Shi'a Islam

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For more information, see: Islam.

The term Shi'a means "partisan" and is shorthand for Shi'at 'Ali, or "partisans of Ali" or "party" for short, which is shī in Arabic. It refers to one of the two major branches of Islamic thought about the proper leadership of world Islam after Muhammad's death in 622.

After 680, a line of descendants continued, and a movement to assert their leadership remained. The line of leaders of Muhammad's family was called the imams. `Alī was the first imām, and the only one to be a caliph as well; Hasan was the second imām, and Ḥusayn the third, in the listings accepted by most Shi'a. The Khoja Ismailis, however, do not recognize Hasan. The supporters of the family were called the "party of `Alī."


There is a great deal of variation in the appellations used for this community.[1] Nakash uses Shi'ism as the term for the religious group, Shi'is as the term for adherents to the group, and Shi'i as an adjective, as in "Shi'i financial and intellectual institutions." Juan Cole uses Shi'ism as the term for the religious group, Shi'ites as the term for the adherents and Shi'ite as an adjective as in "Shi'ite courts." Other authors use all of these variations, as well as Shi'a as an adjective as in "Shi'a Muslims" or "the Shi'a." [2] The usages of Nakash and Fuller and Franke are closer to the original Arabic grammatical construction, but I have adopted Cole's slightly Anglicized usage in this paper adopting Shi'ite both as a noun and an adjective for simplicity's sake. Note that Nakash also modifies his usage in his 2003 article [3]

Name of group Adherents to group Adjectives Source
Shi'ism Shi'ites Shi'ite Juan Cole[4]
Shi'ism Shi'is Shi'i Yitzhak Nakash [5]

Demographics and influence

See also: Islamic sectarian conflict

About fifteen percent of the Muslims today are Shiites. The Muslim population of some countries, such as Iran, are predominantly Shi'a, although some Islamic sectarian conflict has been observed among Shi'a subgroups. The chance of conflict, however, is much greater in countries with a significant Sunni-Shi'a mix, as in Iraq.

Country Total population[6] Percentage Muslim Percentage Shi'a
Afghanistan 28 million 99% 19%
Iran row 2, cell 2 90%
Iraq row 2, cell 2 60%
Syria 20.1 million 90% 16%


Shiites tend to view the imāms as individuals divinely empowered to interpret the Qur'ān; thus the interpretations traditionally attributed to the imams are supplemental to the Qur'ān.There are two major branches of the role of the imams in government.

One Shi'a concept is the theocracy embraced by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran: wilayat al-faqih (the rule of the jurisprudent). In Iraq, the mainstream marji'iyya, or collection of marji' (Shi'a jurist and theologian), recognized a leading spiritual authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the leading marji' in Iraq, as marji' al-Taqlid, who did not see his role as political


  1. William O. Beeman (May 2004), "The U.S.-Shi'ite Relationship in a New Iraq: Better than the British?", Strategic Insights III (5)
  2. Graham Fuller and Rend Rahim Franke, The Arab Shi'a: The Forgotten Muslims (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999, quoted in Beeman
  3. Yitzhak Nakash, "The Shi'ites and the Future of Iraq," Foreign Affairs 82 (July-August 2003): pp. 17-26, quoted in Beeman
  4. Juan Cole, Sacred Space and Holy War: The Politics, Culture and History of Shi'ite Islam, 2002), p. 25, quoted in Beeman
  5. Yitzhak Nakash, The Shi'is of Iraq (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 7., quoted in Beeman
  6. CIA World Factbook for each country