Ithna Asharis (Twelver Shi'ites)

Shi’ites comprise 10-15 percent of all Muslims. And 80 percent of Shi’ites are Twelvers, also known Ithna Asharis. Shi’ites and Sunnis (Orthodox Muslims) split over a dispute on who should lead after Mohammed’s death in the 7th century. Shi’ites believed that Mohammed’s son-in-law and first convert Ali was chosen by the Prophet to be his successor. (Shia means ‘the party of Ali’)

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Family members mourn a murdered Pakistani Shiite Muslim cleric in Lahore, on April 1, 2005.

But Sunnis believe Mohammed could have no successor and that top Muslims should choose a Caliph to be the head of the fledgling Muslim community.

Since this disagreement over Imams as successors of Mohammed 1300 years ago, the division has become theological as well. For example, Shi’ites believe Islamic law is open and subject to interpretations by Imams. For Sunnis, it has been closed and unalterable for over a millennium. Twelver Shi’ites also believe in temporary marriage, or mut’a. It has many conditions that can be considered as pre-requisite, similar to that of permanent marriage. Sunnis admit that this practice was widespread during Mohammed’s time, but they say the Caliphs (who Shi’ites don’t recognize) that followed him banned it. Shi’ite practice differs from that of the Sunnis concerning both divorce and inheritance in that it is more favorable to women.

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An Iraqi Shiite boy pounds his hands on his chest at the Kademiya Shrine on the outskirts of Baghdad.

The reason for this is the high esteem in which Fatima, the wife of Ali and the daughter of Mohammed, is held.

Twelver comes from the fact that they believe that Mohammed was followed by twelve Imams. Ismailis broke off at a division over the seventh; for Zaidis it was the fifth. The twelfth Imam is hidden and will come out of hiding one day to rule the Muslim world.

Shi’ite history has been one of suffering and subjugation at the hands of Sunnis. Most of the Twelve Imams were murdered, the three most important being Ali and his two sons Hassan and Hussein. The location of these and the other Imams’ deaths are all pilgrimage sites that are often more popular with Shi’ites than Mecca. These martyrs also inspired most of Shi’ite holidays. On Ashura, the tenth day of Ramadan, Shi’ites whip themselves with chains, cut themselves open with blades and perform other types of self-flagellation to mourn the martyrdom of Hussein.

Twelvers make up a majority in Iran (89%), Azerbijan (60%), Bahrain (70%) and Iraq (62%), but, with the exception of Iran, they have been oppressed in the three other countries despite their majority status. Twelvers make up significant minorities (and often the poorest communities) in the following countries: Lebanon (36%), Saudia Arabia (15%), Pakistan (20%) and Afghanistan (13%). Oppression and violence, especially the latter three, has been on the rise against Shi’ites in these countries. The Hazaras of Afghanistan are the most impoverished people in an impoverished nation, mostly because of persecution by the Taliban.

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