Shia Islam


Religious or Ethnic Group

Shia Islam

Shia Islam is the second largest denomination of Islam in terms of population. Shia Muslims are also sometimes referred to as Shi'ites in English.

The word Shia comes from the Arabic Shi'atu 'Ali, meaning community of Ali, as Shia Muslims believe that Ali, the Prophet Mohammed's cousin and son-in-law, was his rightful successor. The division between Sunni and Shia Islam arose after Mohammed's death in 632 CE and deepened over the following centuries. Today Shia Muslims constitute 10-15 per cent of Muslims worldwide.

Shia Islam is characterised by veneration of Ali, his descendants (particularly Hussein, who died in battle), and a belief in the imamah. This is the succession of divinely-appointed imams, or leaders from the family of Mohammed. The largest branch of Shia Muslims are known as 'Twelvers', because of their belief that there were twelve divinely-appointed imams following Mohammed. Shias believe that the final, twelfth, imam disappeared in 941 CE, and remained hidden (occulted), and that he will return, bringing peace and justice to the world. There are two other main branches of Shia Islam: Ismailis and Zaidis, who have differing beliefs about the order of succession of the imamah.

Shia theology is based on five major principles known as usul al-din, or the Principles of Religion: Unity, Justice, Prophethood, Leadership, and The Day of Resurrection. Throughout history, Shia traditions have been influenced by the need to preserve religion and identity whilst often living as a minority and subject to persecution. For example, the concept of taqiyya, or concealment of religious identity to protect personal safety, is permissible in Shia religious law.

The present-day government of the Islamic Republic of Iran is based on a modern articulation of the Shia political theory of wilayat al-faqih, meaning 'rule (or guardianship) of the jurist', which allows for an Islamic cleric to govern in the absence of the twelfth imam. Iran contains the world's largest Shia population; Iraq, Bahrain and Azerbaijan are also majority Shia countries in terms of population. There are large Shia minorities in countries such as Pakistan, India and Yemen.