Historically Shi’a Muslims have existed as a minority community within the Muslim world.
The biggest challenge faced by Shi’a communities now, and in the past, has stemmed from issues of religious identity and the struggle to gain religious recognition.
Since 1501, when Shi’ism became the established faith of the Safavid dynasty, there has been a tendency amongst the larger Muslim community to fuse Shi’a Islam with Persian society and culture. This trend was intensified by the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.
The Shi’a school of thought rewards achievements of merit above political proximity to the ruling class.
However, this dynamic has provoked distrust and ridicule from the ruling classes over centuries. There is a strong bond between jurists and community in Shi’a Islam, a phenomenon that stems from the belief that in the absence of the last Imam, Shi’a jurists are the authority on Islamic law and determine how it applies to the modern world. Sunni rulers however, see the jurists’ community dynamic as a threat to the autonomy of defined nations.
(a) The jurists’ authority transcends national geographical borders, which led some secular regimes in the Arab world to subdue religious institutions and bring them under their control;
(b) Shi’a jurists have a long history of viewing secular rulers suspiciously by insisting instead that true authority belongs to divinely designated Imams.
Here, we can identify two important accounts that emerge from a quick reading of the history of Shi’a around the world:
(i) Shi’a have been historically oppressed and/or persecuted by political entities that saw them as religious heretics and political renegades, who resented non- Shi’a rulers;
(ii) Shi’a communities had their rights taken away by the ruling classes.
Shi’a Demographics Today
The political complexities of the Middle East and the wider Muslim World today have made it very difficult to produce accurate statistics about minority groups. One reason for that is the reluctance of the ruling authorities to release data on minority groups.
The largest Shi’a communities today are in the Middle East, particularly Iran. The second largest Shi’a presence is in southwest Asia, mostly in India and Pakistan. There’s also a large Shi’a presence in Azerbaijan as well as a growing Shi’a presence in Southeast Asia,
Shi’a in Iran
At the turn of the 20th century, Shiasm gained influence in Iran and became a driving force for political change. Shi’a clerics led mass protests and demonstrations against the country’s leader Mozaffar al-Din Shah Qajar (1897-1907), forcing him to grant the nation its first constitution.
A significant feature of that first constitution was reference to Twelver Shi'asm as, the official religion of the state.
In the 1960’s, Shi’asm again underpinned political change in Iran, in what eventually became known as the ‘white revolution.’ Iran’s leader Mohammed Rida Shah had been seeking to repress religious expression in public areas but his attempts were met with opposition from influential Shi’a clerics. Ayatullah Burujurdi was first to criticise the Shah’s policies, and in 1963 Ayatullah Ruhallah Khomeini stepped up the criticism by leading a series of demonstrations that prompted the Shah’s unpopular act to dissolve parliament in 1963. In 1979, Mohammed Rida Shah was removed from power.
After the Shah’s removal from office, Ayatullah Khomeini called for a popular referendum on the new constitution that invoked much of Ayatullah Khomeini’s theory of Wilayat al-faqih, the guardianship of the jurist.
The current population of the Islamic Republic of Iran is 75,000,000 (UN figures, 2010). The official statistics indicate that the vast majority of Iranians, approximately 90%, are Twelver Shi’a Muslims. Almost all of the Persian-speaking population, both city-dwellers and the tribes of the south and south-west are Twelver Shi’a Muslims. The majority of non-Persians such as the Arabs of the south-west and Azeri in the north-west are Twelver Shi’a Muslims.
Shi’a in Iraq
When the British occupied Iraq after the First World War, they were initially welcomed by Shi’a Muslims as saviours from Ottoman oppression.
However, the euphoria was short lived, with clashes in 1934 resulting from a state policy barring Shi’a from government duty.
Government-led anti- Shi’a hostilities grew during the reigns of Hassan al-Bakr, Abdu’l Salam Arif, and Abdu’l Rahman Arif. Shi’a religious rituals were banned from public display in the 1970's and many Shi’a political activists were executed by the state’s security services.
The 1979 revolution in Iran was shortly followed by Saddam Hussain’s ascendency to power in Iraq. Throughout the 1980's both countries were involved in border skirmishes over disputed territory claims. The internal instability had disastrous consequences for Iraqi Shi’a, who were treated suspiciously by the Iraqi authorities who accused them of favouring Iran. Following a change of regime in 2003, Iraq’s Shi’a Muslims are now better represented within the government and face less religious persecution from the state.
