an infallible and impeccable individual to be the vicegerent of the Prophet, they consider leadership of the muslims to be the right of the family of Ali. Sunnis consider this to be a form of morarchy, which they reject they also believe that the leader of the Muslims is not God-appointed but elected by the Muslims. For Shi’a, in the case where the leader appointed by God is superficially absent, then any other form of government which is closest to a Just government is acceptable (for example democracy).

The Shi’a community has an established hierarchy of leaders, who are the looked upon to make religious rulings and in contrast to the Sunnis who consider the concept of priesthood to be alien to Islam.

The Tomb of Imam Ali
The Tomb of Imam Ali

At times in history, imams may have had actual, temporal power, but usually this was not the case, and the Imam remained in the role of a political outsider. Nevertheless, he always retained spiritiual and religious authority. He may not be equal to Muhammad because revelation from Allah has ceased, but interpretation is not simply a matter of learning – it also requires divine guidance. Thus, the Shia believe in at least a separation between temporaral and spiritual authority which is unlike the Sunni, yet similar to what we find in Christianity.

Because of this, Shia Islam is very much a voice of dissent and opposition, an advocate for the underclasses and downtrodden. This is not unlike Christianity’s situation in its early days, except that in the latter case, much of that character was lost over time because Christian spiritual authority became fused with Roman temporal authority.

Also like with Christianity, an important theme in Shia Islam is the ideal of suffering and martyrdom, particularly because Ali’s son Husain and his followers were massacred by the armies of Mu’awiya’s son, Yazid, at the battle of Karbala (680). Husain is treated very much as a Christ figure in Shia Islam, and every year people celebrate his martyrdom with passion plays and penitential processions (normally on the tenth day of Muharram (Ashura), the anniversary of his death). Ritual mourning (taaziya) is performed by groups of five to twenty men each.

It is an important characteristic of Shia Islam, differentiating it from Sunni Islam, that doctrine can be continually expanded and reinterpreted. Shia practice also differs from Sunni practice concerning divorce and inheritance in that it is more favorable to women. Supposedly the reason for this is the high esteem in which Fatima, the wife of Ali and the daughter of Muhammad, was held.

The Imam Husayn Mosque in Karbala, Iraq
The Imam Husayn Mosque in Karbala, Iraq

A third characteristic which is rather distinct is the emphasis on visitation of shrines dedicated to the various Imams. In Iraq, these include the tomb of Imam Ali in An Najaf and that of his son, Imam Husayn, in Karbala.

Before the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), tens of thousands of Iranian Shias visited them each year. In Iran, sites include the tomb of the Eighth Imam in Mashhad and that of his sister in Qom. Part of the reason for the popularity of these shrines is the expense and difficulty which the poorer Shia had in making the hajj to Mecca in the earliest days of Islam.

Shia Islam has also developed its own sub-sects, including Twelver, or Ithna-Ashari, Shi’ism, the Isma’ilis, the Zaidis and the Fatimids. The first is the main branch of Shia Islam; the others are much smaller. Shiites generally follow the Jafri school of legal thought, whereas Sunni Muslims follow the Hanifa, Shafi, Hanibal and Malik schools of legal thought. One of the practical differences this results in is that Shia recognize the practice of temporary marriages, something more common before Islam but which the Sunni forbid.

Variants of Shi’ite Muslims

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. The Ismailis have had a long and eventful history. In mediaeval times, they twice established states of their own and played important parts for relatively long periods on the historical stage of the Muslim world. During the second century of their history, the Ismailis founded the first Shia caliphate under the Fatimid caliph-imams. They also made important contributions to Islamic thought and culture during the Fatimid period. Later, after a schism that split Ismailism into two major Nizari and Mustalian branches, the Nizari leaders succeeded in founding a cohesive state, with numerous mountain strongholds and scattered territories stretching from eastern Persia to Syria. The Nizari state collapsed only under the onslaught of all-conquering Mongols. Thereafter, the Ismailis never regained any political prominence and survived in many lands as a minor Shia Muslim sect. By the second half of the eighteenth century, however, the spiritual leaders or imams of the Nizari majority came out of their obscurity and actively participated in certain political events in Persia and, then, in British India; later they acquired international prominence under their hereditary title of Agha Khan (Aga Khan). (The Ismailis: Their history and doctrines (Cambridge University Press, 1990, p.15-16)

Shiite Muslims in Iraq (AFP/Qassem Zein)
An Iraqi man waves the national flag during Friday prayers in the Kufa mosque, a few kilometers from the holy Shiite Muslim city of Najaf, 160 kms south of Baghdad.

Fiver Shi’as or Zaidis: Zaidi beliefs are moderate compared to other Shia sects. The Zaidis do not believe in the infallibility of the Imams, nor that they receive divine guidance. Zaidis also do not believe that the Imamate must pass from father to son, but believe it can be held by any descendant of Ali. They also reject the Twelver notion of a hidden Imam, and like the Ismailis believe in a living imam, or even imams.

In matters of law or fiqh, the Zaidis are actually closest to the Sunni Shafie school.

Zaidis form the dominant religious group in Yemen, and the leader of the Zaidi community took the title of Caliph. As such, the ruler of Yemen was known as the Caliph, and this system continued until the middle of the 20th century (1962).

Both major Shi’a sects believe that the last Imam (either the seventh or the twelfth) has been hidden alive by God. Beliefs vary as to what will happen when the last Imam, called the Mahdi (“the guided one”). It is generally believed that the last Imam will be accompanied by Jesus and will affirm Muhammad’s message to mankind from God.

Shiites in the World

Top 10 Countries with Highest Number of Shiites & Percent Shiite

Iran 61,000,000 (93%), Oman 948,750 (75%), Bahrain 400,000 (65%), Azerbaijan 4,700,000 (61%), Iraq 11,000,000 (55%), Lebanon 1,370,000 (40%), Yemen 3,170,000 (36%), Kuwait 550,000 (30%), Pakistan 26,700,000 (25%), Syria 1,300,000 (17%)

Sources:, Wikipedia,