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Branch of Islam that traces its leadership to Ali ibn Abi Talib, cousin of Muhammad.

The Shiʿa constitute the largest Islamic community after the Sunnis, numbering close to 90 million worldwide. Iran is the only predominantly Shiʿite country; significant Shiʿite minorities exist in Iraq, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Kuwait, Bahrain, eastern Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and various Western countries. Shiʿism rests on a belief that the right of succession to political and religious leadership of the community belongs solely to the prophet Muhammad's cousin, Ali ibn Abi Talib, and his progeny. The Prophet was first succeeded by three of his companionsAbu Bakr, Umar, and Uthmanwho ruled successively (632656). Ali's rule (656661) was almost immediately contested by Muʿawiyya, who succeeded him and founded the Umayyad dynasty. Upon Muʾawiyya's death, Ali's son Husayn revolted against Yazid, the successor and son of Muʾawiyya. For the followers of Ali, Husayn's death in battle at Karbala became symbolic of the hostility between them and those linked with Sunni Islam. The battle, especially the martyrdom of Husayn, continues to be commemorated by Shiʿa.


The assassination of Uthman in 656 opened a split in the Islamic community. Soon after the accession of Ali to the caliphate, Muʿawiya, governor of Syria, kinsman of Uthman, and among the last generation of companions of the Prophet, declared his opposition to Ali's leadership. His opposition soon gained support among tribal groups in Syria and Mesopotamia. In response, Ali moved the Islamic capital to Kufa (in southern Iraq) and engaged Muʿawiya in a protracted rivalry that ended in an armistice known as al-Tahkim, which left Muʿawiya sovereign in Syria, Egypt, and northern Mesopotamia, while Ali ruled the Arabian peninsula and the east. Those who supported Ali were known as Shiʿat Ali (the partisans of Ali); hence the name Shiʿism. Ali was assassinated in 661; subsequently, Muʿawiya consolidated his rule over the territories formerly under Ali and moved to make the line of political succession that of his family, the Umayyads. Since Ali's martyrdom the city of al-Najaf, where he is buried, has become a place of pilgrimage for Shiʿa.

Ali had two sons, Hasan and Husayn (or Hussein), from his marriage to the Prophet's daughter, Fatima. They quickly inherited Ali's leadership and attracted the loyalty of the Shiʿa. Exasperated by the political deadlock, Hasan abandoned his claim to succession, leaving Muʿawiya free to extend his control. Muʿawiya was succeeded in 680 by his son Yazid, who lacked the political acumen of his father. Yazid's hereditary route to power upset an Islamic community accustomed to having a strong consultative element in political election and viewing senior companions of the Prophet as worthier candidates to rule.

In 680 the residents of Kufa invited Husayn, who lived in Medina, to assert his right to succeed his father, and they pledged to support him. Husayn left Medina with his family and close associates, but before he could reach Kufa, an Umayyad force attacked and killed him and most of his family. This unprovoked attack on the youngest of the Prophet's grandchildren increased opposition to the Umayyads.

The cause of Shiʿism then expanded to include other branches of the larger family of the Prophet, the Banu Hashim, or Hashimites. There were a number of Hashimite revolts, primarily in Iraq and the east. Pivotal revolts were those of Zayd ibn Ali ibn al-Husayn in Kufa (743), and of his son Yahya in Transoxiania. Zayd's movement formed an early current of Shiʿism that espoused political activity to further the Alid cause, and did not restrict the ima-mate to one particular branch of the Alid family. (The Zaydi sect still survives in Yemen.)

In 750 a broadly based movement originating in Khorasan toppled the Umayyad caliphate. Succession to the caliphate passed to the Abbasids, a Hashimite branch named after Abbas, an uncle of the Prophet. Feeling betrayed, the Alids staged several revolts, the most notable of which was the one in Medina by Muhammad al-Nafs al-Zakiyya (762), a descendant of Hasan. By then, however, the Abbasids had consolidated their control.


