Shia Islam: Beliefs and Traditions of the Shias

Dec 3


Yusha Sayyid

Yusha Sayyid

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Shia Islam, one of the two main branches of Islam, has a rich history and diverse beliefs, often misunderstood or overlooked in the larger Islamic discourse. In this blog post, we will journey through Shia Islam’s origins, fundamental beliefs, and practices, exploring its impact on the world, political dynamics, and modern interpretations.

Get ready to uncover the fascinating world of the Shias and gain a deeper understanding of this significant religious tradition.

Key Takeaways

  • Shia Islam is rooted in a disagreement over Prophet Muhammad’s succession,Shia Islam: Beliefs and Traditions of the Shias Articles which led to the split between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
  • It is characterized by strong belief in Imamate and Ahl al-Bayt, as well as distinct rituals and observances.
  • Shia Muslims have endured centuries of persecution due to systemic discrimination, targeted attacks, incitement of violence. Current issues must be addressed for peace & cooperation with Sunnis.

Exploring the Roots of Shia Islam

Illustration of the Battle of Karbala

The roots of Shia Islam can be traced back to a pivotal disagreement over Prophet Muhammad’s successor. After the Prophet’s passing, a succession debate arose between two groups within the Muslim community. The majority felt that high-ranking members of the Islamic community should vote to choose a successor, while the minority believed that only someone of Muhammad’s bloodline should succeed him.

Key historical events, such as the Battle of Karbala, have shaped the evolution of Shia Islam. The martyrdom of Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, at Karbala holds immense significance in Shia history.

This succession debate and subsequent events solidified the split between Sunni and Shia Muslims, giving rise to the distinct beliefs and practices within Shia Islam.

The Succession Debate

The succession debate centered around two main sects and perspectives. Sunni Muslims believed that the caliphate should be an elected position and chose Abu Bakr, Prophet Muhammad’s close friend, as the first caliph. On the other hand, Shia Muslims believed that only bloodline descendants of Muhammad should lead the Muslim community, and thus ascribed the leadership to Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, and his successors.

During the period of Muhammad’s life, some individuals were fiercely devoted to Ali, including prominent figures like Salman al-Farsi, Abu Dharr al-Ghifari, Miqdad, and Ammar ibn Yasir. Their unwavering support continued even after Muhammad died.

This unwavering loyalty to Ali and his family laid the foundation for Shia Islam, which continues to uphold the belief in the divinely appointed Imams as spiritual and political successors to Muhammad.

The division between Sunni and Shia beliefs concerning the caliphate remains a defining characteristic of the two sects. While Sunni Muslims accept the line of succession that began with Abu Bakr, known as the Sunni Caliphs, Shia Muslims assert that Ali was the sole legitimate caliph from the outset. The debate over the rightful leadership of the Muslim community continues to shape the Sunni-Shia divide to this day.

Key Historical Events

The Battle of Karbala stands out as one of the most significant events in Shia history. It marked the martyrdom of Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, as a result of the battle. The death of Hussein and his supporters at Karbala became a symbol of resistance and sacrifice for the Shia community, further solidifying the divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

Other historical events that impacted Shia Islam include the rise of the Fatimid Caliphate and the Safavid dynasty. Abdullah al-Mahdi Billah, a claimant to the Ismaili Imamate, founded the Fatimid Caliphate in 909 CE. This empire was one of the Ismaili sect states, centred in Tunisia and extending across North Africa. The Safavid dynasty, founded by Isma’il I, instituted Shia Islam as the state religion of Iran in the early 1500s. These events have contributed to the development and spread of Shia beliefs and practices, shaping the course of Islamic history.

Delineating Shia Beliefs and Practices

Photo of Shia Muslims participating in Ashoura commemoration

Central to Shia beliefs and practices is the concept of Imamate and a deep reverence for the Ahl al-Bayt, the family of Prophet Muhammad. The belief in the divinely appointed Imams as spiritual and political successors to Muhammad is a cornerstone of Shia Islam.

Distinctive rituals and observances, such as the commemoration of Ashoura, also set Shia Islam apart from Sunni Islam.

