Before starting, I want to stress that I know little about Islam or the distinctions between Sunnis and Shiites. Nonetheless, as a reasonably educated person with a basic understanding of religions, it has been both puzzling and interesting to learn about Shia Islam, and to see traditions and practices that seem to differ quite significantly with other religions that I have had at least some contact with through earlier travels. I imagine that this post would be especially interesting to those of you who know more than I do, to see an outsider’s impressions of the Shia faith Feel free to enlighten me, should I be mistaken or confused.
To start, the principal historical distinction between Sunnis and Shiites: the succession contest after the death of Mohammed. After the death of Mohammed in 632, there arose a dispute as to who should succeed his role as the (religious and political) head of the Islamic world. One faction supported Ali, cousin and son-in-law of Mohammed, while others supported Abu Bakr. In the end, Abu Bakr was elected the first caliph (or successor to Mohammed), followed in relatively quick succession by Umar, Uthman, and then finally Ali. Showing the contentiousness of the power struggles at the time, Umar, Uthman and Ali each met his end by murder. Some blamed the death of Uthman on the Ali faction (now known as Shiites), while the Shiites blamed the death of Ali on the others (now known as Sunnis). Following the death of Ali, the Sunni Umayyad dynasty, based in Damascus, took over the caliphate. During this period, the conflict between the majority Sunnis and the minority Shiites deepened, especially after the Umayyads killed Ali’s son Hussein, much of his family and many of his followers, at a battle near Karbala in now Iraq.
Shiites did not recognize the Sunni caliphs (which office survived to the twentieth century in the Ottoman Empire) but trace the authority of Mohammed through Ali, his wife (and daughter of Mohammed) Fatima and their progeny. Starting with Ali (the first Imam, or leader), then Ali’s and Fatima’s son Hassan (the second Imam), then Hassan’s brother Hussein (the third Imam), and then followed by lineal descendants of Hussein for nine more generations, the Shiites (or more precisely the “Twelver” Shiites, cf. my post of 4.12 for “Sevener” Shiites) recognize twelve Imams, the twelfth one being Imam Mahdi, in the ninth century, who is said never to have died but simply gone into hiding (more on this below). In essence, they form a royal line starting from Mohammed (somewhat reminiscent of the fictional “royal blood” of Jesus and Mary Magdalene described in the book The Da Vinci Code).
The persons of these Imams form a central focus of Shiite worship. This seems, in my view, so elevated that the veneration of the imams approaches something akin to the veneration of Jesus and Mary (that is, in excess of the veneration of saints) among Christians. The names of Ali and Hussein in particular appear in calligraphic form all over Shiite Mosques, emphasizing in my view not only the importance of their persons (in addition to Allah and Mohammed, whose names appear alongside), but also to stress the Sunni/Shiite distinction. We also saw a young man wearing a ring with not the name of God or Mohammed, but Ali.
Ali’s name in tilework Kufic calligraphy, next to swastikas, Friday Mosque, Yazd
Poem honoring Hussein, also in tile calligraphy, Friday Mosque, Esfahan
Shiite Muslims not only honor Fatima and the Imams (the number twelve, representing the Imams, and the number fourteen, representing the Imams plus Fatima and Mohammed, play important symbolic roles), but also accord special respect to the descendants of the Imams. In Iran there are countless (over six thousand according to sources) shrines (called “imamzadeh”) for the relatives of the imams, who take on a saint-like authority to intervene on believers’ behalf. Living relatives of the Imams are also specially respected, and have a special form of dress that identifies them. [More on this to come in my post on Persian identity.]
The veneration of the Imams and their relatives takes one particularly conspicuous form, which seems to me to be a central mode of Shiite worship: mourning. Observant Shiite Muslims mourn the deaths of each of the Imams for several days, putting up black banners and often breaking out into tears. The peak of this mourning is the holy holidays of Tasua and Ashura in the Islamic month of Moharram (this year, in winter), which commemorate the death of Hussein with great ceremony, including the infamous self-flagellation with chains.
We came upon this mourning first in Syria, where there are many Iranian pilgrims visiting holy Muslim (especially Shiite) sites. We thought that many of the Iranians, mostly women in chadors accompanied by a cleric, looked unhappy and seemed unfriendly. As it turned out, this was because (or at least in part because) they were mourning. It is said that crying for the Imams can cleanse sins. One man we spoke to said that his family made an annual pilgrimage to Mashhad to mourn the death of the eighth Imam.
Iranian pilgrims, in chadors, outside the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus, Syria. The Umayyad Mosque contains a shrine to Hussein including a niche in which it is said that the Umayyads placed his head after his death.
Shiite clerics at A-Sayyda Ruqayya Shrine, Damascus, Syria. Sayyda Ruqayya was the daughter of Ali.
We were in Esfahan on the anniversary of the death of Fatima. A parade featuring drums, clerics, a singer and men carrying large black, red and green flags marched through the city, followed by a crowd of men and then women in chadors, to assemble at a main park, where there was chanting and ritualized jumping up and down, slapping of heads and beating of chests. Even in religious Iran, however, the crowd was quite small for a city the size of Esfahan–much larger was the number of people observing and taking pictures and videos with their cellphone cameras.
Another important (and to me previously unknown) feature of Shiite Islam is its millenarianism, or its belief that the world as we know it will soon come to an end. It is believed that the twelfth Imam Mahdi, who was born in 868, went into hiding at age five, just after becoming the twelfth Imam at his father’s death. Still alive, Imam Mahdi will reappear on Earth at a time of great war and disorder, when he will, together with Jesus, restore peace and justice. According to people I spoke to, this could happen at any time, and some Iranians believe that George W. Bush and the state of Israel are signs that Mahdi’s time is coming soon. [It is unclear to me whether it is believed that Mahdi is still alive with his physical body on Earth, or alive in some more abstract sense.] Early Christianity was also a millenarian faith, and of course there are evangelical Christians who daily await the “Rapture.”