Shi'a Islam and Politics
June 2001

Commentary by Rick Francona

Mosques at sunset Religion – often cited as a cause of many problems not only in the Middle East but around the world – assumes a special meaning in this region. In Islam, the two major sects are Sunni and Shi’a. Although Sunnis comprise about 80 percent of Muslims, the Shi’a are a political force to be reckoned with throughout the region, especially in those countries in which they form a majority or plurality of the population - Iran, Iraq and Lebanon. 


Shi’a Muslims make up almost 20 percent of the of the world’s second largest religion. The difference between the sects is as old as the religion itself and revolved around the issue of succession – who would follow Muhammad as the leader of the faithful? The Arabic word for “one who follows or succeeds,” - khalifah (Caliph) - was adopted as the title. 

Many believed that the successor to Muhammad should be a family member, someone in the bloodline of the Prophet. However, Muhammad had no son, so there was no male heir to the caliphate. Muhammad did have a daughter, Fatima, who was married to Muhammad’s cousin ‘Ali bin Abu Talib. The people who favored the selection of ‘Ali as the caliph were called the Shi’at ‘Ali, the “partisans of ‘Ali,” and hence the name Shi’a. 

The other school of thought, held by many prominent Muslims of the day, was that the caliph should be drawn from one of the senior and learned members of the faith, the ummah or “community.” These were the Sunnis, the traditionalists. 

The Sunni position prevailed and the first three caliphs were not of Muhammad’s bloodline. Finally, a convergence occurred in 656 when ‘Ali (regarded by the Shi’a as the first Imam) was named the fourth Caliph. ‘Ali was soon murdered and his son Hasan became the second Imam. However, real political power at this time rested with the Sunni caliph in Damascus. Hasan abdicated in favor of these ‘Umayyad rulers. 

Hasan’s brother Husayn assumed the Shi’a imamate, presaging what became the major divide in Islamic history. In 680, Husayn was killed in battle against superior ‘Umayyad forces in Karbala’, Iraq on the tenth day of the month of Muharram. This day is commemorated by all Shi’a as ‘Ashura (literally, “the tenth”) as a day of mourning and perfidy on the part of the Sunnis. 

Shi’a Islam and Modern Politics

Iran. Iran is the first country that comes to mind when Shi’a Islam and politics are mentioned, with good reason. The population is virtually all Shi’a, and after the Islamic revolution of 1978-79, the world’s only Shi’a Islamic republic. Iran’s fervor and commitment to export the revolution have caused concerns in the Muslim former Soviet republics. Russia and Turkey, neither of who want another militant Shi’a Islamic republic on their borders, share the concern. 

Iraq. Iraq has a Shi’a majority but is ruled by a Sunni minority. The disparity between Shi’a and Sunni is even more pronounced when the Kurds, almost exclusively Sunni, are factored out of the equation. The Shi’a have always felt dispossessed in Iraq. They do not share in the wealth nor are they well represented in the power structure. A disproportionate number of Shi’a youth were killed in the bloody eight-year war with Iran. 

The Shi’a were the first to revolt against the rule of Saddam Hussein after the coalition victory in the Gulf War. Although the Kurds followed shortly thereafter, it was the Shi’a (led by Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officers) who led the way. 
The Iraqi army mercilessly crushed the rebellion – and thus the paradox. The people who tried to overthrow Saddam probably kept him in power, because the Iraqi army that should have, and maybe would have, overthrown the dictator was too busy maintaining the territorial integrity of the country. 

Lebanon. When Lebanon moved towards independence and adopted the National Pact of 1943, it established government positions based on the sizes of confessional populations. The Shi’a were the number three faction in the country, behind the Christians and the Sunnis. Thus they were given the position of speaker of the Parliament. Since that time, however, the sizes of the factions have changed and the Muslims are the clear majority. 

Lebanon’s Shi’a have gained notoriety with the rise of the Shi’a armed militias, first Amal, then Hizballah, largely responsible for the Israeli withdrawal from positions it had maintained in southern Lebanon since the invasion in 1982. With Iranian funding and training, they are not only a formidable military force but also a powerful political organization, establishing hospitals and schools in the south and Biq’a (Bekaa) Valley. 

Syria. The population of Syria is overwhelmingly Sunni, but the country is ruled by members of the ‘Alawite sect. The definition of the ‘Alawis as Shi’a has raised considerable debate. The sect was able to obtain a fatwa (religious ruling) in 1973 from Musa Al-Sadr (Iranian-born leader of the Lebanese Shi’a who disappeared in Libya in 1978) that the ‘Alawis are a community of the Shi’a. This ruling was sought in response to Sunni claims that the ‘Alawite sect was not truly Muslim and therefore ‘Alawis did not meet the constitutional requirement that the president of Syria be a Muslim. To avoid future controversy, the Syrian parliament changed the Constitution on Hafiz Al-Asad’s death in 2000, eliminating the religion requirement. This was done to help assure a smooth transition for Asad’s son Bashar. 

Other countries in the region must deal with the political factor of Shi’a Islam.  Saudi Arabia has a sizeable Shi’a minorities and Bahrain has a Shi'a majority who believe their aspirations are not being addressed by the countries’ kings. Both constituencies have adopted a militant posture – the fallout remains to be seen. 

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