Member of a sect of Islam that believes that Ali, a cousin of the prophet Muhammad, was his first true successor. The Shiites are doctrinally opposed to the Sunni Muslims. They developed their own version of the Sunna (traditional law of Islam), with only minor differences, such as inheritance and the status of women. In Shiism, the clergy are empowered to intervene between God and humans, whereas among the Sunni, the relationship with God is direct and the clergy serve as advisers.
The Shiites are prominent in Iran, the Lebanon, and Indo-Pakistan, and are also found in Iraq and Bahrain.
Shiite Muslims believe that the historic imams were almost divine people, because they were descendants of Ali and, therefore, of Muhammad. The last imam (the ‘hidden imam’) is believed to have disappeared mysteriously. Different Shiite groups hold that he was the 5th, the 7th, or the 12th. Some Shiite groups believe that chosen descendants of Muhammad, such as the Aga Khan, keep in touch with the hidden imam and pass on his wishes; others that the hidden imam chooses an ayatollah as the leading authority for the community. Ayatollahs (meaning ‘sign of God’) are chosen from a group of able and highly trained religious leaders, who first become mujtahids. It is believed that the hidden imam sends a special leader every century to renew and invigorate the faith; the most recent was Ayatollah Khomeini, who died in 1989.
Breakaway Shiite groups include the Alawite sect, to which the ruling party in Syria belongs; and the Ismaili sect, with the Aga Khan IV as its spiritual head. The term Shiite originally referred to shi'a (‘the partisans’) of Ali.
In the aftermath of the Gulf War in 1991, many thousands of Shiites in Iraq were forced to take refuge in the marshes of southern Iraq, after unsuccessfully rebelling against Saddam Hussein. Shiite sacred shrines were desecrated and atrocities committed by the armed forces on civilians.
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The general term applied to a number of different Muslim sects, the main body of which is dominant in Iran. They comprise about one-fifth...
Members of an Islamic religious movement prominent in Iran and Iraq. After the murder of Ali, the son-in-law and nephew of the Prophet Muhammad,...