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Religion Library: Shia Islam

Worship and Devotion in Daily Life

Written by: Anna Akasoy

There are other, less formal forms of devotion that mark Shiites as such. In addition to the five daily ritual prayers, Muslims also pray on other occasions. These prayers are called dua in Arabic, and Shiites follow here the instructions attributed to the Imams. Given the great veneration for and the prominent narratives surrounding Ali, Fatima, and the Imams, Shiites invoke these whereas Sunnis appeal only to Muhammad. Shiites recall the moral qualities and events in the lives of these figures, women taking Fatima as an ideal, men Ali and Husayn. Even though it is during the first ten days of Muharram that Shiites remember those who died with Husayn, a frequently cited political dictum has it that "every day is Ashura and everywhere is Karbala." Shiites are thus expected to remember the events of Karbala during everyday life and to use the behavior of the martyrs as a general moral maxim.

Veneration can also be seen in naming children. While names such as Aisha, Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman are popular among Sunnis, Shiites avoid such names and prefer Ali, Hasan, and Husayn. Sunnis, on the other hand, criticize the Shiite practice of naming children Abd Ali or Abd Husayn. Other examples of naming preferences are the first names of the former president and prime minister of Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1928-1979), who was named after Ali's bifurcated sword, Dhu l-Fiqar,

Depending on the environment in which a Shiite lives, his or her sectarian identity may be more or less significant. In Europe or North America, for example, being a Shiite may mean above all being a Muslim and in that sense not very different from being a Sunni. Differences may arise from the different national and linguistic backgrounds that hold ethno-cultural minorities together, and the communities probably also visit different mosques.

In countries with great political unrest, above all Iraq and Lebanon, expressing one's identity as a Shiite through specific acts of public piety (such as going to certain mosques, praying in a certain way, attending processions, displaying objects connected with the veneration of the Imams) exposes the believer to hostility and violence. Reports from Iraq in 2006 suggested that people changed their typical Sunni or Shiite names to more neutral ones.

Another form of devotion is the effort to improve the material and spiritual state of the community, as Lara Deeb has described in her study of the public piety of Shiite women in southern Beirut (An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi'i Lebanon, Princeton, 2006). For these women, the female protagonists of the sacred narratives are role models whose care for the weak and resistance against injustice are emulated.

Study Questions:
1.     What is the role of prayer in Shiite spirituality?
2.     What is the significance of this saying: "every day is Ashura and everywhere is Karbala"?
3.     How does geography impact Shiite practices?


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