A Layman's Guide to World War III
- Shi'a Islam
By Kevin Filan
After Mohammed's death the inevitable question arose: who
should lead us now? Tensions arose almost immediately between
those who supported Abu Bakr, Mohammed's father-in-law, and
Ali, Mohammed's cousin. These tensions would only grow after
Ali, and later Ali's son Husayn, were murdered. Soon the Islamic
world was divided between those wo followed the Sunnah or
custom of the majority and the "Partisans of Ali"
(Shi'a Ali, later Shi'ites).
Shi'ite Moslems believe that authority in their religion
rests with the Imam. The Imam is not only the political and
religious leader of the community (as are the Sunni Caliphs);
he is also infallible and sinless. Most Shi'ites believe that
there were twelve Imams after Mohammed; the twelfth, known
as the "Madhi" is hidden and will come again to
usher in a new era of peace. In the Imam's absence, the task
of spiritual guidance has been left to the Ayatollahs (literally,
"Signs of God"). The Ayatollahs currently have a
large say in the governance of Iran, as the 1979 Iranian Revolution
created an "Islamic Republic" which was ruled according
to the tenets of Shi'ite Islam.
But here there is yet another controversy: a minority "Seveners"
movement traces its descent from the seventh Imam, Ismail;
among the most famous of the Ismaili sects would be the Hashasheen,
or "Assassins" of Alamut. Syria's ruler, Hafez Assad,
is an Alawite; the Alawites consider themselves moderate "Sevener"
Shi'a Moslems, although most Moslems consider them infidels.
In 1974 the Lebanese leader of the Twelver Shi'is, Imam Musa
al-Sadr, issues a legal decision saying that the Alawites
were Shi'ite Muslims: Iran's Ayatollahs have not yet accepted
this decision. As Assad continues to strive for Alawite recognition,
it's likely that he will continue to support the Shi'ite-backed
Hizbollah and otherwise curry favor with the Iranians.
The Shi'ite emphasis on the Imams is seen by some Sunnis
as bordering on idolatry. Other cultural factors are at play
as well. Shi'ite Islam has traditionally been less Arabic
than Sunni Islam, with roots in Persia rather than Arabia.
Still, most Sunnis and Shi'ites will recognize each other
as Moslems: conflicts between Sunnis and Shi'ites are as often
about ethnic or cultural differences as religious disagreements.
Today Iran remains the largest Shi'ite country, although
there are sizeable Shi'ite populations throughout the Middle
East. Iraq's populace is majority Shi'ite, although Hussein
and his family are at least nominal Sunni Moslems; there are
also many Shi'ites to be found in Lebanon and Syria, and a
fair number of Shi'ite Kurds in Turkey.
The Shi'a Homepage
Kevin Filan is a freelance contributor to hybrid based in
New York. Last month, Kevin wrote a piece entitled The
Thermonuclear Men's Club.
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