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Iran

Shia Islam in Iran

Distinctive Beliefs

Although Shias have lived in Iran since the earliest days of Islam, and there was one Shia dynasty in part of Iran during the tenth and eleventh centuries, it is believed that most Iranians were Sunnis until the seventeenth century. The Safavid dynasty made Shia Islam the official state religion in the sixteenth century and aggressively proselytized on its behalf. It is also believed that by the mid-seventeenth century most people in what is now Iran had become Shias, an affiliation that has continued.

All Shia Muslims believe there are seven pillars of faith, which detail the acts necessary to demonstrate and reinforce faith. The first five of these pillars are shared with Sunni Muslims. They are shahada, or the confession of faith; namaz, or ritualized prayer; zakat, or almsgiving; sawm, fasting and contemplation during daylight hours during the lunar month of Ramazan; and hajj, or pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina once in a lifetime if financially feasible. The other two pillars, which are not shared with Sunnis, are jihad--or crusade to protect Islamic lands, beliefs, and institutions, and the requirement to do good works and to avoid all evil thoughts, words, and deeds.

Twelver Shia Muslims also believe in five basic principles of faith: there is one God, who is a unitary divine being in contrast to the trinitarian being of Christians; the Prophet Muhammad is the last of a line of prophets beginning with Abraham and including Moses and Jesus, and he was chosen by God to present His message to mankind; there is a resurrection of the body and soul on the last or judgment day; divine justice will reward or punish believers based on actions undertaken through their own free will; and Twelve Imams were successors to Muhammad. The first three of these beliefs are also shared by non- Twelver Shias and Sunni Muslims.

The distinctive dogma and institution of Shia Islam is the Imamate, which includes the idea that the successor of Muhammad be more than merely a political leader. The Imam must also be a spiritual leader, which means that he must have the ability to interpret the inner mysteries of the Quran and the shariat (see Glossary). The Twelver Shias further believe that the Twelve Imams who succeeded the Prophet were sinless and free from error and had been chosen by God through Muhammad.

The Imamate began with Ali, who is also accepted by Sunni Muslims as the fourth of the "rightly guided caliphs" to succeed the Prophet. Shias revere Ali as the First Imam, and his descendants, beginning with his sons Hasan and Husayn (also seen as Hosein), continue the line of the Imams until the Twelfth, who is believed to have ascended into a supernatural state to return to earth on judgment day. Shias point to the close lifetime association of Muhammad with Ali. When Ali was six years old, he was invited by the Prophet to live with him, and Shias believe Ali was the first person to make the declaration of faith in Islam. Ali also slept in Muhammad's bed on the night of the hijra, or migration from Mecca to Medina, when it was feared that the house would be attacked by unbelievers and the Prophet stabbed to death. He fought in all the battles Muhammad did except one, and the Prophet chose him to be the husband of his favorite daughter, Fatima.

In Sunni Islam an imam is the leader of congregational prayer. Among the Shias of Iran the term imam traditionally has been used only for Ali and his eleven descendants. None of the Twelve Imams, with the exception of Ali, ever ruled an Islamic government. During their lifetimes, their followers hoped that they would assume the rulership of the Islamic community, a rule that was believed to have been wrongfully usurped. Because the Sunni caliphs were cognizant of this hope, the Imams generally were persecuted during the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties. Therefore, the Imams tried to be as unobtrusive as possible and to live as far as was reasonable from the successive capitals of the Islamic empire.

During the ninth century Caliph Al Mamun, son of Caliph Harun ar Rashid, was favorably disposed toward the descendants of Ali and their followers. He invited the Eighth Imam, Reza (A.D. 765-816), to come from Medina to his court at Marv (Mary in the present-day Soviet Union). While Reza was residing at Marv, Mamun designated him as his successor in an apparent effort to avoid conflict among Muslims. Reza's sister Fatima journeyed from Medina to be with her brother but took ill and died at Qom. A shrine developed around her tomb, and over the centuries Qom has become a major Shia pilgrimage and theology center.

Mamun took Reza on his military campaign to retake Baghdad from political rivals. On this trip Reza died unexpectedly in Khorasan. Reza was the only Imam to reside or die in what is now Iran. A major shrine, and eventually the city of Mashhad, grew up around his tomb, which has become the most important pilgrimage center in Iran. Several important theological schools are located in Mashhad, associated with the shrine of the Eighth Imam.

Reza's sudden death was a shock to his followers, many of whom believed that Mamun, out of jealousy for Reza's increasing popularity, had him poisoned. Mamun's suspected treachery against Reza and his family tended to reinforce a feeling already prevalent among his followers that the Sunni rulers were untrustworthy.

The Twelfth Imam is believed to have been only five years old when the Imamate descended upon him in A.D. 874 at the death of his father. The Twelfth Imam is usually known by his titles of Imam-e Asr (the Imam of the Age) and Sahib az Zaman (the Lord of Time). Because his followers feared he might be assassinated, the Twelfth Imam was hidden from public view and was seen only by a few of his closest deputies. Sunnis claim that he never existed or that he died while still a child. Shias believe that the Twelfth Imam remained on earth, but hidden from the public, for about seventy years, a period they refer to as the lesser occultation (gheybat-e sughra). Shias also believe that the Twelfth Imam has never died, but disappeared from earth in about A.D. 939. Since that time the greater occultation (gheybat-e kubra) of the Twelfth Imam has been in force and will last until God commands the Twelfth Imam to manifest himself on earth again as the Mahdi, or Messiah. Shias believe that during the greater occultation of the Twelfth Imam he is spiritually present--some believe that he is materially present as well-- and he is besought to reappear in various invocations and prayers. His name is mentioned in wedding invitations, and his birthday is one of the most jubilant of all Shia religious observances.

The Shia doctrine of the Imamate was not fully elaborated until the tenth century. Other dogmas were developed still later. A characteristic of Shia Islam is the continual exposition and reinterpretation of doctrine. The most recent example is Khomeini's expounding of the doctrine of velayat-e faqih (see Glossary), or the political guardianship of the community of believers by scholars trained in religious law. This has not been a traditional idea in Shia Islam and is, in fact, an innovation. The basic idea is that the clergy, by virtue of their superior knowledge of the laws of God, are the best qualified to rule the society of believers who are preparing themselves on earth to live eternally in heaven. The concept of velayat-e faqih thus provides the doctrinal basis for theocratic government, an experiment that Twelver Imam Shias had not attempted prior to the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

Data as of December 1987

 


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