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An excerpt from Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran (2000).

Iran's leaders haven't figured out what Islamic message to rely on in their struggle to build a modern society. Some insist on a strict version of Islam as they believe it was at its creation. Others want to interpret Islam to fit the modern era. All of this is colored by the Messianic nature of Shiite Islam, which predominates in Iran but which is in the minority in the rest of the Muslim world. Today, 99 percent of Iran's population is Muslim, of which about 80 percent are Shiites and about 19 percent are Sunnis. (The remaining 1 percent are Christians, Jews, Bahais, and Zoroastrians.) The Shiites split from the mainstream Sunnis in a conflict over who should succeed the Prophet Mohammad as Islam's political and spiritual leader when he died in A.D. 632. The Sunnis, whose name comes from the Arabic word for "tradition," argue that the leader should be selected in the pre-Islamic way: through consensus among the community's elders.

But a minority believed that Ali, the Prophet's pious first cousin and son-in-law, should replace him, because that's what Mohammad decreed. These dissidents became known in Arabic as the Shiites, or "partisans" of Ali.

Elaine Sciolino is a senior writer in the Washington bureau of The New York Times. She is also the author of The Outlaw State: Saddam Hussein's Quest for Power and the Gulf Crisis. See her interview with FRONTLINE for "Terror and Tehran."

The conflict intensified in A.D. 661, when Ali was stabbed to death while praying in Kufa, in Iraq. Then, nearly twenty years later, Ali's followers, led by his son Hosein, rebelled against the ruling hierarchy. Hosein had been forewarned of his martyrdom in a vision -- but still he set out for Kufa. The forces of the Sunni Caliph Yazid stopped him on the sun-scorched plain of Karbala. During a ten-day battle, Hosein was stabbed to death as he held a sword in one hand and a Koran in the other. His male relatives and their supporters were shot with arrows and cut into pieces. Their severed heads were brought to Yazid in Damascus. The Sunni caliphs continued to reign.

For Shiites, the death of Hosein is the seminal event in their history. And because few Shiites came to Hosein's aid during the battle, their successors were left with both the burden of Sunni oppression and a permanent guilt complex.

But martyrdom and guilt are not the only pillars of Shiite Islam. Most Shiites recognize twelve historic Imams or rightful spiritual rulers. The infant twelfth Imam "disappeared" in a cave in A.D. 874 and is believed to be not dead but somehow hidden. He will return one day as the Redeemer who will create the perfect, godly society. Until then, all temporal power is imperfect. Ayatollah Khomeini was always referred to as "Imam Khomeini," and although it would have been blasphemy to draw a literal connection with the twelfth Imam, the title certainly gave Khomeini additional authority.

Khomeini wore a black turban and was called a sayyid, indicating that he was a descendant of the Prophet's family. Night after night before the revolution, many people in Iran swore that they saw Khomeini's face -- his turban, his eyes, his nose, his beard -- in the moon. Then, against all odds, he brought down the King of Kings.

It wasn't just religion and tradition that triumphed in 1979. It was a long overdue popular revolution that just happened to have a leader in clerical robes at its head. Still, it was not surprising that in Khomeini's war against Iraq in the 1980s, Iranian fighters dreamed of redeeming the martyrdom of Ali and Hosein in that same land thirteen centuries before.

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