Islam is a religion with more than 1.4 billion devotees world wide. Its adherents are referred to as Muslims. Muslims predominate in East- and North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and Indonesia.
The word “Islam” is best translated as “submission to the will of God,” and comes from the Arabic rootword (s-l-m) for “peace,” “safety,” and “security.” A “Muslim” is a person who has made this existential surrender to the will of God. Many, in my experience most, Muslims use the expression “true Muslim” for the truly devout. The idea being that all people belonging to Islam are considered as being Muslims, even if they are not particularly observant.
Islam is as Gellner(1981) puts it, “the blueprint of a social order”.
- It postulates a community of believers (the umma).
- It contains and transmits a body of legal prescriptions.
- It contains and transmits a body of moral injunctions.
It is therefore an intrinsically “political” religion and the Western distinction between private religious beliefs and the body politic is meaningless to most Muslims.
Shia and Sunni
The two major schools of Islam are referred to as “Sunni” and “Shia.” It is important to understand that this is not an ethnic distinction. The difference lies in a disagreement as to who should lead the community of believers and the nature of that leadership. The Shia hold that God sent Imams who are descended from the Prophet, filled with the light of creation, and who were to guide the Umma to God. The Sunni hold that the Caliphs were the rightful inheritors of the Prophet’s mantle and lay more emphasis upon Islamic law called the Sharia
The origin of the Shia
After the Prophet Mohammed’s death in 632 C.E. a dispute arose within the umma over who should succeed him. Ali ibn Abi Talib, who was both the Prophet’s cousin and married to the Prophet’s daughter Fatima, was thought by many to have a good claim to the succession. Others while not denying his sterling qualities considered him to be as yet too young and inexperienced and he was passed over in favour of;
- Abu Bakr (632 – 634),
- Umar ibn al-Khattab (634 – 644),
- and Uthman ibn Afn (644 – 656).
Uthman’s policies caused discontent within the umma and he was assassinated in a mutiny in 656.
Ali who was a good soldier, had grown up in the Prophet’s household, was imbued with the Prophet’s ideals, and who had inspired many by his letters preaching the necessity of justice and importance of dealing compassionately with those under Muslim rule was acclaimed as the fourth Caliph.
Not everyone however supported his rule and Mu’awiyya, the founder of the Umayyad dynasty, challenged Ali’s position. Ali was murdered in the Iraqi city of Kufa in 661 C.E. The Shi’at ‘Ali who had supported Ali subsequently supported the claims of his sons, Hassan and Hussein, to be his rightful successors to the leadership (al-imama) of the Muslim community. Both Hassan and Hussein led unsuccessful revolts against the Umayyad line of Sunni rulers and were killed (Hassan in 671 and Hussein in the massacre of Karbala in 680 C.E.). Thereafter the Shia who held that the leadership of the umma combined spiritual and temporal responsibilities that necessitated divine inspiration and that the imamate should therefore be drawn from the Prophet’s line alone considered all Sunni rulers to be illegitimate usurpers and withdrew from political life recognising only their own imams in the line of descent from the Prophet through Ali’s children.
Present-day distribution of the Shia
It is difficult to find reliable and precise statistics on the geographical distribution of the Shia. They are generally believed to number between 10 to 15% of the global Muslim community. As a proportion of national population they are believed to be distributed as follows:
- Iran: 89%.
- Azerbaijan: 65 – 70 %
- Bahrain: 60 – 70%
- Iraq: 60 -65 % (or more)
- Lebanon: 38 – 40 % (The largest single confessional group in the population as a whole).
Elsewhere in the Muslim world the Shia form clear but significant minorities.
Religious Significance of The al-Askari Shrine in Samarra
Most Shi’ites today belong to a Shia sect called “The Twelvers.” The name comes from the number of Imams they recognise. The al-Askari Shrine is dedicated to the spirituality of the last three Imams.
- Ali al-Hadi, the tenth imam who was forced into exile in Sammara and who died there.
- Hassan al-Askari, his son, the eleventh imam, who also died in Sammara.
- Hassan’s son, Muhammad. Shortly after Imam Hassan’s funeral Muhammad vanished. In “Twelver” theology, this is called “the Occultation.” Twelvers believe that God removed Imam Muhammad from the earthly sphere to the world of pure spirit.
Hassan’s son Muhammad is therefore referred to as the “Hidden Imam.” Twelvers believe that he continues to guide and protect believers and will one day return as the “Mahdi” to inaugurate the reign of peace and justice under God upon the earth. The al-Askari Shrine in Samarra is the burial place of the tenth Imam (Ali al-Hadi )and the eleventh Imam (Hassan al-Askari,) it is also next to the cave from where the Occultation of the Twelfth Imam took place.
Significance Of The Timing Of The Bombing
At the risk of gravely offending some of my Shia friends I will try to explain this to my Western readers using an analogy to Christian history. We are at present in the forty day period between the religious feast Ashura and the religious feast Arba’een. To destroy the Shrine at this time is broadly comparable to someone destroying the site of the Crucifixion at Golgotha a few days before Easter.