Shi’a Muslims form the majority of Iraq’s population and estimates of the proportion vary from 55% to 70% of the total population of 30,000,000 (UN Figures, 2010).
Shi’a are in the majority in the southern half of the country as far north as Baghdad which is a majority Shi’a city today (2010). Significant Shi’a communities also live in northern cities such as Mosul, Kirkuk, and Diyala.
Shi’a in Lebanon
The Shi’a community in Lebanon has long been the poorest and least-educated among Lebanon’s religious groups, despite its presence in the region dating back to medieval times. The Shi’a of Jabal ‘Amil (south Lebanon) are one example of a Muslim religious minority under orthodox Sunni Ottoman rule that lasted more than 400 years (1516AD-1918AD).
The French, who were in control of Syria following the First World War, were convinced by Arab Christians in the area to create an independent state from Syria consisting of Mount Lebanon, Jabal‘Amil and Akkar, and the Bekaa Valley.
The earliest Census took place in 1932, less than a decade after the establishment of an independent Lebanese state in 1926. The results showed Shi’a to be a minority community, outnumbered by both Sunni Muslim and Christian groups. After the 1932 Census, a National Pact was reached between the Sunni Muslims and Christian groups, that further marginalised Shi’a.
In 1959 a leading Shi’a scholar Sayyid Musa al-Sadr came to Lebanon from Iran (after spending years studying in Iran) and became the religious leader to Lebanon’s Twelver Shi’a community.
The religious wrangling prior to the arrival of Sayyid Musa al-Sadr left the Shi’a community feeling marginalised and often the subject of ill feelings of mistrust and revulsion. A Shi’a Supreme National Islamic Council was set up by an act of parliament and in 1969 Sayyid Musa al-Sadr was elected as its first president.
The council empowered the Shi’a community and transformed them from a minority to a force to be taken seriously.
At present, the Shi’a community is the largest religious group in Lebanon and a major political player in Lebanon’s multi-confessional party politics. Lebanese Shi’a Muslims account for about 50% of the Muslim population and in the south of the country that proportion is even higher.
Shi’a in Turkey
The number of Shi’a Muslims in Turkey is difficult to determine for a number of reasons; firstly official Censuses do not make a distinction between the various Islamic denominations, and secondly, no serious attempt has been made to differentiate between Twelver Shi’as and Alevis. This is based on the fact that both sects share many religious beliefs.
Aside from Twelvers and Alevis, the Bektashi Sufis and the ethnically Kurdish Ahl-i Haqq, who are strong in numbers in the southeast of Turkey, also identify themselves as Shi’a. Official figures estimate that some 15% (UN Figures, 2010) of Turkey’s total population is Shi’a.
Shi’a in the Gulf
The Shi’a communities in the Gulf are some of the oldest and most vibrant Shi’a presences in the entire Middle East region, however limited rights coupled with political marginalisation make them one of the most oppressed religious groups in the region today. That is of course with the notable exception of Kuwait. Shi’a communities in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have many similarities. Since the turn of the 20th century, both communities have endured similar struggles against Sunni tribal leaders, who are not indigenous inhabitants of the land.
The Shi’a of Bahrain faced political and social persecution intermittently in the twentieth century, beginning in 1919 when the British established themselves as ‘protectors’ of Bahrain, by a treaty dating from 1861. The Shi’a of Bahrain, while granted religious freedom, are virtually absent from major political decisions made by the ruling Sunni government. The Sunni’s have also embarked on a radical naturalisation program to tip the demographic balance in favour of the Sunni community. In spite of this policy, Shi’a Muslims in Bahrain still outnumber Sunni’s, and account for an estimated 55% of the overall population. Recent uprisings have also called for democracy and the right for the Shi'a population to be properly represented in the ruling system of Bahrain.
Shi’a communities have resided in the province of al-Ahsa on the eastern border of Saudi Arabia for centuries as part of a wider transnational network of Shi’a Arab tribes living on the coasts of the Gulf. In 1925 the Wahhabi raiders, led by Ibn Saud, seized control of Makkah and Madinah and demolished many old and sacred shrines in Baqi’ cemetery in Madinah, where four Shi’a Imams and a number of Shi’a-revered Islamic personalities are buried.
