Since the beginning of the war in Iraq on March 20, 2003, Americans have encountered Shiite Islam in the media more frequently than at any time since the taking of the hostages in Tehran, when the American Embassy in Iran was occupied on Nov. 4, 1979, and Americans were held hostage for 444 days. As the Iranian Revolution developed, many Americans who had barely heard of Shiite Islam became painfully aware of the Shiite term ayatollah. Indeed, until recently these Americans believed that Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Iranian Revolution, was the ayatollah. In fact, he was not even the main ayatollah, much less the only one. Now Americans hear about Shiite Islam in every newscast and read about it almost every day in the newspapers.
If most people in the West know little about Sunni Islam, which includes approximately 85 percent of all the Muslims in the world, knowledge about Shiite Islam is even more sparse and often entirely colored by the state of U.S. relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. The memory of the hostage-taking in Teheran and media images of Shiites whipping themselves during the annual mourning for the death of Imam Hussein have produced the image that Shiite Muslims are fanatical and even bloodthirsty. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The roots of Shiite Islam go back to the death of the Prophet Muhammad in June 632. Muhammad had left no instructions about how the community of believers should be governed after his death. Although Muhammad could never be replaced as the Messenger of God, some Muslims believed that Aly ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, was the most likely one to lead the community. But Aly was not the one selected. In fact, there would be three caliphs, or successors to Muhammad, before Aly was chosen for the role.
Even during his lifetime, Aly experienced a conflict between his followers and the followers of the family that would, after his death, begin the Umayyid Dynasty in Damascus. Ultimately, Aly was assassinated and the Umayyids assumed power. Aly’s faction (Arabic shi‘ah, hence Shiite) did not disappear with his death, however, but continued its efforts to have a direct descendant of Muhammad become caliph. In the year 680, Hussein, the younger son of Aly, was involved in an unsuccessful revolt against the Umayyid caliph. On Oct. 10, 680, a date Shiite Muslims observe annually according to the Muslim calendar, Hussein was brutally murdered, together with the women and children of his retinue.
After the death of Hussein, the Shiite Muslims were for all practical purposes excluded from major leadership in the Muslim community under the Umayyid and later during the Abassid caliphates. In fact, many times in history Shiites were a disadvantaged, if not persecuted, minority within Islam.
Shiite and Sunni Muslims have in common a great deal of the faith of Islam. Both hold to the Five Pillars of Islam: the Creed, the five official daily prayers, almsgiving, the fast of Ramadan and the pilgrimage to Mecca. Both believe that the Koran is the infallible word of God, dictated to Muhammad. Both lay great stress on the traditions and sayings of the Prophet.
Nonetheless, there are also significant differences between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. For Shiites the leadership of the Muslim community must come through someone descended in a direct bloodline from the Prophet Muhammad. The imam in Shiite Islam is just such a direct descendant of Muhammad. He is the infallible leader of the community and is sinless. Shiites differ among themselves as to the number of imams. Some, called Seveners, hold there are seven such leaders. Among these are the Isma’ilis, the followers of the Agha Khan. The majority of Shiites, however, hold to a succession of 12 imams and are called Twelvers. Most Shiite Muslims in Iran and Iraq are Twelvers. Whether one holds for 7 or 12 imams, in either case the last imam is presently in “occultation.” That is to say, he is “absent” or in hiding until he returns to take over an ideal community. Thus Shiites have a type of eschatology that looks forward to the “return” of the imam.
Because the imams were recipients of special knowledge, Shiite theology has an interest in esoteric, hidden wisdom that is not found in Sunni Islam. As a result, there is considerable interest in mystical theology in Shiite Islam. The Koran provides a rich source for mystical knowledge, and Shiites have developed highly sophisticated ways of interpreting the text. Christians familiar with the sensus plenior, or “fuller meaning” of the Scriptures in the Middle Ages, would find similarities in this Shiite tradition of mystical exegesis of the Koran. The cities of Qom in Iran and Najaf in Iraq are centers of theological study and learning, where aspiring Shiite scholars come to master philosophy, exegesis and hermeneutics in addition to the basic Islamic studies of Muslim history, Koranic commentary (tafsir) and jurisprudence.
