Reliable data on religious demography is not available because an official nationwide census has not been conducted in decades. Observers estimate that 80 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim, 19 percent Shia Muslim, and 1 percent other religious groups.
Religious succession is basic to Shia / Sunni differences, and also divides the Shia. The two major Shia communities in Afghanistan are the Ithna Ashariya or Twelvers, also called Imami, and the Ismaili, sometimes called the Seveners. The Imami Shia recognize twelve successive Imams, beginning with Ali and ending in AD 874 with the disappearance of the twelfth who will return as a messianic figure at the end of the world.
The most numerous Imami Shia groups in Afghanistan are the Imami Hazara living in the Hazarajat of central Afghanistan, and the Imami Farsiwan of Herat Province. Mixtures occur in certain areas such as Bamiyan Province where Sunni, Imami and Ismaili may be found. Imami Shia are also found in urban centers such as Kabul, Kandahar, Ghazni, and Mazar-i-Sharif where numbers of Qizilbash and Hazara reside. Urban Shia are successful small business entrepreneurs; many gained from the development of education that began in the 1950s.
The political involvement of Shia communities grew dramatically during the politicized era during and following the Soviet invasion. Politically aware Shia students formed the hard core of the Afghan Maoist movement of the 1960s and early 1970s After 1978, Shia mujahidin groups in the Hazarajat, although frequently at odds with one another, were active in the jihad and subsequently in the fighting for the control of Kabul. During the political maneuvering leading up to the establishment of The Islamic State of Afghanistan in 1992, the Shia groups unsuccessfully negotiated for more equitable, consequential political and social roles. This heightened profile created a backlash among some Sunni groups, notably those associated with the Hezb-i Islami of Mawlawi Yunus Khalis and the Ittihad-i-Islam of Professor Abd al-Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf. Violent sectarian confrontations took place, particularly in and around Kabul.
The constitution states that when there is no provision in the constitution or other laws that guide ruling on an issue, the courts’ decisions shall follow Hanafi jurisprudence in a way that best serves justice. Judges decide whether they will use Hanafi jurisprudence when other laws are deemed not to be clear. The Office of Fatwa and Accounts within the Supreme Court interprets Hanafi jurisprudence when a judge needs assistance in understanding its application. The constitution also grants that Shia law be applied in cases dealing with personal matters where all parties are Shia. There was no separate law applying to non-Muslims.
The constitution requires that the president and vice president be Muslim and does not distinguish in this respect between Shia and Sunni. This requirement was not explicitly applied to government ministers or members of Parliament, but each of their oaths includes swearing allegiance and obedience to the principles of Islam.
The first version of the Shia Personal Status Law (SPSL) was passed in April 2009. Some prominent Shias praised the law for officially recognizing Shia jurisprudence, and some groups hailed the law for officially recognizing the Shiite minority. However, it was controversial both domestically and internationally for its failure to protect women’s rights, specifically to protect women from marital rape. Additional articles of particular concern in the law included polygamy, limits on inheritance rights, limits on the right of self-determination, restricted freedom of movement, guardianship rights, and forced sexual obligations to one’s husband. After reviewing the law, the Ministry of Justice removed some of the controversial articles in the original version; President Karzai signed the amended version in July 2009, which became public law. Many observers within and outside the country continue to object to articles in the law that conflict with women’s constitutionally protected rights and international human rights treaties and conventions to which Afghanistan is a signatory.
Historically, the minority Shia faced discrimination from the majority Sunni population. As Shia representation increased in government, overt discrimination by Sunnis against the Shia community decreased. However, Sunni resentment over growing Shia influence was expressed widely and often linked to claims of Iranian efforts to influence local culture and politics. Most Shia are members of the Hazara ethnic group, which was traditionally segregated from the rest of society for a combination of political, historical, ethnic, and religious factors, some of which resulted in conflicts. Although there were reported incidents of unofficial discrimination, and treatment varied by locality, Shia generally were free to participate fully in public life.
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