Citation for Shi'i Islam

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"Shi'i Islam." In The Islamic World: Past and Present. Ed. John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. May 20, 2022. <>.


"Shi'i Islam." In The Islamic World: Past and Present. , edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed May 20, 2022).

Shi'i Islam

Shi'i Islam is the smaller of the two major branches of Islam. Its name derives from the term shi'ah, meaning “followers,” “party,” or “supporters.” Early Shi'is called themselves shi'at Ali—the party of Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad's cousin. Shi'i Muslims believe that Ali and his descendants are the rightful rulers and spiritual leaders of the Muslim community. While Sunni Muslims accept the authority of Muhammad's companions, Shi'is place their faith primarily in members of the Prophet's family.

Shi'i Islam

After Muhammad died, Muslims split over the question of a successor. Shi'is believed that the new leader should come from the Prophet's family. In the mid-600s, civil war divided the Muslim world, and this Safavid painting of the 1600s shows one of the battles involving a Shi'i hero.

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Origins and Early Development

The Shi'i movement originated in Arabia shortly after the Prophet's death. It has its roots in the tribal divisions of the ummah (Muslim community). The ummah consisted of clans, many of which retained their old values and customs. The tribes of northern and central Arabia lacked clearly defined religious traditions. They chose new rulers according to seniority and ability. The southern faction, in contrast, had strong religious traditions relating to authority and chose leaders based on heredity and divine authority.

After Muhammad's death, the Muslim community split over who would succeed him. The majority group believed that ability should serve as the primary qualification. They held that the successor should be a forceful leader who could maintain unity among the many clans in the community. An opposing group viewed the succession issue in spiritual terms. They argued that Muhammad's family would serve as the natural leaders of the Islamic community. These Muslims cited Qur'anic verses that spoke of God's favor passing to the Prophet's descendants and argued that members of Muhammad's line alone could become imams.

Struggle Over the Caliphate.

The Muslims who supported leadership by the Prophet's family believed that the proper successor to Muhammad was his cousin and son-in-law, Ali. The majority of Muslims, however, backed Muhammad's closest adviser and companion, Abu Bakr , and he became caliph in 632 . After Abu Bakr's death, Umar ibn al-Khattab , another close companion of the Prophet, served as caliph from 634 to 644 . When Umar died, Uthman ibn Affan, a member of the Umayyad clan, succeeded him. Supporters of Ali opposed many of the new caliph's policies. Uthman also stirred opposition among Sunni Muslims by appointing his fellow Umayyads to influential positions. Members of the Umayyad family seized the wealth of the growing empire, caring little for the needs of the ummah. In 656 a mob killed Uthman, and Ali succeeded him as caliph, although he accepted the position reluctantly.

Although Ali had gained many supporters, some Muslim clans, including the powerful Umayyads, opposed him. Civil war quickly spread throughout the region. The Umayyads and several other groups rose up against Ali, and an assassin struck him down in 661 . Shi'is believed the caliphate should pass to Hasan ibn Ali, the oldest son of Ali and Fatimah , Muhammad's daughter. The Umayyad chief Mu'awiyah, however, outmaneuvered Hasan and seized power for himself.

Umayyad and Abbasid Periods.

The Umayyads controlled the caliphate from 661 to 750 . Mu'awiyah faced strong opposition from supporters of the sons of Ali and persecuted them, but the Shi'is persevered. After Hasan died, they supported his brother, Husayn ibn Ali. After the death of Mu'awiyah, Shi'is in Kufa, Iraq, invited Husayn to their city to become caliph. The Iraqi governor, however, sent troops to stop the caravan. They massacred Husayn and many of his family members at Karbala, taking the rest as prisoners.