Historically, the imams of Shiite Islam almost invariably suffered persecution, and many were killed. Hussein, the son of Aly and the grandson of Muhammad, is perhaps the most famous and beloved of the martyred imams; but his father and many of his descendants were also killed. Every year on the anniversary of Hussein’s martyrdom, Shiites throughout the world mourn his death and many perform the ta’aziyah, a type of Passion Play, recounting the killing of the imam. Mourning for Hussein can include processions in which believers flagellate themselves to the point of drawing blood. Shortly after the beginning of the war in Iraq, Shiites in the south of Iraq observed the 40th day after the death of Hussein with such a procession. These processions had been banned under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, and the enthusiasm of the Shiite mourners was intense. At least one American commentator interpreted the procession, with its flagellations and bloodletting, as a sign that Shiites were fanatical and bloodthirsty. This reporter had made little or no effort to understand the nature of the procession. Nor was he aware that similar processions take place among some Christians during Holy Week.
A history of persecution and the murder of the imams have led Shiites to develop an extensive martyrology. Although Sunnis also speak of martyrs, martyrdom and the community of martyrs, especially that of imams, play a central role in Shiites’ religious self-understanding. The meaning of the noble bearing of Hussein as he faced an enemy who did not stop at slaughtering women and children, and his calm demeanor as he encountered his death are stored in the collective psyche of Shiite Muslims. Sharing with all Muslims love (though not worship) of the Prophet Muhammad, Shiite Muslims also have an intense and tender love for Aly, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, and for Hussein, the son of Aly and grandson of the Prophet. Both of these leaders were murdered. Although drawing parallels can be misleading, it is fair to say that Shiite Muslims at least understand the Christian notion of vicarious suffering—that is to say, suffering for the sake and benefit of another.
Muslims are quick to point out that Islam does not have a clergy or a hierarchy similar to that of Catholicism and certain other Christian churches. To some extent this is true, especially among Sunnis. For Sunni Muslims the imam is the one who leads the community in prayer and gives the sermon at the Friday noon prayer. Imams may be more or less educated—in the United States they are increasingly well educated. There is, however, no clear course of studies a Sunni must complete to become an imam. While there is an ulema, or group of learned scholars, such scholars do not form a clearly delineated religious class in Sunni Islam.
The situation is different in Shiite Islam, in which religious leaders are required to undergo years of education and testing before they are recognized as a mujtahid, one who is able to “grapple or struggle” (the Arabic root of mujtahid is jhd, the same from which jihad is derived) with the interpretation of the Koran, the traditions and the legal matters. Lastly we have mentioned those who reach the level called hojatoleslam and the level of ayatollah. An ayatollah is one who is recognized by consensus as being exceedingly learned and observant. Some ayatollahs are given the title grand ayatollah or Marja al-taqlid, which means “source of emulation.” There is normally one such grand ayatollah in Iraq. At present he is Ayatollah Aly Husseini (al-) Sistani. In Iran five men hold the title grand ayatollah.
Despite the impression held by many in the West, most ayatollahs—and especially al-Sistani and his teacher and predecessor Ayatollah al-Khoei—are not in favor of Shiite religious leaders being involved in a country’s politics. It is clear that Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran and his successor, Ayatollah Khamenei, were and are intimately involved in the revolution that overthrew the Shah and set up the Islamic Republic of Iran. Ayatollah Khamenei is presently the supreme religious leader in Iran and holds great political power. But it would be a mistake to see that type of political activism as a normal part of Shiite religious leadership. For the most part, it is not.
This is not to say that no Shiite leader outside of Iran is politically engaged. In Iraq there is a powerful military faction led by Muqtada al-Sadr. This phenomenon is often not well understood by the Western media. Al-Sadr is not a high level Shiite religious leader. Although he is often called a Hojatoleslam, he has not earned the title. His power is based in the militias he leads, not on his religious training or title. He cannot be considered a religious leader even remotely comparable to Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani.
Given the demographic situation in the United States, most Christian-Muslim dialogues are in fact Christian-Sunni Muslim dialogues. In addition, some Americans still have a very distorted image of Shiite Islam, which makes them hesitant to seek out Shiite Muslims and initiate dialogue with them. Nonetheless, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and several Protestant organizations enjoy very good relations with Shiite Muslims, even in Iran. It should not be forgotten that Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, the former president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, attended the funeral of Pope John Paul II. Likewise the Shiite program of theological education allows for fruitful faculty exchanges. Professors from the theological faculty at Qom, for example, have been visiting professors at Catholic theological faculties in Rome, the United States and elsewhere. Catholic theology professors in turn have visited and taught especially at the Shiite theological faculty in Qom.
Americans need to know more about Islam in general and, given U.S. relations with Iraq and Iran, about Shiite Islam in particular. We need to overcome stereotypes that are caricatures or downright false. Shiite Muslims should be invited to Christian-Muslim dialogues to educate Christians about the nature of Shiite Islam and to make the contribution to the dialogue that is unique to those Muslims who belong to the “party of Aly.”