Shiʿism originated as a political movement supporting the rights of Ali to the caliphate. Since leadership in the early Islamic community was associated to a great extent with religious merit, Ali was considered the rightful ruler not only because of his early conversion to Islam and close family ties to the Prophet, but also because of his religious knowledge. Shiʿite tradition states that the Prophet always referred to Ali as the preeminent expert on spiritual matters among his companions, and that at Ghadir Khumm, Muhammad reportedly declared to his companions that Ali was his waliyy (rightful and trusted successor) and blessed him with special prayers. The earliest concrete evidence of Shiʿism as a spiritual sect, however, did not appear until the 750s or 760s. In the era immediately following the revolution, a divergence emerged among those supporting the cause of Ali's family. Shiʿism came to be associated increasingly with descendants of Husayn, and in particular, the sixth descendant, Jaʿfar alSadiq.

Although little historical fact is known about Jaʿfar al-Sadiq, it is generally believed that it was during his time that the rudiments of Shiʿite theology were first formed. These consisted of the beliefs that the imam (presumably from the Husaynid line) holds the secrets of religious knowledge (maʿrifa), that he has the authority to pass on this knowledge to a designated successor through a process of investment known as wasiyya, and that the followers of the imam must not challenge the authority of the established state in support of the Alid imamate until the imam declares the historically assigned time for such a political revolution. From the time of Jaʿfar al-Sadiq, the Shiʿa became closely clustered around the line of his descendants. However, a significant division took place within his lifetime. Jaʿfar's son Ismaʿil was supposed to be the spiritual successor to his father, and thus began to attract followers. Either because Ismaʿil died during his father's lifetime or because during his last years Jaʿfar decided to transfer the succession to another of his sons, Musa, another group began to recognize Musa as his only successor.

This latter group continued to recognize the transmission of the authority of the imamate in a line of twelve successors, the last of whom, a child, is believed to have disappeared in the city of Samarra in 873. Shiʿa believe that the last of the twelve imams will one day reveal himself as the leading religious and political guide (the Mahdi), reestablish his leadership over the whole Islamic community, and usher in an age of justice and righteousness. Recognition of twelve descendants of Ali as imams led to this larger Shiʿite community being known as Twelver (also Ithaʿashar) Shiʿa, or Imamis. The other group, which refused to accept Musa as successor and maintained its religous loyalty to Ismaʿil, the seventh imam, is hence known as Ismaʿilis, or Seveners. Like the Twelvers, some Ismaʿilis believe in occulation (ghayba), but they consider Ismaʿil to be the vanished imam destined to usher in a righteous age.

The Growth of Shiʿism

In the late ninth century competing Shiʿite missions emerged. For some time, Ismaʿili daʿwa (mission, propaganda) had its strongest support in North Africa, where it was the religious affiliation of the Fatimid dynasty (9091171), which came to rule North Africa, Egypt, Hijaz, and Syria. Establishing the city of Cairo (969) as their capital, the Fatimids hoped to turn Egypt into the center of Ismaʿili propaganda, and for this purpose they founded al-Azhar seminary. The Fatimids' religious enterprise had little success because the majority of their subjects adhered to Sunni schools of thought; Ismaʿilism became the ideology of the state and of a minority in society. Elsewhere in the Islamic world, the Buyid dynasty, which ruled Iran and Iraq between 932 and 1062, declared its loyalty to Shiʿism but chose to follow the Twelver branch. Although Shiʿism did not become the religious affiliation of the majority under Buyid rule, the dynasty did much to promote it. For example, Husayn's murder was commemorated with public ceremonies on the tenth of Muharram, the events at Ghadir Khumm were celebrated, and steps were taken to protect Shiʿism.

