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Religion Library: Shia Islam

Modern Age

Written by: Anna Akasoy

Two developments can be pointed out that shape the Shiite experience in recent history. First, globalization has led to a spread of Shiism beyond its main centers and thus to a greater diversity of Shiite practices and beliefs. This also means that the significance of Shiism varies greatly. Second, the development of what is often called political Islam has, in countries having large numbers of Shiites, led to the rise of distinct interpretations of Shiism and leaders who represent them.

Regarding the first aspect, it is difficult to establish relative or absolute figures for Shiites, not least because such numbers are often politically sensitive. Estimates vary between 10 and 15 percent of the worldwide Muslim population. In addition to Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, there are long-established Shiite communities on the Gulf coast, in Saudi-Arabia (ca. 350,000 in the underdeveloped east of the country), Bahrain (while 70-98 percent of the population are Shiites, the ruling dynasty is Sunni), Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. Shiite minorities exist in Turkey (the Alevis or Kızılbaş), Syria, Afghanistan (estimates range between 6 and 15 percent of the population), Pakistan (ca. 30 million), India (ca. 10 million; Lucknow and Hyderabad being important centers), Azerbaijan (ca. 6 million), East Africa (Iranians as well as Indian traders, including both Twelver Shiites and Nizari Ismailis), and among immigrants in Western Europe and North America. Accordingly, while some Shiites have to cope with the typical difficulties connected with volatile political circumstances, others enjoy a high standard of living. Likewise, sectarian identities matter more in some contexts than in others.

Regarding the second aspect, the Islamic revolution in Iran had an important impact on the shape of Shiism in most recent decades, mainly in Iran, but also outside its borders. Given that the supporters of the revolution of 1979 came from very different ideological backgrounds, their compromise was limited to their opposition against the Shah, but did not extend to the political system they envisaged as an alternative.

The strongest player within the movement was to dominate: Khomeini, whose speeches circulated widely on cassette tapes and who was able to gather the largest group of followers. In the aftermath of the revolution, Iran's political system became an Islamic Republic under the principle of the vilayat-e faqih, the rule of the (religious) scholar. In addition to a parliament, its key institution is the watch council (shura-yi negahban), which consists of six religious jurists, appointed by the supreme leader, and six secular jurists, chosen by parliament, and who serve for six years.

 

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