Saturday, January 10, 2015

Demystifying Shi'a Islam

By: Jill Ricotta

('Ali [علي], one of the main figures of Shia Islam, in a very typical and popular Shiite-style representation)

Shi’a Islam has been misunderstood since basically the beginning of its existence. Around the world, people don’t know what it is, or that Islam has multiple sects. Even in the Middle East/South East Asia region, other Muslims view Shiism as bizarre, hyper-emotional, or even antithetical to the message of the Prophet.
And these attitudes have consequences for the Middle East, both inside the countries themselves and in how regional politics play out (For the sake of this article, I will define the Middle East as stretching from Egypt to Iran).
(Photo Credit:

There is no way to deal with Shi’a Islam without telling the (somewhat simplified) story of how it began. After the Prophet Mohammed died, there was a debate between two different groups over who would succeed him as the leader of the Muslim community. The group now known as Sunnis supported Abu Bakr, Mohammed’s close friend. Another group supported ‘Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son in-law. This group would become the Shi’a, a word which is derived from the Arabic phrase شيعة علي, or followers of ‘Ali. Since this essential divide, the two communities have maintained different ideas, teachings and cultural understandings of the Qur’an and Mohammed. Even now, many Shi’a Muslims look to ‘Ali and his son Hussein as sources of wisdom, guidance and pure religiosity.

The first point to make about the modern Shi’a world is that it is incredibly diverse. Often popular discourse leads us to believe that Arab Shi’as have an unbreakable bond with Iranian Shi’as, and that these two communities are practically one in the same. This could not be further from the truth. Arab Shiism has many aspects that distinguish it from Persian Shiism, including a stronger focus on the sayings and teachings of ‘Ali than those of Hussein. Furthermore, the Shiite communities of Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Syria each have unique and distinctive qualities and traditions. And we must never forget that a Shi’a from Iran speaks Persian and often has a hard time communicating with a Shi’a from Bahrain or Iraq, who speaks Arabic.
So now moving on to what Shii’ism is not. It is not bizarre, or violent. These two claims are often supported by the outsider’s view of ‘Ashura, the day of mourning the martyrdom of Hussein (‘Ali’s younger son). ‘Ashura is a extremely important to all Shi’a Muslims. This holiday is always celebrated on the 10th day of the first month of the Muslim calendar. The name actually is derived from the Arabic word for ten (عشرة). Passion plays acting out the martyrdom of Hussein are extremely popular, particularly in Iran. Many religious scholars debate how much people should cry in reaction to these plays. So ‘Ashura has always been a solemn occasion but also inspires Shi’a to be like Hussein, who died fighting corruption and injustice. A woman in the south of Lebanon said this about Hussein and ‘Ashura:
“In every era there is an oppressor and an oppressed. And this history always repeats itself, throughout all eras. Ashura reminds us of this, so we will never forget there is a Yazid (the man that ordered the killing of Hussein) and a Hussein in every time, in every nation, in every government, and people should always have a spirit of revolution against oppression, in all its faces, no matter what its identity

Sounds a lot like the Arab Spring doesn’t it?

But the holiday remains famous for the tradition, popular in Lebanon and other Arab Shiite countries of men taking a sword and smacking it on their heads, making them bleed. This is meant to mimic the pain of Hussein and the pain still felt by Shi’as at his loss. It is important to note that this does not cause permanent damage to the participants. Pictures of this aspect of ‘Ashura celebrations are often the only thing other Muslims and Westerns see.

(Photo Credit:

Yet this has become less popular in the Shi’a world, and is even banned in Iran. Many Shi’as have instead opted to donate blood. But pictures of that are not often shown. And people define their ideas of Shiism by these quite violent, gruesome pictures with no context or knowledge of the other events involved in ‘Ashura. Thus, this holiday and the communities that celebrate it are deemed violent and strange.
These attitudes towards Shiism are incredibly dangerous. They only serve to deepen the divides between Shi’a and Sunni that share the same country. Saudi Arabia has always persecuted its own Shi’a population and regards all Shi’as as Iranian controlled peoples, masquerading as Arabs. Often officials will point to the behaviors exhibited during ‘Ashura to back their claims of Shiites being inexplicably pugnacious and bizarre, basically a threat. It remains one of the main factors in the Saudi Arabia vs Iran rivalry that has dominated the region (a great example would be the Saudi response to the protests in Bahrain). This has time and again affected how Shi’a and Sunnis communities interact with each other, only ensuring instability and future hostility (see Iraq). Thus, deeper understanding of Shiism around the world is necessary not only to increase cultural sensitivity, but to help solve conflicts around the Middle East.

Recommended Reading on Shi’a Islam


Anonymous said...

There is a truly haunting painting of an 'Ashura ritual at İstanbul Modern. Even if its viewers understood the context, they would think it barbaric. If the "tolerant," liberal Muslim fringes of Islamic civilization can't make sense of these people, I think there's little hope for the rest of the world. And, as usual, the "subtle" distinctions between groups like the Seveners, Twelvers, and Ismailis will be disregarded—lumping them all together as some backward, inbreeding clan of self-flagellators.

Natalie Gallagher said...

Quite honestly this is a very well written peice and perspective for one to have. It is a view I hope at one point is adopted more and could resolve many regional and global tensions. You are write when you say that there is no blanket identity for the various distinct groups.

speedypaper review said...

it is sad to see many innocent people being victim again for no cause at all. i chose this issue for my custom term papers but it breaks my heart every time i read an article for research purposes