In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Shi`i Islam

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Textbooks
  • The Twelver Shiʿa
  • Ismaʿili Shiʿa
  • The Zaydi Shiʿa
  • The Druze
  • The Nusayri-Alawi Shiʿa
  • Shiʿi-Christian Dialogue
  • The Evolution of a Field

Islamic Studies Shi`i Islam
Andrew A. Newman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 December 2009
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0076


Shiʿi Muslims believe that after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 CE his cousin and son-in-law ʿAli (died 661) inherited Muhammad's spiritual and political authority over the umma (Muslim community). Thus, generally speaking the Shiʿa dispute the legitimacy of the succession of the first three of Muhammad's successors (titled khalifah, or caliph) until ʿAli himself became caliph (656–661). After ʿAli's assassination, the Shiʿa believe, the succession lay with the male descendants of ʿAli and his wife Fatima (died 632). These men are called “Imams,” and their statements and actions are held to have authority equivalent to that of the Prophet himself. However, different groups understand the imamate to have been passed on through different individuals among these descendants. By the early 9th century, some forty different Shiʿi groups were said to have come into being. Today, however, there are three main Shiʿi groups and a few smaller ones. At present about 10 to 15 percent of the world's 1 billion Muslims are Shiʿites.

General Overviews and Textbooks

General, introductory studies of Shiʿism from a Western scholarly perspective have appeared only since the Iranian Revolution. Momen 1985, Halm 2004, and Richard 1995 provide general overviews of Shiʿism and its various sects, but these are now somewhat dated (Halm 2004, however, is the second edition of a 1991 original). The field of Shiʿi studies and the various subfields addressing specific Shiʿi sects, their history, doctrines and practices, and contemporary import expanded greatly in subsequent decades. Momen's references to substantial Shiʿi communities outside Iran did resonate in the field, especially given the rise of Shiʿi political activism in these communities in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution; more recently considerable attention has been paid to Twelver communities outside Iran. Moosa 1988 discusses the history and doctrines of some of the smaller Shiʿi sects. Fuller 1999 and Monsutti, et al. 2007 address non-Iranian Shiʿi communities. Ideologically, the field is now split between those who regard Shiʿism, especially Twelver Shiʿism, as a geopolitical threat and those who do not. Nakash 2007 and Norton 2007 represent the latter tendency. Nakash is the author of a number of careful historical studies on the Twelver Shiʿa, especially those in Iraq. In the work cited in this section, he examines Shiʿi experience across the Middle East, suggesting that the experiences of each of the region's communities may as much keep all of them apart from one another as unite them. Norton's work is a further antidote to alarmist tendencies among those who write about the Shiʿa. Nasr 2006 understands “political” Shiʿ ism to be a recent phenomenon that is not sanctioned by the tenets of the Twelver faith.

  • Fuller, Graham. 1999. The Arab Shiʿa: The forgotten Muslims. New York: St. Martin's.

    Fuller concentrates on Twelver Shiʿi communities across the Arab world. He argues that the marginalization of the Shiʿa across the region can only drive them toward “the outer areas of the political spectrum,” but he cautions that Shiʿism is not inherently predisposed to radicalism and violence (p. 254). He also believes that the Arab Shiʿa do not see themselves as beholden to Iran.

  • Halm, Heinz. An Introduction to Shiʿism. 2d ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

    New edition of a 1991 translation of a 1987 German volume. The work addresses the history and key doctrines of the Twelvers, Ismaʿilis and Zaydis. Useful bibliographies follow sections. The volume is a bit dense for beginners.

  • Momen, Moojan. An Introduction to Shiʿi Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shiʿism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.

    Momen discusses all major Shiʿi groups, their historical evolution within Islamic history, their recent history, and their key, distinguishing doctrines and practices. He also includes detailed maps, demographic data, photographs and an excellent bibliography of secondary sources. He is especially careful to discuss the Shiʿi communities outside Iran. Although the volume is dated, it does give a good indication of the state of the field prior to and in the immediate aftermath of the Iranian revolution. This is still the single most useful introduction to Shiʿism generally and Twelver Shiʿism in particular.

  • Monsutti, Alessandro, Silvia Naef, and Farian Sabahi, eds. The Other Shiites: From the Mediterranean to Central Asia. Bern and Oxford: Peter Lang, 2007.

    The papers here examine the manner in which Shiʿi minorities worldwidereaffirm their identity through rituals.

  • Moosa, Matti. Extremist Shiites: The Ghulat Sects. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1988.

    “Extremist” refers not to radical political practice but to beliefs and practices, for example the deification of ʿAli, considered “extreme” by mainstream Shiʿi sects over the centuries. Today these groups are to be found in Iran and Iraq, as well as Syria (the Nusayris/Alawis) and Turkey.

  • Nakash, Yitzhak. Reaching for Power: The Shiʿa in the Modern Arab World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.

    Nakash offers a review of Shiʿi history from the 7th century through the 1979 Iranianrevolution to the 2005 elections in Iraq. Countering conventional wisdom, he suggests that the Shiʿa have become increasingly concerned with reaching accommodation with the West.

  • Nasr, Sayyed Vali Reza. The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future. New York: Norton, 2006.

    Nasr suggests the existence of a Shiʿi crescent from Lebanon to the Indian subcontinent and claims that it is gathering strength in the region.

  • Norton, Augustus. “The Shiite ‘Threat’ Revisited.” Current History 106 (2007): 434–439.

    Like Nakash 2006, Norton challenges conventional wisdom on the Shiʿa in the modern world, arguing that further Sunni–Shiʿi conflict is not an inevitable result of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, nor is the overthrow of Sunni states by local Shiʿa.

  • Richard, Yann. Shiʿite Islam: Polity, Ideology, and Creed. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

    A translation of L'Islam chi'ite, croyances et ideologies (1991). The volume conveys not only useful information but something of the distinctive “ambiance” of the faith as well.

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