The growing power of the Shiites

Iraq’s Shiite majority, brutally oppressed under Saddam Hussein, will play a major role in determining the future of Iraq. Will they turn Iraq into an Islamic state?

Who are the Shiites?

They comprise the second largest branch of Islam (after the Sunnis), accounting for 10 percent to 15 percent of all Muslims. Shiites are a minority in all Muslim countries except Azerbaijan, Yemen, Iran, and Iraq, where they make up around 60 percent of the population.

How did Shiite Islam come about?

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As the result of succession disputes after the death of the Prophet Mohammed in 632. Most of Mohammed’s followers accepted that the Islamic community should be led by an elected caliph. But the Shiites believed that the succession should follow a “divinely appointed” hereditary line, starting with Mohammed’s son-in-law Ali (the word “Shiite” comes from the Arabic “shiat Ali,” meaning “the partisans of Ali”). Ali was the first Shiite imam, and his tomb, in the Iraqi city of Najaf, is one of the holiest places in Shiite Islam. But possibly the most significant figure in Shiite history is Ali’s younger son Husayn, the third imam.

Why is Husayn so important?

Because his martyrdom, more than any other single event, created the unique consciousness of Shiite Islam. In 680, Shiite Muslims in Kufa (now part of Iraq) asked Husayn to liberate them from the oppressive rule of Yazid, the sixth Sunni caliph. Husayn rode to the plain of Karbala, where he was intercepted by an army of 5,000 soldiers and ordered to swear fealty to Yazid. Although he had only 72 soldiers, he refused, and he and his men were massacred. His son survived to continue the line. The annual festival of Ashura commemorates Husayn’s valor, while also expressing the collective guilt of the Shiites, who asked Husayn to come to their rescue but failed to help him in his hour of need. The atmosphere is one of grief and atonement, with processions of devout Shiites flagellating themselves with chains and razors. Husayn’s martyrdom inscribed in the Shiite mind the idea that one must be prepared to suffer, and even die, for the true faith.

Is the hereditary line still going?

No. The line of descent through Ali and Husayn became extinct in 939, when the 4-year-old 12th imam, al-Askari, disappeared within days of inheriting the title. The Shiites refused to accept that he had died, preferring to believe that he was merely “hidden” and would one day reappear on earth as the Mahdi (a messianic figure who will make the world perfect before Judgment Day). The majority of Shiites, who call themselves “Twelvers,” still adhere to this belief. But in the absence of a hereditary line, spiritual power was eventually transferred to the ulema, a council of 12 scholars trusted to elect a “supreme imam.” The most famous in modern times was Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini.

How politicized are the Shiites?

The Shiites survived a long history of persecution by keeping a low profile and avoiding politics, but in recent decades they have become more politicized. Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, led by Khomeini, Shiite ideology has become more outward-looking and pan-Islamic. Iranian clerics preach that Islam should be a tool for the empowerment of the oppressed, not merely a set of devotional practices. Hence Iran’s support for the Palestinian, Afghan, and Lebanese causes. The guerrilla group Hezbollah is a Shiite organization.

What about the Shiites in Iraq?

Under Saddam Hussein, the Shiite majority was brutally oppressed. Shiite holy places were desecrated and many of their leaders were murdered or forced to flee to Iran. Even Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr—the man appointed by Saddam as the head of the Shiite community—was executed once he became too influential. His successor, the current Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali al-Sistani, was kept under house arrest for 15 years. Many of today’s Shiite leaders are the sons of murdered religious figures.

And now that Saddam is gone?

Initial Shiite jubilance at Saddam’s downfall has given way to alarm at the prospect of a U.S. occupation. There is a strong historical strain of anti-imperialism within Shiism, and Iraqi Shiites are already challenging any future U.S.-led administrations by taking care of business themselves: organizing local committees, doling out funds to pay public servants, retrieving looted property, and sending militias to secure government buildings. In the long term, Iraqi Shiites are divided about what style of government should come next. Some Shiites want an Iranian-style theocracy, but many others are “quietists” who believe in the separation of religion and state. Ayatollah al-Sistani espouses the latter approach. Early in the U.S. invasion of Iraq, he advised Shiites not to support either side. But his refusal to get involved with politics has left the field open for more radicalized clerics to gain power.

What kind of men are these?

Prominent among them is Seyed Muqtada al-Sadr, whose father, a much-loved Shiite ayatollah, was murdered by Saddam’s regime in 1999. Al-Sadr has apparently put together his own militia, the Jammat-i-Sadr-Than. Recently, 50 fighters linked to him besieged al-Sistani in his home for four days, demanding that he leave Iraq. Al-Sistani called tribal leaders to his aid and the siege was lifted. Another powerful Shiite figure is Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim—the cleric who recently returned from exile in Iran to a rapturous welcome.

Might there be an Islamic revolution?

Most Iraqi Shiites want democracy, not theocracy. They are aware that the revolution in Iran delivered neither prosperity nor sanctity—and besides, there is no Iraqi leader with the charisma of Khomeini. Indeed, some observers believe that Iraq could become a moderating influence on global Shiism, providing an alternative center of gravity to Iran. Najaf is home to the oldest Shiite seminary, established more than 1,300 years ago. Shiite theologians—especially those who don’t accept the Iranian model—will inevitably flock to a Najaf freed from tyranny. Thousands of teachers and students—as well as several ayatollahs—are talking about moving there from Iran.

The Shiite tradition

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