SHIʽITES (from Arab. shiʽa, a party, and then a sect), the name of one of the two great religious divisions of Islam. The Shiites hold that the imāmate and caliphate belong to the house of Mahomet (Muḥammad) alone, and so to ʽAlī, Mahomet’s son-in-law, and his successors. After the arbitration on the claims of ʽAlī and Moawīyā to the caliphate (A.D. 658), two great parties emerged from the strife of feeling caused in the East by the deposition of ʽAlī.[1] Those who were known as the Khārijites, being mainly country Arabs, were democratic, and claimed that the office of caliph was elective, and that the caliph might be chosen from any Arab Moslem family. In strong opposition to these stood the party afterwards called the Shiites, who regarded ʽAlī and his descendants as the only rightful caliphs. For them the caliphate was a God-given office, and not one to be given by human appointment. Belief in this was an ordinance of God, an article of the faith. He who did not accept it as such was an unbeliever. Moreover, the party consisted largely of Persians who on their conversion to Islam brought with them many of the doctrines of their old faith, religious and political. Among these was the belief in the divinity of the sovereign and the duty of worshipping him. Gnostic elements, which may have come from the old religion of Babylonia, were also introduced. The idea of an absolute personal and hereditary monarchy was thus developed among the subjects of ʽAlī. But in Islam there is no separation between politics and theology. The theological position of the Shiites was that the superhuman power of Mahomet descended to the members of his house (ʽAlī and his children), so that they could interpret the will of God and tell future events. The imām was infallible and a mahdi or guide for life. What the imām gained the Koran lost, and many of the Shiites held the Muʽtazilite or rationalistic opinion of the created nature of the sacred book.

The growth of the Shiites was fostered by the great discontent of the eastern half of the caliphate with Omayyad rule (see Caliphate, and Persia: History). Before long an active propaganda was started, and leaders (often adventurers) arose who formed parties and founded sects of their own in the ranks of the Shiites. One of the earliest of these was ʽAbdallah ibn Ṣabā (founder of the Ṣabāʽīyya), who in the caliphate of Othman had preached the return of Mahomet (founded on Koran xxviii. 84), had been concerned in the assassination of Othman, and had proclaimed the divinity of ʽAlī, but had been disowned and punished by him. On ʽAlī’s death he declared the thunder to be the voice, and the lightning the scourge of the translated caliph, and announced that his divine power had passed to his successors, the imāms.

Another sect, the Kaisānīyya, followed Kaisān, a freedman of ʽAlī, in believing in the superhuman knowledge of Mahommed ibn Hanafīyya, a son of ʽAlī but not by Fatima. Religion for these was obedience not to law but to a person. When the doctrine of a hidden imām arose, they differed from the Ṣabāʽīyya in expecting his return from his place of concealment on earth, not from heaven. Among them an adventurer Mokhtar (Mukhtār) had a large following for a time. He taught the mutability both of the knowledge and of the will of God—a development of Mahomet’s own teaching. He claimed to fight to avenge the death of Hosain (see Hasan and Hosain) and to serve Maḥommed ibn Hanafīyya, who, however, disowned him. He was killed in 687. Some of the Shiite leaders, as Abu Moslim, when renounced by the members of the house of ʽAlī, transferred their allegiance to the house of ʽAbbās (see Rāwendis). The success of the Abbasids in supplanting the Omayyads was largely due to the help of the Shiites, and the early Abbasid caliphs, to the time of Motawakkil, were half-Shiites of a lax order. Shahrastānī (q.v.) in his Book on the Sects (Kitāb Milal wan-Niḥal, ed. Cureton, pp. 109 ff.; Haarbrücker’s translation, vol. i. pp. 164 ff.) divides the Shiites into five main divisions: the Kaisānīyya, the Zaidīyva, the Imāmīyya, the Ghālīyya and the Ismaʽīlīyya. Of these the Ghālīyya are represented by the followers of Ibn Ṣabā (see above), and the Kaisānīyya have been already described. These parties as such have now ceased to exist, the others still remain; The Zaidites or Zaidīyya are the followers of Zaid, a grandson of Hosain, and are the most moderate of the Shiites, for though holding that the imāmate belongs only to the descendants of ʽAlī by Fatima, and that any of these might be imām (even though two or three should be in existence at the same time), they allow that circumstances might justify the appointment of another caliph for the time. Thus they acknowledge the imāmate of Abu Bekr and Omar, though ʽAlī was more entitled to the office. One branch of the Zaidites held Tabaristan from 864 until overturned by the Samanids in 928; another branch, arising about 893 in Yemen, has remained there until the present day. The Ismaʽīlites or Ismaʽīlīyya are the followers of Ismaʽīl, the elder son of Jaʽfar us-Sadīq, the sixth imām (see table below). He was rejected as successor by his father for drinking wine, and his party might soon have disappeared if he had not served as imām for the adventurous sceptic ʽAbdallah ibn Maimūn (for his propaganda see Carmathians). Owing to the success of this man the Ismaʽīlites have given rise to the Carmathians (q.v.), the Fatimites (q.v.), the Assassins (q.v.) and the Druses (q.v.).