The tragedy at Karbala became the defining event of Shi'i Islam, infusing the movement with a newfound passion and mobilizing its members. Devotion became a key element of Shi'ism, especially in the expression of love for Muhammad's family. After Husayn's death, Shi'is revered him as a martyr. Thousands sought vengeance against the Umayyad government. A group of 3,000 Shi'is, called the Tawwabun (Penitents), rose up against the Umayyads. These Muslims believed that their deaths on the battlefield would help them repent for their inability to help Husayn in his time of need. The Shi'i cause drew support from other Muslims who opposed Umayyad society, including members of influential families in Medina, Muslims who sought to establish a more religious state, and non-Arabs who resented Arab dominance.

As the Shi'i movement spread, a conflict over succession developed. Husayn's only surviving son, Ali Zayn al-Abidin , displayed few leadership qualities. Some Shi'is backed Ali's third son, Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyah , as their leader. When he died in 700 , Husayn's grandson, Zayd ibn Ali , gained the support of several Shi'i groups. Zayd led an armed uprising against the Umayyads, but caliphate forces crushed the revolt and killed Zayd in 740 .

The Abbasids overthrew the Umayyad dynasty a decade later. Although initially allied with the Shi'is, the Abbasids suppressed the movement. Despite persecution, Shi'i Muslims maintained their traditions. Overall, the movement gained in numbers but split into three distinct branches: Zaydi, Ismaili, and Ithna Ashari.

Shi'i Buyids Gain Power.

In the mid-900s, the Buyids, military adventurers from Iran, captured the Abbasid capital of Baghdad. They ruled for about a century, until the Abbasids and Seljuk Turks reestablished Sunni dominance. The Buyids supported Shi'ism. Scholars in Iran and Iraq consolidated Shi'i doctrines at this time, formulating Shi'i law and compiling collections of hadith. Theologians produced several major commentaries and religious works. Shi'is also established shrines and instituted worship rituals. By the end of the Buyid era, the basic principles of Shi'ism had fully emerged. All three Shi'i branches had a strong enough foundation to survive on their own.

Religious Division and Doctrine

Shi'is and Sunnis share many of the same religious beliefs. Both branches follow the Qur'an and observe the five Pillars of Islam. Shi'i Muslims, however, differ from Sunnis in certain fundamental ways. Sunnis believe that God and humans have a direct relationship. They look to their ulama (religious scholars) for guidance in religious doctrine, but not for intercession with God. Shi'is, on the other hand, believe intercession to be an integral element of Islam. They maintain that the imams who succeeded Muhammad were divinely inspired and served as a link between God and the community. They also believe that an imam will return at the end of time to redeem the Shi'is and free them from oppression.

Shi'i Muslims developed rituals around the imams that became central to their faith. They visit shrines and tombs of imams and members of Muhammad's family to express their devotion and to celebrate these figures' birthdays or death anniversaries. Sunni Muslims shun these practices. Shi'is, in turn, have denounced the Sunni caliphates and the domination of non-Shi'is over the Muslim world. They see themselves as members of a struggling community striving to create a just society according to God's rule. Over time, different Shi'i sects have emerged.

Three Major Branches of Shi'ism.

Disagreements over imam succession divided the Shi'is into three main branches. The Zaydi branch formed after the death of the fourth imam, Zayn al-Abidin, in 713 . This faction supported Zayn's son Zayd as the fifth imam, while the majority of Shi'is favored Muhammad al-Baqir. The Zaydis further broke away from mainstream Shi'ism by rejecting the idea that the imam possesses divine powers and represents God on earth. They believed that any descendant of Ali could become imam as long as he expressed religious devotion, had an Islamic education, and could take up the sword against the enemies of Islam. This ruled out infants as well as the hidden imams later acknowledged by the other Shi'i groups. The Zaydis developed major works of Shi'i law and rejected Shi'i practices they considered extreme, such as temporary marriages.

The remaining followers of Shi'i Islam split into two groups in the 700s. The division occurred over the successor to the sixth imam, Jafar al-Sadiq. The Ismailis recognized Ismail, Jafar's dead son, as the seventh imam. Called Seveners, this group believes that Ismail is the Hidden Imam—an imam who has not died but lives in seclusion, protected by God. The Hidden Imam will return as a world ruler to establish a reign of justice. Several smaller sects, including the Druze and the Nizari, developed out of the Ismaili tradition.

