Shi'a Islam encompasses most Muslims who are not counted among the Sunni. The division between Sunni and Shia dates to the death of the prophet Muhammad, when his followers were faced with the decision of who would be his successor as the leader of Islam. Shiites are those who followed Ali, the closest relative of Muhammad, as Muhammad's successor. Today there are approximately 120 million Shiite Muslims in the world. The Shi'a consist of one major school of thought known as the Jafaryia or the "Twelvers," and a few minor schools of thought, as the "Seveners" or the "Fivers." These names all refer to the number of imams they recognize after the death of Muhammad. The term Shi'a is usually meant to be synonymous with the Jafaryia/Twelvers. The distinctive dogma and institution of Shi'a Islam is the Imamate, which includes the idea that the successor of Muhammad be more than merely a political leader. The Imam must also be a spiritual leader, which means that he must have the ability to interpret the inner mysteries of the Quran and the Sharia. The Twelver Shi'as further believe that the Twelve Imams who succeeded the prophet were sinless and free from error and had been chosen by Allah through Muhammad.
What it means to be a Shia Muslim
By: Dr. Hussein Al-Rumaithi
The misconceptions about the beliefs and ideologies of Shia Islam has been influenced by numerous factors such as, political, social and sectarian aspects. Every time the term Shia appears on TV or an article, observers tend to think of Iran and its Islamic government, Iraq and its Shia majority, Lebanon and its notorious Hezbollah group and Saudi Arabia with its oppressed Shia minority. However, all of these perceptions are factual and real, but what’s being ignored by majority of observers and readers is the reality of Shia Islam and its principles and beliefs. Therefore, it would be beneficial to distinguish the difference between this Islamic sect and other ones, since one side of the sectarian conflict on the Middle East are the Shia Muslims.
Fundamentals of Religion
In order for a person to identify him/herself as a Shia Muslim, he/she must believe in the following five fundamentals. A Shia Muslim is not allowed to follow a scholar in these matters, and he/she has to have full knowledge about them through dissection and research.
1. Monotheism: the belief that there is only one God. This concept are very obvious and definite according to its name and nature. Although all Islamic sects believe in this fundamental as a necessary part of Islam, the details and attributes of God, defined within the different sects make the difference. According the one of the sermons by Imam Ali (P.B.U.H), who is the first Imam of Shia Islam, he defines the concept of monotheism in the following form: “The foremost in religion is the acknowledgement of Him, the perfection of acknowledging Him is to testify Him, the perfection of testifying Him is to believe in His Oneness, the perfection of believing in His Oneness is to regard Him Pure, and the perfection of His purity is to deny Him attributes, because every attribute is a proof that it is different from that to which it is attributed and everything to which something is attributed is different from the attribute.
Thus whoever attaches attributes to Allah recognizes His like, and whoever recognizes His like regards Him two; and whoever regards Him as two recognizes parts for Him; and whoever recognizes parts for Him mistook Him; and whoever mistook Him pointed at Him; and whoever pointed at Him admitted limitations for Him; and whoever admitted limitations for Him numbered Him. Whoever said: ‘In what is He?’, held that He is contained; and whoever said: ‘On what is He?’, held He is not on something else.
He is a being, but not through phenomenon of coming into being. He exists but not from non-existence. He is with everything but not in physical nearness. He is different from everything but not in physical separation. He acts but without connotation of movements and instruments. He sees even when there is none to be looked at from among His creation. He is only one, such that there is none with whom He may keep company or whom He may miss in his absence”.
2.Prophet Hood. This fundamental mandates all Shia Muslims to believe in the existence of all previous prophets and messengers, beginning with Adam and finishing by the seal of the prophets, Prophet Mohammad. The issue of prophecy in Shia Islam is considered one of the necessities of creation and it is linked to the notion of free will and evil. Therefore, since there is evil (Satan) and since God has given humans the power of will, there has to be messengers sent by God to show the right path, which God has intended for the humans. To reaffirm this notion the Quran says: “we are not punishers, unless we sent among them a messenger”. Therefore, the issue of prophecy is linked to the justice of Allah and his mercy upon humans.
3.Imamate. To believe there are twelve Imams (successors) after Prophet Mohammad. This is one of the major principles that differentiates a Shia Muslim with others. The majority of Shia Muslims are considered Twelvers, which means, they believe in the succession of Imam Ali after the death of Prophet Mohammad, and followed by his son Imam Hassan, and later his other son Imam Hussein, followed by nine Imams from the progeny of Imam Hussein until the last Imam, who is in occultation currently. Unlike, Sunni Muslims, the Shias believe that, the first three caliphates after the Prophets were extorters and tyrants, and they acclaimed a position, which was rightfully for Imam Ali. The continuance of Imamate after prophecy is also linked to the justice and mercy of God, since people needed the presence of an infallible model among them to implement the laws and orders of God, in the way he wanted them.
4.Justice. This concept is related back to God, and is considered the main attribute of God after absolute knowledge, ability and existence. God does not create evil, and evil is formed due to the desires of humans, and therefore, God’s justice and mercy has mandated the existence of prophets and Imams for the sake of humans. In addition, all events, misfortunes, calamities, good things are due to God’s justice, and even though some matters might seem unjust and undesirable, God’s knowledge and justice is for the benefit of humans.
5.The after world. All Muslims including the Shias must believe in judgement day and the after world. Eventually, this day would come, and all humans would be resurrected once again and gathered for judgement. On judgement day, God will determine the final punishment and reward of all humans according to their deeds and conducts.
Shia Islam VS other sects:
Here are some of the major concepts and beliefs that distinguish a Shia Muslim from a non-Shia.