The modern spelling of Shiite is Shi'i. Literally "the followers" or "the partisans". Short for shi'at Ali or "the partisans of Ali". The Shi'i are the subgrouping of Muslims who believe that the only proper leaders of the faith, or Imams, are direct blood-line descendants of Muhammad, through his cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Abu Talib. The Shi'i are historically a minority in the Islamic world, constituting perhaps 15 percent of all Muslims, and rarely coming to political power. There are only a few notable Shi'i states, most prominently medieval Fatimid Egypt and modern Revolutionary Iran.

While the popular Western image of the Shi'i are of unpleasant, violent, ultra-orthodox fanatics with poor senses of humor, the Shi'i are actually considered on the verge of heresy by many mainline sunni Muslims, and whatever reputation for violence they have comes from the Iranian state, rather than the faith itself. While they are not technically heretics because they observe the Five Pillars of Islam, relations with Sunnis, especially the ultra-conservative Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan (who are actually a great deal more unpleasant, violent, ultra-conservative and humorless) are frosty at best, and at times degenerate into outright war.

There are several sub-groupings of Shi'i, depending on who are recognized as legitimate lines of Imams. The two most important are the Seveners (who recognized seven legitimate Imams) who were in power in Fatimid Cairo, and the Twelvers (twelve Imams) who rule Iran presently. The Tweflth Imam of the Twelver line disappeared, creating quite a theological conundrum. The solution most Twelvers adopt is the belief that the Twelfth, or Hidden Imam is waiting, in an ageless state, to re-enter the world and set all injustices to right, a bit like the British King Arthur myth. Many Iranians believed that the Ayatollah Khomeini was the Hidden Imam returned.

One of the two main sectarian divisions within Islam, which also provides the historical and theological setting for the origins of the Bahá'í religion. Other spellings for this term include "Shiah," "Shiite", "Shi'ah," "Shi'i," and "Shi'ite," but in the system of transliteration used by Bahá'ís, the usual spelling is Shí'ih.

In Shí'ih doctrine, the Imám 'Alí, the adopted son of Muhammad and the husband of Muhammad's daughter Fatimih, is considered the legitimate successor to Muhammad. They believe that Muhammad verbally appointed 'Alí to lead the community of Islam. The word "shi'ih" means "faction," and this sect was originally referred to as the "Faction of Ali." In later usage, the last part of the phrase was dropped, although their reverence for Ali continues.

The Shi'ih account of Islamic history states that while Muhammad was on his deathbed, he called for pen and paper to be brought to him. They believe he intended to leave written instructions, in which Ali's rightful station of leadership would be established beyond doubt. Unfortunately, this command was not obeyed, and Muhammad died soon after.

In the absence of written instructions, the Muslims chose to elect a leader from among the prominent figures in their community. There was great respect for Ali in the Muslim community, but only a few had been present when Muhammad appointed him to lead them. Because of this, the first caliph selected was Abu Bakr. In order to preserve unity, Ali accepted this decision and did not pursue his own rightful claim.

After Abu Bakr, there were two other caliphs who both received support from Ali for the sake of unity. Ali was elected to be the fourth caliph. Shi'ih history refers to these first four caliphs as "rightly guided," because Ali participated in the institution during the tenure of all four, and the Muslim community remained united. The split between the Shi'ih and the Sunni sects began after Ali was murdered.

The Shí'ih believe that the true succession continued with other Imáms after 'Alí, beginning with his sons, first Hasan, and then Husayn. All of the Imáms after Husayn were descendants of Husayn, and thus descendants of Muhammad.

The Shí'ih are themselves divided into two main branches, the "Seveners" and the "Twelvers," depending on the total number of Imáms they believe were in the true line of succession after Muhammad. The branch which accepts twelve Imáms is currently dominant in Iran, and was also dominant in 19th-century Persia, the birthplace of the Bahá'í Faith. At that time, there was a good deal of messianic fervor among Shí'ih Muslims who anticipated the imminent return of the hidden Twelfth Imám.

Bahá'ís share the belief that the twelve Imáms were the intended successors of Muhammad. In addition, Bahá'ís believe that the Prophet-Herald of their religion, known by the title of the Báb, was the spiritual return of the hidden Twelfth Imám. However, the Bábí and Bahá'í interpretation of this "return" is symbolic, as opposed to the literal interpretation that is traditional among the Shí'ih.

Contrary to popular Sunni belief, dogma, assertions and advertisments, the difference between Shia and Sunni IS religous AND political.

It is disingenuous on part of my Sunni brethren to say that the difference is only political. It ignores the beliefs of Shias around the world who ascribe more religous and spiritual meaning to the notion of Imams as their leaders.

What separates Shia from Sunni is the notion of religous leadership and interpretation. Shia's assert that Prophet Mohd.(PBUH) appointed Ali ibn Abu Talib his cousin, son-in-law and the second convert to Islam, as the rightfull religous and political leader of the Muslim ummah after his passing. (Recall that Islam does not make a distinction between din - belief and duniya - world.) This declaration of Imam Ali's role in the Muslim community was made by the Prophet after the first Hajj at Ghadir-Khum. The hadith tradition of the Prophet also gives instances of this declaration:

1."Whoever's maula (lord) I am, so is Ali his maula."

2."I am the house of knowledge and Ali is the doorway."

The religous difference cannot be ignored or swept away. Fundamentally Shias give primary authority for interpretation of the Qur'an and spiritual guidance to the Imam-of-the-time. Thus most shias would have difficulty accepting the fatwas that come out of "religous scholars" from the Sunni tradition. Only the Imam has the authority to provide religous ruling and interpretation.

The Shia's themselves are not homogenous. The two major factions are the the "Seveners" and the "Twelvers," depending on the total number of Imáms they believe were in the true line of succession after Muhammad. The branch which accepts twelve Imáms is currently dominant in Iran. The Twelvers believe that their last Imam has gone into occultation and will come back on the day of judgement. The Seveners consists of two branches, the Ismaili and the Bohra. The Ismaili claim the Aga Khan as the direct decendant of the Prophet and Ali and the 49th Imam after the Prophet.

Shi"ite (?), Shi"ah (?), n. [Ar. shi'aia follower of the sect of Ali, fr. shi'at, shi'ah, a multitude following one another in pursuit of the same object, the sect of Ali, fr. sha'a to follow.]

A member of that branch of the Mohammedans to which the Persians belong. They reject the first three caliphs, and consider Ali as being the first and only rightful successor of Mohammed. They do not acknowledge the Sunna, or body of traditions respecting Mohammed, as any part of the law, and on these accounts are treated as heretics by the Sunnites, or orthodox Mohammedans.


© Webster 1913.

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