The Shī‘a coalesced as a distinct movement in the centuries following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 and in opposition to the majority of the Muslim community, the Sunnīs, over the nature of his succession. Unlike the Sunnīs, the Shī‘a believed that political and religious authority should be handed down through a predetermined line of infallible leaders (Imams) through the bloodline of the Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib and his wife, Fātimah, the prophet’s daughter. Internal divisions within the Shī‘ī community over the succession to the fourth Imam, ‘Alī Zayn al-‘Ābidīn, and the sixth Imam, Ja‘far al-Ṣādiq during the seventh and eighth centuries led to the separation of the Ismā‘īliyya and Zaydīyya sects from the majority Imāmiyya “Twelver” Shī‘a (hereafter Shī‘ī).
During the twentieth century, the Imāmiyya Shī‘ī communities in
̣Under the Safavids in Iran (1501-1736), whose founder Ismā‘īl declared Imāmi Shi‘ism the state religion of his empire and invited Shī‘ī clerics (‘ulamā’) from Syria, Iraq, and eastern Arabia to settle in his realm, the ‘ulamā’s societal role was solidified and they began to play a political as well as religious role in society. Under the Qājārs (1796-1926) the hierarchical structure of the ‘ulamā’ was formalized and Ụsūlīsm, whose practitioners supported the reasoned interpretation (ijtihād) of the Qur’an and religious legal sources, became the dominant school of thought over the literalist Akhbārīs, who had risen to prominence during the late Ṣafavid period.
Under the Qājārs the ‘ulamā’ often played an oppositional role and they were at the forefront of the Tobacco Revolt (1890-1892) in protest to the monarchy’s concession to a British company and the Constitutional Revolution (1905-1909) that forced the Qājārs to institute governmental reforms. The ‘ulamā’ were repressed under Reza Shah (1926-1941), who overthrew the Qājārs in 1926 and instituted a series of laws that weakened the legal, social, and educational role played by the ‘ulamā’. Repression of the ‘ulamā’ continued under the Pahlavis (1926-1979) and the ‘ulamā’ began to actively oppose the monarchy. In January 1979 the last Pahlavi shah, Muhammad Reza, was forced to abdicate and Grand Āyatu’llāh Ruḥu’llāh Khumaynī, the fiery clerical opponent to the Pahlavis, and his supporters successfully took control of the fledgling revolutionary state and formed the Islamic Republic of Iran. During the decades since the revolution, the traditionalist Iranian Shī‘ī ‘ulamā’ have been marginalized by their revolutionary colleagues currently led by
In Ottoman Syria the Shī‘a were concentrated in the Jabal ‘Āmil region of present day southern
The location of several major Shī‘ī shrines,
Under the Iraqi Hāshimīyya monarchy (1932-1958), the republic (1958-1968), and particularly under the Iraqi Ba‘th Party and its leader Saddam Ḥusayn (1968-April 2003) the Shī‘a, who made up upwards of 60 percent of the population, were marginalized and oppressed despite their numerical majority. After the collapse of the Ba‘th following the American and British-led invasion in March 2003, the Iraqi Shī‘a experienced a political and cultural revival. Since 2003 an internal leadership struggle has developed between the traditionalist ‘ulamā’ represented by Grand Āyatu’llāh ‘Alī al-Sīstānī, the populist radical leadership of Muqtada al-Ṣadr, and powerful Shī‘ī political parties like the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Ḥizb al-Da‘wa al-Islāmīyya over who should lead the country’s Shī‘a.
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