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Shi’ite Muslims: Conceived In Martyrdom

by Mary B. Peters

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A procession moves slowly through a crowded street. On either side, people become more and more agitated by the passing tableaux, which depict the agony and death of a man revered by his followers as their redeemer. Women weep, men groan and shout, and some follow the procession flagellating themselves with chains. They pray for the man’s intercession, they bless his self-sacrifice, they relive his anguish.

This scene might have taken place in a devoutly Catholic country where the faithful still reenact the Passion and death of Christ during the final days of Holy Week. Instead, it occurs in Islamic lands each year in the month of Muharram, when Shi’ite Muslims remember Husayn, grandson of Muhammad and a martyr for his faith.

Though the nearly 800 million Muslims who span the globe from North Africa to the Philippines all regard themselves as members of a single religion, various sects exist within the faith of Islam. One of the major divisions is that between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims. The Sunnites represent about 85% of the Muslim community, while the Shi’ites make up most of the remaining 15%. Though they are much smaller in number, the Shi’ites have had considerable visibility during the past two years, particularly in Iran where Shi’a Islam is the official state religion.

Scholars still disagree about the reasons for the split between the two sects. At the time of Muhammad’s death in 632 A.D., all Muslims worshipped one God, Allah, and lived by the Koran, which they accepted as the word of God transmitted to man through His Prophet. Soon after Muhammad died, however, two factions appeared. Their disagreements and dissensions led to a schism that persists to the present day.

The early pagan Arab converts to Islam were mostly tribal peoples with tribal ways. Their leaders were elders of the tribe, and the leadership was passed down to those perceived as the wisest and best-qualified to govern. Thus when Muhammad died he was succeeded by Abu Bakr, who was chosen from a group of the Prophet’s closest companions and advisors.

Some of Muhammad’s followers were displeased with the selection of Abu Bakr. Their devotion to Muhammad was so strong that they believed his successor should be a member of his family, a true “heir” of the Prophet. They supported Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali, as the obvious choice for the position of Caliph, or Successor.

Although the Muslim community continued under Abu Bakr as one body, the two sides were clearly drawn. The Sunnites (in Arabic the word “sunni” means “custom”) believed in the tribal tradition of choosing their leader from among the elders. The Shi’at Ali (“partisans of Ali”) believed in a hereditary, charismatic and religious succession.

Ali finally became Caliph almost 25 years later, but his accession to the leadership of Islam did not heal the division between the two factions. In 661 he was assassinated, and his followers turned to his son Hasan, asking him to become their religious leader, or Imam. Hasan accepted, but difficulties soon forced him to abdicate. Eventually he too was murdered by his enemies.

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