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Shias in Iraq

Islam, as it is practiced in Iraq, is closely tied to Arab culture. Shiism in Iraq is heavily influenced by Arab identity and thus differs from the version followed in Persian Iran. Many of Iraq's tribes converted to Shiism in the 19th century, partly in response to Ottoman settlement policies that disrupted the tribal order. Shia rituals and law helped tribesmen cope with their more complex daily life. The rapid conversion of Iraq's tribes to Shiism did not permeate the former social and moral values of the tribesmen. During the Iran-Iraq War, Iraqi Shia for the most part chose their Arab identity over their religious one.

Historically, Iraq has been the heartland of the global Shia community. For the most part, Shia Arabs have made attempts to accommodate their religious identity to the framework of the Iraqi state. Although Shia resent the ruling Sunni minority's repeated questioning of their loyalty and Arab bona fides, the Shia community has never unified behind a Shia cause. A variety of views about politics and religion contradicts the image of a monolithic, radical, and pro-Iranian Shia community. Although there are strong cultural and familial links between Iraqi and Iranian Shia, Arab identity and national sentiment remain powerful influences within the community.

A significant practice of Shia Islam is that of visiting the shrines of Imams both in Iraq and in Iran. These include the tomb of Imam Ali in An Najaf and that of his son Imam Husayn in Karbala since both are considered major Shia martyrs. Before the 1980 Iran-Iraq War, tens of thousands went each year. The Iranians made it a central aim of their war effort to wrest these holy cities from the Iraqis. Other principal pilgrimage sites in Iraq are the tombs of the Seventh and Ninth Imams at Kazimayn, near Baghdad, and in Iran, the tomb of the Eighth Imam in Mashhad and that of his sister in Qom. Such pilgrimages originated in part from the difficulty and expense in the early days of making the hajj to Mecca.

Commemorating the martyrdom of Husayn, killed near Karbala in A.D. 680 during a battle with troops supporting the Ummayad caliph, there are processions in the Shia towns and villages of southern Iraq on the tenth of Muharram (Ashura), the anniversary of his death. Ritual mourning (taaziya) is performed by groups of men of five to twenty each. Contributions are solicited in the community to pay transportation for a local group to go to Karbala for taaziya celebrations forty days after Ashura. There is a great rivalry among groups from different places for the best performance of the passion plays.

In the villages, religious readings occur throughout Ramadan and Muharram. The men may gather in the mudhif (tribal guesthouse), the suq (market), or a private house. Women meet in homes. The readings are led either by a mumin (a man trained in a religious school in An Najaf) or by a mullah who has apprenticed with an older specialist. It is considered the duty of shaykhs, elders, prosperous merchants, and the like to sponsor these readings, or qirayas. Under the monarchy these public manifestations were discouraged, as they emphasized grievances against the Sunnis.

In 1722, Persian Shia clerics emigrated to southern Iraq under the protection of the Iranian government in an area of Iraq where Ottoman control was weak. The emigration shifted the center of Shia scholarship from Iran to Iraq, increasing the importance of Iraq and its Shia shrine cities among the larger Shia community.

The Sunni Ottomans considered the Shia clerics to be a potential fifth column because of their ties with Iran. To counter this Shia influence, the Ottomans placed the Sunni Arabs in positions of government in Iraq, a practice that was continued by the British. The predominance of the Sunni in the government continued throughout the Ba'ath period.

In 1920, a tribal revolt began against the British in the south of Iraq, incited largely by the Shia clerics. Many of the Shia clerics were Persian and felt threatened by British policies that endangered their influence among the local population and resented the occupation of Iraq by Christian infidels. The revolt was put down by the British, who saw the ability of the Shia clerics to incite a far-reaching rebellion as a danger both to them and to the young Iraqi state.

From the late 1940s to the mid-1950s, the Shia made up the majority of the membership of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP). The Shia ulema later condemned the ICP as an atheist party, which caused Shia to withdraw support, a factor in the successful coup against President Qasim in 1963.

The Iraqi Shia later became supporters of the al-Dawa and al-Mujahidin parties. The al-Dawa party was guided by the philosophy of Iraqi Shia Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, a leading figure in the Shia Islamist movement until his execution by the government in 1980.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a Persian and the leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, had taught and preached in Najaf after being exiled from Iran by the Shah in 1964. Khomeini's presence in Iraq had an impact on the Shia political movement in Iraq, but his influence in that movement was overshadowed by that of Sayyid Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, a native Iraqi and an Arab.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 15:38:15 ZULU