The Shiite focus on the person of the Imam made the community susceptible to division on the issue of succession. The early Shiites, a recognized, if often persecuted, opposition to the central government, soon divided into several factions. The majority of the Shiites today are Twelve-Imam Shiites (notably in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, India, and Pakistan). Others are Zaydis (in Yemen), and the Ismailis (in India, Pakistan, Syria, and Yemen). The central belief of Twelve-Imam Shiites is the occultation (or disappearance from view) of the 12th Imam. The 12th Imam is considered to be the only legitimate and just ruler, and therefore no political action taken in his absence can be fruitful. While this position has provided Shiite clerics with the means to survive an often hostile environment, the need for an alternative formulation capable of framing political militancy has fostered activist movements within the Shiite tradition, occasionally leading to dissidence (see Babism ).
The religious authority of the Shiite clerics is derived from their role as deputies of the absent 12th Imam; they are as such the recipients of the khums religious tax, a source of substantial economic autonomy. Shiite clerics are often refered to as mullahs and mujtahids. The most prominent clerical position is that of marja al-taqlid. The Shiite clergy does not, however, have a formal hierarchy. The honorific ayat Allah or ayatollah [Arab.,=sign of God] is a modern title that does not correspond to any established religious function.
In Iran, the Safavid adoption of a Shiite state religion led to the expansion of clerical involvement in public life, under the tutelage of the political elite. The threat of European colonialism in the 19th cent. presented the opportunity for Shiite activist thought to gain impetus. The attempt of the Pahlevi monarchy in the 20th cent. to curtail the influence of the clerics further strengthened clerical political militancy. Benefiting from a ubiquitous clerical network, and enjoying a credibility unblemished by the corruption within the autocratic regime, Ruhollah Khomeini served as the culmination of the reintegration of activism into the Shiite mainstream. With the Iranian revolution in 1979, the Shiite activist formulation progressed toward stressing the nonsectarian pan-Islamic character of its ideology. Islam, it suggests, should be lived as a tool for the empowerment of the oppressed, not merely as a set of devotional practices; hence the Iranian support for the Palestinian, Afghan, and Lebanese causes.
See M. Momen, An Introduction to Shi'i Islam (1985); G. E. Fuller and R. R. Francke, The Arab Shi'a (2000); L. Hazleton, After the Prophet (2009); H. Dabashi, Shi'ism (2011).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: Islam