Meaning of SHI'ITE in English


Arabic Shi'i, plural Shi'ah, or Shi'a, member of the smaller of the two major branches of Islam, distinguished from the majority Sunnites. In early Islamic history the Shi'ites were a political faction (shi'at 'Ali, party of 'Ali) that supported the power of 'Ali, who was a son-in-law of Muhammad and the fourth caliph (temporal and spiritual ruler) of the Muslim community. 'Ali was killed while trying to maintain his authority as caliph, and the Shi'ites gradually developed a religious movement that asserted the legitimate authority of 'Ali's lineal descendants, the 'Alids. This stand contrasted with that of the more pragmatic Sunnite majority of Muslims, who were generally willing to accept the leadership of any caliph or caliphal dynasty whose rule afforded the proper exercise of religion and the maintenance of order in the Muslim world. Over the centuries the Shi'ite movement has deeply influenced all Sunnite Islam, and its adherents numbered about 60 to 80 million in the late 20th century, or one-tenth of all Islam. Shi'ism (Arabic: Shi'ah, or Shi'i Islam) is the majority faith in Iran, Iraq, and perhaps Yemen (San'a') and has adherents in Syria, Lebanon, East Africa, India, and Pakistan. In 656 'Ali had been raised to the caliphate with the support, among many others, of the murderers of the third caliph, 'Uthman. 'Ali never quite received the allegiance of all the Muslims, however, and thus had to wage increasingly unsuccessful wars to maintain himself in power. 'Ali was murdered in 661, and Mu'awiyah, his chief opponent, became caliph. 'Ali's son, Husayn, later refused to recognize the legitimacy of Mu'awiyah's son and successor as caliph, Yazid. The Muslims of the Shi'ite-dominated town of Kufah in Iraq, 'Ali's former capital, invited Husayn to become caliph. The Muslims in Iraq generally failed to support Husayn, however, and he and his small band of followers were cut down (680) by the governor of Iraq's troops near Kufah at the Battle of Karbala' (see Karbala', Battle of), which is now a pilgrimage spot for Shi'ites. Swearing vengeance against the triumphant Umayyad government, the Kufans soon gained support from other groups that opposed the status quofrom aristocratic Muslim families of Medina, from pious men protesting a too worldly interpretation of Islam, and from non-Arab Muslims (mawali), especially in Iraq, who demanded an equality denied them by the ruling Arabs. Over time the Shi'ites became a distinct collection of sects who were alike in their recognition of 'Ali and his descendants as the legitimate leaders of the Muslim community. The Shi'ites' conviction that the 'Alids should be the leaders of the Islamic world was never fulfilled over the centuries. But though the 'Alids never won power, 'Ali himself was rehabilitated as a major hero of Sunnite Islam, and his descendants by Fatimah, Muhammad's daughter, received the courtesy titles of sayyids and sharifs. The largest Shi'ite sect is that of the Ithna 'Ashariyah (q.v.), or Twelvers, who recognize the legitimacy of a succession of twelve 'Alid claimants (beginning with 'Ali himself) who are known as imams. Other, smaller Shi'ite sects include the Isma'iliyah (see Isma'ilite) and Zaydiyah (q.v.). Despite occasional Shi'ite rulers, the Shi'ites remained almost everywhere an Islamic minority until the start of the 16th century, when the Iranian Safavid dynasty made it the sole legal faith of their empire, which then embraced the Persians of Iran, the Turks of Azerbaijan, and many of the Arabs of Iraq proper. These peoples have since been overwhelmingly Ithna 'Ashariyah and have given that sect a vigorous life. In the late 20th century, notably in Iran, the Shi'ites became the chief voice of militant Islamic fundamentalism.

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