Shia Islam in Iraq

Shia Islam in Iraq (Arabic: الشيعة في العراق) has a history going back to the times of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the first imam of Shia Islam and fourth caliph of Sunni Islam who moved the capital of the early caliphate from Medina to Kufa (or Najaf) two decades after the death of Muhammad. Today, Shia Muslims make up the majority of the Iraqi population. Iraq is the location of the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, pilgrimage sites for millions of Shia Muslims. Najaf is the site of Ali's tomb, and Karbala is the site of the tomb of Muhammad's grandson, third Shia imam Husayn ibn Ali. Najaf is also a center of Shia learning and seminaries. Two other holy sites for Twelver Shia in Iraq are the Al-Kadhimiya Mosque in Baghdad, which contains the tombs of the seventh and ninth Shia Imams (Mūsā al-Kādhim and Muhammad al-Taqī) and the Al-Askari Mosque in Sāmarrā, which contains the tombs of the tenth and eleventh Shia Imams (Ali al-Hadi and Hasan al-‘Askarī).

Iraqi Shias
الشيعة العراقيون
Imam Ali Shrine (1).jpg
Imam Ali Mosque, Najaf. One of the holiest sites in Shia Islam.
Total population
Arabic (majority), Feyli Kurdish and Iraqi Turkmen (minority)

After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, there has been widespread sectarian violence between Shias and Sunnis in Iraq, which became high-intensity in the wars in 2006–2008 and 2013–2017, which involved the Islamic State terror group.


7th to 10th centuriesEdit

Great Mosque of Kufa, formerly the home of Imam Ali, also contains the shrine of Muslim ibn Aqil

After being named caliph in 657, Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib established his capital at Kufa in present-day Iraq.[2] The Battle of Karbala took place in 680, where Husayn ibn Ali was martyred by Umayyad forces of Ubayd Allah ibn Ziyad and Umar ibn Sa'd at the orders of Yazid ibn Mu'awiya.[3] Following the horrific event, many called for Husayn's vengeance. Sulayman ibn Surad led the Tawwabin uprising in January 685, but was defeated and killed in Battle of Ayn al-Warda. After the failed uprising, Mukhtar al-Thaqafi once again called for the establishment of an Alid caliphate and for retaliation for Husayn's killing, and took over Kufa in October 685. Aided by Ibrahim ibn al-Ashtar, they successfully drove the Umayyads out of Kufa and defeated them in several battles, including the Battle of Khazir in 686, but were defeated shortly afterwards in 687, when Kufa was besieged by the governor of Basra Mus'ab ibn al-Zubayr.[4][5][6][7]

In the early Islamic period, Kufa effectively became the "second capital" of Shiism after Medina, the residence of the Twelve Imams, and acted as a source of many Shiite scholars and disciples of the Twelve Imams, including: Hisham ibn al-Hakam, Zurarah ibn A'yun, Burayd ibn Mu'awiya, Mu'min al-Taq, Aban ibn Taghlib, Abu Basir al-Asadi and Muhammad bin Muslim, all disciples of Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq (702–765 CE). It was in Kufa where Zayd ibn Ali, the principal figure of Zaydism, led an uprising against the Umayyad rule of Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik which ended with Zayd's execution and burning,[8] while Basra witnessed the Alid revolt of 762–763 by Muhammad al-Nafs al-Zakiyya's brother Ibrahim, who was said to have amassed a force as large as 100,000.[9] Moreover, the 7th Twelver Imam Musa al-Kazim was repeatedly imprisoned in Baghdad and Basra at the orders of Abbasid caliphs al-Mansur, al-Hadi, al-Mahdi and Harun al-Rashid. During Al-Ma'mun's reign, in a sudden departure of anti-Shia policy, Imam Ali al-Rida was designated heir apparent of al-Ma'mun, but was later poisoned by al-Ma'mun himself.[10][11] Some Shia officials managed to gain influence in the Abbasid court, such as Ali ibn Yaqteen, a Kufan who became a minister of the Abbasid caliph with the approval of Imam Musa al-Kadhim to assist the Shia.[12][13]

