Shi’ism in History and Contemporary Politics

khomeini_01Increasingly intensified violence in the Middle East has fuelled theory that the next full-blown security conflict could occur within the religion of Islam (if it has not already begun). While crises in Syria and Egypt are not necessarily Sunni/Shi’a related, the structures supporting the conflicts bear an inherent split between the Islamic principles and their tension with secular forces. In the opinion of some political scientists, there is an Islamic ‘cold war’ in action between Sunnism and Shi’ism – the principle actors of which, Iran and Saudi Arabia, are perhaps the least physically involved in the current Middle Eastern conflicts. At the centre of the tension is the absolute nature of both main forms of Islam, focused around disagreements over loyalty within the family of the Prophet Muhammad (ahl al-bayt), the history of which has dominated Shi’ia memory and experience.

Shi’a History

As discussed by Robert Gleave, the essential theological difference between Sunnism and Shi’ism is to whom allegiance is granted as the Prophet’s successor. Sunnis generally argue that Muhammad did not explicitly designate a successor to his religion of Islam; rather, he gave indications that his father-in-law Abu Bakr should become the first Caliph (head of the Islamic community), which in fact he did in 632 CE after Muhammad’s death. Shi’a doctrine, however, suggests that Muhammad passed on his rule to his cousin Ali, who ascended to the position of the fourth Caliph in 656 CE. It is this differing loyalty that caused the first Islamic ‘civil war’, that included Ali’s assassination in 661 CE, and indeed ignites persistent conflict today.

Various sects of Shi’ism developed over the centuries after Ali’s death, in opposition to Sunni dominance in Islamic politics. There was much Shi’ist opposition to the Umayyad dynasty, whose line reigned throughout Arabia until 749 CE; but the stability of the Abbasid period (taken at 750-1258 at its extremes) allowed distinct strands of Shi’ism to solidify and build substantial opposition to mainstream Sunnism. The most prominent of these strands, Twelver Shi’ism which accounts for around 85% of Shi’a Muslims, is so named after the belief in the messianic figure of a twelfth ‘hidden’ Imam, or leader, that will return with Isa (Jesus Christ) to bring justice and peace to the world – similar to much gospel in other Abrahamic religions. Twelver Shi’ism was institutionalised in 1501, upon the claiming of Persia by the Safavid dynasty, and has survived to the present day, through various attacks of imperialism and secularism.

Contemporary Political Shi’ism

In Qajar Persia (1785-1925), the Shi’ist elite known as the ulema was separated from state affairs and existed independently, controlling areas such as education and commerce. The religious community has become famous for intervention in Persian/Iranian state affairs however, most prominently in mass protests against Westernisation: firstly, in the 1890 Tobacco protests in which rights to production and sales were sold to the British; secondly, in the 1906 Constitutional Revolution which held the Qajar monarchy to account; and finally, in the 1979 ‘Islamic’ Revolution that saw a Shi’ist theocracy established under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini after traditionalists considered Mohammed Reza Shah to have grown too close to the West. There was much fear in the Arab world that the success of the Shi’ist revolution would threaten the Sunni-supported Ba’athist regimes in Syria and Iraq, both of which were, and still are, home to significant Shi’a populations.

Such a fear was a primary cause of the destructive Iran-Iraq War 1980-9; it also led to significant problems in Sadaam Hussein’s regime which collapsed in 2003, and it is now manifesting itself in opposition to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. To make matters worse, militias are popping up with backing from Sunni/Shi’a divides, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, that are maintaining the tension and driving the way towards a regional-engulfing conflict that could drag in actors from states in North Africa to Central Asia to NATO and its affiliates.


The problem for academics in the Islamic world, however, is the huge variety of political and religious conflicts that are emerging out of Semitic history. Conflict in the region is multi-dimensional and multi-polar, offering little linear narrative with which to work:

  • Arab-Israeli tensions are unlikely to ever smoothen out, as fire is exchanged and land is disputed almost continuously
  • Within Arab-Islamic states, issues of secularism and militarism are clashing with Islamic fundamentalism, as witnessed in Egypt over the last three years
  • The monarchies of the Gulf, including the royal families of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are fighting to simultaneously maintain their regional economic dominance and domestic political power
  • Kurds in Iraq, Turkey and Jordan continue to meet Sunnis and Shi’as on the metaphorical battleground, as the borders of post-colonial Mesopotamia continue to be highlighted as unsuitable

Through all of these issues, the simple but hugely significant Sunni/Shi’a divide lives on, causing not only international political crisis, but personal and local issues too.

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