Another detour: What is Shia Islam?

Before we progress deeper along the Iranian tourist trail, it’s is a good time to clarify the dominant (95%) Muslim sect in Iran, Shi’ism. To the outsider, the differences between Sunni and Shia Islam appear slight, even trivial. Both apply the confessional foundation of Islam, the shahada, and the five pillars of Islam. Both hold the Qu’ran as the sacred word of God and accept the story of Muhammad’s life, applying it as the grounding for the daily life of the ummah (the community of Muslims) and as the basis of the sunna (Islamic practice rooted in oral sources of Muhammad and his companions).

In addition, both Sunni and Shia hold Muhammad’s family in high reverence, including his cousin Ali. However, Shia hold Ali in particularly high esteem and extend that to Ali’s successors – his sons Hassan and Hussain, and the twelve imams thought to follow them in direct line of succession. Their stance towards Ali is that he was Allah’s intended immediate successor of Muhammad, but that this succession was thwarted by the Companions (thus thwarting the will of Allah). The first three khalifah – Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman – are therefore regarded as usurpers by Shia Muslims.

The fate of Ali and his sons is of particular importance to Shia, who hold that they were martyred in the cause of Islam. Death, martyrdom, tears and sacrifice therefore form a central part of Shia mythology. Of these martyrdoms, that of Hussain on the plain of Karbala holds great significance for Shia self-identity and ritual observance. In modern-day Shia communities the ‘Ashura’ is a time of mourning over his death, involving public processions, recitation of traditional elegies and re-enactments of the tragedy.

Over time, a branch of Islam came to see Hassan, Hussain and a succession of descendants of Hussain as Hidden, Infallible, or Rightful Mahdi (or Imam), these being people divinely appointed, who would avenge wrong, correct injustice and restore the Islamic ideal. They are seen as both of Muhammad’s bloodline and also able to infallibly uncover Allah’s true intent through interpretation. The line ceased at the 12th imam, but he came to be seen as going into hiding rather than dying, to return in the future to restore justice and order in the world. Believers in this doctrine, ‘twelvers’, evolved into the Shia Islam of today.

Shia hold that their ulama (highly regarded scholars) are heirs of the Imams and utilise reason in their theology to best approximate Truth. Absolute certainty in the law must await the return of the Hidden Imam.

Sunni Muslims also mourn the assassination of Hussein at Karbala, but reject the concept that theological or political authority resides with him and the other Shia imams.

It appears that the doctrinal developments described above coincided with a rise in Persian exceptionalism (remembering that the Persian Empire was defeated and eliminated by the early caliphs), to the effect that the modern-day regions of Iran and southern Iraq account for the majority of Shia Muslims. Events in modern-day Iran draw on the religious predispositions of its majority Shia population. In 1979, Shia Islam stood as the major institutional bloc independent of Iran’s despot Shah Pahlavi. Ayatollah (‘sign of God’) Khomeni exploited this and his position as a high cleric in Shi’ism to engineer the Shah’s overthrow and subsequent elimination of secular and religious opposition. Khomeni’s doctrine of Valayat-e Faquih (rule of the jurist) argued that in the absence of the Mahdi, divine guidance could only come from the Hidden Imam’s representatives on earth: that is, the ayatollahs. Further, this doctrine concentrated power in his own person, instead of clerics generally. In other words [under this doctrine], Khomeni’s guidance was, like that of the Prophet and the twelve Imams, infallible and divinely inspired. Khomeni stirred Iran’s Shiites into revolution and manoeuvred a takeover of both the political and religious spheres in the country. His successor, Ali Khamenei has maintained the doctrine. It stands in contrast to Shiism’s predominantly ‘quietist’ history, and several powerful ayatollahs have never accepted it, challenging it to this day. Muslim writer Reza Aslan opines (perhaps optimistically) that “it may take a couple of generations before Shiism reverts to its pre-Khomeinist interpretation and the Shi’ite Ulama return to their roles as the moral, rather than political, authorities of the Shi’ah community. Yet the reversal seems inevitable. After all, Shi’ism is a religion founded upon open debate and rational discourse.” [No god but God, p. 197].

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