The Concept of Imamate

The concept of Imamate is a fundamental belief in Shia Islam. It is based on the idea that only leaders from Muhammad’s bloodline should be adhered to, and that these divinely appointed Imams are the rightful spiritual and political successors to the Prophet. This belief is in contrast to Sunni Islam, which accepts the historical caliphs as legitimate leaders and follows their hadiths (laws) alongside those of Ali.

Shia Muslims hold that Ali and his descendants, who are all of the Ahl al-Bayt or the household of Muhammad, are the sole legitimate leaders of the Islamic faith. The role of the Imams in Shia Islam is to:

  • Preside over the Muslim community
  • Maintain and elucidate the Islamic law and its esoteric meaning
  • Guide and exemplify the community through their words and actions.

Different sects within Shia Islam recognize various lines of Imamate, giving rise to a diverse range of beliefs and practices. For example:

  • Twelver Shias believe in the succession of twelve Imams, beginning with Imam Ali and ending with Imam Mahdi
  • Ismailis follow a different line of Imamate
  • Zaydis also follow a different line of Imamate

Distinctive Rituals and Observances

Shia Muslims observe distinctive rituals and practices that set them apart from Sunni Muslims. One significant observance is the commemoration of Ashoura, a day marking the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, at the Battle of Karbala. During Ashoura commemorations, Shia Muslims engage in acts such as:

  • self-flagellation
  • mourning
  • processions
  • reciting poetry and elegies
  • reenacting the events of Karbala

These acts are performed to commemorate the death of Imam Hussein and his supporters.

Shia Muslims also visit shrines of venerated figures, such as the shrines of Imams in Iraq and Iran, to seek blessings and offer prayers. These visits to shrines are an essential aspect of Shia religious practice and underscore the deep reverence for the Ahl al-Bayt and the divinely appointed Imams.

Demographics and Distribution of Shia Muslims

Illustration of Shia-Sunni divide in the Middle East

Shia Muslims represent a minority in most Muslim-majority countries, comprising approximately 10-15% of the global Muslim population. Despite being a minority, they have a significant presence in the Middle East and other regions. Shia Iran is a prime example, where Shia Muslims form the majority, as well as in Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Bahrain. Sizable Shia communities also exist in countries such as Lebanon, Kuwait, Turkey, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

Shia Majority Regions

In countries like Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Bahrain, Shia Muslims form the majority of the population. Here are the percentages of Shia Muslims in each country:

  • Iran: 90-95%
  • Iraq: approximately 65%
  • Azerbaijan: about 65% of the Muslim population
  • Bahrain: Shia Muslims represent a majority of the citizen population, with estimates ranging from 55 to 65%.

These countries, where Shia Muslims form the majority, have played a significant role in shaping the development and spread of Shia Islam. The presence of important centers of learning and pilgrimage, such as:

  • Najaf
  • Karbala
  • Qom
  • Mashhad

in these regions has further contributed to the growth and influence of Shia Islam worldwide.

Shia Communities Worldwide

Shia communities can also be found in various countries worldwide. Here are some estimates of the Shia population in different countries:

  • Lebanon: between 27% and 45%
  • Afghanistan: about 10-19%
  • Pakistan: approximately 5-20%
  • Turkey: around 20% of the Muslim population
  • Kuwait: approximately 30-35% of the citizen population

The presence of Shia communities in these countries highlights the global reach of Shia Islam and its influence on the development of Islamic thought and practice. The diversity within Shia Islam also provides a rich tapestry of beliefs and practices that contribute to the overall understanding of the Muslim world.

Political Dynamics and the Shia-Sunni Divide

Photo of Shia-Sunni sectarian tensions

The Shia-Sunni divide has been exacerbated by political dynamics, such as the Iranian Revolution and contemporary conflicts involving Shia militias. As the divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims continues to shape the political landscape of the Muslim world, it is crucial to understand how these dynamics impact the lives of Shia Muslims and their relations with Sunni-majority countries.

