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Religion Library: Shia Islam

Worship and Devotion in Daily Life

Written by: Anna Akasoy

Shiites share key forms of devotion with the Sunnis, such as daily prayers or fasting. Many other forms of Shiites' daily devotion result either from prescriptions in Islamic law according to the Shiite interpretation (which is often only slightly different from the Sunni views) or from the model of the martyrs of Karbala and other members of the house of the Prophet. Piety in everyday life is also expressed in consulting the authorities in Islamic law (marja al-taqlid).

While Shiites and Sunnis have many rituals of daily devotion in common and both vary due to geographical and cultural diversities, slight differences in ritual and law mark Shiites as such. Since many of these rituals are conducted in the public sphere, they are also a way of displaying sectarian identities.

Like Sunnis, Shiites perform ritual prayer at five times during the day (at sunrise, noon, afternoon, evening, and night). The call to prayer differs slightly from the Sunni version. Shiites add the phrase "Come to the best of action," a formula they claim was removed by Umar. "Prayer is better than sleep," an alleged innovation of this caliph to the call to the first prayer at sunrise, is omitted. Shiites also add a third element to the profession of faith in the call to prayer (the first two being "I profess there is no god but God" and "Muhammad is the messenger of God") and state that "Ali is the deputy of God." Shiite scholars consider this statement commended, but not obligatory, and sometimes express willingness to omit it to improve the conditions for ecumenical encounter.

Minor features also distinguish the ablution (wudu) before ritual prayer as well as the prayer itself. Shiites accept under certain circumstances that feet are cleaned symbolically by wiping the outside of shoes.

Another difference marking sectarian identities within the Muslim communities is in the manner of genuflection during prayer. Prostrating Sunnis touch their prayer-mats with their foreheads, whereas Shiites touch the earth or preferably a stone of baked mud from Karbala. The imprint this stone leaves on the forehead is a mark of pride. Other signs of piety on the body are scars on the forehead, chest, and back from self-flagellation during Muharram. The body of the symbolic martyr of the reenacted Karbala gives thus evidence of the believer's sincerity. This recalls the body of the martyr, which according to both Sunni and Shiite traditions is believed not to decompose and to exhale a pleasant smell.


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