Who are the Shia?

BBC, Apr. 9, 2003

In parts of Baghdad and Iraq’s second city Basra, Shia Muslims have crowded onto the streets to celebrate the advance of the US-led troops. Why is Iraq’s majority group, in particular, so jubilant?

The Shia comprise 55-60% of Iraq’s population. They have been oppressed by the ruling Baath regime for more than 30 years and excluded from the highest ranks of power.

The Shia heartland is in the south-east of the country. It includes Basra and the sacred cities of Najaf and Karbala – home to shrines revered by millions of Shia across the East.

The Shia also make up a sizeable minority of the population in the capital, where most live in poverty in sprawling slum areas on the outskirts.

One such area is Saddam City, where more than a million Shia have lived under official surveillance. In the late 1990s, this oppression led to unrest that shook the government.

Shia both in Iraq and in exile have acknowledged that they have been waiting for Saddam Hussein’s overthrow for decades.


Under his rule, Shia opposition groups have been fiercely oppressed and political and religious leaders murdered.

As a result, the opposition has tended to look to neighbouring Iran, which is also governed by Shia religious leaders, for support.

In the late 1970s, thousands of Iraqi Shia were expelled to Iran under the pretext of their “Persian connections”.

In 1991, after the Gulf War, President Bush senior encouraged Iraqis to rise up against their leader. The Shia believed this would mean the US would back a rebellion.

But, lacking US support, a massive southern rebellion was brutally suppressed by Saddam Hussein’s cousin Ali-Hassan al-Majid – otherwise known as Chemical Ali.

The defeat of the uprising deeply alienated the Shia.

Muslim schism

In early Islamic history the Shia were a political faction (‘party of Ali’) that supported the power of Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed and the fourth caliph (temporal and spiritual ruler) of the Muslim community.

Ali was murdered in 661AD and his chief opponent, Muawiya, became caliph. It was Ali’s death that led to the great schism between Sunnis and Shias.

Caliph Muawiya was later succeeded by his son Yazid, but Ali’s son Hussein refused to accept his legitimacy. Hussein claimed the right to become caliph and fighting between the two resulted.

Hussein and his followers were massacred in battle near Karbala in AD680.

Both Ali and Hussein’s death gave rise to the Shia cult of martyrdom and sense of betrayal.

Shia has always been the rigid faith of the poor and oppressed waiting for deliverance. It is seen as a messianic faith which awaits the coming of the “hidden Imam”, Allah’s messenger who will reverse their fortunes and herald the reign of divine justice.

Today, they make up about 15% of the total worldwide Muslim population.


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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday April 9, 2003.
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