Shia Islam in Iraq

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Shia (/ˈʃə/; Arabic: شيعة‎) Muslims make up the majority of the Iraqi population, with 64 to 69% of Iraqis identifying as Shia. [1][2] Shia Islam has a long history in Iraq. The 4th caliph of Sunni Islam and the 1st Imam of Shia Islam, Ali ibn Abi Talib, moved the capital of the empire from Medina to Kufa/Najaf only two decades after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.

Iraq is the site 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 the grandson of Muhammad and Shī‘ah Imām, 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 Shī‘ah Imāms, Mūsā al-Kādhim and Muhammad al-Taqī, and the Al-Askari Mosque in Sāmarrā, Iraq which contains the tombs of the tenth and eleventh Shia Imams, Ali al-Hadi and Hasan al-‘Askarī.

Since 2003 there has been ongoing sectarian violence between Shias and Sunnis in Iraq.


Before the Safavids[edit]

After being named caliph in 657 CE, Ali established his capital in Kufa in present-day Iraq. [3] Thus Ali and six other of the total 12 Imams of the Shias are buried in the Shia areas of Iraq. It was the message and the preacher from Iraq that in time converted Iran and taught them the principle of Shiism when the Shia Safavid dynasty declared Shiism the official religion of Persia in AD 1501. source?

15th and 16th Centuries[edit]

The Bani Sallama, Tayy and al-Soudan in the Mesopotamian Marshes were converted from Sunnism to Shi’ism by the Musha'sha'iyyah dynasty.[4][5]

18th Century[edit]

Banu Khazal was converted from Sunnism to Shiism in the early 18th century.[6][7]

Banu Kaab (including its Khazraj section) was converted from Sunnism to Shiism in the mid-18th century.[7]

Note: The Sayyids of Banu Kaab were already Shia before the conversion.

Late 18th century and onwards[edit]

From the late 18th century and onwards, there was a massive conversion of the majority of Iraq’s Sunni Arab tribes to Shiism, especially during the 19th century. Throughout the 19th century the Ottoman Empire instituted a policy of settling the nomadic Sunni Arab tribes, in order to create greater centralization in Iraq.[8] The previously nomadic Sunni Arab tribes either settled to sedentary agricultural life in the hinterlands of Najaf and Karbala or traded and increasingly interacted with the people of these two Shia holy places.[9][10] The centralization and increased interaction facilitated a rapid spread of Shiism.

In addition, some tribes converted as a form of protest to their treatment by the Sunni Ottomans.[11] Shia missionaries from Najaf and Karbala operated with relative autonomy from the Ottoman Empire and were able to proselytize with little official hinderance. [12]

This massive scope of conversion continued as late as the 20th century. Even in 1917, it was noted by the British that the conversions were still going on vigorously.[13][14] Therefore, the Shia of Iraq are mostly recent converts (i.e. from the late 18th century and onwards).[15]

The following tribes were converted during this period:[7] Some sections of Zubaid,[16][17] Banu Lam, al bu Muhammad, large sections of the Rabiah (including al-Dafaf'a, Bani Amir and al-Jaghayfa), Banu Tamim[17] (including their largest section in Iraq –Bani Sa’d), the Shammar Toga,[17] some sections of Dulaim, the Zafir, the Dawwar, the Sawakin, al-Muntafiq confederation,[18] the Bani Hasan (of the Bani Malik),[9] those of the Afak, the Bani Hukayyim, the Shibil (of the Khazal), the al Fatla,[19] the many tribes along the Hindiya canal, and the 5 tribes of Al Diwaniyah (Aqra’, Budayyir, Afak, Jubur and Jilaiha) that relied on the Daghara canal for their water supply.

Starting with the British-controlled "State of Iraq" founded in 1920 after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, Shia opposed British rule.

During the Baathist regime[edit]

Grand Ayatollah al-Khoei visits Saddam Hussein after Shia Uprisings in 1974.