The Shi’a community in the eastern province has suffered in recent times at the hands of Saudi Arabian security forces that condemn Shi’a beliefs as heresy and persecute them. The number of Shi’a in Saudi Arabia is extremely difficult to define for the reason that many Shi’a are obliged to conceal their identity. However, estimates indicate a rough figure of around 20% of the total population, including other significant non-Twelver Shi’a communities such as the Ismaili Shi’a and Yemeni Zaydis.
Shi’a communities live in relative peace and stability in Kuwait, a country with a significant Shi’a minority. Numbers range between the conservative estimates of 30% of the total population to a more generous estimate of 40% of the total population.
Very small Shi’a communities have taken up permanent residence in other Gulf States. A number of Iranians and Indo-Pakistani Shi’a have settled in United Arab Emirates and Oman. In the case of Qatar, Shi’a makes up 20% of the country’s small population.
Shi’a in India and Pakistan
Muslim numbers in India were very small until the 8th and 10th centuries, when a large number of Shi’a communities fled the persecutions of the Ummayad and ‘Abbasid dynasties. Many more Shi’a communities sought protection at the court of Delhi in later periods, especially during the Tartar invasion of Shi’a lands during the 13th century. By the late 13th century, leading up until the 20th century, Shi’a established dynasties in India which served as a sanctuary for scholars and artisans with Shi’a interests.
A series of violent Shi’a -Sunni clashes between 1904 and 1908 highlighted the growing numbers of Shi’a in India as the majority Sunni community conflicted with Shi’a in a sectarian identity struggle.
When the issue of the separation of India and Pakistan came to the fore in the 1940s the Shi’a community of India was hesitant to lend support to the idea of creating a separate Sunni majority state, although some Shi’a did accept the proposal for an independent state in Pakistan later on.
The total number of Shi’a Muslims in India and Pakistan is difficult to estimate since they do not exist as a separate identifiable community. Similar to most parts of the Middle East, Shi’a is intermingled with Sunnis and many have been forced to conceal their faith. Estimates of the proportion of the Shi’a in India vary from between 10 to 30% of the Muslim population. The main areas where there is visible Shi’a presence are in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, Bihara province, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, and in Punjab where Shi’a form the second largest religious group in the province.
In Pakistan, Shi’a Muslims make up about 15% of the population with sizeable Shi’a communities in Kashmir, Lahore and Karachi.
Shi’a in Afghanistan
The Shi’a communities in Afghanistan are found in large numbers on the border area with Iran. There are Shi’a communities in Herat and Kabul as well as the Hazara people of Hazarjat (numbering around 80, 000) and some of the mountain Tajik tribes. The proportion of Shi’a Muslims in Afghanistan is thought to make up 20% of the total population.
Shi’a in Azerbaijan
Shi’a is the largest religious group in Azerbaijan totalling over 60% of the entire population. However, religious identity is often suppressed by recent government-led secularisation initiatives that seek to play down the nation’s religious beliefs.
Shi’a in Africa
Many Shia communities have emerged in a number of countries in North and West Africa over the last 30 years, due to political changes in the Middle East and the advent of the internet making information about Shi'ism more easily accessible. While there were undoubtedly few communities and individuals prior to the 1970s it is difficult to ascertain the numbers as it is equally difficult to calculate the number of Shi'a in the region today. In Nigeria alone those adhering to the Shi'a school of thought are estimated to be anywhere between 5-10 million.
Twelver Shi'sm was brought to East Africa in the Middle of the 19th century by Iranians who came to serve the Sultan of Zanzibar and by Indian Khoja merchants.
The Indian Khoja who settled in large numbers in the last half of the 19th century were mostly Ismailis, but included a number of Twelvers. The indigenous population have begun to convert to Shi'ism in many areas of East Africa. Although the number of Shi’a living in East Africa is relatively low, the community dynamics are vibrant and well-organised. The largest Twelver community is in Tanzania and numbers some 10,000; Kenya has 3,000.
Shi’a in America and Europe
The Shi’a communities in America and Europe have increased dramatically due to the influx of Shi’a refugees from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. In the UK and Europe there are smaller Shi’a communities than in the Gulf and East Africa, but there is a growing number of Shi’a reverts. There are Shi’a communities in almost all capitals and major cities in Western Europe including London, Paris, Stockholm, Manchester, Birmingham, Malmo, Amsterdam, The Hague, Brussels, Copenhagen, Munich, and Hamburg.
In America alone, there are 2 million Shi’a, with some community roots going back close to one hundred years. Shi’a can be found in major cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington D.C., and Dearborn, Michigan.
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