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An Introduction to Shi'i Islam

by Moojan Momen

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Chapter 7

Doctrines and Practices Specific to Shi'ism

      In the field of doctrines, Shi'is have placed doctrines specific to themselves in parallel with those accepted by Sunnism.

      The field of jurisprudence may be divided into ritual observances ('ibadat) and social transactions (mu'amalat). As far as the former are concerned, Shi'ism does not differ much from the four schools of Sunnism. But with respect to social transactions (e. g. marriage, inheritance, etc.) there are more marked divergences. Shi'is have, however, tended to highlight their differences from Sunnis, even in the field of ritual observances, by emphasising parallel rituals that are specific to Shi'ism.

1. Shi'i Doctrines

      In the matter of doctrines, as has already,been demonstrated, Shi'is place along side the unity of God, God's justice which they define in such a way as to set it apart from the same Sunni concept. Parallel to the doctrine of prophethood, Shi'is place the Imamate, while even with such a powerful concept as the Day of Resurrection, Shi'is displace its importance by emphasising the Return of the Twelfth Imam and focusing the attention of the believers on this event (see Chapter 8).

2. Prayers

      The Friday prayer has never held the same importance among Shi'is as it has among Sunnis. With the Occultation of the Twelfth Imam who is the true leader of the Friday prayer, the significance of this observance is diminished. In most Shi'i centres, although the Friday prayer is performed, it does not attract the large numbers seen in other Muslim communities. But this situation has ›hanged in Iran since the 1979 Revolution (see p. 298).

      In addition to the obligatory prayerS, Shi'is have a large number of prayers, revealed by the Imams, which are for use either on special occasions such as the Ramadan fast or are purely devotional in nature. This type of prayer is known as du'a or munajat.

3. Visiting Shi'i Shrines (Ziyarat)

      The pilgrimage to Mecca was, until reCent times, beyond the means of the majority of Shi'is resident in Iran and Iraq. It was an expensive and often hazardous journey. Therefore, the custom of visiting the shrines of the Imams was built up as an alternative parallel activity given an importance which in the eyes of the ordinary believer often appeared to exceed that of the pilgrimage to Mecca. Visiting the Shrines of 'Ali at Najaf, Husayn at Karbala, the Seventh and Ninth Imams at Kazimayn, of Imam Rida at Mashhad and of Fatima Ma'suma, the sister of the Imam Rida, at Qumm, became an important activity in Shi'i religious life and one in which comparatively humble persons could participate. In the 19th century (and to a lesser extent among the older generation today), it became customary to designate persons who had visited the Shrines at Karbala and Mashhad by such prefixed titles as Karbila'i and Mashhadi, in parallel to the designation of Haul given to those who had performed the pilgrimage to Mecca (the Hajj). The conferring of these designations appears to vary from area to area depending on the distance to the shrines. Among the Shi'is of southern Iraq, for example, there is no particular designation for visiting the shrines at nearby Karbala and Najaf but a visit to distant Mashhad confers upon the pilgrim the designation Za'ir (visitor). Similarly, in Khurasan and Afghanistan, visiting Mashhad does not confer a title, but the visitor to Karbala becomes Karbila'i.

      Elaborate rituals were drawn up for the performance of the visitation of the shrines, again in parallel to the ritual of the pilgrimage to Mecca. Part of this ritual includes recitation of the prayer of visitation (Ziyarat-Nama). Popular manuals, in particular those written by Muhammad Baqir Majlisi, helped to spread this practice among the people.

      Visiting the shrines of minor Shi'i saints and, in particular, the descendants of the Imams, also became an important activity with each shrine having its own prayer of visitation. These shrines (called Imamzadas) are to be found in large numbers in Iran, especially in the areas around Qumm, Tehran, Kashan and Mazandaran which have been Shi'i from the earliest times and therefore tended to be a refuge for 'Alids who were often being persecuted in other parts of the Muslim world. Visiting these minor shrines has become an activity for a day out.

4. Temporary Marriage (Mut'a)

      Marriage for a fixed term and usually for a pre-determined financial arrangement is considered allowable by Shi'is. The marriage may be for any length of time, even for a matter of hours. There is also a period of time after the marriage during which the woman is not supposed to marry again, although there are ways of getting around this latter law. Sunnis do not hold temporary marriage to be allowable and indeed consider it to be mere prostitution but Shi'is maintain it was a practice that was allowed during the Prophet's lifetime and only later prohibited by the second Caliph, 'Umar. There are indeed some hadith in the Sunni literature that tend to confirm this.[7] In Persian, this practice is called sigha and it is also sometimes called nikah al-muwaqqat (temporary marriage). Shi'is consider that the Qur'an refers to this practice (see Qur'an 4:24).

5. Religious Dissimulation (Taqiyya)

      Religious dissimulation while maintaining mental reservation is considered lawful in Shi'ism in situations where there is overwhelming danger of loss of life or property and where no danger to religion would occur thereby. The following Qur'anic verse (16:106) is held to justify this belief: 'Whoever disbelieves in God after believing — except for those who are compelled while their hearts are firm in faith — and then finds ease in his disbelief, upon him will be the wrath of God.' (The section of this verse in italics is held to refer to taqiyya.) Living as a minority among a frequently-hostile Sunni majority, the condition of most Shi'is until the rise of the Safavid dynasty, made such a doctrine important to Shi'is.

6. Divorce (Talaq)

      In general terms, divorce is made more difficult under Shi'i law than under Sunni. Only the stricter divorce according to the Sunna (talaq as-sunna) and not the easier innovated divorce (talaq al-bida') is allowed. As distinct from the Sunni schools, Shi'i law holds that the statement of the divorce formula must be made explicitly, in the presence of two witnesses and is not allowable if made in the state of intoxication or rage. Both Shi'is and Sunnis agree that if a man divorces his wife three times, he cannot marry her again unless she is first married to another. Shi'is, however, do not allow the three statements of divorce to be made on one occasion.

7. Inheritance

            Under Sunni law, where there are males and females equally close in kinship to the deceased, then the inheritance passes to the male in preference to the female. In Shi'i law, however. the presence of male heirs does not exclude the female, although the share of the male is, in accordance with a Qur'anic rule, double that of the female.

      The more accommodating attitude to women expressed in Shi'i law over divorce and inheritance has been attributed to the important position held by Fatima among Shi'is. Fatima's position is crucial for the line of Imams after 'Ali since it is through her that they inherit their link with the Prophet. But for a further analysis of why Shi'i law differs from Sunni law, see p. 184.

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