21.05.2018 Author: Psychologist Pavel Khoroshutin

Shiites represent one of the denominations in Islam, the followers of which acknowledge Ali ibn Abu Talib and his inheritors to be the true spiritual heirs of the Prophet Muhammad.

The word “Shiite” means a representative of Twelvers – the prevailing religious branch widespread in Middle Eastern countries.

Muslims-Shiites believe that the Prophet Muhammad was sent by Allah for the spiritual management of the congregation. In their opinion, after the Prophet’s death, imams – chosen by Allah and people from among the prophet’s descendants rather from among caliphs – have to rule the society.

Key milestones of shia islam history  

Islam appeared in the 7th century and after the first hundred years, the Islamic community had divided into three branches:

  • Shia Islam;
  • Sunni Islam;
  • Kharijite.

The split resulted after the disagreements as to the character and the origin of the supreme power in an Islamic state. Up until that time, different Islamic tribes and families had long been fighting and disagreeing. As for the actual circumstances of the Shiite trend appearance, there are several opinions. Some think that Shiism came into being during the times of the prophet; others believe it happened after his death. There is a theory that the trend formed during Ali’s ruling and others are convince that it appeared only after the caliph was killed.

In the early second half of the 7th century, Ali, a companion of Prophet Muhammed, and the Umayyad dynasty started a race for power, which later resulted in the split in the religion between the Sunnis and the Shiites.

After the death of the Shiites’ prophet Mukhamed, the people turned the reins over to Abu Bakr, who, before his death, recommended electing Umar as his successor. When Umar died, Usman was elected as the new caliph.

In 656, adversaries of Usman’s policy sieged his house and 40 days later killed him. The people elected their new caliph – Ali. Members of the Umayyad (Muawiya) family and closest companions of the prophet started opposing the ruler. This rebellion was quashed by Ali. But in the year 660, Muawiya was announced the caliph in Jerusalem, and during the following year Ali was killed. 

Ali had two sons, Hasan and Husain, who were sequentially imams, but both of them perished in their confrontation with the Umayyads. In the middle of the 8th century, a sudden uprising against the Umayyads occurred, and the dynasty of the Abbasids took power in the caliphate.

Ali’s followers were called the Alids. This group united against the Abbasids, who regularly attacked them up until the early 9th century. In 813, al-Mamun came to power and started a policy of rapprochement with the Alids which met with an outcry from Abbasid dynasty members.

In the early 10th century, the Ismaelites (extreme Shiites) in the territory of present-day Tunisia rebelled. They were headed by Ubayd Allah, who claimed to be Ali’s descendant. North Africa consequently became a Shiite state. The Islamic world split into three feuding caliphates: the Abbasids, Fatimides and Cordoba Umayyads. 

In the 10th century, a Daylamite dynasty of Buyids took power and forced the Abbasids into submission. The Buyids belonged to the Twelvers who, represent the majority of Shias today.


During the modern era (the 16-18th centuries), many khanates and sultanates aligned themselves with either the Sunnis or the Shiites who would sporadically confront one another.

In 1910, severe conflicts arose in Bukhara due to the difference between the Shiites and the Sunnis in mutual disrespect to each other’s traditions. Attempts of reconciliation of the feuding groups began and in 1943 a National treaty was concluded. Under the treaty, important public offices were divided in Lebanon between the Sunnis and the Shiites.

However, in the later 20th century, due to a revolution in Iran, a Shia Islamic regime was established, equally distant from the USA, USSR and Sunni rulers. The revolution ignited a series of other riots and civil wars occurred in Bahrain, Iraq and Lebanon.

In 2011, in Jakarta, a Suni-Shia theological council was founded to improve the understanding and to establish a dialogue between representatives of the two Islamic branches.

The main difference between the Shiites and the Sunnis is that the Shiites believe in the infallibility of imams and all their actions and faith. They believe that they are twelve in number. The Sunnis believe that all people are sinful, except prophets. 

Shia islam denominations

Imanites prevail with two denominations of the Twelvers and Ismailites. There are also other smaller denominations.

  1. Shia-Twelvers (Ithna Ashari). They live in Iran, Bahrain, Azerbaijan, Lebanon, Iraq and other countries. They believe in the twelve imams from the Ali family who sequentially ruled during the Shia history.
  2. They accept seven imams, including Jafar as-Sadiq, and include Ismail, Jafar’s son, in their group. In the 9th century, because of an argument concerning the actual number of imams, Ismaili split into the Fatimids and the Qarmatians. In the 18th century, the Persian Shah officially announced Ismailism to be a Shia Islam branch. In the 11th century, Druze separated from the Ismailites.
  3. Alawites are representatives of “extreme” Their faith is based on Ismailism, gnostic Christianity, Shia Islam, pre-Islam astral cults, and Greek philosophy. Alawites are divided into “hassa”, a privileged group, and “amma”, the main group of “the uninitiated”.
  4. Zaidis. Emerged in the 8th century as “moderate” Shia, who accepted the legitimateness of Osman and Omar – caliphs of Abu Bakr. This is practiced in the northwest of Yemen and Iran (one of the Zaidis branches – Noctavites).
  5. Kaysanites. The branch emerged in the late 7th century; however, in time, it split into the following sub-sects: Mukhar, Hashimiyya, Samaniyya and Rawendis. Kaysanites announced Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyyah, Ali’s son as the Imam. Due to weak support, the sub-sect had already ceased to exist by the mid-9th
  6. Shaykhi is a Shia sect that appeared in the early 19th century in Iraq and Iran. They taught the inevitability of the near coming of the Messiah, a secret Mahdi imam who will eliminate injustice on the Earth. He would be a special person – an intermediary between Mahdi and people. The number of Shaykhis numbered more than one million people.

An extreme esoteric teaching of Shiites, Ahl-e Haqq, emerged from gulat branches in Mesopotamia. It is practiced in the west of Iran and in eastern Iraq, mainly among the Kurds.

Shia culture

Shia Muslims celebrate many religious holidays (for example, the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, Eid al-Fitr, and Eid al-Adha). Also, they remember days of mourning connected with the death of particular prophets or Shia imams.

Shia Islam honors both common sacred sites of the Muslims like Mecca and Medina and famous Shia mosques:

  • Husain and al-Abbas in Karbala;
  • Ali in An Najaf;
  • Reza in Mashhad (Iran);
  • Kadhimiya Mosque in Kadhimiya, and others.

Also, the Jannat al-Baqi cemetery in Medina is a holy site.

Shia culture

In different statistical sources, the number of Shia Muslims is estimated to be 10 to 20% of the total number of Muslims worldwide. Shia adherents live in Muslim countries and also American and European lands. Despite their relatively small number, Shia Muslims present a powerful political force, especially in Middle Eastern countries. This is why the possibility of a sectarian split in the Muslim community should not be excluded.