A Brief Overview of the Shi’a Sects

Here is the final of three posts on a brief bird’s eye view of the sects within the Muslim faith.  For the Shi’a, it is important to recognize that they have always been somewhat of an underdog to the Sunnis.  That is why a Shi’a movement of considerable note was Isma’ilism, as it gave rise to the major dynasties of the medieval Islamic world , rivaling the Sunni kingdoms for a time.  When Ismai’ilism was overthrown by the famous Sunni leader Saladin, the sect was split into two groups.  Some became Musta’lian, following the caliph Mustansir (now called Bohra)  while others followed his brother Nizar. Today, most Ismail’ilis are Nizaris, whose Imam is known as the Aga Khan.   

An offshoot of the Nizaris became the radical order called Assassins. They were never considered mainstream Muslims in any way.  Instead, this militant extremist group of Ismaili’s (Imams of the Nizari line) radically opposed the Sunni majority (since the 11th c.) and their purpose was to overthrow Sunni leadership.  They would target a single victim and set out alone with only a dagger.  They were called assassin from the word hashishiyya as they were thought to either be under the influence of hasish or simply acting like hasish addicts with bizarre behavior.    

The Druze sect is more or less a secret religious sect located in Lebanon, Syria, Israel, and Jordan.  No one is permitted either to leave or to join their community. 

The Alawis are an extremist sect located mostly in Turkey and Syria.  They are deviant to most other Shi’a sects and all Sunnis.  They are an important minority however as the Asad family, the Syrian presidential “monarchy”, are Alawis.

The most influential of the Shi’a sects currently are the Shi’a Twelvers.  This sect began in 765 CE.  After a succession of 12 generations of Imams after Ali, the 12th Imam disappeared circa 814, leaving no successor. This 12th Imam is known as the “hidden Imam”, a Messianic figure who will return in God’s good time.

Shi’a Twelvers played a significant historical  role in the change in the relationship between Sunni and Shi’a all over the Middle East that remains today.  In the 16th century, (the Safavid dynasty, who were Twelvers) seized power back from the Sunnis and reunified Persia (Iran).  They then reconstituted the ancient empire and resumed the ancient title of Shah, used by the emperors of the pre-Islamic era.  They proclaimed Twelver Shiism to be the state religion of the Iranian realm.   This marked them off from their Sunni neighbors in the Ottoman lands to the west, India in the east, and central Asia in the north resulting in a struggle for control of the border province of Iraq-long contested.      

Since the beginning of Islamic rule, Iran and Iraq are the only countries with Shi’a majorities. Their sense of competition for supremacy in the Middle East, has created a different mind set for authority.  Emerging from the centuries old experience of Sunni dominance and the resulting Shi’a subordination are seen all the social and psychological consequences of this reality. For instance, the Shi’a of Iran in the late 19th century created a new title, the Ayatollah, the supreme guide of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a kind of Pope lite, thereby creating ultimate and sovereign power.

Yet the continuing economic strife in most of the Muslim states, along with the influence of the secular world, and access to a constant stream of information, makes the longevity of enforced religious law and ultimate human authority tenuous at best.      

Quote of the day, from the wisdom of the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran in The Prophet:

“And if you would know God be not therefore a solver of riddles. / Rather look about you and you shall see Him playing with your children./And look into space; outstretching His arms in the lightning and descending in rain./You shall see Him smiling in flowers, then rising and waving His hands in trees.

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