Santa Clara University


Shiite Islam

See also Islam, Iran, Arab States.

1. Brief Introduction
2. Religion and Politics Sections
3. A Short Introductory Course
4. Other Resource Materials
5. Recent Articles

1. Brief Introduction:

When a Western analyst or citizen first approaches Shiite Islam, he should consider both religious and political perspectives. From the religious perspective, the tragic martyrdom of Ali’s son Husein at Karbala (see entry on Islam) sets the tone for Shiite spirituality. On Ashura, the tenth day of Muharram, the faithful scourge themselves in ritual matam to demonstrate their love for Husein and his companions and to obtain favors through the intercessory powers (shafa) that Husein was granted because of his sacrifice. Martyrdom remains central to Shiite spirituality, and Shiite await the return of the Twelfth Imam who disappeared outside Baghdad in the ninth century. From the political perspective, since the majority Sunni have often classified the minority Shiites as heretics, Shiites have a long tradition of dissimulation or political quietism [taqiyyah] that helped them to live without notice in hostile political environments.

The great Shiite state has been Iran, starting with the Safavid Empire. Converting to Shiism gave that state one more reason to oppose its political rival, the Sunni Ottomans. The contemporary political impact of Shiite Islam was best illustrated in the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini’s campaign against the Shah in the late 1970s. The religious-political link was explicit, with the leadership of Khomeini and a great demonstration against the Shah, termed “the new Yazid” (Husein’s killer) on Ashura. While traditional Shiite theology had labeled all government “unjust” until the return of the twelfth Imam, the general weakness of the Qajar Dynasty (1796-1926) had encouraged Shiite leaders to occupy the political vacuum in expressing anti-colonial sentiment. Shiite religious organization aided political action by providing leadership from Grand Ayatollahs and Ayatollahs. Khomeini offered a new interpretation of the religious-political context, but the situation had been prepared over a much longer period. The current Iranian political system is still led by a Supreme Guide, a religious figure who is Khomeini’s successor.

The Shiite-Sunni split has great political significance in countries like Iraq and Lebanon which contain major concentrations of both types of Islam. The Ottomans and the British both supported Sunni rule of Iraq from Baghdad. Gulf War II began the rise of the Shiites to prominence because of their greater numbers. The simultaneous rise of Khomeini and the very secular Saddam Hussein meant that many Shiite clerics left the traditional theological centers of Najaf and Karbala in Iraq for the previously less important Iranian center of Qom. Many returned after the demise of Saddam.

2. Religion and Politics Sections:

The Expansion of Islam” (pp. 101-05)

“Shiite Politics in Iran: the Ayatollah and the President in the EMC Systems” (pp. 215-21).

“Shiite Islam in the Military System: Nuclear Weapons and the Iraq War” (pp. 221-27)

“Comparative National Politics of Islam and Democratization: (pp. 245-52)

“The Politics of Islam as a World Civilization” (pp. 252-59)

“Global Religious Dialogues and Political-Religious Alliances” (pp. 307-15)

3. A Short Introductory Course:

Pinault illustrates Shiite spirituality in his depiction of the ceremonies surrounding Ashura. Hegland shows the changes of the interpretation of the role of Husein in a small Iranian village during Khomeini’s revolution. Zahedi compares the political situation in Iran at the time of the revolution and toward the end of the presidency of Khatami. Scholar Vali Nasr documents the rise of Shiite Islam in conjunction with the United States attack on an Iraq led by the Sunni secular ruler Saddam Hussein.

Pinault, David. Horse of Karbala: Muslim Devotional Life in India (New York: PALGRAVE, 2001).

Hegland, Mary, “Two Images of Husain: Accomodation and Revolution in an Iranian Village,” in Kedde, Nikki R., ed. Religion and Politics in Iran: Shi’ism from Quietism to Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).

Zahedi, Dariush. The Iranian Revolution Then and Now: Indicators of Regime Stability (Boulder, Co.: Westview Press, 2000).

Nasr, Vali. The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006).

4. Other Resource Materials:

See Islam for general materials on Islam

Chehabi, H.E. “Religion and Politics in Iran: How Theocratic Is the Iranian Republic?” in Daedalus (1991).

Kedde, Nikki R., ed. Religion and Politics in Iran: Shi’ism from Quietism to Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).

Kemp, Geoffrey. Iran and Iraq: The Shia Connection, Soft Power, and the Nuclear Connection. Washington, DC: United States Institute for Peace, 2005.

Pollack, Kenneth, and Takeyh, “Taking on Tehran,” Foreign Affairs (March/April 2005).

Siavoshi, Sussan, “Between Heaven and Earth: The Islamic Republic of Iran,” in Jelen, Ted Gerald, and Wilcox, Clyde, eds. Religion and Politics in Comparative Perspective: The One, the Few, and the Many (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 125-40. 

The BBC’s site on Islam.

5. Recent Articles:

See the countries mentioned above.

"Sunnis and Shiites See an Omen for Reconciliation in Iraq," New York Times, August 23, 2009. For the first time in ten years, Ramadan began on the same day for both groups.

List of other Religions

October 19, 2009.