Shia Islam in Iran
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
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