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.
Parallels too exist in the esoteric interpretation of the Quran and in the veneration of Ali. Sufi shaykhs are often believed to be descendants of Muhammad via the Hasanid or Husaynid lines—venerating Husayn during Muharram is thus also a form of venerating his descendants. Some Sufis even made Mahdist claims, in particular in the Muslim West, where Shiism never gained a foothold, and in the environment in which the Safavids emerged.
Such parallels may explain why Sufi orders were much more popular among Sunnis whereas among the Shiites demands for approachable charismatic authorities endowed with religious blessings were met by the Imams, and the scholars are their representatives. Exceptions are the Shiite Sufi orders of the Kubrawiyya and the Safavids (both ca. 14th century), which had both originated as Sunni brotherhoods.
While the Sufi orders may thus have remained mostly limited to Sunni Islam, many Sufi ideas are part of mainstream Shiism. Shiite scholars, for example, developed mystical ideas that among Sunnis are commonly attributed to Sufis. A Sunni Sufi who enjoyed great popularity throughout the Islamic world was Ibn Arabi from Murcia who developed an intellectually ambitious Sufi metaphysics. A similar combination of esoteric and systematic elements within a Neoplatonic framework characterizes the Shiite theosophical school of Isfahan.
In addition to the clergy, another important public and institutional face of Shiism in the modern world is that of political parties and militias of Shiites. This is the case in particular in the mixed sectarian societies of Iraq and Lebanon. Comparing the reasons why individuals support or oppose such parties illustrates the changing nature of the political aspect of Shiism. While in the Middle Ages the political dimension meant above all who, based on genealogical connection to the Prophet, should be the rightful leader of the Islamic community, in the modern period sectarian identities have become part of national identities or are an aspect of communities within a state. In present-day Lebanon and Iraq, parties with a sectarian profile may also be supported by members of other sects because they consider the candidates the most capable ones or expect greater benefits for their specific interests.
The example of the Shiite scholars of southern Lebanon discussed by the anthropologist Gilsenan in his Recognizing Islam exemplifies the transformation of the traditional authority of religious scholars in the modern world. Until the social and economic transformations of the 1950s, they constituted a high-ranking minority based on landownership and social exclusivism. The multiple components of their elitism allowed at the same time for different possibilities of access. Economic wealth, for example, could open the door to the community of religious scholars. Being born into such a family meant an education in the religious sciences. While they lost social status with the changing economic conditions, the important role of confessional identities in Lebanese politics gave them the opportunity to gain a new religio-political profile.
1. What is the role of the fraternities in charge of the Muharram rituals?
2. What do Shiism and Sufism share?
3. What are some of the political parties within the Shiite community and their impact on the world today?