Grand Ayatullah al-Sayyid 'Ali Husayni Sistani is an Iranian-born senior Twelver Shi'i religious scholar and jurist residing in the southern Iraqi city of al-Najaf, a major Shi'i shrine city. He is reportedly identified as the "most widely followed" ayatullah and mujtahid (Twelver scholar who is educationally capable of interpreting Islamic sources and issuing opinions, fatawa, and binding legal decisions, ahkam), though the basis of this claim is largely anecdotal. The above is a satirical graphic produced shortly after the U.S. and British invasion and subsequent of occupation of Iraq in March 2003. The producers of this image were Sunnis critical of Sistani and his fellow Shi'i scholars who, although they did not support the invasion and occupation, nonetheless did not oppose it either. The image suggests, with little ambiguity, that Sistani, and by extension Iraq's Shi'i Muslims, were/are allies or agents of the U.S.
The theological beliefs of Sunni (all schools of thought) and Shi'i (all groups) are by-and-large the same with regard to the emphasis of the absolute unity of "the One God," the sacredness of the Qur'an as the direct revelation of God as dictated to the Prophet Muhammad through the Archangel Gabriel, the historical existence of prophet-hood, and the role of Muhammad bin 'Abdullah as the final "seal of the prophets." However, there are significant disagreements over historical narrative and interpretations of certain major issues, chief among them the special role of a segment of the Prophet's family running through his son-in-law and much younger cousin, 'Ali ibn Abi Talib, and his daughter, Fatima al-Zahra, and more specifically through the line of their youngest son, Husayn. 'Ali is recognized by all Shi'i sects as the first Imam (religious and temporal leader of the community) and the rightful successor to the Prophet, who died in the summer of 632 C.E. All Shi'is recognize Husayn as the third Imam. While Sunnis hold 'Ali, Husayn, and many other members of their line (Ahl al-Bayt, literally "People of the House") in high esteem, they do not believe that 'Ali should have been the Prophet's immediate successor. Instead, they recognize and pay homage to another line of successors, the Rashidun or "Rightly Guided" caliphs (literally "successors"): Abu Bakr (632-634), 'Umar ibn al-Khattab (634-644), 'Uthman bin 'Affan (644-651), and finally 'Ali (651-661).
A brief overview of major differences can be viewed HERE.
Twelver Shi'is, unlike Sunnis, believe in a line of successors from the Prophet through 'Ali which numbers twelve (thus their name), including 'Ali. Other Shi'i groups, such as the Isma'ilis, who are divided into numerous sub-groups, and Zaydis believe in an alternate line of Imams, breaking away from the Twelvers at different points in history. Hereafter, "Shi'i" is used to describe Twelvers unless otherwise mentioned.
Shi'is believe that their Imams were, and in the case of the twelfth Imam are, imbued with special abilities and powers, including the ability to discern the inner meanings of the Qur'an. Popular stories also claim that the Imams possess abilities such as being able to understand all languages (a story that will be familiar to Catholics and Orthodox Christians with regard to the Apostles of the deified Jesus). It is said in other hagiographical accounts that the births of the Imams were greeted by creatures in nature and other fantastic events. Twelver Shi'is believe that the final Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, entered into a mystical hiding or occultation when he was a young boy in order to protect him from his Earthly enemies. They believe that he will return at an appointed time (though they pray for his re-emergence) and will then establish justice on Earth. His followers, the "true" Shi'is, will then be rewarded for their faithfulness while some of those who opposed him and his followers will be punished.
Such beliefs have long been criticized by Sunni scholars from all legal schools of thought, though the messianic figure of the "Mahdi" may have actually originally entered into popular Sunni belief via Shi'ism. Despite these disagreements, the majority of Sunni religious scholars view(ed) Shi'is as having some questionable beliefs and practices, but do not pronounce takfir or apostasy on them. However, Sunnis who follow the Salafi school of thought go further and view Shi'is as being either apostates who have gone beyond the pale of what is "Islamically" permissible or as non-Muslims outright. There is still a further difference between mainstream Salafis, who are largely apolitical and non-violent, and Salafi jihadis (and internal divisions among them) with regard to Shi'is. Some Salafi jihadis, such as al-Qa'ida "Central" #2 Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri (Zawahiri), who oppose the targeting of Shi'is generally. Indeed, al-Zawahiri and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a major Salafi jihadi scholar based in Jordan, opposed the orgy of violence against Shi'is in Iraq between 2003-2007 perpetrated by the Jordanian terrorist and al-Qa'ida in the Land of the Two Rivers chief Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi. Al-Zarqawi preached violent jihad against the Shi'is, who he viewed as not only being non-Muslims but as cunning enemies to the "true Muslims" (Salafi jihadis) and agents of the U.S. and Britain. He outlined his beliefs in a crazed letter to al-Zawahiri in 2005.