For many years "Arab nationalism and party politics superseded" Shi'i unity in Iraqi politics, and Shi'i mujtahids (Ayatollahs) were not politically active.[20] Shia tended to be less well off economically and socially and supported leftist parties. In 1963, when the Arab nationalist and socialist Ba'ath Party came to power in a coup, 53% of its membership was Shia. Gradually, however, Shia were shunted aside (by 1968 only 6% of the Ba'ath party was Shia) and turned again to the ulama for leadership.[20]

Throughout the 1970s Shia became increasingly disaffected. al-Dawa ("the Call"), a political party dedicated to the establishment of an Islamic state in Iraq, was formed.

Religious processions during Muharram in the shrine cities turned into political protests. Five members of the Daw'a party were executed after rioting in 1974, and in 1977 eight Shia were executed after worse rioting.[21]

The Islamic Revolution in Iran intensified unrest and repression. In June 1979 Ayatollah Mohammad 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.[21] In 1982 the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq was formed in Iran by Iraqi cleric Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim as an umbrella group to overthrow the Sunni-dominated Arab nationalist regime in Iraq. In Iran, Hakim attempted to unite and co-ordinate the activities of the Dawa party and other major religious Shi'i groupings (the Paykar group (a guerilla organization similar to the Iranian Mujahidin) and the Jama'at al 'Ulama (groupings of pro-Khomeini ulema).[21]

Meanwhile, the Baath leadership made a determined effort to woo support from Iraqi Shi'is during the Iran–Iraq War (1980–1988), diverting resources to the Shia south and emphasizing in war propaganda Iraqi Arabness in contrast to Iranian Persianness and the historical struggle between the Muslim Arabs and Zoroastrian Persians in the early days of Islam. Iraqi propaganda used symbolic key-words such as Qādisiyya (the battle at which the Muslim Arab armies defeated the Persian Empire, while the Iranian propaganda used Shia key-words such as Karbala. In June 1984, however, the Baath government stick replaced the carrot and some 95 Shi'i ulama, many of them members of the al-Hakim family, were executed.[22]

Present conflict[edit]

Following the US led 2003 invasion of Iraq, sectarian violence between Shia and the Sunnis steadily escalated.[23][24] By 2007, the violence had increased to the point of being described in the United States' National Intelligence Estimate as a "civil war". During the Civil war in Iraq, tens to hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and at least 2.7 million have been internally displaced due to inter-faction violence.



Najaf was also the center from which opposition to British rule was organized. Shia activism from Najaf contributed to opposition to the Communist threat in the 1960s and to the Baath regime, which was dominated by Sunni's, since 1968.[25]

Notable people[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Iraq. CIA World Factbook.
  2. ^ "Mapping the Global Muslim Population: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World's Muslim Population". Pew Research Center. October 7, 2009. Retrieved 2011-01-28.
  3. ^ 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
  4. ^ Nakash, p. 25
  5. ^ Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2d ed. s.v. “Musha’sha’.”
  6. ^ Nakash, p. 27
  7. ^ a b c Haydari, ‘Unwan al-Majd, pp. 110–15, 118
  8. ^ Nakash, pp. 5, 27–28
  9. ^ a b Stephen Longrigg, Iraq, 1900 to 1950 (Oxford, 1953), p. 25.
  10. ^ Nakash, pp. xviii, 5, 27, 28, 30, 42
  11. ^ Sacred space and holy war: the politics, culture and history of Shi'ite Islam, By Juan Ricardo Cole, pg.25
  12. ^ Nakash, pp. 25, 42
  13. ^ Nakash, pp. 42–43
  14. ^ Office of the Civil Commissioner, The Arab of Mesopotamia, 69–70
  15. ^ Nakash, p. 4
  16. ^ ‘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
  17. ^ 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
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ Nakash, p. 42
  20. ^ a b Momen, p. 262
  21. ^ a b c Momen, p. 263
  22. ^ Momen, p. 264
  23. ^ 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.. The Independent
  24. ^ Amira Howeidy (2–8 March 2006). "There is ethnic cleansing". 784. Archived from the original on 12 October 2010.
  25. ^ John Esposito (2003) The Oxford Dictionary of Islam, Oxford University Press