Shia Islam in Iraq

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Shia Islam in Iraq (Arabic: شيعة العراق‎) has a history going back to the times of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the first imam of Shia Islam and fourth caliph of Sunni Islam who moved the capital of the early caliphate from Medina to Kufa (or Najaf) two decades after the death of Muhammad. Today, Shia Muslims make up the majority of the Iraqi population.

Iraq is the location of the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, pilgrimage sites for millions of Shia Muslims. Najaf is the site of Ali's tomb, and Karbala is the site of the tomb of Muhammad's grandson, third Shia imam Husayn ibn Ali. Najaf is also a center of Shia learning and seminaries. Two other holy sites for Twelver Shia in Iraq are the Al-Kadhimiya Mosque in Baghdad, which contains the tombs of the seventh and ninth Shia Imams (Mūsā al-Kādhim and Muhammad al-Taqī) and the Al-Askari Mosque in Sāmarrā, which contains the tombs of the tenth and eleventh Shia Imams (Ali al-Hadi and Hasan al-‘Askarī).

After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, there has been widespread sectarian violence between Shias and Sunnis in Iraq, which became high-intensity in the wars in 2006–2008 and 2013–2017, which involved the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/ISIS).


Before the Safavids[edit]

Imam Ali Mosque, Najaf. One of the holiest sites in Shia Islam.

After being named caliph in 657, Ali established his capital at Kufa in present-day Iraq.[1] Iraqi Shia preachers converted the Persians. The Shia Safavid dynasty declared Shia Islam the official religion of Persia in 1501.

15th and 16th centuries[edit]

The Bani Sallama, Tayy and al-Soudan in the Mesopotamian Marshes were converted from Sunni to Shia by the Musha'sha'iyyah dynasty.[2][3]

18th century[edit]

Banu Khazal was converted from Sunni to Shia during the early 18th century.[4][5] Banu Kaab (including its Khazraj section) was converted during the mid-18th century.[5]

Late 18th to mid-20th century[edit]

Since the late 18th century, most of Iraq's Sunni Arab tribes converted to Shia Islam (particularly in the 19th century). During the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire instituted a policy of settling the semi-nomadic Sunni Arab tribes to create greater centralization in Iraq.[6] The tribes adopted a sedentary agricultural life in the hinterlands of Najaf and Karbala or traded (and interacted with) the residents of the two cities.[7][8]

Some Sunni Arab tribes converted to protest their treatment by the Sunni Ottomans.[9] Shia missionaries from Najaf and Karbala operated with relative freedom from the Ottoman Empire, and could proselytize with little official hindrance.[10]

The conversions continued into the 20th century, as the British noted in 1917.[11][12] Many Iraqi Shia are relatively-recent converts.[13] The following tribes were converted during this period:[5] some of the Zubaid,[14][15] Banu Lam, al bu Muhammad, many of the Rabiah (including al-Dafaf'a, Bani Amir and al-Jaghayfa), Banu Tamim[15] (including the Bani Sa’d, their largest group in Iraq), the Shammar Toga,[15] some of the Dulaim, the Zafir, the Dawwar, the Sawakin, the al-Muntafiq confederation,[16] the Bani Hasan (of the Bani Malik),[7] the Bani Hukayyim, the Shibil of the Khazal, the al Fatla,[17] the tribes along the Al-Hindiya canal, and the five tribes of Al Diwaniyah (Aqra’, Budayyir, Afak, Jubur and Jilaiha) which relied on the Daghara canal for water. The Shia opposed Mandatory Iraq and its Sunni monarchy.

Baathist regime[edit]

Islamic cleric with Saddam Hussein
Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei is brought in front of Saddam Hussein after Shia uprisings in 1991.

For many years "Arab nationalism and party politics superseded" Shia unity in Iraqi politics, and Shia ayatollahs were not politically active.[18] The Shia were generally less well-off economically and socially, and as a result, they supported leftist parties. In 1963, when the Arab-nationalist and socialist Ba'ath Party seized power in a coup, 53 percent of its membership was Shia. The Shia were shunted aside (by 1968, only six percent of the Ba'ath party were Shia), and turned back to the ulama for leadership.[18]

Due to discrimination by the Sunni government, the Shia became increasingly disaffected during the 1970s. al-Dawa ("the Call"), a political party dedicated to establishing an Islamic state in Iraq, was formed. Religious processions during the Mourning of Muharram in the shrine cities turned into political protests. Five members of al-Dawa were executed after riots in 1974, and in 1977 eight Shia were executed after more riots.[19]