Aside from mainstream Shia Islam, Iraq was also the hotbed of many extinct Shia sects which temporarily flourished. Kufan followers of Mukhtar al-Thaqafi later formed the Kaysanite sect, who traced the line of Imamate to Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya. The Kaysanites had a significant role in the Abbasid Revolution after they managed to rally Shia support in Iraq for the uprising against the Umayyads. However, after the revolution, most Kaysanites soon joined Ja'far al-Sadiq or Muhammad al-Nafs al-Zakiyya, and eventually Ja'far al-Sadiq after the demise of Muhammad.[14] Another extinct sect are the Qarmatians, a sect of Isma'ili Shias founded by the Iraqi-born Hamdan Qarmat. Hamdan assumed the leadership of Isma'ili missionary activity in the rural environs (sawād) of Kufa and southern Iraq, and Qarmatian creed soon flourished in southern Iraq. Among the Iraqi dā'īs trained and sent to missions by Hamdan and Abu Muhammad were Ibn Hawshab (to the Yemen), and Abu Abdallah al-Shi'i, a Kufan-born dā'ī who later helped convert the Kutama in Ifriqiya and opened the way to the establishment of the Fatimid Caliphate.[15][16][17]

10th to 15th centuriesEdit

Hamdanid territory in 955 during the rule of Sayf al-Dawla

The Hamdanid dynasty of Banu Taghlib was among the first Twelver Shia dynasties formed in northern Iraq. The Hamdanids first emerged as governors of Mardin in 890 and Mosul in 905, and by 950 had expanded into most of Syria and western Iraq, informally forming a parallel authority to the one in Baghdad.[18][19] During the 930s and 940s, the Hamdanids and the Buyids were in contest with another Shia, Abu Abdallah al-Baridi, an Iraqi tax-official who used the enormous wealth gained from tax farming to vie for control of the rump Abbasid Caliphate, temporarily holding Baghdad with brother twice.[20][21] The Hamdanids were succeeded in Mosul by another Shia dynasty, the Uqaylids who ruled roughly the same territory as the Hamdanids from 990 to 1096. In northern Syria, they incorporated the Shia Mirdasids into their service, who later rebelled against the Fatimids under Salih ibn Mirdas and established themselves as the emirs of most of present-day Syria, western Iraq and Lebanon, ruling from Aleppo.

Emirate of Banu Mazyad c. 1086

In central Iraq, the Mazyadids ruled an autonomous emirate in the area around Kūfa and Hīt between 961 and 1160 from their capital city of Hillah.[22][23] They were originally in the service of the Buyid dynasty, another Twelver Shia dynasty which expanded into most of western Iran and Iraq, seizing Baghdad and making it as their capital. Later on, Hillah later became one of the central cities of Shia learning, where prominent Shia scholars and poets such as al-Allama al-Hilli, Muhaqqiq al-Hilli, Shahid Awwal and Safi al-Din al-Hilli lived and taught during the 12th–15th centuries.

15th to 19th centuriesEdit

When the Safavid dynasty declared Shia Islam the official religion of Iran in 1501, Shia scholars from southern Iraq contributed to the conversion movement.[24] The Safavids also invited many Shi'i Arab tribes to Khuzestan to act as a bulwark against the Ottoman Empire, earning Khuzestan the name of Arabestan.[25]

Between the 15th and 19th centuries, many of the tribes living on the banks of the Euphrates and Tigris, which were originally Sunni, converted to Shia Islam. During the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire instituted a policy of settling the semi-nomadic Sunni Arab tribes to create greater centralization in Iraq.[26] The tribes adopted a sedentary agricultural life in the hinterlands of Najaf and Karbala, and frequently traded and interacted with the residents of the two cities.[27][28] Some Sunni Arab tribes converted to protest their treatment by the Sunni Ottomans.[29] Shia missionaries from Najaf and Karbala operated with relative freedom from the Ottoman Empire, and could proselytize with little official hindrance.[30] The Bani Sallama, Tayy and al-Soudan in the Mesopotamian Marshes were converted by the Musha'sha'iyyah dynasty, a heretical Isma'ili Shia triba confederation fonded by Muhammad ibn Falah which ruled the town of Hoveyzeh in Khuzestan from 1435 to 1924.[31][32][33] Another tribe, Banu Khaz'al,[34][35] as well as the Banu Kaab converted during the mid-18th century.[35] Moreover, after the fall of the Emirate of Muhammara, an autonomous emirate of the Shia Banu Kaab between 1812 and 1925 in modern-day Khuzestan province, many Iranian Arabs fled to southern Iraq, further inflating the Shia population in the south.[36][37]