The Impact of the Iranian Revolution

The 1979 Iranian Revolution led to the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini and his vision for an Islamic government ruled by Shia clerics. The revolution transformed Iran into an overtly Shia power, leading to an intensification of the Sunni-Shia divide. Khomeini’s spiritual authority and magnetic leadership galvanized the masses and encouraged the revolutionaries to confront the Shah’s regime. The Islamic Republic of Iran, established after the revolution, continues to play a significant role in shaping Shia thought and politics, both within Iran and beyond.

The Iranian Revolution had far-reaching effects on Shia-Sunni relations, including:

  • Sunni communities in countries such as Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen drawing closer to Sunni-majority countries like Saudi Arabia
  • Realignment of political alliances
  • Deepening of existing sectarian tensions
  • Emergence of new conflicts in the region.

Contemporary Conflicts and Shia Militias

Conflicts in the region, such as in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, have involved Shia militias and heightened sectarian tensions. These militias, often sponsored by competing external forces, play a major role in various aspects:

  • Local stability
  • Internal politics
  • Humanitarian access
  • Economic conditions

In Iraq, for example, Shia militias have been instrumental in the fight against ISIS, further complicating the Sunni-Shia divide.

The involvement of Shia militias in contemporary conflicts has contributed to the worsening of sectarian tensions and the perpetuation of violence in the region. As these conflicts continue to unfold, understanding the complex dynamics and stakes involved becomes increasingly important in addressing the challenges faced by Shia Muslims and fostering peace and stability in the region.

Shia Scholarship and Religious Authority

Illustration of leading figures in Shia thought

Shia scholarship and religious authority have played a significant role in the development and perpetuation of Shia beliefs and practices. Leading figures in Shia thought and renowned centers of learning and pilgrimage have shaped the understanding of Shia Islam and continue to influence its evolution.

Leading Figures in Shia Thought

Prominent Shia scholars and religious leaders who have shaped the development of Shia theology and jurisprudence include:

  • Abu Bakr al-Saddiq
  • ‘Umar ibn al-Khataab
  • ‘Uthmaan ibn ‘Afaan
  • Ali ibn Abi Taalib

These figures have had a significant influence on Shia thought throughout history. They have contributed to the formation of Shia doctrine and the interpretation of religious texts, providing guidance and direction to the Shia community in matters of faith and practice.

In more recent times, figures like Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini have made substantial contributions to Shia thought through their guidance and instruction. Khomeini was pivotal in the Iranian Revolution and became the embodiment of resistance to the Shah’s regime. His concepts and teachings continue to shape Shia thought and politics in Iran and beyond.

Centers of Learning and Pilgrimage

Major centers of Shia learning and pilgrimage include:

  • Najaf
  • Karbala
  • Qom
  • Mashhad

These centers hold immense religious and historical significance for Shia Muslims and serve as places of education, training, and spiritual enrichment. They are also vital in fostering the development of Shia scholarship and the perpetuation of Shia beliefs and practices.

The institutions in these centers, such as the Hawzas in Qom, offer education and training for:

  • imams
  • preachers
  • professors
  • researchers in Shia Islam

Through their work, these centers have played a crucial role in shaping the understanding of Shia Islam and influencing its evolution. As Shia scholarship and religious authority continue to adapt and respond to contemporary challenges, these centers remain vital in preserving and promoting the rich tradition of Shia Islam.

The Diversity Within Shia Islam

Shia Islam encompasses a diverse range of sects and modern interpretations, reflecting the rich tapestry of beliefs and practices that have evolved over time. Understanding the differences between these sects, as well as the contemporary movements within Shia Islam, can provide valuable insight into the complexities and nuances of this major branch of Islam.

Understanding Different Shia Sects

Different Shia sects follow their own line of Imamate and have distinct beliefs and practices. For example:

  • Twelvers believe in the succession of twelve Imams, beginning with Imam Ali and concluding with Imam Mahdi.
  • Ismailis, also known as Seveners, accept the imamate of Ismail ibn Jafar.
  • Zaydis do not maintain that the Imamate must be passed from father to son but rather contend that it can be held by any Sayyid descended from either Hasan ibn Ali or Hussein ibn Ali.