Ithna Ashari, the third and largest Shi'i Muslim group, recognized Jafar al-Sadiq's son, Musa al-Kazim , as the seventh imam. Called Twelvers, the group acknowledged five more imams as Muhammad's successors. The twelfth imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, disappeared as a child in 874 . The Ithna Asharis believe that he went into hiding and will return to rule. As the divinely guided leader of the ummah, Muhammad al-Mahdi will restore justice and equality on earth. The Ithna Asharis refer to him as the Hidden Imam, or the Mahdi.

The Seveners and Twelvers both await a messianic figure who will return as savior. While awaiting the Hidden Imam's return, Shi'is look to religious experts for guidance. The Twelvers developed a clerical hierarchy to govern their community in the absence of the Mahdi. Their leaders are ayatollahs, scholars noted for their piety and knowledge.

All Shi'i Muslims view the imams as intermediaries between God and humanity. The Ithna Asharis recognize Fourteen Pure Ones. These include Muhammad, Ali, Fatimah, Hasan, Husayn, and the remaining nine imams. As the “Mother of the Imams” and a symbol of purity and virtue, Fatimah serves as a role model for women. Husayn, who sacrificed his life in battle, is an inspiration for men.

Suffering and martyrdom play a major role in the Shi'i faith. Believers revere the holy family for suffering in God's service and for enduring persecution from Sunni caliphs. They view the imams as examples of dedication and sacrifice in the face of tyranny. They believe that each imam, except the last one, died as a martyr. Some Shi'i groups regard dying for the faith as the highest honor.

Shi'ism in Practice.

Shi'is and Sunnis share many of the same religious practices, including daily prayers and fasting. Shi'i Muslims, however, have developed many distinctive rituals around suffering and martyrdom. They celebrate holidays honoring the imams' birth and death dates. Many organize annual reenactments of the tragedy of Husayn's martyrdom at Karbala, engaging in recitations, street processions, and passion plays to commemorate Husayn's death. Weeping, prayer, and self-flogging all serve as part of this experience, as believers seek to atone for their own sins by identifying with Husayn's suffering. The Karbala reenactment also honors Shi'is' role as oppressed minorities fighting to restore God's justice.

Pilgrimages to the tombs and shrines of imams also serve as an important aspect of Shi'i worship. Believers journey to holy sites in order to receive blessings and intercessions. Karbala, Najaf, and Qom house some of the holiest tomb-shrines in Shi'ism. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims visit these and other Shi'i shrines each year.

Shi'i Political Efforts

Historically, Sunni governments have dominated the Islamic world. Shi'i Islam has, nonetheless, exerted a significant political influence. In certain regions, Shi'ism has become a major force. Even when Shi'is serve as a minority, their doctrines affect the region they inhabit. In the 1900s, Shi'ism emerged as a leading voice in Islamic political activism.

Shi'i Dynasties.

During the medieval period, the three major Shi'i groups built power bases in different regions. The Ithna Asharis established groups in Iran and Iraq, and Zaydi influence increased in Iraq, Yemen, and parts of Africa. The Ismailis were strongest in Syria, Egypt, India, and parts of North Africa.

The closest in outlook to the Sunnis, the Zaydis were the first Shi'is to establish an independent state. They ruled an amirate in northern Iran from 864 to 1126 . The Ismailis created the first Shi'i caliphate in the 900s, eliminating Abbasid power in Egypt. They established the Fatimid dynasty, named after Muhammad's daughter. This vast empire eventually controlled Egypt, southern Syria, and parts of North Africa. Byzantine and Seljuk armies, however, blocked Fatimid campaigns to expand further into the Middle East. By the 1000s, internal division had weakened the dynasty. Headed by the great warrior Saladin, Sunni forces ended Fatimid rule in 1171 .

Shi'is possessed little political power in the Islamic world from the 1000s until 1501 , when the Safavids took control of Iran. They established Shi'ism as the official faith of their new empire, favoring the Ithna Ashari doctrine. A prominent clerical class flourished. Although Afghan invaders toppled the dynasty in 1722 , Shi'ism remained firmly rooted in the region.