The conversions continued into the 20th century, as the British noted in 1917.[38][39] Many Iraqi Shia are relatively-recent converts.[40] The following tribes were converted during this period:[35] some of the Zubaid,[41][42] Banu Lam, Albu-Muhammad, many of the Rabiah (including al-Dafaf'a, Bani Amir and al-Jaghayfa), Banu Tamim[42] (including the Bani Sa’d, their largest group in Iraq), the Shammar Toga,[42] some of the Dulaim, the Zafir, the Dawwar, the Sawakin, the al-Muntafiq confederation,[43] the Bani Hasan (of the Bani Malik),[27] the Bani Hukayyim, the Shibil of the Khazal, the al Fatla,[44] the tribes along the Al-Hindiya canal, and the five tribes of Al Diwaniyah (Aqra’, Budayyir, Afak, Jubur and Jilaiha) which relied on the Daghara canal for water.

British mandate and Kingdom of IraqEdit

During the start of the 20th century, the Shia opposed Mandatory Iraq and the Sunni monarchy. As a result of their neglect by Ottomans, and their poverty, the Shiites were increasingly dependent on their ulama, the religious clerics. In 1920, Iraqis, whether Sunni or Shia, had grown more discontent with British rule. Many Iraqis began to fear that Iraq would be incorporated into the British Empire. One of the eminent Shia mujtahideen, Ayatollah Mirza Muhammad Taqi al-Shirazi, then issued a fatwa "declaring that service in the British administration was unlawful".[45] The revolt materialized in June 1920 and rapidly spread from Baghdad to the South, notably the town of Al-Rumaitha, where the Zawalim sheikh Shaalan Abu al-Jun was arrested and subsequently freed by his tribesmen.[46] More Shia ulama, including Mirza Mahdi al-Shirazi, Mehdi Al-Khalissi and Muhammad Hasan Abi al-Mahasin displayed their support for the revolt, and encouraged the local population to take arms. At the peak of the revolt, around 131,000 Iraqis were active against the British.[47][48]

Under the Kingdom of Iraq, the Shia tribes of the mid-Euphrates region saw themselves increasingly under-represented in the Sunni-dominated Iraqi government, which further deteriorated with the exclusion of key Shia sheikhs from the Iraqi parliament in 1934 elections. In addition, King Ghazi of Iraq, a Hashemite ruler of Iraq from 1933 to 1939, was driven, amongst other things, by anti-Shia ambitions.[49] This ultimately led to the 1935–1936 Iraqi Shia revolts, mostly in the towns of Al-Rumaitha and al-Diwaniyah, led by Ayatollah Muhammad Husayn Kashif al-Ghita' and various Shia tribal sheikhs. For many, the 1935–1936 revolt uncovered a lack of community interest within the Iraqi Shia society and absence of strong Shia political leadership, to present their interests in Baghdad,[50] a predicament shared by their correligonists in Lebanon.

Scholars such as Fanar Haddad have argued that the governments of the new Iraqi state tended to adopt the symbols of Sunni identity while suppressing Shia identity. [51] For example, figures such as Saladin, Harun al-Rashid or Omar ibn al-Khattab who were venerated by Arab nationalists are viewed with suspicion in Shia folklore. [52]This contributes to disaffection among Iraqi Shia, while at the same time Sunni Iraqi politicians have tended to cast Shia political mobilization as alien, in particular Iranian. [53]

The creation of a Shia political movementEdit

For many years, Arab nationalism and party politics superseded Shia unity in Iraqi politics, and Shia ayatollahs were politically quiescent.[54] The Shia were generally less well-off economically and socially, and as a result, they supported leftist parties, such as Iraqi Communist Party which was founded by Husain al-Rahhal in 1934, and the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party in Iraq, which was also founded by a Shia, Fuad al-Rikabi.

To counter the intellectual hold of the left, a group of clerics in Najaf created a movement that eventually evolved into the Dawa party. Its manifesto, written by Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, probably in 1960, defined its ultimate goal as an Islamic polity. [55].

Under the Baathist regimeEdit

Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei is brought in front of Saddam Hussein after Shia uprisings in 1991.