The next stage of substantial elaboration of Twelver Shiʿite thought occurred in the sixteenth century under the Safavid dynasty in Iran. Until their arrival, Iran had been primarily a Sunni region. Locked in a mortal conflict with two Sunni dynastiesthe Ottomans to the west and the Uzbeks in Transoxiania to the eastIsmaʿil al-Safawi (14941524), founder of the dynasty, found it politically helpful to underline the ideological particularity of his government by adopting Shiʿism as the state religion. At the time, Safavid Shiʿism consisted largely of an affiliation to Sufi movements in Azerbaijan. Under Safawi's successor, Tahmasp (15241576), however, the state moved toward a more institutional and hierarchical structure guided by a clergy and an established law, rather than by the esoteric propensity of Sufi masters. This change fostered the alliance between the state and the clergy, the latter bolstering the legitimacy of the state and the former supporting Shiʿite propaganda. The Safavids sought to make Shiʿism the law of the land and the only religious affiliation in society. Under Abbas I (15881629) they built theological seminaries and attracted renowned scholars from Iraq, southern Lebanon, and Bahrain to help systematize Shiʿite learning. Sunni Islam was all but eliminated in the Safavid territories.

Shiʿite Scholars and Differences with Sunnism

The idea of the occultation of the imam deprived Shiʿism of binding authority in spiritual matters. This inevitably called for the presence of religious scholars who could guide the community. Kufa was the earliest center of Shiʿite thought, and in later times Qom in Iran emerged as a preeminent center of Shiʿite learning. Among the most prominent of scholars in Qom were Abu Jaʿfar al-Kulayni (d. 941) and Ibn Babawayh al-Saduq (d. 991). Noted scholars in the later theological schools of Baghdad were Shaykh al-Mufid (d. 1022) and Sharif Murtada Alam al-Huda (d. 1067). The greatest Shiʿite scholar, however, was perhaps al-Majlisi (d. 1699), who contributed the most toward changing a Sufi form of Shiʿism to a dogmatic and formal legislative form. Beginning in the nineteenth century there was a debate between two main currents in Shiʿism: the Akhbari, which seeks to establish Shiʿite jurisprudence on the authority of tradition (akhbar), and the Usuli, which emphasizes the primacy of rationalist principles (usul) and the need to exercise ijtihad (reasoned speculation). Since the debate has been resolved in favor of the Usuli current in the twentieth century, the authority of the mujtahid (expert scholar capable of exercising reasoned speculation) has taken on greater importance. Although Shiʿa and Sunnis agree on core matters of ritual, dogma, and law, they differ on details. Whereas Sunnis, for instance, permit the occasional practice of wiping the foot covering with water (al-mash ala alkhuffayn) during ablution, Shiʿa reject the practice. The institution of temporary marriage (mutʿa), accepted under Shiʿite law, is rejected in Sunnism. The most prominent area of difference, however, remains historical. The Shiʿa's rejection of the caliphate of the first successors to the Prophetviewed as equals according to Sunni historical read-ingand their insistence on the sole right of Ali ibn Abi Talib to the succession has long formed the most visible difference between the two communities.

see also akhbari; azhar, al-; islam; ismaʿili shiʿism; karbala; mahdi; muhammad; najaf, al-; sunni islam; usuli; zaydism.


Algar, Hamid. Religion and State in Iran, 17851906: The Role of the Ulama in the Qajar Period. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

Arjomand, Said Amir. Authority and Political Culture in Shiʿism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988.

Arjomand, Said Amir. The Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam: Religion, Political Order, and Societal Change in Shiʿite Iran from the Beginning to 1890. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Chelkowski, P. J. Taʿziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran. New York: New York University Press, 1979.

Dabashi, Hamid. Theology of Discontent: The Ideological Foundation of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. New York: New York University Press, 1993.

Daftary, Farhad. The Ismaʿilis: Their History and Doctrines. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Keddie, Nikki. Religion and Politics in Iran: Shiʿism from Quietism to Revolution. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983.

Momen, Moojan. An Introduction to Shiʿi Islam. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985.

Moosa, Matti. Extremist Shiʿites: The Ghulat Sects. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1988.

Sachedina, A. A. Islamic Messianism: The Idea of the Mahdi in Twelver Shiʿism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981.

tayeb el-hibri
updated by roxanne varzi

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Shiʿism, Shiʿite: see SHĪʿA.

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