These sects may have differences in their beliefs and practices, but they all share the common belief in the imamate and the significance of the Ahl al-Bayt (the family of Prophet Muhammad). By appreciating the diversity within Shia Islam, one can gain a deeper understanding of the rich history and complex dynamics that have shaped the development of this religious tradition.

Modern interpretations and movements within Shia Islam continue to evolve and adapt to contemporary issues and challenges. As the world changes, Shia Muslims are faced with new situations that require innovative approaches and fresh perspectives. By exploring these contemporary interpretations, one can gain valuable insight into how Shia Islam continues to grow and adapt in response to the challenges of today’s world.

Modern Interpretations and Movements

Contemporary Shia movements and interpretations include Islamic modernism, the Ismaili sect, and the role of the Shia clergy in the Iranian revolution. These movements reflect the diverse array of beliefs and practices within Shia Islam and demonstrate how the tradition continues to adapt and respond to contemporary challenges.

As the world evolves and new issues arise, Shia Islam remains a dynamic and adaptive tradition. By examining modern interpretations and movements, we can better understand how Shia Muslims are confronting the challenges of today and continuing to grow and develop their faith in the face of adversity.

Persecution and Challenges Faced by Shia Muslims

Throughout history, Shia Muslims have faced persecution and challenges, often at the hands of Sunni extremists. In many Sunni-majority countries, Shia Muslims continue to face discrimination, violence, and human rights abuses.

Understanding the historical context of this persecution and the ongoing challenges faced by Shia Muslims is critical to addressing the sectarian divide and fostering peace and stability in the Muslim world.

Historical Context of Shia Persecution

Shia Muslims have been persistently marginalized and targeted by Sunni extremists, resulting in a long-standing history of persecution and violence. This persecution terrorist violence has taken many forms, including systemic discrimination in Sunni-majority countries, targeted attacks by extremist groups, and the incitement of violence against Shia communities.

Knowing the historical context of Shia persecution is important in addressing the ongoing challenges faced by Shia Muslims today. By recognizing the patterns and factors contributing to this persecution, we can work to promote tolerance, understanding, and peace between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

Current Issues and Human Rights Concerns

Today, Shia Muslims continue to face a range of issues and human rights concerns in countries such as Sunni Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Bahrain. These challenges include discrimination in access to education, employment, and healthcare; restrictions on religious practice; and targeted violence and persecution.

Tackling these current issues and human rights concerns is necessary for ensuring the protection and well-being of Shia Muslims worldwide. By raising awareness of these challenges and advocating for the rights of Shia Muslims, we can contribute to fostering peace, understanding, and cooperation between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the global community.


Throughout this exploration of Shia Islam, we have delved into its roots, beliefs, and practices, as well as the political dynamics that have shaped the Sunni-Shia divide. We have also examined the diverse range of sects and modern interpretations within Shia Islam, and the challenges faced by Shia Muslims worldwide. By understanding the complexities and nuances of this major branch of Islam, we can foster greater tolerance, understanding, and cooperation between Sunni and Shia Muslims, promoting peace and unity in the Muslim world.

Frequently Asked Questions

What do Shias believe?

Shia Muslims believe that Ali ibn Abi Talib, Prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, should have been designated successor to Muhammad as Islam's spiritual and political leader. They also believe in the divine order of Ali and his descendants, whereas Sunnis oppose political succession based on Prophet Muhammad's bloodline.

What is difference between Shia and Sunni?

Shia Muslims believe in a divine order in which Ali and his descendants should lead the community, whereas Sunni Muslims reject this idea and instead support following the Prophet Mohammed's way.

Is Saudi Arabia Sunni or Shia?

Saudi Arabia is overwhelmingly Sunni, with estimates ranging from 85-90 percent of the population being adherents of this branch of Islam. It is the birthplace of Islam and its Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam has been especially influential in recent times.

Are all Muslims either Sunni or Shia?

Overall, most Muslims identify as Sunnis or Shias. However, there is a sizable portion of Muslims who do not identify with either sect and simply consider themselves "just a Muslim."

Where are the majority of Shia Muslims located?

The majority of Shia Muslims reside in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Bahrain, with significant populations also found in Lebanon, Kuwait, Turkey, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.