At the present time the Ismaʽīlīyya still exist in small numbers, chiefly about Surat and Bombay. The Imāmīyya believe that each imām has been definitely named by his predecessor. This party broke up into numerous divisions, and imāms manifest or hidden secured each his own following. The most important of these parties is that of the Twelve (the Ithnaʽasharīyya), who accept and follow the twelve descendants of ʽAlī numbered in the accompanying table.

1. ‘Alī (d. 661)

2. Ḥasan (d. 669) 3. Ḥosain (d. 680)


Maḥommed ibn ul-Hanafīyya
Zaid. 4. ‘Alī called Zain ul-Abidīn (d. c. 711)


5. Maḥommed ul-Bāqir (d. 736)

(Abu Ja‘far ul-Bāqir).

6. Ja‘far us-Ṣadīq (d. 765)


Isma‘il 7. Mūsā Kazim (d. c. 799).


8. ‘Alī ul-Reza (Riza) (d. 818).


9. Maḥommed ul-Jawād (d. 834).


10. ‘Alī ul-‘Askarī (d. 868).


11. Hasan ul-‘Askarī (d. 874).


12. Maḥommed ul-Mahdī.

The twelfth imām Maḥommed is said to have vanished and to be in hiding, but will be restored by God to his people, when it pleases Him. The creed of this party was introduced into Persia in 1502, when the Safāwids conquered the country, and still remains its official creed. The shah is thus only the temporary substitute for the hidden imām; and authoritative decisions in religious matters are pronounced by Mujtahids, i.e. theologians who can form their own opinions and require obedience to their decisions.

Other points in which Shiites differ from Sunnites depend on their legitimistic opinions, or are accommodations of the rites of Shiite tenets. Islam to the Persian nationality, or else are petty matters affecting ceremonial. The rejection of all the Sunnite books of tradition goes with the repudiation of the caliphs under whose protection these were handed down. The Shiites, however, have their own collections of traditions. An allegorical and mystical interpretation reconciles the words of the Koran with the inordinate respect paid to ‘Alī; the Sunnite doctrine of the uncreated Koran is denied. To the Mahommedan confession “There is no god but God and Mahomet is His ambassador” they add “and ‘Alī is the vice regent of God” (walī, properly “confidant”). There are some modifications in detail as to the four main religious duties of Islam—the prescriptions of ritual purity, in particular, being made the main duty of the faithful. The prayers are almost exactly the same, but to take part in public worship is not obligatory, as there is at present no legitimate imām whose authority can direct the prayer of the congregation. Pilgrimage to Mecca may be performed by a hired substitute, or its place can be taken by a visit to the tombs of Shiite saints, e.g. that of ‘Alī at Nejef, of Ḥosain at Kerbelā, of Reẓā at Meshed, or of the “unstained Fāṭima” at Ḳum (Fāṭima-i-ma’aṣūm, daughter of Mūsā, the 7th imām). The Shiites are much the most zealous of Moslems in the worship of saints (real or supposed descendants of ‘Alī) and in pilgrimages to their graves, and they have a characteristic eagerness to be buried in those holy places. The Persians have an hereditary love for pomps and festivities, and so the Shiites have devised many religious feasts. Of these the great sacrificial feast (‘īd-i-Qurbān; Turkish Qurbān Bairām) is also Sunnite; the first ten days of the month Moḥarram are dedicated to the mourning for the death of Ḥosain at Kerbelā (q.v.), which is celebrated by passion-plays (ta‘zīya), while the universal joy of the Nauroz, or the New Year of the Old Persian calendar, receives a Mahommedan sanction by the tradition that on this day the prophet conferred the caliphate on ‘Alī.

