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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



one of the two main branches of Islam, the other being Sunnism.

In the seventh century the Shiites emerged in the Arabian Caliphate as a faction that supported the claim of Ali and the descendants of Ali and Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad, to the imamate and rule over the caliphate. Although the Shiites were defeated in the struggle for supreme political power, Shiism developed into a distinct branch of Islam by the mid-eighth century. The main dogmas of Shiism, as opposed to Sunnism, were the recognition of the sole right of Ali and his descendants—the Alids—to spiritual and secular leadership over the Muslim world, in other words, to the imamate. The Shiites denied the legitimacy of the first caliphs—Abu Bakr, Omar I (Omar ibn al-Khattab), Othman ibn Affan, and the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs—and believed that the caliph, as the prophet’s representative, should not be elected by the people.

As a result of disputes over the number of Imams, Shiism split into several subdivisions between the seventh and ninth centuries: the Kaisanis, the Zaidis, the Ismailians, and the Imamis, also known as the Twelver, or Ithna Ashariyah, Shiites. The Kaisani sect disappeared in the 11th century; the Zaidi sect is the most moderate. The Imamis, one of the leading sects, recognize twelve Imams, the last of whom—Muhammad al-Mahdi al-Hujjah—is believed to have vanished without a trace in infancy. Known as the hidden Imam, Muhammad is considered to be the messiah, or Mahdi, who will return to earth and establish the rule of the just. In the meantime, he guides Shiite Muslims in all aspects of their lives through the higher clergy, or mujtahid, whose authority derives from a mystical communion with the hidden Imam.

The doctrine of the Imamis, in combination with Sufism, provided the ideology for several popular movements in Iran and Middle Asia during the Middle Ages, notably the Serbadar rebellion and the Sayyid movement. The Ismailis broke from the Imamis in the mid-eighth century. A fertile ground for the growth of Shiism was Iran, where it was considerably influenced by Zoroastrianism and Nestorianism.

In many respects, Shiism resembles Sunnism. Shiites recognize an altered version of sunna, in which only those traditions of the Hadith that emanate from Ali’s supporters are accepted; they also recognize the Koran, although they consider the official Sunni text flawed. At the same time, the Shiites have their own sacred tradition, distinct from that of the Sunnis. The cult of the holy martyrs plays a greater role in Shiism than in Sunnism. The Shiites have accepted the Mutazilite doctrine denying predestination and affirming man’s free will. With the exception of the Zaidis and Kaisanis, who never accepted the doctrine, they recognize the infallibility of the Imams. In contrast to the Sunnites, the Shiites make pilgrimages not only to Mecca and Medina, but to the burial places of the Imams and their relatives: Karbala, al-Kazimiyah, Meshed, and Qom.

Shiism is practiced in various forms by most of the population of Iran and the Yemen Arab Republic and in India, Pakistan, Syria, southern Iraq, and some areas of the USSR, mainly in Azerbaijan.


Krymskii, A. E. Istoriia Persii, ee literatury i dervishskoi teosofii, vols. 1–3. Moscow, 1909–17.
Beliaev, E. A. Musul’manskoe sektantstvo. Moscow, 1957.
Petrushevskii, I. P. Islam v Irane v VIl–XV vv. Leningrad, 1966. (Contains bibliography.)
Doroshenko, E. A. Shiitskoe dukhovenstvo v sovremennom Irane. Moscow, 1975.
Corbin, H. Histoire de la philosophie islamique. [Paris] 1964.
Maklabah tashayyu, parts 1–4. Qom, 1959–61.
Loschner, H. Die dogmatischen Grundlagen des šīitischen Rechts. Cologne, 1971.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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