Shia Islam in Iraq

Two thirds of the population of Iraq (ca. 60%) are Shia Muslims.[1][2]

In addition, Iraq is the site of the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, pilgrimage sites for millions of Shi'a Muslims. Najaf is the site of the tomb of Ali ibn Abi Talib (the first Shi'a Imam), and Karbala is the site of the tomb of the grandson of Muhammad and Shī‘ah Imām, Husayn ibn Ali. Najaf is also a center of Shi'a 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 Shī‘ah Imāms, Mūsā al-Kādhim and Muhammad at-Taqī, and the Al-Askari Mosque in Sāmarrā, Iraq which contains the tombs of the tenth and eleventh Shia Imams, Ali al-Hadi and Hasan al-‘Askarī.


Before the Safavids

Southern Iraq has been Shia since the 4th caliph of Sunni Islam and the 1st Imam of Shia Islam moved the capital of the empire from Medina to Kufa/Najaf only two decades after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Thus Imam Ali and 6 other of the total 12 Imams of the Shias are buried in the Shia areas of Iraq. In fact, Iraq is the birth place and the first Shia country in the world, long before Iran, Lebanon, yemen or Azerbaijan. It was the message and the preacher from Iraq that in time converted Iran and taught them the principle of Shiism when the Shia Safavid dynasty declared Shiism the official religion of Persia in AD 1501.

15th and 16th Centuries

The Bani Sallama, Tayy and al-Soudan in the Mesopotamian Marshes were converted from Sunnism to Shi’ism by the Musha'sha'iyyah dynasty.[3][4]

18th Century

Banu Khazal was converted from Sunnism to Shi’ism in the early 18th century.[5][6]

Banu Kaab (including its Khazraj section) was converted from Sunnism to Shi’ism in the mid-18th century.[6]

Late 18th century and onwards

From the late 18th century and onwards, there was a massive conversion of the majority of Iraq’s Sunni Arab tribes to Shi’ism (especially during the 19th century). The following tribes were converted during this period:[6] Some sections of Zubaid,[7][8] Banu Lam, al bu Muhammad, large sections of the Rabiah (including al-Dafaf'a, Bani Amir and al-Jaghayfa), Banu Tamim[8] (including their largest section in Iraq –Bani Sa’d), the Shammar Toga,[8] some sections of Dulaim, the Zafir, the Dawwar, the Sawakin, al-Muntafiq confederation,[9] the Bani Hasan (of the Bani Malik),[10] those of the Afak, the Bani Hukayyim, the Shibil (of the Khazal), the al Fatla,[11] the many tribes along the Hindiya canal, and the 5 tribes of Al Diwaniyah (Aqra’, Budayyir, Afak, Jubur and Jilaiha) that relied on the Daghara canal for their water supply.

This massive scope of conversion continued as late as the 20th century. Even in 1917, it was noted by the British that the conversions were still going on vigorously.[12][13] Therefore, the Shi’a of Iraq are mostly recent converts (i.e. from the late 18th century and onwards).[14]

This conversion process of the nominally Sunni tribes was so successful for a number of reasons. One reason was that, nomadic Sunni Arab tribes either settled to sedentary agricultural life in the hinterlands of Najaf and Karbala, or traded with them in the 19th century and increasingly interacted with the people of these two Shi’a holy places.[10][15] Another reason was the Ottoman policy of settling the nomadic Sunni Arab tribes, in order to create greater centralization in Iraq.[16] Another reason was that conversion was a form of protest of the tribes people to their treatment by their Sunni Ottoman overlords.[17] There was also the ability of the Shi’a missionaries from Najaf and Karbala to proselytize among the Sunni Arab tribes without official hindrance, due to their relative autonomy from the Ottoman Empire and the Ottoman’s only trying to respond to the conversions after it was too late.[18]

Starting with the British-controlled "State of Iraq" founded in 1920 after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, Shia opposed British rule.

During the Baathist regime

Grand Ayatollah al-Khoei forced to visit Sarraj Hussein after fault riot of Shiite al-Dawa political party in 1974.

For many years "Arab nationalism and party politics superseded" Shi'i unity in Iraqi politics, and Shi'i mujtahids (Ayatollahs) were not politically active.[19] Shia tended to be less well off economically and socially and supported leftist parties. In 1963, when the Arab nationalist and socialist Ba'ath Party came to power in a coup, 53% of its membership was Shia. Gradually, however, Shia were shunted aside (by 1968 only 6% of the Ba'ath party was Shia) and turned again to the ulama for leadership.[19]

Throughout the 1970s Shia became increasingly disaffected. al-Dawa ("the Call"), a political party dedicated to the establishment of an Islamic state in Iraq, was formed.