While they naturally reject the four Sunnite schools of jurisprudence, the Shiites also derive all law from the Koran, and their trained clergy (mollahs) are the only class that can give legitimate legal responses. The training of the mollah resembles that of the Sunnite ‘ālim. The course at the madrasa (medresse) embraces grammar, with some rhetoric and prosody, logic, dogmatic Koran exegesis, tradition and jurisprudence, and finally some arithmetic and algebra. The best madrasa is at Kerbelā. The scholar discharged from his studies becomes first a simple mollah, i.e. local judge and notary. A small place has one such judge, larger towns a college of judges under a head called the sheikh ul-Islām. The place of the Sunnite muftis is filled by certain of the imām-jum‘a, i.e. presidents of the chief mosques in the leading towns, who in respect of this function bear the title of imām mujtahid. This is a dignity conferred by the tacit consent of people and clergy, and is held at one time only by a very few distinguished men. In Persia, the cadi (ḳāẓi) is an inferior judge who acts for the sheikh u ’l-Islām in special cases, and a mufti is a solicitor acting under the judge to prepare cases for court.

Under the Safawids, when the clergy had great influence, they had at their head the ṣadru ’ṣ-ṣodūr, who administered all pious foundations and was the highest judicial authority. But so great a power was found dangerous; ‘Abbās the Great (1586-1628) abstained from filling up a vacancy which occurred in it, and, though Shāh Safī (1628-1641) restored the office, he placed it in commission. Nādir Shāh abolished it in his attempt to get rid of the Shiite hierarchy (1736), and since then it has not been restored. Yet the imām-jum‘a of Isfāhān, the old Safawi capital, is tacitly regarded as representative of the invisible imām of the house of ‘Alī, who is the true head of the church. Various vain attempts were made in the 19th century to subordinate the authority of the clergy to the government. Outside the clergy the greatest influence in religious matters is that exercised by the dervishes (q.v.). As it was long necessary to profess orthodoxy for fear of the Arabs, it came to be an established Shiite doctrine that it is lawful to deny one's faith in case of danger. This “caution” (taqīya) or “concealment” (ketmān) has become a second nature with the Persians. Another mischievous thing is the permission of temporary marriages—marriages for a few hours on a money payment. This legitimized harlotry (mot‘a) is forbidden by the Sunna, but the Shiites allow it, and the mollahs adjust the contract and share the women's profits. There is still mental life and vigour among the Shiites, as appears among the sects, which, allowance being made for “taqīya,” play no inconsiderable part. The Akhbārīs (traditionalists), who adopt a semi philosophical wayof explaining away the plainest doctrines (such as the resurrection of the flesh) on the authority of false traditions of ‘Alī, are not so much a sect as a school of theology within the same pale as the orthodox Shia or Mujtahids. A real dissenting sect, however, is the Sheikhīs, of whose doctrines we have but imperfect and discrepant accounts. Representatives of the old extreme Shiites, who held ‘Alī for a divine incarnation, are found all over Persia in the ‘Alī-Ilāhī or ‘Alī-Allāhī sect (“‘Alī deifiers”). Finally, in the 19th century arose the remarkable attempt at reform known as Bābiism (q.v.).

Bibliography.—The work of Shahrastānī (q.v.) on the Sects of Islam; R. Dozy, Essai sur l'histoire de l'islamisme (Leiden and Paris, 1879); G. van Vloten, Recherches sur la domination arabe, le Chiitisme, &c. (Amsterdam, 1894); various works of A. von Kremer and I. Goldziher; J. E. Polak, Persien. Das Land und seine Bewohner (2 vols., Leipzig, 1865); E. G. Browne, A Year among the Persians (London, 1893).

(G. W. T.)

  1. For these and following events see Caliphate.