Shia Islam, the second-largest branch of Islam. Sunni Islam constitutes the largest branch to which the majority of Muslims belong.
Shia Islam emerged out of a dispute over the succession to Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. His successors, called caliphs, were both political and religious leaders of the theocracy (earthly kingdom under divine rule) that Muhammad had set up (see Caliphate). After the assassination of the fourth caliph, Ali, in 661, Ali’s supporters claimed that it had been Ali’s right to succeed Muhammad directly and that the previous caliphs had therefore been usurpers. They maintained that only the descendants of Ali and his wife, Fatima, Muhammad's daughter, were entitled to rule the Muslim community. Ali’s followers were known as the Shia (partisans), or Shiites. But the majority of the Muslim community, who followed the Sunna (way), rejected the Shia doctrine about the succession.
DISTINCTIVE BELIEFS AND PRACTICES
The Shia developed a doctrine of the infallibility, sinlessness, and divine right to authority of the descendants of Ali, whom they called imams (see Imam). The main Shia body recognizes 12 imams and is called the Twelvers; the Ismailis recognize 7 and are called the Seveners. The last imam disappeared in 880, and Shia Muslims to this day await his return, when they believe that justice will be established on earth.
The imam, as Shia Islam conceives him, is a repository of wisdom, absolute in his political and religious authority. Under the theoretical aegis of the 12th imam, Shia religious leaders exercise immense influence. They are more likely to take an innovative approach to religious issues and to defy political authority than are Sunni leaders.
During the early centuries of Islam, the Shia, politically defeated and persecuted, became an underground movement and adopted the principles of taqwa (which in this case means “dissimulation of faith”) and of an esoteric interpretation of the Qur'an (Koran), the sacred scriptures of Islam. Thus, Shia Muslims believe that beneath the explicit and literal meaning of the Qur'an are other levels of meaning, which are known only to the imam, who can reveal them to chosen followers. These principles, useful to the movement when it was politically powerless, are still accepted by Shia Islam. This branch of Islam also affirms the validity of a form of temporary marriage called muta. Shia Muslims pay the tax called zakat (originally levied by Muhammad to help the poor and later levied by Muslim states) to their religious leaders rather than to state authorities, as they did before achieving political power (for instance, in Iran in the 15th century). As a result, some Shia leaders in Iran and Iraq have immense wealth and property.
DEVELOPMENT AND EXTENT
During the 10th and 11th centuries, Shia Islam had a large following throughout the Middle East, but the spread of the popular mystical movement known as Sufism seems to have greatly diminished its strength. Today Shia Muslims are in the majority in Iran, and large numbers are found in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, India, Pakistan, and parts of Central Asia. Their total number exceeds 165 million. In the late 20th century several Shia leaders, including the Iranian political leader Ayatollah Khomeini, advocated rapprochement and solidarity with Sunni Islam.
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