In 1963, the Arab-nationalist and socialist Ba'ath Party seized power in a coup. At that point, 53 percent of its membership was Shia. In the years following the Shia were shunted aside, however, and by 1968, only six percent of the Ba'ath party were Shia.[54]

Due to discrimination by the Sunni government, the Shia became increasingly disaffected during the last 1960s and 1970s. By 1968, Dawa could claim a mass following, and the Baath began to consider it a threat.[56] In 1974, amid rising discontent due to casualties in the Kurdish insurgency, the regime executed five leading Dawa members. [57] Subsequently, the regime banned annual Marad al-ras processions during the Mourning of Muharram in the shrine cities, where mass discontent had been evident in 1974 and 1975. In 1977, tens of thousands of Dawa activists held the processions in defiance of the ban, leading to large-scale clashes known as the Sufar Intifada that the regime quelled with the use of helicopter gunships. At least 16 were killed, eight executed and two died under torture.[58]

The success of the Iranian Revolution intensified unrest and repression. In June 1979, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr was arrested and placed under house arrest. Less than a year later, due to encouraging the 1979–1980 Shia uprising in Iraq, Sadr and his sister Bint al-Huda were both executed in April 1980.[59] In 1982, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq was formed in Iran by Iraqi cleric Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim as an umbrella group to overthrow Iraq's Sunni-dominated regime. In Iran, Hakim attempted to unite and co-ordinate the activities of al-Dawa party and other major Shia groups: Peykar (a guerilla organization similar to the Iranian Mujahideen) and Jama'at al-'Ulama (groups of pro-Khomeini ulama).[59]

The Ba'ath Party's leadership made a determined effort to gain the support of Iraqi Shia during the 1980–1988 Iran–Iraq War, as 80% of the Iraqi army personnel had been Iraqi Shia, diverting resources to the Shia south and emphasizing Iraqi Arabness (in contrast to Iranian Persianness) and the historic struggle between the Muslim Arabs and the Zoroastrian Persians in propaganda. Iraqi propaganda used symbolic keywords such as Qādisiyya (the battle in which Muslim Arab armies defeated the Persian Empire), and Iranian propaganda used Shia keywords such as Karbala. The Baath government executed about 95 Shia ulama, many of them members of the al-Hakim family, in June 1984,[60] and had executed 142–146 Shia rebels in the town of Dujail earlier in 1982.

Unrest renewed with the 1991 Iraqi uprisings throughout Iraq, which took place in the Shiite and Kurdish areas of the country. In the south, the rebels seized the shrine as Ba'ath Party officials fled the city or were killed. The uprising spread within days to all of the largest Shia cities in southern Iraq: Amarah, Diwaniya, Hilla, Karbala, Kut, Nasiriyah and Samawah. Smaller cities were swept up in the revolution as well. Many exiled Iraqi dissidents, including thousands of Iran-based Badr Brigades militants of SCIRI, crossed the borders and joined the rebellion. However, by April 1991, most of the rebellion was crushed by the then-incumbent Baathist government. Many of the people killed were buried in mass graves. Of the 200 mass graves the Iraqi Human Rights Ministry had registered between 2003 and 2006, the majority were in the South, including one believed to hold as many as 10,000 victims.[61] A short period of rest once again occurred during the 1999 Shia uprising in Iraq after the killing of Muhammad-Sadiq al-Sadr in the Shia neighborhoods of Baghdad, as well as southern majority Shiite cities of Karbala, Nasiriyah, Kufa, Najaf, and Basra.

During the Iraqi conflict (2003–present)Edit

After the US-led 2003 invasion of Iraq, sectarian violence between Shia and the Sunnis steadily escalated.[62][63] By 2007, the United States' National Intelligence Estimate described the violence as a "civil war".[full citation needed] During the 2006–2008 sectarian violence, tens to hundreds of thousands of people were killed (mainly Shia civilians) and at least 2.7 million were internally displaced.[citation needed] In ISIL-occupied Iraq (2014–2017) Shias faced some of the worst treatment, and thousands were killed for their faith.


The data on the religious affiliation of Iraq's population are uncertain. 95–99% of the population are Muslims.[64][65] The CIA World Factbook reports a 2015 estimate according to which 29–34% are Sunni Muslims and 64–69% Shia Muslims.[64] According to a 2011 survey by Pew Research, 51% of the Muslims identify as Shia and 42% as Sunni.[65]

Notable figuresEdit

See alsoEdit


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