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Religion Library: Shia Islam

Community Organization

Written by: Anna Akasoy

The inner cohesion of the Shiite community has been increased by their minority status and their self-image of maintaining the principles of Islam under hostile conditions. At the same time, Muslims have always regarded the rift that went through their community as a great misfortune that, albeit perhaps necessary for internal reasons, weakened the position of Islam vis-à-vis exterior forces.

This perception became particularly strong when European colonialism spread in the Middle East. In response to that, religious and political leaders in the 1920s and 1930s made efforts to reach a rapprochement between Sunnis and Shiites. A milestone was in 1959 when the rector of Cairo's al-Azhar University, Mahmud Shaltut, recognized Shiism as a branch of Islam. The term 'sect' is often rejected by those who extend the principle of tolerated disagreement within the community to Sunnis or Shiites respectively. In the long run, however, these endeavors remained unsuccessful and were opposed from both sides. At the beginning of the 21st century such ecumenical rapprochements are mostly pragmatic and aim at ending the sectarian violence in Iraq in particular.

An important institution within some Shiite communities are the fraternities (Persian: anjuman) in charge of the Muharram rituals and the objects used on this occasion. During the year, they rehearse lamentations and processions, which makes the memory of Karbala present in everyday life. Recruited from urban artisans or traders, these clubs often have the character of guilds. In his The Shiites, David Pinault argues on the basis of fieldwork in Hyderabad, which has a small Shiite minority (ca. 80,000 among a population of 3-4 million) that these 'lamentation guilds' (matami guruh) have a crucial function in holding the community together and making it visible to other Muslims and to Hindus. In Iran, such groups exist for more general purposes of religious studying and instruction.

A subject that has been explored only very selectively in research is the relationship between Shiism and Sufism. While both branches of Islam are not mutually exclusive and both Sunnis and Shiites can be Sufis, the phenomenon is somewhat more distinct among Sunnis, in particular in its social form, the Sufi orders. From a phenomenological point of view, there are significant parallels between the two traditions (in the case of Sufism at least regarding certain branches), in particular the assumption that certain individuals are endowed with a divinely granted knowledge or, in extreme cases, even embodiments of the divine. This charismatic authority is handed down in both cases. These beliefs are reflected in religious practice in an important role of scholars and shaykhs and in the veneration of their tombs where believers pray for intercession.


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