The disagreement between al-Zarqawi on one side and al-Zawahiri and al-Maqdisi, al-Zarqawi's former teacher, over Shi'is is a prime example of a division which exists among Salafi jihadi circles. The overwhelming majority of Salafi jihadis, with perhaps a few solitary exceptions such as the Syrian ideologue Abu Mus'ab al-Suri (see Brynjar Lia's book Architect of Global Jihad for more on this), view Shi'i beliefs with hostility, as they view them as being "un-Islamic." As discussed in earlier, some key Shi'i beliefs and practices, such as the mourning rituals of 'Ashura which marks the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, are not practiced or recognized by non-Salafi Sunni Muslims either. Indeed, some of the 'Ashura rituals, particularly in South Asia and Iran, reportedly draw upon pre-Islamic rituals of mourning. Other practices, such as self-flagellation with blade-tipped whips and the cutting of the forehead with swords and knives, are not supported in Shi'i sources. Such rituals, while not practiced by the majority of Shi'is, are often "defended" even by non-practitioners who do not wish to see fellow Shi'is being criticized, even if it is for potentially legitimate reasons. Many Shi'i religious scholars ('ulama) also frown on such practices, seeing them as contradicting passages in the Quran and lacking (as they do) legitimatization from Shi'i historical sources such as the Ahadith (traditions that originate, it is claimed, from the Prophet or the Imams. Sunni Ahadith only includes traditions from the Prophet.)
Images of 'Ashura rituals and shrine visitation, which Salafis of all stripes (jihadi and non-jihadi), and many stricter Sunnis, oppose or are wary of, are frequent topics of Salafi polemics against Shi'is, and particularly against Twelver Shi'is, who form the largest Shi'i group. It is sometimes claimed that Shi'ism was a deviant sect founded by an Arab Jewish convert to Islam, 'Abdullah ibn Saba. Many Shi'i scholars claim that such an individual never existed. This "black legend" did not originally target Twelver Shi'is, it was a propaganda story devised by polemicists who sought to discredit the Isma'ili Shi'is, who were major political power players in the medieval period (see Farhad Daftary's The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Isma'ilis for more on this.) It should be mentioned that Twelvers have developed their own polemics against Salafis and Sunnis, and that Shi'is view themselves as the "most correct" Muslims. Many of these polemics are based on an equally selective and biased reading of history and sources. This is not, however, the subject of this post, and I will not discuss it further here. Suffice it to say, intra-Muslim polemics are not a one-side activity.
Below are examples of anti-Shi'i threads I found during research on my current project, "The Art of the Martyr and Mujahid," on the Arabic and English language sections of the Salafi jihadi al-Falujah al-Islamiyyah online discussion forums. I have selected to reproduce select images directly on Occident, but the entire threads can be viewed via Scribd here as well.
Shi'ism's Alleged "Jewish" Ties:
Shrine Visitation and Shi'i "Worship" of Human Beings:
The late Iraqi ayatullah al-Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim visiting a shrine. Al-Hakim was assassinated in a massive vehicle bombing outside of al-Najaf's Imam 'Ali shrine in August 2003, an attack reportedly masterminded by Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's first outfit, Tawhid wa al-Jihad (Absolute Unity [of God] and Struggle).
The thread text for this photograph reads: "Is this Islam, O' Shi'a?" ( هل هذا اسلام ياشيعه; there is a typo: Instead of a taa marbuta, there is a "he").
The shrine of the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Grand Ayatullah al-Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khumayni, in southern Tehran. He is often referred to as "the imam," a symbolically loaded title in Twelver Shi'ism, and is idolized by his supporters. Listen to a popular Iranian pro-Khumayni political song (the chorus says, "Khumayni is Imam"), and view a moving video of his last days (note the lofty symbolism used in the video.)
Shi'i pilgrims crawling to a shrine, probably either that of Imam 'Ali in al-Najaf or Imam Husayn in Karbala, both in southern Iraq. Such popular practices are opposed by Sunni (Salafi and non-Salafi) 'ulama and are not even universally supported by Shi'i 'ulama, as it suggests the worship or near-worship of human beings, which in turn contradicts the basic Islamic tenet that God alone is worthy of worship. Shi'i practices such as these, many of which have a basis more in popular cultural practices than religion, are not supported even in Shi'i historical sources.
Self-Flagellation & Other Cultural (and Base) Practices from 'Ashura:
In short, this is not Shi'ism and the minority who partake in such practices do not reflect upon the majority who do not participate in their bloody rituals.
This is the requisite comparison between the base cultural rituals pictured above and self-flagellation by young Roman Catholic men in the Philippines every Holy Week (the week before Easter.)
Khumayni praying at a shrine...Bad, Khumayni ye-Imam...
الطواف على قبر الإمام الخميني
"Circumambulation of the tomb of 'imam' Khumayni"
Circumabulation is performed by Muslims at the Ka'bah, the building at the center of
Mecca's Grand Mosque.
...View the complete thread HERE.
.....The Shi'i practice of rhythmic beating of the chest in mourning for Imam Husayn and his male companions is criticized here. A video download of this from South Asia, which includes music and what looks like a kind of dance, is linked-to in this thread. View the thread HERE.
Mutah in Iran (Falojah)
...A documentary on mut'ah ("temporary" or, more accurately, "short-term" marriages permitted in Twelver Shi'i jurisprudence) is linked-to here. Sunnis of all varieties are critical of this practice, as they view it as having been banned by the second Rashidun caliph whom they, but not Shi'is, recognize, 'Umar ibn al-Khattab. The documentary itself highlights abuses of mut'ah in Iran, which reportedly are not infrequent, and is not a Salafi jihadi production. View the thread HERE.
Shia Unitarians (Falojah)
...Shi'is as "Unitarians" who Deny the Prophethood of Muhammad. View the thread HERE.
Examples of anti-Shi'i, Salafi Web sites:
The videos linked-to in the last two threads are from this anti-Shi'i Pakistani web site: