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Sunday, 10 February 2013

Islamic Symbols

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There are no official Islamic symbols, but several symbols or images have a special place in Islam.
star and crescent symbol

Star and Crescent Symbol

The star and crescent is the best-known symbol used to represent Islam. It features prominently on the flags of many countries in the Islamic world, notably Turkey and Pakistan.
Evolution Slimming Ltd Surprisingly, the symbol is not Muslim in origin. Rather, it was a polytheistic icon adopted during the spread of Islam, and its use today is sometimes controversial in the Muslim world. The crescent and star are often said to be Islamic symbols, but historians say that they were the insignia of the Ottoman Empire, not of Islam as a whole.
It is important to keep in mind that Islam has few traditional symbols, and the crescent moon and star are not ones that are recognized by as traditional symbols by Muslims. The symbol is due to cultral diffusion and the spread of Islam to the Ottoman turks who ruled a large area and also put the crescent moon and star symbol on their flag. It has since become associated with Islam.

Islamic Color Symbolism

In early accounts of Muslim warfare, there are references to flags or battle standards of various colors: black, white, red, and greenish-black. Later Islamic dynasties adopted flags of different colors:
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  • The Ummayads fought under white banners
  • The Abbasids chose black
  • The Fatimids used green
  • Various countries on the Persian Gulf have chosen red flags
These four colors (white, black, green and red) dominate the flags of Arab states.
The color green has a special place in Islam, and is often used to represent it among other world religions. One can often find it in mosques and other important places, as well as on the flag of Saudi Arabia. Some say green was Muhammad’s favorite color and that he wore a green cloak and turban, while others believe it symbolizes vegetation and life. Some say that after Muhammad, only the caliphs were allowed to wear green turbans. In the Qur'an (Surah 18:31), it is said that the inhabitants of paradise will wear green garments of fine silk. While the reference to the Qur'an is verifiable, it is not clear if other explanations are reliable or mere folklore.
Regardless of its origins, the color green has been firmly cemented in Islamic culture for centuries; for example, it is absent in many medieval European coats of arms, as during the Crusades, green was the color used by the Islamic soldiers. Additionally, in the palace of Topkapi in Istanbul, there is a room with relics of Muhammad. One of the relics, kept locked in a chest, is said to have been Muhammad's banner, under which he had went to battle. Some say that this banner is green with golden embroidery; others say that it is black.

"Allah" in Arabic

Other Islamic Symbols

Certain words in Arabic script or characters can be regarded as visually representing Islam, such as "Allah" at the top of this page, or the Shahada.
Evolution Slimming Ltd A Shi'ite symbol is the sword, which is identified with Iimam Ali, who they believe fought with this sword and his life for Islam.
The gardens of the Mughal Empire in India were symbols of paradise (Jannah).

Related Articles


  • Hujjat-ul-llahi-l-Balighah by Shah Wali Ullah Dehlvi
  • Wikipedia. 2006. Based on article text but with changes, licensed under GFDL.

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Sawm: Fasting During Ramadan

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Sawm (also siyam), fasting, commemorates the revelation of the Qur'an to humanity during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic year. During Ramadan, all adult Muslims are required to abstain from food, drink and sexual intercourse during daylight hours. Exceptions are made for travelers, soldiers, menstruating women, and the ill, although such persons are expected to fast later when they become able. In addition to being a time of fasting, Ramadan is an opportunity for increased prayer and devotion. During the last 10 nights of Ramadan, some Muslims retreat to a mosque for even more intensive study and contemplation. One of these nights, usually the 27th of Ramadan, is the "Night of Power," the holiest day of the year. Evolution Slimming Ltd In the year 2005 (1426 AH), Ramadan will take place from approximately October 1 to November 30. Observance begins and ends upon the first official sighting of the new moon, so overcast skies may delay or prolong the fast. The observance of Ramadan ends with Eid al-Fitr (Festival of the Breaking of the Fast), a major Islamic holiday. See Islamic Holidays for more on these and other holidays. References "Islam." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2005. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service . "Sawm." John Bowker, ed., Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions (Oxford UP, 2000), p. 518. 
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The Five Pillars of Islam

The Five Pillars of Islam.


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The Five Pillars of IslamThe Five Pillars of Islam (Arabic arkan ud-Din, "pillars of the faith") are five religious duties expected of every Muslim. The five pillars are mentioned individually throughout the Qur'an and Muhammad listed them together in the Hadith when he was asked to define Islam.

Within a few decades of Muhammad's death, the five practices were singled out to serve as anchoring points in the Muslim community and designated "pillars." Fulfillment of the Five Pillars is believed to bring rewards both in this life and in the afterlife.
The pillars are acknowledged and observed by all sects of Muslims, although Shi'ites add further obligatory duties, including: jihad, payment of the imam's tax, the encouragement of good deeds and the prevention of evil.
The Five Pillars of Islam are:
  1. Daily confession of faith (shahada)
  2. Daily ritual prayer (salat)
  3. Paying the alms tax (zakat)
  4. Fasting during the month of Ramadan (sawm)
  5. Pilgrimmage to Mecca (hajj)


  1. "Islam." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2005. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service
  2. "Five Pillars of Islam." John Bowker, ed., Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions (Oxford UP, 2000).

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

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Sunday, 6 January 2013

Sunni Islam

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With 940 million adherents out of about 1.1 billion Muslims, Sunni Islam is the largest Islamic sect. Followers of the Sunni tradition are known as Sunnis or Sunnites; they sometimes refer to themselves as Ahlus Sunnah wal-Jamaa'h, "adherents to the Sunnah and the assembly."
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Sunnis have their historical roots in the majority group who followed Abu Bakr, an effective leader, as Muhammad's successor instead of the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law Ali. The Sunnis are so named because they believe themselves to follow the sunnah ("custom" or "tradition") of the Prophet.
Some general statistics: Algeria is nearly 99% Sunni (Sunni Islam is the state religion), Kuwait is 70% and Afghanistan is 80% Sunni. Sunnis also outnumber Shi'ites in Israel, Egypt, Turkey, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Sudan (70%), Syria (80%), Tajikistan (85%), Libya (97%), Jordan (92%) and certain islands like the Maldives, Comoros (98%) and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands (80%).
Contrastingly, Iraq is only about 45-60% Sunni, who are concentrated mostly in the central and northern parts of the country. Sunni Muslims are a smaller minority in Iran (10%) and Bahrain (30%).
Sunnis base their religion on the Quran and the Sunnah as understood by the majoroty of the community under the structure of four schools of thought. The four Sunni schools of law (madhahib) - the Hanafi, the Maliki, the Shafi'i and the Hanbali - are sometimes mistakenly understood as different sects, but they are not. These four schools of religious law associate themselves with four great scholars of early Islam: Abu Haneefah, Malik, Shafi'i, and Ahmad bin Hanbal. These scholars were known for their knowledge and piety throughout the Muslim world. They differed only in minor issues of application of certain principles in the religion and were not in opposition to each other. In fact, Ahmad bin Hanbal was a student of Shafi'i, who was a student of Malik.
Sunnis view Shi'ites as from the ahlul-bidah — the people of innovation. Sunnis oppose Shi'ite beliefs concerning some of the companions of the Prophet, the belief in the Imamate and difference on the Caliphate, and others. Other groups considered to be outside Islam by Sunnis are Nation of Islam, Ahmadiyya, and Ismailis.

External Links

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  • The origins of the Sunnah/Shi'a split
  • - Online Center for Traditional Sunni Islam
  • - Online Center with articles by Traditional Sunni scholars
  • - Website of Traditional Islamic Institute
  • Sufism

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    Performance of Whirling Dervishes in Turkey. Public domain photo.

    Sufi man in India
    A wandering Sufi in Ahmedabad, India. Photo: Meena Kadri.

    Whirling Dervishes
    Whirling Dervishes in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo: Captain Orange.

    Sufi Semazen
    A whirling dervish. Photo: Captain Orange.

    Sufi Sheikh
    A Mevlevi sheikh in Istanbul.
    Photo: Captain Orange.

    Sufi ecstasy
    Sufi spiritual ecstasy in Khartoum, Sudan. Photo: Steve Evans.

    Sufi Imam
    Imam of a Sufi mosque in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. Photo: N Creatures.

    Tomb of Rumi
    The tomb of Rumi, famous Sufi mystic and poet, in Turkey. Photo: Martin Monroe.

    Sufi shrine
    Shrine to Salim Chisti, a Sufi saint, in India. Photo: Soham Banerjee.

    Shrine of Sufi Saint in Pakistan
    A Sufi shrine in Multan, Pakistan.
    Photo: Steve Evans.

    Tamerlane Shrine
    In the shrine of Tamerlane in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Photo: N Creatures.

    Whirling Dervishes-->
    Sufism is less an Islamic sect than a mystical way of approaching the Islamic faith. It has been defined as "mystical Islamic belief and practice in which Muslims seek to find the truth of divine love and knowledge through direct personal experience of God."1

    Sufi Terminology and Etymology

    Islamic mystics are called Sufis and their way of life is Sufism (also spelled Sufiism). These terms evolved in Western languages in the early 19th century and derive from the Arabic term for a mystic, sufi, which in turn derives from suf, “wool.” This likely refers to the woollen garment of early Islamic ascetics.
    Similarly, Islamic mysticism in general is called tasawwuf (literally, “to dress in wool”) in Arabic. Sufis are also referred to as fuqara, “the poor,” the plural form of the Arabic faqir. The Persian equivalent is darvish. These are the roots of the English terms fakir and dervish, used interchangeably for an Islamic mystic.

    History of Sufism

    Sufism has been a prominent movement within Islam throughout most of its history. It grew out of an early ascetic movement within Islam, which, like its Christian monastic counterpart, sought to counteract the worldiness that came with the rapid expansion of the Muslim community.
    The earliest form of Sufism arose under the Umayyad Dynasty (661–749) less than a century after the founding of Islam. Mystics of this period meditated on the Doomsday passages in the Qur'an, thereby earning such nicknames as "those who always weep."
    These early Sufis led a life of strict obedience to Islamic scripture and tradition and were known for their night prayers. Many of them concentrated their efforts upon tawakkul, absolute trust in God, which became a central concept of Sufism.
    Another century or so later, a new emphasis on love changed asceticism into mysticism. This development is attributed to Rabi'ah al-'Adawiyah (d. 801), a woman from Basra who formulated the Sufi ideal of a pure love of God that was disinterested, without hope for Paradise or fear of Hell.
    Other important developments soon followed, including strict self-control, psychological insight, "interior knowledge," annihilation of the self, mystical insights about the nature of man and the Prophet, hymns and poetry. This period, from about 800-1100 AD, is referred to as classical Sufism or classical mysticism.
    The next important stage in Sufi history was the development of fraternal orders, in which disciples followed the teachings of a leader-founder. The 13th century is considered the golden age of Sufism, in which some of the greatest mystical poetry was composed. Important figures from this period include Ibn al'Arabi of Spain, Ibn al-Farid of Egypt, Jalal ad-Din ar-Rumi of Persia, and Najmuddin Kubra of Central Asia.
    By this time, Sufism had permeated the whole of the Islamic world and played a large role in the shaping of Islamic society.

    Sufi Beliefs

    Sufi beliefs are based firmly in orthodox Islam and the text of the Qur'an, although a few Sufi teachers have strayed too close to monism or pantheism to remain within the orthodox fold.
    The core principles of Sufism are tawakkul (absolute trust in God) and tawhid (the truth that there is no deity but God). Tawhid is rich in meaning for mystics: it has been interpreted by some as meaning that nothing truly exists but God or that nature and God are but two aspects of the same reality.
    The love of God for man and the love of man for God are also very central to Sufism, and are the subjects of most Islamic mystical poetry and hymns.

    Sufi Practices

    General Characteristics

    --> --> Sufi practices have their foundation in purity of life, strict obedience to Islamic law and imitation of the Prophet. Through self-denial, careful introspection and mental struggle, Sufis hope to purify the self from all selfishness, thus attaining ikhlas, absolute purity of intention and act. "Little sleep, little talk, little food" are fundamental and fasting is considered one of the most important preparations for the spiritual life.
    Mystical experience of the divine is also central to Sufism. Sufis are distinguished from other Muslims by their fervent seeking of dhawq, a "tasting" that leads to an illumination beyond standard forms of learning. However, the insight gained by such experience is not valid if it contradicts the Qur'an.

    The Path

    The Sufi way of life is called a tariqah, "path." The path begins with repentance and submission to a guide (sheikh or pir). If accepted by the guide, the seeker becomes a disciple (murid) and is given instructions for asceticism and meditation. This usually includes sexual abstinence, fasting and poverty. The ulimate goal of the Sufi path is to fight the true Holy War against the lower self, which is often represented as a black dog.
    On his way to illumination the mystic will undergo such changing spiritual states (hal) as qabd and bast, constraint and happy spiritual expansion, fear and hope, and longing and intimacy, which are granted by God and change in intensity according to the spiritual "station" in which the mystic is abiding at the moment. The culmination of the path is ma'rifah (interior knowledge, gnosis) or mahabbah (love), which implies a union of lover and beloved (man and God). The final goal is annihilation (fana'), primarily of one's own qualities but sometimes of one's entire personality. This is often accompanied by spiritual ecstasy or "intoxication."
    After the annihilation of the self and accompanying ecstatic experience, the mystic enters a "second sobriety" in which he re-enters the world and continues the "journey of God."

    --> --> Rituals: Prayers, Music and "Whirling" A central method on the Sufi path is a ritual prayer or dhikr (“remembrance”, derived from the Qur'anic injunction to remember God often in Surah 62:10). It consists in a repetition of either one or all of the most beautiful names of God, of the name “Allah,” or of a certain religious formula, such as the profession of faith: “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet.” A rosary of 99 or 33 beads has been in use since as early as the 8th century for counting the thousands of repetitions.
    In the mid-9th century some mystics introduced sessions with music and poetry recitals (sama') in Baghdad in order to reach the ecstatic experience—and since then debates about the permissibility of sama', filling many books, have been written. Narcotics were used in periods of degeneration, coffee by the “sober” mystics (first by the Shadhiliyah after 1300).
    Mystical sessions of music and poetry called sama (or sema) were introduced in Baghdad in the mid-9th century with the purpose of achieving an ecstatic experience. Narcotics have sometimes been introduced as part of the method, but this is considered a degeneration of the practice.
    The well-known "Whirling Dervishes" are members of the Mevlevi order of Turkish Sufis, based on the teachings of the famous mystic Rumi (d.1273). The practice of spinning around is the group's distinctive form of sama. The whirlers, called semazens, are practicing a form of meditation in which they seek to abandon the self and contemplate God, sometimes achieving an ectastic state. The Mevlevi sect was banned in Turkey by Ataturk in 1925, but performances for tourists are still common throughout the country.
    The clothing worn for the ritual and the positions of the body during the spinning are highly symbolic: for instance, the tall camel-hair hat represents the tomb of the ego, the white cloak represents the ego's shroud, and the uplifted right hand indicates readiness to receive grace from God.2

    References and Sources

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    1. Sufism - Encyclopaedia Britannica
    2. The Whirling Dervishes of Rumi
    3. An American Sufi website
    4. An academic website on Sufism

    Related Links

    • Konya, Turkey (center of the Whirling Dervishes sect) - Sacred Destinations

    Shi'a Islam

    Shia Islam encompasses most Muslims who are not counted among the Sunni. The division between Sunni and Shi'a, dates to the death of the Prophet Muhammad when his followers were faced with the decision of who would be his successor as the leader of Islam. Shi'ites are those who followed Ali, the closest relative of Muhammad, as Muhammad's successor. Today there are approximately 120 million Shi'ite Muslims in the world.

    The Shia consist of one major school of thought known as the Jafaryia or the "Twelvers," and a few minor schools of thought, as the "Seveners" or the "Fivers." These names all refer to the number of imams they recognize after the death of Muhammad. The term Shi'a is usually meant to be synonymous with the Jafaryia/Twelvers.

    The Imams

    The distinctive dogma and institution of Shia Islam is the Imamate, which includes the idea that the successor of Muhammad be more than merely a political leader. The Imam must also be a spiritual leader, which means that he must have the ability to interpret the inner mysteries of the Quran and the sharia. The Twelver Shias further believe that the Twelve Imams who succeeded the Prophet were sinless and free from error and had been chosen by God through Muhammad.

    The Imamate began with Ali, who is also accepted by Sunni Muslims as the fourth of the "rightly guided caliphs" to succeed the Prophet. Shias revere Ali as the First Imam, and his descendants, beginning with his sons Hasan and Husayn (also seen as Hosein), continue the line of the Imams until the Twelfth, who is believed to have ascended into a supernatural state to return to earth on judgment day.

    Shias point to the close lifetime association of Muhammad with Ali. When Ali was six years old, he was invited by the Prophet to live with him, and Shias believe Ali was the first person to make the declaration of faith in Islam. Ali also slept in Muhammad's bed on the night of the hijra, or migration from Mecca to Medina, when it was feared that the house would be attacked by unbelievers and the Prophet stabbed to death. He fought in all the battles Muhammad did except one, and the Prophet chose him to be the husband of his favorite daughter, Fatima.

    In Sunni Islam an imam is the leader of congregational prayer. Among the Shias of Iran the term imam traditionally has been used only for Ali and his eleven descendants. None of the Twelve Imams, with the exception of Ali, ever ruled an Islamic government. During their lifetimes, their followers hoped that they would assume the rulership of the Islamic community, a rule that was believed to have been wrongfully usurped. Because the Sunni caliphs were cognizant of this hope, the Imams generally were persecuted during the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties. Therefore, the Imams tried to be as unobtrusive as possible and to live as far as was reasonable from the successive capitals of the Islamic empire.

    During the ninth century Caliph Al Mamun, son of Caliph Harun ar Rashid, was favorably disposed toward the descendants of Ali and their followers. He invited the Eighth Imam, Reza (A.D. 765-816), to come from Medina to his court at Marv (Mary in the present-day Soviet Union). While Reza was residing at Marv, Mamun designated him as his successor in an apparent effort to avoid conflict among Muslims. Reza's sister Fatima journeyed from Medina to be with her brother but took ill and died at Qom. A shrine developed around her tomb, and over the centuries Qom has become a major Shia pilgrimage and theology center.

    Mamun took Reza on his military campaign to retake Baghdad from political rivals. On this trip Reza died unexpectedly in Khorasan. Reza was the only Imam to reside or die in what is now Iran. A major shrine, and eventually the city of Mashhad, grew up around his tomb, which has become the most important pilgrimage center in Iran. Several important theological schools are located in Mashhad, associated with the shrine of the Eighth Imam.

    Reza's sudden death was a shock to his followers, many of whom believed that Mamun, out of jealousy for Reza's increasing popularity, had him poisoned. Mamun's suspected treachery against Reza and his family tended to reinforce a feeling already prevalent among his followers that the Sunni rulers were untrustworthy.

    The Twelfth Imam is believed to have been only five years old when the Imamate descended upon him in 874 CE at the death of his father. The Twelfth Imam is usually known by his titles of Imam-e Asr (the Imam of the Age) and Sahib az Zaman (the Lord of Time). Because his followers feared he might be assassinated, the Twelfth Imam was hidden from public view and was seen only by a few of his closest deputies. Sunnis claim that he never existed or that he died while still a child.

    Shias believe that the Twelfth Imam remained on earth, but hidden from the public, for about 70 years, a period they refer to as the "lesser occultation" (gheybat-e sughra). Shias also believe that the Twelfth Imam has never died, but disappeared from earth in about 939 CE. Since that time the "greater occultation" (gheybat-e kubra) of the Twelfth Imam has been in force and will last until God commands the Twelfth Imam to manifest himself on earth again as the Mahdi, or Messiah. Shias believe that during the greater occultation of the Twelfth Imam he is spiritually present--some believe that he is materially present as well-- and he is besought to reappear in various invocations and prayers. His name is mentioned in wedding invitations, and his birthday is one of the most jubilant of all Shia religious observances.

    Other Distinctive Shia Doctrines

    The Shia doctrine of the Imamate was not fully elaborated until the tenth century. Other dogmas were developed still later. One characteristic of Shia Islam is the continual exposition and reinterpretation of doctrine. The most recent example is Khomeini's expounding of the doctrine of velayat-e faqih, or the political guardianship of the community of believers by scholars trained in religious law. The basic idea is that the clergy, by virtue of their superior knowledge of the laws of God, are the best qualified to rule the society of believers who are preparing themselves on earth to live eternally in heaven. The concept of velayat-e faqih thus provides the doctrinal basis for theocratic government, an experiment that Twelver Imam Shias had not attempted prior to the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

    Distinctive Shia Rituals and Practices

    In addition to the seven principal tenets of faith, there are also traditional religious practices that are intimately associated with Shia Islam. These include the observance of the month of martyrdom, Muharram, and pilgrimages to the shrines of the Twelve Imams and their various descendants. The Muharram observances, which culminate on the otherwise minor holiday of Ashura, commemorate the death of the Third Imam, Husayn, the son of Ali and Fatima and the grandson of Muhammad. He was killed near Karbala in modern Iraq in 680 CE during a battle with troops supporting the Umayyad caliph. Husayn's death is commemorated by Shias with passion plays and is an intensely religious time.

    Pilgrimage to the shrines of Imams is a specific Shia custom. The most important shrines in Iran are those for the Eighth Imam in Mashhad and for his sister Fatima in Qom. There are also important secondary shrines for other relatives of the Eighth Iman in Rey, adjacent to south Tehran, and in Shiraz. In virtually all towns and in many villages there are numerous lesser shrines, known as imamzadehs, which commemorate descendants of the imams who are reputed to have led saintly lives. Shia pilgrims visit these sites because they believe that the imams and their relatives have power to intercede with God on behalf of petitioners. The shrines in Iraq at Karbala and An Najaf are also revered by Shias.

    Shia Holidays

    In addition to the general Muslim holidays and Ashura (see above), the following days are of special significance to Shia Muslims.

    Arba'een Arba'een - commemorated on the 20th of Safar, 40 days after Ashurah. Shias also remember the terrible treatment of the women of Imam Hussein's household - they were dragged from Karbala (central Iraq) to Shaam (Damascus, Syria) - with many young children dying of thirst and exposure along the route.

    Eid al-Ghadeer - A celebration held on the 18th of Dhil-Hijjah marking the event of Ghadeer Khumm in 10 AH. The day on which God stated the completion of Islam. Laylatul Qadr is the biggest night, and Eid al-Ghadeer is the biggest day.

    Eid al-Mubahila- A celebration held on the 24th of Dhil-Hijjah marking the event of al-Mubahila between the Household of the Prophet and a Christian deputation from Najran, in 10 AH.

    Milad al-Nabi - A celebration to mark the Prophet Muhammad's birth date, 17th Rabbi al-Awwal. Coincides with the birth date of the 6th Shia Imam, Ja'far al-Sadiq. (The Sunnis mark the occasion on 12th Rabbi al-Awwal.)

    Mid of Shaban- Significant to all Muslims, but specifically to Shias as it also marks the birth date of their 12th and final Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi.

    Shia Buildings and Institutions

    In addition to the mosque, another religious institution of major significance in Shia Islam is a special building known as a hoseiniyeh. Traditionally, hoseiniyehs existed in urban areas and served as sites for recitals commemorating the martyrdom of Husayn, especially during the month of Muharram. In the 1970s, some hoseiniyehs, such as the Hoseiniyeh Irshad in Tehran, became politicized as prominent clerical and lay preachers used the symbol of the deaths as martyrs of Husayn and the other Imams as thinly veiled criticism of Mohammad Reza Shah's regime, thus helping to lay the groundwork for the Revolution in 1979.

    Institutions providing religious education include madrasehs and maktabs. Madrasehs, or seminaries, historically have been important for advanced training in Shia theology and jurisprudence. Madrasehs are generally associated with noted Shia scholars who have attained the rank of ayatollah. There are also some older madrasehs, established initially through endowments, at which several scholars may teach. Students, known as talabehs, live on the grounds of the madrasehs and are provided stipends for the duration of their studies, usually a minimum of seven years, during which they prepare for the examinations that qualify a seminary student to be a low-level preacher, or mullah. At the time of the Revolution, there were slightly more than 11,000 talabehs in Iran; approximately 60 percent of these were studying at the madrasehs in the city of Qom, another 25 percent were enrolled in the important madrasehs of Mashhad and Esfahan, and the rest were at madrasehs in Tabriz, Yazd, Shiraz, Tehran, Zanjan, and other cities.

    Maktabs, primary schools run by the clergy, were the only educational institutions prior to the end of the nineteenth century when the first secular schools were established. Maktabs declined in numbers and importance as the government developed a national public school system beginning in the 1930s. Nevertheless, maktabs continued to exist as private religious schools right up to the Revolution. Since 1979 the public education system has been desecularized and the maktabs and their essentially religious curricula merged with government schools.

    Another major religious institution in Shia Islam is the shrine. In Iran, a predominantly Shia country, there are more than 1,100 shrines that vary from crumbling sites associated with local saints to the imposing shrines of Imam Reza and his sister Fatima in Mashhad and Qom, respectively. These more famous shrines are huge complexes that include the mausoleums of the venerated Eighth Imam and his sister, tombs of former shahs, mosques, madrasehs, and libraries. Imam Reza's shrine is the largest and is considered to be the holiest. In addition to the usual shrine accoutrements, Imam Reza's shrine contains hospitals, dispensaries, a museum, and several mosques located in a series of courtyards surrounding his tomb. Most of the present shrine dates from the early fourteenth century, except for the dome, which was rebuilt after being damaged in an earthquake in 1673. The shrine's endowments and gifts are the largest of all religious institutions in the country. Traditionally, free meals for as many as 1,000 people per day are provided at the shrine. Although there are no special times for visiting this or other shrines, it is customary for pilgrimage traffic to be heaviest during Shia holy periods. It has been estimated that more than 3 million pilgrims visit the shrine annually.

    Shia Clergy and Organization

    From the time that Twelver Shia Islam emerged as a distinct religious denomination in the early ninth century, its clergy, or ulama, have played a prominent role in the development of its scholarly and legal tradition; however, the development of a distinct hierarchy among the Shia clergy dates back only to the early nineteenth century. Since that time the highest religious authority has been vested in the mujtahids, scholars who by virtue of their erudition in the science of religion (the Quran, the traditions of Muhammad and the imams, jurisprudence, and theology) and their attested ability to decide points of religious conduct, act as leaders of their community in matters concerning the particulars of religious duties. Lay Shias and lesser members of the clergy who lack such proficiency are expected to follow mujtahids in all matters pertaining to religion, but each believer is free to follow any mujtahid he chooses.

    Since the mid-nineteenth century it has been common for several mujtahids concurrently to attain prominence and to attract large followings. During the twentieth century, such mujtahids have been accorded the title of ayatollah. Occasionally an ayatollah achieves almost universal authority among Shias and is given the title of ayatollah ol ozma, or grand ayatollah. Such authority was attained by as many as seven mujtahids simultaneously, including Ayatollah Khomeini, in the late 1970s.

