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Shīʿa (Arab., ‘party’). Those Muslims who believe that ʿAlī was the legitimate successor (khalīfa) to Muḥammad and that ʿAlī, al-Ḥasan, and al-Ḥusain were cheated of their right to succeed and fell (as martyrs) victims to tyranny. Close to the Sunni majority in most respects, their most important differences are: the Shīʿa community's suffering is consecrated by the suffering (regarded as martyrdom) of the founding Imāms; the office of Imām is bestowed by God on a chosen person from Muḥammad's family; these Imāms are a spiritually perfect élite and are therefore infallible; the hidden Imām's return will bring victory over an unjust political order, against which true believers have always been in opposition; meanwhile, the Shīʿa community is guided by the mujtāhids (religious specialists in the Shīʿa context). The importance of the mujtāhid (e.g. Imām Khumayni) produces a radical notion of personal authority and a model of action. The idea of suffering, divine leadership, and of personal involvement come together in the re-enactment in passion plays (taʿziya) of the tragic drama of Imām Ḥusain at Karbalāʾ, and also appears in the custom of self-beating in the mosque and public processions that occur on 10 Muḥarram. In addition, the Shiʿites identify as issues between themselves and the Sunnis: mutʿa (temporary marriage), taqīya (dissimulation in face of danger), rawḍa khānī (recitation and memorial of Imāms), ziyāra (pilgrimage to tombs), and above all the nature and identity of the Imām. Because of their strict allegiance to Imāms, Shiʿites have divided into many sects, of which the following are or have been important: Ithnā-ʿAsharīya (Twelvers), Zaydis (Seveners, see ISMA-ʿĪLĪS), Bātinites, Nizāris (now called Aga Khanids), and the Druzes. Shīʿa communities are found as majorities in Iran and parts of Iraq, and as sizeable minorities in India, Pakistan, Lebanon, Yemen, Persian Gulf States, and E. Africa.

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Shi·a / ˈshēˌä/ (also Shi'a) • n. (pl. same or Shi·as ) one of the two main branches of Islam, followed esp. in Iran, that rejects the first three Sunni caliphs and regards Ali, the fourth caliph, as Muhammad's first true successor.Compare with Sunni. ∎  a Muslim who adheres to this branch of Islam.

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Shia one of the two main branches of Islam, followed especially in Iran, that rejects the first three Sunni caliphs and regards Ali, the fourth caliph, as Muhammad's first true successor. Adherents are known as Shiites. The name comes from Arabic šī῾a ‘party of Ali’.

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Devin J. Stewart


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Robert Gleave