The Iranian Revolution intensified unrest and repression. In June 1979, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr was arrested and placed under house arrest. Less than a year later, after an attempt to assassinate Saddam Hussein, Sadr was executed.[19] In 1982, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq was formed in Iran by Iraqi cleric Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim as an umbrella group to overthrow Iraq's Sunni-dominated regime. In Iran, Hakim attempted to unite and co-ordinate the activities of al- Dawa party and other major Shia groups: Peykar (a guerilla organization similar to the Iranian Mujahideen) and the Jama'at al 'Ulama (groups of pro-Khomeini ulama).[19]

The Ba'ath Party's leadership made a determined effort to gain the support of Iraqi Shia during the 1980–1988 Iran–Iraq War, diverting resources to the Shia south and emphasizing Iraqi Arabness (in contrast to Iranian Persianness) and the historic struggle between the Muslim Arabs and the Zoroastrian Persians in propaganda. Iraqi propaganda used symbolic keywords such as Qādisiyya (the battle in which Muslim Arab armies defeated the Persian Empire), and Iranian propaganda used Shia keywords such as Karbala. The Baath government executed about 95 Shia ulama, many of them members of the al-Hakim family, in June 1984.[20]

During the Iraqi conflict (2003-present)[edit]

After the US-led 2003 invasion of Iraq, sectarian violence between Shia and the Sunnis steadily escalated.[21][22] By 2007, the United States' National Intelligence Estimate described the violence as a "civil war".[full citation needed] During the 2006–2008 sectarian violence, tens to hundreds of thousands of people were killed (mainly Shia civilians) and at least 2.7 million were internally displaced.[citation needed] In ISIL-occupied Iraq (2014-2017) Shias faced some of the worst treatment, and thousands were killed for their faith.


The data on the religious affiliation of Iraq's population are uncertain. 95–99% of the population are Muslims.[23][24] The CIA World Factbook reports a 2015 estimate according to which 29–34% are Sunni Muslims and 64–69% Shia Muslims.[23] According to a 2011 survey by Pew Research, 51% of the Muslims identify as Shia and 42% as Sunni.[24]

Notable figures[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The New Encyclopædia Britannica, Jacob E. Safra, Chairman of the Board, 15th Edition, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1998, ISBN 0-85229-663-0, Vol 10, p. 738
  2. ^ Nakash, p. 25
  3. ^ Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2d ed. s.v. “Musha’sha’.”
  4. ^ Nakash, p. 27
  5. ^ a b c Haydari, ‘Unwan al-Majd, pp. 110–15, 118
  6. ^ Nakash, pp. 5, 27–28
  7. ^ a b Stephen Longrigg, Iraq, 1900 to 1950 (Oxford, 1953), p. 25.
  8. ^ Nakash, pp. xviii, 5, 27, 28, 30, 42
  9. ^ Sacred space and holy war: the politics, culture and history of Shi'ite Islam, By Juan Ricardo Cole, pg.25
  10. ^ Nakash, pp. 25, 42
  11. ^ Nakash, pp. 42–43
  12. ^ Office of the Civil Commissioner, The Arab of Mesopotamia, 69–70
  13. ^ Nakash, p. 4
  14. ^ ‘Uthman ibn Sanad al-Basri al-Wa’ili, Mukhtasar Kitab Matali’ al-Su’ud bi-Tayyib Akhbar al-Wali Da’ud, ed. Amin al-Hilwani (Cairo, 1951/2), 169
  15. ^ a b c ‘Abdallah Mahmud Shukri (al-Alusi), “Di’ayat al-Rafd wa al-Khurafat wa al-Tafriq Bayn al-Muslimin”, al-Manar 29 (1928): 440
  16. ^ Lorimer, Gazetteer, 2B:1273; Great Britain, naval intelligence division, geographical handbook series, Iraq and the Persian Gulf, September 1944, 379–80; Great Britain, office of the civil commissioner, The Arab of Mesopotamia, Basra, 1917,6.
  17. ^ Nakash, p. 42
  18. ^ a b Momen, p. 262
  19. ^ a b c Momen, p. 263
  20. ^ Momen, p. 264
  21. ^ Patrick Cockburn (20 May 2006) "Iraq is disintegrating as ethnic cleansing takes hold". Archived from the original on September 5, 2008. Retrieved 2010-10-23.CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link). The Independent
  22. ^ Amira Howeidy (2–8 March 2006). "There is ethnic cleansing". 784. Archived from the original on 12 October 2010. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  23. ^ a b "CIA World Fact Book". 2021-04-21. Retrieved 2021-04-25.
  24. ^ a b Michael Lipka (2014-06-18). "The Sunni-Shia divide: Where they live, what they believe and how they view each other". Pew Research Center. Retrieved 2021-04-15.