Religious processions during Muharram in the shrine cities turned into political protests. After rioting in 1974 five members of the Daw'a party were executed after rioting in 1974 and in 1977 eight Shia were executed after worse rioting.[20]

The Islamic Revolution in Iran intensified unrest and repression. In June 1979 Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr was arrested and placed under house arrest. Less than a year later, after an attempt to assassinate Saddam Hussein, Sadr was executed.[20] In 1982 the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq was formed in Iran by Iraqi cleric Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim as an umbrella group to overthrow the Sunnni-dominated Arab nationalist regime in Iraq. In Iran, Hakim attempted to unite and co-ordinate the activities of the Dawa party and other major religious Shi'i groupings (the Paykar group (a guerilla organization similar to the Iranian Mujahidin) and the Jama'at al 'Ulama (groupings of pro-Khomeini ulema).[20]

Meanwhile, the Baath leadership made a determined effort to woo support from Iraqi Shi'is during the Iran–Iraq War (1980–1988), diverting resources to the Shia south and emphasizing in war propaganda Iraqi Arabness in contrast to Iranian Persianness and the historical struggle between the Muslim Arabs and Zoroastrian Persians in the early days of Islam. Iraqi propaganda used symbolic key-words such as Qādisiyya (the battle at which the Muslim Arab armies defeated the Persian Empire, while the Iranian propaganda used Shia key-words such as Karbala. In June 1984, however, the Baath government stick replaced the carrot and some 95 Shi'i ulama, many of them members of the al-Hakim family, were executed.[21]

Present conflict

Following the US led 2003 invasion of Iraq, sectarian violence between Shi'a and the Sunnis steadily escalated.[22][23] By 2007, the violence had increased to the point of being described in the United States' National Intelligence Estimate as a "civil war". During the Civil war in Iraq, tens to hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and at least 2.7 million have been internally displaced due to inter-faction violence.



Najaf was also the center from which opposition to British rule was organized. Shi'a activism from Najaf contributed to opposition to the Communist threat in the 1960s and to the Baath regime, which was dominated by Sunni's, since 1968.[24]

Notable people

See also


  1. Iraq. CIA World Factbook.
  2. "Mapping the Global Muslim Population: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World's Muslim Population". Pew Research Center. October 7, 2009. Retrieved 2011-01-28.
  3. Nakash, p. 25
  4. Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2d ed. s.v. “Musha’sha’.”
  5. Nakash, p. 27
  6. 1 2 3 Haydari, ‘Unwan al-Majd, pp. 110–15, 118
  7. ‘Uthman ibn Sanad al-Basri al-Wa’ili, Mukhtasar Kitab Matali’ al-Su’ud bi-Tayyib Akhbar al-Wali Da’ud, ed. Amin al-Hilwani (Cairo, 1951/2), 169
  8. 1 2 3 ‘Abdallah Mahmud Shukri (al-Alusi), “Di’ayat al-Rafd wa al-Khurafat wa al-Tafriq Bayn al-Muslimin”, al-Manar 29 (1928): 440
  9. Lorimer, Gazetteer, 2B:1273; Great Britain, naval intelligence division, geographical handbook series, Iraq and the Persian Gulf, September 1944, 379–80; Great Britain, office of the civil commissioner, The Arab of Mesopotamia, Basra, 1917,6.
  10. 1 2 Stephen Longrigg, Iraq, 1900 to 1950 (Oxford, 1953), p. 25.
  11. Nakash, p. 42
  12. Nakash, pp. 42–43
  13. Office of the Civil Commissioner, The Arab of Mesopotamia, 69–70
  14. Nakash, p. 4
  15. Nakash, pp. xviii, 5, 27, 28, 30, 42
  16. Nakash, pp. 5, 27–28
  17. Sacred space and holy war: the politics, culture and history of Shi'ite Islam, By Juan Ricardo Cole, pg.25
  18. Nakash, pp. 25, 42
  19. 1 2 Momen, p. 262
  20. 1 2 3 Momen, p. 263
  21. Momen, p. 264
  22. Patrick Cockburn (20 May 2006) Iraq is disintegrating as ethnic cleansing takes hold at the Wayback Machine (archived September 5, 2008). The Independent
  23. Amira Howeidy (2–8 March 2006). "There is ethnic cleansing". 784.
  24. John Esposito (2003) The Oxford Dictionary of Islam, Oxford University Press


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