Less than a century after the Safavids fell, the Qajar dynasty reestablished Shi'i political rule in Iran. This dynasty's reign lasted from 1796 to 1925 . The Shi'i ulama increased their authority during this period. In the 1800s, Russian and British encroachments weakened the dynasty's hold on the region. In 1925 military strongman Reza Shah Pahlavi ended the Qajar reign.

Modern Political Thought.

In the 1900s, many Shi'is grew resentful of European colonialism and the secularization of the Muslim world. Faced with increasing Western influence, Iranians disagreed as to how to ensure their country's progress. Although frustrated by European imperialism, many embraced modern reforms as a means of strengthening their na-tion. Others favored a return to the traditional principles of Shi'ism. Religious leaders in Iran searched for a way to preserve their elevated position in Muslim society.

The Constitutional Revolution in Iran ( 1905 – 1911 ) revealed the growing tension between modernists and Islamic traditionalists. The proponents of secularism sought a new constitutional government based on Western models. This movement divided the religious scholars, who remained uncertain as to how the constitution would affect the religious life of the nation. Some ulama supported the drive, believing that it would promote national progress. Others warned that a constitutional government would override the authority of Shi'i law. Eventually, the ulama sided with the secular revolutionaries. By supporting the Constitutional Revolution, Shi'i clerics ensured they would occupy a prominent place in the new order. Iran adopted a new constitution. Russia and Britain, however, continued to dominate Iranian politics.

In the 1920s, Shi'i religious leaders supported a popular uprising against British dominance. Reza Shah Pahlavi's rise to power further disturbed the Shi'i clergy, as the new leader pursued a secular agenda. The state punished several outspoken Shi'i critics. Religious leaders, however, continued to speak out against the Pahlavi regime. They gained greater influence in the 1960s, when the death of Ayatollah Burujirdi, the leading teacher of the era, opened the door for increased activism. Burujirdi had had little interest in politics, and his death enabled the ulama to pursue a more ambitious agenda. They established Qur'anic schools and discussion groups to teach modern Shi'i political thought. Clerics and intellectuals backed the movement and spread Shi'i teachings.

Shi'i religious leaders preached opposition to the secular Pahlavi regime, now headed by Muhammad Reza Shah . The leading cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah al-Musavi Khomeini led an uprising in Qom in June 1963 . Although the government crushed the revolt and deported Khomeini, the movement continued. The highly influential Iranian thinker Ali Shariati promoted an activist, radical, classless society that would oppose tyranny. He rejected the authority of the ulama, stating that every Muslim should think independently and take charge of his destiny. Shariati identified Western imperialism, social injustice, and political repression as the great challenges of the day.

Shariati's teachings attracted many supporters in the 1970s. Meanwhile, Khomeini continued to promote opposition to the Pahlavi regime. He declared that the world had sunk into corruption during the absence of the twelfth imam. Unjust leaders, such as the shah, aggravated the situation. Khomeini preached that Shi'i jurists should seize power in Muslim states. Their knowledge of sacred law qualified them to oversee the community's daily affairs. During the Iranian Revolution of 1979 , Khomeini and the Shi'i clerics came to power. Iran's new constitution embodied modern Shi'i political thought, and Khomeini established himself as the supreme religious authority of Iran.

Shi'i influence continues to grow and take hold in countries, such as Lebanon, where Shi'ism has become a strong political force. Shi'is account for about 15 percent of all Muslims, and 60 to 80 million Shi'is live in countries throughout the world. They make up a majority in Iran, Iraq, and possibly Yemen. Sizeable Shi'i populations also exist in Lebanon, Syria, India, Pakistan, and East Africa. See also Ali ibn Abi Talib ; Druze; Fatimah ; Husayn ibn Ali ; Imam; Iran; Ismaili; Ithna Ashari; Khomeini, Ruhollah al-Musavi; Messianic Traditions; Safavid Dynasty; Zaydi.

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