    To become a mujtahid, it is necessary to complete a rigorous and lengthy course of religious studies in one of the prestigious madrasehs of Qom or Mashhad in Iran or An Najaf in Iraq and to receive an authorization from a qualified mujtahid. Of equal importance is either the explicit or the tacit recognition of a cleric as a mujtahid by laymen and scholars in the Shia community. There is no set time for studying a particular subject, but serious preparation to become a mujtahid normally requires fifteen years to master the religious subjects deemed essential. It is uncommon for any student to attain the status of mujtahid before the age of thirty; more commonly students are between forty and fifty years old when they achieve this distinction.

    Most seminary students do not complete the full curriculum of studies to become mujtahids. Those who leave the madrasehs after completing the primary level can serve as prayer leaders, village mullahs, local shrine administrators, and other religious functionaries. Those who leave after completing the second level become preachers in town and city mosques. Students in the third level of study are those preparing to become mujtahids. The advanced students at this level are generally accorded the title of hojjatoleslam when they have completed all their studies.

    The Shia clergy in Iran wear a white turban and an aba, a loose, sleeveless brown cloak, open in front. A sayyid, who is a clergyman descended from Muhammad, wears a black turban and a black aba.

    Shia and Sufism

    Shah Ismail, the founder of the Safavid dynasty, who established Twelver Shia Islam as the official religion of Iran at the beginning of the sixteenth century, was revered by his followers as a Sufi master. Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, has a long tradition in Iran. It developed there and in other areas of the Islamic empire during the ninth century among Muslims who believed that worldly pleasures distracted from true concern with the salvation of the soul. Sufis generally renounced materialism, which they believed supported and perpetuated political tyranny. Over time a great variety of Sufi brotherhoods was formed, including several that were militaristic, such as the Safavid order, of which Ismail was the leader.

    Although Sufis were associated with the early spread of Shia ideas in the country, once the Shia clergy had consolidated their authority over religion by the early seventeenth century, they tended to regard Sufis as deviant. At various periods during the past three centuries some Shia clergy have encouraged persecution of Sufis, but Sufi orders have continued to exist in Iran. During the Pahlavi period, some Sufi brotherhoods were revitalized. Some members of the secularized middle class were especially attracted to them, but the orders appear to have had little following among the lower classes. The largest Sufi order was the Nimatollahi, which had khanehgahs, or teaching centers, in several cities and even established new centers in foreign countries. Other important orders were the Dhahabi and Kharksar brotherhoods. Sufi brotherhoods such as the Naqshbandi and the Qadiri also existed among Sunni Muslims in Kordestan. There is no evidence of persecution of Sufis under the Republic, but the brotherhoods are regarded suspiciously and generally have kept a low profile.

    Unorthodox Shia Religious Movements

    Iran also contains Shia sects that many of the Twelver Shia clergy regard as heretical. One of these is the Ismaili, a sect that has several thousand adherents living primarily in northeastern Iran. The Ismailis, of whom there were once several different sects, trace their origins to the son of Ismail who predeceased his father, the Sixth Imam. The Ismailis were very numerous and active in Iran from the eleventh to the thirteenth century; they are known in history as the "Assassins" because of their practice of killing political opponents. The Mongols destroyed their center at Alamut in the Alborz Mountains in 1256. Subsequently, their living imams went into hiding from non-Ismailis. In the nineteenth century, their leader emerged in public as the Agha Khan and fled to British-controlled India, where he supervised the revitalization of the sect. The majority of the several million Ismailis in the live outside Iran.

    Another Shia sect is the Ahl-e Haqq. Its adherents are concentrated in Lorestan, but small communities also are found in Kordestan and Mazandaran. The origins of the Ahl-e Haqq are believed to lie in one of the medieval politicized Sufi orders. The group has been persecuted sporadically by orthodox Shias. After the Revolution, some of the sect's leaders were imprisoned on the ground of religious deviance.


    1. "Iran: Religious Life." U.S. Library of Congress Country Studies, December 1987. This article consists primarily of public domain text from this source.

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